My father played various leadership roles in the institutions that he featured in. He played leadership roles in Okere-Urhobo, in Warri, the Urhobo nation, the Western Region, Midwest/Bendel State and the Nigerian nation.
He was an outspoken critic of injustice and inequity. He was an advocate for peace and reached out to people of all tribes and faiths without discrimination. He was a peacemaker and believed strongly in inter-ethnic harmony and peaceful co-existence amongst all ethnic groups, with clear consideration that no community can live in isolation. In this regard, he was friendly with people from the constituent tribes of the Warri area and beyond.
Those familiar with my grandfather’s household knew that it was a mini-commonwealth of sorts – the children were conversant with the languages and traditions of the neighbouring tribes. Some of them even had Itsekiri and Ijaw middle names and spoke the languages fluently. It was the evidence of a time before the advent of micro-nationalism, when tribe and tongue played scant roles in relationships.
My father was appointed Secretary of the Olodi, Oki and Ighogbadu Kindred Families of Okere-Urhobo in 1950. This was a position of responsibility that meant he had to perform this role creditably, while carrying out other roles. Yet, his ability to fit into the demands of the Office and lead, while dealing with his other responsibilities as Teacher (from 1947 to 1976), Parliamentarian (from 1960 to 1963) and other public offices that he held, was widely acknowledged as remarkable.
Olodi, Oki and Ighogbadu Kindred Families are descendants of the three brothers – Idama, Sowhoruvbe and Ohwotemu – who founded Okere-Urhobo in Warri. The Kindred Families continued to own the lands in its areas in Warri. In 1968, this was challenged when a suit, Number W/48/1968, was filed at the High Court of Midwest State sitting in Warri, against the Kindred Families.
The plaintiffs were: “D.O. Idundun, Chief P.O. Awani, A.E Hesse, C.A Lorie and J.D. Oruru (for and on behalf of Ogitsi Family of Okere, Warri); Itsekiri Communal Land Trustees; and Erejuwa II, the Olu of Warri.”
The defendant was: “Daniel Okumagba (for himself and on behalf of Olodi, Oki, and Ighogbadu Families of Okere, Warri).”
The suit Number W/48/1968 at the Midwest State High Court, Warri, was heard by Justice E.A. Ekeruche and decided in July 1973. The plaintiffs asked for the following:
“1. A declaration that in accordance with Itsekiri Customary Law, all that piece or parcel of land at Okere, Warri, described in Plan No WE.2367 filed in this suit and verged pink is the property of the Ogitsi Family of Okere, subject only to the overlordship of the Olu of Warri now vested in and exercisable by the Itsekiri Communal Land Trustees by virtue of the Communal Land Rights (Vesting in Trustees) Law 1959 and the Warri Division (Itsekiri Communal Land) Trust Instrument, 1959.
2. A declaration that, in accordance with Itsekiri Customary Law, defendants have forfeited their rights of user and/or occupation and any other rights or estate in or over that part of the land in dispute marked Area ‘’B’ and any right they may have in or over that part of the land in dispute marked Area ‘A’ in the Plan No. E.2367 filed by the plaintiffs in this suit.
3. An order of injunction to restrain the defendants, their servants and/or agents and any other person or persons purporting to claim under or through them from entering the land in dispute and/or interfering with plaintiffs’ rights and interest in and over the said land in dispute and in particular from granting leases or other disposition of the same to any other persons or collecting rents or any other dues from any other persons in respect of the land in dispute.”
All the claims sought by the plaintiffs were dismissed by the High Court in a judgement, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Justice E.A. Ekeruche in the judgement of the High Court, delivered on the 17th of July, 1973, stated as follows:
“Considering first the traditional evidence in the case, my view of that aspect of the evidence in plaintiffs’ case, whereby plaintiffs have sought to establish that the land in dispute and even also Okere Village were part of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I and also their evidence that Ogitsi owned the whole of Okere land including the land in dispute, in this case is that it is unconvincing.
“I do not believe that any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I extended to Okere. Plaintiffs’ evidence and also evidence in the whole case do not prove such extent of any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I.
“I am satisfied and I find as a fact on the evidence before me that Okere was never part of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I. I am also satisfied that Ginuwa I never exercised overlordship rights over Okere, and that the overlordship rights of the subsequent Olus did not extend to Okere.
“A point which plaintiffs and their counsel have tried to urge on this court is that because the land in dispute is in Warri and so in Warri Division, the Olu of Warri has rights of overlordship over it, because, as Olu of Warri, he has rights of overlordship over all lands in Warri Division. The whole argument or view is erroneous. The Olu, by title, is Olu of Warri, but his rights of overlordship relate only to land of Itsekiri people…
“As between the evidence in plaintiffs’ case and that in the defendants’ case, I accept and believe the evidence in the defendants’ case as truthfully stating how Ogitsi family and the defendants’ people came to be in Okere area.
“I accept and believe the evidence of the defendants that three persons, namely, Idama, Ohwotemu and Sowhoruvwe, first came to Okere and founded various tracts of land.”
“I also accept the evidence of the defendants as to how and when Ogitsi got to the waterside area of Okere and made his sett1ement there, and as to how the settlement and that of defendants’ people grew until they met in Okere.
“I am satisfied and find as a fact that the land in dispute in this case, including the area where rubber plantations are shown on plaintiffs’ plan, Exhibit 2, and also where Madam Esale’s rubber plantation is, belong to the defendants and that they have been such owners and in possession of the land from the time their ancestors founded the land.
“Having found that the defendants own the land in dispute and that they were never tenants of anyone, plaintiffs fail on their claim for forfeiture.
“Plaintiffs having failed on the claim as to ownership of the land in dispute and for forfeiture are not entitled to the injunction they seek.”
“The plaintiffs have failed to prove their claims in its entirety and I accordingly dismiss same in its entirety.
Not satisfied with the High Court’s judgment, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, the only appellate court at that time, in suit number SC/309/1974, reported in 1976 Volume 10 Nigerian Supreme Court Cases (NSCC).
The justices, led by Justice Atanda Fatayi-Williams, who later became Chief Justice of Nigeria; with Justice Mohammed Bello, who also retired as Chief Justice and Justice Andrews Otutu-Obaseki; held, in the judgement delivered on October 8, 1976, that the appeal lacked merit. Justice Fatayi-Williams and the other justices of the Supreme Court in the unanimous judgment ruled that:
“On the whole, it is sufficient to say that most of the matters canvassed before us were examined meticulously and rejected by the learned trial judge for reasons upon which we cannot improve and to which we do not desire to add except, perhaps, to say that whether taken separately or together, none of the points urged upon us by learned counsel for the appellants would, in our view, justify any interference with the findings and decision of the learned trial judge. Consequently, we are of the view that the appeal has no merit and is accordingly dismissed.”
My father (even after the judgement of the Supreme Court in favour of our Kindred Families) continued to advocate peaceful coexistence amongst all ethnic groups. He continued to preach inter-ethnic harmony and mutual respect. He did not believe that any ethnic group should dominate the other. He believed and preached mutual respect and cooperation.
My father was equally active in the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) from as far back as the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, he was a participant in many UPU events. In 1964, he accompanied Chief T.E.A. Salubi, who was the President-General of the UPU, on a tour of the union’s branches across Nigeria.
At occasions where he addressed the gathering, such as in Benin City at a visit on June 2, 1964, his message centred on the importance of focusing to achieve the objectives of the UPU. Peter Ekeh in his book, T.E.A. Salubi: Witness to British Colonial Rule in Urhoboland and Nigeria, records the encounter as follows: The second speaker was Mr Okumagba who reiterated Mr Rerri’s advice that affairs of the Union be insulated from party politics. He was keen that people should not allow their personal political affiliation affect their communal interests. His passion for Urhobo affairs transcended politics to the level of culture and he cut a distinct image as not just a political ambassador of the nationality but a cultural ambassador as well.
When Chief (Dr) Frederick Esiri became the President-General of the UPU, my father was elected the Secretary-General and served from 1984 to 1993. He was diligent, compassionate and patriotic.
From his days at Urhobo College Effurun to his work as community shepherd and politician, my fatherhad become known to many as an iconic figure in the advancement of social justice and equity.