Urhobo Historical Society



Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
November 3-5, 2000

 Keynote Address:

Where Do we Stand Now?


Senator David O. Dafinone

My Beloved Brothers and Sisters:

Let me begin by making a bold statement of history and of hope hewn from rare human service: Urhobo as a self-conscious nation began its modern common existence with Mukoro Mowoe. Before his great service to our people, we were isolated lots like the three proverbial coins in a fountain, each seeking its own level of happiness. Our common journey and destiny began in his era of great service that has borne handsome fruits. Sadly, the legacies of the Mukoro Mowoe era are being challenged by new developments in the Nigerian Federation. I am here to review the record with you, and also to discuss new ways of sustaining Mukoro Mowoe's legacies for the benefit of Urhoboland.


History can be a great teacher. It authorizes the wise to learn from the past in ways that will enable the mistakes of yesteryears to be weighed carefully for the purpose of building a healthier future. It also permits wise men and women to construct a solid edifice from the small beginnings of our past history. Let us examine the weakness of the past and extol the virtues of our previous leaders with a clear determination to build a strong future for our people who yearn for our service.

I have had my own share of an encounter with history. Permit me to share some fragments of my own experiences with you. As one who was born within the height of British colonial times in Urhoboland and Nigeria, I cannot refrain from going back to that period. My most memorable experience of colonial times, which has been seared into my consciousness, occurred in my studies at the University of Exeter in England. I was a pioneering student from Nigeria in 1951 in that university, along with Messrs. Asabia and Alhaji Tanko Galadima B both now of blessed memory.  I recall vividly the lecture by my teacher J. G. Spear on the slave trade from Africa. Mr. Spear had the following view of the slave trade. Europeans, he said, began slavery not because they were concerned with the matter of the dynamics of African populations. Rather, they were interested in Black labour because it was cheaper than white labour. They were, he pressed, also interested in increasing their financial interests and gains, even as they preserved their principals in the international trade. They were interested in El Dorado, not necessarily in an empire. As I listened to that lecture, I could see that he was talking about my people. As one who hails from Sapele, I could then connect stories from my childhood to the evils of the slave trade. My people were victims of an international trade that they did not design. Somewhere in me was the hope that we would learn from such bad experiences and never again become victims of a system of economy we did not design.

The onset of colonialism, which was crystallized around the events of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, followed the evil slave trade.  Its early impact was severe in Urhoboland.  The Royal Niger Company invested heavily in the palm produce that it could secure from Urhoboland.  The British push into upland Urhobo country was relentless in the 1890s.  It was an economy that was controlled from England.  But the hardworking Urhobo profited from it.  However, in political matters, we were badly treated.  That was part of our history.

The rise of  Mukoro Mowoe in the 1930s and 1940s was the beginning of the Urhobo response to the challenge of history. He founded Urhobo Progress Union and gave it its character. Through his hard work and sheer charisma, he unified all the scattered clans in Urhoboland. He fought against any attempt to oppress the Urhobo people. We in Okpe are in his undying debt because he mobilized Urhobo people to win the Sapele land case, helping to secure a land that was central to the economy and culture of the Okpe. We will forever honour this great man.

One of my earliest and fortunate experiences in life was being challenged by Mukoro Mowoe himself to serve the Urhobo people. As President-General of Urhobo Progress Union, Mukoro Mowoe was on a tour of the Northern Nigerian Provinces where migrant Urhobos worked and lived. Living in Kaduna and working in the Secretariat,  I was then the zonal Secretary of the UPU for Northern Nigeria. The great Mukoro Mowoe took my hand and said. “Young man, ensure that UPU survives under your service. If Urhobo succeeds, it will be your pride. If it fails, it will be your shame.” It was a charge that I took seriously. And I treasure it very much. Many who served the UPU from those days have now moved on. We were inspired by the Great Mukoro Mowoe. For him, the creed of leadership was that Urhobo leaders must pay to serve. That is the essence of Mukoro Mowoe's legacy.

Mukoro Mowoe would have been one of the greatest and richest men in Nigerian history. But he paid a price for his service to the Urhobo people and Niger Delta. Hard work and relentless service caused his early death in 1948, three years after my memorable meeting with him. But he left behind a great organization and a team of dedicated followers. Urhobo Progress Union thrived under the leadership of a series of able Presidents-General. Obahor, Okpodu, Salubi, and Esiri were dedicated Urhobo leaders and servants of the Urhobo. Unfortunately, the trail of this excellence has grown cold. Dr. Esiri stayed long as President-General, perhaps much too long. Unfortunately, he has been forced out in an unconventional and contentious manner.  Mukoro Mowoe's Urhobo Progress Union is currently mired in a dispute that has now been dragged to court. Urhobo Progress Union is an institution among the Urhobo that must not die, because it is still urgently needed to solve pressing problems. Urhobo Progress Union was valuable to our development because it paid enormous attention to our culture and our common moral issues, and it continues to do so.


I will not say much more about our past. Professor Onigu Otite, Professor Obaro Ikime, Professor Peter Ekeh and many others of our academic minds have examined these issues with great profit. Let me move to our present circumstances by saying that I am delighted to be with you because you effectively  represent the present in Urhobo history as well as our future. I regard you all as great patriots. Although you are far away from your ancestral land, a whole ocean away from Urhoboland, you have devoted your energies to serving Urhobo interests. It is in that spirit of service, in the spirit of the Great Mukoro Mowoe, that I am here to challenge you with the facts of our past history,  debate with you the difficulties of our present circumstances, and  examine with you the best proposals for safeguarding the interests of the Urhobo people in the chaotic Nigerian political environment of our times.

Suffice it to say that Urhobo occupies a critical position in Nigeria. Our association with Nigeria is not on the condition that we shall be subservient to any other ethnic group. With a population of more than two million people, we are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, from an estimated total of three hundred and seventy such ethnic groups. In land area, Urhobo is larger than Switzerland. Urhoboland currently yields an annual total of 64 million barrels of crude oil. Urhoboland has one of the largest deposits of natural gas in the world. Together, Urhoboland and the rest of the Niger Delta produce 95% of Nigeria's export earnings. In the course of the last fifty years, Urhobo men and women have excelled in commerce and education. Urhobo professors are a prominent presence in Nigerian universities. In medicine and law, Urhobos feature very strongly. Thus, if Urhobo were a nation on its own, it would not only be viable; it would be self-sufficient.

Despite such records, despite our resources, despite our competence and professional achievements, Urhoboland is becoming greatly endangered. Its towns are decaying, crying for renewal. Our roads are in disrepair. Houses in our villages and towns are falling apart. Roads, overused from oil exploration, are mostly impassable. Hospitals cannot provide treatment. Farms and fish ponds have been badly harmed by oil pollution. The environment is distressed from forty years of gas flaring and uncontrolled oil exploration. Fifty years after Mukoro Mowoe, Urhoboland is faced with the same magnitude of dire
circumstances inflicted from outside our control as when his leadership began in the 1940s.

In a revealing article titled “A Postcard From Warri,” published in the Nigerian Guardian of October 27, 2000, Reuben Abatti depicted the circumstances facing our people  as follows:

“Warri is a haggard old lady, with tired feet and a mouth that has been robbed of its
teeth. She looks as used as an over-experienced prostitute. The neighbourhoods were
crowded. The whole scene seems indescribable: humanity trapped in small spaces
with threats of poverty and discontent written on their faces and over their
That is a journalist's sad epitaph on the circumstances of our people whose lands have supplied considerable opulence to other regions of Nigeria.

From Idjerhe to Ekakpamre, from Mereji to Adeje, the story is the same. We are the victims of oil exploration and exploitation that has gone badly wrong. Today, as we sit here, under the aegis of a so-called Technical Aid Scheme, there are soldiers in Urhoboland burning houses, displacing old women from their homes on the unfounded allegation that these humble and good people are responsible for damages to pipelines that carry crude oil through their neighbourhoods. These ageing pipelines were constructed in 1976. In the absence of good governance, there has not been any worthwhile maintenance and protection of these structures that carry hazardous products and require frequent maintenance. Now they are left derelict, posing grave danger to the lives of our people.

So, what has gone wrong? I can speak with authority on these issues and on any attempt to answer this question. This is so because I was privileged to participate in a retreat that was organized at the onset of Olusegun Obasanjo's presidency in order to formulate national policies for the first four years of the President's tenure. The outcome was wholesome and promising. We arrived at important proposals that would benefit the whole nation, not just those who wield power. Sadly, as the developments of the last two years have shown, the twin evils of ethnic aggrandizement and the politicization of religion have captured the good intentions of the Presidential Retreat.

We in the Niger Delta have become the main victims of these twin evils. Please allow me to quote a few more lines from Dr. Abatti about Warri, which has become emblematic of the fate of Urhobos and the Niger Delta:

“I have wondered how anyone could live in a place like Warri. If I were from Warri,
I would be annoyed on an hourly basis. I would protest against the beauty of Abuja,
the splendour of Lagos, and the serenity of Owerri. I would be tempted to call every
Nigerian who is not from an oil-producing state or community a pirate.”
These are the views of a powerful journalist and an objective observer on the misery inflicted on our people for no fault of their own.

We in the Niger Delta have now discovered, indeed rediscovered, that among the three ethnic groups vying to rule Nigeria, their treatment of ethnic minorities is one of utter contempt and neglect. This is a habit that goes back to military rule. I recall a seminar organized by Generals, during Sani Abacha's reign, on the topic "The Way Forward" under the auspices of the Institute of Governance in Jos. I was privileged to be the Seminar's chairman but was appalled to witness that virtually all the proposals and messages coming from that Seminar were trained for the benefit of those who controlled power. In
summing up my views as chairman of the Seminar, I said a few things that I wish to repeat before this audience. I told the Generals and others attending the Conference the following: "We, the elite of this country, are guilty of gross misdeeds that have undermined this nation. We are selfish. We are envious of one another. We hate one another. We lack any principle of shared values. Everything that comes our way, we grab for ourselves. Majority of the people of this country are suffering. Graduates are unemployed for years, even in the North. If these attitudes persist, I can assure you that the problems that you now analyse will only grow worse. We are behaving like the proverbial frogs in a pool of water, croaking away in happiness and enjoying themselves. As the Japanese so wryly put it, wait until the water boils.”  That was the position then, a few months before the death of Sani Abacha. Clearly, the policies pursued by Nigerian elites have caused immeasurable suffering for Urhobos and Niger Deltans.

Let me cite a specific instance that fully illustrates unfairness and oppression in national politics that victimize ethnic minorities in Nigeria. When an electricity-generating thermal power station was sited at Ogorode district of Sapele, we all expected that it would lead to ample electrification of Sapele itself and the neighbouring Urhobo communities in Okpe, Oghara, Idjerhe, Agbon, Abraka, Orogun, Ughelli, etc. Contrary to its original design, it was not stepped down for Sapele and these neighbouring communities, except for the Naval Station in Sapele. Instead, the electricity generated from Sapele was fed into the national grid that benefited privileged areas while Sapele and other communities in Urhoboland suffered from constant blackouts.

Contrast this rough and unfair treatment of our people with the benefits which communities in privileged ethnic groups have reaped from the siting of electricity-generating enterprises in their communities. Shiroro, Kainji, and Igbin all have stepped-down arrangements, benefiting the local communities, in sharp contrast to Sapele. I submit to you that the main reason why Sapele Power Station has been the exception to this national trend is that it is sited in Urhoboland and the Niger Delta,  notwithstanding the fact that the empowering natural gas is produced from our lands.


I accepted your kind invitation to give this keynote address because I want to attend to issues related to Urhobo's future. I am here to invite you to use your tremendous intellectual resources as well as your many other connections and endowments for the enhancement of Urhobo's future. We all must work together to reclaim Urhobo's glory.

In order to achieve such a goal, we must first ask ourselves some severe questions. Why are we where we are today, greatly disadvantaged? Why are our resources being carted away for the benefit of privileged ethnic groups which are systematically organizing the punishment and marginalization of our people? Why must our towns and villages be in darkness while electricity generated from our midst is being transported to distant regions because they are privileged? Why must our oil and gas resources be our curse?

Most of the answers to these questions lie in the unfair political arrangements that have been imposed on Nigeria, denying peoples of the Niger Delta the opportunity to develop their God-given resources for their own benefit. But a certain amount of fault also lies in the consequences of the attribute of individualism which marks out Urhobo national character. While we must work hard for the correction of our national political ills and ensure an equitable redistribution of powers and resources in Nigeria, we, as a people, must also strive to overcome the consequences of our character traits, if we are to survive as a people, and perhaps flourish.

Our spirit of individualism has yielded marvellous results for individual Urhobos. In commerce, education, the professions, literature, the arts, and much more, individual Urhobos have achieved a tremendous presence. They have done so without the advantage of Government's sponsorship, in contrast with what many other ethnic groups have been privileged to enjoy. But what does it profit a famous professor or a literary giant if there is no passable road to his own hometown? What does it
matter to have a mighty business organization in Lagos or the United Kingdom if your land of birth remains in darkness, because no electricity is available to it? Having succeeded individually, we must all now work together in order to ensure that our land of birth, our Urhoboland, is not suffocated to death by evil forces. While our individualism must continue to be valued, we now need to add to it another virtue of sacrifice for the community and comradeship for the greater good of our people and ancestral land. We cannot, in the twenty-first century, hope to attain our common destiny by each acting solely on his or her own behalf. Like the Chinese, we must diminish the urge for personal glory and seek a larger corporate glory for our people.

Furthermore, we must be creative in using organizations of our people to achieve our collective goals. I will give you two examples why this could become critical to our existence. Not too long ago, there was a plan floated for the re-Regionalisation of Nigeria into its colonial divisions. According to this plan, the old Mid-West would be re-merged with the Yoruba southwest and the Cross-River peoples and eastern Niger Delta would be returned to Eastern Nigeria along with the Igbo states. I was personally inalterably opposed to such a scheme. I worked hard against it. The result is the formation of the present Union of Niger Delta. The emergence of Urhobo National Assembly followed a similar need. Thanks in large measure to the goodness and public spiritedness of Chief Johnson Ukueku, who called upon me to help avert an impending act of injustice, Urhobo National Assembly was formed initially in order to combat an unacceptable plan to reduce Urhobo and Ijaw communities in Warri to permanent minorities in a proposed so-called Warri Municipal Development Council. We have used Urhobo National Assembly and Union of Niger Delta for securing the interests of Urhobo and Niger Delta in the tradition of Mukoro Mowoe. He served not only Urhobos but the entire Warri Province, that is, Western Niger Delta. We must rekindle Mukoro Mowoe's spirit of leadership and service by creative use of organizations in which we all can work together for Urhobo's and Niger Delta's greater good.

One area where such co-operation is imperative is electoral politics. If we are swayed by rampant corruption that has invaded Nigerian electoral practices and accept little crumbs of gifts from politicians whose plans will be invidious to our future and children's future, then we have betrayed our own destiny. In voting at least, we must work together to define the goals that we seek from those who want our votes. We must understand that the vote is the ordinary person's source of power. We must not sell off ourselves short by indulging in corrupt practices. Our goals must be laid down long before elections, so that candidates know what our collective goals in Urhoboland and the Niger Delta are.

Our nemesis so far has been the voice of Babel, without respect for authority of our own leadership. Consequently, we have been diminished by our own disunity. It has arrested the social and economic development of Urhoboland. When Delta State was about to be created in 1991, no one could have imagined that the capitals of the two states issuing from the old Bendel State would both be in the old Benin Province. Taking advantage of disunity among Urhobos who canvassed for different cities, and prompted by machination from a few misguided Itsekiri leaders, Ibrahim Babangida was able to please his wife's people by unjustly giving the capital of Delta State to Asaba. Perhaps if we were united on the choice of Osubi, a suburb of Warri, maybe the injustice of denying Warri as the capital of Delta State would have been avoided. As matters now stand, Warri is the only city that was the capital of a colonial Province that has not been allowed to be the capital of a state in modern Nigeria. It is an act of injustice that must be reversed.

Despite our vast contributions to the making of the Nigerian nation, the Federal Government of Nigeria treats us with levity. Individual Urhobos may well be rewarded with some limited favours. But as a  people we are being ignored.  I must report that through our efforts there is currently a process of stepping-down from the Sapele Power Station for the benefit of the locality. I am also happy to report that the unfair transfer of the training resources of the Navy from seaport Sapele to mainland Owerri, under military rule, is now about to be reversed.

I want to appeal to all of you to understand that the industrialization of the Niger Delta, stretching from Uyo to Sapele and Benin City, is a sine qua non of our development. In this respect, I want to beg you, in the best sense of that word, to be involved in such development. You have the capacity to be so involved. If you refrain from being involved, generations to come will not forgive you for your indifference. The same spirit that enabled you to organize this important Conference should further impel you to ensure that Urhoboland and the Niger Delta will be industrialized.  It is only those of us from the Niger Delta who can control our own destiny. That is why the Union of Niger Delta wants local resource control as a paramount article of the new federalism. The Federal Government should be able to tax such resources. The only sensible way forward is to make sure that the Niger Delta becomes well developed. Otherwise the radicalization of youth, of which our region has had its own share, will continue.

In this regard, and for your information and action, I wish to report to you what you probably already know. The Federal Government of Nigeria has assigned military personnel to the Niger  Delta. The essence of the policy is to ensure the free flow of oil by intimidating and repressing our peoples of the Niger Delta who justly protest the ruin and harm done to their lives, environment, and communities. The first article of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights states as follows: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Despite such professed standards, multi-national corporations are determined to brush aside the economic and social rights of our peoples of the Niger Delta, as well as their rights to elementary livelihood. These international conglomerates have done a great deal of harm to our people, with the help of the Federal Government of Nigeria. We all will not be forgiven by future generations if we allow external forces to continue destroying our environment, ruining our towns, killing our youth, and marginalizing us in the Nigerian political process.

So, how do we combat such evil? I will make the point in Urhobo: "Eje kuoma gbe." [In English: Let us be united.] I will expand on this theme. In a lecture given at the Petroleum Training Institute at Effurun on August 8, 1998, over which I presided as chairman, Professor Onigu Otite of the University of Ibadan made the following important observations: “Thus, the Urhobo are part of the contemporary diversities in Nigeria, being one of the 374 ethnic groups with rights, just as any other ethnic groups, to the national, political and economic resources. We are Nigerians because we are Urhobo, and we have strong claims to participate in the government, politics, and the economic system of this country, and be part of the central ruling body -- provided we are united.” Professor Otite's point is an excellent one and should be constantly kept in mind.

Let me briefly refer to the derivation issue in this context of our people's unity. The underlying meaning of derivation is to enable us to ensure that the resources of nature need replacement. We need to work together to see to it that all of our peoples will benefit from derivation. Suing the state government over such an issue was unwise and unnecessary. It is an instance of individualism gone amok. Provided the State government uses the resources to protect the heritage of the peoples of the Niger Delta, the purpose of derivation is being properly managed.

Despite current problems in Nigeria, we must acknowledge that Urhobo's future is ultimately tied to the welfare of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. However, we must upgrade our fortunes in Nigeria. But Nigeria's own fortunes are currently threatened by an avalanche of problems. Although it would not be fair to blame all the ills of Nigeria on the current administration, nonetheless, it is important to recognize that Nigeria cannot, and must not, continue in its present form and course. As the Patriots have widely canvassed, there is need to return Nigeria to true federalism. In the view of the Patriots, restructuring Nigeria into six zones is cardinal to Nigeria's future political welfare. Other key elements of a restructuring exercise are (a) local control of natural resources and (b) devolution of powers to the component regions. Such restructuring will help to minimize the current massive corruption in Nigeria and will help to ensure accountability of those in government. It is important that in any such restructuring, ethnic associations should continue to play important roles in Nigerian public affairs.
They help to check the excesses of the Federal and State Governments.

In planning for the future of our people, we must be attentive to the consequences of globalization and the imperatives of the international information technology. To give you an example: I represented Nigeria in the Crans Montana International Forum, Switzerland. The conditions for accepting our exports, which were determined by European nations, were so stringent that most of our agricultural exports would be condemned to low valuation in Western markets. These standards call for the education of our people for the proper management of their agricultural products. At the same time, with growing mergers of multi-national companies, the manufactured products coming to our people are grossly overvalued. We need to be involved in these matters if our people are not to suffer great harm.

All these needs raise an ultimate question of leadership: Do we have the requisite leadership resources to accomplish these difficult goals?  In order to speak on this point, I would like to cite the eminent American writer of the nineteenth century. In 1870, Ralph Emerson wrote the following: “It is not the population; it is not the beautiful city; it is not mineral resources; it is not the crops -- no, no, no -- that make a nation. The kind of people that the country turns out at every stage in the development process is what constitutes a great nation.” That vision has served the American people well. It should also be of value to Urhobos and Niger Deltans.

We need a leadership that has ideas and a sense of values. Our leaders must in addition have the energy to drive home their policies and ideas. They should have the courage to change our current prostrate state, both locally in Urhoboland and in the wider Nigerian Federation. Our leaders must have the courage of their convictions to nurture a breakthrough in ideas necessary to take tough decisions that will lead to sustainable economic policies that are girded and enshrined in the rule of law and the tenets of democracy.

May God protect Urhobo and the Niger Delta. May God save and bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.