|Urhobo Historical Society
By Reverend Professor Obaro Ikime, Ph.D.
Formerly, Head of Department of History and Dean, Faculty of Arts
Address delivered at the Sixth Annual Conference of
Urhobo Historical Society, on Saturday, 22 October, 2005, at Petroleum
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.
writes history, whether he be a trained historian or an amateur, needs
himself/herself what is the purpose of history. In my Inaugural
delivered as far back as 1979 at the
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
I had the privilege of seeing the chapter before publication, I drew
attention to the fact that he had fully accepted the British view of
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
However, in the book Warri
City and British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta,
in 2004 and re-printed in 2005, Ekeh maintains the same position as he
is not that Professor Ekeh’s position is baseless. Not at all. It is in
based on documents created by Vice-Consul Gallwey and Acting
Ralph Moor. These servants of the British empire had to create the kind
documents that would make the Foreign Office in
all the writings – and there has been quite some writing – about
relations in the last five years, I have been struck by the fact that
sides there has been tremendous respect for the British records. I
whether those concerned have ever stopped to ask how the word
“Protectorate” was translated into Itsekiri or Urhobo and who did the
translation! One of those who signed as witness in the treaties made in
“Warri District” was a Saro called Alder after whom Alder’s Town in
named. How did this Saro translate English into Urhobo or Itsekiri?
the understanding of our peoples of the treaties they signed? Treaties
how do we know that what we read in the various British records are
In the 1961/62 session, as part of my Ph.D. work, I visited virtually
polity in Urhoboland and sat with the elders who talked to me about
history. Some of what they told me was in sharp contrast with what I
in the British records. In 1963 while in
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.
we speak of the Hausa as an ethnic nationality within the Nigerian
state. But the history of Hausaland from the 16th to the 18th
century reveals constant struggles for supremacy between the various
states – Kano, Zazzau, Zamfara, Kebi, etc.11 A
common language did not result in a union of all of the Hausa states.
state had its separate identity and its interests. The same was true
Yorubaland. The Yoruba wars of the 19th century were not
They were inter-state wars, fought to protect or extend the interests
various Yoruba-speaking states.12 Here too, as indeed
elsewhere in the country, a common language did not
in a single state, embracing all the Yoruba-speaking people. Can we, in
light of this reality, speak, for example, of Yoruba-Hausa relations in
century? Which Hausa state? Which Yoruba state? What is the point of
discourse? This, that today we speak of our various ethnic groups or
nationalities as single entities – Yoruba, Efik, Tivi, Angas, Igbo,
Hausa, Isoko, Idzon, etc. These nationalities only began to make sense
colonial state of
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
there is any aspect of the history of the various peoples of
to Professor Onigu Otite, the eponymous ancestor of the Agbon was
He goes on: “He was believed to be a son of Ukonurhoro, an Urhobo
Udo…. Agbon had a long migratory history through Kwale, settling at one
Enhwe and Erhivwi (Irri) in Isoko Division from where he moved to a
called Utokori, near Ughweru, then to Olomu, and finally, through the
Ughelle territory of Ighwreko and Ekiugbo to found the town of Agbon
does Otite mean by “an Urhobo migrant from Udo?” That Agbon’s father
already Urhobo before he left Udo, which I understand to mean
for Uvwie, Otite states that Uvwie lived at
is again Otite who writes about what we know today as the Okpe kingdom.
indicates that there are two stages in the evolution of Okpe. The first
do with traditions that there was a man called Uhobo who fathered those
became known as Okpe and who lived in
Y. Nabofa’s account of Olomu indicates that the Isoko polity of Olomoro
founded by persons from Oto-Orere-Olomu. I make the same point in myThe Isoko People. The Isoko town of
virtually all of the traditions of origin there is some reference to
us now go back to the question I raised earlier whether we can deduce
about Urhobo-Isoko relations from the traditions of origin. In 1976
P. A. Igbafe, a fellow historian, delivered a lecture in which he said:
as an entity, the Bendel State is a microcosm of the whole country – a
miniature Nigeria in the heterogeneity of its peoples, the plurality of
languages and the diversity of resources. Yet there abounds in the
marked homogeneity in cultural traditions rooted
in a common ancestry"22 (my emphasis). This
lecture provoked a rejoinder from a group at the
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
details of the establishment and working of British rule in Isokoland
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,
there is the need to provide the administrative framework established
British. When the Niger Coast Protectorate was established in 1891,
Vice-Consulates were established in
The Native Court System: As the British pushed into the Urhobo and
from the coast, so they began to establish agencies for local
In the yeas from 1900-1930, it was the native courts established by the
that constituted these agencies of local administration. Details of the
The Lugardian System: The amalgamation of 1914 brought with it
changes. As already indicated, the entire colonial state was divided
and the coming of the Lugardian system are sometimes presented as
brought about radical innovations in the functioning of local
fact there are those who would argue that Lugard introduced “Native
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.
other aspects of the Lugardian system must receive our attention if we
understand what led to the tensions that developed in Urhobo-Isoko
the years 1932- c. 1952. Lugard was enamoured of the emirate type of
Dogho’s arbitrary paramountcy would not have been so odious if Lugard
at the same time, establish a Native Court of Appeal for
The Anti-Tax Riots of 1927-28 and the
Emergence of the “Sobo Division”:
all the paper work that preceded this reorganization, despite the
letting Native Administration follow traditional practice, the
Division and the Sobo Division were deviations from the enunciated
indicated above. The Jekri-Sobo Division was made up of the Itsekiri
Urhobo polities-Udu, Okpe, Oghara, Uvwie and Agbon. Each of this
its local administration based on its traditional system, just as the
theirs. But at Divisional level, these Urhobo polities and the Itsekiri
have a common Native Administration and a common Treasury. The Resident
that the Itsekiri and these Urhobo groups were so socially mixed
marriage and other contacts that they could be expected in the not
future to fuse into one ethnic group!! It was strange reasoning. From
beginning, the Urhobo in the Jekri-Sobo Division protested against this
arrangement, and they kept protesting until 1 April, 1938 when two
Native Administrations – Western Urhobo Native Administration with
in Orerokpe, and an Itsekiri Native Administration with Warri as
were established. For no really satisfactory reason, the British
“Jekri-Sobo Division” even in 1938, though the two ethnic groups in it
granted separate Native Administrations. Let the point be made here
Urhobo groups not in the Jekri-Sobo Division supported their brothers
protests against inclusion in the Jekri-Sobo Division.
tax riots that erupted in
we go on now to examine Isoko-Urhobo relations, we will discover that
British knew very little about the Isoko people. As I said earlier, in
years 1900-1926 the Isoko were very distant from Warri, the seat of the
government in what became
my study of inter-group relations it has become quite clear to me that
advantaged group(s) can never enter into the feelings of the
it was as between the Urhobo and Isoko in the years 1932 – 1952. In the
Annual Report on
in the Sobo Division (later Urhobo Division) fall into three phases.
phase covered the years 1932-1939; the second 1940-1949, and the third
independence. The first phase did not, it would appear, result in much
acrimony. Perhaps this was because the twelve Isoko polities (i.e. all
Isokoland) and the ten Urhobo polities were savouring the new
so, however, these years laid the foundation for the Urhobo attitude
to the fore in the 1940s. The Central Executive Council that
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
any business at Divisional headquarters had to travel to Ughelli. This
I mean when I argue, as I have done in a number of fora, that colonial
created new inequalities among the peoples of
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.
20 December, 1940, the Resident,
a meeting on 2 June, 1945, the Isoko delegates again asked for a change
name of the Division. The records tell us that the reason they gave for
change of name was that “they felt that their name was dying off by the
name."44 The Urhobo delegates
opposed a change. Because it was clear that the
could not come to an agreement, the Council decided that the Chief
of the Western Provinces should be asked to take a decision. It was
what went on at this meeting that led to the setting up of a “Select
of the Council to deliberate further on the matter and make
The Committee met on 1 July, 1944, and 12 January, 1945. The Urhobo
were Ovie Arumu, Duku, Obodo, Revd. Agori Iwe, Chief Ugen, and
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.
was no doubt the insults heaped on the Isoko by the Urhobo that led the
Union to call a mass meeting of the Isoko for October 1945. Permit me
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.
me a little digression. The President General of the Isoko Union at the
the petition quoted above was Mr. S.O. Efeturi. Mr. Efeturi was
priest in the Anglican Communion, after training at St. Michael’s
Awka, in 1946. Revd. Efuturi, as he then became, served as the Vicar,
Andrew’s (Anglican) Church, Warri, in the late 1950s. Before he was
Warri, there existed an “Urhobo-Itsekiri Section” of the church which
worship in the church building in the afternoon on Sunday. During Rev.
Efeturi’s tenure as Vicar, he established an “Isoko Section” in St.
Church. Because no time could be found for this new section to worship
church building, it used to meet in one of the classrooms of
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.
issue of the name remained a sore point at the meetings of the Council.
debates were always acrimonious, and the District Officer was inclined
prohibit further debate. In 1946 he thought the Resident should impose
settlement. Wrote he, “The Isoko desire is undoubtedly earnest”. He
that the idea of eventual separation had already surfaced. “It would
not, in my
opinion, be altogether advisable to reject the Isoko request merely
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
dialect, was so related to the Urhobo that there was no basis for a
name! This was a strange argument for persons who were British. Despite
fact that the Scots and the English speak a language that is called
the Scots remain Scots and the English English. When we refer to the
we use the word British – not English, not Scots. Let us also recall
Elugbe thesis about
September 1949 all of the Isoko polities again met over this issue and
and another petition to the Chief Commissioner, Western Provinces. This
petition insisted that the Urhobo and Isoko are different peoples and
therefore the name of the Division as it was was “indefensible”. The
drew the attention of the Chief Commissioner to the fact that
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.
events of 1950,
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
Agori Iwes and Ugens. My limited
experience is that in the inevitable competition for office and
the political, professional and business elite in the wider context of
The creation of
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
was known as the Niger Mission with
In his Assessment Report on
Olomu Clan, S. E. Johnson, commenting
Let us, as we close, remind
ourselves of some of the points made
in the Preamble that should now make more sense “Historical
created all the basic human groupings – countries, religions, classes –
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,
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
“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.
What’s in a name? Although never
before today have I addressed Urhobo-Isoko relations in as much detail
done in this address, I have had cause to draw attention to the issue
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
past. I have asked: why call a local
government with Koko as headquarters Warri North? Why, is a local
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
government area were vassals of Ughelli? Take another example – Warri
West Local Government. Given a ruler
with the title Olu of Warri; given the fact that in the Warri South
Government are Ijo who do not accept the suzerainty of the Olu of
not a neutral name have been found for that local government? Just as
a person bears is his identity, so in some degree is the name we give
administrative units. It was because the
name of the Division created in 1932 was Sobo (later Urhobo) Division
Isoko who were part of that Division were regarded by the Urhobo
that age as Urhobo, with the attendant tensions that that name
us therefore avoid the pitfalls of the past, as we take decisions
today; as we
plan for the future.
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.
27th Sept. 1949
The Chief Commissioner Western Provinces,
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.
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
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.
1 Daniels, Robert V., Studying History: How and Why (2nd Edition)
2 Ikime, Obaro, Through Changing Scenes: Nigerian History Yesterday and Tomorrow, University of Ibadan Inaugural Lecture, University of Ibadan Press, 1979, p. 10.
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,
York, Urhobo Historical Society, 2005, pp. 20 and 22.
Prince of the
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
J. F. Ade and Smith, Robert. Yoruba Warfare in the 19th
13 See Intelligence
Reports on the named
14 Ikime, Obaro, In
Search of Nigerians: Changing Patterns of Inter-Group Relations in an
Nation State, President Inaugural Lecture delivered at the 30th
Congress of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 01 May, 1985, published
16 Onigu Otite,
“Agbon” in Onigu Otite (Editor), The
Urhobo People, (Second Edition), Ibadan, Shaneson C. I. Ltd., p.
Otite, “Uvwie” in op.
cit, pp. 189-193.
“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.
22 Igbafe, P. A. “Bendel State History, People and Resources” a lecture published in Nigerian Observer, August 28-31, 1976.
Rejoinder was allegedly sent to the Nigerian Observer,
but never published. Some of us got
copies of the rejoinder.
Obaro, “The Historian and Politics: The
Situation,” Lecture delivered to
25 See, for example, Ikime,
27 Ikime, Obaro, In
Search of Nigerians…, pp. 16-20
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
31 For details see
32 See Footnote 24 above
33 National Archives Ibadan (hereafter NAI), CSO
11857 Vol X, Annual Report, Warri Province 1932, p. 42, paragraph 85.
34 Same file as
in footnote 27, Annual Report,
35 Same file as in Footnote 27, Annual Report,
38 See Footnote
27, Annual Report,
39 NAI, CSO 26/2, File 11857, Vol. XVII, Annual Report,
War Prof., File 115, Vol I, Urhobo
Administration Reorganization, Resident’s address to a meeting held
December, 1940, p 1.
Meeting of the Urhobo Executive
Council, held on 2
November, 1944, paragraph 9.
43 Ibid, Letter from Resident,
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
knowledge. I attended the “Isoko Section” of the St. Andrew’s Church on
number of occasions when I was on holidays from the
52 NAI, CSO 26/2
file 11857, Vol XVII, Annual Report,
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,
P. Ekeh, “Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo
Destiny and History”
in Isaac O. James Mowoe (Editor), Leadership, Unity and the Future
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
were given in 1998.
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,
58 For details see Obaro Ikime, The Isoko People, Chapter 4, and Samuel Erivwo, A History of Christianity in
59 NAI, War Prof. File 115, Vol I, Urhobo Native Administration Reogranization, p. 36, Minutes of Meeting of Select Committee, 1 July, 1944.
61 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.