Urhobo Historical Society

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


By Professor Isaac James Mowoe
Ohio State University, Columbus

Of the many very important and timely issues to which the participants at the First Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society gave their considered attention, none, I would argue, was more important, or more timely, than the vexatious issue of "Urhobo Leadership."

For the better part of the last half of the twentieth century, a momentous struggle, at once tragic and comical, for the moniker "Leader of the Urhobos", has provided the rationale -- or is it the excuse? -- for a debilitating internecine war among the members of the leadership class of the Urhobos. In a political environment less insidious than that which has been extant in Nigeria for much of her corporate existence, such antics would be unhealthy and unwise. But where, as in Nigeria, national politics is not only a zero sum game, but one which offers all the subtlety of a blood sport -- as the many disparate groups which comprise the polity seek to vindicate their often contending interests -- it is a dispiriting comment, on the human capacity to exalt the absurd, to expend as much energy as the leadership has done in what is essentially a family feud, on the question of who shall be branded with the titular label "Leader of the Urhobos."

Writing in 1978, in what has since become a seminal work on leadership, James MacGregor Burns delineated two types of leadership: transactional leadership and transforming leadership. In his words,

The relations of most leaders and followers are transactional - leaders approach followers with an eye to exchange one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. Such transactions comprise the bulk of the relationships among leaders and followers, especially in groups, legislatures and parties. Transforming leadership, while more complex, is more potent. The transforming leader recognizes and exploits an existing need or demand of potential followers. But beyond that, the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents. (Burns, J. M. Leadership. New York: Harper & Row, 1978, p.4).
As one examines the socio-political history of the Urhobo nation during the course of the last half of the twentieth century, one is impressed by the fact that arguably the most striking phenomenon of the era was not a record of the achievements of the Urhobos, be such achievements grand or modest, but a particularly debilitating struggle among the economic and educated elite for positions of leadership in the social, cultural, and political associations of Urhobo land.

In circumstances where it appears the principal concern has been less the common good, than the aggrandizement of self, there has hardly been room for the "Transactional Leader" and, most assuredly, none for the 'Transforming Leader" of Burns' formulation. In an ordinary time, one would be at a loss to explain this state of affairs. However, because in a time that is truly ordinary the consequences of such struggles are unlikely to be of any real significance, they can blithely be ignored. But, in a Nigeria in which the Urhobo nation is but one among many sub-national groups engaged in a brutal battle for her equitable share of resources which are yielded, in large part, by her very own lands, much of the last half century has not been an ordinary time, and the present is most assuredly not an ordinary period.

It is, in fact, not an exaggeration, at least not much of one, to dub the present an extraordinary period in the annals of Nigeria's history -- a history that is sobering testimony on the potency of primordial loyalties, and the obstacles such loyalties pose to those who dare to dream in an all inclusive national language. This is a harsh and all together unpleasant reality with which the Urhobo nation is confronted, and with which it must of necessity deal. One can not but keep it vividly in mind, as one examines the doings of the Urhobo leadership class. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of that examination, one is sad, bewildered, and disappointed in the extreme, because so much of that which must be done for the good of the Urhobo nation has been left undone, as the requisite energy and resources have instead been directed toward the prosecution of a totally wasteful and destructive family feud.

Viewed in this context, the bitter irony of a poor, devastated, and marginalized oil-rich Urhobo land is brought into stark relief, and a national policy of "malignant neglect" directed toward that land seems inspired. Inspired indeed! But not in the mind of the dispossessed yeoman, whose discomfort and pain are yet to find full expression. For him, the national policy is but a curse, but, worse still, much worse, the family feud which so ably aids it, even if unwittingly, is as perfidious as the mind can imagine. Could this really be the preference of the gods and the wish of the ancestors? As a very wise man once noted in a different but related context, "…the answer is not blowing in the wind. It is, instead, tucked away in the womb of history, and is yet to reveal itself"

Isaac J. Mowoe