The destruction of Okere, an Urhobo area of of Warri, on June 4-7, 1999, probably marked the most dramatic emblem of insanity in the conflicts that engulfed the western Niger Delta in 1997-1999. This deadly conflict between two ethnic communities of Ijaw and Itsekiri, despite long-standing ties and friendships, was on this occasion extended to a third ethnic group, Urhobo, that had studiously stayed out of this mortal conflict. The debris and psychological scars left by the affairs of June 4-7, 1999, will remain with their victims on the ground at Warri.
Far away in North America, Nigerians hailing from the western Niger Delta were much troubled by these sad events that threatened to expand the dangers facing the peoples of the region. While there was dispute on who were the perpetuators of the violence of June 4-7, 1999, there was general concern about the welfare of the homelands of Nigerians who had sojourned from the western Niger Delta. It was on these grounds that Dr. Mobolaji Aluko of Howard University and Dr. Philip Ikomi of George Mason University convinced sceptical leaders of the various ethnic groups from the western Niger Delta living in North America that a Peace Summit in Washington, D.C., for representatives of those in conflict and of those who had so recently been attacked might be helpful.
The Peace Summit was held at Howard University on July 24, 1999, with considerable expectations of success. Negotiations of the agenda and expected communiqué had been intense. The three delegations of the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo appeared well prepared -- probably too well prepared. There was widespread interest in this novel Peace Summit. Indeed, a message from Chief Anthony Enahoro, the veteran Nigerian statesman, was delivered and read in the open session of the Peace Summit. Leaders of the three groups in Nigeria were interested. In at least one instance, as will be clear from the reports that follow, a Nigeria-based ethnic leadership seemed to be intensely involved in negotiations on the Summit's process and agenda.
We think that documents conveying the rush of these discussions should be preserved and presented to the public. Those involved in these exchanges are highly valued in their three different ethnic groups. The new magical medium of the internet allowed them to express sentiments that reflect the viewpoints of their ethnic groups in ample ways. The exchanges are public, with hundreds, possibly thousands, of internet users, sharing in the agonies of the Niger Delta. We have therefore selected the most significant documents on (a) discussions on Dr. Ikomi's and Dr. Aluko's invitation to a Peace Congress and (b) the rather sophisticated preparation for the Congress, including an agenda and guidelines that were worked out by correspondence among the Conveners and the three parties to the Summit.
Sadly, all the good wishes in the world could not overcome mutual suspicion. The Peace Summit collapsed on the insistence of the Itsekiri delegation to forbid any discussions of the contentious issue of the title of the Itsekiri king along with the ownership of the prized oil city of Warri. The Ijaw and Urhobo delegations rejected such a manouvre. The refusal of any of the delegations to change their position led to an unpleasant impasse. In the end, it was the parliamentary manouvre of a "motion to adjourn" by one of the delegations that ended a bad experience.
Exchanges of messages in the aftermath of the Peace Summit have not been very friendly. Disputes about the interpretation of what happened continues to dog that brave attempt, many months after the one-day Peace Summit was adjourned. Many of the exchanges have been bitter and are not particularly of any significance for the history of the western Niger Delta region. However, as some of the following selections from public e-mail exchanges will demonstrate, the discussions do touch on the two issues of the title of the Itsekiri King and the matter of the ownership of Warri City. They have historical significance. We have accordingly focused some attention on exchanges that will shed some light on the twin problems of the title of the Itsekiri king and the ownership of the prized city of Warri.
In addition to these exchanges, four separate reports have been issued on the Washington, DC, Summit on Warri. First, there was an Urhobo delegation's report that was issued when it appeared that the official Conveners were unlikely to issue their own report which was expected shortly after the Peace Summit. Second, there was a joint Ijaw-Urhobo communiqué issuing from a meeting that the two delegations held on the same day after the collapse of the one-day Summit deliberations among the three ethnic groups. Both of these reports were criticized by the Conveners and the Itsekiri delegation. Third, after much unexplained delay, the two Conveners published their own report. Fourth, the Itsekiri delegation issued its report, offering an interpretation of events at considerable variance from the viewpoints in the Urhobo and Ijaw reports. For the sake of fairness and for the sake of historical fullness, all four reports are presented here.
Finally, we have introduced some background documents that will shed some light on the views held by the Itsekiri, Ijaw, and Urhobo on the Warri crisis. The Itsekiri document was offered during the Summit and was the subject of the dispute that led to the Summit's failure. The Urhobo document is the text of a press conference by Chief Benjamin Okumagba on behalf of indigenous Urhobo in Warri. It explains the Urhobo position on the attack on his community on June 4-7, 1999, by the Itsekiri. Finally, there is an Ijaw document which was essentially a reply to the Itsekiri position denying that the Ijaw have any part in the ownership of Warri. These documents have not been selected at random. They were introduced in an initial report which Dr. Mobolaji Aluko, one of the Conveners of the Summit, had proposed. Dr. Aluko subsequently withdrew his proposal.
The documents in this package offer a rare picture of the ethnic intricacies of the western Niger Delta as presented by some of the most sophisticated spokespersons from the three ethnic groups of Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo. They offer the historian an inside look into the minds of these groups as they confronted one another. The point needs to be added that the focus of these documents is the tri-ethnic city of Warri. While this problem has obvious kinship with the larger crisis of the western Niger Delta, its genre leaves out the two other ethnic groups of the western Niger Delta. Neither the Isoko nor the Ukwuani participated in the Summit because they have not been directly involved in claims of ownership of Warri as the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo have been.
From the point of view of the comparative history of conflict resolution in Africa, these efforts are important and unique. They contrast sharply with the absence of similar efforts by the elites representing the contending parties in such other conflicts in Africa, such as Rwanda, Somalia, and the Sudan. They also contrast with such other Nigerian conflicts as those in Ife-Modakake among the Yoruba, Kafanchan among the Hausa, and numerous conflicts among the Igbo -- to cite cases from the three celebrated majority ethnic groups in Nigeria. While it is difficult to estimate the role this one-day Summit played in the final resolution of the conflict, it is safe to say that it helped to put pressure on the various factions to settle. The fact that Urhobo, the largest of the three ethnic groups in the western Niger Delta, was reluctant to enter into physical conflict may also have helped in persuading the smallest of the three, Itsekiri, as to how much danger it would expose thousands of its ethnic members who reside in Urhobo lands if the Urhobos were finally provoked into mortal conflict with the Itsekiri. There is little doubt that this exercise at conflict resolution is important not only for the local history of the western Niger Delta of Nigeria but for the larger comparative history of conflict resolution in Nigeria and Africa.
One final editorial note. Readers of these documents will see that those to whom I have referred as the "Ijaw" are variously called Ijaw, Ijo, Ezon, and Izon. The British corruption of Nigerian ethnic names has apparently markedly affected the bearers of these names. They all refer to the same people.
Peter P. Ekeh
September 27, 1999
Revised: October 22, 1999