RATIONALE AND PROPOSALS FOR INAUGURATION:
If you do not write your people's history, others will. If they do,
you may not recognize it. If you do, you may not like it.
URHOBOS AND URHOBOID SCHOLARS
UNITED STATES AND CANADA
Dear Fellow Urhobos:
The months of June and July, 1999, have been momentous ones for Urhobos. But most of us will not recognize it. It is in these months when the new communications technology of the internet and cyberspace was boldly featured in the crisis in the Western Niger Delta in a manner that directly affected us as a people. It is a privileged medium in which many Urhobos do not seem to be heavily involved, as other groups of Nigerians are. Most of us therefore appeared to be fully oblivious of the damage that was being done to the image of our people in this critical campaign against us.
On June 4, 1999, there broke out a local fight between Urhobo and Itsekiri youths in Okere, Warri. It was immediately flashed, in the evening of that memorable day, in the influential and instantaneous medium of cyberspace as a joint operation between Ijaws and Urhobos in an effort to wipe out the Itsekiri. The Itsekiri Survival Movement, which had just made its first public appearances a few days earlier, directly accused Urhobos of engaging in "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" - two deadly and unforgivable sins of our international age. Days later, naijanews and Edo-community e-group communications networks accepted this view point. By June 6, 1999, there were sensational conjectures of atrocities, based on fantasy, that completely besmirched the image of Urhobos as those engaging in the internationally outlawed and immoral behaviors of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide."
I did try to slow the momentum of these accusations by querying the claims of the Itsekiri Survival Movement in its well-financed and heavy-handed campaigns in the internet and cyberspace. Luckily for us, the Humans Rights Community was also sceptical of these claims, in large measure because its members are suspicious of the campaigners' ties with the international oil companies.
As the dust cleared, and as authentic reports came from Warri and the Delta, the facts were established that it was Urhobos who were attached in an apparent organized campaign to draw Urhobos into the fight in the Delta in order to justify the central point of the Itsekiri establishment that they are surrounded by enemies. But users of the internet and cyberspace rarely look back to assess the fairness of reports. Unless we took the trouble to point out how unfairly we have been portrayed, the negative image of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" was bound to stick with Urhobo. Besides, in its campaigns, the Itsekiri Survival Movement and its parent body, Ugbajo Itsekiri, had falsified the history of Warri and the Delta region in ways that negatively affected our interests as a people. As matters turned out, other acts of misrepresentation of Urhobo history and culture from other sources occurred in the same period.
It was on these grounds that I organized a counter-attack against these serious charges and falsification of Urhobo history and culture. I sought help from fellow Urhobos. I was surprised to discover that we had no organizations that were equipped - as the Binis, Yorubas, Igbos and Itsekiri are - to wage a campaign in the internet. But I was delighted that individual Urhobos joined me in what turned out to be an effective response to misrepresentation of Urhobo history and culture as well as defence against misstatements of history and culture of the Delta. We did so purely on defensive grounds, making sure that we did not attack the integrity of our ethnic neighbors. We were especially careful to make sure that the ordinary Itsekiri were fairly portrayed. In our opinion, they are in fact the worst victims of acts of misbehavior of the Itsekiri aristocracy that has been the scourge of the whole western Delta region for centuries.
In the course of our work in preparing responses to various attacks on Urhobos and our interests, two facts became clear. First, there is important need for all of us to be involved in the studying and writing of Urhobo history. Urhobo history and culture are underdeveloped in written sources. Where they appear, outsiders have interpreted such history unfairly to suit their purposes. But we were also pleasantly surprised to discover that dedicated Urhobos have paid attention to these matters in the past. However, their efforts have not been well preserved. For instance, Dan Obiomah's Warri Overlordship: Fact, Fiction, and Imperialism (Ometan vs Dore Numa) is a crucial history of Warri. It invalidates the central claims of the Itsekiri establishment that they have feudal rights over Warri City. But it was printed by GKS in Warri and has not been given any publicity. We are persuaded that we need an organization that will pursue our interests in the researching, writing, studying, and propagation of Urhobo history.
Second, we who worked in the last two months in these efforts to protect Urhobo interests discovered anew the value of working together. Sadly, many Urhobo organizations are troubled by petty squabbles over who should sign documents or hold offices or who should claim credit for some work done. What our effective responses in the last two months show is that when Urhobos are challenged, they are willing to put aside their personal egos and sacrifice for our common good. All those who worked to correct the abuse and misrepresentation of Urhobo history in the last two months have done so selflessly and at great individual sacrifice, financially and otherwise.
RESPONSES TO ATTACKS ON URHOBOS AND TO MISREPRESENTATION OF OUR HISTORY
I will now give a brief account of these responses. I do so to honor those who have participated in them, even when their names do not appear in the resulting documents. But I also present these responses to show how very badly we need to organize our affairs in this new information age of cyberspace. It is not an age where you wait for a week-end meeting before you respond to critical issues. Sometimes, all the space you have for an effective response is a matter of hours. Archival history, history stored in archives, becomes crucial.
(1) Itsekiri Survival Movement's Allegation of Urhobo Attack on Itsekiri. This allegation, first made on June 4, 1999, was dangerous and required immediate response. The Urhobo National Forum permitted its Director of Research and Publication, Mr. Andrew Edevbie, to work with me to state the historical facts of the relations between Urhobos and Itsekiri and to show why allegations of Urhobo attacks on Itsekiri are not only unlikely but irresponsible. I want to publicly thank Andrew Edevbie especially for the amount of time and resources he expended as we worked on the revision of my original draft of this document. He signed it on behalf of the Urhobo National Forum. I am pleased to report that Urhobo Social Club, Lagos, published this statement as a paid advertisement in Lagos Guardian. It was also very well received in the Urhobo community in the United Kingdom and Europe.
(2) Ugbajo Itsekiri's Letter to the U. S. Department of State. In the same week of May 31 to June 4, 1999, in which these false allegations were made against Urhobos, Ugbajo Itsekiri, an aristocratic club of the Itsekiri in the United States, released in the internet and cyberspace the text of a letter it had presented at a "Meeting at the State Department," inviting the United States to intervene in the crisis in the western Niger Delta. Its account of the crisis completely misrepresented the status of Warri. There were other areas in which our interests were affected in that letter. We had to reply. A team of three dedicated Urhobo scholars and activists worked on an extended revision of a draft document that I presented to them. I want to thank all of them: Dr. Igho Natufe (Ottawa, Canada); Professor Joseph Inikori (University of Rochester, New York); and Mr. Andrew Edevbie (Detroit). We took advantage of the internet to work and produce this nine-page single-spaced document. I also wish to thank Urhobo National Forum whose officers graciously signed and sent the document as the Urhobo response to the State Department. I am pleased to report that its historical ambiance found favor with our leaders at home and our fellow Urhobo expatriates in London, England. They have conveyed their gratitude for the fact that we were able to detect the Ugbajo Itsekiri's letter in the internet and that we were able to offer an effective response on behalf of Urhobos.
(3) Discussion of the Delta State Capital at Asaba and Ministerial Portfolio for Delta State As you probably know by now, Delta State was shabbily treated to a junior Ministerial position in the Obasanjo Cabinet. Professor Obaro Ikime had protested the allocation of Delta State's portfolio to someone outside the "hardcore Delta" area. This drew a criticism from Mr. Cyril Gwam, well known in the internet world for his activities on behalf of Asaba. I thought Gwan's reply was not only unduly harsh on Ikime, but also touched on our common interests. I replied, citing the history of the region. He replied, quite politely, thus helping to resolve this debate amicably. Again, I want to thank the same team of fellow Urhobos for helping me with facts and points of revision.
(4) A Debate on Urhobo History with Prince Ademola Iyi-Eweka. Three weeks ago, the internet world of Nigerian discourse was alive on a debate on the nature of Benin relationships with Urhobos. Prince Eweka has been telling the history of Benin and the conquests of the Obas. I thought he misrepresented the Urhobo portion of this. This was particularly the case with his claim that ABRAKA derived its name in honor of the Oba of Benin whom Urhobo call OBARAKA, Abraka being the first point of Urhobo escape from Benin. I thought I should correct these points of misrepresentation, including the notion that Urhobo was ruled by the Obas. Eventually, Prince Eweka and I took off the debate from the air, without much acrimony. But the lesson of this debate will remain with me for long.
(5) Omo Omoruyi's Campaign for EDOWA State. Lastly, in the third week of July, 1999, Professor Omo Omoruyi revived a plot that he claimed to have hatched in 1991 with Babagida and the Itsekiri king to transfer the Itsekiri, along with the city of Warri, to Edo state, which would then be renamed EDOWA state. He says that this was necessary because of "ethnic cleansing" against the Itsekiri in 1991 and now. My reply has challenged his claims, especially the assertion that there was ethnic cleansing in 1991. Again, I want to thank our colleagues, particularly Dr. Igho Natufe, for their help in crafting my reply.
For any readers of this newsletter who are interested in receiving any of these documents through the internet, please contact me, Peter Ekeh, at email@example.com.
WASHINGTON, D.C., "PEACE SUMMIT" ON THE NIGER DELTA CRISIS (July 24, 1999)
Following the publication of our reply to the Ugbajo Itsekiri's letter to the U.S. Department of State, we were contacted by Dr. Bolaji Aluko of Howard University and Dr. Philip Ikomi of George Mason University to explore a "Peace Summit" on what was characterized as "Itsekiri, Ijaw, and Urhobo at War in the Niger Delta." We were reluctant to appear as combatants in a conflict which Urhobos have avoided at great costs. We particularly objected to the notion that we were at war with anybody; we are not. After protracted negotiations of details, including the agenda items and prior arrangements for a joint communique, we agreed to attend.
The "Peace Summit" involving the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo was held at Howard University, Washington, D.C., on Saturday, July 24, 1999. The Urhobo delegation was formidable. It was led by Dr. Igho Natufe, formerly of the University of Benin and now a higher Public Servant in the Canadian Government, Ottawa. It had three other members as follows: Dr. Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, who acted as the Delegation's secretary, is an audiologist in New York City and an activist in several Urhobo affairs; Princess Elizabeth Ogbon, Nigerian Ambassador to Germany and the Philippines during the Shagari years is a human rights organizer who is currently resident in Maryland; and Mr. Andrew Edevbie, a Chemical Engineer, is a well-known pro-democracy activist resident in Detroit. In preparation for this "Peace Summit," the Urhobo delegation worked with several individuals who were not in the official delegation. In addition, we had received important documents from the U.P.U. in London and the Urhobo Social Club in Lagos. We were confident that the Urhobo delegation was quite ready for its responsibilities.
As matters turned out, the Peace Summit was disrupted by the last-minute insistence of the Itsekiri delegation that two topics could not be on the agenda of the meeting and therefore could not be discussed. These were (a) the title of the Itsekiri king as the Olu of Warri and (b) ownership of Warri City. The Peace Summit was told that this strange insistence by the Itsekiri delegation was in obedience to a strict instruction from the Itsekiri establishment. While we regret that the Itsekiri establishment disrupted a meeting for which we had worked so hard, we do now know that the Itsekiri aristocracy appears vulnerable and nervous on these issues.
For any readers who are interested in receiving through the internet the Urhobo Delegation's Opening Address and other documents on the Peace Summit, please contact Dr. Igho Natufe at .inatufe@NRCan.gc.ca or Dr. Aruegodore Oyiborhoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHY WE NEED URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The narration of the above activities attests to the need for all of us to understand our history. Our history is not only being contested by others. It is being re-written by many to suit their interests. Those who do so are not academic historians, with Ph.D.s in History. No, they are ordinary educated people who have developed a great deal of interest in their culture and history and then trespass on our territory. To protect our culture, we must learn to write our own history - the history of our towns and villages; the biographies of our heroes at all levels; and the history of our culture. We must do more. We must teach our culture to the young ones, particularly those who are growing up in foreign lands outside the benefits of the imperatives of everyday culture that many of us profited from as we grew up in Urhoboland. In short, we must start a new movement. This is an invitation to you to be part of that movement.
Of the various impediments that we all faced in the last two months in our efforts to protect Urhobo interests, the most excruciating to me was the attempt by a Benin Prince to treat us as part of the Oba's kingdom. A Short History of Benin by Jacob Egharevba was a Palace History Project. It has been very successful. It was the history of Benin royalty. Now, they want to extend it to the Benin Kingdom. They say we are part of that kingdom. They want to reduce our history to our supposed relations with the Obas. So ABRAKA's name is now associated with OBARAKA, the King of Benin -- in celebration of the route we are supposed to have taken in our migration from Benin, the Oba's realm. It is of course silly. But if it is written down and accepted, it is your history. For those of my age group, it all recalls to my mind the painful name we were given: SOBO. We said it was not our name, that we were Urhobo. But we were told we were SOBOS. It took years to overcome that simple problem. Shouldn't we say, "Never again?"
I happen to know that the drive to write Edo history is an aggressive one. It will be written whether we like it or not. We will be part of it. When it is published, then we can protest. But can't we be proactive - to use a fanciful American term? Why can't we write our own history? I must tell you that I fully admire those who aspire to write this history of the Edos. But I do not want to see our ancestors disfigured because we are too lazy to promote and write our own history
But that is only one corner of our problem. Andrew Edevbie, a Chemical Engineer, has spent many, many telephone hours -- night after night -- urging me that we need a history of Warri. He has just received a book edited by Justice Atake telling that history of Warri from a group of elite Itsekiri who say they own that city and its people. If that book finds its way into libraries in America and Europe, then it is the history of Warri. Why can't we produce a truthful history of Warri if, as Andrew says, Atake's book is a patchwork of propaganda?
But our problem is larger than the Benin Obas and Itsekiri aristocracy. We need to understand ourselves. When I was a pupil at Catholic Elementary School, Okpara Inland, many, many years ago, we learnt beautiful history about Agbon and the founders of Okpara Inland and Okpara Waterside. Where is that beautiful history published? Nowhere. My grandmother knew Enukanure, the wife of Ubiesha who founded Igbe. There is a PhD dissertation on that religion from the Department of Religion at the University of Ibadan by Dr. Nabofa, an esteemed Urhobo scholar. It was never published, at least up to 1988 when I left Ibadan. If it had been written on a Yoruba religious movement of that significance, it would have been published a long time ago. Every town and every village deserves to have its own history.
Or take the achievements of Urhobos everywhere. Remember those brave ones who risked their lives to go to "Ukale" and Oshogbo in the 1920s and 1930s? They are heroes. If they cannot be celebrated singly, they should be celebrated together. It is amazing that we all sang about Mukoro Mowoe but did nothing to reduce our recollections of this great man to historical accounts -- except for Ikime's foresight. But Mowoe is not alone. Mr. S. S. Obruche, a chieftain in London UPU, recently sent me a copy of a Certificate of UPU's incorporation. I see the name Udih as one of the trustees. My elder brother used to talk of this generous man in Benin City. Where is his history? Who has written about M. Ejaife and G. Igho, the first two Urhobo graduates? Who has written about G. M. Urhobo and GKS? Michael Ibru, Justice Irikefe, Rex Akpofure (first Nigerian principal of King's College): do these people not need to be celebrated? Or to return to the religious field: What will Urhobos and the Christian world remember of the pioneering works of Father Stephen Umurie, Urhobo's first Catholic priest or Reverend Aganbi of Eku Baptist establishment? It all depends on our efforts. Academics preserve the history of such men by way of biographies. We can do it if we advert our mind to it.
There are local heroes in our towns and villages that we need not allow to perish from memory. I remember my youth in the fifties in Okpara and Uhwokori and how these great people were immense in my eyes. Oh, I have now read of great people - so these great men and women of my youth look small now. But those great people in England and France and Northern Nigeria who have replaced my boyhood giants were made to look so powerful because their people wrote about them.
There are wonderful historical accounts lying fallow in many towns and villages. We have the means to harvest them. Now the technology for it is with us -- if we organize our affairs well. We can publish books on the internet, if necessary. So, I beg you all, let us do something. We all can become historians. If you can narrate the story of your town and reduce it to some publication -- you are on your way to the profession.
That is a long exhortation. Now what can we do?
1. I propose that we begin the premier chapter of URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY in North America. I propose that we take opportunity of the Second Annual Mukoro Mowoe Lecture in New York City on Saturday, August 28, 1999, to inaugurate this chapter. Membership will be open to all persons, Urhobos and others, who wish to study and write Urhobo history. I propose that we incorporate this North American chapter of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
2. I propose that once inaugurated, this premier chapter of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY should endeavor to persuade our counterparts in England and Europe to open another chapter along the same lines as the North American branch.
3. I propose that the premier chapter in North America should persuade our compatriots in Lagos to begin a branch of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY in Lagos along the lines of membership and operation in the chapters in North America and Europe. Hopefully, publication guidelines for the products of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY would have been worked out in North America and Europe. Its publication medium will be based on cyberspace publications from which hard copies may also be produced.
4. I propose that the Lagos Chapter will have the responsibility of inaugurating chapters of URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY in Urhobo Towns. Publications emerging from them will be published for their benefit in the internet by the North American chapter of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
5. I propose that part of the Constitution of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY should feature Annual Conventions that celebrate Urhobo culture and history in various locations in Nigeria and in the Urhobo diaspora.
6. I propose that the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY should pay special attention to the education of Urhobo youth in Urhobo history and culture. In a complex world in which most of our privileged youth are being educated outside Urhoboland, many of our youth may be deficient in Urhobo language and culture. It will be sheer suicide to alienate these youth. We must adjust our ways of culture to accommodate them.
7. I propose that URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY shall be independent of any existing organizations. The main reason for this preference is that when fully formed URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY will be a chain of chapters at home in the Urhobo heartland and in the Urhobo diaspora. Therefore, it is unwise to tie down its operations to the circumstances of any organizations in one area.
These are my general proposals. They are grand. They will involve a lot of work. But as Americans say, they are doable. I intend to issue another newsletter that will spell out the details of the inauguration plan on Saturday, August 28, 1999, at the LaGuardia Marriot Hotel, Queens, New York City, immediately following this year's Annual Mukoro Mowoe Lecture.
WHAT YOU CAN AND SHOULD DO
1. Please circulate this newsletter to all Urhobos whom you know: men, women, and youth. You are free to photocopy this newsletter for further circulation.
2. Discuss this proposal with friends and family alike. If you have any concerns or comments that you wish to share on them, feel free to contact any of those listed below.
3. One endearing memory I have of these last two months is how fellow Urhobos I knew little of before now have sprung forth to help in our joint efforts to serve Urhobo interests. There are probably hundreds of such people all around North America. If you can play a leadership role in this proposed movement, please identify yourself. There will be a lot of sacrifice. We must imitate Mukoro Mowoe's ways and sacrifice for the future good of Mother Urhobo.
4. Make every effort to attend the inauguration ceremony of the premier chapter of URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY on Saturday, August 28, 1999, at the LaGuardia Marriot Hotel, Queens, New York City, immediately following this year's Annual Mukoro Mowoe Lecture at the same venue. It will be a family affair. Come with the family. Let it be an experience for young people. I realize that this is a short notice. In any case, encourage someone to represent your interest in this venture.
5. When fully operational, it is envisaged that the affairs of the North American chapter of URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY will be transacted mostly in the internet and cyberspace. There will be very little post office transactions. This requires familiarity with computers. If you do not already have a computer in your home, try your best to acquire one along with internet facilities in the near future. If you have children ten years or older and you do not have a computer, then you are already depriving them of the means to adequate modern education. Computers are the way of the future. Other groups of Nigerians are already proficient in the use of the internet. We must not be left behind.
For more information on these matters and on the evolving arrangements for the inauguration of the URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY on Saturday, August 28, 1999, in New York City, please contact any of the following:
1. Professor Peter P. Ekeh
Department of African American Studies
State University of New York
Buffalo, New York 14260
Phone: (716) 691-6153 (Home)
(716) 645-2082 Ext. 1128 (Office)
Fax: (716) 645-5976
2. Dr. Igho Natufe
5 Foxleigh Crescent
Kanata, Ontario. K2M 1B4
Phone: 613-599-6812 (Home)
3. Professor Joseph Inikori
Rochester, New York 14620
Phone: (716) 442-9075 (Home)
(716) 275-7235 (Office) (716)275-9020 (Office)
4. Dr. Aruegodore Oyiborhoro
263 5th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Phone: (718) 434-4911 (Home)
5. Andrew Edevbie
Redford, Michigan 48239
Phone: (313) 592-4718 (Home)
(313) 297-5857 (Office)
Fax (313) 592-3984
5. Princess Elizabeth Ogbon
18324 Quondal Court
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20877-3802
Phone: 301 721-9791 (Home)
I salute you all in the good name of Urhoboland.
Professor Peter P. Ekeh
July 29, 1999