London, England
October 31 - November 2, 2003

An Address
by His Excellency Chief James Onanefe Ibori,
Governor of Delta State, Nigeria,
at the Opening Session of the Fourth Annual Conference and Meeting
of Urhobo Historical Society, London, October 31, 2003.


It gives me great pleasure to be invited to address the opening ceremony of the Fourth Conference and Meeting of the Urhobo Historical Society holding in the historic city of London. As you will recall, I was invited to address the Second Conference scheduled for Persipanny, New Jersey, United States of America, in November 2001. I accepted the invitation but the circumstances of the exigencies of office prevented me from being present. Chief Francis Agboro, the Chief of Staff, Government House, Asaba, was to deliver my address. However, unforeseen difficulties scuttled his travel plans. As a result, my goodwill message for the occasion had to be sent via electronic mail. It is, therefore, gratifying for me to be able to be in your midst today.

This conference is historic in several respects. Like previous ones, the conference is taking place in the week of the anniversary of the founding of the Urhobo Progress Union (U.P.U.) 71 years ago. The inaugural meeting that gave birth to the association started on October 31 and the formal launch of what became the U.P.U. was on November 3, 1931. The date has since been set aside as Urhobo National Day.

The choice of London as host city is also significant. As the capital of the United Kingdom, London evokes profound memories in all of us. The city has long been associated with the political and economic destiny of the Urhobo and other peoples in Nigeria. For several countries, London was the citadel of the British Empire whose awesome powers “ruled the waves” of all oceans and lands of the world. It was here that laws and policies were fashioned to bring our people and their resources into the British sphere of influence. As the Urhobo Historical Society has consistently shown through its website, the negative effects of some of these colonial policies are still troubling the Urhobo and the Niger Delta.

The theme for this conference is also apt and pertinent. The subject of “Leadership and the Future of the Urhobo” will enable participants to reflect on the challenges that face the Urhobo in their contemporary endeavours to redefine their position in the context of the evolving political reality in Nigeria. As I hope to show in this address, the Urhobo and indeed the people of the Niger Delta are entering a decisive juncture in their history. The entire Niger Delta region is undergoing a major transition as Nigeria struggles to enthrone democratic rule after decades of military dictatorship. In this epoch of democratic restoration, the Urhobo will be called upon to provide the type of leadership capable of taking the region away from what the Urhobo Historical Society has described as a condition of “internal colonialism.”

This conference is historic in another sense. It offers us an opportunity to pay tribute to the Urhobo Historical Society for the titanic task it has assigned itself since the founding in 1999. True to its name, the Society has employed the unconquerable power of the intellect to bring the affairs of the Niger Delta to global attention. Through diligent research and scientific scrutiny, the Society has been able to unravel volumes of material and testimonies hitherto buried in colonial archives. With an erudite style characteristic of the Urhobo, the Society has deployed its very busy URHOBO WAADO WEBSITE to enlighten the world about issues strategic to the survival of the Urhobo and other oppressed people of the Niger Delta. The scholarly rigour and   eloquence of materials published in the Nigerian press have earned your Society the status of one of the most respected intellectual institutions in Africa.

The work of the Historical Society is a continuation of the great tradition of the Urhobo Diaspora over the ages. For over 100 years, Urhobo migrants to farming and trading communities in other regions of Nigeria have established a legacy of good citizenship and patriotism. Referred to as UKANE or URHIE this home-based Diaspora invested their income to support development in their natal communities. The foreign-based Diaspora has followed in these footsteps. Thanks to the wonders of electronic technology and the new globalisation, the Urhobo Enokon (overseas Diaspora) now devote their own resources to empower their people at home. It is remarkable that the Urhobo Historical Society has not confined itself to Urhobo matters alone. Rather, it has taken on the heavy burden of defending the people of the entire Niger Delta and others who are victims of unjust policies and political misrule in Nigeria. The Society has taken on the burning issues of oil, resource control, environment, political representation and federalism as they affect all peoples, lands and waters of the region. I have benefited immensely from the excellent researches and publications of your Society. I am present here today to give my token appreciation for the wonderful work of your Society.



The Urhobo have always provided selfless and courageous leadership for the people of the western Niger Delta. This proud heritage dates back to the era of British colonial rule. The Urhobo were so intransigent in their opposition to colonial rule that the British found them almost impossible to manipulate and subjugate. For example, the Urhobo leadership of the anti-colonial resistance in the old Warri Province was so effective that they have always been able to rally their neighbours to resist oppressive rule, including that of the military era. The present generation of Urhobo leaders should have no excuse to betray that heritage.

The quality of Urhobo leadership was made manifest in the 1940s when national political parties were being formed. Given their democratic and liberal temper, the Urhobo allied with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). The U.P.U. was already firmly established at the time. It offered a viable platform for the late Chief Mukoro Mowoe and his associates to advocate for freedom and development for the masses of the people. Chief Mowoe was the Warri Province Representative in the Western House of Assembly from 1946 to 1948. Although he died at 58, Mowoe set high standards in how to give selfless service to all who lived in the province.

This example of selfless devotion was followed by the generation of Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Chief Jereton Samuel Mariere, P.K. Tabiowo, Chief Oweh, Chief Yamu Numa, Chief J. A. Obahor and Chief T. E.A. Salubi. Although the politics of the independence years gave room for ethnic bitterness, the Urhobo always supported democratic and federal principles. This patriotic outlook was evident in the political career of most of the Urhobo leaders who have been active at the local and national levels, even during military rule.

The legacy set by past Urhobo political leaders has continued to serve as a benchmark for new generation. Those of us now holding political office are constantly reminded of the debt we owe our predecessors. On each day, we strive to measure up to the ideals set that motivated them. It is a difficult task but we are determined not to slide behind.



Whilst we celebrate the accomplishments of Urhobo people in politics in the past 100 years, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of some of the basic shortcomings we have to overcome in order to consolidate our gains and steady ourselves for the titanic struggles ahead. One of the areas of difficulty concerns the lack of unity and solidarity. Although, the advantage of demography has put the Urhobo in a pivotal political leverage, the failure to always act with a single resolve tends to undermine our efforts.

At critical moments when we are expected to show solidarity, we dissipate energy in selfish and opportunistic pursuits. In this way, our ranks get depleted and we are exposed to assault from rivals and adversaries. One concomitant of this is the tendency to display treachery and sabotage. Even those who have no chance of making it in a political contest thrust themselves forward in the hope to obtain rewards from forces inimical to Urhobo interest.

It would appear that this weakness has been with Urhobo for a considerable period. In his presidential address to the U.P.U. Conference of 1963, Salubi chastised those he felt were mortgaging Urhobo national interest for temporary material gains. Salubi urged the Urhobo at the time to show that they have “the moral fabric to resist, to endure, to fight back and to conquer.” He harped on the issue of honour and integrity when he said:<>

I prefer not to soil my name, my character<>and my integrity. I refuse to lead you, mydear people, to kneel before anyone for a mess of pottage. Urhobo is great and that greatness must at all times be jealously guarded. Do not  allow anybody’s bread and wine, silver and gold, to upset you. Keep your head clear and straight

I commend Chief Salubi’s counsel to all Urhobo politicians. 

Nigeria is a plural society with nearly 400 ethnic groups. Each of these groups has aspirations and agendas to pursue. The best way the Urhobo can defend their national interest in the context of multiple power blocs is for them to always stand firm by their leaders who are committed to the goals of the Urhobo people. The Urhobo should avoid being insular in their political vision and alignment. With their excellent democratic credentials and ownership of major media institutions, the Urhobo should always make themselves visible at all levels of political competition.

 In whatever political platforms they find themselves, the Urhobo will be looked upon to be exemplary in dedication, honesty and transparency. No Urhobo political leader will be forgiven for being a bad example because such an image will be applied to assess the entire group.

The factors of population and good leadership have combined to give the Urhobo a pre-eminent position in the politics of Delta State. But this is not sufficient to guarantee the future. The Urhobo are required to always demonstrate the capacity for fairness and justice in order to promote trans-ethnic unity and solidarity. Urhobo leaders of old endeared themselves to the entire region because they bravely championed causes that met the aspirations of the masses of the entire region. During the popular struggle against military autocracy, the Urhobo stood out to be counted on the side of warriors for freedom and peace.

With the restoration of democracy, there is even a more urgent need to strengthen alliance with progressive sections of the country in order to defend and expand the democratic opportunities now available. Let me remind you of some of the major democratic battles that lie ahead. One concerns the unfinished business of creating a fair and just federal system in the country. The Urhobo nation comprising 22 autonomous units epitomizes the ideal federal arrangement which we aspire to have in the country. Urhobo nationalists contributed to the making of the federal system that was evolved in Nigeria in the 1940s. Military rule destroyed that experiment. The Urhobo are called upon to intensify the struggle to rebuild that democratic system through constitutional reform.

The search for a genuine federal system is tied to that for resource ownership and control. Delta State has suffered enormous losses as a result of the unjust formula for sharing revenue from oil. As a major oil-producing area of the country, Urhobo land has been drained of the buck of the resources that should fund its modernization. Urhobo territory is a constant victim of the environmental calamities associated with the oil economy.

Mass poverty, youth unemployment and violent crimes and conflicts are other disasters that plague Urhoboland which ought to be an earthly paradise by virtue of its abundant natural endowments. A new Urhobo leadership is needed to inspire the people to employ democratic channels to free the area from oil-induced tragedies.



I should not conclude this address without drawing attention to the grave social perils which now face the future of the Urhobo nation. As we recall with nostalgia the golden age of Urhobo nationalism, we should not forget that the circumstances in which our leaders operated have changed over the past half a century. There is no doubt that the integrity and charisma of those leaders contributed to their achievements. But the cultural and economic environment also helped. The hold of tradition on individuals was stronger. There was greater respect for law and order. The traditional institutions of social control were effective. Deviant bahaviour was checked by invoking a common moral ethos and the use of public shaming through songs of abuse. In that era, a resolution by a body like the U.P.U. or even a community association carried the weight of sanction.

Now, all that has changed. The negative forces of modernization appear to have overwhelmed our land. The inordinate quest for material wealth drives people to extremes. The oil economy does not only divert resources from our area; it has also sharpened the divide between the rich and the poor. Urbanisation and modern communication have alienated people from their traditional roots. Most of the urban-based Urhobo do not even understand Urhobo language through which the ethical values of the culture are to be transmitted.

As the Urhobo say, a troubled childhood endangers a future adult life. Owing to prolonged military rule and the ravages of the economy, most children and youth are now out of control. Community governance at all levels seems to have been seized by youthful zealots who have no respect for order and tradition. In all the urban and semi-urban areas of Urhobo, it is now nearly impossible to undertake any physical development without facing the terror of youth brigands. The Government of Delta State is determined to deal with this form of destructive youth restiveness. Government effort will yield little result without the involvement of all stakeholders.

In order to stabilize Urhoboland for development and peace, we have to embark on a programme of moral reformation of the society. To secure the future for ourselves and our children, we must restore law and order. I call on the Urhobo Diaspora to come forward with proposals on how our common heritage can be safeguarded from the destructive forces that now threaten the land.

In this respect, I would like to acknowledge the initiative taken by the conference of the Urhobo in North America which I attended in September this year. The association presented me with an innovative prospectus on development, employment, education, crime control and the pursuit of enduring peace in Warri and other conflict-prone areas. The Government welcomes such contributions because they are informed by experiences of countries which have overcome some of the problems we are grappling with. I look forward to receiving more of such materials from the think-tanks of the Urhobo Diaspora in other regions of the world.

The Government will resolutely prosecute the peace project for Warri and other conflict areas. Since my address to the State House of Assembly on August 28, considerable progress has been achieved. Fruitful consultation with stakeholders is going on at all levels. The matter is complicated by long delay and neglect by past administrations. But we are determined to make the breakthrough. Let me assure you that the conflict will be resolved in a manner that will enthrone justice, fairness and harmony for all parties.

The twin cities of Warri and Effurun and their environs constitute the heartbeat of commercial and social life in the State. Yet they are the most wretched oil cities in the world. The restoration of enduring peace there will revitalize the economy of the State and send auspicious signals to local and international investors. With peace secured, it will be possible to embark on a programme of reconstruction and renewal of the decayed landscape. There is so much to be gained that we cannot afford to fail.

There are other urgent tasks to accomplish to fortify Urhobo for the future. Education is one, being the domain in which Urhobo have excelled. In just 50 years, the Urhobo overlook other areas of Nigeria, which had a head start in education. The record in this sphere is so outstanding that the Urhobo are now among the top league of educated people in Africa. More investment is needed in education in order to build on the advances already made. I challenge the Urhobo Diaspora to pioneer the establishment of private universities in Urhobo the way the generation of Muskroot Mower did for secondary school education half a century ago.

The intervention of the Urhobo Diaspora is also called for in the fields of agriculture, manufacture, housing and tourism. These are the economic ventures that need to be expanded in order to create employment for millions of youths and adults who are being destroyed by poverty and frustration. The Diaspora should seize the initiative by reinventing the frontier spirit that made many Urhobo people to sojourn abroad to earn income to drive development at home. The Government has designed policies, which will make such investments safe and lucrative.

The future of Urhobo is bright. The future of Delta State is bright. It gets brighter each day as the 21st century unveils more opportunists for people who dare to innovate. Almighty God endowed Urhoboland with all that it takes to build an earthly paradise. This is evident in the greenness of the vegetation, the fecundity of the arable land and the riches of rivers and waterways. God has also blessed our people with the gift of a high intelligence quotient and a dogged spirit that never trembles in the face of challenges.

With about two million people, the Urhobo nation is more populous than 60 members states of the United Nations. Our arts, music, fashions and genial spirit are among the most exquisite in the world. Our potentials for building a great civilization are enormous. To attain the goals that Providence has set for the Urhobo, we need a new generation of leaders who will measure their achievements in terms of how they contribute to the advancement of the Urhobo, Nigeria and humanity at large.

Let me conclude with Chief Salubi’s clarion call addressed to Urhobo patriots about 60 years ago:

If therefore you share our faith, and I am <>sure you do, then let us kindle anew our torch of loyalty, unity, mutual confidence, understanding and the zeal to do more, to <>work harder so that at the end of the journey  we may all arrive without failing in faith and industry. May we be worthy of the great tasks before us!

With these inspiring words from one of our culture heroes, we can rise and sing the Urhobo anthem:

Ko ko ko gbare
Urhobo e, orere ivie esan…