Urhobo Historical Society


I Can See Clearly Now:

A Review of

WARRI CITY and British Colonial Rule in the Western Niger Delta. Edited by Peter P. Ekeh

 

By

 

F. M. A. Ukoli, F.A.S.

Oboiroro of Ogor Kingdom;

Retired Professor of Zoology,

University of Ibadan, Nigeria

 


Presented at the Fifth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society at Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Delta State, on October 29, 2004 under the distinguished chairmanship of Chief E. K. Clark.


 

The opening pages of the Preface dealt telling blows to the veracity of the frequently touted reasons for what has now come to be known as the Warri Crisis. The first of the assumptions, one can even say myths, to be exploded is this: it is not true that the minority Itsekiri are being oppressed by the mighty Urhobo majority. On the contrary, it is the Agbassa1 and Okere Urhobo who, though are in the majority, suffer humiliation and injustice at the hands of the Itsekiri who dominate the politics of the area. Next to be debunked is the assertion that there was a case between Agbassa people and the Itsekiri in the 1920s which the Itsekiri won. There was no such case at all; the Agbassa sued Chief Dore Numa, not as an Itsekiri man or as their representative, but as a Political Agent of the British. Furthermore, the verdict of that case was based on "bare-faced fraud" given by a corrupt colonial court invoking the doctrine of overlordship of Itsekiri King over Itsekiri lands which clearly did not extend to Agbassa lands. It did not apply to Ugborodo land either.  This is an Itsekiri community who successfully prosecuted their case in court. In any case, there had been no Itsekiri king for 78 years before the case. Dore Numa was no king!

 

Most importantly, the Itsekiri establishment continues to cite this judgement to support their claim of ownership of Warri even though several subsequent judgements have repudiated the validity of the doctrine of overlordship. Whatever the case may be, it is expected that the Land Use Decree (now Act) which is enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution should have put paid to this disgraceful chapter of the legal history of the western Niger Delta.

 

But most damaging to the case of the Itsekiri establishment are two significant revelations from a close examination of the so-called Protection Treaties which the British signed with the "Chiefs and Peoples" of the Niger Delta (and elsewhere in Nigeria) in the 1880s and 1890s. First, in the treaties with the Itsekiri, the full extent of Itsekiri country was defined to include the lands and waters of Benin River and both banks of the Escravos River. Nowhere did the Itsekiri lay claim to Warri nor was Warri mentioned, either in the 1884 or the 1894 treaty. On the other hand, the treaty with the Agbassa (Sobo) of Warri District of 1893 shows quite clearly that the British recognised Warri as belonging to the indigenous people of the area, i.e the Agbassa people. Also of great significance, as will become evident later in this review, nowhere in the treaties with the Itsekiri was the word 'king' used; the treaties were with the "Chiefs" of Jekeri.

 

The book under review is the outcome of recent fierce war of words between the Itsekiri Leaders' Forum whose chief spokesperson is J. O. S. Ayomike and the Urhobo Historical Society under the leadership of Peter Ekeh. Professor Ekeh drew first blood by reproducing these treaties verbatim, posting them in the website of the Urhobo Historical Society, Urhobo waado, and publishing his incisive analysis and commentary on the available evidence. Not only that, he delivered a seminal lecture in October 2001 in which he canvassed his deductions based on a rigorous scrutiny of these treaties. He asserted that Agbassa people owned Warri. The implications of the conclusions arising from this brilliant exercise in scholarship cut the Itsekiri establishment to the quick, and it was not surprising that their response was vitriolic in its abusive style. By the time the Editorial and Management Committee of UHS made their submission to the Danjuma Presidential Panel on the Warri crisis incorporating all the main issues in the debate about the treaties (Chapter 11), the battle line was already drawn, with both sides trading critiques and counter critiques. Ekeh's treatment of the Treaties is contained in Chapters 2 & 3 while the Itsekiri Leaders' Forum's challenge is published in Chapter 5. This is followed by the stand of the Editorial Committee on the status of these treaties as regards the issue of the ownership of Warri in Chapter 6. Then a series of critiques of Itsekiri Leaders' Forum essays follows. Ekeh analysed the contents of these treaties in Chapters 7 & 10 while Chief Daniel Obiomah gives a wide ranging review in Chapter 8. Oke Sikere beams the searchlight on Ayomike's literary style in Chapter 9, while Onoawarie Edevbie  examines the doctrine of overlordship, one of the cardinal pillars on which the Itsekiri claims to ownership rests in Chapter 12. The book ends at Chapter 13 in which Ekeh responds to Professor Itse Sagay's unexpected and startling allegation, like a bolt from the blue, that the Urhobo have joined forces with the Ijaw "to drive the Itsekiri from their villages and 'Warri territory'".

 

This forms the main body of the book. If that were all, the UHS would have fulfilled their ultimate mandate of telling the truth about the Niger Delta.  But the inclusion of a hitherto unpublished treatise written by the legendary Urhobo leader, Chief T.E.A. Salubi in 1952 was like icing on the cake. In it the chief presented a glimpse of the history of the western Niger Delta and chronicled the bloody conflict that was the consequence of the change of title from Olu Itsekiri to Olu of Warri by Chief Obafemi Awolowo's government in 1952. This paper, written over half a century ago gives us an eye witness  account of the unfortunate events of that era, as it were, from the ring side. The paper, rendered in the chief's inimitable style, demonstrates both a remarkable degree of knowledge and forthrightness and a thoroughness in the analysis of historical events, the hallmarks of his publications in the internationally reputable Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria. This is what earned him the well-deserved award of an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Nigeria's premier University of Ibadan. This is not the time or place to extol the formidable intellectual and leadership credentials of an icon of Chief Salubi's stature. But it is hard to doubt the credibility of such a man when he declares, "The title 'Olu Itsekiri' is historic and deserves to be retained by the Itsekiri. Changing it to 'Olu of Warri' is illegitimate, not only because it violates Itsekiri history, but because it takes and steals from their neighbours who share the name Warri with the Itsekiri…. THE OLU IS THE OLU OF ITSEKIRI, OR OLU OF IWERE, NOT OF WARRI. AND SO MUST HE REMAIN". Chief Salubi will be astounded if he were to come down from heaven and find that this matter is still in contention, 50 years after those prophetic words.

 

Another significant contribution by UHS being a society of intellectuals, mostly academics in the Diaspora is striving to raise the intellectual tone of debate of the issues. People should be free to conduct academic analysis of issues and engage in intellectual discourse dispassionately and without rancour. Surely, there are universally accepted norms, or ethics if you like, governing the conduct of intellectual discourse in the civilized world. Hitherto, the literature on the Warri crisis has been characterised by the combative style of writers who resort to gratuitous insults and ad hominem.  By so doing, they hope to bring their opponents into contempt and public ridicule, thereby calling their credibility to question. Writers invariably assume, according to Sikere, that all readers are gullible and have neither the inclination nor time to verify sources. So they sometimes cite a string of references which Obiomah says smacks of name-dropping. But much worse, according to Sikere, they indulge in selective referencing, quoting only from books and passages therein that favour their case; sometimes crediting authors out of context, distorting original sources, deliberately misinforming, misinterpreting quotations and purposely withholding relevant information with the assurance that the original sources will be out of the reach of the average reader.

 

UHS by adopting three major approaches has, according to Ekeh, "tried to erase such obscurantism from the history of Urhoboland and that of the western Niger Delta". First they have begun publishing books that are either out-of-print or not widely available. Then they have started to reproduce the so-called British "Treaties of Protection" of the western Niger Delta and posting them in the website, Urhobo waado (http://www.waado.org). This they hope will serve to democratize our history so that information is no more than the price of a visit to the website at the nearest cybercafe. People should now be able to scrutinize and interpret documents and make up their minds without the spin from Itsekiri establishment or Urhobo loyalists alike. By taking advantage of advances in information technology, one no longer needs to be a conventional historian to be able to dabble in the study of history or the writing of history.

 

But more importantly, the adoption of these approaches has helped to throw new light into our understanding of the main issues underlying the Warri crisis, so that, at the end, the fair, non-partisan reader should be able to declare like this reviewer, "I can see clearly now!" as the following few examples will show.

 

It is no longer excusable to continue to rely on the Itsekiri Leaders' Forum version of Urhobo-Itsekiri historical relationships in Warri. A re-examination and re-interpretation of the evidence, using modern tools and techniques have shown it, according to Ekeh, to be "bogus and illogical in the extreme". The authenticity of the British Protection Treaties with the "Chiefs of Benin River and Jekeri territory (in Escravos River)" in 1884 and 1894 and with the "Chiefs and People of Agbassa (Sobo) of Warri District" in 1893 are cases in point. These treaties prove two issues conclusively: that Itsekiri territory is in Benin River and both banks of Escravos River, an area which geographically does not include Warri City, and that Agbassa people own Warri.  Besides, the allegations by the Itsekiri Leaders' Forum that the treaties with the Sobo of Warri District are forgeries can no longer be sustained; the signatures, the official stamp, Queen Victoria's letter head are all there for all to see, thanks to the wonders of the internet.

 

It is an exercise in futility to continue to cite outdated court judgements in support of ownership of Warri. The judgements on which the Itsekiri establishment  rely are the product of corrupt British colonial imperialist policies, what Obiomah  describes as "the age of British jingoism, trickery and truculence". Two examples of this can be cited. The colonial authorities made sure, through corruption and complicity that Chief Dore Numa, the British Political Agent won every one of the numerous cases brought against him even, by his fellow Itsekiri. No useful purpose can be served by insisting on citing the notorious case of a judgement given in favour of Numa in 1925 by the infamous British judge T.D. Maxwell against whom a clear case of conflict of interest has been established.

 

Why do the Itsekiri continue to favour all the legal cases they won in the Numa era as evidence that they own Warri, while turning a blind eye to more recent judgements in favour of the Urhobo? It is invidious for the Itsekiri establishment, on behalf of the otherwise sophisticated and law abiding Itsekiri people, to choose to uphold decisions of a colonial judicial system which has been severely flawed and to ignore decisions of courts of superior jurisdiction like the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Why do they persist in assuming the anti-democratic posture of flouting the Nigerian Constitution in which the Land Use Decree (now Act) of 1979 is firmly enshrined?

 

The Itsekiri establishment in this day and age, clings to the doctrine of overlordship with all the oppressive features of feudalism it exhibited in medieval Europe.  Is it fair and just, asks Edevbie, for them "to subject the affairs of Warri City to the dictates and interests of people that reside outside the city"? In other words, does overlordship imply that all Itsekiris are overlord even though they are not landlords in Warri City? But all this is now only of academic interest. A series of court judgements has established beyond doubt that "[the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust] have no power whatsoever in law to exercise the Olu of Warri rights of overlordship over lands owned by private individuals and families in Warri Division" (see ruling in favour of Arthur Prest in the Ugbuwangue case, July 1971). One immediate implication of this ruling is that the Agbassa lands are "owned by private individuals and families" and cannot be subject to the obnoxious T.D. Maxwell ruling of 1925.

 

It was fraudulent to invoke the power of overlordship of the Olu when there was no king at the time of the leases or the trial. It is true that Dore once styled himself as the Olu. But Dore was an impostor who was discredited by the Itsekiri for cheating them and misusing his authority. There is difference in the understanding of the meaning of ownership. The Itsekiri claim is absolutist; Warri is owned by the King of Itsekiri, while the Urhobo and Ijaw claims are limited; i.e. they do not exclude ownership of portions of Warri by other communities. And yet, ironically, it is the Itsekiri who are the settlers in the Warri District, while the natives are Ijaw and Sobo tribes, as published in the Southern Nigeria Civil Service Handbook of 1904. It is therefore understandable that in its submission to the Danjuma Panel UHS declared that it is "the Itsekiri establishment's absolutist and obdurate approach to Warri City that is ultimately the essence of the Warri crisis".

 

From such studies, it is possible to deduce the source and cause of the inter-ethnic conflicts persisting in the Warri area to this day. They include:

 

The breach of the spirit of the British Protection Treaties. The appointment of Chief Dore Numa as their Political Agent in Warri District was done in bad faith. As expected, he then surreptitiously proceeded to lease Urhobo lands to the British in the absence of those with whom they entered into agreement in the 1890s. By so doing, the seeds of inter-ethnic conflicts which, according to Ekeh  "have ruined Warri City even in our times" were sown.

 

Undue reliance by the Itsekiri establishment on corrupt judgements and duplicity of the British. In particular, their insistence that the 1925 judgement is still valid and that overlordship means that all Itsekiri are overlords, even if they are not landlords in Warri City.

 

Lack of political will by successive governments, (colonial, military, federal and state) to come to grips with the problem and take the right and just decision. There is every reason to believe that the recommendations and conclusions of the Nnaemeka Agu and Idoko Commissions set up by government in 1993 and 1997 respectively to resolve the disputes over the ownership of Warri are forgotten on the shelves gathering dust because they do not favour the interests of the influential Itsekiri establishment. It is not far-fetched to surmise that a similar fate awaits the report of the Danjuma Presidential Panel submitted in 2003 believed to be "favourable to the indigenous people of Warri City".

 

Why this fascination with the name Warri in preference to the traditional Itsekiri?  At a time when all Nigerian ethnic nationalities are going back to their roots and rejecting corrupt versions of their names and identity, the Itsekiri establishment insists on adopting what at best is a foreign name, or at worst a corrupt version of Iwere. Everything originally bearing Itsekiri is now replaced by Warri: Olu Itsekiri, chieftaincy titles of Itsekiri kingdom, names of clubs and societies etc. are now changed to reflect Warri. Why is Warri more important than Itsekiri? It is as if the name Itsekiri is a term of dishonour to be rejected in favour of Warri. How can the Itsekiri live with this blatant paradox? Obiomah asks rhetorically in his book, Who Owns Warri?" There is nothing in the history of the western Niger Delta to justify this attraction that remains the root of the deadly conflict in the region. For example; the 1911 British Intelligence Report on the Itsekiri by Pender lists all Itsekiri settlements with the names of their village heads. Warri was not one of them. The revered Itsekiri historian, William Moore in his book, History of Itsekiri, used the title Olu of Itsekiri  more than 20 times, but nowhere in the book did he use the title Olu of Warri. Most of the members of the Itsekiri establishment are not indigenes of Warri City, they are from Benin River.

 

From their studies it has become clear to UHS that an adoption of a live-and-let live approach is the only viable answer to the Warri problem. They sound a note of  admonition; "while the Itsekiri establisment concentrates all its wealth and resources      and its attention on Warri …the Itsekiri countryside is dying from neglect…we all have a duty to seek to improve Urhobo and Itsekiri rural areas which are today terribly endangered. While we quarrel over Warri, our rural communities are dying. Our streams are drying up. Pollution is killing our fishes, animals and plants". In the words of the well-worn cliché, we should all do well to sheathe our swords.

 

If all sides to the conflict harken to this call, then Peter Ekeh and his Editorial and Management Committee of UHS would, through this book, have fulfilled their mandate as expressed in their motto: "Serving Urhobo history and culture and advancing the welfare of the Niger Delta, particularly its environment."

 

F. M. A. Ukoli, F.A.S.

Oboiroro of Ogor Kingdom.

 

Effurun

October 28, 2004.

 

1 The people of "Agbassa" of old, now prefer to be addressed as Agbarha-Warri or Agbarha-Ame. However, in deference to historical reference consistent with the use of the term in the book, I shall adopt the name Agbassa in this review.




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