RECENT ITSEKIRI CAMPAIGN IN THE UNITED STATES
For the benefit of those who will be reading about this matter for the first time, we would like to detail recent campaigns by the Itsekiri, including the recent false claim of joint attack by Ijaws and Urhobos against the Itsekiri . We invite the reader to observe the intensity of the efforts since May 31, 1999.
MAY 31, 1999. The Itsekiri Survival Movement released a statement "INTERNATIONAL APPEAL TO STOP THE GENOCIDE AGAINST THE ITSEKIRI BY THE IJAWS" which was carried by the usual US-based Nigerian world wide web networks. The main purpose, apparently, is to discredit the claims of the Ijaw in the Niger Delta crisis.
JUNE 1, 1999. The Itsekiri Survival Movement issued a direct report: "ITSEKIRI MASSACRED BY ARMED IJAWS." Although the piece was not a press report and no evidence was cited, it was widely circulated by the Nigerian world wide web networks, including one from Norway by Orevaoghene Charles Obaro.
JUNE 2, 1999. Itsekiri Survival Movement came up with a report unsupported by any other sources: "OVER 200 ITSEKIRIS KILLED BY INVADING IJAWS." Again, the same US-based Nigerian world wide web networks spread this claim without checking from the usual news sources.
JUNE 3, 1999. One Dr. Omats Omatete, an Itsekiri, issued a statement: "ATTACK ON THE ITSEKIRI"." Although one-sided, this was a less sensationalist piece and did not make the extraordinary claims of the Itsekiri Survival Movement. Nevertheless, it says nothing of the causes of the present crisis, but seeks to demonize the Ijaws. This one-sided statement was carried by the influential Human Rights Info Network and then by the usual US-based Nigerian world wide web networks.
JUNE 4, 1999. The Itsekiri Survival Movement issued another release: "WARRI CRISIS - AN OPEN LETTER TO THE NIGERIAN MEDIA." It berated the Nigerian media for not telling the Itsekiri side of the crisis. However, the movement failed to mention that much of what Nigerians and the world community have learnt about the Niger Delta crisis comes from Vanguard, a paper owned by Mr. Sam Amuka, a man known for his sympathies for Itsekiri causes. The material was circulated in the usual Nigerian world wide web networks.
JUNE 4, 1999. The Itsekiri Survival Movement also reported on this date that "URHOBOS AND IJAWS JOIN FORCES TO ATTACK ITSEKIRIS," again without evidence from any independent source. Yet the report went ahead to say, "As we write this press release, Okere [a section of Warri with Urhobo and Itsekiri indigenous population] is burning and Itsekiris are dying." The story clearly gives the unfortunate impression that the Niger Delta crisis has now deteriorated to the point where the Urhobo have teamed up with the Ijaw against a defenseless Itsekiri population. We now know from press reports that the incident referred to was a local conflict in Okere and that the major casualty is the burning down of the house belonging to the Urhobo king of this area, whose appointment the Itsekiri oppose. There was no evidence of Ijaw presence in this conflict. Sadly, the US-based Nigerian world wide web networks carried this sensational report from the Itsekiri Survival Movement as if it was an authentic news item..
JUNE 4, 1999. Some Nigerians now appear to have accepted the irresponsible and false reporting by the Itsekiri Survival Movement. We have an example from one Nnaemeka Onumonu who is giving an outrageous impression that Urhobos are committing genocide against the Itsekiri just as, he says, other Nigerians did to the Ibos during the Civil War. When asked by Dr. Nowa Omoigui whether he was sure of the veracity of the report, Mr. Onumonu boasted, "I will not sit back and watch part of me [that is, his Itsekiri part] destroyed. And when I get on a project I finish it. I happen to be very good at what I do." No one knows what to make of Onumonu's threat which was also circulated throughout the US-based Nigerian world wide web networks. These utterances are enormous and have the potential to create further tension in the region. Another Nigerian, this time, Mr. Frank Guobadia, Secretary of the Edo Community, appeared to have also caught the bait from the Itsekiri Survival Movement. He gave an ominous warning in his own circulation that more might be coming. He said, "We are about to see the worst of this ethnic cleansing. I suggest we move fast before the boat sinks." Another Nigerian, yet, V. Emuakhagbon, has since joined Messrs. Guobadia and Onumonu to raise the local conflict in Okere to the level of ethnic cleansing, without any shred of evidence!
Perhaps it is now proper to state the position that Urhobos have taken on the Niger Delta crisis from its beginning. The Urhobo leadership has done two things: First, it has made it clear that it did not want the inter-ethnic crisis to involve Urhobo communities in any way. That leadership has been aware of attempts to drag the Urhobos into the crisis, but much to its credit, it has steadfastly counseled against any involvement. Secondly, like their neighbours in the Niger Delta region, the Urhobo hold the Federal Military Government responsible for provoking this crisis. Urhobo leadership has sought to make peace between the warring factions whom they regard as the unfortunate victims of irresponsible policies of the Abacha regime. The leadership sees its effort as an obligation. The Urhobo are uniquely qualified to make peace because they consider their relationships with both the Itsekiri and Ijaw as too close to ignore. In order to understand the Urhobo position on these matters, we offer the following information for closer scrutiny:
Urhobo-Itsekiri Relations: Urhobo-Itsekiri relations date back to many centuries and they are complex. In the course of this time, there have been conflicts but also the forging of close ties. There is no other ethnic group with which the Itsekiri have closer blood ties than the Urhobo people. In fact, there are very few Itsekiri without Urhobo blood. This is obviously because of intense marriage relationships between the two ethnic groups, perhaps the greatest of any two ethnic groups in the whole of Nigeria. Consequently, it would be rare to have any Urhobo leaders who do not have blood cousins among the Itsekiri people. The newly elected Governor of Delta State is an Urhobo through his father and an Itsekiri from his mother's side. The current king of Itsekiri, Ogiame Atuwatse II, has an Urhobo mother. Now think of it. If there were to be physical conflict between the two groups, people on each side would scramble to save close family relatives on either side of the crisis. Both sides have of course learned their lessons from the Urhobo/Itsekiri crisis of 1952, and they were not pretty - as both groups mourned loss of relatives on either side of that conflict. We are confident that Urhobo people have no desire to go into mortal conflict with the Itsekiri.
The Tri-Ethnic City of Warri: Where then is the problem? It lies in the city of Warri. Warri had three independent indigenous communities that hail from the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo ethnic groups. They have co-existed in this location for as long as memory can carry anyone. These neighbors grew into one another to form the flourishing modern oil city of Warri. The Urhobo group, like the Itsekiri and Ijaw communities, has no other place they call home. Now, we are being told that this location is the kingdom of Warri and by implication the property of the Olu of Warri, the Itsekiri king, and that the other groups in the area are tenants. The Urhobo people are now being asked to accept false historical claims that clearly trespass on their rights. The claim of an Itsekiri kingdom of Warri, if allowed to stand, assaults the God-given rights of any people anywhere to live in their ancestral lands peacefully, without being insulted and called tenants.
Why Recent Report is Outrageous: How would the Yoruba feel if it was reported that Yoruba people had gone to war with the Fulani because of a local fight between the Fulani and the Yoruba in Ilorin? How would the Igbo feel if it was reported that the Igbo were at war with the Ibibio because of a border conflict between local Igbos and local Ibibios in Afikpo? How would the Binis take a report that they were killing Ishans because the Benin border town of Ehor had a local conflict with its Ishan neighbors? Locally, it does not make sense that Urhobo leaders or even youth would want to instigate a fight in Warri. A great deal of the land and properties in Warri are owned by Urhobos. Why would the Okumagbas and other prominent Urhobo families want to provoke a conflict which might result in the destruction of their properties and even the loss of lives? Nothing about the supposed Urhobo attack makes sense, except for the propaganda purposes of this new group called Itsekiri Survival Movement.
CAUSES OF THE ITSEKIRI-IJAW CONFLICT
In many ways the inter-ethnic conflicts between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw are not different from the rash of inter-community conflicts that broke out in Kafanchan, Benue, Umuneri -Aguleri in Anambra State, Modakeke-Ife areas and in numerous other places in Nigeria in recent times. The root of all these conflicts can be traced to one source, the Federal Military Government. The conflicts have all been caused by the interference of the Federal Military Government that sought to dictate and run local affairs from Abuja, favoring some communities over others. In the Ijaw-Itsekiri case, the conflict arose from a close friendship between the king of the Itsekiri (Olu of Warri) and the late General Sani Abacha. It was Abacha's direct orders to move Local Government headquarters from an Ijaw area to an Itsekiri territory that provoked the crisis. Sadly, there are elements of the Ijaw-Itsekiri crisis that affect Urhobo interests which we like to explain further.
The Ijaws and Armed Conflicts: We consider the ongoing intense campaign to demonize the Ijaws as a war-like people to be wrong and unfair. Much to their credit, the Ijaws have borne the brunt of the common problems which were created by the oil companies and the Federal Military Government in the Niger Delta. Federal forces have killed thousands of Ijaws. Nor is it fair to give the impression to the world that they initiated this conflict. There are reports that the Itsekiri youth started this vicious circle of attack on property, beginning with the burning down of the residence of a prominent Ijaw chieftain, Chief E. K. Clark, in Warri. The Ijaw may have over-reacted, but we do not want to see the image of the Ijaw destroyed by the new coordinated campaign by the Itsekiri Survival Movement. We regard both the Ijaw and Itsekiri as good people and our good neighbors. We certainly do not want to see any of them demonized - a common tendency in our modern world.
The Itsekiri Monarchy and Claim of Itsekiri Kingdom: We also like to appeal to our Itsekiri brothers and sisters to desist from the claim that Itsekiri kingdom extends to Ijaw and Urhobo communities in Warri. Let us not forget that it was a similar claim that the Itsekiri kingdom covered the whole of the old Warri Province (later renamed Delta Province) that provoked the 1952 crisis. In order to enlighten the general public, some facts about the claims of Itsekiri kingdom are necessary. The last Itsekiri king of the 19th century died in 1848. Thereafter, the affairs and politics of the Itsekiri were managed by rival merchant houses, prompting the British, who had become important in Itsekiri affairs, to call for a Governor of Benin River. Nana Olomu's governorship (1884-94) was the last one of the series of appointed governors. Dogho Numa later emerged to be the most influential mercantile chieftain, especially after helping the British in the Benin War of 1897. Dogho Numa administered the affairs of the Itsekiri under British colonial rule. While he was alive, no one dared to talk of reviving Itsekiri kingship, despite the fact that under Lugard's Amalgamation scheme and its Indirect Rule policies, most communities had their royal chieftains. It was only after the death of Numa in 1932 that the British revived Itsekiri kingship in 1934 - after 86 years of no 'Oluship' (that is, kingship) among the Itsekiri.. Even then, the Olu of Itsekiri was no more than a local chieftain until 1952. The Action Group Government of Western Nigeria, for political expedience, changed the king's title from Olu of Itsekiri to that of the Olu of Warri. The change in title was part of the Awolowo government's attempt to elevate the Olu to the same rank as the Alafin of Oyo and the Oba of Benin! We suggest that the Itsekiri had their greatest achievements from 1850 to 1932 at a time when they had no king. This claim of a great Itsekiri kingdom is historically false, unless it is possible for people to have a kingdom without a king. It is therefore clear that the greatness of the Itsekiri as a people has nothing to do with the existence or lack of a kingdom. The people fared remarkably well without a kingdom for 86 years of their most glorious period in history. At the same time, it is not for the Urhobo to challenge any claim of a great Itsekiri kingdom for as long as such a claim does not seek to nullify the rights of Urhobo citizens to their communal and ancestral lands in Warri.
SOLUTIONS TO THE NIGER DELTA CRISIS
The Urhobo people have a stake in Warri and are very much interested in having the crisis in the Niger Delta resolved peacefully. We believe that a lasting solution to the problems of the area should consider the interests and input of the local ethnic groups, with the Urhobo playing a major role. While the new Federal Government of Olusegun Obasanjo will have a role to play, it would be counter-productive to ignore local interests in the Niger Delta. It should be understood that the Federal Government currently enjoys very little credibility in the Niger Delta. After all, it was the Federal Government, in alliance with the multinational oil companies, that exploited the Niger Delta oil to the detriment of the communities in the area.
Wrong Solution: It would therefore be a wrong solution to involve the Federal Government in every phase of our lives in the Niger Delta, especially with regards to issues of communal rights. The call for the federalization of Warri City is a dangerous approach to a problem that was caused in the first instance by the Federal Government. The Federal Government of Olusegun Obasanjo has roles to play but it must steer clear of any move as wild as to declare Warri a federal territory. May we ask, is it also the position of those who advocate the federalization of Warri that Kaduna, Kafanchan, Modakeke-Ife and other places where ethnic conflicts erupted recently should also be federalized?
Right Solution: We believe the right approach is to mobilize local efforts for an effective solution. We are gratified that the new Governor of Delta State, Chief Ibori, is already hard at work on this matter. Sadly enough, there will be groups like the so-called Itsekiri Survival Movement that will attempt to sabotage such efforts. The Urhobo leadership is however determined to work with all local interests to resolve this matter. We will expect that the Nigerian networks will be more circumspect in accepting the wild statements coming from various groups that seek to benefit from the crisis in the Delta.
Meanwhile, those of us in the Urhobo National Forum feel compelled to appeal to the leadership of the various Benin organizations in the United States to restrain their members from making over-bearing statements on issues that they know little about. We sincerely believe that Urhobo leadership has played a commendable role in the crisis in the Niger Delta. It is unfair for anyone, without proper evidence, to jump to conclusions suggesting misbehavior by Urhobos in this crisis. We do salute Dr. Nowa Omoigui's wisdom in cautioning against such rash judgements.
Thousands of Itsekiri live peacefully in Sapele,
Ogharefe, and in many other Urhobo towns and villages. It is irresponsible
and unduly sensationalist for anyone to talk of "ethnic cleansing" because
of a local fight in Okere in Warri City between Urhobo and Itsekiri youths
. As it turns out, the main casualty of this local conflict is the burning
down of a house belonging to the Urhobo king of Okere. Those of us who
use the privileges of the new cyberspace should be responsible in our use
of the language that it affords. The Itsekiri Survival Movement and its
allies are grossly unfair and irresponsible for giving the impression that
Itsekiris are not safe in Urhobo towns. Nor is it correct for them to suggest
that Itsekiri lives are at risk because of any action by the Urhobos.
Research & Publications
June 15, 1999
His Excellency, Chief James Ibori. Governor of Delta State, Nigeria
His Excellency General (rtd.) David Ejoor, Former
Military Governor of Midwest State
President-General, Urhobo Progress Union
Chief Benjamin Okumagba, Vice President, Urhobo Progress Union
Susan Rice, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State