Peter Ekeh

Date: Sun, 11 Jul 1999 18:33:37 -0400
From: "Peter P. Ekeh" <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>
To: "Nowamagbe Omoigui M.D." <nowa@RICHMED.MEDPARK.SC.EDU>
CC: edo-community <edo-community@egroups.com>, Naijanet <Naijanet@esosoft.com>,
naijanews <naijanews@egroups.com>, Ademola Iyi-Eweka <aiyiewek@facstaff.wisc.edu>

Dear Nowa:

Your masterful display of assorted cultural history of the Urhobo area and its relationships to Benin culture and history should be saluted by all those who share in this cultural ensemble that is well captured by the term Edoid. It is also a challenge to others to take far more seriously our domestic history and culture. In my years of scholarship, I have spent enormous time on Roman and Greek mythology, while ignoring our own domestic culture. I feel challenged by your knowledge of the history and culture of the Edoid peoples. I am also happy that you are steering the conversation away from imperial history, which bores me, moving it to cultural history, which I consider much more exciting.

There is an additional reason why these studies must be undertaken. It is to correct information in many of the data collected and published by expatriate personnel. They did well, very well indeed, in narrating their impressions. But some of them are mistaken or outdated. I will give two quick examples. The first is from my own Agbon sub-cultural unit of Urhobo. You give data (from Bradbury, possibly from P. C. Lloyd who contributed to that book) on "traditions of origin, migration, and ethnic mixing" on Agbon as follows: "mixed Urhobo, Itsekiri, and Benin elements." This will alarm Agbon, the largest of the Urhobo sub-cultural units, which nowadays vies for the position of being the most authentic Urhobo sub-culture. In the 1940s and 1950s when Bradbury and Lloyd collected these data, there was a substantial settlement of Itsekiri in Agbon towns on the River Ethiope: Okpara Waterside, Igun, and Eku. But the riverine trade on which they depended has since dwindled, forcing many of them to leave for Sapele, another Urhobo town. The Benin elements may well have been at Igun where there were recent Benin immigrants, and Ovu, which had a significant fraction of recent Benin immigrants (e.g., Dahosa family that has now remigrated in recent years back to Benin, thanks to my good friend Captain Patrick Dahosa). In fact, Agbon peoples have a very clear oral and ritual tradition of where they migrated from. They can demonstrate from town and even street names that they migrated from Isoko, first settling at Isiokoro (Anglicized: Isiokolo), before spreading out to Agbon's original constituent towns of Okpara, Uhwokori (which later developed several ties with Benin), Orhokpor, and Eku. Those of us from this area have a responsibility to correct any vital misinformation in publications by expatriate scholars.

There is another instance where I am suspicious of the information given by Bradbury. Enhwe and Igbide are Isoko sub-cultural units that are said to have been founded by "Igbos" -- in one instance "Igbos from Awka." Similarly, Evwreni and Arhavwarien are Urhobo sub-cultural units that are said to have Igbo origins. I am suspicious of these claims because of the intervening territory and cultural entity of Ukwuani which is fighting a claim that it was founded by immigrants from across the Niger. One version of their counter-claim is that they had been in these lands long before the Igbos and Urhobos arrived and that these immigrant groups squeezed them into their present culture and territory. Now, Bradbury would have concluded that the Ukwuani are Igbos. If they had a hand in the founding of these communities, Bradbury would most likely have concluded that their founders were Igbos. In any case, there is need for some work to clear up a great deal of these histories.


The really intriguing question is where the oldest migrant settlements were and when the immigrants first arrived there. This brings us to the Abraka/Avwraka hypothesis which Ademola Iyi-Eweka considered. It deserves to be explored. As Iyi-Eweka states it, the first batch of migrants landed in "Abraka" and turned southwards to the rest of Urhoboland. Now, Avwraka is an Urhobo border sub-cultural unit. It has boundaries with Ukwuani in the north; with another Urhobo sub-culture of Orogun in the east; and a second Urhobo sub-cultural unit of Agbon to its south. Then it shares its western boundaries with Benin! This hypothesis then suggests that those fleeing persecution settled so close to Benin where the agents of the Ogiso could so easily reach them. In any case neither Agbon nor Orogun claims its origins from this source.

Contrast the Abraka/Avwraka hypothesis with its rival, which is common in many Urhobo traditions. It is that the earliest migrant settlements are in Isoko which is at the furthest point from Benin. From this point of view, the farther away from Benin the older the migrant groups. That makes sense when you factor into this history that many of the pioneers who founded Isoko and Urhobo towns were fleeing from the agents of the Ogiso. Most of the internal migrations within Urhoboland have tended to be moving backwards toward River Ethiope. As a matter of fact, any study of Urhobo history and culture that belittles the huge contributions from Isoko will do so at its own peril. Many communities in Urhoboland retain cultural and ritual ties with Isoko towns which they regard as their points of primordial origin.


If there is one area where huge advances can be made, it is in the linguistic studies of Edoid culture. I remember being astounded at the closeness between Ishan and Urhobo when I stayed at Irrua in the late 1950s. As a matter of fact, I understand that the parallels between Okpe sub-cultural unit of Urhobo and Ishan with respect to animal-names and plant-names is astonishing -- which may well suggest proximity in periods of migration. My hunch is that animal and plant names vary less than political terms across the path of cultural migration.

A comparative study of these Edoid languages will be significant because linguistic variations are much less likely to occur within Benin than they are elsewhere in the Edoid cultures. One consequence of having a close-knit kingdom is the uniformity of language. Urhobo linguistic variations are legion, usually following patterns of migration history. However, in recent times a common Urhobo has emerged, with the least complicated Agbarho version having being adopted. Agbarho is also geographically the most central point in Urhobo.

There is an especial value in studying Urhobo and Isoko languages in the Edoid cultural ensemble. As the oldest migrant fragments of the Edoid cultural group, they will probably reveal information not available anywhere else. Ishan language is quite close to Benin. Urhobo is much more removed from Benin. Linguists should be able to tell us what these differences reveal with respect to the patterns of migrations, etc.


Your questions on the powers of the Obas in Urhoboland before the British arrived are important. I have no wish to rush into an answer or to give one that misrepresents the geopolitics of the times. But, first, to clear up some tedious terms: "Oro vwa akpo" means "he who owns the world." As a salutation, "Orovwa Akpo" would more metaphorically mean "Mighty One." Now, even ordinary chiefs in Urhoboland have been so greeted in public salutations. There would be no penalty for such flattery which is quite common. "Akpo r'Oba" has a more complicated meaning. Following colonialism, Urhobos divided historical times into two: Olden Times ("Akpo r' Aware") and Modern Times ("Akpo r' Oyibo"). Smaller eras may also be called "Akpo." Thus, military era would be called "Akpo r' Soja." If the influence of the Oba reached into day-to-day affairs of any sections of Urhoboland, the term "Akpo r'Oba" would be applicable. However, I doubt that such a situation existed.

What existed were remarkable cultural ties in royal institutions. Many kingships sought validation from their ties with the Oba of Benin. The Obas would have no role in the selection of an "Ovie" or "Orodje." But once he is selected and crowned, he would seek validation from Benin. Consider the following circumstances. The throne of Orodje of Okpe was vacant for quite a while due to unresolved disputes between claimants. Now, the Oba would not come in to pick a candidate. But when eventually, this dispute was resolved and an Orodje was crowned, he went to Benin for validation. Many of the royal institutions are patterned on Benin practices. Now, could an Oba insist on such validation? Ikime reports a case where the agents of the Oba burnt down the town of Ewu because its Ovie refused to come to Benin for such validation. The reaction was to ignore the Oba thenceforth. It is almost certain that the Oba had no enforceable powers in Urhoboland in the 19th century or even before then. You must understand that even in areas, even in modern times, where there is kingship in Urhoboland, there is always suspicion of the king's uses of authority. Urhobos are most unlikely to allow the Oba to exercise the powers he had elsewhere in the Benin Empire. Somehow the Obas appeared to have been satisfied with their influence. There is no history of enforcement of the sort of power Obas exercised in Benin's western Igbo province.

I recently read Don Ohadike's Anioma: A Social History of the Anioma People and Isidore Okpewho's Once Upon a Kingdom, both of which examined relationships between Benin and Western Igbo communities in the last several centuries before the British arrived. I was surprised how difficult these relationships were. There were several wars recorded, going back to Ubuluku War of 1750. Now, there are no such records of warfare between Benin and Urhobo communities. But Benin had very close cultural ties with the Urhobo communities that allowed strong relationships between their communities. The 19th century was a very difficult period for Urhobos, with the European trade not going their way. Benin was not faring very well in that period, either. It was most likely that Urhobos would turn to Benin for help against well-entrenched Itsekiri middlemen in the European trade. The absence of wars between their communities helped tremendously. For instance, Urhobos poured into Benin country very rapidly after 1897 because they understood the culture and there was an absence of previous war.


I am sure that the ordinary Urhobo does not know how many Ogisos reigned. It does not matter. But there is a composite picture of this king with whom you can argue. He has a very stubborn wife called Inarhe. Don't tell me that is not the correct history. It does not matter. That is the Urhobo imagery of the lands they left centuries ago. He was a king you can argue with. His troublesome wife always argued with him. He could be very punitive. Indeed, some people regard him as wicked. If some big man offends you, you can allege that he behaves like Ogiso. Is the Ogiso dead? No! He will always be there for Urhobo folk tales. They get excited when it comes to the portion when Inarhe challenges the Ogiso.

Understanding the Urhobo fascination with Ogiso tells you something about the Urhobo fraction of Edoid culture. They do not want an overwhelming monarchy. They want one they can escape from -- as they did during Ogiso's times. You will expect that having escaped from his grip, they will forget him. But they don't and they won't. More fascinating, they understand him much more than they understand the Obas. The Obas are treated with greater awe -- as magical personalities. Ogiso is our man -- our king! He is much better respected in Urhobo folklore than in Benin folk tales where he is treated shabbily. The Binis have the same high reverence for the Obas as the English have for the triumphant Tudors. The Binis have the same amount of cheek for the failed Ogisos as the English have for the weak Stuarts. I am sure if anyone were pursuing the shades of an Ogiso, he knows where to run to: Urhoboland. Urhobos will give him quarters, even a feast.

This is not just romantic stuff. Urhobos are an ancient strain of Edoid culture. As you, Nowa, so happily showed, they left the lands of the Ogisos before the words "Edo" and "Benin" were invented. If an Ogiso were to return from his Great Beyond and you addressed him, "You Edo man," he would probably turn to an Urhobo companion to complain: "What are they saying to me now?" Yes, he would need an Urhobo interpreter. Because we are an ancient breed of Edoid culture. The Ogiso, our Ogiso, can trust an Urhobo man. That is why Urhobos count in the panorama of Edoid culture.

I just added this last section to tease Ademola Iyi-Eweka a little. I hope it makes him laugh.

Cheers, Nowa, for your wonderful services for the advancement of the understanding of Edoid culture.



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