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
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
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.