FOURTH ANNUAL CONFERENCE AND MEETING
October 31 - November 2, 2003
URHOBO RELIGIOUS LEADERS AND THE URHOBO NATION
By The Very Revd Prof. S. U. Erivwo
1) PREAMBLE: RELIGIOUS LEADERS AND CIVIL SOCIETY
leaders were ab initio meant to be the leaders of their people in
all aspects of life, sacred and secular.
Moses was a religious leader and by virtue of being a religious
he was also leader of his people in all aspects of their life. He was called and appointed/commissioned by Yaweh to lead the Israelites from slavery in
2) DEFINITION OF TERMS
(a) Religious Leaders: By the term “Religious Leaders,” we would mean in this paper, primarily, Christian religious leaders, those leaders of Christian Communities in Urhobo land, which includes some of those who brought Christianity to the area. The term would also include members of the Clergy, or those who hold important ministerial positions in their Christian communities.
But lest it be thought that we disregard the traditional religion and culture which is woven into the warp and woof of African life generally and of the Urhobo people in particular, we shall also use the term religious leaders secondarily to refer to leaders of the Urhobo Traditional Religion. And here the leadership is not easy to define, because the traditional religion can scarcely be separated from social, and even political life of the people. Consequently, when the term “Religious Leaders” is used in reference to leaders of the Urhobo Traditional Religion, the focus will be more on the traditional rulers (Ivie and Orodje) and their Chiefs, who are usually the custodians of the traditional religion and culture. In fact, as Prof. F.M.A. Ukoli reported, each of the 22 kingdoms in Urhoboland ‘is headed by an Ovie who is vested with religious and secular powers…exercising administrative, judicial, legislative, and religious authority over his domain” (Ukoli 1999).
Urhobo Nation: By “Urhobo
nation,” is meant the entire
Urhobo people, who belong to the
Purpose of Keynote Address
The question may well be asked, what is the
main purpose or
focus of this address. Its main purpose is to create awareness, a
of the Urhobo personality and assess the place of Urhobo nationality
context of the Nigerian nation. It would
also appreciate the role religious leaders of the people had played in
and make recommendations on the role they can still play to move, first
Urhobo people foreword, and secondly to also move the
3) URHOBO PERSONALITY
A people’s self – consciousness is usually reflected in their attitude towards their language, culture, their cohesiveness as a people, and their relationship to their neighbours. We shall take a deeper look at two aspects of the Urhobo personality.
(i) Urhobo Culture
Culture is defined as “the artificial and
environment which man superimposes on the natural, the sum of all that
spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life, and as an
of spiritual and moral life…” (Erivwo 1997b). As I stated elsewhere, “it is the totality of
habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organizations, inherited
technical processes, moral values, and religion”(Erivwo
Any ethnic nationality, in
Religious leaders, both Christian and traditional, in Urhoboland, play a major role in identifying and promoting Urhobo culture. They do so by encouraging the celebration of traditional festivals, such as Ohworhu festival at Evwreni, Uwherun wrestling festival, the Iheri annual festival at Ughelli and Agbarha, Ughievwe annual festival, Okpara festival and so on.
Each nationality as a result of the advancement of Science and Technology, is striving to make its voice heard and known all over the world, which has now become a global village. If you do not say ‘I am here’, nobody may know, or even admit that you are there. In this modern culture of Information Technology, the leaders of the people are expected to also lead the way, so that generations coming behind them may follow. Urhobo songs, literature and history should be documented, presented and transmitted to the wider world through the Internet. Here we owe immeasurable gratitude to the Urhobo Historical Society under the dynamic leadership of Prof. Peter Ekeh, which launched the Urhobo Historical Society websites (www.waado.org. etc). It is a significant way of promoting the Urhobo culture in our time.
For Urhobo identity to be known, recognized, and accepted in the world, the leaders of the people, religious and secular, must play a major role in Urhobo affairs. In the early days of the UPU, that organization functioned inter alia, as a means of promoting Urhobo culture, and way of life, through dances and cultural displays organized annually under the auspices of the UPU. This trend should continue and be improved upon. Here religious leaders can also play a major role, that is, by taking active interest in the activities of the UPU.
(ii) Urhobo Language
Language is the vehicle of conveying a
people’s culture. As
an illustration of the position of language in a people’s heritage, a
told of an Urhobo elite living in the
For a second illustrative story, while pastoring St. Luke’s Anglican Church Sapele, I had a watch night, an Hausa man, who took delight in speaking sentences in Hausa to me.“Sanu De Zua…Segu-be” and so on; until a certain evening when he came to work, and in a conversation with him, he told me that he came to Sapele in January 1946. And up to the time we were speaking which was in 1996, he could not speak one sentence in Urhobo. Thereafter when he wanted to continue to teach me Hausa, I resolutely refused.
A third story may be told to complete the trinity of problems facing the Urhobo language: I have a brother-in-law working in DSC, Aladja. In the early 1980s while we were at Ekpoma, he came on a visit, and in the course of his brief stay with us told this story. His son whom he instructed to speak the Urhobo language, because he and his wife believed that they needed to bring up their children in a way to appreciate and be able to speak their mother tongue fluently, told the father one day as the father raised his hand to flog him for an offence he committed. “I no go speak Urhobo aganioo!”
From these three stories, we see first a child living far away in the USA, who realized that they ought to have a special language (the mother tongue) as others have, but whose parents were either not fluent in speaking, or not willing, to speak the language and teach the children. Second, we also see an elderly man, from another ethnic group, who had lived in Urhobo land for 50 years, eager to teach an Urhobo elite his Hausa language while he himself had not learnt to speak a sentence in Urhobo for the 50 years he had been amongst the people. And thirdly, we see an Urhobo child whose parents were insisting that he should learn and speak the language, now feeling that to speak the Urhobo language was to do his father a favour. It goes a long way to show that there is a problem that needs addressing. If there is an area where Urhobo identity is disappearing fast, it is in the inability of our children to speak and take delight in speaking the language.
The early Christian leaders in Urhoboland however did a lot to first commit the language into writing and then, encourage their members to learn it. Agori Iwe wrote an Urhobo Primer containing the words:
“Mo re kpo, wo nyori? Wo kpo re? Yarhe.”
Come let us go home, have you heard? Won’t you go yet? Come.
As children in primary school, we enjoyed
reading it. Agori –Iwe
championed the cause
of the Urhobo language. He not only
wrote a primer, first the Gospels of Mark and John, and then the whole
Testament books were translated under his leadership.
Working with him were men like Ikimi
Waghoregho of Ephronto,
William Okonorho Etadeferua,
Isaac Efedjama, Ven.
Johnson Emoefe, Ven.
Okirhienyefa of the
4) THE WORK OF THREE URHOBO CHURCH LEADERS
The first such religious leader of the early
Christianity in Urhoboland is Aganbi of
Eku.1 Aganbi introduced the
“Eku we rovwo; a guono ozighire”
Eku be calm, we do not want trouble.
Once he stepped in, there would be calm. We are told that Aganbi
was so peace – loving, and so forgiving that, if any one slapped him,
pray that the man be forgiven. His magnanimity became so noticeable
became a common saying among his people “ophu
mue Aganbii:” “Aganbi never
offence.” As a leader, he was so kind
hearted that he adopted motherless babies and helped to train many
from Eku who would otherwise not have had
opportunity of a formal education.
Through his influence, Baptist Missionaries built an hospital in
Eku in 1950. All
Baptist schools in the then Midwest Region, we are told, were
him. According to Mrs. Aganbi and Chief J.E. Ukueku,
was Aganbi who sponsored Chief Mukoro
foremost political leader to the Old Legislative Council, because Aganbi was not prepared to combine his clerical
politics. It goes without saying
therefore, that, as I stated elsewhere, “Aganbi
(ii) Agori Iwe
who was, at a stage, taught by Ejovi Aganbi, went to St. Andrew’s College Oyo, where
as a teacher/Catechist, from 1924 – 1928.
On his return from Oyo, he was posted to Otovwodo
– Ughelli, and in collaboration with the
of the time, Rev. J.C.C. Thomas and others, Agori
Iwe helped to put the Churches in
Urhoboland which were
disorganized by Ishoshi Erhi
crisis in 1929, in order. He went to
train for his ordination at
Outside the church, Agori Iwe served in different capacities. In 1944, he was appointed a member of Urhobo/Isoko Divisional Council and later he was appointed Appeal Court Judge. In 1955 he was appointed as a “private member” councilor for central Urhobo District Council, and in 1958, a member of the Midwest Advisory Council to represent the educational interests of the Urhobo and Isoko people. Through him many Schools and Colleges were built in Urhoboland and Isoko land.
Not only did he cause a Primary School to be opened in his home community at Okuama in 1936, when the previous School collapsed; he caused another one to be started in the same place in 1940. He successfully counselled and led his home community of Okuama to win a decisive victory in the land dispute with the Ijo community in the then West African Court of Appeal at Warri, in 1946. He also played a leadership role in another land dispute which Okuama had with a neigbouring community, this time an Urhobo community of Oviri – Olomu. In consequence of his counsel, all the communities sharing a common border with the land in dispute, were allowed by law to share in the land.
On another occasion, he intervened in the dispute between the Okuama people
and the government of the day that could have resulted in the sack of the community. He brought peace by making the community make the necessary reparations. For this act of “salvation” for his people, the community composed a song in his praise.
Agori jevwe, Agori jevwe, Agori Okpurhe rode
Emo re Okuama vwa golo wan – Iye Iye.
I admire Agori, I admire Agori Agori is a mighty tree
A mighty tree fell across the river
Okuama children proudly match across it. Iye iye.1
Unlike Aganbi’s, Agori’s leadership style emphasized discipline. Whether he was dealing with his children, and members of his immediate family or with his Clergy, and members of the Church who misbehaved and disobeyed church rule, Agori’s leadership style was based on orderliness and disciplined life. He often mediated amongst leading members of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) who had disagreement among themselves. In his administration of justice, he was patently impartial, and for this reason, while he was a councilor, and an Appeal Court Judge, those who worked with him who would have liked to receive bribes felt very much uneasy in his presence. His leadership qualities in his family, in his community of Okuama, and in Church and government were outstanding. The many honorific titles conferred on him bear eloquent testimony to the fact that Agori Iwe was a leader and a man of many parts. He was made a Justice of Peace (JP) in 1957, member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1957, and Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) in 1965. Not only the Church, but the Urhobo nation, is still in dire need of leaders of the caliber of Agori Iwe. After a long life of dedicated service, in Church and State, disciplined character and rigorous leadership style, Agori passed on to the Church Triumphant on 9th July 1979.
(iii) Stephen Umurie
Stephen Umurie was second in command to Mr. Okpikimu who introduced the
Roman Catholic Church to Ephron
(Effurun) in 1927. Umurie
who was at the Teacher Training College Ibusa
with the Principal to recommend him to the seminary.
He was recommended for training in 1929, at Asaba. The students
were later transferred to
Umurie’s life was
qualities of obedience, humility, diligence, and tactfulness. He ministered in many stations including Ashaka, Warri, Kabba,
served as a Parish Priest from 1951- 1958.
He also served as a Parish Priest at Ibusa
from 1958 to1968. The
moment he became a Parish Priest, he was
also Manager of the Roman Catholic Mission schools in each of the
where he served as a Parish Priest. In
1967 he was elevated to the office of a Monsignor and posted to Ughelli in 1968 to be in charge of the Parish. In 1970 Umurie
made a Vicar – General of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Warri. On
Stephen Umurie assisted the Rev. Fr. Kelly
in 1939 to
translate the Stations of the Cross to Urhobo.
He also assisted in the translation of the Catholic Prayer Book,
of Heaven, to Urhobo, and vetted it single handedly in 1944/45 before
approved for publication by the Bishop of
5) THE CONTRIBUTION OF THESE THREE CHURCH LEADERS TO LEADERSHIP IN URHOBOLAND
Aganbi, Agori, and Umurie, were three outstanding Urhobo Church Leaders. They demonstrated in their lives what Christianity could make of individuals who dedicated themselves to the call of the Lord Jesus. Each of them became bearer of light in the communities where they operated. And their leadership transformed the lives of their followers.
However, one of the unfortunate dimensions of the leadership role of the trio in Urhoboland was the rivalry amongst the different Christian denominations, which they represented. One consequence of that rivalry was the use of different orthographies of the Urhobo language in their translation work. Agori Iwe translated the Gospel of John. Aganbi translated the same Gospel of John, later, using a different orthography. The Roman Catholics did not at first regard other churches as genuine Christian churches, and so continued to seduce their members.
However, over the years, the walls of barriers among the various denominations began to crumble, as the spirit of ecumenism continued to grow, in such a way that by the time the Urhobo Bible was translated, and published in 1978, it was possible to have a translation committee embracing members of the different denominations in Urhoboland.
On the whole, these early church leaders played a leading role in creating awareness of western civilization amongst our people through the introduction of schools, in committing the Urhobo language to writing, in attracting health care delivery systems to the land, in participating in the government of the day at different levels, and by mediating amongst other Urhobo leaders, especially at the UPU level, where there was disagreement.
6) TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS: THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO UNITY AND URHOBO CONSCIOUSNESS:
The traditional religious leaders, the Ivie and their Councils of Chiefs and elders, play a dominant role in the leadership of their respective domains. Each of the traditional rulers and their chiefs, exercise administrative, judicial, legislative and religious authority over his kingdom, for they are the custodians of Urhobo traditional religion and culture. Under their authority each polity expresses the people’s culture during annual festivals, or periodic celebrations, like the Ekene of Agbarha, the Edje-enu of Okpara, the Igboze festival of Olomu. Some of these periodic festivals are celebrated once in 20 years, or once in 10 years. They are characterized by dances, exchange of gifts, and veneration of ancestors and so on.
During annual festivals and periodic celebrations, the Urhobo abroad (and that includes Urhobo elite) are expected to return home and share in the festivities. In this way the people’s culture, and their traditions are kept alive as they are usually rehearsed. It is often said of an Urhobo who for some odd reason refuses to go home frequently to share in the social and religious life of the people that he would lose his identity, and may not flow with the people’s way of life. The common saying to describe such a person is;
Ohwo ro kpe Ukane or Ohwo ro ne uwevwi krire,
Ode rhe ile re awanre Koye o sua
“The man who traveled abroad and for a long time did not come home, when he comes home, he will be singing outdated songs.”
In other words he would not be current with the life and latest development of his own people because no culture is static; culture is dynamic.
Before the various traditional festivals are celebrated it is at the Ovie’s palace that final decision of the exact date is reached. Dances by the different towns and villages that constitute a given kingdom, are usually organized from the town to the palace, as a way of paying homage to the reigning monarch.
Any dispute between members of the kingdom which could not be settled in a town meeting by the council of elders in a given town in Ughelli, for instance, will end up at the Ovie’s palace. Also the Ovie and his chiefs would normally hold regular meetings to discuss the affairs of the kingdom and where there are disagreements to settle or issues to address in the interest of the kingdom, these are discussed, settled, and agreed on at the palace.
With the advent of western civilization, expressed in British rule, which gave birth to the Nigerian nation in 1914, and the introduction of a Local government system, first known as Native Authority (N.A), the influence of the Ivie and their council of chiefs may have diminished, but not obliterated. Indeed, for the Local Government Council Authority of any area in Urhoboland to succeed, the Local Government Authority needs to cooperate and work in harmony with the traditional ruler of that kingdom and his council of chiefs.
Finally, let us also point out that in
Urhoboland, all the Ivie
For example, where it is observed, as is often the case, that either at the State or Federal Government level, the sharing of offices is being carried out to the detriment of our people, the Ivie can make representations, either to the State Government, or to the Presidency, to make their views and needs known. In this and other ways, they contribute significantly to the collective leadership of Urhoboland.
Also, the UPU, from time to time, holds consultations, with the Council of the Ivie, on issues, which affect the well being of our people. The current and recurrent crisis in Warri, is a case in point. It is one over which the Ivie and the UPU leadership should confer and together proffer a solution to Government, whether Government listens or not. It is important that the leadership of the people makes their views well known to the Government of the day.
I recall, that during the first term of the present PDP Government in Delta State of Nigeria, when the question of whether or not the PTI Effurun be allowed to be used by Federal overnment, as a temporary Campus of the Federal University of Benin, and the controversy was very fierce, some of us who had access to significant documents, argued that we should accept the offer as a first step to having a Federal University presence in our area. The UPU leadership had to hold consultation with the Ivie of Urhoboland at the palace of the Ovie of Ephron. Erohwo II (who has now slept in the Lord). The point we are making here, is that the Ivie and their Chiefs play significant roles in Urhobo leadership. This being the case, they should be enlightened, well informed about the goings on, in our world, and they should be carried along by other segments of Urhobo leadership, for us as a people to really move forward in our very rapidly changing world.
7) THE WAY FORWARD
From what has been said earlier on, it is clear that Urhobo religious leaders of the past, were conscious of their identity. They knew who they were and consequently initiated and championed the cause of promoting the Urhobo language, by committing the language to writing, by translating Books of the Bible, and subsequently, translating the whole Bible to the Urhobo language.
What is not now so clear is the extent to which the contemporary Urhobo religious leaders have sustained, and are sustaining the initial interest and efforts of our predecessors. Admittedly there is still the Urhobo Translation Committee currently working on the revision of the Urhobo Bible. And the Urhobo Bible and hymnals are a rich source for promoting the Urhobo language. This effort needs to be expanded to other secular areas such as developing the “Yono Urhobo 1 & 2” written years ago by S.S. Ugheteni.
The Urhobo language is profusely rich in proverbs and pithy sayings which we hear of, when a social gathering, like traditional marriage, is organized by an important personality. Urhobo music records by Ogute, Ọmọkọmọkọ, Johnson Adjan, Okpa Arido, and 1so on are already becoming extinct. Our religious leaders (Christian and Traditional) should have a forum for discussing, such documents, preserving them, and passing them on to future generation. Those records should now be converted to discs as a result of modern technology.
The Urhobo elite should cultivate the habit of speaking the language at home, to their children who will pass this tradition on to posterity. For those Urhobo elite, who are Christians, let me recommend the practice of holding their morning family prayers in English and the evening family prayers in Urhobo. In this way your children will take delight in the language.
The leaders should also ensure that the Ministry of Education is prevailed upon to introduce the teaching of Urhobo language in Primary and Secondary Schools, in Colleges of Education and in the Universities. Done in this way, the language will be kept alive, and will not suffer the fate of a language like Latin known now as a dead language.
(ii) Urhobo Unity
It was our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “A House or kingdom divided against itself cannot stand”. Our religious leaders (Christian and Traditional) should be sensitive to those issues that disrupt our unity, as a people. Where there are misunderstandings, patent or implicit, as between the Urhobo of Okere and the Agbarha of Warri, the religious leaders should create a forum where such misunderstandings are resolved amicably as between brothers. And where there is a clear dispute over border or ownership of any part of Urhoboland, as the protracted dispute between Udu and Effurun, over Enerhe, the religious leaders should step in and seek for ways and means of resolving such disputes. For it is in unity that there is strength. For example, if all the Urhobo indigenes of Warri are truly united, they will be in a better and stronger position to resist external aggression, which tends to frequently disrupt the peace of this so called oil City.
(iii) The Urhobo People and their Neighbours: The Ijo, Itsekiri, Isoko,
Ukwani, and Bini.
Our religious leaders, many of whom have significant relations in these neighbouring ethnic groups, should also have a forum which attends to inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, and nip them in the bud. For example, in 1997 when there was a serious crisis, between Egbaregolo people and their Ijo neighbours, religious leaders, especially the leadership of the Warri Diocese (Anglican Communion) in collaboration with the leadership of the UPU, and some other Urhobo leaders like Chief J.E. Ukueku, played a major role in resolving the crisis and bringing peace to the two communities. A stitch in time saves nine. Such conflicts are usually as a result of injustice, perpetrated by a group that seeks to dominate their neigbhours politically and economically in the Niger Delta Region. Here our religious leaders should be at the forefront presenting an Urhobo voice, and ensuring that justice and peace are maintained for the proper development of the region. They should remember, and reiterate the truth to the State and Federal Governments, that without justice, there can be no peace. What we have, for example, in Warri metropolis now is not peace, but a truce, an uneasy calm. The Ijo, the Itsekiri and the Urhobo of Warri and in Warri, can co-exist and together see to the development of the area. Religious leaders should be at the forefront of the fight for justice and peace in the area. Creation of separate Local Government Areas for the three ethnic groups is an honest and viable solution to the Warri problem, because it is fair and just to do so, although this recommendation has not been accepted by all concerned.
(iv) Image and Place of the Urhobo People in Nigerian Politics.
Our religious leaders, as leaders ought to be
the image and place of the Urhobo people in Nigerian politics. Political offices both at the State and
Federal levels are not obtained by the idle or lazy man.
They are not bestowed on any one on a platter
of gold. People struggle for them. Similarly, neglect and exploitation of the
Niger Delta region by the Federal government is not a situation that
can be reversed without a struggle, a struggle such as the Delta State
Chief James Onanefe Ibori
championed during his first tenure and designated struggle for Resource
Control. That struggle could be seen as
another terminology for a struggle for the realization of a true
In all these struggles, our religious leaders
should play a
significant role by sensitizing their congregations in their sermons,
studies about the need for justice and fair play in
It was Tennyson who said,” Far more things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of “. Any battle fought and won in the physical realm, had first been fought and won in the spiritual realm. This being the case, who are better qualified and equipped to fight the battle in the spirit realm than our Religious leaders? They should always bear up the different strata of the Urhobo people in their prayers, standing in the gap, and pleading the case of the Urhobo nation before God.
Our religious leaders (Christian and
traditional) should be
involved in the challenge of reorganizing the UPU, in a way to reflect
of Mukoro Mowoe’s days.
For as Prof. Onokerhoraye
made very clear, there is a leadership vacuum created in Urhobo land
after the death of Mukoro Mowoe on
The leadership vacuum created by the demise of Mukoro Mowoe, is still with us, with all its dangerous consequences - the serious maginalization of the Urhobo. Our religious leaders should come together, and create a forum which will bring the needed pressure on the present UPU to be reformed in a way that it can effectively play the role which the UPU of Mukoro Mowoe’s day played in Urhobo affairs.
Finally, in this modern world, the religious leaders should identify with, promote and encourage a society like the Urhobo Historical Society which created the present forum, and which exists to pursue the progress, recognition and acceptance of the Urhobo nationality world-wide. If our religious leaders play the roles recommended in this paper effectively, they will demonstrate to the world that as religious leaders they are also leaders of their people – the Urhobo nation – in all aspects of the people’s life.
Ladies & Gentlemen,
Let me conclude by expressing my profound gratitude for being chosen and given the opportunity to articulate the views expressed in this paper
I end this paper with our national anthem.
Urhobo jevwe, Urhobo jevwe (2x)
Obo r’ Urhobo jevwe na Asa ofa jevwe otioye yoo
Edefa me cha akpo Urhobo me je wan rhe
Urhobo hee Urhobo hee, Orere ri Ivie saan
Beloved brothers and sisters,
May God bless all of you and Urhoboland richly in Jesus’ name. Amen
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