Urhobo Historical Society

Thoughts on Isoko-Urhobo Relations

By Reverend Professor Obaro Ikime, Ph.D.

Formerly, Head of Department of History and Dean, Faculty of Arts

University of Ibadan, Nigeria



A Keynote Address delivered at the Sixth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society, on Saturday, 22 October, 2005, at Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Nigeria.





Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to my friend and respected academic colleague, Professor Peter Ekeh, Chairperson of the Urhobo Historical Society, for the invitation extended to me to deliver the Keynote Address at this year’s conference of the society. I confess that my initial reaction was to turn down the invitation. Why? Because I feared that what I say in this address could, in years to come, be quoted out of context by scholars and pseudo-scholars in a manner that could worsen rather than improve inter-group relations between the Urhobo and my people, the Isoko. This fear derives from the way my existing writings have been used in the seemingly endless tensions between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo.


That I am standing before you is evidence that I overcame the fear expressed above. As the only Professor of History from these parts who has studied our history, I consider that I should, even at the risk of being misunderstood and mis-quoted, take the opportunity such as I have this day, to draw attention to certain issues about history and historical research which quite a few of those currently involved in writing the history of our peoples have either tended to ignore or are ignorant of. I say this, not in a spirit of condemnation, but out of a genuine concern to influence the tenor of future historical writings concerning our peoples. First, what is history? In the last thirty odd years, I have, in all my public lectures, used a definition of History that I find most apt. “History,” says Robert V. Daniels, “is the memory of human group experience. If it is forgotten or ignored, we cease in that measure to be human. Without history we have no knowledge of who we are or how we came to be, like victims of collective amnesia groping in the dark for our identity. It is the events recorded in history that have generated all the emotion, the values, the ideals that make life meaningful, that have given men something to live for, struggle over, die for. 1All who get involved in the writing of history will do well to remember that what they write can generate tremendous emotions, and give “men something to live for, struggle over, die for.” Meeting as we are here in Ephron, we are close enough to Warri to know that, indeed, people have died because of the events recorded in history. This places tremendous responsibility on the historian. He must carefully choose his words. He must remind himself that history is not static. Fresh evidence necessarily leads to new arguments and altered conclusions. Take me, for example. I no longer hold some of the views in my published books because, among other reasons, other scholars have produced works that force me to re-think my earlier conclusions. There is also the fact that I have matured over the years, and come to a greater appreciation of the significance of my discipline. I realize that what I write can be put to uses that I never intended. For this reason, I exercise great care over what I say and how I say it.


Whoever writes history, whether he be a trained historian or an amateur, needs to ask himself/herself what is the purpose of history. In my Inaugural Lecture, delivered as far back as 1979 at the University of Ibadan, I said: “For if history is to serve any useful purpose at all, it must deepen man’s understanding of why and how things have happened."2 I quoted Marc Block who had written: “…a single word ‘understanding’ is the beacon light of our studies…. We are never sufficiently understanding. Whoever differs from us – a foreigner or a political adversary – is almost inevitably considered evil. A little more understanding of people would be necessary …in the conflicts which are unavoidable."3 The purpose of history, according to J. H. Plumb, “is to deepen understanding about men and society, not for its own sake, but in the hope that a profounder awareness would help to mould human attitudes and human action."4 Often, the historian finds himself challenged by prevailing problems to probe the past with a view to seeking greater understanding of the present. That was how I chose to study Itsekiri – Urhobo Relations for my Ph.D. I was a boy of sixteen when the Itsekiri-Urhobo riots of 1952 took place. I was a student of what was then Warri College, Ughelli. As a consequence of the riots of 1952, the name, Warri Province, was changed to Delta Province. And because of that change of  name, the name of my school was changed to Government College, Ughelli. I was in Class III. Even so, I was struck by the events of 1952. When later in life I had the opportunity to engage in historical research, I chose to study Itsekiri- Urhobo relations in order to seek understanding of why the events of 1952 took place! The present (the situation that arose in 1952 was “the present”) thus led to a study of the past, and the events of the past threw light on why things happened the way they happened in 1952! “Great history,” E. H. Carr wrote long ago, “is written precisely when the historian’s vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present.5

One more point may be made here. The historian studies the past. But that past is not a dead past. It is a past that has relevance for the present. Permit me to illustrate. It is not uncommon for the coastal peoples of the Delta region to say that the hinterland peoples were their slaves in times past! Nothing whips up greater emotions than a statement like that. The historian involved in studying Delta-Hinterland relations must be aware of the kind of reactions that his/her work may elicit. A sensitive historian would therefore take the trouble to provide details as to how slaves were actually obtained in the days of the slave trade. I know, from my own researches, for example, that the bulk of the hinterland slaves who were taken to the coast and sold overseas were enslaved not by the coastal traders but by their own people, i.e. hinterland peoples, eager to make a profit from the slave trade. Besides, not all slaves who found their way to the Eastern Delta, for example, were Igbo as is often presumed. Many slaves came from further north, through Igboland, to the coastal states. Details such as these provide greater understanding, even if they cannot guarantee that in the heat of today’s politics, irresponsible statements, designed to deepen acrimony rather than understanding, will not be made! The historian’s task is to lay before his reader as much of the evidence as is available to him. When he has done that and commented objectively on his evidence, he must leave the rest to his reader. Knowledge of the fact that the past impinges on the present should compel him to be faithful to the canons of historical scholarship. I fear that some of those who are today acclaimed as historians of Group A or Group B are not familiar with the canons of historical scholarship, and so cannot be faithful to them.


The Historian and His Evidence: I must not conclude this Preamble without saying a word about the historian and his evidence. The evidence the historian uses is created by others. This being so, the historian must seek to know who created the document – whether written or oral; when it was created; whether there are other documents which confirm or contradict it; in what circumstances it was created; whether there was the likelihood of prejudice, and so on. It is not enough to latch on to a single document or even to a series of documents without subjecting  it or them to close scrutiny. Permit me to use an example that concerns me. In 2000, there was published the book Leadership, Unity and the Future of the Urhobos. This was a collection of lectures on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the death of Chief Mukoro Mowoe. In that collection is a chapter on “Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Destiny and History” by Peter Ekeh. In his presentation, Ekeh wrote, in one of the sections of the chapter: “Between 1884 and 1894, Nana terrorized the Urhobo areas with the weapons of violence he acquired from the British. The sour relations between Nana and Urhobo merchants came to a head when Nana assaulted and abducted Oraka of Okpara Waterside.” Ekeh goes on to discuss Urhobo reaction which was to impose a trade boycott which caught the attention of the British. “The British were clearly unhappy with Nana’s conduct and so decided to deal with the Urhobo directly… Nana’s attempt to block direct British trading relations with the Urhobo was the principal cause of the military encounter of 1894 that led to Nana’s exile in that year."6


Because I had the privilege of seeing the chapter before publication, I drew Ekeh’s attention to the fact that he had fully accepted the British view of the events of 1894, and that that view was not all there was. He dutifully gave my position in a footnote at page 49 of that book, for which I am grateful. However, in the book  Warri City and British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta, published first in 2004 and re-printed in 2005, Ekeh maintains the same position as he took in 2000.7

It is not that Professor Ekeh’s position is baseless. Not at all. It is in fact based on documents created by Vice-Consul Gallwey and Acting Consul-General Ralph Moor. These servants of the British empire had to create the kind of documents that would make the Foreign Office in London sanction a war against Nana. Every coastal trader objected to the British trading directly with hinterland peoples. In the treaty of 1884 Nana had led other Itsekiri traders to strike out the clause in the treaty which permitted free trade with the hinterland, just as Jaja of Opobo had done.8 In other words, British efforts at direct trade with the hinterland of Itsekiriland were in contravention of a subsisting treaty. In fact, minutes on various dispatches from the Niger Coast Protectorate to London indicate quite clearly that the British appreciated that Nana was within his rights in seeking to protect his trading areas from British penetration. That is not all. The British accused Nana of a trade monopoly. But the Royal Niger Company, a British chartered company, had, by reason of its charter, been allowed to build a trade monopoly. When the Brass people in frustration attacked the Royal Niger Company, the British Government in 1895, the year after they had exiled Nana, sent an expedition against Brass and imposed their rule on that city state. How do we explain this? This was the age of the imposition of British colonial rule over what became Nigeria. Britain used any excuse to ensure that the end in view was achieved. The historian of this period owes a duty to sketch in detail the circumstances in which what happened happened. This is what I have done in my biography of Nana – Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta.9 Peter Ekeh doesn’t have to accept my views. Historical scholarship would demand, however, that he should take issues with my position. An examination of the history of the document he used could well have led him to a slightly different conclusion. The force that the British sent against Nana in 1894 consisted of four British warships, over 300 marines, virtually all the military force of the Niger Coast Protectorate, and some twenty five officers, commanded by Rear Admiral F. G. Bedford, the Supreme Commander of Britain’s African squadron.10 Can Professor Ekeh really believe that the British put themselves to such great expense and trouble in the interest of the Urhobo – to save them from the tyranny of Nana? I don’t think so. The British were interested in destroying the control which the coastal traders had over the trade of the  hinterland, so they could take over both the coast and the hinterland. The fall of Nana led to the fall of Itsekiriland to the British, followed in the years 1895-1910 by the fall of Urhoboland to the British. It is knowledge of these truths that have conditioned my assessment of Nana’s place in the history of the years of British conquest of Nigeria. Today, that aspect of our history has ceased to take centre stage. Therefore scholars may be tempted to reach different conclusions. That is their prerogative. All I ask is that all the evidence readily available should be allowed to inform the conclusions reached.


In all the writings – and there has been quite some writing – about Itsekiri-Urhobo relations in the last five years, I have been struck by the fact that on both sides there has been tremendous respect for the British records. I wonder whether those concerned have ever stopped to ask how the word “Protection” or “Protectorate” was translated into Itsekiri or Urhobo and who did the translation! One of those who signed as witness in the treaties made in the “Warri District” was a Saro called Alder after whom Alder’s Town in Warri was named. How did this Saro translate English into Urhobo or Itsekiri? What was the understanding of our peoples of the treaties they signed? Treaties apart, how do we know that what we read in the various British records are indeed facts? In the 1961/62 session, as part of my Ph.D. work, I visited virtually every polity in Urhoboland and sat with the elders who talked to me about their history. Some of what they told me was in sharp contrast with what I had read in the British records. In 1963 while in London, I sought to talk with retired colonial officers who had served in the then Warri Province. A number of them gave me lunch at the Commonwealth Institute. I was amazed at their candour. Virtually all of them admitted that they found themselves sometimes having to write what their senior officers would like to read rather than what happened. They reminded me that they were young and inexperienced; that they wanted to get on in their chosen careers, and therefore had to be careful not to say the wrong things about persons favoured by their seniors! In many of the cases I raised with them, they agreed that what the elders told me was more correct than what they wrote in their annual reports, and the like. This is what I mean by saying that the historian has to seek to know the history of the documents he decides to use. Various factors decide what is written and how it is written; what is transmitted orally to younger generations and how it is transmitted. The user of historical documents has always to be aware of this reality, and so to let that awareness influence the conclusions he reaches and his presentation of those conclusions.  Mr. Chairman, one of the reasons why I accepted the invitation to speak here today is to say what I have said thus far. Having so done, I can now go on to the subject of Urhobo – Isoko Relations.


Of Urhobo and Isoko


One of the questions which any one interested in the study of inter-group relations must ask himself is when the groups he is studying came to be known as they are now known. In the context of our subject, who are the Urhobo and who are the Isoko? Can we, for example, meaningfully speak of Urhobo-Isoko relations in the 18th century? If we can, how would we define Urhobo or Isoko? Did my people, the Evohwa in today’s Isokoland, have any identifiable relations with Ughienvwe, for example? Did the Isoko group of Ozoro have any relations with the Urhobo group of Evwreni in the 17th century? On what sources do we, can we, depend for a re-construction of such relations? All the groups who constitute Urhoboland today speak the Urhobo language. Did they, for that reason, regard themselves as a socio-political group with identical political and economic interests that they defended against other groups in the period before our colonial experience? The same questions can be asked about the Isoko. Did a common language, or mutually intelligible dialects, result in a common political identity such as can enable us speak of Urhobo – Isoko relations in pre-colonial times? I have always found this a knotty question in my writings about inter-group relations.


Today we speak of the Hausa as an ethnic nationality within the Nigerian nation- state. But the history of Hausaland from the 16th to the 18th century reveals constant struggles for supremacy between the various Hausa states – Kano, Zazzau, Zamfara, Kebi, etc.11 A common language did not result in a union of all of the Hausa states. Each state had its separate identity and its interests. The same was true for Yorubaland. The Yoruba wars of the 19th century were not civil wars. They were inter-state wars, fought to protect or extend the interests of the various Yoruba-speaking states.12 Here too, as indeed elsewhere in the country, a common language did not result in a single state, embracing all the Yoruba-speaking people. Can we, in the light of this reality, speak, for example, of Yoruba-Hausa relations in the 18th century? Which Hausa state? Which Yoruba state? What is the point of this discourse? This, that today we speak of our various ethnic groups or nationalities as single entities – Yoruba, Efik, Tivi, Angas, Igbo, Urhobo, Hausa, Isoko, Idzon, etc. These nationalities only began to make sense in the colonial state of Nigeria and in the independent nation-state of Nigeria in which language was used to identify whole groups and to differentiate them from the others. This was not the case in the earlier period of the history of the peoples concerned.


What the above means is that whereas Urhobo and Isoko groups that were geographically contiguous or not too far the one from the other would have maintained commercial and social relations (Iyedi–Ughelli, Enwhe–Evwreni, for example); whereas centres that were famous for specific products would have attracted people form considerable distances (like the Uzere “Eni Juju” did  right up to the opening years of colonial rule), it would be strictly wrong to speak of Urhobo–Isoko relations understood as involving all of Urhoboland and all of Isokoland. And because there had not come into being pan-Urhobo and pan-Isoko interests, conflicts between one Isoko group and one Urhobo group would not necessarily have brought in other groups. Even when groups were involved in the long-distance trade, they did not trade qua Isoko or qua Urhobo. It was the needs of the various Urhobo and Isoko groups that determined their relationships – commercial, social (intermarriage, for example) ritual, etc. with neighbouring groups.


There are traditions of “wars” between certain Isoko groups and certain Urhobo groups – for example Ughweru – Enwe, Igbide – Evwreni, Iyede-Ewu, Emevor – Agbarha, Ughweru-Igbide.[13  Virtually all of these wars were fought over disputes about ownership of land, as the population of the various groups increased and there was a need for more land. Sometimes “wars” were fought over run-away women! These “wars” were fought between the groups indicated. My position is that it would be strictly wrong to speak of these wars as Urhobo-Isoko wars, as if all of the Urhobo groups and all of the Isoko groups got involved in them. Usually the kind of “wars” mentioned above ended with the groups entering into pacts of perpetual friendship which forbade future wars. I repeat here what I have said elsewhere, that our ancestors knew how to work towards accommodation in the interest of peaceful co-existence.14 In the heat and differences of today those who lead the various nationalities will do well to imitate their ancestors and seek accommodation and promote peace.


Traditions of Origin and Isoko-Urhobo Relations


If there is any aspect of the history of the various peoples of Nigeria about which no one can speak with any exactitude, it is that which deals with the origins of our peoples. In my earlier writings, I claim that most of the Urhobo and Isoko groups are of Benin origin; that Ewu, Ughelli and Ughienvwe are of Ijo origin; that Evwreni, Igbede, Enwe and Olomu have Igbo connections; that Ephron is of Erohwa (in Isokoland) origin; that Agbon is of Irri (in Isokoland) origin; that the Okpe kingdom and the Okpe group in Isoko are related, the former having migrated from the latter; that Olomoro is of Olomu origin.15 These views as expressed in the 1960s and 1970s are decidedly simplistic and were based on British Intelligence Reports of the 1930s and my field work of 1961-1963. Can we deduce anything from these claims of origin in terms of Isoko-Urhobo relations? Before we answer that question, let us take a look at what two Urhobo scholars have said about the origin of the Agbon, Uvwie, Okpe – those groups that I had indicated are linked to Isoko groups in origin, and about Evwreni and Olomu origins.


According to Professor Onigu Otite, the eponymous ancestor of the Agbon was called Agbon. He goes on: “He was believed to be a son of Ukonurhoro, an Urhobo migrant from Udo…. Agbon had a long migratory history through Kwale, settling at one time in Enhwe and Erhivwi (Irri) in Isoko Division from where he moved to a settlement called Utokori, near Ughweru, then to Olomu, and finally, through the present Ughelle territory of Ighwreko and Ekiugbo to found the town of Agbon (Otorho r’Agbon)."16 What does Otite mean by “an Urhobo migrant from Udo?” That Agbon’s father was already Urhobo before he left Udo, which I understand to mean Benin? When he says Agbon settled at Enhwe and Irri in Isokoland, are we to understand that these places already existed as such before the coming of Agbon? These are only a few of the kind of questions that confront anyone dealing with traditions of origin.


As for Uvwie, Otite states that Uvwie lived at Ife. From there he migrated eastwards. He settled at Erugbo in the creeks of Ondo State. Subsequently he “settled in a territory in which Erohwa situates.” The Uvwie left Erohwa and settled in Ephron-Otor from where they migrated to their present territory.” Later on Otite writes, “…..we may say that Erohwa may be regarded as the parent settlement of Ephon Otor"17


It is again Otite who writes about what we know today as the Okpe kingdom. Otite indicates that there are two stages in the evolution of Okpe. The first has to do with traditions that there was a man called Uhobo who fathered those who became known as Okpe and who lived in Benin territory for some time. A variant of this tradition says the Okpe are descended from an ancient ruler in Ife. Otite does not consider this tradition too seriously. The central stage of Okpe history, says Otite, is clearer. This has to do with a man named Igboze leaving Benin territory, moving into Ijo territory around where Patani now is, and then settling “in present Erohwa territory in Isokoland.” Okpe would, in this account, appear to have been one of Igboze’s children. He founded a kingdom of his own near Erohwa. He moved on to Okpe in Olomu. It would appear that Okpe also had some connection with Okpe in today’s Isokoland. Orhue, one of four sons of Okpe, later left Okpe – Olomu and established himself in the territory of Orerokpe. Otite draws attention to the fact there is a connection between Okpe – Isoko, Okpe-Olomu and Oreokpe, and these three units exchange annual visits, especially during festivals.18

M. Y. Nabofa’s account of Olomu indicates that the Isoko polity of Olomoro was founded by persons from Oto-Orere-Olomu. I make the same point in myThe Isoko People. The Isoko town of Otibio is also of Olomu origin, according to Nabofa.19 Nabofa’s opening sentence in his chapter on Evwreni is: “The traditional story of the origin of Evwreni is intimately bound up with those of Igbide, Emede and Enhwe. The place of origin is said to be somewhere in Igboland. The ancestors of Igbide, Enhwe and Evwreni are said to have left Igboland. Emede was, according to some of the traditions, a friend of Okpolo, the founder of Enhwe. The Evwreni and Enhwe first settled in one place before the Evwreni moved on to their present location."20


In virtually all of the traditions of origin there is some reference to Benin. Clearly, it was fashionable to claim Benin origin because of the reputation that attached to that kingdom. The linguistic evidence has, however, called to question claims of Benin origin by the Urhobo and Isoko. According to Ben Elugbe, the Edo language (by this he means the language of Benin proper), the Urhobo language and  the Isoko language, among others, which he classifies as Edoid, are of about the same antiquity. To say this is to say that the Urhobo or Isoko language could not have developed after migration from Benin. Elugbe therefore posits that the Bini, Urhobo, Isoko and other Edoid groups had a common origin in the distant past, and migrated to their present locations in different waves at different times.21 If this be so, then the reference’s to Benin in the traditions of the Urhobo and Isoko could well refer to later (rather than founding) migrations into areas already inhabited by groups who spoke the Urhobo and Isoko languages. It is, so it is argued, because the Benin migrations were the latest that they are the most remembered. As I indicated earlier, we would never know for sure the full details of migrations that took place thousands of years ago.


Let us now go back to the question I raised earlier whether we can deduce anything about Urhobo-Isoko relations from the traditions of origin. In 1976 Professor P. A. Igbafe, a fellow historian, delivered a lecture in which he said: “Taken as an entity, the Bendel State is a microcosm of the whole country – a sort of miniature Nigeria in the heterogeneity of its peoples, the plurality of languages and the diversity of resources. Yet there abounds in the state a marked homogeneity in cultural traditions rooted in a common ancestry"22 (my emphasis). This lecture provoked a rejoinder from a group at the University of Ibadan and the Ibadan Polytechnic among whom were S.U. Erivwo, N.Y. Nabofa and G.G. Darah – sons of Urhoboland. In this rejoinder they said among other things that “Igbafe’s history is …..politically damaging.” “It is difficult not to think,” they wrote, “that Igbafe’s Bendel History was ill-motivated against certain ethnic groups."23 Igbafe’s lecture was delivered in August 1976. In November of the same year I delivered a lecture to the University of Benin Historical Association entitled The Historian and Politics: The Bendel State Situation.24 In that lecture I drew attention to Igbafe’s lecture and the rejoiner from the Urhobo group in Ibadan. And I asked: “What does it matter where Group A came from?” Surely, the group from which group A came also came from another group, I argued. I made the point that it is unacceptable to me to assume that if Group Z migrated from Group Y then group Z was vassal to Group Y, bearing in mind that sometimes migrations took place as acts of rebellion or protest. If groups moved out of a given kingdom or polity as a protest against the ruler of that polity, it is unlikely that they would thereafter put themselves under the vassalage of the polity from which they moved. I argued that origins in themselves cannot be used as determinants of inter-group relations. A more interesting point of inquiry is the relations which subsisted between the group that moved and the group from which it moved – after the former settled in its new habitat.


As will become clear later, the sore point in Isoko-Urhobo relations is the claim by the Urhobo that the Isoko are Urhobo. Only yesterday, Olurogun Moses Taiga spoke of us, the Isoko people as “the Eastern Division of the Urhobo Nation”. The implication of this is that the Urhobo are a nation; the Isoko are a sub-group of the Urhobo nation. Permit me to ask; Are the Isoko junior brothers to the Urhobo? Are they (the Isoko) descendants of the Urhobo? Is there anything in the traditions of origin of the two groups that can be used to support the claim that the Isoko are Urhobo? My researches have not thrown up any evidence in support of such a conclusion. If two Isoko towns – Olomoro and Otibio – have Olomu, an Urhobo polity, as place of origin, that cannot make the Isoko Urhobo. The fact that Uvwie, Okpe, Agbon, Evwreni have traditions which link them to Isoko, polities does not and cannot make them Isoko. The migrations about which these traditions speak took place over a thousand years ago. The migrant groups went on to develop their own separate identities. Those identities have to be recognized and respected.


The above is not to say that contacts made during migrations do not impact on inter-group relations. Take Uvwie-Erohwa relations, for example. I am from Erohwa. And I know that there exist certain special relations between these two groups even up till today. Those relations are such that promote peace between the two groups. No Uvwie person would lay violent hands on an Erohwa person. The Uvwie deity owhoru, is the same as the Erohwa deity that goes by the same name. At festival times, as we saw earlier, Okpe-Isoko, Okpe-Olomu and the Okpe of Orerokpe exchange visits. Olomoro in Isokoland used to visit Olomu in Urhoboland during the annual festivals. Ancient ties thus continue to be remembered without detracting from the separate identities that have developed over time.


British Colonial Rule and Isoko-Urhobo Relations


The details of the establishment and working of British rule in Isokoland and Urhoboland are available in a number of my published works25 and so will not detain us here. In what follows, attention will be drawn to the effects of British rule on Urhobo-Isoko relations. As prelude to that, however, there is the need to provide the administrative framework established by the British. When the Niger Coast Protectorate was established in 1891, British Vice-Consulates were established in Warri, Benin River and Sapele. The Benin River Vice-Consulate was closed down in 1892. British penetration into Urhoboland and Isokoland thus took place from Warri and Sapele. In 1900 the Niger Coast Protectorate gave way to what was known as the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. This protectorate was divided into three Divisions – Western, Central and Eastern. The Urhobo belonged to the Western Division. The bulk of the Isoko were placed in the Agberi District of the Central Division, and  the others in the Western Division. Then came 1906, when a new protectorate – Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was created. This protectorate was broken into the Colony of Lagos, Western, Central and Eastern Provinces. Warri was the headquarters of the Central Province and the Urhobo and Isoko belonged to the Warri Division of the Central Province, with Warri serving as Divisional Headquarters. The amalgamation of 1914 resulted in further re-structuring. The colonial state was broken into provinces. One of these was Warri Province, to which the Isoko and Urhobo belonged. Within Warri Province, the Urhobo and Isoko were placed in Warri Division, with Warri as Divisional Headquarters.26 In the context of this address, the point to stress is that none of the Nigerian peoples had a say in deciding to which Division, District or Province they would belong. The British were in these years establishing the colonial state of Nigeria. In the process they had to break up the territory into administrative units. The administrative units which the British established were not based on any clearly-worked out principles. Ethnic homogeneity was clearly not a consideration. The British hardly knew the peoples they brought together into provinces, divisions and districts. They clearly did not realize that the new units of administration they created favoured some groups and worked hardship on others. Nor did it enter into their thinking that as they brought Nigerians together into new groupings and for new purposes, they inadvertently threw up new challenges of relationships between these groups.27 This was what happened as we shall see, between the Isoko and the Urhobo.


The Native Court System: As the British pushed into the Urhobo and Isoko hinterland from the coast, so they began to establish agencies for local administration. In the yeas from 1900-1930, it was the native courts established by the British that constituted these agencies of local administration. Details of the Native Court system as it worked among the Urhobo and Isoko are available in my Niger Delta Rivalry. In this presentation we shall restrict ourselves to aspects of the working of that system which impacted on Urhobo-Isoko relations. The native courts established by the British were supposed to replace the peoples’ existing system of justice. They also doubled as local governments charged with discharging even non-judicial functions of local government. As with provinces, divisions and districts, it was the British who decided where to site native courts, and which polities in Urhoboland and Isokoland were to attend which native court. Thus in 1902 a native court was established at Okpare in the Urhobo polity of Olomu. The Isoko polities of Iyede, Emevor and Owe were required by law to take their case to the Okpare native court, thereby giving Okpare a jurisdiction over these Isoko groups that never existed before. The Isoko groups resented the long distances they were required to cover to attend court. Luckily in 1905 a native court was established at Iyede which had jurisdiction over Emevor and Owe. In the previous year (1904), a native court, the first in Isokoland, had been established at Uzere. Oleh, Emede, Igbide and a number of other towns were required to attend the Uzere court. My people of Erohwa and those of Ume were put under the native court sited at Patani, an Ijo town. Inadvertently, British colonial rule began to confer advantages on certain centres, while other groups resented the new arrangements which required them to leave their territory and go elsewhere to have their cases adjudicated. In these early years of British rule, the answer our people found for these new inequities was to ignore the new native courts and carry on as they had always done. Urhobo-Isoko relations thus continued on an even keel in this period. In fact as new roads began to be built, as a new pax began to be established, there was easier and greater movement of peoples and goods in the area of Urhoboland and Isokoland. Thus part of the consequence of the coming of British colonial rule was greater and easier contacts between these two peoples. Paradoxically, however, greater and easier contacts contained the seeds of new conflicts and new tensions.


The Lugardian System: The amalgamation of 1914 brought with it certain changes. As already indicated, the entire colonial state was divided into provinces, Warri Province being one. The Urhobo and Isoko belonged to Warri Division, with headquarters at Warri, the headquarters of the provincial administration. The head of the provincial administration was the Resident. He had his office in Warri. A District Officer (D.O.) was in charge of the Division. He also had his office in Warri. The Ijo of today’s Delta State, the Itsekiri, most the Urhobo and all of the Isoko belonged to Warri Division. The D.O. in Warri was expected to supervise this entire area. The Isoko were the most distant from headquarters, and only infrequently received visits from their D.O. This meant that in the year 1914-26 Isoko affairs received comparatively limited attention from the D.O in Warri. This was a distinct disadvantage. 


Amalgamation and the coming of the Lugardian system are sometimes presented as having brought about radical innovations in the functioning of local government. In fact there are those who would argue that Lugard introduced “Native Administration” into Southern Nigeria as from 1914. My position about the Lugardian system in Warri Province has been articulated elsewhere.28 In the context of today’s discourse, certain comments are needful. Lugard sought to make a legal distinction between native courts functioning as judicial institution and native courts functioning as native authorities, i.e. performing the executive functions of local government. Thus there was a Native Courts Ordinance and a Native Authorities Ordinance which gave legal backing to the native courts and native authorities. Among the Isoko and Urhobo, the same personnel constituted the native courts and native authorities. Because the work of local government had to be done, Lugard established many more courts in the area of our study than was the case up to 1914. Whereas there were only three native courts in Isokoland up to 1913, there were seven such courts in the period 1914-1927. In Urhoboland the numbers were seven in the earlier period and fifteen in the latter period. No Isoko groups attended court in Urhoboland  in the latter period. The number of courts indicated meant that there were still groups both in Urhoboland and Isokoland that did not have native courts of their own even in the Lugardian period.29

British colonial administration at local level in our area of study from 1900-1932 was dominated by those referred to as Warrant Chiefs. These were the persons appointed to sit on the native courts. In the period under consideration, quite a number of these warrant chiefs would not have been appointed had their standing in the traditional system determined their appointment. Whether the warrant chiefs had traditional status or not, they owed their appointments to the British more than their people.  Once appointed, they became the most powerful persons in their polities and were wont to abuse their powers. With the court clerks and court messengers in their khaki uniforms and badges of office, the warrant chiefs made up the unholy trinity of the Warrant Chief System. There were instances in which the people rose against them. A few court clerks were killed in some of these risings. Details are available in my Niger Delta Rivalry and other writings.


Two other aspects of the Lugardian system must receive our attention if we are to understand what led to the tensions that developed in Urhobo-Isoko relations in the years 1932- c. 1952. Lugard was enamoured of the emirate type of set-up in Northern Nigeria and the Obaship system in Yorubaland. The emirs and some of the Yoruba obas were gazetted as “First Class Chiefs.” Some other obas and some non-emir, non-oba chiefs were appointed “Second Class Chiefs.” Lugard regarded the First Class and Second Class Chiefs as superior native authorities. This meant that other native authorities in the same Division as the First Class or Second Class Chief were legally pronounced to be subordinate to the First Class or Second Class Chief. In our area of study Lugard appointed Omadoghogbone Numa (“Chief Dore Numa” – “Dore” being the British rendition of Dogho, the shortened form of Omadoghogbone), an Itsekiri chief, as a Second Class Chief and gazetted all the other native authorities in Warri Province as subordinate to Dogho. In practice this meant that all the  native authorities in Ijoland, Urhoboland, Isokoland, Ndokwaland (Ukwuani) and Itsekiriland were made subordinate to an Itsekiri chief who, before this time, had absolutely nothing to do with these other peoples. Once so appointed, all who had ambitions to be appointed to the native courts began to court the favour of Chief Dogho Numa. This arbitrary paramountcy granted to Dogho became the most odious aspect of British colonial rule in the period 1918-1932, when Dogho died.


Perhaps Dogho’s arbitrary paramountcy would not have been so odious if Lugard did not, at the same time, establish a Native Court of Appeal for Warri Province, and appoint Chief Dogho the Permanent President of that court, in his capacity as superior native authority. Native courts administered “native laws and customs.” Each ethnic group and even sub-group had its own “native law.” To appoint an Itsekiri to preside over appeals from Isokoland, Ijoland, Urhoboland and even Ndokwaland – appeals arising from “native law and custom” was in itself a travesty of justice. Yet the British not only did it, but turned a deaf ear to the many protests from these other ethnic groups in the years 1918-1926. In 1926, some action was taken in response to the peoples’ protests. First Sapele and the “Kwale Division” of Warri Province had a separate Court of Appeal established for them. Then an Ase –Sub-District was established for the Isoko and an Isoko Appeal Court set up in the Ase for them. An Assistant District Officer was appointed to oversee the Isoko, with his base in Ase. For the first time under British colonial rule, the Isoko were recognized as a separate group. Admittedly, Ase is not located in Isokoland, it being in Aboh territory. But Ase is much closer to Isokoland than Warri. The Isoko were naturally delighted at the British reaction to their protests against the arbitrary paramountcy of Dogho over them through the Native Court of Appeal in Warri.


The Anti-Tax Riots of 1927-28 and the Emergence of the “Sobo Division”: Lugard left Nigeria well before 1927. However, it was in that year that the British decided to implement his idea about raising revenue for Native Administration through taxing the people. The introduction of taxation into Warri Province led to an eruption of violent riots all over the province.30 The most striking feature of these riots was that it was against the warrant chiefs, the court clerks and court messengers that the peoples of the province vented their anger. Many had their houses burnt; many were viciously manhandled. The British, as was expected, reacted with greater violence, arrests and imprisonments. The riots, however, achieved a major success – the reorganization of native administration in the then Warri Province.31 This reorganization was preceded by a thorough investigation of the peoples’ socio-political systems. It was this investigation that produced the Intelligence Reports on the various polities of the province, which researchers continue to use up till today. The investigation having been concluded, the British studied the reports and reached the conclusion that Native Administration in the province should be based on the traditional system. For the British, this meant the setting up of village courts and “Clan” courts for each polity in the province, with members being chosen either according to tradition or elected by the people, not appointed directly by the British. The logical corollary was that administrative Divisions should henceforth follow ethnic lines, in order to remove the kind of disaffection that Dogho’s arbitrary paramountery had created. Accordingly, the Resident, Warri Province, set about reorganizing the province. He established four Divisions – Aboh Division, Western Ijo Division, Sobo Division and Jekri-Sobo Division.


Despite all the paper work that preceded this reorganization, despite the guideline of letting Native Administration follow traditional practice, the Jekri-Sobo Division and the Sobo Division were deviations from the enunciated policy indicated above. The Jekri-Sobo Division was made up of the Itsekiri and five Urhobo polities-Udu, Okpe, Oghara, Uvwie and Agbon. Each of this polities had its local administration based on its traditional system, just as the Itsekiri had theirs. But at Divisional level, these Urhobo polities and the Itsekiri were to have a common Native Administration and a common Treasury. The Resident argued that the Itsekiri and these Urhobo groups were so socially mixed through marriage and other contacts that they could be expected in the not distant future to fuse into one ethnic group!! It was strange reasoning. From the very beginning, the Urhobo in the Jekri-Sobo Division protested against this arrangement, and they kept protesting until 1 April, 1938 when two separate Native Administrations – Western Urhobo Native Administration with headquarters in Orerokpe, and an Itsekiri Native Administration with Warri as headquarters, were established. For no really satisfactory reason, the British retained the “Jekri-Sobo Division” even in 1938, though the two ethnic groups in it had been granted separate Native Administrations. Let the point be made here that the Urhobo groups not in the Jekri-Sobo Division supported their brothers in their protests against inclusion in the Jekri-Sobo Division.

 The Creation of Sobo Division and Developments in Isoko-Urhobo Relation, 1932 – 1952


The tax riots that erupted in Warri Province in the years 1927-28 were more than a protest against taxation. Taxation merely provided the occasion for the peoples of the then Warri Province to express their dissatisfaction with British colonial rule as it had impacted on them at the local level.32 For their part, the British were forced, for the first time, to take a hard look at their policies as well as to study the indigenous socio-political systems of the peoples over whom they exercised rulership. The plans for re-organization of local government (what the British called Native Administration) based, as it was theoretically supposed to be, on the peoples’ pre-colonial socio-political systems necessarily placed emphasis on the ethnic groups, or ethnic nationalities as some prefer to call them. The 1930s–1950s thus witnessed increasing ethnic awareness among our peoples in Warri Province as elsewhere. Greater ethnic awareness and sensitivity produced greater tensions between our ethnic groups. This was, in some ways, an unintended result of British colonial rule. That fact, as we shall see as we examine Urhobo-Isoko reactions in the years 1932-1952, did nothing to assuage the tensions which developed.


As we go on now to examine Isoko-Urhobo relations, we will discover that the British knew very little about the Isoko people. As I said earlier, in the years 1900-1926 the Isoko were very distant from Warri, the seat of the British government in what became Warri Province. Visits by British administrative officers to Isokoland were few and far between. It was this which led to the creation of Ase Sub-District as we saw earlier. However, with the reorganization of the 1930s, both the Ase sub-District and the Isoko court of Appeal were abrogated in 1932 when the Isoko were transferred to the newly created Sobo Division.33 In other words, after only six years in which the Isoko were made to feel that they were part of what was going on in Warri Province, that feeling was destroyed. The Isoko must thus have gone into their new Division feeling ill-used by the British.


In my study of inter-group relations it has become quite clear to me that the advantaged group(s) can never enter into the feelings of the disadvantaged. So it was as between the Urhobo and Isoko in the years 1932 – 1952. In the 1931 Annual Report on Warri Province we read: “The sub-tribes inhabiting the WARRI Province are the “JEKRI, the SOBO, the KWALE-IBOS and the Western IJOS."34 The ISOKO are not mentioned. Yet the British had created a Sub-District for the Isoko in 1926. In the Annual Report for 1932 it was reported, “The Sobo Division…includes the Isoko–speaking SOBO clans of the former Ase Sub-District."35 In that same report, Uzere, an Isoko polity, is described as “the headquarters village group of the Isoko SOBO clan."36 All of this, it would appear by hind sight, in preparation for lumping the Isoko with ten Urhobo polities in the Sobo Division which came into existence in 1932. The baffling thing is that these two reports were written in the years in which British Intelligence Reports were being written on all the Urhobo and Isoko clans. None of those reports describes the Isoko as Urhobo or the Urhobo as Isoko. As we shall see presently, Urhobo leaders of this period were quick to cash in on these British misconceptions and to declare in rather insulting language that the Isoko are Urhobo. As I prepared for this address, I re-visited the Warri Provincial Annual Reports and discovered that in the seven years from 1939-1945, the name ISOKO does not appear in the British colonial officers’ reports on Native Administration.37 It was as if the Isoko were not part of Warri Province; as if they did not exist. Anybody interested in checking on the point here made should go and read the reports to which I have alluded. Against this background, I can fully understand why it was that on 28 October, 1945, all of the Isoko polities signed a petition to the Senior Resident in Warri asking that the name Urhobo Division be changed to Isoko-Urhobo Division. We will return to this petition later.


Developments in the Sobo Division (later Urhobo Division) fall into three phases. The first phase covered the years 1932-1939; the second 1940-1949, and the third 1950 to independence. The first phase did not, it would appear, result in much acrimony. Perhaps this was because the twelve Isoko polities (i.e. all of Isokoland) and the ten Urhobo polities were savouring the new experiment. Even so, however, these years laid the foundation for the Urhobo attitude that came to the fore in the 1940s. The Central Executive Council that constituted the native authority sat in Ughelli, the seat of the District Officer.38 The court also sat in Ughelli. This meant that all Isoko who had to transact any business at Divisional headquarters had to travel to Ughelli. This is what I mean when I argue, as I have done in a number of fora, that colonial rule created new inequalities among the peoples of Nigeria. Ughelli acquired a new and unusual importance for the Isoko in the years after 1932. I have not researched into it, but I would not at all be surprised if Isoko fathers gave their daughters in marriage to Ughelli men, so they could have a home in Ughelli whenever they had to visit Ughelli. Because all of Isokoland was in the Sobo Division, even those Isoko who in earlier years had had little connection with Ughelli were compelled by the new realities to be Ughelli-conscious.


It was in the years 1940-1949 that the greatest tensions developed between the Urhobo of the Urhobo Division and the Isoko. In December 1940 there was established the Urhobo Central Native Authority as it was now called. There was also a Divisional Court of First Instance and a Divisional Court of Appeal established for the Division. Ughelli remained headquarters.39 Each polity had a “Clan Council” which served as a subordinate Native Authority. All the polities had equal representatives (two each) in the Central Native Authority except for two which had three representatives each by virtue of observable larger population. In the context of this address, the details of the working of the subordinate Native Authorities do not concern us. By the 1940s the Isoko had become openly unhappy. Let the point be made that in these years the Isoko were not asking for a separate Division. What they wanted was for the Division to be called Isoko-Urhobo of Urhobo-Isoko Division in order for their identity to be recognized. At no time in the history of these two peoples before the 1930s were the Isoko regarded as Urhobo, even though their language had some similarity to the Urhobo language. To the chagrin and anger of the Isoko, the Urhobo not only opposed their proposals but began to make claims that the Isoko are Urhobo. It is this claim that generated the tensions between the two peoples in the 1940s and 1950s.


On 20 December, 1940, the Resident, Warri Province, Major R.L. Bowen, addressed a meeting of the Urhobo Central Native Authority which sat in Ughelli. He began his addres with, “I salute the chiefs and people of the Urhobo Tribe gathered here today."40 It is easy enough to imagine how the Isoko delegates felt. The Resident was, by his address saying the Isoko did not exist. Then at a meeting of the Urhobo Executive Council held on 2 November, 1944, the Urhobo members proposed that Chief Oveje, who had been elected Chairman of the Council (Oveje represented the Urhobo polity of Olomu) should be elected as “the Annual Chairman of the Urhobo Divisional Council."41 The regulations provided that the Chairman should be elected each year. The Urhobo were working for a permanent Urhobo Chairman. At the same time it was proposed that Mr. (later Chief) Mukoro Mowoe, another Urhobo man, should be appointed Vice-Chairman, even though no provision was made for a Vice-Chairman in the regulations.42 The Resident turned down both proposals on the grounds that the regulations made it impossible for the proposals to be considered.43 These proposals by the Urhobo clearly indicate that they had no consideration whatever for the Isoko. Again, it is easy to imagine how the Isoko felt.


At a meeting on 2 June, 1945, the Isoko delegates again asked for a change in the name of the Division. The records tell us that the reason they gave for the change of name was that “they felt that their name was dying off by the present name."44 The Urhobo delegates opposed a change. Because it was clear that the two groups could not come to an agreement, the Council decided that the Chief Commissioner of the Western Provinces should be asked to take a decision. It was probably what went on at this meeting that led to the setting up of a “Select Committee” of the Council to deliberate further on the matter and make recommendations. The Committee met on 1 July, 1944, and 12 January, 1945. The Urhobo members were Ovie Arumu, Duku, Obodo, Revd. Agori Iwe, Chief Ugen, and I. Jeje. The Isoko were led by Chief J.A. Akiri. Other members were D.A. Ogbor, Ogero, Ogodo, Unuafe and Okujeni.45


For the Urhobo, Revd. Agori Iwe was the lead speaker. He argued that “The name Isoko is a local name for that part of the Urhobo nation."46 According to him, Isoko is to be understood in the same way as Okpe, Jesse and other Urhobo sub-groups. Stated the Urhobo group: “From the beginning since the advent of our government, the Isokos, Urhobos, Okpe and Jesse have been answering the name ‘Urhobo’."47 The advent of our government. Whose government? Urhobo government or British government? If the latter (which is the only thing that makes sense), how can the coming of the British constitute the beginning of the emergence of “Urhobo”? Chief Ugen was even more outrageous in his contribution. According to him, “Isoko is a nickname”. A change of name “is nothing but retrogression."48 The Isoko were stunned that all of Isokoland was being likened to Jesse, Agbarho or Ughienvwe. Chief Akiri reminded his Urhobo colleagues that twelve Isoko “clans” were represented on the Council. How could the Urhobo, in the light of that reality argue that Isoko was just like Jesse? The Isoko insisted: “we were not originally called together (sic),"49 meaning that never before the new regime were the Isoko called Urhobo – which position, I believe, all at this conference would agree. Needless to say, the Select Committee could come to no agreement.

It was no doubt the insults heaped on the Isoko by the Urhobo that led the Isoko Union to call a mass meeting of the Isoko for October 1945. Permit me to quote three paragraphs of the petition.50


The Division comprises the two co-ordinate entities -Isoko and Urhobo; and therefore, naturally, the Division should be named “Isoko-Urhobo Division” and not “Urhobo Division” to the exclusion and disregard of Isoko. In this respect Isoko felt, and rightly, of course, that she has been meanly treated and regarded.


Our appeal to amend the name of our Division has started receiving official treatment in our Divisional Council since last year 1994; but no decision has been reached. The delay of this matter is wounding the dignity and pride of Isoko as a nation and is creating an air of dissension among the two communities forming the Division. The present name as we see it must necessarily bring chaos since it favours one (Urhobo) establishing her name as a general name, and disregards the other (Isoko).


To avoid wounding the social peace between us, we appeal to your Honour, our Resident, to intervene to decide the issue to the interest of both of us.


The tone of the petition is amazingly devoid of rancour.


Permit me a little digression. The President General of the Isoko Union at the time of the petition quoted above was Mr. S.O. Efeturi. Mr. Efeturi was ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, after training at St. Michael’s College, Awka, in 1946. Revd. Efuturi, as he then became, served as the Vicar, St. Andrew’s (Anglican) Church, Warri, in the late 1950s. Before he was posted to Warri, there existed an “Urhobo-Itsekiri Section” of the church which met for worship in the church building in the afternoon on Sunday. During Rev. Efeturi’s tenure as Vicar, he established an “Isoko Section” in St. Andrew’s Church. Because no time could be found for this new section to worship in the church building, it used to meet in one of the classrooms of St. Andrews C.M.S. School, Warri. The Urhobo were outraged that this Isoko Vicar established an Isoko arm of the church in Warri. The Revd. Agori Iwe, the same person who had said the Isoko were simply one of the Urhobo clans was Archdeacon. When Revd. Efeturi was transferred from Warri to Oguta in Igboland (we were still part of the Diocese on the Niger then), the Isoko smelt a rat. Did the politics of Urhobo Division filter into the politics of the Church of God?.51 The Revd. Efuteri served from 1946 to the early 1960s. Not once was he preferred. Did he pay a price for daring to lead his people in their struggle to establish their God- given identity?


Although the British authorities did not in 1945 grant the Isoko demand for a change of name of the Division, fairness demands that we put on record the fact that the Court of Appeal which was established in 1940 was made to sit in Ughelli to hear Urhobo appeals and in Oleh, in Isokoland, to hear Isoko appeals. When the court sat in Ughelli, it was presided over by an Urhobo “Clan Head”. When it sat in Oleh, it was presided over by an Isoko “Clan Head”. Because of the basic fairness of the Isoko demand for a change of name for the Division, one would have thought that the British would grant the demand. They did not. Nor did the Action Group government of Obafemi Awolowo that took over from the British in 1957. The British, however, made one more concession. We turn our attention to that concession now.


The issue of the name remained a sore point at the meetings of the Council. The debates were always acrimonious, and the District Officer was inclined to prohibit further debate. In 1946 he thought the Resident should impose a settlement. Wrote he, “The Isoko desire is undoubtedly earnest”. He pointed out that the idea of eventual separation had already surfaced. “It would not, in my opinion, be altogether advisable to reject the Isoko request merely because the urhobo elements… cannot agree."52 Despite views like these here expressed, the British, at provincial and regional levels, kept arguing that the Isoko language, which they called a dialect, was so related to the Urhobo that there was no basis for a change of name! This was a strange argument for persons who were British. Despite the fact that the Scots and the English speak a language that is called English, the Scots remain Scots and the English English. When we refer to the two groups we use the word British – not English, not Scots. Let us also recall the Ben Elugbe thesis about Edo and the other Edoid languages being of the same antiquity. What this means is that Isoko did not develop from Urhobo or Urhobo from Isoko. The amazing thing was that the argument about language was not based on any empirical research. Presumably, because the Isoko have a smaller population than the Urhobo, it was assumed that the smaller grew from the larger! I repeat that, within my knowledge, there was no basis for the Urhobo claim, which arose from the British decision to place the Isoko in the Urhobo Division. When both the Isoko and Urhobo were in the Warri Division in the earlier years, the Urhobo did not claim that the Isoko are Urhobo. They began to do so only after the Sobo Division came into being.


In September 1949 all of the Isoko polities again met over this issue and sent yet and another petition to the Chief Commissioner, Western Provinces. This petition insisted that the Urhobo and Isoko are different peoples and that therefore the name of the Division as it was was “indefensible”. The petition drew the attention of the Chief Commissioner to the fact that England, Wales and Scotland are not together known as England but as Great Britain! The Isoko were not averse to federating with the Urhobo in one Division but the name of the Division should reflect the federating entities – Isoko-Urhobo Division. It is only as I prepared for this address that I saw this petition for the first time.53 I have found it so persuasively written, and its language so controlled, that I attach it as an appendix to this address.


It is difficult to appreciate why the British took the position they did. In the same province was a Division named Jerki-Sobo Division, so named because it was made up of Itsekiri and some Urhobo polities. Even with that name, the Urhobo kept agitating to be removed from that Division. The Isoko were not, in the petitions I have seen, asking to be given a separate Division as of 1949. They merely asked that their name be reflected in the name of the Division. The British refused. Was it that the D.O. with his seat in Ughelli was inclined to respect the wishes of the Urhobo? Was it that there were certain influential Urhobo in warri who had the ears of the Resident?


Be that as it may, the Resident eventually reached the conclusion that “reorganization, involving recognition of the Isoko aspiration for more direct and intimate conduct of their own affairs was a matter of some urgeney."54 By the end of 1949 the Chief Commissioner granted approval in principle to an Urhobo/Isoko Federal Council that would serve as Superior Native Authority to an Isoko District Council which would sit in Oleh and an Urhobo District Council that would sit in Ughelli. The Federal Council was to sit in Ughelli. ! This arrangement came into legal existence in April 1950. The Resident reported at the end of that year the Isoko were not completely satisfied that they had to deal with a Superior Native Authority and Treasury in Ughelli. But for the first time since 1932 the Isoko now had a Council that catered for Isokoland as a whole. It took another thirteen years before the Isoko were granted a separate administrative Division, after the Midwest Region was created. No other group in the old Warri, later Delta, Province was subjected to that kind of administrative neglect, not to say oppression.


The events discussed in this section of our presentation covered only twenty years of the history of the Isoko and Urhobo peoples – twenty years during which the British colonial administration refused, by acts of commission and omission to recognize the separate identity of the Isoko people; twenty years during which the Urhobo leaders, taking advantage of British administrative arrangements, began to orchestrate the claim that the Isoko are Urhobo.


Within my knowledge, nothing has done more to sour Isoko-Urhobo relations than the developments we have just been discussing. It was as if the history of peaceful co-existence and socio-economic activities between various Isoko and Urhobo sub-groups was forgotten. The Isoko struggle began to be seen as an anti-Urhobo activity. Up till this day, most Urhobo people, learned or unlearned, consider us, the Isoko people, as Urhobo. Peter Ekeh, Chairman of the Urhobo Historical Society, writing as recently as 1998, which is just seven years ago, said that “the Sobo/Urhobo Division was free from extra-ethnic supervision."55 Although subtly crafted, Ekeh was implying that the Isoko and Urhobo are one. I reacted to that statement, and Ekeh faithfully published my reaction to his position and indicated in that footnote that “the point [Ikime] is making is a noteworthy one to which [he] had not given any great thought before now."56 What was Professor Ekeh saying in that footnote? He was saying that until that point in time he had assumed indeed that the Isoko are Urhobo. In 1998. Had he also assumed that the Urhobo are Isoko? Can A be equal to B, and B not be equal to A? Indeed it is only the one who wears the shoe who knows where it pinches. The question which arises, is: What is the basis of this assumption? I know of no historical or other basis save that which we have been discussing in this section of this address. So pernicious has been the impact of British administrative arrangements on Isoko-Urhobo relations. 


The Post-1952 Period


Soon after the events of 1950, Nigeria entered into the era of decolonization.  In the Western Region to which we then belonged, Nigerians began to get involved in governance. Chief Obafemi Awolowo became charged with responsibility for Chieftaincy Affairs and Local Government. Under him a new system of local government was put in place.  This new system gradually gave the Isoko greater autonomy in the ordering of their local affairs. But the Isoko remained part of the Urhobo Division, despite unabated Isoko protests. As a university undergraduate, I used to go to the gallery of the Western House of Assembly to listen to the debates in the House. Mr (now Chief) James Otobo, who represented Isoko in that House, was officially referred to as the Member for “Urhobo East”!  Thus in government circles, right up to independence, it was as if we, the Isoko, did not have any legal existence in our own country.  And this was solely, and only, because the British colonial authorities decided that the Isoko people should be in the same Division as ten of the Urhobo polities.  No one who has not suffered the kind of denial inflicted on the Isoko can enter into their feelings or imagine the impact of that denial on the psyche of the Isoko people.


Against the backdrop of the experience of the years 1932 into independence, when the campaign began for the creation of the Midwest Region, the Isoko gave, as a condition for their support, the creation of an Isoko Division in the new region.  This condition was accepted, and fulfilled in 1963.  The struggle that began in 1932 did not achieve its purpose until 1963.  It took over thirty years.


In the years since 1963, Isoko-Urhobo relations have, on the whole being peaceful.  I fear, however that the tensions of the 1932 – 1952 period have left a near permanent dent on Isoko-Urhobo relations.  There are still many Urhobo who cannot accept the Isoko in any other mould save that of the Agori Iwes and Ugens.  My limited experience is that in the inevitable competition for office and positons among the political, professional and business elite in the wider context of Delta State and/or Nigeria, the Urhobo and Isoko elite continue to operate against the backdrop of the years 1932-1952.


The creation of Delta State has given the Urhobo a new status, that of being the largest ethnic group in Delta State.  And, like all other majorities in the Nigerian political arrangement, they have tended to exploit this majority status to the fullest.  Some years ago, I was invited to deliver a Keynote Address to a meeting of stakeholders at the Delta State University.  My letter of invitation was delivered to me by an Urhobo Professor at that University. He came to Ibadan and personally handed over the letter to me.  The same Professor was the Master of Ceremonies at the lecture.  He invited all manner of people to the “High Table” except the Keynote speaker, an Isoko by the name Obaro Ikime. It took the intervention of the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of the University, an Ijo, to get the learned Urhobo Professor to ask me to the “High Table”.  A small incident won’t you say?  But there was a delegation of the Isoko Development Union at that lecture.  That delegation was extremely furious at the way I was treated, and told me so after the lecture. The Master of Ceremonies may have made a genuine mistake.  But because of lingering memories of past years, that mistake was interpreted as a deliberate slight on the Isoko, the argument being that were the keynote speaker an Urhobo, the Master of Ceremonies would never have made that “mistake”.  Why have I chosen to tell this story?  Because I consider it necessary to warn the Urhobo and Isoko elite to take due heed to themselves. Although Isoko-Urhobo relations have not resulted, and I pray they never result, in the kind of conflagrations we have witnessed in Urhobo-Itsekiri and Ijo-Itsekiri relations, those relations (Isoko-Urhobo) remain very sensitive because of the Urhobo attitude to the Isoko to  which we have drawn attention in this address. Because we, the elite, are the ones who have access to knowledge of the type we are sharing here, we owe our respective peoples a duty not to allow personal interests and ambition, or the interests of a small clique, to drive us into actions that can ignite the fire of inter-ethnic violence.  When such a fire breaks out, the losses to our peoples far outweigh whatever we the elite gain from manipulating ethnic sensitivities in our favour. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.




We must now begin to draw this address to a close.  It is under the auspices of the Urhobo Historical Society that I am delivering this address.  It is as a historian that I am speaking. I am the first to admit that we do not, to my knowledge, have any detailed scholarly work on Urhobo-Isoko relations, and to urge that such a study be undertaken. Our presently limited knowledge indicates contacts between some of those who today constitute the Urhobo and Isoko during the years of migrations.  Those contacts provide no basis whatsoever for postulating that one group was vassal to the other. The Evwreni, for example, are said to have migrated  from Igboland. The Evwreni cannot, for that reason, be classified as Igbo!  The tradition of origin as we have them today do not provide any basis for a claim that the Urhobo are Isoko or Isoko Urhobo.  While some of what today we can properly call Isoko and Urhobo sub-groups did engage in “war” in ancient times, we do not have any evidence, in the present state of our knowledge, to postulate a conqueror-conquered relationship either way. Those who have done some work on these two peoples speak of intermarriage between them. This has persisted over the years. Sub-groups from the two peoples have been involved in inter-group commercial relations for centuries as they attended each others’ markets. Evidence from the early 20th century indicates that persons who were Urhobo submitted themselves for trial at what the British called the “Eni Juju” – of Uzere.57 Those who went to Uzere did so on their own volition.  We cannot therefore use attendance at the “Eni-Juju” as an index of Urhobo-Isoko relations.


The history of missionary activities in Isokoland and Urhoboland reveals that whereas Isokoland eventually fell into the jurisdiction of what was known as the Niger Mission with Onitsha as headquarters, Urhoboland fell first under James Johnson’s Niger Delta Pastorate and later under the Yoruba mission.58 The Niger Mission’s Isoko District which included all of Isokoland, also included Ughweru and Evwreni.  I believe that this is what explains the fact that many Ughweru and Evwreni people speak the Isoko language fluently.  When in the heat of the 1940s the Isoko members of the Divisional Council of the Urhobo Division drew attention to the fact here adverted to, the Revd. Agori Iwe was quick to counter that the missionaries did not have “nation or tribe in mind when they formed their Districts."59 What the Reverend Gentleman implied was that when it came to administrative Districts or Divisions, the British always followed “nation or tribe”!  He had to believe this for him to have argued, as he did, that the Isoko are to be seen in the same way as Jesse and other Urhobo sub-groups. However, there was the Jekri-Sobo Division which clearly contradicted the presumed ethnic homogeneity of administrative Divisions.  The truth is that in inter-group relations we always ignore facts that do not support our position.


In his Assessment Report on Olomu Clan, S. E. Johnson, commenting on the Okpare Native Court wrote that the Native court Areas “were on a territorial rather than on clan basis”. This point had been made earlier in this address when we looked at the way the British set up their administrative machinery. Onitsha was for a while part of a Central Province with Warri as headquarters! Would any one want to argue that for that reason Onitsha belongs to the same ethnic group as those who lived in Warri?  In the case of the Urhobo and the Isoko, the British kept pointing out that the languages and socio-political institutions were similar.  Could not languages and institutions of groups that were in a given ecological zone become similar over time?  At any rate similarity is not the same thing as sameness. All the Isoko polities for example, have the odio institution. Among the Urhobo, only Ughweru and Evwreni have the odio institution. The Isoko do not have the ohovwore institution of many of the Urhobo polities. In my view, the British position was based on inadequate knowledge of the two peoples.  It is amazing that Urhobo leaders like Agori Iwe could make the kind of statements they made, simply because the British took an action based on inadequate knowledge. I am sure it would shock some listening to me when I say that the British classified Ughweru as an “Isoko-speaking clan”, and this in the 1930s.60  Did the fact that many Ughweru  people speak Isoko make them Isoko?  It is to prevent misinformation of this type that the historian cannot afford to assume that whatever the colonial authorities wrote is therefore correct.


Let us, as we close, remind ourselves of some of the points made in the Preamble that should now make more sense “Historical events have created all the basic human groupings – countries, religions, classes – and all the loyalties that attach to these.”  The Urhobo, the Isoko are a product of history.  Time there was when it made more sense to speak of Olomu, Agbon, Ughelli rather than of Urhobo; of Uzere, Erohwa, Ozoro, Aviara rather than of Isoko.  But history created a British Colony and Protectorate in what we now know as Nigeria.  In that setting, people began to be referred to by the languages they speak.  That is how the Isoko – those who speak Isoko, and the Urhobo – those who speak Urhobo, came into being.  As these new groupings came into existence, so loyalties developed around them over time.  It is those loyalties that are at play when we speak of Isoko – Urhobo relations.  Unless we know the background to the emergence of these loyalties, we mis-handle them and worsen inter-group relations as a consequence. 


“It is the events recorded in history that have generated all the emotions, the ideals, that make life meaningful, that have given men something to live for, struggle over, die for”. The history of Urhobo-Isoko relations in the period 1932 – 1952 is eloquent testimony to the truth of this assertion.  A Sobo Division came into being.  Neither the Isoko nor the Urhobo were responsible for its creation.  Once created, however, it generated emotions and loyalties which had the unintended result of worsening Isoko – Urhobo relations.  Thus the Urhobo argued as if what was on the ground in the 1932-1952 period had always been there – as if the Isoko had always been part of Urhoboland when, in fact, in 1926 the same British who created the Sobo Division had created a sub-district for the Isoko!  This is why we need to know our history, so that we can have a better understanding of how things came to be.  The understanding which history enables us to have should stand us in good stead when we deal with contemporary inter-group relations.  That is why we study history: so that knowledge of our past can inform the position we take in the present, and guide our planning for the future. Those who lead our ethnic nationalities today will do well to seek the understanding that history provides.


Sobo Division.  What’s in a name?  Although never before today have I addressed Urhobo-Isoko relations in as much detail I have done in this address, I have had cause to draw attention to the issue of administrative arrangements and inter-group relations on at least three previous occasions – and all in public lectures such as this.61 I have warned that those in government today should avoid the mistakes of the past.  I have asked: why call a local government with Koko as headquarters Warri North? Why, is a local government with Otor r’Ughienwe as headquarters called Ughelli South?  What has Ughelli got to do with it?  Will it surprise anyone if one hundred years from now some scholar reaches the conclusion that those in the Ughelli South local government area were vassals of Ughelli? Take another example – Warri South West Local Government.  Given a ruler with the title Olu of Warri; given the fact that in the Warri South West Local Government are Ijo who do not accept the suzerainty of the Olu of Warri, could not a neutral name have been found for that local government? Just as the name a person bears is his identity, so in some degree is the name we give to our administrative units.  It was because the name of the Division created in 1932 was Sobo (later Urhobo) Division that the Isoko who were part of that Division were regarded by the Urhobo leaders of that age as Urhobo, with the attendant tensions that that name generated. Let us therefore avoid the pitfalls of the past, as we take decisions today; as we plan for the future.  Delta State of which the Urhobo and Isoko are part has seen frightening violence in our days as the Urhobo have fought the Istekiri; as the Itsekiri have fought the Ijo. Let there be no more fights. Let all of us dedicate ourselves to promoting peaceful relations among our various peoples.  As always, however, there can be no peace without justice. Let no group, however large, however powerful, consider that any other group, however small, will allow itself to be destroyed without a fight. “Live and let live” may be a trite epigram. It is, nevertheless, an important ingredient of peaceful inter-group relations, as of inter-personal relations.


Mr. Chairman, I am not sure whether I have passed the tests that I ask those who will write history to pass! What I have tried to do in this address is to present us with a slice of the history of the Isoko and Urhobo, and to ask us to seek to understand Urhobo-Isoko Relations in the light of this history. My hope is that the understanding that history gives will enable us to temper emotionalism with a degree of realism. If in the process of trying to do this I have given offence, I crave your forgiveness, even as I dare to hope that we have all gained some new insights today. It remains for me, once again to thank the Urhobo Historical Association for the privilege that has been mine to deliver this address, and to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and you Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen for your kind attention. Thank you very much indeed.




c/o M. A. Warioghae/Sect.

Ozoro Town


27th Sept. 1949



The Chief Commissioner Western Provinces,                           

Secretariat, IBADAN                                            

Thru’ The Resident,                                                       





At a meeting of the Egwae Owhegbe  Isoko  which is a confederation  of  all Isoko Towns, it was decided that the Divisional  name  ‘Urhobo  Division’’ is not only wrong but should be changed for  a better.  You are also reminded that this issue went before several officers in 1946.


The name “Urhobo Diviison” could have been right if the Division comprised a homogenous community of Urhobo tribesmen.  But this is not the case – the Division thus named includes the Isoko tribe.  There is plainly therefore an error in nomenclature fundamental and indefensible. The Egwae Owhegbe Isoko submits that the name should be thus amended – “ISOKO-URHOBO DIVISION”.


The British is reputed the world over as loving fair play.  We also know that our honoured administrative officers will disdain to defend what they see is both wrong and oppressive. This special  question of the value of a federating capacity in a name is not new to the Englishmen. England, Wales, and Scotland are not together known as England or any other local tribesname but as Great Britain. In that single name can be seen common sense and fair play to all the entities that make up Great  Britain. Even in a colonial territory like the Sudan the name is aptly qualified by the epithet ‘Anglo –Egyptian’. Here  again fair play is self evident. We shall not be denied fair play. The Egwae Owhegbe Isoko begs to submit that a better name for the Division should be ‘ISOKO URHOBO DIVISION’’.


We shall not be deterred by arguments that our tribe is small., or that this request is a tendency to separatism and disunity, or that after all we are of the same stock as the Urhobos so one name is enough or that the office work involved in changing the name is so big as to  be undesirable. We know that our tribe is large in this division, your statistics can tell you that. We know too that we do not desire separation. Besides it is not true unity in which one loses his identity; it is a submersion. An attempted fusion of people, every body can tell you, is an impossibility. The Isoko people are not prepared to surrender their identity, or adopt a new one. About Isoko  and Urhobos being one stock, all the world is  one stock, yet people delight in retaining their identities, the Briton in particular. All these arguments we have heard before and consider trivial and unstatesmanlike because they evade the issue. The Egwae Owhegbe Isoko submits that the name ‘’Urhobo Division’’ is an anomalous nomenclature that is outdated and must be substituted with the name  ‘’Isoko-Urhobo division’’. They would view opposition to this submission as an act of oppression, a forcing of a loyal tribe to lose its tribal identity for political convenience.


The merit of the suggested new name is that it gives both tribes their identities and therefore scope for the unity of the two or more recognized entities. It recognizes that Isoko as a tribe has a place in Nigeria. It shows also that the Briton in Nigeria intends to so be fair at least to the Isoko man.


You will agree that we have given our submissions in clearly unmistakable language, We have given them without bitterness and in good faith. We trust your sense of fair play. Lastly we hope that you will not agree with us and than fail to do anything now.                                                                                         


We  remain Sir,


Yours very faithfully.                                                                                   


M.A. Marioghae                                                   




1  Daniels, Robert V., Studying History: How and Why (2nd Edition) Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972, p. 72.

2 Ikime, Obaro, Through Changing Scenes: Nigerian History Yesterday and Tomorrow, University of Ibadan Inaugural Lecture, University of Ibadan Press, 1979, p. 10.


3  Bloch, Marc, The Historian’s Craft, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1953, pp. 143-144.


4  Plumb, J. H. The Death of the Past, Boston, Houghton Miflin Co. 1971, p. 106.


5 Carr, E.H. What is History? Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1971 edition, p. 30.


6 Ekeh, Peter, “Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Destiny and History” in Mowoe, Isaac O. James, Leadership, Unity and the Future of the Urhobos. (mimeo-graphed and bound), p. 49


7 Ekeh, Peter, “Introduction” to Warri City and British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta edited by Peter P. Ekeh, Buffalo, New York, Urhobo Historical Society, 2005, pp. 20 and 22.


8  Ikime, Obaro, Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta, Ibadan, The Author, 1995, p. 52. (The edition here cited is the Centenary Edition published for the celebration of the centenary of the Ebrohimi War. The original edition was published in London by Heinemann Educational Books in 1968).


9  Ikime, Obaro, op. cit.


10 Ikime, Obaro, op. cit. Chapter 4.


11 Adeleye, R. A. Power and Diplomacy in Northern Nigeria, London, Longman Group Ltd., 1971. See a very brief summary of the point here made on pp 5-7.


12  Ajayi, J. F. Ade and Smith, Robert. Yoruba Warfare in the 19th Century, London, Cambridge University Press.


13 See Intelligence Reports on the named polities.


14 Ikime, Obaro, In Search of Nigerians: Changing Patterns of Inter-Group Relations in an Evolving Nation State, President Inaugural Lecture delivered at the 30th Congress of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 01 May, 1985, published by the author at Ibadan. p. 5.


15  Ikime, Obaro, Niger Delta Rivalry, London, Longman, 1969, Chapter 1, pp. 7-10.


16 Onigu Otite, “Agbon” in Onigu Otite (Editor), The Urhobo People, (Second Edition), Ibadan, Shaneson C. I. Ltd., p. 167.


17  Onigu Otite, “Uvwie” in op. cit, pp. 189-193.


18 Onigu Otite, “Okpe” in op. cit, pp. 198-199.


19 Nabofa, M. Y., “Olomu” in Onigu, Otite, op cit, p. 137.


20 Nabofa, M. Y., “Evwreni” in Onigu Otite, op. cit., pp. 257-258.


21Elugbe, Ben., “Edo Linguistics and its Application” Typescript, 1982.

22 Igbafe, P. A. “Bendel State History, People and Resources” a lecture published in Nigerian Observer, August 28-31, 1976.


23  The Rejoinder was allegedly sent to the Nigerian Observer, but never published. Some of us got mimeographed copies of the rejoinder.


24  Ikime, Obaro, “The Historian and Politics: The Bendel State Situation,” Lecture delivered to University of Benin Historical Association, 19 November, 1976.


25 See, for example, Ikime, Obaro, Niger Delta Rivalry, already  cited, Chapters 4, 5 and 6, and Ikime, Obaro, The Isoko People, Ibadan. Ibadan University Press, 1972, Chapter 4.


26 Ikime, Obaro, Niger Delta Rivalry, Chapter 5


27 Ikime, Obaro, In Search of Nigerians…, pp. 16-20


28 Ikime, Obaro, Niger Delta Rivalry, Chapter 5

29 Ikime, Obaro, Niger Delta Rivalry, see map facing p. 170.


30 For details see Obaro Ikime, “The Anti-Tax Riots in Warri Province, 1927-28” in Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol. III, No. 3, December 1966, pp 559- 573.


31 For details see Obaro Ikime, Niger Delta Rivalry, Chapter 6.

32 See Footnote 24 above


33 National Archives Ibadan (hereafter NAI), CSO 26/2 File 11857 Vol X, Annual Report, Warri Province 1932, p. 42, paragraph 85.


34 Same file as in footnote 27, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1931, p. 7, paragraph 13.


35 Same file as in Footnote 27, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1932, p. 2, paragraph 3.


36  Ibid, p. 45

37  These reports can be found in NAI, CSO 26/2, File 11857, Vol. XVII


38 See Footnote 27, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1932.

39  NAI, CSO 26/2, File 11857, Vol. XVII, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1941, p. 4, paragraph 13.


40  NAI, War Prof., File 115, Vol I, Urhobo Native Administration Reorganization, Resident’s address to a meeting held on 20 December, 1940, p 1.


41  Ibid, Meeting of the Urhobo Executive Council, held on 2 November, 1944, paragraph 9.

42 Ibid

43 Ibid, Letter from Resident, Warri Province, to D. O., Ughelli, 17 November, 1944, at p 6 of the file.


44 Ibid, Minues of Urhobo Divisional Council, 2 June, 1945


45 Ibid, p. 37


46 Ibid, p. 36

47 Ibid, p. 36 (emphasis added by me)

48 Ibid, p. 37


49 Ibid, p. 37


50 Ibid, p. 67


51 Personal knowledge. I attended the “Isoko Section” of the St. Andrew’s Church on a number of occasions when I was on holidays from the University College, Ibadan


52 NAI, CSO 26/2 file 11857, Vol XVII, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1946

53  NAI, War Prof., File 115, Vol I, Urhobo Native Administration Reorganization.  The petition is at p. 161.


54 NAI, CSO 26/2 file 11857, Vol XVIII, Annual Report, Warri Province, 1949, p 16, paragraph 9.


55  Peter P. Ekeh, “Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Destiny and History” in Isaac O. James Mowoe (Editor), Leadership, Unity and the Future of the Urhobos, p 51.  The book in which Professor Ekeh has a chapter is a collection of lectures on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the death of Chief Mukoro Mowoe. The lectures were mimeographed and bound. It carries no date of “publication”, but the lectures were given in 1998.


56  See footnote at p. 51 of the book cited above, I am grateful to Prof. Ekeh for quoting my view in full in that footnote.

57 For details see Obaro Ikime, The Isoko People, Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, pp 46 – 48.

58 For details see Obaro Ikime, The Isoko People, Chapter 4, and Samuel Erivwo, A History of Christianity in Nigeria – The Urhobo, The Isoko and The Itsekiri, Ibadan, Daystar Press, 1979, Chapter 3.

59 NAI, War Prof. File 115, Vol I, Urhobo Native Administration Reogranization, p. 36, Minutes of Meeting of Select Committee, 1 July, 1944.

60 NAI, CIO 26/3, File 26767 Vol. 1, Reorganization of Warri Province, Attachment II at the end of the file.

This is, in fact, the main subject of the lecture I delivered in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the death of Chief Mukoro Mowoe.  It is published in the same book cited in footnote 49 above.