Urhobo Historical Society


November 1-3, 2002
Goldsmiths College of London University
Goddis Restaurant, 126 New Cross Road, London SE14

Keynote Address:

By David T. Okpako, Ph. D.
(Urhobo College, Class of 1954)
Professor of Pharmacology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria


On 27 April 2002, the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) launched a well-attended one billion naira “Development Fund” at Effurun.  The reporter who covered the event, Abraham Ogbodo (The Guardian on Sunday May 5, 2002), poignantly remarked that the ceremony was held in “the yet-to-be completed school hall of Urhobo College Effurun”.  UCE, as we simply refer to it (motto: aut optimum aut nihil: either the best or nothing), is among the best known schools of its type founded in Nigeria in the 1940s to provide avenues for the educational advancement of the talented young in their respective communities.  Urhobo College Effurun continues to fulfill this aim, and it stands today as the flagship of secondary schools in Urhoboland.  The Urhobo College Assembly Hall where the UPU held the fund-raising ceremony was built from individual contributions of members of Urhobo College Old Students Association (UCOSA) when the late Edo State-born Dr. A. U. Salami was its president.  UCOSA brought the hall (uncompleted now for more than twenty five years) to the present stage where it could be hired by the UPU for the launching of its development fund.  But, remarkably, Urhobo College Effurun does not feature in the development plans of the UPU! 

Why is this the case?  Granted that the college was taken over  by governments in the madness of the oil boom years of the 1970s; still this institution bears the name of the Urhobo nation and stands, it can be argued, as the most outstanding and positive achievement of the UPU in its seventy-year history.  Urhobo College is also the institution  to which is linked the name, Mukoro Mowoe, who without doubt, is the most revered leader the Urhobo nation has produced.  As The Guardian newspaper reporter put it:  Urhobo College “became a springboard for the intellectual empowerment of Urhobo youths… the net result is that Urhobo land which could not produce a Cambridge matriculant in the 1930s and early 1940s, is today a major contributor to the nation’s intelligentsia and in fact global scholarship”.  Urhobo College Effurun symbolises Urhobo resilience, independence of spirit, determination and what the Urhobo nation can achieve when the people work together.  These are reasons why the College should feature prominently in Urhobo national development plans.  In Nigeria’s present environment of private enterprise the government finally recognized its foolishness, and is now begging to hand over the schools it took over to their original proprietors. Now that good quality secondary schools are big business, has the UPU seriously considered taking back the proprietorship of Urhobo College Effurun? If it has not, then it should, to start with, by setting up a high-powered committee to seriously look into its feasibility.

Urhobo College Effurun and Urhobo Interethnic Relations

At one level, the relationship between the Urhobo nation and its Itsekiri and Ijaw neighbours in Warri is one characterised by conflict. At a personal level, the various peoples are closely interwoven, having intermarried extensively for many decades. So, it would have been obvious to the UPU that Urhobo College Effurun could not be an exclusively “Urhobo” institution. The founders did not intend it, in staff and student composition, to be an ethnic institution.  That may seem an odd thing to say about a college founded and funded by the UPU and named “Urhobo College”.  The evidence from early student admission and staff recruitment policies clearly suggests that Urhobo College was “Urhobo” only to the extent that the school was Urhobo home grown; it was UPU-inspired from conception, staff development, funding to building of infrastructure (including the land on which the college is built); there was no missionary influence, no expatriates, no corporate or profit motives, no governments.  Beyond that the founding fathers were more intent in the quality of the staff and students of Urhobo College Effurun than in their ethnic origins.  Of course being on Effurun soil, Urhobo boys (and later girls as well) were at a ‘catchment’ area advantage over other ethnic groups, but there was no evidence of active exclusion of other nationalities in student admission.  In other words right from inception, the founders operated an open multi-ethnic institution. Two some notable examples may be cited as illustration. 

Two early recipients of the UPU-sponsored undergraduate scholarships (meant for talented secondary school graduates to go to the University College Ibadan and return to teach at the college) were S.J. Okudu and T. N. Tamuno, who years later became, respectively, Registrar and Vice-Chancellor of Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan.  They were both Ijaw, one from the Western and the other from the Eastern region.  Okudu returned to UCE to teach in fulfillment of his scholarship bond and rose to the post of Vice-Principal. Okudu later returned to U.I. where his talents as university administrator were immediately evident.  Importantly, Chief S. J. Okudu became the Foundation Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the governing Council of the new Delta State University, Abraka.  Tekena. N. Tamuno having had a brilliant undergraduate career in history at the University College Ibadan, went on to distinguish himself as an academic and he is today one of Nigeria’s most important men of letters.  The Senior Tutor and History Master when I entered Urhobo College Effurun in 1951 was no other than Chief Ikime, from Eastern Urhobo, now Isoko. Chief Ikime is the elder brother of the brilliant Ibadan historian, Professor Obaro Ikime.  The issue of whether Urhobo College Effurun was conceptualised as an ethnic institution is worthy of reflection.  If for nothing else, it enables me to suggest that the founding fathers of UCE and the school itself contributed to interethnic harmony in the 1950s, at a time when interethnic tensions were already rising in the Warri area.  I think it is a pity that the early products of UCE, many of whom are now senior citizens and still very much around and willing to play a mediator role, have not been pressed into service at attempts to resolve the various crises in the Warri area.

Multiethnic Student Body of Urhobo College Effurun

The late Chief Arthur Prest when giving a UCOSA annual after-dinner address at Idama hotel, Okumagba layout Warri, raised the issue of the name “Urhobo College.  Chief Arthur Prest, an eminent lawyer, a member of the Itsekiri Land Trust and former Federal cabinet minister, suggested that the appellation “Urhobo,” for an institution that was clearly multiethnic in staff and student composition, was anachronistic.  Prest was right certainly with respect to the multi-ethnic composition of UCE students.  On this point, perhaps you will permit me to drop the names that come to mind of some illustrious non-Urhobo members of my 1954 class as illustration: Julius Ifidon Ola (JIO) is a native of Ora in present day Edo State.  After Urhobo College Effurun, Ola entered Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone for a Durham BA.  He later joined the civil service and after the Midwest Region was created out of the Western Region in 1963, he was one of the youngest among the first set of Permanent Secretaries to be created; he thus became a pillar in the new Region’s administration.  JIO is now owner and CEO of JIM Travels, a travel agency with branches throughout Nigeria.  Felix Ejebba Esisi is Itsekiri and the present head of Okere Itsekiris, the opposite number if you like, to Chief Benjamin Okumagba, the Otota of Okere Urhobo Kingdom.  Okumagba and Esisi are both UCOSAites and leaders on opposite sides in the intractable Urhobo-Itsekiri crisis at Okere in Warri.  Before becoming the leader of his people, Esisi, who with Benjamin Okumagba played football on the same side in the first eleven for Urhobo College Effurun and was one of Chief Daniel Okumagba’s most valued players, had had a successful career in the NNPC.  Benjamin Maku is also a prominent Itsekiri who took a degree from the University of Lagos sometime after Urhobo College Effurun and then joined the Central Bank of Nigeria where he rose to be a director and head of Banking Examinations Department before retirement. 

The most gifted member of the 1954 class was undoubtedly Christopher Orji, an Igbo, from which side of Niger I am not able to say.  Orji was delightfully irritatingly eccentric and brilliant in mathematics.  He, Ojaide and Matthew Scott-Emuakpor were the first Urhobo College Effurun boys to enter UCI in 1957.  We used to think that Orji saw the answer to a mathematics problem laid out as soon as he set eyes on it.  To live up to his eccentric reputation, Orji claimed to have read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation over and over again!  He later worked with Shell Development Company.  Outside my class of 1954, there were many other non-Urhobos in UCE.  Commoners rubbed shoulders with royalty in people like the late Prince Magnus Eweka,  who had a great career as a school boy half miler (880 yards). He   quickly and brilliantly rose to the top rank in the Police Force before his tragic death at an early age. Gbenoba (a prince of the Agbor royal family at Boji Boji), I remember, was a junior in Orerokpe House where I was prefect in 1954. This is just to give a flavour of the ethnic plurality and ethnic background of the early students of UCE.

In his after-dinner address to UCOSA that I referred to, Prest called on the old students to consider changing the name of Urhobo College Effurun, to reflect the cosmopolitan outlook of the college.  The old students took Prest’s point seriously, but after deliberation, decided on the status quo, many taking the view that if the name did not make the college any less multiethnic up till then, there was no reason to expect it to in years to come.  Besides, the name “Urhobo College Effurun” like the college itself had a critical significance in Urhobo history.  It seems to me that the positive multi-ethnic thrust of Urhobo College Effurun in its early days ought to be fully appreciated in looking at Urhobo relations with other ethnic groups in this our crisis-ridden region of Nigeria.

Strategies for Urhobo Cultural and Educational Emancipation

Urhobo needs to project a different image of itself in the eyes of other Nigerian nationalities, as a major ethnic group being among the top ten most populous.  The UPU under the inspiring guidance of Mowoe did a lot to improve Urhobo’s image from being predominantly associated with the fraud phenomenon known as “Urhobo wayo” (brain pass brain na him be wayo) to the present position of relative respectability.  But there is still a lot to do; Urhobos must take steps to change its present image of a minor tribe harassing Itsekiris, instead of the major nationality that it is in Nigeria.  Perhaps it is for this purpose that the present UPU leadership has thought of the Urhobo development fund that I referred to earlier.  Personally, I was impressed by Chief Okumagba’s statement at the occasion that the problems arising from the leadership tussles leading to his emergence as President-General of UPU are now things of the past.  I sincerely hope that under Benjamin Okumagba’s leadership, the Urhobo nation can look forward to a future of united commitment to the course of meaningful development. One would hope that the Urhobo development project will serve to mobilise and unite all Urhobos behind Chief Okumagba, just as the Urhobo College Effurun project of the 1940s did behind Chief Mukoro Mowoe in a way that no other Urhobo leader has experienced since. Permit me to dwell a little on some of the areas of Urhobo national life that the UPU has earmarked for development.  I have chosen to expatiate on two of these because of my personal concern for the conservation of Urhobo culture as a critical step towards our self knowledge and self respect:

i.                    Ultra-Modern Urhobo Cultural Centre

One of the projects outlined by the UPU is an ultra-modern cultural centre.  The idea of such a centre is a good one.  But what purpose will it serve?  Urhobo culture (meaning the totality of the peoples’ accumulated experience as expressed in their languages and dialects, religions, medicine, poetry, dance, architecture, art, technology, festivals etc. and handed down during centuries of life in Urhoboland), is alive among the people in their towns and villages. It is not something that can be collected and housed in a cultural centre.  Perhaps a cultural centre built in an urban area like Warri, Sapele or Ughelli, can serve the purpose of providing facilities for the display, from time to time, of aspects of our diverse cultural heritage. This will be for the benefit of the elite who live in the diaspora, and tourists.  But, if we do not take steps to preserve the “culture” back home where it is functional and alive today, a cultural centre will have nothing to display tomorrow.

ii.                  Urhobo National Museum

An Urhobo National Museum is very important proposal as a way of promoting Urhobo culture.  Let me explain why.  In Greek mythology, Muse, the daughter of Zeus, was the goddess of learning, especially the arts, poetry and music.  This myth has survived into modern usage; each branch of the arts is believed by some to be under the guidance of a Muse, e.g., Clio is the Muse of history, Euterpe of music, Terpsichore of dance.  In Urhobo art, the idea of the Muse also exists and it was not borrowed from the Greeks! More likely, it is a remnant of ideas that reached Greece by diffusion from ancient Africa through Egypt.  In Urhobo, perhaps the most concrete expression of the Muse is Uhawha, the spirit that inspires and protects all who engage in Udje, the somewhat dangerous satirical poetry/song/dance form for which Ugbienvwen and Udu Clans are famous.  Uhawha is believed to intercept the invisible missiles that may be fired at Udje performers (composers and performers) by enemies who are scandalised by the incisive satire of Udje poetry.  And, without prior homage, Udje, once it has been evoked and taken possession, may refuse to leave the performer and may ‘sing’ or ‘dance’ him/her to exhaustion.  I am Ughienvwen and not wanting to take Uhawha’s name in vain, I shall call on you to join me in paying a brief formal homage to Uhawha thus:

Uhawha je….je! Uhawha je….je!!, Uhawha je!!!

How can a museum promote Urhobo culture?  A museum can be used to teach Urhobo culture because it should store old illustrative artifacts including old manuscripts on different aspects of Urhobo history and culture.  A museum can also serve as a repository for Urhobo repatriated sculptures, paintings, films or other works of art about or by Urhobos that are now displaced outside Urhoboland in the diaspora.  I am reminded here of Professor (Chief) Perkins Foss, the Oyibo-Edjo of Evwreni, an internationally renowned American art historian and world authority on Urhobo art who, in collaboration with our own brilliant and erudite Bruce Onobrakpeya (D. Littt. Honoris causa, Ibadan), Nigeria’s topmost creative fine artist, will be putting up an exhibition of Urhobo art in New York in 2003.  After that event, scholars within and outside Nigeria will want to know where Urhoboland is and how to have access to its cultural artifacts in their natural surroundings.  So, there is that very important function of a museum, but an Urhobo National Museum should be linked directly to serious studies of Urhobo culture in an institution where such studies can be pursued without hindrance. I suggest below that a Mukoro Mowoe University will serve as that kind of institution.

iii.                Shrines are Museums

When we think of establishing an Urhobo National Museum, we should try to understand museums in their broad historical context.  The word “museum” derives from “Muse” as described above.  The original museums date back to ancient Greece and were in fact shrines built to store mnemonic objects of natural history, religion and the arts.  In due course of time, the shrines built to the different artistic muses evolved into what are now modern museums; these are in fact buildings or places containing artifacts of knowledge. Urhobo communities have numerous museums called shrines (edjo) built to various gods and goddesses.  In fact what most characterises the tarditional religious life of the Urhobo people are numerous shrines in the various towns and villages.  The shrine is a sacred place of worship, but in most cases, it also houses the history of the village or community and its evolved relationship with neighbouring communities.  For example, the Ughienvwen have a clan deity called Ogbaurhie (a river goddess).  Her shrine is at Otughienvwen.  Our oral history of origin has it that when the man Ughienvwen left Ogobiri on the Atlantic coast in present day Bayelsa for whatever reason, a woman companion in Ughienvwen’s entourage, disguised Ogbaurhie as a baby on her back.  It was the goddess that guided Ughienvwen and his followers to safety at Otughienvwen after wandering for years in the rivers and creeks of the Niger delta.  Today, Ughienvwen and Ijaws have very close, most of the time, friendly relations.  I am told that artifacts of this history are evident in the Ogbaurhie shrine.

The political, legislative and judicial instruments for the administration of Ughienvwen were traditionally in the hands of members of four Ogbaurhie cults: Ade (Administrative/Ceremonial/Judiciary cult), Igbun-Oto/Igbun-Eshovwin (Military/Law Enforcement), Ebo (Medicine/Philosophy).  These are the structures of traditional Ughienvwen governance.  Admittedly, there is a limitation to the potential usefulness of traditional shrines as institutions for the promotion of cultural education; that limitation is their relative inaccessibility.  Often, only the priests can enter them! The only non-initiate that I know of who has ever been allowed into the Ogbaurhie shrine at Otughienvwen is our intrepid Oyibo-Edjo of Evwreni, Chief Perkins Foss!.  Nevertheless, I believe that any meaningful development of museums in Urhoboland should be comprehensive and must include the critical recognition that our traditional shrines are important components of Urhobo national heritage.  We must develop strategies for their preservation and restoration.  In this regard, we should challenge ourselves to be, at least, tolerant of the religious institutions of our forefathers.  Or, are we, now converts to foreign religions (which owe their foothold among us to the tolerance, in the first instance, of our traditional religions), going to be intolerant of the very kernel of our culture?  The religions of our forefathers constitute the core of Urhobo culture, history, spirituality and morality.  Efforts at intellectual appreciation of our culture must include a positive scholarly engagement with the practitioners, the ebos who are in fact the conservationists, of Urhobo traditional religions.

The environment in Urhoboland is intricately interwoven with Urhobo culture.  Nowhere are the people more part of their biodiversity than in Urhoboland, nowhere is the poetry, oratory, sculpture, festivals more a product of the peoples’ interaction with the environment, nowhere is any talk of environmental protection without conservation of the peoples’ culture more of an empty talk.  What we need is an Urhobo community university in which scholars of different persuasions, Urhobo and non-Urhobo, can undertake rigorous pursuit of, among other things, various aspects of Urhobo culture without having to fight for limited space with groups who have had the advantages of headstart and larger numbers.  In Nigerian universities Urhobo scholars and their attempts to introduce Urhobo cultural studies, are often victims of the form of democracy that is unique to a country of many nationalities in which the minority has to endure the tyranny of the majority.

Mukoro Mowoe University

Below, I try to argue the case for a Mukoro Mowoe University in Urhobo heartland. Such an important project will unite all Urhobos behind the UPU.  When completed, a Mukoro Mowoe University will also act as a catalyst for the scholarly pursuit of Urhobo culture, history, language and environment in the way that Urhobo College Effurun proved to be the catalyst for intellectual upsurge among Urhobo young men and women. In fact the ideas embodied in the one billion naira development fund launch will be best actualised in a Mukoro Mowoe University project.  Such a university will also serve as a befitting memorial to our hero, Mukoro Mowoe.  The call for a university in Urhobo heartland is not a frivolous call.  It has parallels in other parts of the world among minority groups struggling for cultural identity.  Such institutions have served as critical strategies for the propagation of latent energies and talents among minorities trying to discover who they are.  The preservation of Welsh culture and language was a major impetus for the foundation of the National University of Wales, with University Colleges in Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Bangor; these great institutions are imbued with the Welsh character, but, they are also world famous as centres of learning and sound scholarship.  The Welsh are a minority ethnic group in Britain with a similar population size to Urhobo and like the Urhobo, poetry and song more than the visual arts are their major traditional forms of artistic expression.  When one explores the prodigious complex Udje poetry of the Udu and the Ughienvwen, one cannot help imagining that had Dylan Thomas been born in Owahwa instead of a Welsh village, he might have been a great Udje exponent! The Welsh universities helped to preserve and update the Welsh language and hence Welsh culture, by providing opportunities for its scholarly study.  There was a time when under English ‘colonialism’ the Welsh language all but died out of existence; its use was prohibited under British colonialism. Today, the Welsh are very proud of their language.

But before I expatiate further on the case for a Mukoro Mowoe University, let me go back a bit to the origins of Urhobo College Effurun.

The UPU and Urhobo College Effurun

The book by Chief T. E. A. Salubi with the intriguing title The Miracles of an original thought (1965), is a story of Urhobo College Effurun by an eminent Urhobo man  who was there from the beginning when the college was established in 1946.  In the brief account on the subject of Urhobo College Effurun in The Member for Warri Province.  The life and Times of Chief Mukoro Mowoe 1890-1948) by Obaro Ikime (1977), the author acknowledges Chief Salubi’s account as his main source. A detailed account of this great historic institution and its makers remains to be written. I do not intend to go over the grounds already adequately covered by Chief Salubi and Professor Ikime.  When one looks at the records, one thing is certain: it was a miracle that Mukoro Mowoe was able to mobilise a group of people who were at that time nothing but a tribe of unconnected clans behind a common project.  Clearly, this was due to the personality of the Mukoro Mowoe and also because this happened at a time when education was an intensely felt need throughout Urhoboland.  I will add that the founding of the UPU and the founding of Urhobo College Effurun were very closely interwoven; thus we can say that the desparate need for education of Urhobo youths throughout Urhoboland was the major impetus for the founding of UPU.  One rendition of the aims of the UPU to be found in the book by Ikime (p.88) explicitly said:

The Union seeks to promote education in Urhoboland because it strongly believes
in the immense advantage of education in social and economic structure of society.

That is why I maintain in this lecture that Urhobo College Effurun has been an intimate part of Urhobo history in the last seventy years. Urhobo College Effurun was the much needed foot in the door for advancing the educational aspirations of Urhobo youths. That is why I maintain that UCE should continue to remain on the development agenda of the UPU and why it should serve as a template for the establishment of institutions of higher learning in Urhoboland.

As we learn from Salubi and Ikime, the Urhobo Brotherly Society that later became the Urhobo Progress Union was inaugurated in Chief Mowoe’s house on 3 November, 1931 with Omorohwovo Okoro from Ovu as its founding president.  Mukoro Mowoe was elected Vice-President at that meeting.  Within three years (1934), Okoro had stepped down for Mukoro Mowoe as President of the Society which eventually became the Urhobo Progress Union.  As early as 1935, a year after Mowoe took over as President, the Lagos branch had put education for Urhobo youths on the agenda of the UPU by proposing the setting up of a secondary school scholarship fund for Urhobo boys and girls under the auspices of the Union.  Other branches had other conflicting ideas on how to advance education in Urhoboland; this is not hard to imagine for disparate groups of Urhobos trying to decide on a common course of action! It took eleven years for issues to be resolved and for the foundation of Urhobo College Effurun to be laid in 1946.  Resolving the potentially fatal conflict between the Lagos branch (the progressives) and the Warri, the home branch (the conservatives) appeared to have tested Chief Mukoro Mowoe’s leadership qualities to the limit.  Ikime tells us that Mowoe toured the entire country in 1946, to explain to the many Urhobo people in the diaspora (urhie), the aims of the education scheme.  Here is a widely quoted passage from a lecture he gave at one stop in his tour, which may in fact be used today as the clarion call for any Urhobo National education project:

 “My belief is that every being born into the world has a duty to perform to his people …. any one of you who should fail to play his or her part for the upliftment of our dear tribe, it were better that she or he had not been born at all”. 

And, lamenting the absence of Urhobos from among the political leadership in Nigeria in 1946, he asked rhetorically,

out of these (potential rulers of Nigeria)….any Urhoboman among the names? If no, why?”

 His own answer was precise – lack of educational opportunities for Urhobos.  His own analysis was accurate

“….otherwise, I think if not more, we have the same equal brains.”

If one examines the quality of intellectual attainment of Urhobo scholars today, Mukoro Mowoe was right in his assessment that given the same opportunities Urhobo “brains” can hold their own among other Nigerians.

Some Early Urhobo College Effurun Personalities Recalled

(This picture is a rare porttrait of Mr. M. G. Ejaife, first Principal of Urhobo College, Effurun. Click at the picture to see its features and further comments. -- Editor)

M. G. Ejaife

While the UPU branches were engaged in these debates, two Urhobo young men had been sent for further training in preparation to take charge of the new college: M.G. Ejaife went to Fourah Bay College Sierra Leone where he took a Durham degree.  The other was the brilliant E.N. Igho who went to Downing College, Cambridge University in England, where he read Biology.  Ejaife had earlier studied at the famous St. Andrews College Oyo. At Oyo he became a contemporary of some of the great names in education in the Western Region of the 1950s. the late Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, who became Governor of old Oyo state and later the famous leader of NADECO was one; another is the Rev. Alayande, famous Principal of Ibadan Grammar School and teacher of the great Bola Ige.  Rev. Alayande now in his 90s is leader of the Yoruba Elders Forum. Had he lived, Ejaife would have been 90 at the time of this lecture.  Ejaife became the first Principal of Urhobo College Effurun, and Igho his deputy.  A comprehensive story of these great Urhobo teachers is yet to be written.  Ejaife was an all round scholar, a polymath / polyglot – Latin and Greek, English literature, English language, music, mathematics, history, geography, several Nigerian languages, the most learned man I have been influenced by.  E.N. Igho was M. A. (Cantab) and he never allowed too many opportunities pass without him reminding you of the fact: “I am a Cambridge master, you know; your principal is only a bachelor’, he was known to say.  Then there were men like Ikime, the History Master and Senior Tutor in charge of admissions, J.G. Ako who was already a teacher at the Urhobo Collegiate, the predecessor of Urhobo College Effurun.  Daniel Okumagba was the tough Games and Maths Master of Urhobo College Effurun who later became long serving Treasurer of the UPU and prominent politician of the Shagari era.

Urhobo College Effurun, in the early years was famous, but not for the number of straight A’s or Grade Ones it produced in the Senior Cambridge school certificate examinations. It was famous in sports. But what was remarkable is that UCE graduates went out to excel in fields which could not have been predicted from their time in UCE or even from their performance in the school leaving certificate examinations.  Some became well known scientists, even though the only real science subjects in which we had any exposure in the early years were Biology and Chemistry, without laboratories and no Physics at all.  Our biology classes consisted of leisurely strolls with E. N. Igho through what could be described as Urhobo College Effurun Botanical Gardens, on the other side of the Effurun-Sapele Road facing UCE, the site on which Mid-West Inn was later built, now a concrete jungle of shops and motor parks.  Igho taught what is nowadays called “integrated biology”, during which we were introduced to the biodiversity of the Niger Delta Wetlands or what is locally called Ivwori.

 Remarkably, however, the first Urhobo College Effurun graduate to earn the PhD did it in the field of genetics from the University of Cambridge in 1964.  His name is Matthew Scott-Emuapkor who became the first professor of genetics in the Department of Botany at the University of Ibadan in 1978.  And, yours sincerely, the first Urhobo College Effurun product to become full university professor in any field of study, achieved it in pharmacology at the University of Ibadan in 1977. Again, the first Urhobo College Effurun product to qualify in Medicine, Prince Sunday Mebitaghan was a member of my class of 1954.  Dr. S. B. Mebitaghan is a very distinguished public health specialist based in Benin. Scott-Emuakpor' was a brilliant scholar and an all rounder.  I know because he was my classmate and there was usually a baton change between first and second positions between us – Matthew due to his talents in science and mathematics; my interests at that time were more in the arts, Latin and English.  Matthew held the Greyer Cup records in the triple jump (16 feet 7 and half inches [1953]), and high jump (6ft 4 and half inches [1954]).  He also excelled in long jump as well as being a member of Chief Daniel Okumagba’s tough football first eleven.  It was something of a surprise to many of us who admire him that Matthew did not pursue any of these tremendous talents later in UCI or Cambridge. 

Here now, permit me a little immodest indulgence! On my first day in the “A-Level” Physics class at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology Ibadan, in 1956, the Physics master watched me from a distance while I tried to work a Wheatstone bridge experiment.  I did not know one end of the contraption from the other, having never set eyes on one before, nor could I make head or tail of the typed instructions.  I began to sweat! Finally, the master came round.  Mr. Woodcock was a rough looking Englishman with a reputation from Umuahia or CKC for tough no nonsense attitude towards students.  I thought he was going to throw me out! He did not. Instead he glared at me and warned I could never pass physics at any level in two years without a previous “O”-Level pass in the subject.  From that day on Nelkon “A Level” Physics became my constant companion.  I was going to show him and I did! I have a certificate to show that I passed GCE “A-Level” Physics in 1958.  What Urhobo College Effurun transmitted to its early products was not so much dazzling knowledge in specific subjects, but broad education; a recent Cambridge alumni leaflet humorously defined education as “what is left after all that was learnt has been forgotten”.  A strong belief in one's ability to make the most of limited facilities was an important part of the education.  I could, if it was appropriate to do so, name some great pioneer students of Urhobo College Effurun, eminent men in Nigerian Society today, who when they left UCE, no one expected much, but who later attained distinction in law, politics, administration, the military, academia and in the literary world.

The robust ability to make do with little could also have been an attribute of my generation of Urhobo College students, many of whom had come to Effurun from all sorts of primary schools where some were practically self-taught.  I, for example, began my education career in Owahwa in 1944 in a primary school appropriately called Ifaka Providence School, after its founder, Mr. Ifaka of Ughelli/Evwreni.  Ifaka was an entrepreneur, a man who recognised the educational needs of rural Urhobo youngsters and started a chain of IP schools in the Ughelli area.  With school fees of three pence per month paid irregularly, Ifaka did not hire too many teachers.  In Owahwa, Ifaka was virtually the only teacher.  He rode into the village once or twice a week on his Raleigh Bicycle and that was when the classes held.  The rest of the time, we were engaged in the other traditional processes of education, fishing, wrestling, singing, dancing.  I was luckier than most because I had access to informal instruction from two cousins who were in school at Otughienvwen.  By 1946, I had advanced to primary 3 and had become Ifaka’s assistant teacher on those days when he did not show up! This was before I graduated to the famous Baptist School Oginibo where Urhobo greats like Gamaliel Onosode, boardroom guru and 1999 APP presidential candidate and the late Chief Clarkson Majomi were also primary school boys. That was where the Rev. (Dr.) Paul Ebhomielen, the mentor to whom I owe my advancement in education beyond the primary school level, was headmaster.

The Case for a Mukoro Mowoe University

The name Mukoro Nowoe is revered everywhere in Urhoboland not just because he was the first President-General of the UPU but more importantly for his outstanding selfless achievements for the Urhobo people. The most outstanding of these achievements which are there for all to see are in the field of education.  His inspiring role in establishing Urhobo College Effurun is unparalleled in Nigeria. But, not many people know that it was Chief Mowoe too who succeeded, almost single-handedly, in persuading the colonial government, I am sure against strong opposition from certain quarters, to move Government College Warri built in 1945 from Warri to Ughelli in Urhobo heartland.  Chief Mukoro Mowoe died on 10 August 1948.  In the more than half a century since then, how have we commemorated him?  Let me draw attention to some examples of the way in which other people have immortalised their heroes.  In my retirement I currently teach pharmacology on contract at the Obafemi Awolowo College of Health Sciences of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, formerly Ogun State University.  I had a choice between that and the Ladoke Akintola University at Ogbomosho in Osun State, the Adekunle Ajasin University in Ondo State or the Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile-Ife!  In his paper “Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Destiny and History” Peter Ekeh lamented the failure of the Urhobo nation to adequately commemorate our national hero, and he put forward the following ideas; I doubt if an occasion has ever arisen to debate them:

i.                     Rename Delta State University after Mukoro Mowoe.

ii.                   Establish a Mukoro Mowoe Scholarship Fund

iii.                  Build a Mukoro Mowoe International Airport in Warri.

The idea of a significant Mowoe commemoration is one with which the majority of Urhobo will agree; therefore these ideas deserve consideration by the UPU.  Perhaps (i) and (iii) above may draw considerable controversy knowing the prevailing politics of Delta State.  On the other hand, the experience from various scholarship schemes in Nigeria is the problem of sustainability in the face of the vanishing value of endowments.  My own addition to the above list will be for a brand new Mukoro Mowoe University outside Abraka in the Urhobo heartland.  Dare I say that perhaps the Chief might be pleased that the idea of a University named after him is being advocated by a product of Urhobo College Effurun the full educational significance of which he did not live to see.  He might also be pleased to see that his efforts in establishing Urhobo College Effurun has brought his beloved Urhobos to the stage where they can contemplate a community university project.  As Ekeh put it “we live in an era in which community efforts have once again become mandatory for groups that wish to overcome the handicaps imposed by circumstances of poor governance.” There is no nationality of our population and land size, wealth, endowment in men and women, that does not boast of least one university catering to its cultural and educational needs in Nigeria today. 

There is also a strategic justification.  Delta State is reputed to be relatively rich, but the state itself is multiethnic and its coffers cannot be used to satisfy Urhobo cultural aspirations alone.  We are the largest group, but our experience within Nigeria should teach us that we must be particularly sensitive to the feelings of our neighbours.  While we have the crude oil, and America and Europe are still buying it, Delta State will remain relatively wealthy. Some of that will inevitably come to Urhoboland; unless we embark on a major project like a Mukoro Mowoe University, where would all our share of the oil wealth have gone in the end? Where would our rich men and women have immortalised their names in Libraries, Science Blocks, Halls of Residence? In 50 or 100 years time, the oil might be finished or when Europe and America may no longer buy crude oil, because it is too dirty; or because they have discovered cheaper, cleaner forms of energy. Meanwhile, Urhoboland would have been left physically, culturally and spiritually in ruin. We could find that we frittered our share of the oil money away in frivolities.  In many parts of the country, even states with miserable resources are also thinking strategically and putting down permanent infrastructures while the oil flows in the Niger Delta.  One state, which shall be nameless, that can hardly raise 10% of its monthly expenditure form internal revenue is planning a State University; in the year 2000, only 5 indigenes of that State secured university entrance scores in the WASC examination.  A Mukoro Mowoe University will not have that problem of suitable entrance material.  The Urhobos nation’s contribution to the intellectual life of Nigeria is significant and out of proportion to its population.  In a cursory count of senior academics in the University of Ibadan, Urhobos come next to Yorubas in the number of full professors.  A Mukoro Mowoe University will be a university that draws on its immediate surroundings for cultural and intellectual inspiration, with roots in traditional institutions making contributions to the well being of Nigeria and the world at large from the perspective of a unique environment and cultural experience.

David Okpako

22 Sankore Avenue, University of Ibadan
P. O. Box 20334, UI PO
Oyo Road, Ibadan.
Nigeria 200 005.
Tel: +234 2  810 7602
        +234 0802 350 2618
Email address: dpc@ibadan.skannet.com

                        30 August, 2002.