Our attention has been drawn to a publication in the Vanguard newspaper of Thursday, December 8, 2011, page 43 captioned ‘Scientific Perspective of Sapele’ said to be written by one Prof. Jennifer Alao who claimed that her writing stemmed out of a book titled ‘History of Sapele in Scientific Perspective’, alleged to have been authored by ‘Eyebira Agharowa Emmanuel (Honsbira) and Olomu Oghanrandukun Oritseweyinmi (St. Ifa)’ and published by ‘Warri Ancient History and Literary Society’. Apart from the spurious and provocative claim that the Okpe nation is a ‘stateless society’, the writer further claimed maliciously and wrongly that the Itsekiri founded all the major Okpe towns including Sapele, Elume, Mereje, Orerokpe and Aghalokpe. The writer is, however, ignorant that even Onigu Otite, Professor and a foremost political Sociologist, in his anthropological case study of Okpe Kingdom (1973:113), had authoritatively listed all these towns amongst the headquarters of the twelve administrative districts of Okpe Kingdom founded by the descendants of the four founding princes of the Okpe nation.
The Itsekiri’s continued provocation is again manifested by their erroneous claim that the 1942/43 Sapele land case was inconclusive in the Law Court. These claims are indeed sly-dogs to tell to the marines. Chief D.O. Dafinone, in the Vanguard newspaper of December 13, 2011, pages 52 and 53, has provided explicit and incontrovertible evidence of how the Sapele land case was concluded at the High Court of the Warri Judicial Council and the West African Court of Appeal. There is no doubt that the Itsekiri live in Sapele. As to how they came to live in Sapele, both the trial Court as per Justice Jackson and the West African Court of Appeal found that: “After the Nana war which took place in 1894, a large number of Jekkris ran for refuge to Sapele and obtained permission of the Sobos (Sapele Okpe people) to settle, giving customary dashes for the customary privilege”. The verdict of the trial and appellate courts based on this finding is reported in 9 WACA at page 85. The historic verdict that Sapele land is owned by Sapele Okpe people cannot, therefore, be wished away by the Itsekiri.
Besides, Onigu Otite makes it clear that the second largest town in the former Midwestern State, Sapele, belongs to Okpe people and about 1963, the Okpe Kingdom had 150 towns and villages, all founded by the descendants of the four sons of Okpe, namely Orhue, Orhoro, Evbreke and Esezi. If indeed the Itsekiri arrived in the Okpe territory before the Okpe people as Prof. Jennifer Alao claims, where is the history of the warfare between the Okpe and Itsekiri, or of the displacement of the Itsekiri by the Okpe as of that time? How many Itsekiri were in these Okpe towns before the fictitious late arrival of the Okpe, and how were the Itsekiri roots completely expunged from all available historical, legal and administrative records, including oral tradition to prove that these places are not Okpe communities from their origin till date?
It is amazing how certain individuals can simply misuse the human freedom of expression to put up illogical and provocative publications such as this fiction in the media. The reviewer and writers of the publication ought to have presented researched materials to lend credence to their claims of a scientific perspective. We have not seen any such evidence. We have not even heard of, nor seen any scholars who know the reviewer and the writers. We therefore wonder if they are not fictitious, whose intendment is to unwarily spark communal conflagrations between the indigenous Okpe community of Sapele and the Itsekiri people and thereafter disappear into thin air. Which sound professor would put up a scruffy publication, which appears neither a book review nor the draft of a drama? The ‘Warri Ancient History and Literary Society’ quoted as publisher seems to be the sponsor and not a publishing company.
We have made efforts to get copies of the publication and so far found that no such a book was ever published in 2011 as can be inferred in the review by Prof. Alao. We found speculations, however, that it is a mere movie script comprising fiction and imaginations. It seems to us that the Itsekiri have fashioned out this confrontational publication as an evil scheme to instigate crises and communal battle, perhaps because as it is well known to us, they have acquired a huge armoury of guns and other war materials which they wish to try out on their Okpe hosts. It should be noted that it is not our intention to articulate any means of conflict and crisis with the Itsekiri, or to engage them in any battle; we wish to make it clear and to put the records in the public domain that while the Okpe nation maintains critical knowledge and watch of the Itsekiri criminal intent and project in their relations with the Okpe Kingdom, we will continue to sustain our records of peaceful hospitality towards all Nigerians, including the Itsekiri who reside in the two Local Government Areas of Okpe and Sapele in Delta State.
Onigu Otite (1973) wrote about the framework of pluralism and integration as a phenomenon of colonization by which diverse socio-cultural peoples were grouped into one society. This was the experience of the Okpe, Isoko and Urhobo which were grouped and called Sobo. According to Otite, it was on October 1, 1938 that the name ‘Sobo’ or ‘Subou’ was officially changed to Urhobo as the appropriate and desired collective name for the socio-cultural units which used to be independent of one another due to their separate settlements in their present territories. In the same vein, Otite drew reference to the observation of L. N. Bowen, a European explorer who remarked that the Okpẹ were reputed to be the most progressive and best administered ethnic group through their native authority, the Orodje (king) of Okpẹ, and set a good example for the others in the whole of the Western Urhobo Council Area and Warri Province. As a result, ‘Orerokpe the capital of Okpe kingdom, was made the headquarters of Western Urhobo District Council.
From the point of view of linguistics, Talbort, in his book, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Volume IV (1926), stated that the earliest of all the Nigerian languages from the 1st millennium B.C. is Ijaw, a relic of pure Negro speech and Edo to which the Okpe, Urhobo, Isoko are associated; and much later in the 2nd millennium B.C. the Itsekiri which was founded by Oginuwa in about 1480 became historically associated with the Yoruba. Historical records and oral tradition state that the earliest Europeans, the Portuguese visited the west coast of Africa and made contact with Benin City in 1485 and traded with the inhabitants of the hinterland, which included Benin, Urhobo, Okpe and Itsekiri.
In oral cultures, musicians are acknowledged historians who keep records of events in musical compositions that are performed and transmitted through various forms of oral literature from generation to generation. In the particular case of Okpe people, igoru being one of their oldest music, according to Idamoyibo (2006) in his in-depth research captured the history that the Itsekiri monarchy migrated from Benin through the waterways to the Itsekiri settlements of Ode Itsekiri (Old Warri) and Koko. In the course of time, Itsekiri merchants and petty business men and women traded with the Okpe and other peoples in market locations by the watersides in Okpe communities like Sapele, Ajaguoyibo, Ajagolo, Elume, Ikeresan (Orhorhomu), Ugbukurusu and Obotie. The penchant for Itsekiri names of waterside market out posts have nothing to do with settlement of Itsekiri traders and ownership of these isolated market locations in Okpe land.
This oral account confirms that the Itsekiri came to the Okpe communities as individual traders who were generously allowed to stay for exchange of commodities. Apart from trading in specific locations on the river banks of Okpe communities, the Itsekiri came to Sapele and some other Okpe communities as refugees of ‘the Nana war’ in the late 19th century; and the Itsekiri refugees paid homage to the Okpe in Sapele and the other Okpe communities. We recall also that when the Itsekiri conducted their warfare with the Ijaw between 1997 and 2003, they sought for refuge in many Okpe communities and they were so provided refuge. As refugees of the Okpe from the time of ‘the Nana war’ to the recent time of ‘the Itsekiri-Ijaw war’, the Itsekiri generally conducted themselves with undue arrogance as they turn around to make claims to the ownership of the territorial asylum. They have shown the same attitudes of making bogus claims to land ownership in places such as Ajalomi in Abraka, Otumara in Okpara and Ugbomoja in Jesse where they also traded with the Urhobo.
It is a known fact that the Itsekiri are opportunists who took advantage of positions that their sons had in the colonial and subsequent administrations even to date to cause conflicts and crises in the Niger Delta region, and which accounts for the number of communal battles and wars they had fought with their neighbouring Urhobo, Ijaw and Okpe. Corroborating this fact, the distinguished historian, Prof. Obaro Ikime (2005) intimated us that the British began penetration into the Urhobo (and Okpe) region from 1896 and sought for assistance of persons who knew about the hinterland peoples and the land. They found some assistants from among the Itsekiri who live at the coast. It was in this way that a few Itsekiri British-appointed political agents found their way into Urhobo land (and Okpe land) during the establishment of British colonial rule.
Obaro Ikime stated further that Chief Dogho, an influential Itsekiri merchant assisted the British to conquer Chief Nana, also an Itsekiri in August 1894, for which he (Dogho) was given several appointments in appreciation. He was appointed president of Benin River Native Court in 1896, British political agent in 1897, permanent president of both the Warri native Court of Appeal in 1914, and Native Authority for the Warri Divisional Province, which covered the territories of the Urhobo, Okpe, Isoko, Ijaw, Ukwani and Aboh ethnic groups. In the 1920s, Dogho began to collect full rents for plots of land in Agbassa (Urhobo). And by 1925, the Urhobo of Agbassa in Warri took Dogho to court, challenging his rights for collecting rents in their own land, but lost the case. By extension of the same act, Chief Dogho instructed the Itsekiri in Sapele to stop paying rents to their Okpe landlords, arguing that Sapele land belonged to the Olu of Itsekiri whom he claimed to represent. The Okpe so resented this action that it resulted into the Sapele land case which the Okpe won in 1943.
Further on how the Itsekiri took advantage of political powers available to them, Prof. Peter Ekeh (1999) wrote that Urhobo and Itsekiri youths in Okere, Warri had a fight on June 4, 1999, which was flashed on the cyberspace that evening as a joint operation between Ijaw and Urhobo in an effort to wipe out the Itsekiri. The Itsekiri Survival Movement directly accused the Urhobo of engaging in “genocide’’ and “ethnic cleansing’’ while the Ugbajo Itsekiri, an aristocratic club of the Itsekiri in the United States, released on the internet and cyberspace the text of a letter it presented at a meeting at the State Department, inviting the United States to intervene in the crisis of the Western Niger Delta of Nigeria. Ekeh concluded that the Itsekiri had often incited government against its neighbouring ethnic groups, thus again attempted to incite the US government against the Urhobo with the accusation on genocide – an unforgivable offence of the 21st Century.
In recent times, we recall how in 2004 the Itsekiri tried to incite the Delta State Government against the Okpe immediately after the grave attack they launched against Ugbukurusu, an Okpe community, because the current Governor of Delta State, an Itsekiri was SSG in the State and since after he became Governor, they have made many attempts to incite the government of the state against the Okpe in attempt to use the contemporary administrative forces to cede all Okpe land to the Itsekiri. We have reliable information that the Itsekiri have a substantial fund in Texas, USA, which they set up over the years with a view to invading their neighbouring communities in order to take over their land. We are aware too that they have utilized this fund to acquire weapons of warfare, stocked in strategic warehouses within and around Okpe territory, which they intend to try out in scuffle, with the hope that the Delta State government would support them with public funds, security forces and other resources.
Having raised these observations, we hereby call on the Itsekiri monarch and Itsekiri Leaders of Thought and the Itsekiri Establishment, as well as the Delta State government to call to order those who are contriving this present evil of deliberate communal provocation in Sapele in particular and in Okpe Kingdom in general. It is pertinent to remind the Itsekiri elders and leaders that, over the years, the Okpe had provided them refuge at times of their battles and needs. There is the fact of complexity of inter-marriages and family networks between Okpe and Itsekiri. Less than two years ago, (Vanguard: 1st March 2010. P. 29), an Okpe civil society group, Okpe Scholars Association Worldwide, raised very pertinent issues and questions for the Itsekiri people, but which they have not addressed; and now the resurgence of fundamental matters of communal provocation.
The issues and questions include: Do we now bequeath dispute, warfare and mortal enmity to our children? Is it because the Head of the Executive, the Security Agencies and the Judiciary of the state today are of Itsekiri extraction that the Itsekiri trouble makers have suddenly waken up with schemes of battle and bogus claims to ownership of Okpe land and communities? Over the years, until the Itsekiri began to occupy these positions, the Okpe and Itsekiri have lived together relatively peacefully without the intoxication and arrogance of aggressive attacks on the Okpe Kingdom by the Itsekiri. Be it known that the Okpe people are critically aware of this new development. We are in no doubt that these false and bogus claims of land ownership are meant to provoke the Okpe people and lure them into the type of conflict, killing and destruction which Nigerians witnessed recently in the Itsekiri and Ijaw conflict.
The Okpe will however continue to maintain peace and order, and not start any crisis or battle with the Itsekiri; but if the Itsekiri think that intensive crises or battle is in their best interest, then let them start it.
We therefore aver that “Enough is Enough” and the Me-Generation Group in Itsekiri Lands are hereby warned that the Battle for their Souls is less more difficult to win than the Battle of their Mortal Men.
Prof. Emurobome Idolor
President, Okpe Union, Sapele Branch
Mr. Isaac Ohwosoro
Secretary, Okpe Union, Sapele Branch