Dr. Susan Rice
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
Bureau of African Affairs
Room 6234, Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Secretary Rice:
NIGERIA'S NIGER DELTA CRISIS:
MISREPRESENTATION OF FACTS AND HISTORY
IN ITSEKIRI LETTER TO THE U. S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
The Urhobo National Forum is an organization of persons who claim descent from Urhobo, one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria's western Niger Delta. The Forum works for the welfare of Urhoboland and for the benefit of the region in which our native land is implicated. It also speaks on behalf of Urhobo interests in those cases where we are satisfied that they are endangered. We have naturally closely followed events in the western Niger Delta, including the inter-ethnic conflict between Itsekiri and Ijaw, our immediate ethnic neighbors. We recently saw a disturbing document on this conflict published by an Itsekiri organization, based in the United States, in the world wide web on June 3, 1999. Mysteriously entitled "Meeting at State Department," it is the text of a letter that the aristocratic club "Ugbajo Itsekiri USA Incorporated" sent to you and the U.S. Department of State.
What makes the publication of this document especially significant is that it was part of a week-long media campaign by the Itsekiri establishment against the Ijaw and, eventually, the Urhobo. In the working week that began Monday, May 31, 1999, and ended on Friday, June 4, 1999, a new body called "Itsekiri Survival Movement" unleashed an awesome campaign against the Ijaw. By the end of that week the Itsekiri accusations had extended to the Urhobo. The handlers of this professionally-managed and apparently well-financed project released important documents on a daily basis. We have listed these releases in a separate paper which we will be sending to you along with this one. It was on the fourth day of that very effective campaign that the Itsekiri establishment released the letter addressed to you and the U.S. Department of State by Ugbajo Itsekiri.
The letter was dated March 16, 1999. It does not say whether it was handed over to you or to your assistants at this mysterious "Meeting at the State Department." However, the text of the letter was extensively circulated throughout the enormous range of the world wide web networks of Nigerian media in North America and Europe. In substance, it claims "genocidal rampage" by the Ijaws, without mentioning that these new "demons" have been the Itsekiri's peaceful neighbors for millennia. It accused the former Military Administrator of the Delta State of disobeying orders from Sani Abacha's government and thus giving an unauthorized local government to the Ijaw. The Ugbajo Itsekiri boasted that the Itsekiri aristocracy "invited the attention of the FGN [Federal Military Government of Nigeria] to the anomaly. Rightly, the FGN ordered Col. Dungs to implement" what the Itsekiri wanted! This aristocratic club then denounced the human rights community: "strangely, all the multifarious human-rights organizations have signally failed to condemn even in one word the unprovoked Ijaw aggression and pogrom against Itsekiris." A copy of the letter as it was circulated in one of the world wide web networks is attached.
Our purpose in bringing the publication of this letter by the Itsekiri establishment to your notice is not to defend the Ijaw or the humans rights community. We believe a great deal of what has been said about the Ijaw in this letter is false. However, we expect the Ijaw to defend their own interests, even if they are unable to hire well-heeled Washington lobbyists as their opponents can. We assume that the human rights community will not be intimidated by these self-styled aristocrats. We write to you and the U.S. Department of State because this "Ugbajo Itsekiri" letter of March 16, 1999, affects Urhobo interests deeply. Allow us to spell out in what ways the Ugbajo Itsekiri letter, its publication, and the alleged Itsekiri "Meeting at State Department" affect our interests.
WHY URHOBOS NEED TO RESPOND TO THE ITSEKIRI LETTER TO THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
There are four sets of reasons why we feel it is necessary that the Urhobo National Forum should respond to the Ugbajo Itsekiri letter to the U. S. State Department. They are as follows:
We should point out to you and the State Department that the Ugbajo Itsekiri letter is an abuse of historical evidence. They have distorted historical knowledge of the area in a manner that favors their interpretation of the history of our region. We will give you several instances.
Captain Pacheo Pereira's Observations of the western Niger Delta.
A prime piece of evidence on which Ugbajo Itsekiri leans for claiming that the Ijaw did not settle in Warri before 1500 is a statement that they attribute to Professor Ade Ajayi. They quote him thus: "The Portuguese Captain, Pereira, summarizing his countrymen's knowledge of the West Coast of Africa at the beginning of the 16th century, saw all the coast from Forcados River to Bonny River (Rio Real) occupied by Ijo-`Jos'. This stretch of coast does, in fact, correspond to that currently inhabited by the Ijo. Pereira's record suggests that those Ijo groups now living west of Forcados _ had not yet arrived at their present territory by 1500. Arogbo was first mentioned in 1644."
Ade Ajayi is indeed an eminent historian. But he did not do any primary research in this area. The man who did primary historical research of the region is very well known to Ugbajo Itsekiri. But they don't want to quote him because his work invalidates the conclusions that they seek to enforce. Professor Obaro Ikime shows from Pereira's diaries that during their first journey to the region, the Portuguese encountered two groups, the Ijaws and Urhobo, apart from the Benin. The Itsekiri were not mentioned. Does that mean that the Itsekiri did not exist? If Ugbajo Itsekiri wants to base the alleged absence of the Ijaw in this region on Portuguese observation, should we not also conclude that the absence of the Itsekiri from their premier records suggests that the Itsekiri did not exist? If this is an absurdity, should they not also allow that the absence of the Ijaw from their records was mistaken? At the very least, the Portuguese records show that the Itsekiri were insignificant in the western Niger Delta by 1485. Should they therefore be judged to be of no consequence in our times?
There are other reasons why Ugbajo Itsekiri would avoid quoting Ikime. His works show very clearly that Warri is a tri-ethnic city - that Warri is formed from the merging of Urhobo, Ijaw, and Itsekiri communities. This is a conclusion from which Ugbajo Itsekiri wants to run, since it challenges its claim of Itsekiri sovereignty over Warri.
Falsehood of Claims of Urhobo Enclaves in Warri
Urhobo-Warri consists of communities that are contiguous with the rest of Urhoboland. They are not settlements or enclaves or colonies of Urhobos who have moved from their people's region and settled in other peoples' lands. They are not surrounded by the Itsekiri. Of the three Urhobo communities -- Okere, Agbassa, and Igbudu -- one has a boundary with the Itsekiri. But they are all contiguous with the rest of Urhoboland. Their proximity to the colonial township of Warri meant that they were included in Warri City. There was a time not long ago when all the communities in Warri were apart from one other, separated by brush and bush. It is not these communities' fault that, on the grounds of sheer expediency, they were placed by the colonial administration in the same administrative division with a land-grabbing and rent-seeking Itsekiri aristocracy. These Urhobo communities have their own culture and history. More important, their ancestors founded these lands. The Itsekiri were never originally land-based. Their grab for land came with colonial rule in which land became a valuable asset. Now, they turn around and falsely claim to own lands that they say they rented to settlers.
Distortion of Claims of Legal Victories
The Itsekiri influence of the 18th and 19th centuries was based on sea power. Their chieftains were the middlemen of the European trade in much of the western Niger Delta. They traded in various commodities - some good, others evil. But they were never a land power. The control of the region's waterways allowed them to dominate the trading relations with their inland-bound neighbors. They often relied on violence which their monopoly of imported European weapons and ammunition made possible.
With colonial rule and the European penetration of the inland regions at the end of the 19th century, land became valuable. Itsekiri mercantile chieftains then embarked on a mission of land grab. They got into fights and disputes with all their ethnic neighbors whose lands they now sought to appropriate. The most famous of these cases was the Itsekiri's bold-faced attempt to take Sapele [British corruption of the Urhobo word Urhiapele], an Urhobo town and the second largest city in the colonial province of Warri. They lost, as they did in many other cases.
It is amazing that, in their letter, Ugbajo Itsekiri presented to you and the U.S. Department of State a list of their legal victories over the Ijaw. But what of their losses? Their last king, that is, the one before the present Olu, was paying land rent to the Okumagba family, a prominent land-owning Urhobo family in one of the Urhobo communities in Warri. That was possible because the Okumagba family won case after case in Itsekiri's attempts to grab land. That is why Itsekiri chieftains have now invented a strange notion of customary ownership of the lands in Warri. But this is a concept that has no basis in law or the constitution. It is wrong for the Itsekiri aristocracy, which Ugbajo Itsekiri represents, to seek to prevent Urhobo and Ijaw communities in Warri from managing their own affairs in their own local governments on the basis of a convenient fiction.
The most egregious attempt by the Itsekiri to grab land was outside the law courts. In 1952, Itsekiri chieftains claimed that their kingdom extended to the whole of Warri Province and that their king should be the king of the whole Province. They threw the whole region into a deep crisis, just as their high-handedness has once more caused severe damage to our region. Understanding this story will help you to gauge the causes of the present Warri crisis.
FROM THE KINGDOM OF WARRI PROVINCE TO THE KINGDOM OF WARRI CITY
British colonial practice named a province after its capital city. Thus, Benin City was the capital of Benin Province and Oyo the capital of Oyo Province. Warri Province was named after its capital of Warri. Warri Province had the following major ethnic groups: Ijaw, Isoko, Itsekiri, Ukwuani, and Urhobo. Many of these had royal chieftains who played significant roles during the mandate of Indirect Rule under British colonialism.
In this matter of royal chieftains, the Itsekiri were the spectacular exception in the first thirty-five years of colonial rule. They had a powerful merchant chieftain, Dogho Numa, whose presence disallowed the installation of an Itsekiri royal chieftain. The problem was that rivalries among Itsekiri mercantile chieftains had destroyed Itsekiri kingship. Their last king died in 1848. However, after Numa's death in 1932, the British revived the defunct Itsekiri kingship in 1934, obviously to fulfill the mandate of Indirect Rule. In reviving it after an absence of kingship from Itsekiri affairs for 86 years, the new royal chieftain was crowned as the Olu of Itsekiri.
Then something dramatic happened after just 18 years of the renewed Itsekiri kingship. Nigeria was on the way to attaining independence from Great Britain. Nigeria switched from provincial administration to Regional administration in1952. In this new scheme, Itsekiri teamed up with the winning Yoruba-based Action Group political party while the rest of the western Niger Delta opted for its rival, the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons). For its reward to the Itsekiri, the Action Group changed the title of the Olu of Itsekiri to the Olu of Warri.
All the other ethnic groups clearly understood the meaning of this change of title. It was an attempt to impose the renewed Itsekiri kingship on the other four ethnic groups of the Province. They forcefully rejected this move by the new Government. There was widespread chaos. The Action Group Government refused to change the title back to the Olu of Itsekiri, as the Urhobo, Ukwuani, Isoko, and Ijaw ethnic groups demanded. Instead, it changed the name of the Province to Delta. That was how the name Delta Province came into being in 1952.
Having lost this brazen attempt to preside over the affairs of the entire province, the Itsekiri aristocracy settled on the City of Warri. Although the title was never conceived in terms of the City of Warri, the Itsekiri aristocracy now pounced on the communities of Warri, saying that the new title of their king (Olu of Warri) empowered them to claim the city. That is how the phantom kingdom of Warri Province has degenerated into the cursed Kingdom of Warri City. The Itsekiri Kingdom of Warri City is ultimately a political concoction in which Urhobo and Ijaw citizens have suffered an incredible amount of abuse from an aristocracy that is accustomed to cursing others.
The kingdom of Warri City is the evil fruit of bad governance in 1952, just as the relocation of an Ijaw local government headquarters by the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha to an Itsekiri area is the evil fruit of military dictatorship. All the other ethnic groups in the western Niger Delta are united in demanding that the political wrongs of 1952 should be corrected by reversing the king's title to the Olu of Itsekiri, as it was before 1952. Similarly, all the ethnic groups in the Niger Delta fully understand that it was utterly corrupt for the Itsekiri aristocracy to use its influence with Sani Abacha to reverse a local administrator who had correctly placed a local government headquarter in an Ijaw territory. It is shameful that Ugbajo Itsekiri should come to you, an American official, to boast that their chieftains suborned the infamous Sani Abacha to do their will, their aristocratic will, thus oppressing the Ijaw and depriving them of their right to self-determination.
AN ETHNIC MINORITY OR AN ARISTOCRACY?
The term "Itsekiri minority" has been bandied around by Itsekiri propaganda machinery in marketing its version of the crisis in the western Niger Delta. If minority is understood in its American usage as referring to a disadvantaged group whose political, economic, and social rights are threatened by a majority group, then clearly this term does not belong to the Itsekiri at all. On the contrary, Itsekiri chieftains want the Itsekiri to be entitled to special privileges while denying members of other ethnic groups access to any of the rights they want to enjoy.
However, there is a different meaning of a minority which aptly applies to the privileged club Ugbajo Itsekiri and the segment of Itsekiri society it so richly represents. It is an exclusive aristocratic minority among the Itsekiri whose history dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern-day Itsekiri aristocrats are those who claim descent from a class of mercantile aristocracy that developed from the European trade in those centuries. By sheer exercise of brute violence, they denied land-based neighboring ethnic groups to their north any access to the Europeans. They enforced the payment of "commie" (commission) from both the Europeans and their neighboring ethnic groups with whom they had trading relationships. In the course of these two centuries, they established enormous privileges for themselves.
It was a quarrelsome aristocracy whose internal rivalries led to betrayal of Itsekiri institutions and corporate interests. For instance, Itsekiri kingship was badly compromised by these rivalries which allowed foreigners to infiltrate Itsekiri society. Remarkably, a half-Portuguese, named Domingo, became the king of the Itsekiri. Consequently, these rivalries killed Itsekiri royal institutions, not permitting any succession to the throne when Itsekiri's last king of the 19th century died in 1848. Eventually, the British became dominant among the Itsekiri long before they established any colonial relations with any Nigerian communities. They asked for the office of "Governor of Benin River" to which the British appointed their own candidates and which effectively replaced Itsekiri kingship. These alliances with foreigners injured the vital interests of the neighboring Benin, Urhobo, Isoko, Ijaw, and Ukwuani ethnic groups.
Perhaps the greatest victims of the Itsekiri aristocracy are the Itsekiri masses. From the 18th century up to the present time, ordinary Itsekiri have been among the poorest people in the western Niger Delta. The huge rents and royalties which successive generations of Itsekiri aristocracy have extracted from foreign companies, Nigerian governments, and from other ethnic groups have not filtered down to the ordinary Itsekiri who rely on small trade and fishing for survival. The Itsekiri aristocracy has never bothered to ask what impact any of their numerous quarrels with their ethnic neighbors will have on ordinary Itsekiri who rely on economic ties to the Ijaw, Isoko, and Urhobo to make a decent living.
Sadly, we are witnessing once more a repetition of these odious behaviors from the Itsekiri aristocracy. It loves the huge royalties that the oil companies pay its members despite the threat to lives and the culture of the Itsekiri people which Shell's and Chevron's recklessness poses. Their king enjoyed tremendous friendship with Sani Abacha while Nigeria was imperiled. It was the king's friendship with Abacha that led to the reversal of the location of local government headquarters from an Ijaw territory to an Itsekiri area. The bloodshed that followed should rightly be on the Olu's and Abacha's heads. But the Itsekiri aristocracy has never bothered about such moral judgements. At the close of the twentieth century, this Itsekiri aristocracy still believes that it is entitled to feudal privileges of collecting rents and royalties for doing nothing other than sitting in big mansions to plot what other deals should be struck with foreign companies and corrupt Federal Military Government officials.
All of these hurt our region deeply. Perhaps the greatest threat is their new bold move to give the city of Warri away to outside control. Urhobos have invested huge economic resources in this city. Urhobos own a substantial portion of this city. We want to make it clear that we will fight any move to alienate us from our lands and properties in the city of Warri. We have three communities that have been in those locations for centuries. The land-grabbing and rent-seeking Itsekiri aristocracy wants to deprive them of their God-given entitlement to their ancestral lands. We consider this action from the Itsekiri aristocracy to be malicious.
In concluding this letter, we want you to understand that all the ethnic groups in our region, including the ordinary Itsekiri, believe that the inter-ethnic crisis in the western Niger Delta is a local problem. It can be resolved by mobilizing local resources. In rushing to the U.S. Department of State to plead for American intervention in a local matter in the western Niger Delta, the Itsekiri aristocracy is playing its centuries-old game of internationalizing our local problems. In past centuries, it sold the western Niger Delta to the Portuguese and the British, to the detriment of the entire region. In the 1950s, Itsekiri chieftains upset the whole region by teaming up with the Action Group from outside our area in punishing ethnic groups with which it had disagreements. Changing the title of the Itsekiri King to Olu of Warri was one vicious consequence of that outside interference. During military rule, Itsekiri chieftains teamed up with the infamous dictator Sani Abacha to impose their will on the region. We want to make it clear that we do not want the U.S. State Department or any foreign powers to take over our region. We fear that that is what Ugbajo Itsekiri and its aristocratic allies back home in Nigeria are actively plotting.
We thank you for your patience in reading through our explanation of why we think the Ugbajo Itsekiri letter of March 16, 1999, addressed to you and the U.S. Department of State, is immoral. We also question its publication in the world wide web, with a circulation to thousands of readers. However, we assume that for the sake of fairness you will understand why we must also send this letter to the same audience in the world wide web networks to which Ugbajo Itsekiri sent copies of its letter of March 16, 1999, addressed to you.
We trust that the explanations
we offer in this letter will assist you to gauge U.S. policies towards
the Niger Delta. It would be disastrous for American policy to be based
on the distortions of history that Ugbajo Itsekiri offered you in its letter.
J. A. Ofurhie (Sgd.)
J.M.A. Oyiborhoro (Sgd.)
Director of Research & Publications
Michael Egi (Sgd.)
Director of Treasury
His Excellency, James Ibori,
Delta State of Nigeria
His Excellency, General David
Ejoor (rtd.), President
Urhobo Progress Union
Chief Benjamin Okumagba,
Urhobo Progress Union
Copy of Letter from Ugbajo
Itsekiri USA Incorporated to Dr. Susan Rice, U.S. State Department, as
published in edo-community e-group world wide web network on 3 June, 1999.