Urhobo Historical Society

J. O. S. Ayomike and the Truth about Warri City

By Peter P. Ekeh
Chair, Urhobo Historical Society

In its submission to the Danjuma Panel on the Warri Crisis, Urhobo Historical Society (The Guardian, September 17-20, 2003) attempted to lay out the bare truth about the Warri crisis. The Society’s submission included a rejoinder to the Itsekiri establishment’s questioning of the validity of the treaties which the British made with the indigenous people of Warri in 1893. In his response (Vanguard, October 21, 2003) to the section on British treaties in the paper by Urhobo Historical Society, J. O. S. Ayomike, a principal spokesman of the Itsekiri establishment, has masked the truth by creating a mystification of facts and questions that deserve to be stated clearly in a straightforward manner. He is certainly wrong in the facts, and in the logic of his argument, about the treaties which the British made with Urhobo communities in Warri District in 1893.

The purpose of this paper is to state, as clearly as I can muster, the true facts about Warri City and the treaties that do establish beyond any shadow of doubt the following two sets of facts:

(i) In the 1880s and 1890s, when the British signed treaties with Itsekiri Chiefs, there was no indigenous Itsekiri presence in what is now Warri City. Instead, the Itsekiri occupied the area of Benin River and the banks of Escravos River. From the two treaties that Itsekiri Chiefs made with the British in 1884 and 1894, the Itsekiri laid no claims whatsoever to the lands that now constitute Warri City. These are facts and they are the truth.

(ii) From the treaties which the British made in 1893 with the Chiefs and people of Agbassa and other neighbouring Urhobo communities in what the British clearly designated as “Warri District,” there is no doubt at all that the Agbassa and their neighbours were the indigenous people of these lands, now called Warri City, in the 1890s and long before that decade.

The absence of the Itsekiri from what is now Warri City, well up to the 1890s, and the presence of the Agbassa and other Urhobo communities in these lands in the 1890s, and well before then, are matters that can be determined from British treaties with the Itsekiri in 1884 and 1894 and with Agbassa in 1893. That is why these treaties are so important. Let’s do some historical truth telling, for once, about Warri and its lands without masking their history with manufactured improbabilities.

The Truth about the Name Warri

The origin of the name Warri does not belong to the Itsekiri, Urhobo, or Ijaw. It is a foreign name, just as Lagos, Calabar, Escravos and Forcados are Portuguese names. Warri is a corruption from the name of a Portuguese sailor who explored the creeks of the western Niger delta, just as the word Kalabari in the eastern Niger Delta is said to be a corruption from the Portuguese name of Calabar.

The whole region from the mouth of rivers Forcados and Escravos to the inland waterways now called Warri River was nicknamed after the Portuguese sailor Afonso de’ Aveiro, who pioneered in the exploration of the region in the 1480s. His surname of “Aveiro” would be pronounced in its Latin form of “Aweiro,” yielding various corruptions of “iwere” and “wari.” It was the British colonial officer Captain H. L. Gallwey who rationalized the name by calling it Warri in the 1890s.

It is therefore factually false for any of the three groups in the western Niger delta to lay claims to the origin of the name Warri. It is patently a foreign name. There is plenty of irony in the claim by the Itsekiri establishment that the word “Iwere” or Warri is synonymous with Itsekiri. The truth is that when Afonso de Aveiro was operating in the creeks of the western Niger Delta in the 1480s, the name Itsekiri did not exist. What we now know as Itsekiri nationality was founded or created by the children and descendants of the fugitive Benin Prince Ginuwa who did not meet the Portuguese until 1516. The terms Itsekiri and Olu were not in existence when Ginuwa was alive. It was after his death that his children took those words from Ode Itsekiri, an island that bore the name of a man who had received them after their difficult wanderings in the creeks of the western Niger Delta. Such is the truth that we learn from the premier Itsekiri historian William Moore.

The Truth about the British Treaties with Itsekiri Chiefs in 1884 and 1894

We learn an important fact about Warri from the two treaties that the British made with Itsekiri Chiefs in 1884 and 1894. It is the truth that Warri was of no concern to Chief Nana Olomu and the other Itsekiri Chiefs who negotiated several clauses of the 1884 Protection Treaty with the British. The original Treaty bore the following title: “Treaty With Chiefs of Jakri (River Benin).” But Nana and the Itsekiri Chiefs insisted that “River Escravos” should be added. After due verification by the British signatory of the Treaty, both banks of Escravos River were added to the Treaty, twenty-one days later on August 6, 1884. Remarkably at no point was Warri mentioned or sought by Nana Olomu and the other Chiefs who made that Treaty with the British in 1884.

The 1894 Treaty was made with Itsekiri Chiefs on the eve of the British attack on Chief Nana Olomu. Its full title is as follows: “Treaties with Chiefs of Benin River and Itsekiri Country.” Again there was no mention of Warri in that Treaty. J. O. S. Ayomike has complained many times that Urhobo Historical Society wrongly labeled the British Treaties as those with the Itsekiri of Benin River. His latest complaint is in the Vanguard article to which this is a response. He writes: “There are no Treaties in the British Archive referred to as ‘Benin River Treaties.”’ But the titles of both Treaties cited above say so. Moreover, the principal officers of Itsekiri country under British trading relationship were called “Governors of Benin River.” In his first appointment as an agent of  British imperial services, the Itsekiri man Dore Numa was called “Political Agent for Benin River” while George Eyube, an Urhoboman from Agbarho, was the Political Agent for Warri District until his accidental death in 1901. Why now run away from the label “Benin River” with which Itsekiri affairs were identified for several centuries? The truth is that the Itsekiri establishment’s love for Warri was not there until Warri became important during British colonial times.

Urhobo Historical Society has published both the 1884 and 1894 Treaties in its web site at http://www.waado.org/UrhoboHistory/NigerDelta/ColonialTreaties/ItsekiriTreaties/ItsekiriTreaties.html. Let those who are interested study these treaties directly without the spin from the Itsekiri establishment. They will capture the truth for themselves.

The Truth about British Treaties with Urhobo Communities in Warri District in 1893

Urhobo Historical Society has also published the Protection Treaties which the British made with seven Urhobo communities in a geographical area that the British designated as Warri District. These included a Treaty made on March 14, 1893, with Agbassa, in the very heart of what is now Warri City. These treaties have the same clauses as the Itsekiri Treaties of 1884 and 1894, although the 1894 Itsekiri Treaty has an additional ratification clause. These days, there are many Nigerians who have access to the internet. They can see these Treaties directly and without filter at http://www.waado.org/UrhoboHistory/BritishColonialRule/ColonialTreaties/ColonialTreaties.html in the web site of Urhobo Historical Society. They should be able to judge for themselves the value of these Treaties without the biased and desperate interpretation in the campaign by the Itsekiri establishment to hide the truth about the indigenous people of Warri City.

It is only fair to the readers of this article that we let them know that J. O. S. Ayomike contacted Urhobo Historical Society in 2001 demanding that it should cease publication of these documents in its web site. Needles to say, we rejected his demand. These Treaties of 1893 were among tens of hundreds of so-called Protection Treaties which the British made all over Southern Nigeria, except with the Benin whose King refused to sign such a Treaty. These Protection Treaties were the basis on which the British laid claim to colonial rule in Southern Nigeria. In 1893, the British made such treaties with many communities in Yorubaland. At many points, the British also had Protection Treaties with Igbo communities as well as with the Ukwuani and other communities of modern Delta State.

It is amazing that out of tens of hundreds of such Protection Treaties, the Itsekiri establishment has chosen to denigrate the Treaties that the Agbassa and other indigenous peoples of Warri made with the British. Since J. O. S. Ayomike contacted Urhobo Historical Society in 2001, he has offered a variety of reasoning why these Treaties with the indigenous people of Warri should be discounted. His Vanguard article narrates some of them, while he seems to have dropped others, following previous responses from Urhobo Historical Society. Ayomike is neither a lawyer nor a conventional historian, that is, one who reaches historical conclusions from the evidence that historical data supply. Nonetheless, he claims the authority to decide on why these Treaties, out of the numerous ones made by the British in Southern Nigeria, are not genuine.

The Itsekiri establishment’s most sensational claim, made in a document dated 7th April, 2003, and presented before the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, was couched as follows: “Agbassa Treaty of 14th March 1893. There is no signature of Her Majesty’s representative on it.” In effect, guided by the presumed scholarly authority of J. O. S. Ayomike, the influential Itsekiri establishment claimed before the President that there were no British Treaties with the Agbassa and other Urhobo communities in Warri District, because the representative of the British Government did not sign these treaties. The Itsekiri establishment’s document, addressed to President Olusegun Obasanjo, made the following claim on these treaties: “As there is no signature of Her Majesty’s Representative on each treaty, no one can talk of a genuine Treaty as such. It takes two parties to make a treaty.”

However, any careful examination of each of these treaties, which are published at  http://www.waado.org/UrhoboHistory/BritishColonialRule/ColonialTreaties/ColonialTreaties.html in the web site of Urhobo Historical Society for the all the world to inspect, will readily reveal the signature of a British officer “Arthur E. Harrison,” with the notation “Vice-Consul” plainly written beneath it. We pointed this fact out in the response by Urhobo Historical Society to the Itsekiri establishment’s misguided claims (in The Guardian, September 17-20, 2003).

If J. O. S. Ayomike were a conventional historian, he would feel some embarrassment, apologize for his inattention in misreading the text of the document, and then move on. But no, not Ayomike. He can never make a mistake! Now, in order to protect his mistaken reading of the Agbassa Treaty, he sets his own bar for accepting any British signature on the treaties made by the British with Nigerian communities. According to him, they must meet two criteria that he has set out, all by himself. First is the location of the signature of the British representative. He says that the signature of the British officer must come before those of the native Chiefs, not after. Why? Because that was what happened in the Itsekiri Treaty, he says. Second, the British signatory must be the highest officer, apparently not a Vice-Consul as Arthur E. Harrison was – even though he was a second-order ranking officer in the Colonial Service at that time. Why? Because that was what happened with the Itsekiri Treaties, Ayomike says.

One is tempted to ask J. O. S. Ayomike a harsh question. I will overcome that temptation by asking a more modest question: Is J. O. S. Ayomike aware that there are hundreds of Protection Treaties made by the British with Nigerian communities which are like those of the Agbassa? If J. O. S. Ayomike wants his readers to take his views seriously, he must learn to accept wider standards of proof and not invent his own rules simply because he has been badly cornered. Does he reject the fact that Arthur E. Harrison was a British Officer empowered to enter into valid treaties on behalf of the British Government, simply because his action in this case has consequences that run against Ayomike’s advocacies? The truth is that in 1893 Arthur E. Harrison validly entered into treaty obligations with the Agbassa and other Urhobo communities of what the British designated as Warri District. That this is so can be seen in the fact that these treaties were sent to the British Foreign Office in the diplomatic pouch of the highest ranking officer in the Niger Coast Protectorate, Sir Claude MacDonald.

Professor Obaro Ikime and the Truth about British Treaties with Urhobo Communities in Warri District

There are two scholarly authorities whom Ayomike has cited persistently to make his improbable claims on Itsekiri exclusive ownership of Warri City and large tracts of the Western Niger Delta. They are Professor Peter Lloyd, an English geographer and anthropologist who was at the University of Ibadan in the 1950s and 1960s, and Professor Obaro Ikime whose seminal work on the history of the western Niger Delta has been deservedly hailed as path-breaking. Ayomike has often quoted phrases and fragments from their work to prove his contentions, even when their views contradict his advocacies. A case in point is how Ayomike has misled the Itsekiri establishment to claim before the President of Nigeria that Ikime lends his support to the preposterous campaign that the Agbassa and other Urhobo communities in Warri District did not make any treaties with the British.

In order to press its case against the Agbassa and their ownership of the lands that the Itsekiri establishment covets, it gave the impression that Obaro Ikime sided with its views by citing Ikime’s Merchant Prince (at page 63) as assenting to the statement that “Forcados Treaties were forged.” Somehow, without any sequence of thought, that quoted statement that appeared in a page of a scholar’s nuanced book is illogically transposed to the Agbassa. However, Ikime has his own well developed and researched conclusion about the Treaties which the Urhobo communities in Warri made with the British. We quote him: “Between December 1892 and August 1893, consular officers based in Warri, entered into treaties of protection with Urhobo towns, all of them near the Warri vice-consulate . . . . The years 1891-3, therefore, constituted the period when the British Government made the first moves to bring Urhoboland under their protection” (Obaro Ikime, Niger Delta Rivalry, p. 133). The Urhobo communities mentioned by Ikime as those that entered into Protection Treaties with the British in the District of Warri are the following: “Asagba, Tori, Ajeba, Agbassa, Ogulu, Obodo, Ogo, and Ogbe-Sobo (Aladja).”

Why would not J. O. S. Ayomike accept Obaro Ikime’s researched affirmation and positive conclusion on British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri District? Is it because this piece of scholarly truth from Ikime is inconvenient?

The Truth about the Royal Niger Company and British Treaties with the Agbassa and Other Urhobo Communities in Warri District

There is another woolly fact that the Itsekiri establishment is currently marketing in its campaign against the Protection Treaties that the British signed with Urhobo communities in Warri District. Ayomike claims that they were all mysteriously invalidated by a telegram by Roger Moore accusing the Royal Niger Company of making unauthorized treaties with communities in Urhobo country, following the crisis of British war with Nana Olomu in 1894. The text of Moore’s telegram, as cited by the Itsekiri establishment’s document, is as follows: “Niger Company (i.e. RNC), taking advantage of the troubles in Benin (District) have sent armed party under Flint and Mc. Targart representing themselves as Queen’s Officers into Sobo Country at the back of Benin (District) and Warri (District) making treaties….imperative such treaties be at once declared invalid. Benin and Warri being the natural outlets for trade of Sobo Country”

But the text above fully excludes the Urhobo communities in Warri District in three distinct and incontrovertible senses. First, the British made a clear distinction between Sobo Country and Warri District. For instance, the British Treaty with Abraka in 1892 was classified by the British as falling into those of “Sobo” Country, whereas the Agbassa Treaty of March 14, 1893, was classified as falling into Warri District. The geographical areas that the British classified as Sobo Country did not include Urhobo communities in Warri District. By the way, the British separation of Warri District from the rest of Urhoboland is a principal cause of the dispute about the ownership of Warri City. Second, the Agbassa Treaties and the other Treaties in Warri District were already made and destined for transfer to the Foreign Office before the British war against Nana Olomu of 1894 which is cited as giving the opportunity to the Royal Niger Company for making the Treaties that Moor contests. Third, the Royal Niger Company had its own territorial constituencies along the Ethiope River and other hinterland Urhobo communities. These did not include Agbassa and neighbouring communities in Warri District.

J. O. S. Ayomike will have to look for some other grounds for invalidating the Agbassa Treaty. This objection on grounds of Royal Niger Company will not hold in the case of the Agbassa and their neighbours.

The Truth about the Treaties and the Legal Cases between Urhobo Communities and Agent of the British Colonial Government

J. O. S. Ayomike has posed the question, persistently for some time now, why the matter of the treaty was not raised during the court trials involving Agbassa lands. The truth of the matter is that it was raised. This is how the Agbassa scholar and leader Chief Daniel Obiomah has reported the issue of the treaty during the court challenge brought by Agbassa people against the Colonial Government’s agent, Dore Numa, who leased Agbassa lands to the British Government without their knowledge: “Her Britannic Majesty in 1893 signed a treaty of protection with the Agbassah people. Government's action in taking Agbassah lands and claiming that they belonged to a new found overlord was contrary to the Niger Treaty. At the trial counsel for Agbassah asked the permission of the court to subpoena the Governor General for a copy of the treaty, the Agbassah copy having been lost. The court refused permission, only saying that the Treaty would be accepted as evidence if the Agbassahs could produce it. They could not. But today copies duly authenticated by Public Records Office, London, are available” (Daniel Obiomah, The Land Factor in Inter-Community Feuds in Warri: A Colonial Legacy, 1975)

European Documents as True Testimony of the Indigenous Inhabitants of Warri City and Warri District

In response to points made in J. O. S. Ayomike’s article in the Vanguard of October 21, 2003, we have dwelt on the matter of the British treaties with the Itsekiri of Benin River and the Urhobo communities in Warri District. However, the underlying contestation concerns which of these communities are native to Warri City. In this wider regard, there are European documents, apart from the British Treaties of 1884, 1893, and 1894, that show clearly that the Urhobo communities are indigenous to the area now called Warri City and that the Itsekiri are new arrivals in this contested region. We will cite two sources.

The first such source is from Portuguese records of the 1480s and beyond. The Portuguese arrived in the Western Niger Delta in 1485 and explored its creeks and rivers for several decades. They recorded their experiences in great detail. Apart from Benin, with whose King they had trading relations for many decades, the Portuguese met peoples of two other nations in the Western Niger Delta. These were the Ijaw and the Urhobo. The Portuguese did not venture into the Urhobo hinterland. The Urhobos they met were the Agbassa who lived close to Warri River and who are the indigenous people of present day Warri City.

What about the Itsekiri? There was nothing like Itsekiri in 1485. Prince Ginuwa of Benin, whose descendants founded Itsekiri nation, escaped from Benin City a few years before the Portuguese arrived in the Western Niger Delta in 1485. He was received and helped by Urhobos of Oghareki and by the Ijaw among whom he hid from the Benin authorities for more than three decades. The Itsekiri nation was born several decades following the arrival of the Portuguese. The Itsekiri did not settle in the Warri area until the 1890s.

Our second source is from a British Colonial record of 1904. Warri District, whose core was what now Warri City is, was established as part of the British Niger Coast Protectorate in the early 1890s. In 1900 it became part of the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. In the Southern Nigeria Civil Service Handbook of 1904, the British Colonial Government characterized the ethnic population of “Warri District” as follows: “The natives belong to the Ijaw and Sobo [Urhobo] tribes with a small but influential settlement of Jekris." The “small but influential settlement of Jekris” of 1904 was the Ugbuwangue community which was influential with European traders and British colonial officials.

The British thus knew the Itsekiri to be settlers in Warri District in 1904. And yet propagandists for the Itsekiri establishment now claim that it is the Ijaw and Urhobo of Warri City who are “settlers” in their own native lands. In doing so, it has badly mangled the truth. We all should fight to tell the bare truth on the history of Warri City. That is what Urhobo Historical Society has set out to accomplish.

Buffalo, USA
October 26, 2003