Urhobo Historical Society

On the Matter of

Clans and Kingdoms in Urhobo History and Culture


By Peter P. Ekeh

Chair, Urhobo Historical Society


Presented as a lecture at an Assembly of Urhobo Community, Abuja, Nigeria, Saturday, April 26, 2008. Several members of Urhobo Historical Society contributed their thoughts to the construction of this paper. I want, in particular, to thank Mr. Onoawarie Edevbie, Dr. Isaac James Mowoe, Dr. Emmanuel Ojameruaye, and Chief Simpson Obruche for their extensive comments on the paper. I should add that the concern of this paper is shared by the membership of Urhobo Historical Society.



As a term for describing a basic unit of Urhobo culture, the word “clan” came into existence at the onset of British colonial rule in Urhoboland in the beginning decades of the 20th century. From prehistoric times, and even during that era of colonial rule, the Urhobo people employed their own native expressions, including ẹkpotọ (that is, ẹkpo r’ otọ in full phrasing), to describe these units of Urhobo culture. Other words that were so used to describe Urhobo’s cultural units were ẹkuotọ and ubrotọ. However, that colonial term of “clans” dominated Urhobo studies and everyday analysis of Urhobo ways of life until its authority was undermined in the late 1990s.

Its current rival term of “kingdom” was first applied to the special case of Okpe by Onigu Otite in his 1969 Ph.D. thesis for London University, which has since been published as Autonomy and Dependence: The Urhobo Kingdom of Okpe in Modern Nigeria (1973). Otite’s academic use of the term “kingdom” was specialized and was largely circumscribed by the unique events of Okpe history. The publication of Otite’s book in the early 1970s did not diminish the use of the term “clans” for describing Urhobo’s subcultures nor did it lead to any upswing in the use of “kingdoms” in Urhobo studies and everyday life.

The recent widespread upsurge in the use of the word “kingdoms” in the cultural life of the Urhobo people followed from the publication of a book of a different genre. Titled
Urhobo Kingdoms: Political and Social Systems and published in 1997, its authors were notable: they were the Ovie1 of Ogor, His Royal Highness O. I. Adjara III,2 and his co-author Andy Omokri. Although this book cannot be said to have made any academic impact beyond Urhoboland and its Diaspora, its import on Urhobo social life has been considerable. While it is hardly known outside the leading circle of Ivie3 and high chieftains in Urhoboland, its influence in this dominant group of aristocrats appears to have been immediate and positive.

Today, the term “clan” has largely been swept off Urhobo political vocabulary. However, it is uncertain whether “kingdoms” has effectively replaced the British term “clans” or indeed traditional indigenous Urhobo terms, such as ẹkpotọ, for which the British had coined the word “clans” a century ago. Indeed, this note of disquiet may well be phrased differently, as a query: Is it possible that the introduction of “kingdoms” has done more harm to Urhobo’s cultural circumstances than any appearance of prestige that it has bestowed on our royal institutions? What one can say with some certainty is that there is considerable confusion in the usages and meanings of “kingdoms” in modern Urhobo cultural life. Certainly, the term “kingdoms” has left out of its semantic sway whole areas of culture that are of traditional concern to the Urhobo people. Into this deepening confusion has now strolled the Delta State Government waiving what appears to be an all-embracing new claim that it has an inherent power to decree Urhobo “kingdoms” into existence by way of government gazettes. Without a doubt, a dark cloud of cultural crisis now hangs over the Urhobo horizon. In these circumstances, there is need to clarify the historical and cultural meanings of “clans” and “kingdoms.” To be silent and allow this confusion to be waged in ignorance serves no one well – not Urhobo culture, not the Delta State Government, and certainly not Urhobo chieftains.

Before I proceed any further with this analysis, I want to make a point abundantly clear. This paper is not intended to defend the British colonial term “clans” or to attack its putative rival “kingdoms.” On the contrary, it is to invite an engaging conversation on a vital aspect of Urhobo history and culture which is currently under distress. Urhobo culture is ours and we must not allow it to flounder.


Pre-Historic Origins of Urhobo Cultural Units

For now, permit me to put aside the two controversial terms of “clans” and “kingdoms.” In their place, I will use the politically neutral expression of “Urhobo Cultural Units” or more simply “Urhobo’s Subcultures.” These are sociological notions for which the word “clans” or “kingdoms” had been suggested as a shorthand. Note that I have not employed another popular expression, polities, in characterizing these subunits of Urhobo culture. That is because the word polities is limited by its political anthropological baggage to matters political whereas the units of Urhobo culture that are the subject of our discussion here have vast historical and cultural nuances and interpretations.

These basic subunits of Urhobo culture were prehistoric. That is, their existence predated modern historiography that assigns dates and ascertainable time periods to historical events. Today, Urhobo scholars and culture artists have arrived at a sum total of twenty-two of these units of Urhobo culture. By saying that they are prehistoric, we mean to say that all of them --
Agbarha-Ame, Agbarha Otor, Agbarho, Agbon, Arhavwarien, Avwraka, Ephron, Evwreni, Eghwu, Idjerhe, Oghara, Ogor, Okere, Okparebe, Okpe, Olomu, Orogun, Udu, Ughelli, Ughievwen, Uvwie, and Uwherun – were well settled before the rise of significant historical epochs that defined the boundaries of medieval and modern Urhobo history. Thus, it is presumed that all these twenty-two subunits of Urhobo culture were in existence before the rise of Benin Empire in the 1440s and before the arrival of the Portuguese in the Western Niger Delta in the 1480s.

To say that Urhobo’s subcultures were ancient and prehistoric is not to suggest that they are of the same age and generation. On the contrary, a group of these subcultures was of great antiquity, giving birth to newer subcultures. In general, the older subcultures were geographically separated from the less ancient ones. There is ample evidence from internal Urhobo folk knowledge and rituals that suggests that the oldest cultural subunits of Urhoboland are in the low-lying swampy southeastern region which is bounded by Patani River and Ijawland in the south and Isokoland in the east. These primeval subcultures of Urhoboland include Uwherun, Evwreni, Arhavwarien, Okparebe, Eghwu, and Olomu.

Figure 1.1

Michael Nabofa’s Geographical Display of Urhobo’s Cultural Units


It is noteworthy that in precolonial times, Iyede in modern Isoko was counted among the earliest subcultures of Urhoboland. It has since been re-assigned to Isoko, suggesting that the cultural walls that separate Urhobo from Isoko are thin.4  The migrations into Urhoboland that are variously claimed to have occurred, with points of origin in lands once ruled by the Ogiso dynasty in areas now named Benin, most probably followed the creeks into this swampy region of southeastern Urhoboland and Isokoland; rather than through the impenetrable rainforests of northwestern Urhoboland.


Urhobo's Subcultures and the Conquest of Western Niger Delta’s Rainforests


Urhobo folk history suggests that it was from the swampy southeastern Urhobo region that the conquest of the bigger and more ample rainforests of northwestern Urhoboland was launched and accomplished. Those who achieved this extraordinary feat of conquest were fresh units who founded new sub-cultures in areas that they conquered, spreading Urhobo language and culture across these virgin tropical rainforests. Some of these sub-cultures were established in groups. Thus, the so-called Oghwoghwa Cultural Group (see Erivwo: 2003: 109-113) -- consisting of Ogor, Ughelli, Agbarha-Otor, and Orogun – probably launched their campaign in tandem, occupying contiguous vital lands in the rainforests of the Western Niger Delta. Other groups went farther away from the southeast homeland. Thus, having followed similar paths from Isoko (in the case of Agbon) and Erhowa (in modern Isoko, in the case of Okpe)) and having both registered settlements in Olomu in southeastern Urhobo, the ancestors of the Okpe people and of Agbon conquered and claimed vital territories closer to River Ethiope.

Another genre of campaign of expansion of territory by a group of Urhobo sub-cultures in the rainforests of the Western Niger Delta is noteworthy. Just as Olomu proved to be a fertile starting point and a gateway for secondary groups of sub-cultures for campaigns of conquests of large portions of rainforests of the Western Niger Delta, so has Agbarha-Otor turned out to be a veritable cradle in breeding new tertiary sub-cultures. It was from Agbarha-Otor that groups left to found Agbarha-Ame, in modern Warri, naming their subculture after their ancestral land as Agbarha. Then an even more arduous campaign was waged when two separate groups of Agbarha-Otor migrants crossed the River Ethiope and occupied virgin rainforests on the Western side of an untamed river. They named their new sub-cultures after their ancestral towns in Agbarha-Otor as Idjerhe and Oghara.


Historic Significance of the Conquest of Western Niger Delta’s Rainforests by Urhobo Cultural Units


It is probably unnecessary at this point of our analysis to attempt a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the twenty-two sub-groups of Urhobo culture. But it is important that we attach some significance to the above statement of the groups of founding subcultures that are now more controversially labeled as “clans” or “kingdoms.”

Modern Urhobos correctly boast that they represent the largest group in the Western Niger Delta. Moreover, Urhobo occupies a sizeable chunk of the dry lands of the Western Niger Delta. All these we owe to those whose courage and heroism enabled the Urhobo to occupy prime rainforests. We must not forget that we shared the same rainforests with the Isoko and the Ukwuani. That our share of these lands is enviable owes everything to the fact that our prehistoric ancestors were able to conquer them.

“Conquest” is an evocative term in historical scholarship. Conquerors often subdue their own people and then overcome others. Such conquerors of peoples are frequently crowned as kings. But the conquest upon which our ancestors embarked was of a different type. It was the conquest of an untamed and unoccupied rainforest that was deemed to be dangerous. Today, we cannot imagine how fearsome these lands were in their pristine form. They had wild animals in abundance. That they are all gone from our territory is probably due to the fact that part of the responsibility of our founding ancestors was to destroy wild animals. It is said that Evwreni was founded by a group of hunters who were hired by Iyede to kill menacing elephants. Elephants (eni in Urhobo), lions (okpohrokpo), tigers (ẹdjẹnẹkpo), gorillas (ọsia), and hippotemuses (ẹrhẹ) have all gone from our lands, but they were once here in Urhoboland in some abundance.

There is another point of significance to be stressed. Apart from the fact that the secondary and tertiary subcultures of northwestern Urhoboland have larger territories than those in the low-lying swampy southeast, it is noteworthy that -- with the remarkable exception of Olomu -- these primeval subcultures of the southeast are almost all single-town cultures. In contrast, the larger secondary and tertiary subcultures of the northwest are multiple-town cultures. The multiplicities of towns and villages in these cultures – in Ughelli, Agbarha-Otor, Orogun, Okpe, Agbon, Agbarho, Idjerhe, etc. – are striking. Such multiplication of settlements of towns and villages within each subculture enabled the conquest and occupation of as much territory as was accomplished in these lands that were once untamed.


Properties and Characteristics of Cultural Units of Urhoboland


These subcultures of Urhobo have borne the burden of Urhobo history. They also carry the weight of Urhobo culture and its political organisation. Together, they all bear certain markers and characteristics that set Urhobo and its people apart from other cultures and peoples. So that we may be sure that these subcultures define what Urhobo is, we should map out their properties and characteristics.


(i) Territory with Boundaries and Integrity


Every Urhobo subculture has a territory that has boundaries with other sub-cultures and occasionally with non-Urhobo cultural entities, such as the Isoko, Ijaw, and Ukwuani. A unique aspect of Urhoboland is that the Urhobo people were the first to occupy their own portions in the hinterland of the rainforests of Western Niger Delta. In most instances, therefore, bearers of each subculture of Urhobo occupy territory that their ancestors were the first to conquer and occupy. This attribute of Urhobo’s subcultures has imparted a sense of collective ownership of the territories of these units of Urhobo culture. The integrity of each of Urhobo’s subcultures derives from its ownership of its own territory that it has conquered and occupied through its own exploits.


(ii) Sub-Cultural Headquarters and Eponymous Ancestral Shrines


Each subculture has its own headquarters. It is usually located in the first place in which the founding ancestors settled. These headquarters have eponymous ancestral shrines, venerating the spirits of the founding ancestors whose names are associated with the entire subculture.

          It is noteworthy that the high regard for these ancestral shrines is shared across all communities, including Christian families. In effect, these eponymous ancestral shrines are regarded as historic institutions.


(iii) Endowment of Individual’s Identity as an Urhobo Person


Every person who claims to be Urhobo does so only through his or her membership of a subculture or subcultures as their father’s or mother’s birth right. No one can claim to be Urhobo directly, without belonging to a subculture or subcultures of Urhobo. This attribute carries with it the claim of certain rights from members of the subculture who are expected to work for the survival and improvement of the entire subculture. But it is an attribute that also imposes important responsibilities on the subculture in its relationship to individual members. Until recent times, protection of the individual and care for his remains after death were responsibilities of the subculture or its further divisions.


(iv) Totems and Taboos of Sub-Cultures


For the sake of maintaining the spiritual welfare of its members, some subcultures instituted their own set of totems and taboos whose observance would be binding on their communities. The power of totems instituted by Ughelli and Orogun – even over those of their members who are now converted to Christianity – is legendary. Other sub-cultures have similar regimes of totems.


(v) Sub-Cultural Control of Urhobo’s Linguistic Dialects


 In the realm of language, Urhobo is a land of great dialectic variability. Remarkably, each subculture has its own dialect of the Urhobo language. Native speakers of the Urhobo language can easily tell from what sub-culture a speaker of the Urhobo language hails.


(vi) Urhobo Sub-cultures and the Institution of King (Ovie)


One of the most powerful cultural tools that each of Urhobo’s subcultures has (or had) at its disposal was the institution of kingship. Called Ovie throughout Urhobo culture, an Urhobo king exists only at the sub-cultural level. Each subculture controls the rules that govern the ascension to the subculture’s throne. More importantly, each subculture could decide to exercise its right to have a king or not to have one. However, by common Urhobo usage, no subculture is allowed to have more than one Ovie at a time.5

It is noteworthy that until the explosion of royal institutions began in the 1950s, from instigation from various Nigerian governments, only a handful of Urhobo’s sub-cultures exercised their inherent rights to have kings. Ogor and Ughelli had stable regimes of kingship for a good portion – but by no means all – of their history. The Okpe had an historic instance of monarchy that went awry and thereafter the Okpe were reluctant to revive the institution, until 1945, centuries afterwards. The Agbon people chose for centuries of their history to make do with the maxim Okpako r’ Agbon oy’ Ovie r’ Agbon – meaning, Agbon sub-culture’s eldest is its King. Many other attitudes toward royal institutions emanated from the other subcultures of Urhoboland. The point is, it was their right to determine whether they wanted a king and if so on what terms.


(vii) An Axiom of Co-Equality among Urhobo Sub-Cultures


There is an underlying axiom in the relations among the units of Urhobo culture. It is that they are co-equal. For instance, although Okpe and Agbon are each many times larger in land and population than most of the Urhobo subcultures of the southeast, they cannot claim to be culturally superior to the much smaller sub-cultural units of southeast Urhoboland, such as Okparebe and Arhavwarien.


British Colonial Rule and the Naming of Urhobo’s Sub-Cultures as Clans


British colonial rule in Urhoboland began effectively in the first decade of the 20th century, following a delay lasting many years (1894-1899) on account of a dispute between the Royal Niger Company and agents of the Niger Coast Protectorate Government over what British interest had administrative jurisdiction in Urhoboland (see Salubi 1958). When British colonial rule commenced, it was clear that the British had little knowledge of Urhobo culture. This was largely because missionaries had not been as active in the Western Niger Delta as they had been elsewhere, say in Yorubaland and Igboland (see Ekeh 2005).

The British made up for lost ground in their understanding of Urhobo culture by relying heavily on “intelligence reports” provided by colonial administrative officers. For centuries, Europeans, including the British, relied on Atlantic coastal peoples for their information on the Urhobo. As it turned out, much of that information was either wrong or outright mischievous.6 Now, the colonial administrators’ intelligence reports sought to paint a correct picture of Urhobo ethnography. These efforts led the British to conclude that Urhobo culture was essentially based on a clan system. They identified the units that we have been calling Urhobo’s subcultures along with many of their properties that we described above.

How did the British colonial officers come up with the word “clans” to describe these subcultures of Urhoboland? By the early 1900s and 1910s, when the label was applied, Colonial Social Anthropology was not mature enough to be helpful to colonial officers in their efforts at understanding such entities as Urhobo. It is more likely that the label was picked up from Scottish history of Clans. In many ways, Urhobo sub-cultures were very much like ancient Scottish clans.


Urhobo Reactions to British Colonial Ethnography of Urhoboland


As can be imagined, Urhobos were the principal informants for those who composed the intelligence reports. These reports were of course not made public, but key decisions were made on the strength of the information provided in them. It was therefore the British policies, apparently based on the intelligence reports, which the Urhobo people could judge. While accepting and even appreciating many administrative policies of the British Colonial Government, a good number of them were rejected by the Urhobo people who fought against their implementation and indeed for their reversal.

Two instances will illustrate the point. The British wrongly assigned Orogun and Avwraka (which they misnamed as Abraka) to Kuale [that is, Ukwuani] Division in Warri Province for administrative purposes. Similarly, Idjerhe (misnamed Jesse by the British) was assigned to Benin Division in Benin Province for administration. The Urhobo people did not like these decisions and fought hard for their return from what they saw as their perverse allocation. All three of them were eventually returned to the Urhobo fold by being regrouped in administrative units that consisted entirely of Urhobo sub-cultures.

Urhobo Progress Union arose in the 1930s as a vehicle for conveying Urhobo concerns to the British Colonial Government. One of the first public responsibilities of Urhobo Progress Union was to convey Urhobo’s objection on the wrong rendering of their name to the British. Urhobos objected to unacceptable names given by the British to Urhobo and its sub-units, obviously owing to pronunciation problems that the British encountered with complicated Urhobo names. Thus, the British had difficulties with the “rh” in Urhobo. They simplified it, changing “Urh” to S” and thus yielding “Sobo,” a name that Urhobos found offensive.7 Urhobo Progress Union fought very hard to change Urhobo’s spoilt name and it succeeded when the British made a correction in a Gazette of October 1, 1938. Urhobo Progress Union was itself involved in making changes in its own sphere, changing its name from its previous version of Urhobo Progressive Union in the late 1930s.

We have pointed to these Urhobo reactions in order to highlight the point that the Urhobo people were not unaware of what the British were doing with their cultural institutions. Urhobo Progress Union certainly knew of the label “Clans” which the British used to describe Urhobo’s sub-cultures. It had no objection. Indeed, UPU employed the term clans in its official duties of working for Urhobo progress. Right up until the mid-1960s, when UPU was in its high phase of activities on behalf of the Urhobo people, it used the term clans frequently. Thus, in his 1965 address to the General Council of Urhobo Progress Union, the President-General of the Union, Chief T. E. A. Salubi, referred to the role of the clans in spreading development in Urhoboland, as follows:


I would love to hope, indeed expect, that the degree of oneness and unity so transparently exhibited at Sapele on the occasion [of Urhobo National Day Celebration] will diffuse down to our different clan areas and be reflected in our ordinary life and day-to-day dealings with one another in our towns and villages (Salubi 1965, emphasis added).

It should be added that Nigerian nationalist scholars, including especially historians, objected to the use of such anthropological terms as tribes and clans, considering them to be derogatory and offensive. However, the general rejection of “clans” was from outside Urhoboland. The much preferred term of “kingdoms” did not catch up with Urhobo nationalist sentiments until the late 1990s!


Nigerian Governments’ Interactions with Urhobo’s Sub-Cultures


Various Nigerian Governments, at the Regional and State levels particularly, which followed British Colonial Government, have also dealt with the significance of these sub-cultural entities that the British labelled as clans of Urhoboland. It is fair to say that most Nigerian Governments have accepted and respected the fact that Urhobo is in essence a confederation of twenty-two sub-cultures whose bases and roots are ancient and prehistoric. Until the bizarre incident of 2006 in which Delta State Government sought to split an Urhobo sub-cultural unit into two, all previous Nigerian Governments had respected the integrity of each of the twenty-two units of Urhobo culture. Before dealing with the abnormality of that 2006 legislative episode by the Delta State Government that clearly violated the creed of Urhobo history and culture, it will be helpful to sketch how various previous generations of Nigerian governments, responded to Urhobo’s cultural system. Such an outline will probably help us all to see why the 2006 legislative affront on Urhobo history and culture is so remarkably different from the conduct of previous Nigerian Governments.


How Western Nigerian Government Dealt with Action Group’s Difficulties with the Urhobo People


The first Nigerian Government which the Urhobo had to deal with was led by the Action Group party of Western Nigeria, from 1952 to 1964. Unfortunately, Urhobos had a major problem with the Action Group and its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, concerning the dispute on the title of the King of Itsekiri and the ownership of the city of Warri (see Edevbie 2007). The Urhobo’s response was an uncompromising and consistent rejection of the Action Group at the electoral polls. At a time when voting counted, the Urhobo’s antipathy towards the Action Group was hurtful for a party that lacked a clear majority in the Western House of Assembly. No amount of punishment of the Urhobo worked to persuade them to switch to the Action Group in their political preferences.

The Action Group did its utmost to insinuate itself into Urhobo political affairs. Its bluntest tool was invocation of a property of Urhobo sub-culture. It is that every sub-culture was entitled to have an Ovie. It so happened that in the 1950s few of Urhobo’s sub-cultures had their own Ivie. The Action Group Government therefore orchestrated the selection of candidates for the throne of Ovie in each sub-culture where there was no seating Ovie. The Action Group supported its own candidates for these thrones.

Although this ploy did not work in convincing Urhobos to vote for the Action Group at the polls, it opened up a new chapter in Urhobo history. Playing within the logic of Urhobo culture that allocated the right of kingship to its sub-cultures, it nonetheless expanded Urhobo’s royal institutions well beyond what the Urhobos themselves wanted. One reason why many sub-cultures of Urhobo neglected to exercise their right to have a king was that it was costly to maintain an Ovie. Now, members of the new class of Ivie were more dependent on Government subsidies than on their own people, opening up new dynamics in Urhobo public affairs.


Mid-West Government and Ordered Selection of Ivie


By the time the Mid-West Region was carved out of the Western Region in 1964, it was very well established that kingship was mandatory in Urhobo sub-cultures, still then called clans. What the Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs sought to do was to bring order to the selection of the Ovie of each sub-culture. Urhobo chieftains seemed to have warmed up to the idea of this widespread kingship, hoping that it was one way of gaining sponsorship from the Government.

Two facts followed from this inordinate expansion of royal institutions in Urhoboland. The first is that the resulting Ivie were now ever more dependent on the Government. But their sheer numbers meant that they could not be as well cared for as if they were fewer. The other fact is that the kings became less dependent on their own people. These are dynamics that were liable to affect an institution that was invented from the necessity and imperatives of survival in a dangerous rainforest. It was no longer quite clear what the functions of the Ivie were. No doubt, many Government functionaries saw them as agents of the Government.

Whatever views one holds of the institution of Ovie, the Government had come to play a major role in moulding its place and functions in Urhobo culture. The catastrophic events of the 2006 legislation that sought to create an Urhobo sub-culture from the thin pages of a Government Gazette probably represent the ultimate in the unintended consequences of Government take-over of an ancient Urhobo convention. But before we examine that notorious event, we must first weigh the semantic changes that occurred in the characterization of units of Urhobo culture.


Renaming Urhobo’s Sub-cultures as Kingdoms


There is a measure of trivialization that has recently crept into the naming of Urhobo institutions as they are rendered in a culturally alien English language. For an Urhobo -- particularly for an Ughelli person -- there is an emotional difference between saying: “Ovie r’ Ughele” (in Urhobo) or “Ovie of Ughelli” (in English). The trivialization gets worse, along with the rather serious grammatical infraction that should be evident, in a new popular rendering in English of the same appellation: “Ovie of Ughelli Kingdom."8 The infatuation with this new-found word “kingdom” descends down the chain of the modern Urhobo aristocracy. To give an example from another sub-culture of Urhoboland: In his exemplary curriculum vitae, which was crafted some time in the early 1980s, Chief T. E. A. Salubi cites one of his most valued titles as “Okakuro of Agbon.” Since the late 1990s, the same title is now cited by its holders as “Okakuro of Agbon Kingdom."9

Such banality of language regarding aristocratic titles in recent times has arisen from the introduction of the English word “kingdom” into modern Urhobo culture. Its rampant and gratuitous use has caused several problems for our understanding of Urhobo institutions. First, “kingdom” is virtually untranslatable into Urhobo language. Second, it has been used as a replacement – that is, supposedly, as the synonym -- for the English word “clan.” Remember that “clan” was introduced into Urhobo by British colonial administrators as a way of characterizing Urhobo’s sub-cultures.

The origin of this new usage of “kingdom” has been traced to HRH Adjara III and Andy Omokri’s (1997)
Urhobo Kingdoms: Political and Social Systems. This is how the late Professor F. M. A. Ukoli sketched the rise of the term “kingdoms” in modern Urhobo culture:


The Urhobo constitute an ethnic group, but there is great diversity in the origins of the various clans as well as diversity in their culture. Indeed, the differences are so marked that H.R.H Adjara III and Omokri, in their recent book Urhobo Kingdoms, elevate the 22 clans which constitute the entire Urhobo tribe to the status of kingdoms (Ukoli 2007: 647).

Remarkably, Adjara III and Omokri did not discard the term clan in their analysis of Urhobo social and political systems. In fact, once one moves beyond the rather dramatic title of their book, they were fairly respectful of the term “clan.” They define Urhobo in terms of its clans, not kingdoms: “At present there are twenty-two clans in Urhoboland. Most of the clans are made up of groups of villages which trace their origin to a common ancestor” (p. 5). Similarly, they define the Ovie in terms of the clan: “The institution of clanheadship in Urhoboland is a most revered one. In some clans, the clan head is known as Ovie literally translated to be king” (p. 16).

Whatever Adjara III and Omokri intended to say in the pages of their book, it is the book’s title “Urhobo Kingdoms” that has won the day. Adjara III’s aristocratic colleagues have understood the book as recommending that the term clans be replaced by the apparently more appealing and more ponderous “kingdom.” And the Government of Delta State has readily adopted the new terminology, with consequences that are far removed from what any lovers of Urhobo history and culture will be pleased to accept.


Delta State Government’s “Creation” of an Urhobo “Kingdom” and Its Violation of Urhobo History and Culture


Throughout the course of Nigerian history, from the 1950s onwards at any rate, Nigerian Governments have accepted and then manipulated existing institutions of traditional rulership. They operate in that way probably in order to seek advantage for their political parties and to please powerful individuals in those parties. In doing so, they have deposed opponents and installed supporters as occupiers of such existing traditional institutions of rulership. Some prominent examples will illustrate this point. In the 1950s, Ahmadu Bello’s Government of Northern Nigeria removed Emir Sanusi of Kano from his throne and banished him from Kano Emirate. Similarly, in the 1950s also, Obafemi Awolowo’s Government of Western Nigeria removed the Alafin of Oyo from his office and banished him from his realm. In the 1960s, at the beginning of the existence of Mid-West Region, Festus Okotie-Eboh orchestrated the removal of the reigning king of Itsekiri, his long-time opponent, and facilitated the installation of a supporter of his as the new King of Itsekiri.

In all these instances, previous Nigerian Governments accepted the traditions of the people and the institution of rulership that they mandated. What these previous Nigerian Governments did was to exploit the logic of these traditions by placing their supporters on the seats of traditional rulership, while removing their opponents. None of them defied the traditions of the people by creating new realms. The Government of Northern Nigeria did not split Kano up and place its own candidate on a fraction of the Kano Emirate. Western Nigeria Government did not divide Oyo up, in defiance of Yoruba traditions and history. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh and the new Mid-West Government of 1964 did not split Itsekiri up and install their favourite candidate as king of one section. In previous instances of Government’s intervention in traditional affairs of kingship, the people’s traditions have been well respected.

In such respects, the conduct of Delta State Government in 2006 in splitting up Urhobo’s Idjerhe sub-culture and in creating a new “Kingdom” of Mosogar from the ancient territories of Idjerhe is unprecedented in the annals of Urhobo history and culture. Moreover, it would be difficult to find similar examples of the Government’s defiling of a people’s traditions elsewhere in Delta State. Let it be clearly stated at the onset here: Urhobo history and culture were severely violated in what appears to be the uncontested act of “creating” an Urhobo “kingdom” by Delta State Government in 2006.

The British had active and intense contacts with the Urhobo people for at least fifty years, for much of the first half of the 20th century. Although they came as colonizers, they nonetheless respected the integrity of Urhobo history and culture. They correctly identified Urhobo’s ancient sub-cultures and acted within their framework and logic. Similarly, the Action Group Government that took over from the British respected the traditions of the Urhobo people, despite historic difficulties between them and the political party that controlled the Government at that time. And it is fair to say that the Mid-West and Bendel State Governments were largely respectful of Urhobo traditions.

So why has this grave violation of Urhobo history and culture occurred in a governmental regime that has no standing quarrel with the Urhobo people?  Two explanations have been offered by some Urhobo leaders who have bothered to discuss this matter. The first is that people in Government do not bother themselves with the creed of Urhobo history and culture. They say that some politicians would be surprised that any worries about Urhobo history and culture have been expressed. The second reason that has been suggested for permitting this brazen act of violation of Urhobo history and culture to occur is that the term “kingdoms” has become so trivialized that people in Government now believe that they can create them. As one Urhobo leader put it, “People in Asaba would hesitate to create ‘clans’ but not ‘kingdoms.’”

It must be noted that the Delta State Government has no Constitutional powers to create local governments in Delta State. Nor does it have the power to alter their boundaries. Why is it then possible that the Delta State House of Assembly can legislate on the existence and boundaries of Urhobo sub-cultures – call them clans or kingdoms, if these terms please? It has been said that this matter has been gazetted and that once matters appear in a Government Gazette, there is not much one can do. Well, Urhobos have a right to question the validity of a Gazette that violates their history and culture. In the long run, this whole cultural fiasco has very little to do with Idjerhe and its sub-units. The problem is that it strikes at the heart of Urhobo’s cultural existence.


Unforeseen and Untoward Consequences of Delta State’s Creation of a “Kingdom” in Urhoboland


There are numerous reasons why the Urhobo people should be troubled by the spectre of Delta State Government taking over the control of Urhobo traditions, an instance of which was the so-called creation of a “kingdom” in Idjerhe sub-culture of Urhoboland. We will confine ourselves to only a few of these reasons.

First, the Idjerhe episode of “kingdom creation” is most likely to be imitated and repeated elsewhere – if it is allowed to survive. If every new installment of Delta State Government that comes to power has the right and authority to create “kingdoms” in Urhoboland, then we should expect a multiplicity of new “kingdoms” -- or “clans,” designating them by their other English label – to be created for Urhobos within several decades. There are everywhere short-sighted and ambitious politicians who will ask to be made kings of even small villages if the opportunity arises. Internal divisions within each of Urhobo’s sub-cultures may precipitate such clamour for kingship of new “kingdoms.” While there may be ready-made cases of divisions that will readily prompt any new Delta State Governments for new “kingdoms, the greater danger is that even the more stable and established instances of kingship in Urhoboland will not be safe from the spread of the cancer of Government’s “kingdom creation.”

Second, any increase in the number of Ivie in Urhoboland is a threat to the strength of our royal institutions. Many Urhobo leaders of thought already consider the twenty-two Ivie, who derive their authority from Urhobo culture, to be on the high side. It should be recalled that in the 1930s and 1940s, opinion leaders in Urhoboland and its Diaspora seriously weighed the option of initiating a single Urhobo kingship. If we cannot achieve such a goal, we must nevertheless not further weaken our circumstances by foolishly allowing the creation of artificial “kingdoms” in Urhoboland at the whim of Governments who may not always be well disposed towards the vibrancy of Urhobo cultural formations. The addition of a single Ovie to the system of twenty-two kings that we now have is a threat to our culture and to the dignity of those who currently occupy the thrones of Ivie in Urhoboland.


Concluding Thoughts on Necessary Remedies


When the Urhobo people face a collective crisis, our usual resort is to ask Urhobo Progress Union to intervene on behalf of the Urhobo people. In our estimation, the Idjerhe episode of “kingdom creation” represents a crisis of a high level of disorder in our cultural existence as a people. We must rely on Urhobo Progress Union to persuade the factions in Idjerhe to do what all patriotic Urhobos do: at the end, the survival and welfare of our hard-won culture are important for our individual existence. What does it profit an Urhobo man if he becomes an Ovie, if by doing so he weakens the institution of Ovie? And what does it profit any Urhobo community if it gains a “kingdom” that leads to the downfall of a system for which all of our ancestors fought so hard? We trust that the UPU will be able to bring all the sections in Idjerhe together to settle what ought to be an internal problem.

On this score of persuasion, we also ask the UPU to apply gentle suasion on the Delta State Government to rescind its ill-advised “kingdom creation” exercise in Urhobo’s Idjerhe sub-culture and to kindly desist from any attempt to control Urhobo culture. It is not something that the Urhobo people should permit.

Finally, we appeal to Urhobo Progress Union to consider most seriously setting up a Committee that will study and recommend ways of regulating the titles that our kings and chieftains bear. It may be discovered, to the pleasure of us all, that there is no need to render Urhobo aristocratic titles in English at all. We are sure that this is a matter that will be of interest to the esteemed Kings of Urhoboland.






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Edevbie, Onoawarie. 2007. “Ownership of Colonial Warri.” Pp 233-257 in Peter P. Ekeh, editor, History of the Urhobo People of Niger Delta. Lagos: Urhobo Historical Society, 2007.


Ekeh, Peter P., (2005). “A Profile of Urhobo Culture.” Pp. 1-50 in Peter P. Ekeh, Studies in Urhobo Culture. Buffalo, New York (USA) & Lagos, Nigeria: Urhobo Historical Society. 


Erivwo, S. U. 2003. “The Oghwoghwa Group of Group: Ogo, Ughele, Agbarha-Oto, and Orogun.”  Pp. 109-113 in Otite, Onigu, ed. The Urhobo People. Shaneson C. I. Limited. Second Edition, 2003.


Foster, Whitney. 1969. African Historical Studies 2(2): 289-305. Reprinted in Peter P. Ekeh, editor, History of the Urhobo People of Niger Delta. Lagos: Urhobo Historical Society, 2007, pp. 37-50.


Moore, William A. 1936. History of Itsekiri. London: Frank Cass & Co. 1970.


Otite O.1973. Autonomy and Dependence. The Urhobo Kingdom of Okpe in Modern NigeriaEvanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.


Pereira, Duarte Pacheco. C.1518. Esmeraldo De Situ Orbis. Translated and edited by George H. T. Kimble. London: Hakluyt Society.


Salubi, T. E. A. 1958. “The Establishment of British Administration in Urhobo Country, 1891-1913.” Reprinted in Peter P. Ekeh, editor, History of the Urhobo People of Niger Delta. Lagos: Urhobo Historical Society, 2007, pp. 67-85.


Salubi, T. E. A. 1965. President-General’s Address delivered by Chief the Honourable T. E. A. SALUBI, O.B.E., M.H.A., President-General of Urhobo Progress Union, to the 16th Session of the Annual General Council of the Union held at Warri from Sunday, the 26th, to Thursday the 30th, December, 1965.


Ukoli, F. M. A. 1998 [As reprinted in 2007] “The Place of the Elite in Urhobo Leadership.” Pp 647-656 in Peter P. Ekeh, editor, History of the Urhobo People of Niger Delta. Lagos: Urhobo Historical Society, 2007.



1 Ovie is the Urhobo word for King.

2 "His Royal Highness” was the expression used by His Majesty in 1979 as author of Urhobo Kingdoms.

3 In Urhobo grammar, Ivie (kings) is the plural of Ovie (King).

4 See Whitney Foster 1969 (as reprinted in 2007: 41): “Today one of the Isoko clans is Iyede.  Yet [William ] Moore [1936: 13, 16] noted that Iyede was one of the four Sobo clans in the Delta prior to Ginuwa’s arrival.  Upon questioning two different groups of Iyede elders, two very different stories were obtained.  One version can be immediately rejected because of its political overtones.  The other states that the god, which they still worship today at the site of their first stop in Isoko, was also worshipped by Ogo, Agbaza, and Oghele.  These three names refer to the other three of the original four clans referred to by Moore. Here, certainly, is a good indication that at least one of the Isoko clans of today was an Sobo clan at the time [the Portuguese explorer] Pereira wrote [in 1518]."

5 It is said that Agbarha-Otor had three sub-kings, each called Ovie, at a point in its history.

6Thus, Salubi (1958; as reprinted in 2007: 83) makes “a reference to the role successfully played for many years by the wealthy middlemen of the Coast in their two-way tactics of misrepresenting the white-man, even including the Consul in some cases, to the Urhobo people on the one hand, and the Urhobo people to the white-man on the other. The Urhobo people were called all sorts of vicious names and described in a most humiliating and discreditable way to the white-man and the outside world. … But the Protectorate Officers soon discovered the trick as will be appreciated from what Sir Ralph Moor himself said on the point. He said, the Consul had been so grossly misrepresented in the past by native traders and others, to serve their own ends, that his coming was greatly feared by the natives of the interior. The Consul's name had been used indiscriminately by the Coast traders as a sort of "bogey" with which to frighten the natives into compliance with their wishes which were often of a nefarious character."

7 Other names with “Urh” that the British could not handle and arbitrarily changed to versions with “S” include Urhiapele (changed to Sapele) and Urhonigbe (changed to Sonigbe).

8 The full literal translation into English of “Ovie of Ughelli Kingdom” is: “King of Ughelli Kingdom."

9 This type of change in the wording of the title of “Okakuro” would be close to changing the English title “Duke of Wellington” to “Duke of Wellington Dukedom” or to “Duke of Wellington of English Kingdom.”