Urhobo Historical Society

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



Chief Anthony Akpovwonvwon Ukoli
New York City

It is indeed an honor to me and a privilege to be invited to make a presentation on the topic of leadership to such a distinguished assemblage of Urhobo intellectuals and academics on this historic occasion of the First Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society.

As I glance at my audience of intellectual giants, I feel a sub-current of trepidation.

Be that as it may, this is an Urhobo event, and consequently it is only proper that we inject the norms of our Urhobo Culture into these proceedings. It is for this reason that I have decked myself out in my traditional Urhobo chieftaincy paraphernalia. Similarly, I consider it appropriate to precede my presentation with the traditional Urhobo greetings. So here we go: Urhobo Waado! Nigeria, Africa egbare mini waado! America mini waado! Waado! Waado! I, Iyie!

Before making my presentation, I wish to thank the current President of the Association, Professor Peter Ekeh for his efforts to encourage me to come here today. His enthusiasm to promote the activities of the Historical Association is infectious. He does not hesitate to let all and sundry know of the spark I provided to ignite some of the recent major accomplishments of the Association. This has to do with my discovery of some of the treaties which the British Colonial Government in the 1890's entered into with almost every village in Urhobo land; in particular, those with the Agbarha-Ame Urhobo people of Warri which provide irrefutable evidence to rebut the decades-long false claim by the Itsekiri to the ownership of Warri Land.

Now talking about leadership, why not begin with an example? In this regard, I cannot fail to acknowledge the presence in our midst of a leader in the person of Professor Perkins Foss, who almost single-handedly has undertaken the daunting task of projecting and promoting Urhobo arts, not only in the Western world, but also to the world at large.

As we speak there is an Urhobo exhibition taking place at the Smithsonian Museum of African Arts, in Washington, DC. On November 18, Professor Foss and Dr. Tanure Ojaide will be making a presentation at the Museum on the theme, "Identity of the Sacred -- Two Nigerian Shrines." One of them is an Urhobo shrine, the other is an Ibo one. I urge those of us who can make the trip to Washington to do so, to support this "Urhobo" leader.

I first met Perkins, in 1997 at the New York State African Association Conference at Sage College, near Albany, where he made a presentation on Urhobo and Benin arts. Prior to this first exhilarating encounter, I had read his articles in the African Arts magazine published by the University of California; and I marvelled at how a non-native Urhobo could demonstrate such a knowledge of the artifacts of my culture and exhibit such a captivating love for them, while I, a native son, am oblivious of the beauty and spirituality around me!

Indeed, I have here with me a binder of some of his published articles which he presented to me in 1997 at City College in New York City, again after his presentation to a student class on Urhobo Arts!

The New York City Urhobo Community on the occasion of his visit to the City that year with his then fiancée, hosted him at my residence. At that reception, he exuded, "Finally I have found a well-established Urhobo Community in the country and what a pleasure it is! I would like to stay in touch with your group in any way possible, both formal and informal!" Copies of the publication of this social occasion in the "African Market News" newspaper are available here.

Since earning his doctorate on Urhobo Arts  in 1976, Professor Foss has sustained his interest in the subject and makes almost yearly visits to Urhobo Land, including a visit this year.

But Professor Foss's interest transcends the arts; he has gone out of his way to be acquainted on a personal level with as many Urhobo individuals as possible both at home in Nigeria, and here in the United States. He has attended the Urhobo National Association (TUNA) conferences and made presentations on his favorite subject.

My wife and I were at his wedding in 1997 to his beautiful, charming and dynamic wife, Catherine. I was privileged to speak on that enchanting occasion.

Professor Foss has made himself available to assist Urhobo academics working on their doctorates in his field. Indeed, to my knowledge, in one instance, he flew to Britain to assist one of these promising Urhobo intellectuals. I do hope that in time he will make some contribution to the enhancement of the Urhobo programs recently established at the Delta State University.

Professor Foss deserves to be honored by the Urhobo Community in the United States to express our profound appreciation for his exemplary efforts and leadership in projecting aspects of the Urhobo Culture to the International Community.

Of the several definitions of  leadership  provided in my Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English (Third Edition), those which pertain to this discourse on leadership, especially among the Urhobo are (1) "the  quality of being good at leading a team, organization, country, etc.." and (2) the position  of being the leader of a team, organization, etc."

Let us frame the situation in a question form. Are there vacuums in the  positions  of being leaders in Urhobo Land? The answer is a qualified "Yes." Are there at present aspirants to leadership or de facto leaders in Urhobo Land imbued with the quality of being  good  at leading the Urhobo people? Again it is a qualified "Yes."

But before essaying to elaborate on this perspective, what is the evidence that because of the absence of quality leadership for the Urhobo people, we are being short-changed in the Nigerian national scene? The Urhobo people are three million strong, the fifth largest ethnic group in Nigeria and the largest in the Delta State. By that estimate, we are as large or even larger than some African countries. Liberia and the Republic of Benin come readily to mind.

Moreover, our land is among other lands in the Delta, producing the bulk of the oil, which provides over 90% of the Federal revenue. What have we got to show for all this bounty in our land? Poverty and squalor in Urhobo Land; indeed the Urhobo cities of Warri and Sapele are a metaphor for decay and degradation. Does it take a stretch of the imagination to come to the conclusion that if we had had quality leadership, as defined above, our fate would have been different?

The affliction of leaderlessness is in two fronts: the Home Front in Nigeria, and here in the diaspora. Let us give priority of discourse to the Home Front. We are fortunate that we have here in our midst, a personality of the stature of Chief Dafinone, who has been embroiled for years in the search for leadership in Urhoboland.

For this discourse, the history of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) illustrates this demoralizing situation. Irrespective of the differences among the Urhobo 22 kingdoms, the UPU is one organization whose supremacy all Urhobo accept unanimously. Yet it has been plagued with strife and dissension for almost 40 years! From the information at my disposal, the top hierarchy of the UPU, in all these years, refused to relinquish power. They claimed their tenure is for life. Sounds familiar! Whenever any move was made to dissolve the executive, those in power always resorted to restraining injunctions from the courts.

The scenario is as follows: Prior to the recent elections held this year, the last election for the UPU executive body took place in 1964, 36 years ago! It was in that election that late Chief T.F.A. Salubi was elected President-General, while Chief Odiete, was elected  Deputy Present-General.

On the death of Chief Odiete, Chief Salubi  appointed Dr. Esiri as  Acting  Deputy President-General. Chief Salubi died soon after and in the vacuum created, Dr. Esiri  appointed  himself  President-General. No elections took place.

Several attempts made to persuade Dr. Esiri to hold elections in accordance with the UPU Constitution were futile. For instance, in 1985, Chief Michael Ibru convened a meeting of the entire Urhobo elite at his home-town, Agbarha Oto. They appealed to Dr. Esiri and his executives to hold elections. They were ignored.

Two years later in 1987, Chief Michael Ibru, Chief Dafinone, present here today, and General Ejoor, met with the UPU executives at the Urhobo Cultural Center in Warri. The executives rudely rebuffed Chief Ibru and his group. Again, no elections could be held.

In November 1992, the Traditional Rulers headed by the Orodje of Okpe met with Dr. Esiri. Once again, they were unsuccessful to persuade Dr. Esiri on the urgency of holding elections, to regularize and infuse credibility into this influential body.

Frustrated by the impasse, the Traditional Rulers took the matters into their own hands, and on December 18, 1993 convened the Urhobo Congress at the Odogun Hall at Orerokpoe. Among the outcomes of that Congress were the call by the Rulers for the observance of the Urhobo National Day, the amendment of the UPU Constitution, in accordance with Article 36, and the holding of elections.

In 1996, the Orodje of Okpe, and the Ovie of Agbon, this time paid personal visits to Dr. Esiri to intimate him of the meeting scheduled for December 18, 1996, and to urge Dr. Esiri to cooperate. Their appeal fell on deaf ears!

The good news is that this year, the problem of the UPU leadership has been resolved. With the election of Chief Benjamin Okumagbu to a 3-year term as President-General of the Union. Chief Okumagba has received congratulatory messages from the Governor of Delta State, and from all sections of the community, including one from the Olu of Itsekiri!

All in all, it took 36 years for an acceptable election to be held in the Urhobo umbrella organization! What does that say for leadership vacuum and crisis?

Leadership Crisis in the Diaspora

To my knowledge, the first attempt to form an association of the Urhobo in the United States was in 1973, when Urhobo/Isoko Association of Nigeria, U.S.A.,  was inaugurated in New York City. From the start, it was plagued with interpersonal attacks and lacked cohesiveness. Inevitably it faded into oblivion.

In the mid-eighties another attempt was made to resuscitate it. Among the leaders were Jackson Mukoro and Titus Isagba (an Isoko). Mr. Mukoro was elected president and during his tenure, the Association thrived.

Several annual cultural galas which attracted Nigerians, Africans and African-Americans, were staged. It was a delight to behold Urhobo men and women decked out in their traditional outfits at these galas. The vivid colors of the outfits were dazzling at night, while the women's elegant headgear drew gasps of admiration.

The children were not left out either. In tune with their parents they were attired in traditional dress, and were they thrilled! Then there was the Urhobo music, from such celebrated Urhobo musicians as Okpan and Adjan. In response, the men and the women rose to the occasion displaying vigorous, synchronized and scintillating movements, which brought the house down with repeated applause.

At one point, a special Urhobo dance troupe was formed. Their performance was so breath-taking, that there was talk of going to Broadway!!

It should be noted here that one outcome of the success of these shows, was the inspiration it provided to other Nigerian ethnic groups in the tri-state area to form their own associations. The Urhobo-Isoko Association was at that time an exemplar!

 Unfortunately, Urhobo/Isoko Association of Nigeria, U.S.A. once more became dormant. Part of the cause of its demise was that it was discovered that the Isoko members were pursuing an agenda separate from that of the main body. An attempt was later made to rename the association as an Urhobo Association, thus eliminating the Isoko component. As they say, the center could not hold. The Isoko members then formed their separate association.

The Urhobo members on the other hand were beset with problems right from the start. First there was the formation of the Urhobo Social Club, membership in which was by invitation only. The majority of Urhobo in the tri-state area were appalled at this selective procedure. In the midst of this vacuum, clan groups sprang up and claimed the loyalty of members.

Notwithstanding this untoward development, some Urhobo members were of the unequivocal conviction that loyalty to the clan should not supersede that to the entire Urhobo nation; and so was born the Urhobo Progress Association.

It should be noted that several meetings were convened at the residence of late Chief Patrick Efekoro (may his soul rest in peace) to reconcile and if possible to merge the Urhobo Social Club and the Urhobo Progress Association. They were all exercises in futility. Now I ask, Are these instances of disunity and leadership crisis among the Urhobo?

Well, would that the story had ended there. Out of the blue came another association -- The Urhobo National Association (TUNA). A point of interest here is that at the first conference held here in New York City in 1994, most of the delegates from the other states were members of the UPU in those states!

Today TUNA is mired in controversy. At least two factions have emerged from the internal strife. The Internet has become the ammunition for war by the opposing groups! Are these instances of disunity and leaderlessness or what?

But wait, have you heard of the Emo Urhobo-Isoko? This group held a one-day seminar at the Sheraton in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on December 18, 1998. They planned to hold a triennial Urhobo/Soko World Congress in 1999! Probably I have not been following developments closely enough, but I did not hear that this World Congress did take place in 1999! Well, by now you are persuaded I hope, that the Urhobo people in the U.S. are indeed afflicted with the disunity bug and are in the throes of a leadership crisis!

Causes of Disunity and Leadership Crisis
Among the Urhobo Abroad

A cursory observation of the objectives of all the multifarious Urhobo organizations dotting the landscape of America, shows that topping the list is the promotion of Urhobo Culture! If cultural promotion is the top priority, why the necessity of all the different associations?

One of the causes of this fragmentation is  a false sense of priority. Among the Urhobo, what are the determinants for leadership? In my experience, these are (1) age, (2) wealth (resources), (3) education, and last but not the least is (4) a transparent love for the Urhobo culture.

The late chief Mukoro Mowoe for instance, earned the leadership of the Urhobo because he embodied all these attributes. Age was on his side; as for wealth, or resources, he was probably the wealthiest Urhobo man in his time. His residence, which may not look that impressive today, was a mansion in his day, for most of the houses in Warri in those days were shanties. I am giving an eye-witness account. When Chief Mowoe died in 1948, I was in my early teens. That residence qualifies for historic preservation status. I do hope the Urhobo Historical Society is taking note of this observation!

Was he educated? Well, for one thing, he hob-nobbed with the Colonial officers from the Governor and the Resident, to the District Officers, and the Local Authorities, all of whom were British. His conversations with them were obviously not in Urhobo! He even visited Britain. The motto emblazoned in the Porch of his residence was in Latin -- "Ora et Labora." To put things in context, when Chief Mowoe died in 1948, the first University in Nigeria, Ibadan University, was just being founded.

But most important, did he love the Urhobo Culture? He not only relished it, he was a champion and defender of the culture. Consequently, he earned the universal respect of all Urhobo and was easily elected President of the UPU.

Other Urhobo leaders who followed him had a combination of at least three of these qualities. Some of the notable names were Mowarin, Salubi, Mariere.

By comparison, what is the situation in the diaspora? We have Urhobo men with education; others are professionals. To some of us, these qualifications are a substitute for all the attributes for leadership. As a consequence, the Urhobo abroad, who has earned a doctorate or is professional such as an accountant or architect assumes ipso facto that he has qualified for a leadership position. In the country of the blind, the saying goes, one-eyed man is the King. I should enter a caveat here: some Urhobo in this category have recognized the inadequacies of their credentials to occupy leadership positions; but disenchanted by the squabbles that are the staples in these Urhobo organizations, they have simply decided to withdraw from participation.

Another factor contributing to instability and disunity is  political ambition. Some of us in the diaspora are using these Urhobo associations to draw attention to themselves from the home front. Thus their plan is to use the Urhobo associations as springboards to leap into political appointments either at the Delta State level or the Federal level. They have calculated that they cannot achieve their ambitions except they occupy leadership positions in the Urhobo organizations abroad. As a consequence, whenever they lose top positions in one association, they break away to form another association, in order to retain their position of prominence.

Yet another of the disuniting factors, is clannishness. We have 22 kings in the land, because clans or kingdoms in Urhobo land are 22. The kings command loyalty in their domains. They confer chieftancy titles. It is not difficult to fathom why our people at home have accorded priority to loyalty to their kings. What beats the imagination is that we who are abroad, who have been exposed to the outside world, and therefore are placed in the position to see the  wider picture are still afflicted with this narrow view of the Urhobo nation.

In the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, a few of the clan associations are Agbon Rhide, Idjere, Oghwoghwa Descendants in America and recently we have heard of Olomu Sons and Daughters! By no means are we advocating the dissolution of these associations. The point that is being advanced here is that loyalty to the clan should be subordinated to loyalty to the entire Urhobo nation.

Consequences of Leaderlessness in the Diaspora

It is amazing how disagreements on association matters have degenerated into  acrimony. Unprintable slurs have been exchanged between opposing camps. "Who are you?" "I am better than you? Here are my degrees; how many degrees do you have?" "I own this property; show me your property!"

Are these individuals really interested in the progress of the Urhobo people, or is their participation in the Association merely an avenue to further their personal agendas?

Another consequence of this bane of leaderlessness has been  alienation. Those who were sitting on the fence, have jumped down on the other side and have walked away. They would have nothing to do with these uncivilized and uncouth individuals. Some of those alienated are academics, who have retreated into their Ivory Towers.

For other groups of Urhobo people the frustration has produced  inertia. They have lost interest. A tremendous effort will be called for to revive the interest of this group.

In effect, no one has gained by this divisiveness and lack of leadership. We have all lost. Even more painful is that our people at home, who in some respects have been looking up to us, have been left in the lurch. We who have been eminently placed to project and promote the Urhobo culture in the outside world have been dismal failures.

Suggestions to Achieve Unity and Quality Leadership
in the Diaspora

Perhaps a first step could be the inauguration of the Urhobo National Day as recommended by our Traditional Rulers at their December 18, 1993 meeting at Orerokpe. The day should be one of celebration. Urhobo of all political stripes, members of the Clan associations, Urhobo Social Club members, Forum members, members of the Urhobo Historical Society, TUNA, and neutrals all will come together on this day, just to celebrate our Urhoboness.

Who should be charged with the responsibility to organize the event of this day? I suggest the neutrals. A majority of them are in academia, and are gracing this occasion today. Their participation removes any suspicion of personal aggrandizement, or furthering the programs of any one particular association.

ATAMU Day was recently organized by the Atamu Social Klub of Nigeria headed by the sculptor and artist, Bruce Onobra-Kpeya, the University don, Onigu Otite, and the Guardian Editorial Board Chairman, Dr. G.G. Darah.

Both the Atamu Day and the Urhobo National Day are geared to accomplish an identical purpose; but it seems to me that preference should be accorded the recommendation of our Traditional Rulers, because, on the one hand, it predated that of the Atamu Social Klub, and, on the other, because since it originated from our Traditional Rulers, it is bound to command more respect.

One other important suggestion is that of  self-appraisal, self-examination  of the depth of your Urhoboness. Following that, examine your rationale for joining an Urhobo association; after all, there are numerous associations out there. Are you indeed proud of your Urhoboness? What are your limitations in this regard? And what steps are you taking to overcome them?

The umbrella Urhobo association we are talking about is primarily a cultural organization. If you are short on your knowledge of the Urhobo culture, should you make the gigantic leap to immediately want to lead the group? Ask yourself what you can do to facilitate the progress of the Urhobo association in spite of your inadequacies. Please be humble enough to accept your limitations.

Education alone will not qualify you for leadership; wealth by itself will not qualify you; neither will age in and of itself. The credentials for leadership among the Urhobo is a combination of all the factors enumerated above. The Bible says "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its glory, and all other things will be added unto you." In the same vein, we admonish "Seek ye first the rich cultural heritage of the Urhobo people, and its glory, and other things will be added unto you."

We now come to a most crucial suggestion; it is gratifying and as has been mentioned above most state associations affiliated with TUNA are already UPU associations. Please do not take my word for it. Check the record. The UPU, founded in 1931, is recognized by the Urhobo people worldwide as the umbrella organization for all the Urhobo people. Indeed Article 6 of the UPU Constitution affirms that every Urhobo person is a member of the UPU.

Nonetheless, the Constitution enters a caveat in Article 8 when it states that only paying members are to be elected into office. Conclusion: by definition once you are paternally an Urhobo, you are automatically a UPU member. However, if you are interested to vote or to hold an office, you must be a dues-paying member, or as they say a "card-carrying member." What a carte blanche! If Urhobo people abroad and in particular those in the United states are persuaded that the time is right to unite, and for an effective leadership to emerge from this morass, we urge the resuscitation of the Urhobo Progress Union in America.

It is matter of enormous relief and exuberance that the rift in the UPU at home has been resolved. All is now quiet on the home front. I am privy to the information that sooner or later a delegation from the Home UPU will be visiting the United Kingdom, Europe and America. When that delegation visits the UK, it will be received by the UK UPU. Would it not constitute a good omen for the Urhobo in the United States of America, that when that delegation visits this country, it is welcomed by the UPU in America?

The Urhobo Historical Society and the Leadership Crisis

May I seize this opportunity on behalf of the Urhobo Community in the United States of America to offer the profound appreciation and immense gratitude of the Community to the Urhobo Historical Society for your magnificent accomplishments within this brief period of your existence. Your website is bulging with documentation on almost all facets of the Urhobo Culture. With the recent invasion of the Public Records Office in London by enthusiastic members of your Society, more colonial documents on the Urhobo could soon be made available.

Your members are making contacts with knowledgeable Urhobo personalities, both in Nigeria and abroad, for information and documentation. In short, your achievements are a classic illustration of leadership.

However, from all that I have presented, on the leadership question, there is clearly a leadership vacuum in the diaspora. Confronted with this situation, should the Historical Society limit its activities to the documentation of past and current events? I would think not. You have excellent credentials, especially those of education, resources and most important  neutrality. By virtue of all these attributes, you will gain credibility and acceptance in the Urhobo Community.

Consequently, in the circumstances you can be urged to rethink your position. It is certainly within the realm of possibility for you to straddle the roles of chroniclers and activists in order to save our community. The urgency is of such magnitude that your indifference to the activist role could be analogous to the proverbial fiddling while Rome is burning!

You cannot afford the luxury of keeping severely to yourselves. In fact, in some quarters accusation of snobbery has been leveled against you. I do not share that sentiment. In my judgment, it is an issue of alienation as has been cited earlier in this discourse. In this new dispensation of democracy, your involvement at an appropriate level is imperative. Only recently, Professor V. Peretomode, whom I understand is of Ijaw extraction, has been appointed by President Obasanjo to represent our Delta State in the newly constituted Niger Delta Development Commission. Again, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to understand that his priority will be the welfare and enhancement of the lives of his people. The days when academics scrambled to submit their resumes to military administrators are over, and most of these academics have gone down with the discredited military juntas.

A leadership activity that can be suggested for you is to accord priority to a membership drive to make your society more inclusive of the Urhobo residents in this country. For instance, mailing addresses can be obtained by contacting the various Urhobo organizations to which they belong. I have a partial listing. Contact them by direct mail, by publication in Continental African-oriented newspapers such as "The African Abroad".

At this stage of your society when oral history in the form of anecdotes should constitute an indispensable component of your activities, inclusiveness is an excellent approach to obtain source materials.

Another leadership activity for your consideration is to embrace either individually or collectively, the Urhobo Progress Union of North America with the proviso that this body is affiliated with and accepts the supremacy of the Home Front U.P.U.

Yet another leadership initiative could be for you to assume the responsibility, either as a body or in coordination with other Urhobo organizations, to institute the celebration of the URHOBO NATIONAL DAY as recommended by our Traditional rulers at their meeting of December 18, 1993. Our sense of identity with its attendant advantages will be tremendously enhanced by an annual celebration of this magnitude.

Finally, you hardly need to be persuaded that you have a leadership role to fulfill by supporting the Urhobo academic programs recently introduced at the Delta state University. The information I have is that an Urhobo Cultural and Research Center is soon to be established at that citadel of learning. Please forge a link with the University in this endeavor to preserve and promote the Urhobo culture. Since you are, in the main, an academic association, this linkage with Delta state University shows up not only as yet another priority, but also as an easy one to accomplish.

In tandem with those of us who have been converted to a profound belief in the relevance and viability of our Urhobo culture, I plead with you to maintain the course of your leadership. Interacting at the Community level is fraught with embarrassments. Slurs may be hauled at you from time to time, and our Urhobo people are known not to be short-supply of them, but as leaders you ought to develop thick skins to absorb them, and bear the indignities.

In the end you will prevail and our Urhobo people will prosper. The forging of our cultural identity is a sine qua non for us to emerge as a respectable force in Nigeria. Once our cultural infrastructure is secured, we will become more and more cohesive, and be squarely positioned to advance the economic and political well-being of our people in our country.

By the same token, we will be empowered to hold our heads high and be counted both in Nigeria and in the international mosaic of cultures. Even more gratifying, we would have left yet another footprint in the sands of time, by bequeathing to our children, a proud and vibrant culture.

I thank you for your patience to listen to me.