January 24, 2023

The Nigerian nation: A look through Urhobo chiefs

By Patrick Dele Cole

CERTAIN long-standing issues that I have been dealing with—the elite and traditional leaders’ structures and political progress in pursuing independence and developing the economy. These themes were developed in Chief Obrik Uloho’s autobiography, The Strength of an Eagle and the Peace of a Dove.

Uloho’s biography is a template for the social history of most Nigerians who were first-generation and second-generation educated from 1930-1965. His book captures the spirit and the almost indefinable nuances of what it is to live in a rural community and then go to school. It is a testimony of just how brave our fathers were in sending us to school.

It also demonstrates an incredible belief that acquiring knowledge is a necessary foundation for progress. It might have helped that the English administration and district officers were around and that the population held them in high esteem. If this Englishman can be so respected, Uloho’s father thought, let my son also go to school so that he too may be respected. Respect leads to advancement and political power.

Uloho’s journey is the journey all pioneers went through, up to the very unscientific method of admission to primary school, class one. You gained admission if your right hand stretched over your head and was long enough to reach your left ear.

If you were small, it is unlikely you could go to school at age five or six, because your hand may not be long enough to go over your head to touch your ear. Many started school at around eight or nine years old, and even then, many who went to secondary school were in reality much older than the 13 or 14 years old you ought to be when you started secondary school.

It is only now that I found out that most of my classmates were older than myself when they started celebrating their 80th birthday. It is possible for a fag to be in class one at 18 in a secondary school. The prefect he served was also 18 and in class V. It happened to me!!! My boyfriend and I celebrated our 70th birthday in the same year!! I thought I was five years older than him until that celebration.

Uloho’s book deals extensively with the extended family system; the intricacies of growing up in a polygamous family, the lack of actual boundaries in these relationships, and even the closeness of male siblings to their mothers and the early cultivation of responsibility the eldest son acquires at a very young age.

Hardly had Uloho found a job in Ibadan before he took in two of his siblings sent to him by his parents. The family was a microcosm of a welfare state, everybody chipped in to make everybody’s life more bearable on the hard road of progress. Education remained the seminal force of our lives in the 1940s and 1960s.

It provided our roadmap, and it never failed us. That is why the neglect of education in today’s Nigeria is worse than lamentable. This is why our leadership cannot allow our children to remain relatively uneducated, unemployed and veer towards crime.

Uloho’s journey through education provides a missed nostalgia: getting a job without a godfather in Ibadan, going to school at the College of Technology in Enugu, thereafter going on scholarship to London, promotion without protestation, employment without bias. The book shows us what a fantastic civil service we had.

You can go to the United Kingdom on scholarship through the Western Nigeria Government in 1958, return to work in mid-Western Nigeria in 1962, and be posted to Benin with no hassle of transfer documents—a straight, easy fit to a good and functional system with adequate prerequisites—a senior civil servant with a Peugeot car, single, desirable, and available—a Warri boy full of that peculiar braggadocio and swagger that is the essence of manhood.

Through all this, Uloho has treated the complexity of Urhobo culture and custom in all its vivid colour and in a language that speaks to the reader such that he envisions the dreams, the dancing, the colours, the pathos, and the vibrancy. All these amidst the indelible lessons he learned at Government College, Ughelli, which produced most of his lifelong friends. The school was good to him, and he was good to the school in all the improvements he and other old boys engineered for the school.

That spirit of philanthropy he transferred into humanitarian work with Rotary International, thus underscoring his basic goodness in the service of other men. It wasn’t all success; he openly failed in farming and was unable to retain a profitable Shell franchise for his petrol station, and he had his first taste of Urhobowayo when a friend refused to pay his commission (person: when wise people pass you, you grumble, isobowayo).

This is an invaluable book about Urhobo customs and, indeed, the origins of Urhobos. We now have more in print than the old writings of intelligence reports, without which many Nigerians would know little about their history; the historical telling of our origins has been so weak that we have almost our entire history since the end of the intelligence reports.

Sometimes I wish government had continued the intelligence reports of the colonial government. If we did, it would be simple to identify society’s miscreants. Chief Uloho prospered, and through his prosperity we see Urhobo’s progress: his painstaking building of his businesses, from washing lorries to travelling in Armel’s transport, the building of hotels, hostels, and a prosperous estates business to which he attracted three of his children. You follow his painstaking brick by brick building of his business and the upliftment of his family, which has prospered tremendously.

It was not all roses, but what is life? It has its ups and downs—a delightful story of how to be traditional, prosperous and yet be a good father, who could not even avoid in Warri the escapades of an attempted armed robbery. He outwitted the armed robbers a few years ago and fled into a nearby mechanic’s workshop and from there to the police station, which organised a rescue and caught some of the robbers.

Uloho was 84 when this happened. What a life!!! Before all this, he learned how to ride a bicycle monkey style: grew up in fear of the Lord, his father, and was able to navigate the syncretism between African culture and perceived Christian behaviour and practices. Despite this, he was a pillar of the Anglican Church, even though at his baptism, the Anglican priest asked and expected an English baptismal name like David. Uloho answered that his baptismal name was Obriko: he read the puzzle in the priest’s face and asked whether God discriminated against Urhobo.

Finally, as the chief lands and survey director, he was a member of the special panel to look into land tenure in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the panel’s efforts were frustrated when the Federal Government promulgated the Land Use Decree, which wrongly vested all land ownership in the Federal Government, which in turn could lease it out on the basis of usage. While the decree was intended to simplify the land tenure system, it has created a veritable morass of confusion in land tenure and land use in Nigeria, such that the powerful can happily ignore it and prospective buyers pay market prices for the land, as opposed to the system used by the IDEJO chiefs of Lagos. 

The academic theme in bringing together the elite to fight the colonial master’s intervention in land tenure is the coming together of modern and traditional elite for political progress (see how Herbert Macaulay and the Oba of Lagos joined to fight the colonial government). In post-independence Nigeria, the educated elite have swallowed all the posts of the traditional elite without the perspicacity and purpose of politics, with its principal function being services for the people and not in service of the person.

Nigeria and its diversity of over 200 ethnic groups should be an inclusive model. Inclusivity has now been regarded as a modern virtue. This virtue needs to be more fully realised. After all, we deal with and inhabit one geographical centre. Yet we are more divided, more intolerant of our brothers, of helping the poor, of divisions. We should follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, which has a long history of tolerance for other racial groups—so much so that the UK has an Indian Prime Minister and Ireland has another Prime Minister. 

Yet there is division between Itsekiri and Urhobo—a subject that Uloho did not address. However, tribalism in the Delta and Edo is much lower than in many Rivers areas, such as between Kalabari. Others are suspicious of the relationship between Buguma and Gbukuma’s Obonnema and Abonnema. In addition, there is strife among the Bakana people of the Rivers.

There is suspicion between Abonnema, Buguma, and Bakana, even though all these people claim a common Ijaw ancestry. There is division and rivalry between the Ikwerre (upland) and the Ijaws, (who inhabit the maritime areas). And this is reflected in the choice of governors. Uloho is from the oil- producing areas. The only people whose area generates Nigeria’s wealth are not wealthy. They are as poor as the slaves—in the US, Latin America, the Caribbean, Egypt, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, and the US.

These countries had a large slave population, whose work produced the wealth of the nations of those states. It is interesting to note that all countries that used slaves for the growth of their economies—the slave owners and other White people who came as immigrants have prospered.

There is no nation where slavery was common in which the Black people of these countries have prospered; they still remain at the bottom of the economy. So we have oil in the Delta and Rivers states of Nigeria. The area has the poorest people in Nigeria (Do not be deceived by the antics of the South- South governments).