Restoring Urhobo Progress Union to Its Old Virtue and Need to Draft a Capable President-General
By Prof Peter Ekeh
LAGOS NOVEMBER 20TH (URHOBOTODAY)-Urhobo Progress Union has an historic aura of endearment to the Urhobo people. This is so because it came into Urhobo’s social and political life when things were dire in the new situation created by British Colonial rule which began in Urhobo-land in 1900. Colonial rule brought Urhobo people into diverse contacts and interactions with other Nigerian ethnic nationalities in a manner that exposed weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our political culture.
The first three decades of the Colonial era were difficult ones for the Urhobo people, with a lot of problems thrown into their way to progress. In a brave effort to solve these problems, Urhobo nationalists, led by a Warri-based trader Chief Omorohwovo Okoro of Ovu, formed Urhobo Brotherly Society – predecessor of Urhobo Progress Union – in 1931.
By the mid-1930s, it was clear to UPU leaders that the scope of the organization’s work and the size of the projects that would help to achieve its goals were so large and complex that a new leadership was needed to run the affairs of Urhobo Progress Union. Chief Okoro himself led the campaign to draft Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Evwreni, a wealthy Warri-based merchant, to lead the Urhobo people under the umbrella of Urhobo Progress Union.
Projects and Achievements of Urhobo Progress Union, from the 1930s up to the Nigerian Civil War
It is important to remind modern Urhobo people of the various projects that Mukoro Mowoe and his UPU team invented in order to solve the multiplex problems facing the Urhobo people in the 1930s-1940s. Their successes in executing these projects made possible modern Urhobo as we now know it; that is, without their purposeful leadership and determination, modern Urhobo would have been much less than the land we now take for granted. We will detail some of the most significant projects that Mukoro Mowoe and his team of UPU leaders so successfully executed, as follows:
(i) Separation of “Western Urhobo” from “Jekri-Sobo” Division.From 1900 until the 1930s, the only portion of Urhoboland that was wholly within Urhobo boundaries was what was then known as Eastern Urhobo Division, with Headquarters first at Okpare in Olomu and latter at Ighwreko in Ughelli. The rest of Urhoboland, known in British Colonial geography as Western Urhobo, was governed together with the Itsekiri as “Jekri-Sobo” Native Authority, with Headquarters in Warri Township. It was largely dominated by Itsekiri chieftains. In the mid-1930s, Chief Ayomanor of Sapele organized a General Meeting of Urhobo Chiefs and of Urhobo Progress Union that met at Orerokpe, primarily to demand the separation of Western Urhobo from “Jekri-Sobo” Division. After much debate, the British authorities yielded to Urhobo request and pressure. Significantly, the Colonial Government followed the choice of UPU and Urhobo Chiefs to locate the Headquarters of the new Western Urhobo Division at Orerokpe. Urhobo territory now had a second home of Western Urhobo, although Agbarha-Ame (nicknamed Agbassa by the British) remained with Jekri Division.
(ii) UPU Objection to “Sobo” and British Change of Term to Urhobo.The British had difficulties with Urhobo double consonants, particularly “rh.” They routinely changed the “rh” in Urhobo names to “s.” Thus, they changed Urhobo to “Sobo,” Urhiapele to Sapele, and Agbarha (in Warri) to Agbassah. UPU took strong exception to the labelling of our people as Sobo in British Colonial official records and insisted that they be recognized by their real and proper name of “Urhobo.” The British agreed and by a special Gazette of 1938 changed from Sobo to Urhobo. It must be added that without UPU’s success in restoring our name, we might still be bearing “Sobo.” (Consider, for instance, that Idjerhe has lost its name to Jesse; Avwraka lost to Abraka; Uhwokori lost to Kokori; Ughienvwe lost to Jeremy; etc.)
(iii) Return of Idjerhe from Benin Division to the Urhobo Fold. Well up to the 1930s, Idjerhe was administered by the British as the southern part of Benin Division in Benin Province, with Headquarters in Benin City. Painfully, the Idjerhe people paid taxes in Benin and made tributes to the Oba of Benin. UPU demanded from the British Colonial Government that Idjerhe be returned to Urhobo administration on the grounds that it was an integral part of Urhoboland. Chief Mukoro Mowoe negotiated directly with Oba Akenzua II of Benin on the issue of the UPU demand for the return of Idjerhe to the Urhobo fold. Following this demand and these activities by the UPU, the British Colonial Authorities organized a plebiscite in 1936to determine Idjerhe’s choice. Following this plebiscite, Idjerhe was carved out of Benin Province and merged with the Urhobo people of Warri Province in 1937 – thanks entirely to the efforts of UPU.
(iv) Return of Orogun & Avwraka from Kwuale Division to Urhoboland. Until 1951, Orogun and Avwraka (“Abraka”) were administered as part of Ukwuani which British Colonial Authorities called Kwuale Division. UPU argued with the British Colonial Authorities, insisting that Orogun and Avwraka were Urhobo clans and should be returned to Urhobo administration in Eastern or Western Urhobo. Eventually, the British Colonial Authorities yielded to UPU’s argument, merging Orogun with Eastern Urhobo and Avwraka with Western Urhobo. Again, it is noteworthy that if UPU had not been successful in returning Orogun and Avwraka to Urhoboland, good portions of their lands might have been lost to Ukwuani and Western Igbo.
(v) UPU & the “Jackson (Boundary) Line” between Oghara and Itsekiri. Well up to and through the 1930s, Oghara people in northernmost Urhoboland faced constant harassment and threat to their lands from their Itsekiri neighbours. Under the guidance of the UPU, their land dispute with the Itsekiri was taken to a British Colonial Court for determination in the late 1930s. Justice J. J. Jackson of Warri High Court entered a consent decree in 1941 establishing a boundary-line between Oghara and Itsekiri. This so-called “Jackson Line” was satisfactory to UPU and the Oghara people – thanks to UPU’s efforts.
(vi) UPU &the Sapele Land Case between Okpe and Itsekiri. In the 1930s, Itsekiri chieftains sued Okpe Chiefs and people for ownership of Sapele Township. Mukoro Mowoe and the UPU leadership organized the defense for the Okpe people. Okpe people won a decisive judgement in their favour. Appeals by Itsekiri Chieftains to the West African Court of Appeal (WACA) and to the Privy Council in England failed. UPU’s support for Okpe Chiefs and people made the decisive difference in Urhobo’s and Okpe’s retention of ownership of Sapele.
(vii) UPU & the Training of Urhobo’s First Two Graduates. Up to the early 1930s, those who completed Elementary School education were rare among Urhobo people. Completing Secondary School education was even much rarer. Urhobo had no University graduates up to the mid-1940s. Education of Urhobo youth accordingly became a prime project of UPU. After extensive consultation and study, UPU decided to embark on the building of its own secondary school in Urhoboland. To start with, this would entail training two Urhobo men in British universities. So, during the difficulties of World War II, UPU awarded scholarships to Mr. M. G. Ejaife and Mr. E. N. Igho. They became Urhobo’s first two graduates, with Ejaife graduating from Durham University (1948) and Igho from Cambridge University (1949). They returned to Urhoboland to build Urhobo College.
(viii) UPU & Urhobo College, Effurun. UPU acquired a large piece of land from Uvwie in the mid-1940s in preparation for building Urhobo College. Mr. Ejaife returned in 1948 to build the Secondary School as its Principal; Mr. Igho returned to join the new Secondary School in 1949. Urhobo College became one of the major educational institutions of Colonial Nigeria, graduating numerous Urhobo men. It continued under the UPU until the Nigerian Civil War years.
We have listed and described the above projects undertaken by UPU in order to illuminate the extent and seriousness of Urhobo Progress Union under Mukoro Mowoe and hisco-leaders. We should ask: (a) How did they work with Government to achieve Urhobo’s goals? (b) How did UPU raise money to execute its projects?
Working with Government: UPU needed the help of British Colonial Government to execute projects in Urhoboland. It encouraged Government and Christian Missions to establish Schools and Hospitals in Urhoboland. Thus, for a few examples, UPU was instrumental in the relocation of Government College, Warri, to Ughelli. UPU was involved in negotiations that led to the opening of Catholic Parish in Okpara Inland (1947) and the Baptist Hospital in Eku, also in the mid-1940s.
Raising Money for UPU’s Projects. The magic of UPU was that it emerged as the common property for all Urhobo people. They accordingly felt an obligation to contribute to the welfare and survival of Urhobo Progress Union because it embodied our common values. Thousands of Urhobo people – in Urhoboland and outside of it, whether poor or well-to-do – contributed to the coffers of Urhobo Progress Union. There was deep trust that the leadership of the UPU would fight for the welfare and a greater future for the Urhobo people. They believed that their sons will have a brighter future that is designed by the UPU. They therefore contributed handsomely to the treasury of the UPU, according to their means.
Ethics of UPU Leadership: Pay to Serve. The UPU leadership of the Mukoro Mowoe era was guided by the ethical principle that leaders of the Union should pay to serve. They were men who made their fortunes elsewhere and now volunteered to serve their people. They did not gain materially from their service to the Urhobo people. They were motivated by the highest ideals of patriotism and sacrifice for Urhobo’s future.
Slow-down in UPU’s Projects and Activities: From Civil War Years to 1993
During Colonial Times in Nigeria, Urhobo Progress Union had counterparts in other ethnic nationalities. Notably, the Yoruba had Egbe Omo Oduduwa; the Igbo had Ibo State Union; and the Ibibio had Ibibio State Union. All of these were banned by the Military Authorities in 1966, following the overthrow of Civil Rule. Urhobo Progress Union was spared from being banned on the presentation made by Maj.-General David Ejoor that, unlike these other organizations, UPU was non-political and had an active regime of projects that benefitted masses of the people.
However, UPU leadership — under Chief Adogbeji Salubi and Dr. Frederick O. Esiri – prudently slowed down the Union’s profile and its attention to new projects during Military Rule. Significantly, Military Government took over Urhobo College from UPU, although the President-General, Chief Adogbeji Salubi, successfully sued for compensation for the Union.
By the late 1980s, with the return to Civil Rule in Nigeria, Urhobo elite were dissatisfied with an inactive UPU and wanted an activist Union once again. This led to the extraordinary intervention in 1993 of Urhobo kings who deposed Dr. F. O. Esiri as UPU’s President-General. They installed Chief James Edewor as UPU’s President-General. He did not last in that position; Edewor resigned quickly, leading to the assumption of the office of President-General by Maj.-Gen. David Ejoor (rtd.) who also declined to continue in that position after a short tenure. It was from this chaos in the UPU in the late 1990s that Chief Benjamin Okumagba arose as UPU’s long-serving President-General at the turn of the 20th century and in the beginning decade of the 21st century.
This is how Urhobo Historical Society commented in 2015 on this period of UPU’s history:
It was from this chaos that Chief Benjamin Okumagba emerged as UPU’s long-serving President-General. He survived, where others preferred resignation, by changing the ways and rules by which UPU managed its affairs. By the end of his reign as President-General, UPU had lost its original character, purpose and mission. It is the crisis of that new era that is now upon us.
That crisis burst into the open when an internal dispute on the sharing of money, donated to the UPU by Nigeria’s political parties,among UPU’s chieftains led to an irreconcilable rift in the UPU Executive in 2015.
Collapse of the Character, Mission, and Ethics of UPU in the Okumagba Era
In major ways, the UPU of the Okumagba era, which subsists until the current crisis, has departed from the character, mission and ethics of the original UPU. There is no doubt that the present ways of the UPU are not good for the Urhobo people. It is important that we document these changes, especially if we seek to reform the UPU and restore it to its old good ways.
(i) Changes in the Mission of UPU. The original mission of UPU, dating back to the 1930s, was enshrined in its name: progress. The motto of UPU – namely, “Unity Is Strength – was a means towards the end of attaining progress for all of the Urhobo people. The numerous projects that the Union undertook were intended to lead to progress for the Urhobo people. The goal of progress was ingrained in the bloodstream of UPU. The development of Urhobo College is an exemplar of the core mission of UPU because it was designed to bring progress to all Urhobo youth.
Sadly, in the new era of the UPU, the notion of progress has fizzled out. The new mood seems to be one that gives the impression that UPU has done its work and that it is now time for UPU chieftains to celebrate and enjoy its successes. In the absence of any devotion to progress, a new slogan – Urhobo ?vu?vo: “Urhobo Is One”– has become an end in itself, a fetish that has no further goal beyond its utterance.
(ii) New-era Absence of UPU Projects that Benefit the Urhobo People. One of the most glaring shortfalls in the new-era UPU is the disappearance of its devotion to projects.The old UPU was a beehive of development-planning, with some policies pushed for Government approval and action, while others were earmarked for direct execution by UPU. The new-era UPU seems to be a cauldron of aristocratic display, with little room for the hard work of planning for progress.
(iii) UPU’s Relationships to Government: Old and New. From Mukoro Mowoe’s era of the UPU up until 1993, UPU was independent of the Government in matters of the Union’s policies. It recommended its own policies for adoption by the Government. It rejected Government policies that the UPU judged to be inimical to the interest of the Urhobo people. Nor was UPU dependent on Government funding. UPU was self-funding and managed its funds prudently. It had a paid staff, including an Under-Secretary, who managed the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Otherwise, major office holders of the UPU were unpaid.
Since the onset of the new era of the UPU, beginning with the presidency of Chief Benjamin Okumagba, the boundary between UPU and the Delta State Government in matters of UPU’s policies and funding has become blurred. It would be fair to say that the present-day UPU is dependent on Delta State Government in areas of funding and the Union’s policies. Increasingly, the Governor of Delta State feels entitled to be consulted and even involved in the selection of the President-General of UPU!
(iv) UPU’s Complicity in the Balkanization of Urhobo Subcultures. A direct consequence of Government’s control of the present-day UPU is the dangerous policy of the Balkanization — that is, fragmentation – of Urhobo’s original twenty-two clans or sub-cultures. This is the way it has worked so far: Short-sighted politicians campaign with the Delta State Governor for a “kingdom” to be carved out of an existing clan or kingdom in Urhoboland so that their candidate can be recognized as one of Urhobo’s kings. The Governor, without consulting the UPU, creates a new “kingdom,” issuing a staff of office to its new king. Then UPU follows. UPU passively adds that new “kingdom” to its roster of kingdoms, usually with the declaration that Government has spoken.
It is important to add to this scenario that no Governor in Nigeria – certainly neither the Delta State Governor nor its Government – has the constitutional authority to create a Local Government Area in its jurisdiction. Yet, UPU’s recent failures are such as to encourage Governors to violate Urhobo’s ancient clan system.Every Governor in Delta State now feels empowered to create a “kingdom” in Urhoboland while he is in office. The same people in the UPU who shout the slogan Urhobo ?vu?vo(Urhobo Is One) have no qualms in arguing that Idjerhe is not one or Avwraka is not one or Ughievwen is not one. Needless to add, given UPU’s present profile, any Governor who is intent on mischief-making in Urhoboland will be allowed by the present-day UPU to carve Urhobo up into myriad powerless “kingdoms.”
(v) UPU and Urhobo Youth.The old UPU did everything it could to ensure a purposeful future of progress for Urhobo’s youth. The present-day UPU has only involved the youth in services for the protection of UPU’s chieftainsand for intimidating their opponents. Even as Urhobo youth face a bleak future, the present-day UPU stands idlyby, with no plans for their future progress.
(vi) Downfall of UPU’s Leadership Ethics. The strength of the old UPU was its character of service and sacrifice for the benefit of UPU and the Urhobo people. There was never any whiff of corruption in the ranks of the leadership of the old UPU in which the Union’s money was embezzled or shared among its officers. Indeed, the leaders of the old UPU sacrificed their own financial resources and time to ensure that UPU had a credible record of progress for the benefit of the Urhobo people. No one sought leadership of the UPU in order to make money – in UPU’s olden days.
Those virtues of leadership of the old UPU have largely disappeared from the present-day UPU. Despite personal efforts under the presidencies of Olorogun Felix Ibru and Maj.-Gen. Patrick Aziza to buck a perverse trend, self-aggrandizement has taken hold of the leadership ethics of the present-day UPU.
(vii) Alienation of Urhobo Masses from the Present-day UPU. A sociological consequence of the above failures of the present-day UPU is a growing alienation of ordinary Urhobo men and women from the present-day UPU. Most of them now see the organization as a monopoly of the elite. They see no benefits of the UPU to their lives and the lives of their children.
The Near-Collapse of Urhobo Progress Union in the Crisis of 2015
It has become routine in the present-day UPU to involve the Union in Federal and State elections in Nigeria. It appeared that in the 2015 Federal Elections, the UPU received sizeable sums of money from the contesting political parties. The exact amount has been in dispute. What has not been disputed is the fact that the President General of the UPU shared money among the Union’s chieftains and a few other interests in Urhoboland. The First Deputy President-General challenged his principal, UPU President-General, about the sums of money he reported in public, accusing him of hiding money that he received on behalf of the UPU. This led to the resignation of the accuser, First Deputy President-General. Later, most of other members of the Union’s Executive jointly issued two letters condemning the conduct of the President-Genera, Chief Joe Omene, for his questionable management of the UPU’s monies. In his own defence, the President General of the UPU staked out two positions: (i) that he was not the first President-General to receive such money; and (ii) that he shared the money equitably.
This dispute has destabilized the UPU and threatened its acceptance among the Urhobo people. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by Urhobo leaders to resolve the crisis that has engulfed the UPU since the Federal Elections of 2015. The issues of the crisis are deep-seated because they flow from the cumulative deterioration of the noble traditions of the old UPU.
Finally, Maj.-Gen. E. O. Obada (rtd.) has headed a comprehensive Reconciliation Committee which now appears to have a measure of success. It led to a consensus settlement on 11 October 2016, an agreement that includes the following points:
(i) That the current Executive, under President-General Joe Omene, shall be allowed to serve its full term which ends in December 2016.
(ii) That the Voting Delegates to the UPU Congress of December 2016 shall be selected by the Kings of each of the 24 kingdoms recognized by the UPU. This has been the practice in the election of Presidents-General of the present-day UPU — in the elections of Chief Benjamin Okumagba, Olorogun Felix Ibru, and Maj.-Gen. Patrick Aziza and Chief Joe Omene.
(iii) That during the UPU Congress of December of 2016the election of a new Executive of the UPU shall be conducted by an Electoral Committee headed by Maj.-Gen. E. O. Obada (rtd.).
(iv) That the task of drafting a new Constitution for the Union shall be left to the new Executive that will be elected in the UPU Congress of December 2016.
THE WAY FORWARD: Drafting a New President-General and Reforming the UPU
These are not ordinary times in the UPU. There is a lot that is broken and that cries for repair and reform in this most venerable and premier organization of the Urhobo people. These are troubled times that require the drafting of a President-General who can restore the Union to its old credibility and then embark on a new course of projects and activities that will update the UPU into the 21st century – as indeed Chief Mukoro Mowoe was drafted in the mid-1930s to lead the Urhobo people.
After much thought and deliberation, we in Urhobo Historical Society, in collaboration with Urhobo Social Club, Lagos, have called upon Olorogun Moses Taiga to make himself available for the office of President-General of Urhobo Progress Union.
Following detailed discussions, he has gladly agreed to contest for this top Urhobo office. While he has developed a set of agenda that will top his priorities on becoming President-General of the UPU, Olorogun Moses Taiga has asked Urhobo Historical Society to indicate our options for projects that will help once again to uplift the UPU in the esteem of the Urhobo people in the 21st century.
Projects and Options
(i) A Policy for Warri Metropolitan Area
In 1891, a British Colonial Officer Lt.-Colonel H. L. Gallwey established the twin Colonial Townships of Sapele and Warri on Urhobo lands, later making Warri the capital of a new Province. Throughout Colonial Times, Warri remained a relatively small Township occupying a good portion of Agbarha-Ame lands. Following rapid developments in the post-Civil War era, Warri has now exploded into a major Metropolitan area, growing into all Uvwie lands and well beyond. Today, out of Urhobo’s twenty-two sub-cultures, Warri Metropolitan Area has extended to the following seven, entirely or partially: Fully: (1) Agbarha-Ame; (2) Okere; (3) Uvwie. Partially: (4) Okpe; (5) Udu; (6) Ughievwen; (7) Agbarho. It is our estimation that by mid-century, in 2050, Warri Metropolitan Area will fully cover Udu and Agbarho. By then, in 2050, Warri Metropolitan Area will partially extend to (8) Agbon (through Ehwerhe-Ovu axis); (9) Ughelli; and (10) Olomu. Reckoned in terms of Local Government Areas, Warri Metropolitan Area currently fully covers (1) Warri South and (2) Uvwie. Warri Metropolitan Area also partially extends to (3) Okpe; (4) Udu; (5) Ughelli North; and (6) Ughelli South.
This is a key portion of Urhoboland. Indeed, Warri Metropolitan Area will pose one of the major challenges to Urhobo people in the 21st century. It will be smart for the UPU to set up a forward-looking committee, say Warri Metropolitan Area Committee, which will plan its future.
(ii) Youth Policy
Up to the time of the Nigerian Civil War in the mid-1960s, Urhobo youth had several options in the choice of life careers: (a) Education and academics, including teaching; (b) rubber-tapping; (c) palm-nuts collection, at home or in Yorubaland, Benin, Eastern Ijawland and Ibibioland,; (d) fishing; (e) trading. At the present time many of these opportunities have been foreclosed. Our youth have not been trained for new opportunities. For instance, very few Urhobo boys are employed in the building industries that require trained manpower and special skills. Instead, it is Yoruba, Dahomean, Ghanain, and Togolese youth who take up the lucrative jobs in carpentry, tiling, masonry, etc. A new reformed UPU must intervene in this sad state of affairs concerning our youth. Urhobo’s future rides on such intervention.
(iii) A Policy on Urhobo Women Affairs
When Urhobo Progress Union came into existence in the 1930s, the welfare of women was not included in its meaning of progress. For instance, in the development of Urhobo College for the progress of Urhobo people, women were not included in its conception. Nor was any thought given to an alternative for women’s education and development in UPU’s Education Policy. That was acceptable in the 20th century. Even up to our own times, the participation of women in UPU’s affairs is marginal, largely at the discretion of the President General. Urhobo Historical Society strongly urges that any new reformation of Urhobo Progress Union should upgrade the role of women in its affairs. UPU should have a conscious policy of including the welfare of women and their involvement and economic participation in UPU’s future designs for progress in Urhoboland in the 21st century.
(iv) Education Policy
We must go back to making Education Policy a priority in UPU’s work again. Education in Urhoboland is in utter disrepair. Our students no longer measure up to standards in, say, Yorubaland. Many of those Urhobo who have achieved international fame in academics, technology and business were as handicapped as any of our young people of today. But there was motivation to learn in a previous era. UPU must return to the tradition of motivating our people again. A UPU Education Policy must expand its horizon to helping private elementary and secondary schools to raise their standards, including a technology-based education. Scholarship grants to needy Urhobo students in technology-based academic fields will help to relaunch Urhobo into the 21st century. Needless to add, the new UPU Education Policy must fully address the issue of Mukoro Mowoe Memorial University.
(v) Urhobo Language Policy
Effectively, Nigeria promotes a three-language policy: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. UNESCO has estimated that many languages will die out before the close of this century. If Urhobo language does not die, its base will become smaller. It is only an organization like UPU that can reverse such misfortune by advocating the use and writing of Urhobo language in schools and at home inside Urhoboland.
(vi) Waterways Policy
When UPU began its existence in the early 1930s, Urhoboland was not criss-crossed by motorways. Our people and the Colonial Government relied heavily on our abundant waterways. It is a blessing that we now have developed motorways. But UPU should be able to persuade the State and Federal Governments to reopen our clogged waterways. They are valuable to Urhoboland and the Urhobo people.
Signed on behalf of Urhobo Historical Society:
Peter P. Ekeh, PhD
Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, PhD, MD
Isaac James Mowoe, PhD, JD
UHS Vice President
Onoawarie Edevbie, MA, MSc
Joseph E. Inikori, PhD
Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, Ed.D.
Professor Peter Ekeh is the President of Urhobo Historical Society based in the United States