Urhobo Historical Society

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


By Larry Arhagba

Larry Arhagba is a founding member of Urhobo Historical Society's Editorial and Management Committee. By training and profession, he is a journalist.

Urhobo's Pains and Promise

Urhobo waado! Ighene waado! Isi waado!!!, a towering White gentleman resplendent in native Nigerian attire shouted powerfully Holding up a clenched fist, he punched the air again and again as he made his way into the first annual conference of Urhobo Historical Society recently held at Hampton Inn, Niagara Falls. As the audience broke into intermittent applause, he bellowed relentlessly : Edafe waado!, Ivie waado!!, waado!!!, in a clarion call which sparked incredulity and admiration in one breadth. The mood was decidedly upbeat from the onset. You can see and almost feel the tears of joy or of delight streaming down some eyes.

In case you are in doubt, you are not about to witness some local Urhobo elders' meeting at some remote location in a rural Nigeria village in Eastern, Western or Central Urhobo. Nor was the above clarion call gushing forth from some seasoned Urhobo orator. The echoes and the calls were from American born, American raised and American schooled, Dr Perkins Foss, scholar, researcher and arts professor at Plymouth State College. Like others who had come, Foss had come to the conference to be part of the deliberations of a people, a culture and a lifestyle he had come to share, to love and to know.

He had not come as a detached participant. He had come armed with a piece of Urhobo cultural heritage in his pocket and a bulging briefcase of videos and pictures. But there was something else about Foss's presence at the meetings that stirs emotions. and make you want to hold and hug him, and perhaps, shake his hands. Three days before the meetings, Foss was under the mercy of the surgeon's knife, undergoing surgery for an ailment that had inconvenienced him for a while. "Am still a bit dizzy, you know. See where they cut me," he joked pointing to rows of scars left behind by the unforgiving surgeon's knife on the side of his cheek. As the meeting progressed, he was constantly in touch with the wife at the other end of the phone trying to monitor how he was coping with the rigors or the Niagara Falls meetings.

The list of those in attendance was virtually Urhobo's who's who in North America and Canada. Seldom in recent memory has more distinguished audience gathered in a conference as the one on hand. On the roll call were eminent scholars, giants of the law, medicine, education, and all the professions- men whose lives and sparkling credentials would result in more biographies than you can afford to read in a lifetime. Celebrated sociologist, and chairman and editor of Urhobo Historical Society, Professor Peter Ekeh, a man of unassuming mien whose vision and guiding light gave birth to Historical Society was at the venue with his wife to welcome guests to the conference. Armed with his keynote address, renowned Account, Senator, Chief David Dafinone, The Oghwere 1 of Okpe Kingdom, had arrived from Nigeria, two worlds away from the venue, to lend his insights to the meetings. Perhaps the greatest eye catcher was the Okobaro R' Urhobo, Chief Anthony Ukoli, who arrived fully robbed in his gorgeous traditional title attire. Bearing his staff for office, the Okobaro walked in measured steps with his wife closely behind him. It was indeed a beauty to behold. Nothing ever attempted, even in parts of traditional Africa, would have matched this magnificent spectacle

Usually amiable physician and geneticist, Professor Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, man of many hats, whose gentle mien and vibrancy was perhaps more of a family inheritance than anything else, had also arrived to lend his enigmatic, weighty presence to the sessions. Noted historian and scholar, Professor Joseph Inikori had also arrived with his wife and daughter to enrich the sessions with his wisdom and foresight Driven, painstaking and effervescent Onoawarie Edevbie was there, armed with his laptop and ready. Dr Isaac Mowoe, scholar, lawyer and grandson of Chief Mukoro Mowoe, was also present. Worthy of mention is Deputy Chairman of Urhobo Historical Society, Igho Natufe, a patient man with such soft soothing voice that could break the heart of a lion. He was largely responsible for bringing together all the vital elements that made Niagara Falls possible into a cohesive whole. Dr Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, an educator whose love for Urhobo bubbles up with every remark, was also present. Also to be recognized are Mr. John Ofurhie, vivacious treasure, Mr. Edirin Eriaganoma, Ovie-felix Ayigbe, Mr Alexus Uhwanogho, and Larry Arhagba.

In a key not address "Urhobo, Past, Present and Future: Where Do We Stand Now?" which was powerful, intense and inspiring, Chief Dafinone plunged the gathering into a session of long overdue soul searching. Drawing on memories and personal notes, he urged the audience to channel their resources and energies to the service and greatness of Urhoboland. He said members of the Historical Society have huge resource capabilities, which they can harness to develop Urhoboland and usher in a new era of prosperity. "Our communities are in decay. Our peoples have endured every assault and we must rise to the challenges of the times," he stated. Government, he said, has treated us with levity in the past because a few of us sold out instead of rising in stout defense of our interests and values. "Let us work together and unite for the good of our people, our communities, our children and grand children," he added He listed crying needs to include Niger-Delta affairs, the relocation of Delta State Capital, and the attraction of foreign investments and capital to Urhoboland.

His views about where the Urhoboman stands are as refreshing as his views about where the Urhobo was headed. He boiled down the word "future" into a handy acronym which means Fastness, Urbanization, Tribalism, Universalism, Radicalism, and Ethics in that order and import. Quoting from the great American historian, Ralph Emerson, the Senator noted that it is not the buildings or crops that count but the peoples. "We are the sixth largest group in the country with vast land resources. The signs of the times are obvious. The choice is clear. Either we move forward or perish," he warned.

For a people whose kith and kin have remained victims of greedy, spoils-sharing rulers for so long, Chief Dafinone's remarks touched the audience like a timely elixir. He talked so movingly about the selfless spirit of leadership, which was so ably ignited by Chief Mukoro Mowoe, but later truncated down the road. He said the old concept of leadership in Urhoboland must now yield place to a new order. In the new order he said our leaders must be ready to "pay to serve" Having laid a solid foundation for the deliberations, Chief Dafinone did not take off to some comfort zone safe from the outpourings and touchy expressions of agitated minds He sat back patiently stirring emotions, buttressing arguments, drawing conclusions and sharing the wealth of his wisdom with the audience. The senator, still a dynamo of energy in his 70s, stayed through the tedious sessions which were spiced with smiles and infectious enthusiasm.

The first plenary session of panel discussion, titled Urhobo Leadership: Prospects and Problems, was moderated by Professor Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor. He took the audience on an excited excursion of Urhobo history and thoughts, confirming once again that he belonged in the pantheon of great Urhobo thinkers. That excursion turned out to be a soothing blanket of comfort to some of us who still need some make-up work in Urhobo History. Giving honors to whom honor is overdue; Ajovi praised the pioneering efforts of our Founding Father, Chief Mukoro Mowoe, who brought Urhobo to greater heights from small beginnings. As Ajovi steered the discussions every remark seems to peel away at the many years, possibly decades, gone by and the imagination of his listeners seem to go to work. You could almost see Chief Mowoe matching on sure-footedly on his journey of faith, armed with determination and hopes for a better tomorrow.

Pointing to the handwriting on the wall, Ajovi indicated that there is leadership vacuum in Urhoboland. "We have been victims of ourselves. Some Urhobos benefited from oil exploration. Where are the leaders?" he asked as if he was urging potential leaders in the gathering to advance for recognition? Because he wanted to be sure he was clearly understood, Ajovi moved to fine tune the mission of his panel further. It was obvious from there on that Ajovi had come to praise the Urhobos, and lift up their spirit, not bury their labors of love. "The Urhobo I knew were self-sufficient. The Urhobos I know lived in abundance," he continued. "Mowoe was centuries ahead of his times. He was not just a leader. He was a family man."

Dr. Ona Pela, the first panelist to lead the discussion thanked the Historical Society for good leadership. Leadership, he stated, is a phantom problem in Urhoboland. He said whether a leader was elected or recruited a good leader must see participation as a call to service. Ona's love for details was brought live when he cited noted leaders at home and abroad such a Mahatma Ghandi, Zik, Awo and Dr. Martin Luther King as examples of good leaders. "Right from Genesis man has always had dominion over his creation." What is necessary in his estimate is that the person chosen for leadership must have the ability to articulate the vision of the group.

Not one to be out performed, the Okobaro r' Urhobo, Chief Anthony Ukoli, proved in his contribution that he was a man of many portfolios. With history as his closest ally, the Okobaro stated that the qualities for leadership such as education, loyalty, and wealth have not changed through the ages. He lamented that the vacuum of leadership in Urhoboland transcends the home front to the Diaspora. "Our attitude to leadership must change. Urhobo is bigger than Liberia or the Republic of Benin," he noted.

The Okobaro's bar for leaders remains constantly high: "Consummately an Urhobo, champion of Urhobo cause and culture, and of ripe age and education." Chief Ukoli makes more demands. He sees a dosage of thorough self examination and strong identification with the UPU as necessary equipment for leaders in Urhoboland.

At recess, Foss was at the center stage again. His video of the Udje dance in the Urhobo funeral setting captured the Urhobo magic of titillating rhythm and movement, and the hearty exuberance of the drummers and the dancers. His rare and unique collection of pictures of shrines and all aspects of Urhobo culture on the walls of the conference hall were a beauty to behold.

On the next lap of the debate, "Urhobo in the New Millennium," a session which ushered in the most extraordinary moment of the conference yet, Professor Inikori in his introduction drew attention to the peculiar circumstance of the Urhobo. In retrospect, he said, the Urhobo never conferred any visible privilege. "You have to merit anything ten times over before you get it. Each member can only achieve so much. We need a structure so that some privileges can accrue to members," he emphasized. While not recommending an outright makeover for potential Urhobo leaders, he seems to suggest that our strengths may have contributed to our weakness, and that the dominating presence of Urhobos may have largely contributed to our problems at the Federal level. "We need innocent looking leaders like Balewa. Look at Shagari, when you see him, you feel sorry for him," Inikori indicated.

Edevbie's paper on the Warri crisis was equally moving. He traced the crisis to 1952 in the heat of the divide and rule politics of the era, when the title of Olu of Itsekiri was arbitrarily changed to Olu of Warri.. The latest crisis, Edevbie went on, was caused by the burning down of the home of former Bendel State Commissioner for education, Chief Edwin Clark. Sadly, the Itsekiris who rush to make claims at Warri more often run away from truth and reason. The enduring questions remain substantially unanswered: "How do you prove you own the land of Warri in the face of conflicting claims." For Edevbie, the answer is to resort to facts and reason, not violence, as records after record place Warri squarely as a tri-ethnic city -- with Urhobos as the largest owners of its lands. Edevbie thinks the way forward is for Urhobos to take the initiative and extend the right hand of fellowship to all our neighbors. Another contribution of note was by Dr Oyiborhoro who emphasized the need to encourage Urhobo language in homes and our communities, if the language must survive.

For the most parts, the discussions were inspiring, robust, and entertaining and it is not easy to get these memorable moments out of mind. Unspeakable joy abounds, and not many dry eyes were in. sights. With just a few minutes of Isaac Mowoe's incisive commentary, it was easy to tell from his booming voice and confident tone that he was a scion of a noble flower, and that Great Mukoro Mowoe's blood flows through his veins.

Perhaps noteworthy was Inikori's commentary which canvassed some "visible privilege" for the Urhoboman. While the eminent scholar seems to see his viewpoint with crystal clarity, Scott-Emuakpor was not convinced if such a goal was desirable, especially at a time when we need leaders who must now pay to serve.

What followed afterwards was a battle royal of minds in an encounter which evoked both Rome and Washington. While Inikori is of the opinion, for instance, that being Roman conferred enormous privileges, Scott-Emuakpor thinks differently. Why ask or insist in a world that has largely subscribed to Kennedy's dictum that we "ask not for help?" In all, the encounter was graceful, superlative, and a joy to behold. As the end neared, eyes were turning misty with delight t. Like in all meetings of great minds, the spirit of compromise reigned at the end. And dissenting opinions were not tossed into the trash, but gracefully acknowledged and tucked in the shelf for another day, another time, perhaps. All these are glimpses of things to come.

With the second meeting scheduled for next November, 2001, in New York, USA, our next port of call already beckons.

What a thrill! What a delight! How profound?