"ITSEKIRIS AND URHOBOS MUST FIND A SOLUTION TO THIS QUARREL"
Dear Mr. Eworitsemogha Mabiaku:
I have read your e-mail of this morning a number of times now. It is important because it contains a basis for a conversation that can be upgraded profitably for our mutual benefits. Allow me to comment on a number of points you have made that deserve to be examined much further.
First, however, I should counsel that we eschew too much emphasis on the views of individuals, since they can easily be misinterpreted. For instance, you exaggerated my importance in the Urhobo arguments on the debates about Warri. Until June 8, 1999, I could easily be counted among those Urhobos whom Professor Frank Ukoli recently criticized in an important public lecture for not paying adequate attention to the Warri matter. I was alarmed on June 8, 1999, when I came upon three different uses of "ethnic cleansing" in association with the Urhobo. When I challenged one of those who used it, the answer I received was that it was first employed by the Itsekiri Survival Movement. It was on that same night that I was informed by telephone that the damage to Okere was extensive. I decided to be involved that night. Most of the Urhobos in North America who have carried the burden of the Urhobo response to a false representation of our ethnic group fall into my class. Yes, I have argued on behalf of some of the points, not all, that you have enumerated. But my views are hardly original. It is native Warri men like Dan Obiomah who deserve to be counted for fielding the sentiments of their people.
And that is what counts in this whole matter -- where mutual understanding will help a worthwhile conversation. The operative word in your email is "localised nature" of the dispute between Urhobo and Itsekiri. (By the way, I couldn't help noting how faithful you have been to British English with your spelling of "localised.") I am from Okpara Inland. Warri does not touch me at the visceral level at which people like Frank Ukoli, Dan Obiomah, or Austin Egborge would feel it -- to name a few personal friends who are native to Warri. These people have ancestors -- great great great grandparents -- who were born in what is now called Warri. They complain that their ancestors are dishonored by being falsely called "customary tenants" in a land they built. They say that Itsekiri born in Benin River come into their native city to claim citizenship and then insult them by calling these natives of Warri city "customary tenants."
I have introduced the term "customary tenants" because it belongs to a congeries of words that deserve to be thrown out of our usages in the western Niger Delta. I was surprised recently when I read that some Aladja people called some Ijaw "customary tenants." All I could murmur to myself was, "How easily language can be corrupted!" Consider the land-owning Itsekiri you talked about in Sapele. Most Urhobo would feel uncomfortable if these Sapele Itsekiri were called "customary tenants" of the Orodje. The irony of all this is that Sapele Itsekiri are assumed, from the point of view of the users of this odious term, to be freer than Warri Urhobos.
You must understand that Urhobos lean on history in this matter. They won the ownership of Sapele in court. Yet they do not display its ownership as vehemently as the Itsekiri claim ownership of Warri. I hear you when you say that the Itsekiri own Warri. I hear you when you chide me for calling Warri a tri-ethnic city -- belonging in part to the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo. I hear you angrily rejecting such a claim. But I must remind you that those who make such claims are not from Okpara Inland. They are from inside Warri. Nor are they the Okumagbas alone. I have never discussed ownership of Warri with any of the Okumagbas, even though I have met them several times. But it takes a little prompting for people like Austin Egborge to become agitated about Warri. Now, remember, locality, locality, locality. Are you seriously suggesting that these natives of Warri should forever be denied their patrimony or that other Urhobos should ignore their claims?
One possibility is to say that we all should accept the status quo. What is strange about Warri is that even the status quo varies easily. The Itsekiri cite a series of land cases which they won, mostly in colonial courts. Urhobos cite other cases. I have read the Itsekiri claim, which you repeated in your email, that the Okumagba victory of 1978 amounted to POSSESSORY RIGHTS. What is that? In a recent piece on the Washington, DC, Peace Summit on the Warri Crisis, Dr. Philip Ikomi made the important point that all these legal cases have been rendered invalid by the Lands Use Law. He was of course wrong in assuming that the Urhobo Delegation was ignorant of this position. It is the very essence of Dan Obiomah's magnificent book, Warri Overlordship: Fact, Fiction and Imperialism which was to be the mantra of the Urhobo Delegation if the Peace Congress had not been prematurely terminated. From my own point of view, it is Arthur Prest's victory over the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust that counts the most. That is because it made clear that "overlordship rights" do not exist in Warri City.
Please don't misunderstand me. I do not want to argue the Urhobo case all over again. But I see in Urhobos and Itsekiris an emotional fight-to-a-draw. We must find ways of allowing both sides to claim victory. I cannot see any side accepting defeat. But there are ways of ensuring that no side is humiliated at the end of this bruising quarrel. It is uncivilized to be unable to bring a quarrel to a conclusion. In 1989, I attended a major conference on South Africa at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. All of us at that conference of knowledgeable men and women, including the man who is now President of South Africa, predicted many more years of bloodbath. Little did we know that, even then, the Afrikaners were holding secret talks with several leaders of the ANC. I think our leaders, including ourselves, owe it to posterity to push for a solution to this interminable quarrel. What I have learnt in these last five to six months in which I have been involved in this whole matter is that the Itsekiri are very sensitive about the title of their King -- in a way, culturally, that an Urhobo person may never understand. The Itsekiri do not claim Warri City to be the totality of their King's domain. So why don't we change the name of that city from Warri to Delta City while the title of Olu of Warri is untouched? WOW! Don't jump on me now. It is just the type of reasoning that can flow to the top if we are talking to ourselves.
Obviously, the construction of this letter is from an Urhobo perspective. I assume most people will respect that, just as I expect you to argue your case from an Itsekiri perspective. But then we can talk, profitably. It would be fair to date this quarrel, at least in its blown form, from 1952. Without resolving it, we will waste many more valuable decades in a millennium that will be fast-paced. I do not know how one begins the process. I am sure that when you started your letter to me with a caption that I was making a turn-around, there is a clear indication of distrust. But ask yourself the following, which is the question I posed before a group of Urhobo intellectuals some time ago: What does victory mean here?
This is a long piece. I hope you will find a few thoughts in it.