Urhobo Historical Society

For Peace to Reign in Warri City
A Review of
Warri City & British Colonial Rule in Western Delta; Peter Ekeh (ed.); Urhobo Historical Society; New York; 2004

By Uduma Kalu

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Monday, November 29, 2004

THE impression Warri City and British Colonial Rule in Western Delta, edited by Peter P. Ekeh, leaves in the mind of a non Warri native is that the stories in the 295 page-book are rather prehistoric. They do not reflect the agony and decay that today characterise that oil city. The town, described by several observers as a big slum, in spite of its enormous resources, is like an open sore of the nation. And so, to dedicate the whole book on the ownership of the city alone in this 21st century may not serve any purpose.

However, a closer look on the protracted conflicts in Warri as captured in the book brings back that Achebean proverb that one must know where the rain began to beat one before one can solve one's problem.

In this sense, the Urhobo Historical Society has done a tremendous job by putting in print various documents and issues on the question of Warri. By so doing, the body has given a lead into ways of solving the Warri problem, albeit it is a lead that must embrace the whole stakeholders of Warri, be they whites, yellow, blacks, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and other ethnic groups. Warri is a multi ethnic city today, and it would be difficult for one ethnic group to own it, that is if the city must develop.

Even Ekeh seems to recognise this view, when at the end of the book he writes, "We all-Itsekiri, Ijaw, Ukwuani, Isoko, and Urhobo-must not assume that our futures are secure. We all must work together to safeguard our common destines; otherwise we will perish."

However, the question that Ekeh must answer is to show how these peoples can live together when each of them is at each other's throat, owing to a traditionally held belief that each of them owns the city of Warri. Because a city is like a beautiful woman, and every visitor to it admires it. He woos and would like to wed it, and make it his own.

Warri is therefore a beautiful woman, and each stakeholder to that city must fashion a way to live together with another. That is why it is difficult to agree with Ekeh that the grave danger facing the Niger Delta is Nigeria's military and government, bearing in mind that Warri's problem started right before the country was born. That it persists today is an indication that the various ethnic groups in that city are yet to agree on how to live together.

And perhaps, the Urhobo Historical Society has kick-started the discussion on the future of Warri, and how the peoples can live together. However, as an ethnic group interested in that city, it lays claim to the ownership of Warri. But the book does not blame the other ethnic groups in the place for the problem. Rather, the writers here accuse Europe for the Warri crisis.

Divided into 13 chapters, some of the contributors in the book are Onoawarie Edevbie, Ekeh, Daniel A. Obiomah and T. E. A. Salubi. Senator David Dafinone wrote the forward. The document that eventually formed this book was intended to serve as Urhbobo response to Itsekiri Leaders' Forum and "Warri" Traditional Council whose document on behalf of the Itsekiri to President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Danjuma Panel on Warri was circulated on the Internet. In response to the violence in Warri, Obasanjo had set up an investigative panel under the chairmanship of Danjuma.

Owing to this development, members of the editorial and management committee of the Urhobo Historical Society met and said that the Itsekiri leaders misrepresented the facts. The group then worked on a manuscript, which it said sought to tell the historical truth about Warri and the western Niger Delta. The document was submitted to the Danjuma Panel, and went on to circulate it to Urhobo leaders who asked that it be turned into a book.

The result is this 13-chapter text. With introduction as chapter one, it also has British Treaties of Protection with Urhobo Communities of Warri District. Other chapters are Perspective on Itsekiri History and the Title of the Itsekiri King by T.E. A. Salubi; Itsekiri Leaders' Challenge to Publication of Urhobo and Itsekiri Treaties; A Prefractory Statement on Warri City and Western Niger Crisis by Urhobo Historical Society; Pitfalls in Itsekiri Leaders Forum's Challenge to Colonial Treaties by Peter Ekeh; British Treaties and Ownership of Warri: A Response to J.O.S. Ayomike's Claims by Daniel Obiomah; A Response to J.O.S. Ayomike's Allegation of Forgery of Warri Treaties by Oke sikere; The Truth about Warri City: A Response to J.O.S. Ayomike's Claims by Peter Ekeh; Warri City and Western Niger Delta Crisis: Submission to Presidential Panel by UHS; The Doctrine of Overlordship and the Warri Crisis by Onoawarie Edevbie, and Urhobo-Itsekiri Relations: A Response to Itsey Sagay by Peter Ekeh.

Perhaps, the vague understanding of the western Niger Delta or Warri in particular is the root of the problem in that area. Some of the conflicts are based on assumption, as the book reflected. "That false assumption is that the crisis has been caused by the fact that an ethnic group, the Itsekiri, is a minority that is being oppressed by its neighbours, the Urhobo, who are the majority in that region," the editor writes.

The book rejects this assumption saying the minorities that have suffered in Warri are the Agbassa and Okere, both fractions of the Urhobo. The Agbassa and other Urhobo minorities are involved in a political division that is dominated by the Itsekiri, the book argues. Ekeh in the preface submits that although "The Agbassa and their other Urhobo neighbours are indigenous owners of the lands on which Warri City was built, originally by British colonial administration in the decades of 1890s and 1990s. Aristocratic chieftains among the Itsekiri have used the political muscle to try to wrestle ownership of its lands from those whose ancestors settled on these lands long before Itsekiri nationality was conceived. We in Urhobo Historical Society decided to tell the truth about the history of Warri City on account of these facts."

Indeed, one of the beauties of this book is the dominating presence of facts. The book does not only expose all the various insinuations on the ownership of Warri, it answers the grey areas such as legal disputes, oral statements, with documentary evidences. Some of the evidences referred to are from colonial archives, historical accounts, exploration books and intelligence reports of early European explorers such as the Portuguese and the British.

The book explains some distorted names such as Alfonso d' Aveiro, a Portuguese who died and was buried in Benin, but is very important in the story of Warri. Aveiro explored the western Niger Delta and established important trade relations between Benin and that area of the delta. The man, due to his relationship between the kings of Portugal and that of Benin, became a very important figure. But his name, probably from his native city, would be pronounced Aweiro in its Latinised form. It was therefore not surprising that when the Portuguese visited the Delta area, they called the areas they traded on Aveiro. The Itsekiri had also called their political headquarters of Ode Itsekiri, Iwere, a corruption of the Latinised verbalisation of Aveiro, that is Aweiro.

But the term, Warri, Ekeh notes, is a British coinage in rationalisation of the territory that the Portuguese nicknamed Aveiro. Even then, the British did not associate Warri with Itsekiri as the different treaties they signed with the various peoples of that area indicate.

However, a brief history of the city from the Urhobo scholars shows that the Urhobo have been in the area before the Itsekiri came on board. Indeed, the Portuguese are credited for playing a significant role in creating an Itsekiri nationality which did not exist as late as the 19th century.

But the role of the Benin monarchy, the Portuguese missionaries and traders is very instructive in this historical book. For it is written here that the monarch that rules the Itsekiri is Benin though the people it rules are not.

The story started again with Aveiro who acted as a liaison between Benin kingdom and Portugal. While the Portuguese king who after converting the king of Congo wanted to do likewise with the Benin king failed, the relationship between the two became frosty so much that the Portuguese planned to pay back the Benin king in his own coin for failing to become a Christian.

But the future would provide the Portuguese with what they wanted to do. And that was through one of the princes of the Benin, Ginuwa, who committed a crime against the king and ran away, down to the coast. He was helped by the Portuguese, who also got to know his origin in 1516. Later on when the Portuguese returned to the island, Ginuwa had died but his sons had moved on to an island which they named Ode Itsekiri, in honour of a generous man called Itsekiri who received them after their wandering in the creeks. The Portuguese traders met the Ginuwa children at the island, and aided them in escaping from the wrath of the Benin king. They also helped the princes in carrying out the exercise that culminated in the making of an ethnic nationality out of the immigrant Yoruba communities, which adopted the name Itsekiri.

The book shows very clearly that there was no ethnic nationality at the time of Ginuwa and he was therefore not its first king, and that his two sons were Benin. The relationship between the Portuguese and the Itsekiri was so pervasive that most of the ethnic groups would think that they were Portuguese and this even affected their culture. Indeed the two groups were close in trade and social affairs and had children who were half-castes in that region.