By Reuben Abati
Every step must be taken by the Governor of Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, the DElta State Government, and the security agencies to prevent what appears to be another emerging round of crisis over the ownership of Warri.
For more than 50 years, the Itsekiri and the Urhobo have fought over ownership of land in Warri municipality, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the traditional title, Olu of Warri. The battle has been fought in the law courts in Nigeria and the United Kingdom in such cases as Suit No. W/44/57, Suit No. W/121/57, Suit No. W/41/57, The Supreme Court in SC67/1971, Ometa vs. Chief Dore Numa 1934 11 N.L.R 18. Agbassa land, for example, is one of the most contested areas of Warri, namely Ejeba, Oteghele, Ogunu, Ekurede Urhobo, Igbudu and Ikpokiti. But the Itsekiri insist that they are the true owners of the land and that in fact the Agbassa are customary tenants to the Olu of Warri as determined by the Privy Council in 1941 and the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1971 and 1972. The Itsekiri further insist that the Agbassa Urhobo will remain their tenants forever.
Beyond the law courts, this conflict over ownership of land, tenancy and customary rights has resulted in bitter feuds between both groups. There is also an Ijaw dimension to a three-way aboriginal confrontation in Warri. In 1997, the relocation of the Warri South Local Government Headquarters from Ogbeh-Ijoh (Ijaw land) to Ogidigben (Itsekiri land) resulted in absolute chaos and the death of more than 80 persons and the destruction of lives and property. The Ijaws believe that the Itsekiri always try to marginalise them. The Itsekiri, less populous than the Ijaws made early contact with European traders and gained a relative advantage in education, commerce, and even subsequently in other areas of life. This has caused over the years, great resentment against the group from their immediate neighbours: the Ijaws, Isokos, and the Urhobo. The sovereignty especially of Warri is a source of unending irritation between the Itsekiri and Urhobo. In 1997, there was war on all fronts: Itsekiti vs Urbobo, Itsekiri vs Ijaw.
In 1952, when the area now known as Delta State was part of the defunct Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s government reversed the title of then Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri, the original title of the Olu for more than 400 years. Other ethnic groups kicked. The main conflict between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo may have been over land, but there is politics involved too. And it is ironic: both groups have lived together for centuries. They inter-marry and have children together. Most Urhobos are half-Itsekiri and vice versa prompting the popular quip that the inter-ethnic conflict between them does not get to the bedroom. In 1999, a dispute over land in Ajagbodudu resulted in bloodshed between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri. The mutual distrust among the ethnic groups in Delta State and indeed, the entire South-South is not merely about land or the politics of domination, but how certain stakeholders at various times, seek to exploit these differences for their own advantage. The Niger Delta Basin accounts for about 90% of Nigeria’s oil and gas. Oil was first discovered in an Ijaw community in Oloibiri in 1957.
Whereas the people of the Niger Delta are all marginalised relative to other parts of Nigeria, which feed on oil and gas proceeds, the in-fighting among the same people is accentuated by personal and group needs for access to a per centage of the raw wealth that runs through their communities. It is trite law that whoever owns the land, owns whatever is attached to it. South South Land owners and other stakeholders are entitled to a share of the oil largesse, no matter how small, and to patronage from oil establishments. My suspicion is that the problem is the opportunistic elite in the Niger Delta. They take advantage of everything. They project personal interests as group concerns. They deploy foot-soldiers who have never heard of the Willinks Commission, or derivation, resource control, the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) to kill and maim over primordial sentiments. They are at it again.
The trigger this time is the emergence of a newly installed Olu of Warri, Atuwatse III, Emitshola Emiko. One of the fall-outs of the Coronation has been the resurrection of an Urhobo group known as Waado. The group has been very active on all social media platforms. It is not a new group, but it has re-invented itself to throw up old and volatile issues of sovereignty in Warri. The group’s message is simply that there is no such thing as an Olu of Warri but an Olu of Itsekiri and that the way to settle the matter this time around is to change the name of Warri to Waado City. “Waddo”: is an Urhobo word, a generic term which means “gentleman.” Urhobos ordinarily great each other at a gathering: “Ürhobo Waado” or “Mimi Waado”, accompanied by a native, responsorial call. The major towns in Waado City as outlined on Facebook by one Omonire Isaac Ovwigho include Edjeba, Ogunu, Okere, Ughotor, McDermott, Igbudu, Ibo market, Main Market, Iyara, Deco Road, Esi Layout, Okumagba Layout, Enerhen, Ekpan, Jedo, Jakpa, Effurun, Osubi, Udu, Eekte, Ovwian, Aladja, Oko-Okuoko, Otokutu, Ugbomro, Agbarho, Airport Road, Ekurede Urhobo and all surrendering (sic?) areas” whatever that means. The Waado group has also posted audio messages online urging Urhobo youths to stand up to the Itsekiri. They are threatening to organise an anti-Itsekiri protest on October 1.
I have seen at least a petition against this “Waado City Group” by an Itsekiri Group – the Itsekiri Interest Group (ING) titled “RE: Promoting Inter-Communal War, A Felony: Contrary to the Provisions of Section 42 of the Criminal Code Law CAP C21 Laws of Delta State of Nigeria, 2008: A Formal Petition Against Dr Ejiro Imuere, Omonire Ovwigho and His Cohorts, Self-Styled “Wado City Group”. The Itsekiri Interest Group (ING), like the Itsekiri Renewal Movement (IRM) before it, is opposed to the request that Warri be renamed Waado City. They claim this is illegal, provocative and an attempt to breach the peace. They want Governor Okowa, in his capacity as Chief Security Officer of the State to nip what may end up as a “deadly crisis” in the bud.
Nobody needs a bloodbath in Warri. Both Governor Okowa and the relevant security agencies should wade into this matter and prevent a certain breakdown of law and order. As we have seen in Ife-Modakeke, Tiv-Junkun, Aguleri-Umuleri, Southern Kaduna, the authorities tend to act too little too late, and when pundits cite the failure of intelligence, they claim innocence. Such an excuse would be foolish in this case. The threat is well known. The dangers have been communicated in advance. Any form of leadership failure will be unreasonable.