Urhobo Historical Society

Urhobo and the Mowoe Legacy



 G.G. Darah
Professor of English, Delta State University, Abraka
Special Adviser on Public Communications to the Governor of Delta State


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Tuesday, August 10, 2004


THE death of Chief Mukoro Mowoe (Oghenemohwo) of Evwreni on August 10, 1948, marked a turning point in the history of the Western Niger Delta. As an astute business man, politician, and indomitable nationalist, Mowoe's image bestrode the region's firmament like a colossus. His rise to prominence in the 1920s helped the Urhobo and their neighbours to emerge from relative obscurity into the limelight of influence and esteem in a milieu dominated by British colonial and imperial terror. Although he was the President-General of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), Mowoe took on the burden of leadership for the entire old Warri Province comprising the Urhobo, Isoko, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Ukwuani, and Aboh.

His adoration and respect across the ethno-national frontiers earned him the honour of being unanimously elected as Member for Warri Province in the first Western Nigeria Assembly in 1946. The Urhobo College, Effurun, which his UPU executive helped to found in 1948 became a citadel of learning for all language groups in the country. As his biographer, Professor Obaro Ikime has written, Mowoe's untimely death at 58 threw the Province into mourning. He was the 20th century incarnate of merchant nationalists such as William Pepple of Bonny, Jaja of Opobo and Nana Olomu of Ebrohimi (Itsekiri). At his funeral, the British Resident in Warri, the Lebanese and the expatriate community paid him glowing tributes.

The 50th year of Mowoe's death in 1998 was marked with fanfare, conferences, books, and other memorial events across the world. The thematic focus of his posthumous assessment was that Mowoe qualifies to be the Nelson Mandela of the Niger Delta. Fifty-six years after, the Niger Delta Mowoe fought and died for has undergone changes in political terms. The fundamental issues of economic and political autonomy, which his generation articulated continue to animate political discourse and action. The martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni, the heavy casualties suffered by the Ijaw, the Ogbia, Engeni, Itsekiri and other nations of the Niger Delta testify to the currency of the resource control theme in Nigerian politics.

It is noteworthy that Governor James Onanefe Ibori of Delta State, another Urhobo resource control nationalist, was born in the month of August, 10 years and six days after Mowoe's demise. In this tributary comment I will attempt a synoptic evaluation of how the Urhobo have braved the turbulent waters of Nigeria's politics of oppression and exploitation of the so-called minority nations.

In April 2004, the first Urhobo International Art Exhibition was hosted by the Museum of African Art in New York. Under the theme: Where Gods and Mortals Meet, the exhibition was curated by Professor Perkins Foss (alias Oyibo-Edjo) and it has launched the arts of the Urhobo into global acclaim and appreciation. The Exhibition will travel through North America and Europe until 2006. The New York Exhibition heralds a new phase of focused intellectual appraisal of the Urhobo and their march of civilisation.

In 1948, the late Chief Yamu Numa of Ughelli published his Urhobo: The Pride of a Nation. In 1982, that is 34 years later, Professor Onigu Otite edited The Urhobo People, the first authoritative history of the nation. A revised and enlarged edition was published in 2003. In 2001, Edward Osubele brought out the first comprehensive dictionary of Urhobo language. Building on the example of the publishers of Eta Urhobo magazine in 1990, Mr. ...started the Urhobo Voice in 2000 a newspaper, which is gaining in popularity. At about the same time, Mr. George Nutasia Ugen opened Radio Jeremi, a private radio in Effurun near where the late Chief A.T. Rerri of Oghara had his G.E.S. College, which taught electronics and manufactured musical discs in the 1960s. All these academic and economic enterprises have helped to define Urhobo national identity and offered opportunities for intellectual appraisal and exchanges.

The U.S.-based Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) co-ordinated by Professor Peter Ekeh has held several successful conferences in America and Europe. Its next conference will take place in Urhobo land at the Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, in October 2004. Two new books on Urhobo history and culture will be launched during the UHS conference. One is Warri City and British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta edited by Ekeh. The other book is Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity & Renewal in Urhobo Art edited by Foss. Just before the UHS conference, the first conference on Urhobo language will be organised in Warri by the Urhobo Studies Association based in the Delta State University, Abraka. The annual congress of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) will round off the year in early December. As part of the overall millennium dream of the Urhobo people, the Urhobo National Association in North America has concluded plans to establish The Urhobo Institute to be modelled after the Hanover Institute and the Club of Rome.

The UPU founded in 1931, is one of the oldest national political movements in Africa. It is the only one of the pre-independence national associations in Nigeria that has survived intact through the destructive years of military misrule. The UPU has fostered a proud tradition of fearless and famous leaders, including Mr. Omorohwovo Okoro, Chief Mukoro Mowoe (the Mandela of the western Niger Delta), Chief Jabin Obahor, Chief Thompson Edogbeji Atkins Salubi, Dr. Frederick Esiri, Chief James Okpoko Edewor, General David Akpode Ejoor, and the incumbent President-General, Chief Benjamin Okumagba.

Fiercely independent and instinctively democratic and egalitarian, the Urhobo never succumbed to the intimation from imperial Britain. For example, on the eve of the invasion of Benin in February 1897, the British directed the Urhobo to send fighters to join the imperial army. The Urhobo unequivocally rebuffed the order and told the British that they would not take part in an unjust war against a friendly neighbour. The Urhobo expression of revolt so jolted the British that the punitive expedition against Oba Ovonramwen of Benin was extended to his Urhobo monarchical ally, King Oghwe of Agbarha-Otor. He was captured and exiled along with Ovonramwen to Calabar in 1897. Both monarchs died in exile.

The Urhobo were the first nation in West Africa to stage a major revolt to protest the British imposition of head tax (osa uyovwin) when the scheme was introduced in 1927. Under the revolutionary leadership of Oshue of Orhunghworun in Udu State, the Urhobo mobilised other nations in the western Niger Delta to oppose the tax. In July 1927, representatives of the nations of Urhobo, Isoko, Ukwuani, Itsekiri, and Ijaw held a congress in Igbudu area of Warri Township. The congress passed resolutions, which included a trade embargo on exports to Britain, the abolition of colonial judicial and administrative institutions and declaration of the Warri Province as an independent republic of free nations. Hero Oshue was appointed head of government, addressed as His Excellency and conveyed to rally grounds on hammock to prevent his feet from touching dirt. Severely harmed by the trade embargo and the revolutionary implications of the uprising, the British employed maximum force to quell it. Oshue and other leaders were arrested, tried, and sentenced to hard labour terms of prison. The anti-tax movement was so effective that it spread across the Niger to Owerri Province in 1929 where the women spearheads of it were attacked by colonial troops, leading to the death of 50 protesters. That event is known as the "Aba Women's Riot" in colonial records. The anti-tax uprising compelled the British to review the Indirect Rule project after a series of Intelligence Reports on the cultures and traditions of the nations of southern Nigeria.

From British colonial times, the Urhobo have always been fearless advocates of political autonomy and federalism. This was one of the reasons that the Urhobo congregated in the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) founded in 1944 because the party was unambiguously anti-imperialist in ideology. The Urhobo were in the frontline of the agitation for the creation of a new Region out of the old Western region dominated by the Yoruba of the South-West. Through the platforms of the UPU and the NCNC, the Urhobo campaigned vigorously for creation of the Midwest Region and this came into being in 1963 following a plebiscite in which all the Urhobo divisions recorded 100 per cent "yes" vote. Urhobo effort was partly rewarded as Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere became the first Governor of the new Region in 1964. The Urhobo displayed a similar resolve in the demand for the creation of Delta State from the 1970s. When it was created by military fiat in 1991, General Ibrahim Babangida injured Urhobo national interest by locating the capital in Asaba in the old Benin Province rather than Warri which the Urhobo and their Isoko, Ukwuani and Ijaw neighbours campaigned for. This unjust action has continued to rankle the Urhobo and their neighbours whose wealth is being diverted to develop Asaba and its environs.

Urhobo land hosts the largest groves of oil palm and rubber in Nigeria. The oldest and largest rubber estate in Nigeria is the one established in 1905 by the Miller Brothers of Liverpool, United Kingdom. Being an industrious and determined people, the Urhobo developed the most advanced traditional technology for the exploitation and processing of oil palm and its derivatives. The climbing rig (efi) and the refinery vessel (oko) invented by the Urhobo qualify for a Nobel Prize in science. Thanks to the foresight of Governor James Onanefe Ibori, Delta State will soon reinvent the ingenuity of the Urhobo oil palm technologists and launch a new era of oil palm-driven economic boom. The UPU has set up a committee to co-ordinate Urhobo participation in the scheme.

The Ibru Organisation with 25 companies was once the most gigantic business conglomerates in Africa, with lucrative tentacles spread across land, sea and air enterprises. The Ibru legacy derived impetus from the accomplishments of pioneer merchant tycoons such as Chief Mukoro Mowoe whose fame dominated the western Niger Delta in the first half of the 20th century. The superlative performance of the Ibru Group has inspired more Urhobo men and women of enterprise to create, brave new worlds in all theatres of investment and philanthropy.

Bruce Onobrakpeya, Africa's foremost visual artist, is quintessentially Urhobo. His works are patronised by the Pope, monarchs, dukes, and oil sheikhs in all continents. His Niger Delta Cultural Centre at Agbarha-Otor will host some of the events of the UHS conference. Professor J.P. Clark, the Nigerian poet laureate, is maternally Urhobo and his poetic and dramatic works explore the diverse resources of Urhobo folklore and tropical environment. The late Neville Ukoli of Agbarha-Warri was both a successful journalist and a talented dramatist. His plays that treat Urhobo themes of family life and values have remained best-sellers for decades. Ben Okri, author of the prize-winning The Famished Road (1991) is also Urhobo. His prolific output covering fiction and essays are a treasure of Urhobo philosophy, ontology, folk narratives, and poetics. Acknowledged as one of the most accomplished writers in the world, Okri is widely believed to be a potential candidate for the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature.

Another distinguished Urhobo poet and literary scholar is Professor Tanure Ojaide, one of Africa's most crowned poets and folklorists. Professor Isidore Okpewho is not just a notable novelist but Africa's leading scholar of epic traditions and oral literature. Hope Eghagha's output in the genres of poetry and drama in the past few years has good promise. Ben Omonode is also following the literary dual carriageway of fiction and drama. Ted Mukoro, the first "Village Headmaster" of that television comedy series, Justus Esiri, another "Village Headmaster" and Richard Mofe Damijo are Urhobo theatre impresarios who would have merited the Oscar award many times over if it were a Nigerian project.

The Urhobo have fostered the most dynamic tradition of popular music in Nigeria outside of the Yoruba area. Recall the crooning voice of Sally Young and Oliver Gbagi. Who can forget the idiomatic density of the songs of Omokomoko Osokpra, Ogute Ottan and the Aladja duets of Udjabor Okololo and Juju Debala

The stars of Urhobo poet-musicians include J.C. Ogbiniki, Stephen Ofuah, Johnson Adjan, Lucky Okwe, and Nathaniel Oruma. Mike Okri, Miss Ese Agesse, Gloria and Elvina Ibru, Emma Grey and Chris Okotie are in a class of their own. Pastor-musician Okotie is the first Nigerian in that profession to gun for the prestigious office of the President of Nigeria (2003).

The competitive field of sports has many outstanding Urhobo. One of the Scot-Emuakpors was king of the sprints and field events in Nigeria for many years. Tony Urhobo, now an athletics coach, was Nigeria's champion of pole vault for many years. Thompson Usiyen, now in the United States, was the best goal scorer of his time in the 1980s. Wilson Oruma is still making waves in European club soccer 20 years after his team won the Under-20 World Cup in China in 1985. Sensational gazelle of the golden tracks, Endurance Ojokolo is one of the greatest gifts of womanhood the Urhobo have given to Africa and the world. Chief Daniel Idama's management of the Julius Berger football team brought it from obscurity to the limelight of African club soccer. Patrick Okpomo who passed away at 60 in early August was one of the most respected sports administrators of his era. He was a former Secretary of the Nigerian Football Association.

Some of Africa's fastest-growing indigenous religious organisations were founded by Urhobo evangelists. The Igbe Movement with over a million followers in Delta and Edo States was founded in the 19th century by Ubiesha Etakpo. His healing powers were so great that he served as a spiritual consultant to Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Benin when the British were assembling forces to invade Benin in 1897. The God's Kingdom Society founded by Saint Gideon Urhobo (formerly Ukoli) in 1934 is one of Africa's well organised and intellectually oriented churches. The God's Grace Mission founded by Bishop Mimeyerayen in 1990 and the Christ Missionary Crusaders by Bishop Godwell Avwomakpa are tributes to the Urhobo genius for creating success out of every opportunity. From humble origins of a pupil teacher, Agori-Iwe rose to become the first Urhobo Bishop of the Anglican Church. So did Aganbi who revolted against his former Anglican faith and brought the Baptist Mission and later the famous Baptist Hospital to Eku. There are many more thriving churches led Urhobo evangelists in the Pentecostal Congregation.

With about 500 primary and 200 secondary schools, Urhobo land is one of the most literate in Africa. The first Urhobo university-trained graduate, M.G. Ejaife, was produced as late as 1948 and the first PhD holder in 1964. When the University College, (now University of Ibadan) was opened in 1948, V.E. Ovie-Whiskey (now a retired Justice) was among its pioneer students. Although the first Urhobo professor (Frank Ukoli, now an Emeritus Professor at Ibadan) was appointed in 1973, the Urhobo now have the highest density of professors per square kilometre in Nigeria outside the Yoruba states. Four Urhobo academics have been vice-chancellors of universities, namely, Phillip Kuale, Ukoli, Andrew Onokerhoraye, and Uvie Igun. Moved by the proverbial Urhobo love of adventure, the late Justice Ayo Irikefe went to the United Kingdom through an unconventional route, obtained a law degree, and became Nigeria's Chief Justice. The late Dr. Rex Akpofure from Konori was the first non-European to be the Principal of King's College, Lagos, founded in 1909.

Guided by perseverance and wise investment, the Urhobo will soon have three universities and three polytechnics in their land. A programme of BA degree in Urhobo language has started in Delta State University. In a country where the military uniform is routinely abused to amass wealth and despotic power, Brigadier-General Ovadje has constantly brought honour and dignity to the Urhobo and Nigeria with his invention of sophisticated medical equipment. He has received haloed awards by the World Health Organisation and other international bodies.

Hounded by hostile policies by the Federal Government since independence in 1960, the Urhobo have not had an equitable share of government appointments. Yet in the faced of this disadvantage, a number of Urhobo politicians and professionals have attained the acme of their calling in the highly competitive federal government set up. Ayo Irikefe as we recalled made it to the halcyon post of Chief Justice of the Federation. Justice Ovie-Whiskey was chairman of the Federal Electoral Commission in 1983. Chief Patrick Bolokor was appointed ambassador in President Shehu Shagari's regime in 1979-83. Chief Ray Inije was ambassador to the Philippines in 1999-2003.

The first full-fledged federal minister was Professor Sam Egite Oyovbaire who headed the Ministry of Information under Babangida's military regime in 1991-92. Under the military dispensation, Ejoor was first Military Governor of Midwestern State in 1966-67 and Chief of the Army in the early 1970s. Several Urhobo military officers made to the rank of administrators/governors from the 1980s. Examples are Generals Eghagha, Ajobena, and Dominic Oneya. General Patrick Aziza was Minister of Communications under General Sani Abacha and General Felix Mujakperuo was commander of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Sierra Leone.

Urhobo land hosts the Warri-Effurun industrial and commercial complex, the fastest-growing emerging market in West Africa. Effurun already manifests the signs of a future Manhattan of the Niger Delta. A consortium of Urhobo investors is working on a plan for 6000-seat Convention Centre and the first high rise edifice in the Niger Delta and they will be sited in the Warri-Effurun business district. In addition to the Warri-Effurun Delta Oil City and The Plantation estate of luxury apartments being developed in Otokutu by Delta State, Urhobo territory has emerging conurbation centres such as Effurun-Jeddo-Ughoton, Sapele-Amukpe-Mosogar-Oghara, Ughelli-Olomu-Eghwu, and the Abraka-Eku-Okpara axis.

These new cities will soon be boisterous centres of education, commerce, culture, hotels, and tourism. In fact, 90 per cent of the exotic hotels and resorts in Delta State are sited in Urhobo towns. These include Peemos Place (Warri and Sapele), Midwest Inn, Hotel Excel, Motel Oceania, Casa de Pedro, Idama Hotel, Maxim Lotus, Mega Hilton, Goshen Hotel, Fountain Hotel (Sapele), Amena Hotels and Resorts (Oghara) Abraka River Resort/Motel, and The Abraka Polo Turf. The Ibru Centre in Agbarha-Otor has a tourist grandeur comparable to the Basilica in Rome.

When the Midwest Region was created out of the Western Region in 1963, is first Governor (equivalent to a Deputy Governor in the current dispensation) was Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere (1964-66). The first military governor of the Midwest in 1966-67 was Lt. Colonel David Akpode Ejoor of Urhobo. In the 1979-83 civilian era, Chief Demas Akpore was Deputy Governor to Professor Ambrose Alli of the Unity Party of Nigeria. Akpore died in office and was succeeded by Chief Odiete. Chief Inije was Deputy to Governor Samuel Ogbemudia during the short-lived civil rule of October to December, 1983. The first elected Governor of Delta State was the Urhobo architect, Olorogun Felix Ovuodoroye Ibru. He is now a distinguished Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His two-year regime (1992-93) brought back sweet memories of the outstanding record of patriotism and good governance set by Chief Mukoro Mowoe (1890 -1948) as the President-General of the UPU and Member for Warri Province in the Western Region House of Assembly. The second elected Governor of Delta State is Chief James Onanefe Ibori. In the five years since 1999 when he assumed office, Governor Ibori has been transforming the physical and socio-economic landscape of the State. His new drive for agro-industrial prosperity promises to make Delta State a model in West Africa. The development indices show that Urhobo political profile and influence will continue to soar in the years ahead. The ultimate trajectory of Urhobo nationalism is to attain the status of an all-Urhobo state in Nigeria where the advantages of federalism and resource control being championed by Governor Ibori will manifest abundantly. `