Urhobo Historical Society
The Challenges of the Urhobo Nation
By Professor S.W.E. Ibodje
Being a paper presented at
I was asked to talk on the key challenges of the Urhobo nation. There are issues that I consider to be challenges to the Urhobo nation. But I am not sure that I know the key ones among them. So, I decided to write on “The Challenges of the Urhobo Nation”. However, if in the course of my discourse I stumble on what my principals would consider to be key ones among them, I will give glory to God.
Perhaps, I should quickly add also that I accepted this assignment in the hope that I should be free to express myself both as an academic and an Urhobo patriot. It is in the same vein that I consider that the enormity of the challenges facing the Urhobo nation today would require that only the truth should be good enough for us. To me, therefore, the assignment is a mission which does not require that I should sing praises of any person, if to do is not the truth. And while the desire in me is to tell what I consider to be a true story of the Urhobo nation, any historical defect observed in my account should be entirely a result of my limited competence in the field of history, where Professor Peter Ekeh is a giant.
The observation guiding this paper is that the major challenges facing the Urhobo nation today is how to convert her potentials into a political asset at the state and national levels. The corollary observation, therefore, is that the resolution of this challenge is a necessary condition for the resolution of every other challenge facing the ethnic nationality. For, as Kwame Nkrumah said, seek ye the political kingdom first and every other thing will be added unto you. In the main, the paper is based on the argument that the poor performance of the Urhobo nation in modern politics, especially since 1999, is the result of the failure of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) since the end of the Chief Mukoro Mowoe era1 to maintain the vision of the organisation and the necessary central structure of leadership, standards and focus left behind for the ethnic nationality. The corollary argument is that a clearly defined Urhobo national vision, driven by a strong and centralized leadership structure is a necessary condition for the group to attain visibility in politics at the state and national levels.
the recent events in the Idjerhe kingdom, the present Urhobo national
structure, in terms of its boundaries and sub-political units as a
ethnic nationality with a clear identity, owes its origins to the
activities of the UPU in the 1930s. Prior to the emergence of the UPU
umbrella organisation of the Urhobo people, what is now Urhobo
inhabited by essentially different groups that had similar cultural
claims to different traditions of origin, and separately transacted
internal and external affairs, including the signing of the then
Protection” with the British imperial authorities. During that period,
Urhobo personality did not command respect as his identity was not
What is more, his coastal neighbour sold the impression to the
he was “bush and uncivilised” and only fit for low level activities and
This was the situation when the UPU was born. Thus, the birth of the UPU was greeted with different challenges confronting the Urhobo people, which called for immediate actions requiring ingenious political engineering to handle successfully. No doubt, the strategies adopted, the commitment involved, and the level of success achieved by the union in the handling of those challenges showed that the leadership was guided by a clear vision of a strong and united Urhobo ethnic nationality, capable, among other things, of defending its territorial assets, benefiting fully from opportunities provided by the modern political society, and playing a leading role with a strong voice at the various levels of the modern political arena. Thus, the motto, aims and objectives which propelled the early UPU were as follows:
(i) To foster the spirit of love, mutual understanding and brotherhood among Urhobo, and good neighbourliness with non-Urhobo people;
(ii) To encourage growth of educational development of Urhobo people;
(iii) To encourage economic development of the Urhobo people:
(iv) To work for mutual understanding and co-operation among Urhobo people on one hand and the government at all levels on the other;
(v) To protect and promote the Urhobo personality at all times and everywhere; and
(vi) To preserve and promote Urhobo culture, language and traditional rulers (see The Urhobo Voice, May 18, 2009, p.17)
The above aims and objectives of the UPU were directly relevant to the early challenges it faced, as they are relevant to the challenges of today. The challenges which faced the Urhobo nation during the early days of the UPU were among the following:
About the first major challenge which faced the Urhobo nation at the early days of the UPU was the challenge of lack of identity and how to create one. At the early days of colonial rule, as earlier mentioned, the various Urhobo groups who inhabited the Urhobo territory did not have any visible identity as a people under a single umbrella of any kind. Adding to this situation was the role of the Itsekiri coastal neighbour who sold the impression to the first set of incoming European traders and the early colonial officers that the Urhobo people where “bush” and “uncivilised.” So much was this impression bought by the early set of colonial officials that the native courts that they established in Urhobo clans had Itsekiri members appointed into them, because the Urhobo people being “uncivilised” needed the “civilised” Itsekiri people to show them how to run the new native courts. This was happening at the same time that there was no Urhobo person considered fit to sit in the Warri native court which had jurisdiction over the Urhobo clans including Effurun, Effurun-Otor, Adeji, Aladja, and Agbarha-Warri. (See Obaro Ikime, 1977, p.71).
Creating an identity requires focus, a rallying point, and a committed leadership. UPU under Mukoro Mowoe provided the needed focus, that rallying point and the required leadership.
challenge was that when UPU was formed, different Urhobo groups were in
Another challenge was that posed by claims to Urhobo lands by the neighbouring groups of Itsekiri and Bini. It took the effective central leadership and the rallying point provided by the UPU to save those lands for Urhobo.
More than their neighbours, the challenge of fitting into the new ways and opportunities brought about by colonialism and its administration in its early days was significantly severe among the Urhobo people. The reason was that the Urhobo people were particularly ill-equipped for the social change and the educational empowerment needed for that dispensation. The birth of the UPU was greeted by this challenge. A story told us by Professor Ekeh is necessary for reproduction here:
An example of the hardship that
confronted the Urhobo
people could be illustrated from an event from one of the several
the UPU leaders held with the colonial officers in the 1930s. At a
the Resident, the highest colonial officer of
It can be said that each of the
above challenges which
confronted the Urhobo people as at the 1930s, when UPU was formed and
Mukoro Mowoe and his colleagues, was handled with positive results.
than a decade of the formation of the UPU, and the nationalist
embarked upon by its leadership, the Urhobo identity became visible and
respected even by the early colonial officers who were earlier
the Itsekiri to think that the Urhobo people were “bush” and
Following this, the Urhobo people who were in “Babylon” under “foreign”
administrative divisions were brought together under their own
division and Urhobo people who would have been lost to Kwale and Benin
were brought back to Urhobo. After all, Orogun people were already
Ukwuani more than the Ukwuani people themselves, and giving Ukwuani
their children was becoming a fashion and a mark of civilisation among
Again, the UPU leadership of the Mukoro Mowoe era fought to ensure that
lands were secured from the hands of pokers from outside. Finally, the
leadership of the 1930s confronted the challenge of educational
frontally and the result was the
It remains to be said that each of the challenges that were there to be confronted by the UPU under Mukoro Mowoe was handled with the appropriate approach it required. Those that required diplomatic engineering, by way of meetings with the colonial officers and persuading them with good reasons to change their unfavourable policies were handled as such. The issues of Urhobo identity and the allocation of Urhobo people to “foreign” administrative divisions were handled with much of this approach. Again, those that required to be resolved in the court as the most realist option were so handled; and Mukoro Mowoe and his colleagues did not shy away from going to court. The securing of Urhobo lands from the hands of pokers was a case in this point. Similarly, when it was clear to the then leaders of the UPU that self-help would be the answer to a challenge, they went all out and to any extent to confront it as such. The challenge of education is a case in point. To quote Professor Ekeh again on this point,
It was clear to Urhobo Progress Union in the 1930s that the Urhobo people could not wait for the government or the Christian Mission to train the personnel that the Urhobo needed in order to function adequately in the new colonial era (ibid. p. 7).
By 1936, the machinery was already in motion to mobilize the Urhobo people, home and the diaspora, to confront this challenge. Records have it that Mukoro Mowoe and his compatriots personally travelled to wherever the Urhobo diaspora sojourned in Nigeria to raise funds both to build the Urhobo College and to fund the scholarship scheme put in place to train the two Urhobo sons already referred to above.
The huge success achieved by the early leadership of the UPU in confronting the challenges which faced the Urhobo of their time can be attributed to their vision and commitment to the motto, aims and objectives of the union. There was brotherhood, there was understanding, there was commitment, and above all, there was the ability to listen on the part of the leadership. For instance, Professor Ekeh told us of how, in approaching the UPU’s Urhobo Education Scheme, there was a disagreement concerning the preferences of the Home Branch, the Lagos Branch and the UPU branches in the Urhobo Diaspora. And it was resolved by Mukoro Mowoe along the lines of the suggestions from the Urhobo Diaspora which preferred a secondary school and the Lagos Branch which suggested a scholarship scheme, while dropping the idea of an elementary school suggested by the Home Branch to which he belonged. Professor Ekeh also told us of how Mukoro Mowoe had to write a letter of unconditional apology to the Lagos Branch over an issue of disagreement between the Home Branch and the Lagos Branch, which laid the mater to rest for continued cooperation and progress.
The purpose of the foregoing is to tell us the journey and labour that brought us to where we are and to appreciate the sadness concerning out inability to confront the challenges facing us today.
The Contemporary Challenge
As I have already stated in this paper that the main challenge facing the Urhobo nation today, into which any other challenge can be encapsulated, is the challenge of how to convert her potentials into political assets at the state and national levels. I have also argued earlier that the poor performance of the Urhobo nation in the present political dispensation is the result of the failure of the UPU since the end of the Mukoro Mowoe era to maintain the vision of the union and the necessary central structure of leadership, standards and focus left behind for the ethnic nationality.
In the first place, what are the potentials of the Urhobo nation for political leadership and a strong voice in state and national politics?
The Urhobo National Political Potentials
The over 250 ethnic
So if population can be such an element of political power, as being played out at the national level in the case of the Hausa-Fulani and the other two major groups, there is no reason why the population of Urhobo should not be a potential source of political leadership, at least, at the level of the state.
After the three major ethnic
groups, Urhobo is the
second largest among the so-called minority ethnic groups, coming next
Ijaw ethnic nationality. The home state of the Urhobo people is
In terms of education, as an
element of social and
technical equipment for functioning at any level of political endeavour
state and national levels in Nigeria, and indeed the world, Urhobo is
best prepared in the country; being among the top group with the
concentration of professors and lawyers per capita. Again, in economic
professional activities, Urhobo is also among the most visible groups
Again, in terms of contribution
to national wealth,
Urhobo contributes significantly to the oil industry in
Urhobo in the Present Political Dispensation
The question beckoning on every
Urhobo man or woman
for an answer is how has Urhobo converted these potentials to assets,
especially in terms of political performance at the state and national
In other words, what has the Urhobo gotten to show politically for her
population and other elements of power? The answer is nothing! With 60
of the population of
A careful look at the distribution of national offices/positions at the legislative, executive and judicial hierarchy at the federal level reveals a very gory state for the Urhobo nation indeed. In the national assembly, for instance, we can only talk of two committee chairmanship, while the leadership of any of the chambers of the national assembly continues to elude us. Even the committees chaired by the Urhobo have no direct bearing on the livelihood of the Urhobo man or woman. These committees are of little or no strategic importance to the Urhobo interest. People from smaller ethnic nationalities are given the control of energy, petroleum, industry, agriculture and education committees, yet these are areas for which Urhobos are naturally endowed. Why are we barred from holding any of the principal officers’ positions in our national assembly despite our population? Is democracy no longer the game of numbers?
Again, if we take a look at the executive arm at the national level, the story is the same. Apart from a few slots as cabinet ministers during the military regime, the Urhobo have not even got a slot as a junior minister of state since 1999. In the present dispensation, we are no way near there. Something has definitely gone wrong (ibid. p,.5).
is the picture of the political performance of the Urhobo, even at the
Lack of effective central leadership structure;
Personality conflicts among Urhobo leaders;
The role of the Urhobo political class;
Effects of social and economic change and the value system of Urhobo people; and
The nature of the relationship between Urhobo and other groups.
Each of these factors can be briefly explained as we will do below.
Lack of Effective Central Leadership Structure
One of the factors that helped
achievements of the early UPU was effective central leadership
early 1930s, when UPU was founded, it became about the only
union which brought the Urhobo people together, while its leadership of
Mowoe and his colleagues provided a central rallying point, both for
people and the Urhobo diaspora. The branch in
Such visits were also undertaken to raise funds from the Urhobo diaspora to deal with the various challenges that faced the Urhobo nation.
There were, however occasional disagreements between the home branch and the outside branches over preferences in approaches to be adopted to deal with specific challenges. But such disagreements were often resolved through Mukoro Mowoe`s personal intervention even where such interventions meant tendering a personal apology to a branch, as earlier mentioned in the case of the Lagos branch. Through that central leadership, the Urhobo nation was able to speak with a single voice in confronting the challenges that faced the group with positive results to the benefit of all.
Today, that strong central leadership structure has been seriously challenged and rendered almost impotent by the activities of emergent multi- subgroup organisations, which are in parallel relationships with UPU. Each of these sub-group organisations claims to be speaking for Urhobo interest, while, in fact, competing against one another for selfish interests, which often elude them due to lack of unity and collective efforts. Thus, as against the central leadership structure which obtained during Mukoro Mowoe era, which made easy the mobilisation of the Urhobo national efforts, what obtains today is a situation of multiple centres of leadership, including those created by groups such as the Urhobo Political Forum, Urhobo Consultative Forum and the Urhobo Patriots as well as those resulting from activities of some Urhobo leaders who have become institutions on their own. All these parallel groups and separate centres of leadership are competing for space, loyalty and followership with UPU, thereby making it difficult for Urhobo to speak with one voice on major challenges facing the group. Among the consequences of all these activities are the types of experience we had in the 2003 and, particularly 2007, when Urhobo was in disarray.
Personality Conflicts among Urhobo Leaders
Mukoro Mowoe`s era of leadership and followership is to the history of Urhobo as that of Christ and his followers is to the history and traditions of the Christian religion. They are often cited within the contexts of their different communities as models necessary for advancement or attainment of group goals.
Going by the existing Urhobo historical records, Mukoro Mowoe`s leadership could be said to be generally accepted by all Urhobo men of worth during his time. He served as a rallying point to all Urhobo people, both at home and in the diaspora. There are no records yet of intrigues and subversive activities against his leadership. This must have accounted very largely for the unity of purpose which prevailed in confronting the various challenges which faced the Urhobo nation during his time.
That situation does not exist in Urhobo any more. Apart from the fact that some Urhobo leaders have now become institutions of their own and would not be bothered about UPU and its affairs, intrigues and subversive activities have become the order of the day among Urhobo leaders. One such issue was the manner of removing Chief (Dr.) Esiri from office as president general of UPU through a coup d` etat by some Urhobo leaders who were supposed to be his colleagues. The planned coup d` etat against Chief Esiri was executed at Orerokpe. The same group that overthrew Esiri soon developed its own internal rift and inter-play of intrigues, which subsequently led to their overthrow of one another. Since then, each occasion of electing a new set of executive members for UPU has witnessed a strong division among Urhobo leaders leading, in each case, to separate venues of annual congress holding concurrently at Orerokpe and PTI, Effrun, and always ending up in series of court cases. These developments have not helped Urhobo unity in recent time. Unlike the time of Mukoro Mowoe, many Urhobo leaders now move in opposite directions and speak with different voices- a situation which is non- promotional to the advancement of Urhobo national interests.
The Role of Urhobo Political Class
The Urhobo political class is the category of Urhobo men and women who have taken to politics as a profession. The bulk of them are in their forties and fifties. As a category, their political activities have been characterised in the recent years by intra-group struggles and intrigues to undo one another, rather than to collectivise their energies and resources for solidarity building in order to create and expand political spaces for themselves as a group and for Urhobo as a nation. Having been so internally divided and bereft of the necessary unity to confront their external opponents as a group, they have often resorted to seeking separate alliances with their counter groups from outside, even if only to play the second fiddle in such engagements. Thus, with Urhobo political centre no longer holding strong, the political class has dismembered itself with different groups going separately to pitch tents with outside blocs, such as Delta South, Ndokwa and Anioma, thereby returning Urhobo to the “Babylonian” experience of the pre-UPU era . In all this development, the UPU of the new era has not helped matters. In the particularly disastrous outing of the 2007 general elections, the UPU leadership played the role of tying bells on the necks of too many of her dogs and pushed them out to hunt for the same game. As should be expected, the dogs devoted a good part of their energies to try to eliminate each other in order to get at the game, which had to elude all of them to the benefit of the dogs from the other parks due to lost energies and lack of internal unity. This position of the UPU then was not due to lack of warning signals from some low level directions, such as ours. This is probably one of such issues where Mukoro Mowoe would have characteristically intervened to save the situation for the benefit of the Urhobo nation.
Effects of Social and Economic Change and the Value System of Urhobo People
As a social group, Urhobo people share a strong similarity with the Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria in an aspect of their social values. Like the Igbo people, the Urhobo people respect and revere those who control wealth and defer to them in public discourse. This characteristic of the Urhobo people is echoed by the type of names they give to their children, indicating why the rich should be revered and deferred to. Thus, there are many such names as “Etaredaferua”- meaning statements from the rich are more convincing and acceptable; “Edafewhara”- meaning the rich are more sensible; “Edafiavwoghoke”- meaning it is the rich that command respect; and “Edafevwiroro”- meaning the rich have more wisdom.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that the enormous achievements of Mukoro Mowoe in positively transforming the Urhobo identity can largely be attributed to his towering combination of social, economic and political status over and above any living person of Urhobo origin and, indeed
At the time of his death Chief Mukoro Mowoe was a member of the Western (Regional) House of Assembly, member of Warri Township Advisory Board, member of the Warri Provincial Development Management Board, a Councillor of the Eastern Urhobo Native Administration, General Merchant-Exporter and Importer and a many-sided contractor, President General of the Urhobo Progress Union. No other person in the entire province combined in himself such multifarious duties to his people and the province. Everyone from the youngest talking child to the grey-bearded knew the name Mowoe. He was virtually a legend in his own life.
Mukoro Mowoe`s political and social status then was such that during the brief illness that led to his death, the Acting Resident of Warri Province, Mr. R.P.V. Wilkes and the Chief Commissioner of the Western Provinces, Mr John Macpherson, who later became Governor of Nigeria, visited and sat beside him on his sick bed. In terms of wealth, the account has it that Mukoro Mowoe was by then the most successful international merchant of Nigerian origin in the
So much has changed in social, economic and political terms in Urhobo. Today, many Urhobo business men and women of international status have emerged, competing with one another for attention, respect and reverence. And unlike the days of the lone ‘Providence House’, many more imposing houses belonging to Urhobo people have emerged with comparable splendour. Politically, there are now many of current, as well as ex-this and ex-that, in terms of Governors, Senators, national and state assembly members, including ministers and commissioners in Urhoboland. But, unlike Mukoro Mowoe and his colleagues of the early days, many in this class of the rich today would rather prefer standing above the UPU and have it serve their personal interest than being part of its affairs in the advancement of the general interest of Urhobo. One major consequence of these developments is that, for the Urhobo, the centre is no longer holding for the old spirit of brotherhood and development. Again, it has led to too many voices speaking for Urhobo with discordant notes. This, certainly, needs to change, if we must raise the political visibility of Urhobo collectively.
The Nature of the Relationship with Other Groups
In international politics, a nation’s ability to influence the behaviours of other nations along the lines of her interest is a national asset of great value. It enables a nation to meet much of her aspirations within the community of nations. However, this asset is not a commodity to be bought cheaply in the market. Rather, those nations that know its value invest largely in its cultivation, growth and continuous nurturing through ingenious diplomatic engineering. One golden rule in this engineering process is that on no ground should the behaviours of other nations in the international politics be taken for granted, notwithstanding one’s perception of the greatness of one’s natural endowment – be it in the area of natural resources or population strength. This is because such natural endowment is only a mere potential waiting to be converted into an asset through serious management of inter-group relations.
What applies in international
also applicable with inter-group relations within a nation. Just as
powerful nations as the
If Urhobo must play a leading
role that is
commensurate with her potentials in
It is my view that Urhobo does not necessarily have to be head of the state government each time to be politically relevant and strong. What is important is that in each of such occasions, we must not fail to be seen as the king maker. The pain of the particular case of the 2007 was that Urhobo was neither king, nor was she seen as the king maker. If Urhobo can understand what it takes to be such, it should be difficult for anyone outside Urhobo to head the state government without the Urhobo people playing the role of the king maker. The present situation whereby prominent Urhobo people run to Delta South and North to prostitute for positions will take Urhobo to no where. Urhobo must have a structure for inter-group relations management.
The Way Forward
Much of what needs to be said in this paper has been stated above, except to re-emphasise that Urhobo needs to return to the Mukoro Mowoe’s era of a strong central leadership structure built under the umbrella of the UPU with a well articulated national vision. As of today, not many of us know the national vision that guides the Urhobo ethnic nationality and its UPU leadership. The Urhobo leadership under Mukoro Mowoe identified the challenges which faced the Urhobo of their era and confronted them with a vision of an Urhobo with a positive identity, strong and united, capable of defending its territorial assets, benefiting fully from opportunities provided by the modern political society, and playing a leading role with a strong voice at the various levels of the political arena.
The Urhobo of our era must not only identify her challenges, it must confront such challenges with a clear national vision, which must not be known to the leadership alone, but also to the average Urhobo man and woman. Again, the Urhobo voice should be heard on major national and regional issues. Urhobo is the second largest group in the Niger Delta, coming after the Ijaw. Yet, on the Niger Delta issues, the Urhobo voice has been dormant, while those of the ijaw and Ogoni are heard clearly through their Ijaw National Congress and the MOSOP machineries, respectively. Such that today, the Federal Government and the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta often sneeze whenever the Ijaw and the Ogoni people cough. If these people talk and they get much of what they want, and we play the good boy by not talking and get nothing, why must we continue to sing a song that takes us to bed hungry each night? We must have to review our survival strategies both at the state and national levels.