Urhobo Historical Society


By Albert Aweto, Ph.D.
Professor of Geography
University of Ibadan, Nigeria

(January 31, 2002)


Location: Western Niger Delta

Area: 5000 square kilometres

Population: 1.5 million

Main towns: Warri, Sapele, Ughelli

Climate: Humid subequatorial

Natural vegetation : Rain forest/ swamp forest

Minerals: Oil, natural gas

Main rivers: Ethiope, Warri, Kiagbodo



The Urhobo people are one of the major ethnic nationalities of the Niger delta. They live in the western part of the Niger delta, the salient features of which essentially encapsulate the geography of Urhoboland. The location of Urhoboland in a delta has not only influenced the nature of the physical environment but also the mode of life of the people. The population of Urhoboland was 1.12 million in 1991. Today, the population is about 1.5 million.

Click at Map to Reveal Features
A Map Showing the Territories of the Main Ethnic Nationalities of the Niger Delta


Urhoboland is located in the western part of the Niger delta , south of latitude 6° N. It is a contiguous territory of about 5000 square kilometres in the southern part of Delta State of Nigeria. It is bounded by latitudes 5 ° 15' N and 6° N and longitudes 5° 40' E and 6° 25' E.


(a) Relief

The whole of Urhoboland is a low-lying plain consisting mainly of recent unconsolidated sediments of Quaternary age. These sediments are partly of marine and partly of fluvial origin. Land elevation is generally under 50 meters above mean sea level and there is a marked absence of imposing hills that rise above the general land surface. The area is traversed by numerous flat-floored rivers that drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The most important rivers are the Ethiope, Warri and the Kiagbodo. These rivers are prone to flooding, especially during the wet season, mainly because of the heavy rainfall, high ground water table and the flat-floored valleys. Large stretches of most rivers, especially the lower reaches of the Ethiope, Warri and the Kiagdodo rivers are permanently waterlogged.

(b) Climate

As with the rest of the Niger delta, the climate of Urhoboland is humid subequatorial with a long wet season lasting from March to October that alternates with a shorter dry season that lasts from November to February. The climate is influenced by two prevailing air masses namely (1) the S. W. monsoon wind and (2) the N. E trade wind. The former prevails during the wet season and the latter during the dry season. The S.W monsoon winds originate from the Atlantic Ocean and they are associated with the wet season, being warm and moisture-laden. In contrast, the N.E. trade winds originate from the Sahara desert and their prevalence is associated with the dry season. The effects of the dry N.E. trade winds are most noticeable in Urhoboland from December to February when they usher in the dry and dusty harmattan. Annual rainfall is high throughout Urhoboland, being usually up to 2500 mm. In southerly locations such as Warri and Ughelli, mean annual rainfall is up to 2800 mm. The beginning and end of the wet season are usually marked by intense thunderstorms of short duration, often accompanied by strong winds which may blow off roofs of buildings and cause destruction of property. Prolonged and gentle showers, usually lasting several hours or a few days, are more characteristic of the middle of the wet season. The rainfall regime is double-peak, the two periods of peak rainfall being June/July and September which are separated by a relatively dry period in August. Annual temperature average in Urhoboland is about 27 °C with no marked seasonal departure from the average temperature as the annual range of temperature is quite small, rarely exceeding 3 °C.

(c) Vegetation

The natural vegetation of Urhoboland is rain forest with swamp forest occurring in flat-floored valleys and adjoining low-lying areas that are seasonally or permanently waterlogged. The rain forest is floristically diverse and structurally complex, with several layers of trees. It was a major source of timber and the notable timber-producing species include Antiaris toxicaria, Milicia (Chlorophora) excelsa, Ceiba pentandra and Piptadeniastrum africanum. Other trees that feature in the rain forest include Pentaclethra macrophylla, Chrysophyllum albidum and Irvingia gabonenesis. The two last mentioned tree species are fruit trees which are important as sources of income and dietary supplement for rural people. Virtually all the rain forest in Urhoboland has been destroyed as a result of farming, especially shifting cultivation and the establishment of small-scale holdings of rubber trees, coupled with commercial lumbering. Today, much of the countryside is dominated by secondary regrowth vegetation with oil palms (Elaeis guineesis ) and Chromolaena odorata, farmland, rubber "plantations" and patches of swamp forest along rivers. Unlike rain forest, fairly large areas of land are still under swamp forest vegetation in Urhoboland today. This is mainly because the swampy terrain of areas under swamp vegetation hinder access and make cultivation and timber exploitation difficult. Extensive areas of swamp forest occur in the Urhobo- Okpe forest reserve, south of Sapele, and in the lower sections of the Jamieson and Ethiope rivers. Raffia palms, especially Raphia hookerii and Raphia vinifera are the dominant elements of the flora of the swamp forest.

(d) Soils

The soils are deeply weathered and nutrient-deficient, being derived mainly from unconsolidated sediments of sandstone. They are predominantly sandy. The proportion of sand in the top 10 cm of the soil may be up to 90%. Consequently, the soils are loose and poorly aggregated as they contain very low levels of clay and organic matter. Given the heavy rainfall experienced in Urhoboland, it is hardly surprising that the soils are intensely leached, base deficient and acidic in reaction. Soil pH in the top 20 cm of the soil profile is usually under 5.0 and occasionally as low as 4.0. Total exchangeable base may be as low as 3 cmol/ kg or lower. There are however, a few patches of clayey soil derived from shale. Such soils, usually of limited areal extent, are waterlogged due to impaired drainage. They provide valuable raw material for the local pottery industry that specializes in the production of clay pots for cooking and storing water. In spite of their higher base status, the soils derived from shale are difficult to work, being wet, sticky and slippery during the wet season, which incidentally is the growing season.


Human occupation in Urhoboland includes farming, fishing, trading, lumbering, mining, palm wine tapping and manufacturing. The major manufacturing industries are concentrated in the major towns.

(a) Farming

Farming is the mainstay of the rural economy and most people in the rural area engage in farming which is mainly subsistence in nature. The farmer usually grows tree crops ,especially rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) purely in order to generate income. In discussing farming in Urhoboland, it is convenient to make a distinction between food crop and cash crop production. This distinction is somewhat arbitrary as the farmer occasionally sells crops usually categorized as food crops in order to obtain money to buy basic necessities that he does not produce. The main food crops grown in Urhoboland include cassava ( Manihot esculenta), white guinea yam ( Dioscorea rotundata) water yam (Dioscorea alata), plantains/bananas ( Musa spp.) cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta) and groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea). These crops are usually intercropped with three or more crops grown on the same field which rarely exceeds 0.2 hectare. Plantains and pawpaw (Carica papaya ) are usually cultivated perennially in home gardens and fertilized using household refuse. Rotational fallowing or shifting cultivation is the main system of food crop production. Fields to be cultivated are cleared in December/January and the cut slash of cleared vegetation is allowed to dry before being burnt. The ash released by the burnt slashed vegetation, releases potassium, calcium and phosphorus into the soil, thereby giving the planted crops a head start at the inception of the growing season. Crops such as yams, cassava and maize are planted before the onset of the wet season, sometimes after the first rains in February or March. Maize is usually harvested after 4 months, well before cassava and yams which take much longer to mature. In the past, a cropping period of 1-2 years is followed by a much longer fallow period of 7 years or longer. During the fallow period, the cultivated field is allowed to revert to bush and becomes colonized by fallow vegetation in order to naturally restore its fertility which declined during cropping. Trees in the fallow vegetation such as Albizia zygia, Albizia adianthifolia, Baphia nitida and Sterculia tragacantha, help to add litter to the soil and to recycle nutrients from the subsoil to the topsoil. Owing to the rapid increase in population in Urhoboland during the past two decades, fallow periods have been reduced to about 3 years and in the vicinity of large towns such as Sapele and Ughelli, continuous cultivation is emerging. The shortening of the fallow period has resulted in a general decline in soil fertility. Consequently, yams which were widely cultivated in the past have been largely replaced by cassava which is more tolerant of less fertile soils.

The two most important cash crops produced in Urhoboland are the tree crops rubber and oil palm, both of which are tolerant of the acidic sandy soils. Attempts to introduce cocoa (Theobroma cacao) as a cash crop have proved unsuccessful, mainly because the soils are unsuitable for the crop. Rubber is the most widely grown crop with well over 50% of arable under rubber production. In parts of Urhoboland (e.g. Sapele, Ughelli and Abraka) up to about 80% of the arable land is devoted to rubber production. Plots of rubber trees stretch almost uninterrupted along both sides of roads, giving the erroneous impression of plantation. Most rubber plots rarely exceed a few hectares but the plots of farmers are contiguous. Commercial rubber plantations occur near Sapele which houses factories for processing rubber and for making rubber sandals. Although the oil palm is one of the most valuable indigenous trees in the forest zone of West Africa, the tree usually grows wild and is protected by the farmer in sites cleared for cultivation. Oil palms are a conspicuous feature of farmlands mainly on account of the protection given them by the farmer. Most oil palm groves in Urhoboland have become old and unproductive. Nigeria's output of palm oil and kernels has declined considerably mainly because the bulk of the produce comes from wild palms in peasant holdings. In fact Nigeria plummeted from the world's leading exporter of palm oil and kernels in the 1950s and early 1960s to a net importer of vegetable oil since the 1980s. Faced with the problems of a huge food import bill and dwindling revenue from agricultural imports, Nigerian government has taken measures to increase crop production. In some south eastern states such as Abia, Akwa Ibom and Cross River, government is assisting local farmers to rehabilitate oil palm groves and establish plots of improved oil palm varieties. Enterprising farmers in Urhoboland are not left out in the attempt to revitalize the oil palm industry. Many farmers have established plantations of oil palm, although the amount of land under such plantations is small compared to wild groves.

Livestock farming is not an important feature of the agricultural economy of Urhoboland, given the natural forest vegetation. The savanna patches of Urhobo plain are flooded during the wet season on account of which they are unsuitable for all-year-round livestock grazing. Urhobo people , however, keep a few goats, sheep, pigs and poultry as a sideline to crop farming. Commercial poultry production is important in the outskirts of large towns such as Sapele, Ughelli and Warri.

b) Fishing

Fishing is important in the main streams and rivers, especially, the Ethiope, Kiagbodo and Warri. Nets and other fishing gears are used for fishing. Traps are also widely employed. The catch consists mainly of tilapia (Tilapia spp.) and catfish (Clarias spp.). As a result of pollution of streams and rivers by crude oil during oil spills, mainly resulting from lapses by oil producing companies, the fishery resources of many rivers have been decimated. This has rendered fishermen jobless and they have to migrate to cities such as Warri and Sapele in search of jobs, thereby worsening social problems in the towns.

c) Lumbering

The once extensive forests of Urhoboland have been destroyed or denuded of their timber resources. Trees are felled and transported by trucks or floated on rivers (especially the Ethiope) downstream to the sawmills. Sapele and Warri have numerous sawmills. Sapele has a large factory that produces plywood and veneer. Owing to unsustainable timber exploitation, the lumbering industry in Urhoboland faces a bleak future.

d) Trading

Warri, Sapele and Ughelli are the main centres of commerce in Urhoboland. Warri and Sapele are coastal ports and have long been established as centres of commerce since precolonial times. Warri, Sapele and Ughelli are important for wholesale and retail trade in electronics, hardware, light industrial and agricultural machinery, textiles, furniture and foodstuff. The smaller towns and villages have markets that hold periodically rather than on a daily basis. Most rural period markets hold at intervals of four days, usually on a rotational basis between settlements. When it is a "market day" in a particular settlement, itinerant traders travel from nearby settlements on foot, bicycles or by cars, buses and lorries to sell their wares. Farmers also transport their crops such as yams and plantains and also processed cassava flour ( gari) to rural periodic markets for sale. The market in Kokori holds every eight days and it is one the largest periodic markets in Urhoboland.

e) Mining

The mineral resources are crude oil and natural gas, although there are deposits of clay locally utilized for pottery production. There are numerous oil fields in Urhoboland (e.g. Ughelli, Kokori and Otorugo ) which make a significant contribution to Nigeria's crude oil output. Crude oil exploration has impacted negatively on the people and economy of Urhoboland. Periodic spills have resulted in destruction of farmland, rubber plantations and aquatic biota, thereby undermining the rural economy and leaving the people unemployed and pauperized. There are numerous gas flare sites in Urhoboland where natural gas associated with crude oil is burnt off. The huge conflagration created by the continuous burning of natural gas has not only destroyed the vegetation of such sites but has scared away wildlife and transformed nights into permanent daylight to the chagrin of the local people.

f) Palm wine tapping

Raffia palms and occasionally, oil palm trees are tapped for wine. Palm wine may be consumed while fresh or may be used for distilling wine locally known as "agbakara". It was regarded as "illicit" gin by the colonialists who sought to prohibit its production, mainly because its production tended to undermine the importation of gin from Europe. Today, gin produced from palm wine is sold freely, unlike in colonial times. The production and sale of fresh palm assumes considerable importance near Sapele, mainly because of the proximity of extensive swamps dominated by raffia palms and the availability of an urban market.


The main towns are Warri, Sapele, Ughelli, Effurun. Abraka, which houses the Delta State University, is an emerging urban centre that sprang up on the bank of the Ethiope River. It has the potential of developing a tourist industry based on the utilization of the clear Ethiope River for recreational purposes, especially swimming. Effurun has expanded considerably and merged with Warri.


Warri is one of the major ports in the Niger delta. It is the largest town in Urhoboland. With a population of 218,000 in 1991, Warri is important for ship building, oil refining and petro-chemical industry. The development of Warri is hampered by chronic traffic congestion and violent conflicts between the three main ethnic nationalities- Urhobo, Itsekiri and Izon- that inhabit the city. Many oil companies have threatened to relocate from Warri as a result of frequent violent ethnic clashes. The Petroleum Training Institute is located in Effurun to the north of the city while the Delta Steel Company is located at Ovwia- Aladja at the outskirts of Warri.


This is another important port in the western part of the Niger delta. With a population of 110,000 in 1991, Sapele is a major commercial and industrial centre. The African Timber and Plywood Company in Sapele , which produces plywood and veneer, is one of the largest timber-processing factories in West Africa. It is also important for the processing of rubber.


With a population of 54,000 in 1991, Ughelli has a hinterland that produces crude oil, natural gas, and agricultural products such as rubber and palm oil and kernels. It is important for glass manufacture and electric power generation. The Otorugo gas plant is located near Ughelli which is also an important gateway to the eastern part of the Niger delta.