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Itsekiri nation: From history to self discovery

*As Gowon, Tinubu, Sagay, others sue for reconciliation

By Charles Kumolu

UNLIKE some fora where one can easily tell what to expect as the event proceeds, this one was different. Neither did the presence of  various national figures in traditional attires, on the high table, give a clue as to what the gathering was about.

An inquisitive mind would conclude that it was a gathering of ethnic nationalities, given the combination of colourful native hats that  adorned  the heads of  dignitaries. But that guess is not good enough, as the arrival of more dignitaries in the traditional Niger-Delta attire gave an inkling of what the business of the day actually was.

this reporter had  come to the conclusion that this certainly must be related  to a tribe in the Niger Delta region, then came the voice: “Ladies and gentlemen you are all welcome to this occasion which is very important to me as an Itsekiri man and as a Nigerian. Welcome to the Public Presentation of the book, Warri: A Focus On The Itsekiri.”

That introduction from the Master of Ceremony, MC, Mr. Patrick Doyle, who was dressed in the typical Niger Delta tradition, set the ball rolling.

But the real curtain raiser came from the President of Itsekiri Leaders of Thought, Mr. J.O.S Ayomike, who almost betrayed emotions while giving his remarks.

“Today after two generations at it, I can proudly say as St Paul to Timothy that my generation has fought a good fight, they have finished the race and kept the faith and like Prophet Simeon who at the sight of baby Jesus, when he was eight days old in the temple, realised that he had actually seen the long awaited messiah,” Ayomike stated with emotion.

Although it was a book launch, the forum also unearthed the untold story of the Itsekiri nation’s pioneering role in Nigeria’s civilisation.

Instructively, the Itsekiri of the Niger Delta (also called the Isekiri, Itsekri or Ishekiri  or Itsekhiri) is an ethnic group in Delta State. The people  live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State.

With a highly educated population, the Itsekiri are considered  highly  affluent with a very high rate of literacy and a rich cultural heritage.

For instance, the Itsekiri have one of the oldest histories of Western education in West Africa, and are noted for producing one of its earliest university graduates – the Itsekiri King, Olu Antonio Dom Domingo, a 17th century graduate of Coimbra University in Portugal. This was corroborated by accounts of various speakers at the forum.

“From 1851, up to the time of Nana’s appointment as Governor, the British Government had appointed Consuls along the Bights of Benin and Biafra to watch over the interest of the British merchants along the coast. Because of the British interests, these consuls had encouraged the appointment of Itsekiri Governors, in the place of Olu so that they could have a powerful local authority through whom all affairs would be regulated,” Prof Itse Sagay stated

On the contentious issue about the ownership of Warri, Sagay said, “If we look at the Warri land cases, all conclusively confirm Itsekiri’s ownership of Warri and some of these cases have been reproduced at the back of the book as Appendices A, B, C, and D. They are in order: Ogegede v Dore Numa (High Court), Ometa v Chief Dore Numa at the Divisional Court (High Court), and the Privy Council, The Chief Commissioner, Western Provinces v Ginuwa 11, the Olu of Itsekiri and two others

“All sources of evidence lead to that single conclusion, namely: historical, cultural, judicial, sociological evidence and valid treaties all point to one direction that Itsekiri’s ownership of Warri,” adding that “as the respected and renowned Warri/Itsekiri historian has ably documented on pages 5 to 6 of the book, the name Warri is synonymous with Itsekiri and the Warri kingdom and the writer cites 13 instances in which established historians used variants of the word Warri to describe the Itsekiri and the kingdom founded by the Itsekiri royal dynasty.”

For Edema Ofoni, who is the Chairman of Itsekiri National Heritage, Itsekiri nation have come of age, adding that, “no choking, no assimilation of the group should be encouraged.”

Like others who spoke before him Ofoni observed that the contribution of Itsekiri to the growth of Nigeria can not be quantified.

“We Itsekiri people, though a micro-minority ethnic nationality, have made some creditable historical landmarks.

Nigeria’s history is replete with great exploits at the national level of our great Itsekiri men: Nana fought British imperialism in 1894 before Nigeria was created.  Chief Dore served among the few first class traditional chieftains appointed by Lugard to advise on the Amalgamation in 1914.

“Warri and Benin were the beachheads that received the early European Christians in the 15th and 16th centuries and our eight Olus were Catholic Christians between 1597 and 1735. Our doctors Oritsejolomi Thomas and Alfred Wilkey were among the first Nigerian Surgeons, Asifor Agbe became a lawyer in 1925 at a time when only Lagos and perhaps Calabar could boast of indigenous lawyers and Prof Grace Alele Williams was first female Vice Chancellor of any university in Africa.”

Although the highpoint of the day was the unveiling of the book that was edited by Ayomike, the observations of Former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon on the place of Itsekiri nation in contemporary Nigeria, could be described as an icing to the cake.

Gowon, who was the Chairman of the event called for reconciliation of the Itsekiri and the Urhobo in the interest of Nigeria.

“But why are you focusing on the Itsekiris?,” Gen Gowon asked.

Continuing, he said, “ I believe there is a simple answer to this, history must not be left in the hands of people who have no sense of history. If we make the mistake of allowing just anyone to tell a story, all that we shall get in the end would be inaccuracies, deliberate distortions and outright falsehood that can only help spread of ignorance. In this kind of situation, we shall have a case of what a leading Nigerian writer would correctly describe as ‘combative ignorance trumpeting its own values.’ This must not be allowed  to happen.

“The name Warri, conjures several images in the minds of various people.  I am sure that if we look closely enough,  we will find Warri in the Longman’s or Webster’s dictionary, it would mean  several things, but I am sure of two meanings, namely resilience and no-nonsense disposition. I am sure that a lot of people here would genuinely feel more at home if my address were to be delivered in pidgin English.”

In addition he said, “I believe that the writing of this book arose out of the intuitive need to correctly record the history of a people for posterity, especially in the light of events of the past decade that have occasioned widespread misinformation about the Itsekiri following the spate of upheavals in Warri and its environs. This book should help a great deal to clarify all areas of misinformation and help restore trust and confidence amongst all the people in the area who haved live in the area and intermarried overtime”.

He said “I will like to end my remarks by urging all our country men and women to imbibe the spirit of living together as one and in peace for the good of our people, our society and our country.”

In his contribution, Professor of English and Literature, University of Benin, Professor Tony Afejuku described the book as an excellent work of history and culture about the Itsekiri who have gone into diverse history books written by European and non-European scholars, historians and travellers alike as a highly civilised people.

According to Afejuku “generally, the forthrightness of the writer of this book is courageous, unsentimental and unsubjective, even though they are Itsekiri men who might be expected to write history from the biased stand-point of Itsekiri, they wrote the book without romanticising, without exaggerating, without fanaticising, it was simply and profoundly objectify and objectivize”.

He further stated that, “the Prologue of the book contains an account of how Warri came into being and the breakaway from Benin. It focuses on the Itsekiri and their early settlements, ownership of Itsekiri homeland, their Ijaw neighbours, the establishment of the Itsekiri kingdom of Warri; Itsekiri links with European and their Yoruba neighbours, adding that it contains a graphic description of Itsekiri homeland and focuses on the interregnum in Itsekiri land.”

The event which was attended by prominent Itsekiri sons and dauhters was indeed a forum to reaffirm Itsekiri’s ownership of Warri.

Those at the event include Mr J.O.S Ayomike, Prof. Itse Sagay, hief Ayo Adebanjo, Ambassador Segun Olusola, Prof. Tony Afejuku, Barrister Fred Agbeigbe, Chief Adolor Okotie Eboh and Mrs. Doris Rewane.Others are Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu (Rtd), Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu, Mr. Sam Amuka, Mr. Allison Ayida, Chief Hope Harriman, Chief Mrs Rita Lori-Ogbebor Mr. Kayode Fayemi among others.


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