Peter Ekeh Outlines the Urhobo Case

Subject: Ijaws, Itsekiris, & Urhobos at War in Delta State, Nigeria?????????
Date: Sat, 19 Jun 1999 20:59:14 -0400
From: "Peter P. Ekeh" <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>
To: "Philip A. Ikomi" <pikomi@osf1.gmu.edu>
CC:  Nowa <nowa@prodigy.com>,
        "Mobolaji E. Aluko" <maluko@scs.howard.edu>,
        Joe Inikori <inik@uhura.cc.rochester.edu>,
        Igho Natufe <inatufe@NRCan.gc.ca>,
        Andrew Edevbie <kevtrics@juno.com>, Oyiborhoro <oyibo@aol.com>,
        FRANCIS EBIKEFE PORBENI <feporben@unity.ncsu.edu>,
        Orevaoghene Charles Obaro <impexma@online.no>

Dear Philip:

I must thank you for your generous and thoughtful letter. July is going to be a crowded month for me. I cannot be sure that I will be able to come. Some of my agenda in July will be controlled by others. I am therefore going to recommend four others among the Urhobo in North America who would be very strong in canvassing views that will help the whole region. They are Igho Natufe from Ottawa, Professor Joseph Inikori from University of Rochester (NY), Andrew Edevbie from Detroit, and Dr. John Oyiborhoro from New York City. I am copying this letter to all of them. In addition, I would urge you not to assume that Urhobos will speak for the Isoko in these matters. Isokos have been leaders in the protest against the oil companies' dreadful records in our region. I am copying this letter to one of them in far-away Norway. Thanks to the grace of cyberspace, Orevaoghene Charles Obaro behaves as if he were around the corner. He may be able to locate a few Isokos in North America. He may of course want to attend your Congress. His contributions would be invaluable.

I do not want to end this letter at this point. It would not be forthright of me if I gave you the impression that those I have mentioned will rush to your Congress. Nowa Omoigui once asked me to contact Urhobo organizations for a similar gathering that his Edo group is planning. I reported back to him that there was substantial "coolness" among Urhobos on these issues. For a people known for their passion in matters they care about, this hesitation by Urhobos on what they prefer to label Itsekiri-Ijaw crisis may be puzzling to non-Urhobos. Understanding the Urhobo position may help you and the others to whom I have copied this letter (including Nowa Omoigui and Bolaji Aluko, whose names I will invoke) to gauge the deep problems in the Niger Delta but also the opportunities open to genuine peace-makers. Unfortunately, Urhobos are not good at playing "ostrich" (Bolaji's term of a few days ago). You will find this letter to be rather straightforward..Much of what I will say in this long letter will be known to you personally. But there are many others in our e-mail group to whom the information will be strange. So please pardon my verbosity.

For a start, let me declare that most of us in the Delta - not all - want peace for selfish reasons. Virtually every Urhobo I have mentioned here is tied up with the Itsekiri and Ijaw in some delicate way. I can illustrate this from a recent personal experience. My first son got married in the U.K. in April. That is far way for planning a wedding. My wife and I travelled to London for one week's stay. The woman we relied on exclusively for planning matters on our behalf was an Itsekiri woman, married to my wife's first cousin (whose father is Itsekiri and mother is Urhobo). I stayed with an Ijaw man who is the son of my best friend. His wife is Yoruba. My wife was accompanied from the US by an Urhobo woman married to an Itsekiri whom I regard as a best friend, since our graduate student days at Berkeley in the late 1960s. I did not go to my Okpara people until the matter of customary side of the marriage. My son was getting married to a Yoruba girl whose people have elaborate traditional wedding. I then needed my people at that point - which makes an old elementary school mate of mine wonder whether I would have asked for Okpara people if there was no native wedding. Oh, it's all very silly. But my point is, I beg of outsiders not to assume that Urhobos are not interested in peace because of their current state of caution.

I will enumerate the issues that have created caution and even sceptism on the Urhobo part. The reasons have a great deal to do with the recent crisis, but also with our historical experiences in the last 47 years of civil politics in Nigeria.

1. When this fight between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw broke out in 1997, Urhobo leaders cautioned against being involved. There were active fears that certain groups would try hard to involve the Urhobo. To their credit, Urhobos stayed out of it - until June 4, 1999 -- some fifteen days ago. On that day, there was a fight in Okere that spread to the rest of Warri in the following 2-3 days. The Nigerian media at home was rather cautious in reporting the Warri crisis. But in North America, it was immediately labelled a war between three ethnic groups in the world wide web of Nigerian sensationalism.

2. The idea that Urhobos are at war with the Itsekiri is most troubling to the Urhobos. A few days ago, I made the same point to Bolaji. He replied that he never claimed that Urhobos were at war with the Itsekiri. But he used the exact subject title that you used in your memo to me: "Ijaws. Itsekiris, and Urhobos at War in Delta State, Nigeria." I can assure you that you will find it difficult to attract any credible Urhobos to any Congress that gives the impression that Urhobos are at war with the Itsekiri. This is a conflict they have tried their utmost to avoid. They will be foolish to be drawn into it as military combatants. And they will be foolish if they attended any conference that portrays them as fighters in a conflict they have largely avoided.

3. The reporting of the Warri crisis is also troubling to Urhobos in North America. It is now clear that Urhobos suffered significant damages in that conflict. In a sense, that is not surprising since they own a great deal of the property in Warri. In addition, Ijaw and Itsekiri youths are said to be armed to the teeth, whereas Urhobos have not acquired such arms, having not been involved in the conflicts of the last two years. I understand from a responsible man (a former gubernatorial candidate in Delta) who saw it all that Iyara Street was levelled. Much of Okere was destroyed. The Okumagba family sustained losses in the millions of dollars. Two houses belonging to the new "king" of Okere were burnt down. When I heard of this catalogue of destruction, my fears were that Urhobos would now seek revenge by acquiring arms for their youth as the Itsekiri and the Ijaw have done. My friend replied that Urhobos are far more sophisticated than that nowadays. The traditional rulers especially are said to be busy calming tempers. Now, this destruction may be small compared to the loss of lives that the combatants have suffered in their villages. That much must be conceded. But what has been reported to "netters" is the quit notices that were said to have been served on Itsekiri in Agbarho and Ughelli. Now, some of those responsible for managing this sensationalism are involved in arranging "peace missions" for the Delta in North America. You can understand some of the Urhobo hesitation.

4. I can report to you how badly devastated many Urhobos in North America were when there was a claim of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" in which Urhobo were said to be participating. When it turned out that there was no basis for these accusations against Urhobos, there was a huge amount of resentment. Those who accuse innocent people of "ethnic cleansing," or of reporting it because they heard it from a partisan source, should not expect those they have so accused falsely to gladly accept invitations to "peace meetings." The untold story of this conflict is the cooperation between Urhobo and Itsekiri leaders in Sapele to ensure that it does not spill over there. Arguably, there are probably more Itsekiri in Sapele than in Warri. If I were to nominate anyone for an award in peace-making, it would be the Orodje (king) of Okpe who has worked tirelessly to ensure that there continues to be harmony between Itsekiri and Urhobo in the city of Sapele.

5. All of these points do not fully explain Urhobos' caution in approaching this matter. We must go back to 1952 for that story. A great deal of Urhobo collective experience in recent times starts with that dreadful conflict between Itsekiri and Urhobo in 1952. It is now forgotten by many people that it was not simply an Itsekiri-Urhobo problem at the beginning. The change of title of the Itsekiri King from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri in 1952 affected all the other ethnic groups in Warri Province. Through this change, Action Group Government made the Olu the paramount ruler of Warri Province - over the Itsekiri themselves, Isokos, Ijaws, Ukwuanis, and the Urhobos. But the Urhobo carried the burden of responding, although the other ethnic groups were also incensed. Fighting the Itsekiri was a painful experience. Any loss of life by the Itsekiri also meant loss of life for some Urhobo family. Most Urhobos, even of generations younger than mine, have no stomach for any mortal conflict with the Itsekiri.

6. But it is the political consequences of 1952 that Urhobos remember the most. The Action Group punished and humiliated, punished and humiliated, punished and humiliated, Urhobos - for ever. People of my generation did not bother applying to the Western Region for a scholarship - unless you wanted to study carpentry. Urhobos were also stubborn. Urhoboland was the only ethnic zone of the Western Region in which no Action Group candidates were elected to the House of Assembly or Representatives. Many Urhobos tie their fate to 1952. It makes you cautious in the face of new conflict.

Having said all this, I would conclude as follows. I think your idea of the Congress is important. I would prefer a forum where Deltans quietly discuss their problems - outside the distraction of the press. But the way you have structured your Congress may work. However, I urge you to take into account the point of view that not everyone from the Delta is at war with other groups. I plead with you to accommodate the views of Urhobos who want to play a role, but not labeled as warriors, or as engaging in ethnic cleansing. Once you enter these cautions, I am confident you will have enthusiastic participation from Urhobos in North America.

Thank you mightily for your efforts.


Peter Ekeh