Urhobo Historical Society
A Book Review:
TITLE: T.E.A. SALUBI: WITNESS TO BRITISH COLONIAL RULE IN URHOBO LAND AND NIGERIA
No. of Pages: 578 pages.
Editor: Professor Peter Palmer Ekeh
Publisher: Urhobo Historical Society (UHS), Buffalo, New York USA &
Year of Publication: 2008
Reviewers: Professor Simon Obikpeko Umukoro and Dr. Sunny Awhefeada
An obvious defect in Nigerian historiography has been the neglect of the account of minority ethnic nationalities. This is noticeable, for instance, in the history of colonialism in Nigeria, an experience which opened an entirely new epoch in the lives of the people and annals of the ethnic groups. It is now clear that there was no group in Nigeria that was not affected by the colonial experience.
However, the historicization of the colonial encounter with its aftermath has been quite lopsided. The dominant strains in the Nigerian chronicle have been woven round the big ethnic nationalities that have assumed the facile stance of being the sole representative of the national experience. On the other hand, the politics of exclusion and marginalization have confined ethnic minorities to the margins of silence and obscurity, so much so that the rich and variegated historiography of minorities has either been muffled or confined to a subaltern status. Thus, while Nigerian history vivifies the story of big ethnic conglomerates, it mutters faint echoes of the odyssey of the minorities.
Nevertheless, it is safe to acknowledge the redeeming factors and resilience of Nigerian scholarship and its expanding frontiers. In the last twenty years or so, there has been a seminal effort to reclaim and document the history of these marginalized minorities. Involved in this act of reclamation are redoubtable scholars and coteries who felt challenged to tell the story of their own people to illuminate their past and see what heritage their forebears instituted. It is within this tradition that we unreservedly locate the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) chaired by the erudite Professor Peter Palmer Ekeh. The UHS, whose avowed raison d’etre is enscrited in its motto “Serving Urhobo History and Culture” is doing remarkably well to excavate and document the forgotten or abandoned history of the Urhobo nation.
The book, T.E.A. Salubi: Witness to British Colonial Rule in Urhoboland & Nigeria, edited by Professor Ekeh, is an indisputable attestation to the foregoing assertion. No doubt, a magnum opus, the book wears many hats as a biography, an autobiography, memoir, history, dairy, and more. Its academic value spans varied yet interconnected disciplines such as Literature, Law, History, Archeology, Politics, Sociology, Philosophy, Geography, as it sails the borderlessness of post-modern engagement. It is a compendium that engages the future in its exposition of the past. It is a telling account, an unbiased and unsentimental recreation of a triple layered story: Salubi’s, Urhobo’s and Nigeria’s.
The records, in this invaluable five hundred and seventy eight page book published by the UHS, are an attempt by the subject Chief Thomas Edogbeji Aitkins Salubi, “to write here, as a record, the history of my life for the information and benefit of my children, relatives and those interested in me and for posterity in general…”. Thus, Chief Salubi’s attempt to inscribe his story for his children and posterity unwittingly veers into the history of the colonial enterprise in Urhoboland and by extension Nigeria. This tendency in Chief Salubi’s narratology implicates the biography/autobiography as the narrative of not just the self, but a race and nation.
Chief Salubi conjectured his year of birth to be 1906 at Oko r’ Agbamu in Ovu situated in the present Ethiope East Local Government Area of Delta State, Nigeria. He goes on to trace his genealogy and establish extended family links. Chief Salubi’s records demonstrate ample evidence of the benign, sometime malevolent, forces that shaped his childhood, and subsequently later life. Among these forces, the fast encroaching factor of colonization, and parental choice stand out. One of the agencies of colonisation was western education. When the moment to decide whether the young Salubi should be educated or not came, his parent decided wisely that to school he should go. This ingular decision turned out to be the watershed of the many trailblazing deeds of Chief T.E.A. Salubi.
The young Salubi’s path to school opened in 1917. the primary school was C.M.S. School, Ovu. He left this school for Lagos in 1919, returned to Ovu six years later, tried resuming his educational pursuits in Sapele, but could not due to bad eyesight, and eventually returned to Lagos in 1926, where he began work as temporary Sanitary Inspector in 1927. Through sheer brilliance and diligence Chief Salubi transferred his services to the newly created Department of Labour in the Nigeria Government Civil Service in 1943. It was from here that he rose to the top echelon of the Civil Service meritoriously.
Chief Salubi’s academic credentials were towering for his time. While in the colonial service, he took several examinations in which his brilliance shone. However, the icing to his academic accomplishment was his winning of a government scholarship to study at the University of London between 1943 and 1945. This rare feat accelerated his rise to stardom. By the time he retired from service in 1962, he had reached th zenith of public service, garlanded with several honours including the highly coveted Queen’s honour, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Chief Salubi’s glorious exit from public service helped him to chart a new cause for his people (the Urhobo) through the agency of the Urhobo Progress Union of which he became President General in 1962. From thence, Chief Salubi became a most articulate and committed advocate and champion of Urhobo cause. His piloting of UPU affairs was by no means fortuitous. He had been the secretary of the Lagos branch as early as 1934. He was also instrumental in giving the Union the name Urhobo Progressive Union, later amended to Urhobo Progress Union between 1934 and 1935. Chief Salubi can also be regarded as a foremost follower of the avatar, Chief Mukoro Mowoe who was the leading spirit of UPU before his transition in 1948.
Chief Salubi turned out to be longest serving President General of UPU ever, as he was in the saddle for twenty years, from 1962 to 1982 when he passed on to the great beyond. Before his emergence as President General, UPU has receded into doldrums, the Union’s giant strides in the days of Chief Mowoe had dwindled just as its influence waned. However, when Chief Salubi took over the affairs of the Union he revived and reorganized it with an uncommon verve and vigour to make it vibrant as a force to be reckoned with. His efforts marked a new dawn of relevance for the Urhobo people in the affairs of Nigeria.
Chief Salubi’s retirement from the civil service also opened the flood gate of political appointments for him. He was commissioner in six different ministries between 1964 and 1972. In all this, his records were impeccable and superbly meritorious. The Justice M.A. Begho Public Officers Investigation Panel of 1967 described Chief Salubi as “the most honest minister, who should not have been invited before the Tribunal for trial”. When he resigned from office in 1972 he did so with his dignity intact. A very rare feat in Nigeria.
Chief T.E.A. Salubi was a man of many callings and for all seasons. His scholarly engagement marked him apart from his contemporaries. His research into Urhobo history, and the ventilation this attempt gave neighbouring ethnicities remain a sine qua non in the apprehension of the colonial enterprise in the Western Niger Delta. Chief Salubi brought to bear on his research and writing the ardour and rigour of a trained scholar-historian. The Urhobo and indeed Niger Deltans owe him a debt of acknowledgement for his illuminating probing and recording of the past.
Chief Salubi’s effort remains unparalleled in the recovery of Urhobo heritage. His diaries, speeches, minutes of meeting constitute a rich mine of information which considerably point at the way the Urhobo should go. This book portrays Chief Salubi as a man ahead of his time. He had vision, courage and conviction that marked him out as the most outstanding champion of Urhobo cause in the second half of the twentieth century as did Chief Mowoe in the first half. This great son of Urhoboland, nay Nigeria, like all mortals succumbed to illness in 1978. Even in the throes of ailment, he demonstrated admirable courage, but then the bell tolled for him. He passed on in 1982.
The book is enriched by a foreword, an introduction, and an afterword. The foreword written bu Chief Dr. Fredrick Esiri, first Urhobo medical doctor, and lifelong associate of Chief Salubi is a glowing tribute to the sterling qualities of the subject and the revivalist and redemptive role he played for the Urhobo people. The introduction by Professor Ekeh is a lucid exegesis of the content. Professor Ekeh’s brilliance and mastery of interpretative nuances brings a fluidity and coherence so uncommon to bear on Chief Salubi’s narrative. The book’s afterword is by Chief (Dr.) T.E.A. Salubi (Jnr), the medical doctor heir of the subject. This chapter of the book provides an update to the story. The content is gleaned from the interaction between father and son, the latter’s excursion through the former’s dairy. Dr. Salubi (Jnr)’s account provide significant insights into his father’s service to the UPU, and the political maneuvering of the first republic involving the NCNC, the late Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh and the formation of the Midwest Democratic Front (MDF). These events are full of lessons in constructive resistance, courage, sincerity and determination. The afterword covered the last moments of Chief T.E.A. Salubi, projecting him as a nationalist, stateman, and patriot in an endless and selfless service to his people.
Chief Salubi’s book is a very significant contribution to Nigerian History. Apart from detailing the Urhobo experience of colonialism, it also provides an eyewitness account of the evolution of Nigeria as an independent State. The narrative is peopled by famous Nigerians, Azikiwe, Okpara, T.O.S. Benson, H.O. Davies, Awolowo, Okotie-Eboh, among others who have become synonymous with Nigerian nationalism. The book’s front and back covers are significant in the appreciation of the preoccupation. The front cover has a looming portrait of Chief Salubi in Urhobo dress over a colonial structure on which rests the British Union Jack. The back cover has a 1932 picture of Chief Salubi in a European suit. These are signifiers of the man, Chief Salubi. They signify him as an Urhobo, a witness to British imperial presence among his people, and one who attained great heights through the instrumentality of colonial cum western education. Beyond all this, the book invites the reader to celebrate Chief T.E.A. Salubi, as scholar and chronicler of Urhobo heritage, the great defender of Urhobo cause and revivalist of Urhobo consciousness.
Professor Umukoro & Dr. Awhefeada are of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka.