Does Urhobo have a Place in the Nigerian Federation?

The view of the Urhobo Historical Society on the agitation for restructuring of Nigeria

The Nigerian State is plagued with a myriad of problems: political, economic, and security- challenges that threaten not just the stability but the very survival of the nation. The internal problems include the resilient Boko Haran Islamic insurgency that started from the north-east, the long-running militancy in the Niger Delta, the increasing violence between herders and farming communities that began in the Middle Belt and has spread all over the country including Urhoboland and other areas in Southern Nigeria. As a result, the economy has been pushed into a dire situation, as neither the states nor the federal government is able to provide security that would enable them to compete with one another and grow the economy: create jobs, raise revenue, and invest in infrastructure as needed for the development of the country. Amid the consequent massive unemployment and insecurity, the states have become so incapacitated that they are unable to deliver any tangible dividends of democracy.

The Nigerian Punch Newspaper echoed Nigeria’s problems more explicitly in its editorial of July 28, 2021. The paper described Nigeria as the 12th most fragile in a survey of 170 countries according to the Fragile States Index of 2021. Nigeria has replaced India since 2018 as the Poverty Capital of the World, with over 90 million persons living below the poverty level. As many as 13.2 million children have no access to school. The Norwegian Refugee Council has listed Nigeria as a country with the seventh-highest number of internally displaced persons in the world. The situation has been made worse by frequent power outages, high levels of unemployment, incessant hunger, and lack of security, problems that many consider responsible for the rise of violent crimes including vandalizing of properties belonging to others, kidnapping, and the wanton killing of innocent persons.

The inability of various Nigerian governments to resolve problems has become worrisome, particularly for ethnic minorities like the Urhobo people. The situation has become frustrating for many as every legislative effort to restructure the political system to bring about some semblance of stability to the country has failed. The stumbling block has been the unethical use of certain provisions of a military-imposed constitution by majority groups in Nigeria to stifle any meaningful discussion of ways to end the suffering of the people. The application of such constitutional maneuvers has the unfortunate effect of subordinating the rights and aspirations of the people especially those of ethnic minorities. The recourse to alternatives to the legislative process has led to the rise of militant separatist movements that have now expanded to include the once moderate voices, all working together in the struggle for self-determination. Thus, the combination of social maladies such as injustice, marginalization, oppression, insecurity, hegemony, and nepotism to name a few, have instigated many to join groups agitating for restructuring and even the break-up of Nigeria. These groups are determined to assert their identities and claim their perceived rights. They have gone as far as to put forward proposals for self-government including the drawing of political maps to delineate territories or areas of jurisdiction as sovereign states should the country break up.

In more recent times, several social-cultural organizations interested in self-government have also taken to other extra-parliamentary measures, including asking the Nigerian court to order a referendum, to determine the will of the people. The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), for example, had sued the Nigerian National Assembly, the Attorney-General, and the Federal Minister of Justice, asking the court to compel the defendants to halt the ongoing constitutional review and to conduct, instead a referendum to determine the future of Nigeria. The suit was filed initially, to seek a referendum to determine the fate of an independent State of Biafra in the south-east of Nigeria. Other ethnic groups have now sought to be joined as plaintiffs in the belief that all ethnic nationalities have a stake in the future of the country and should come together to decide on what the future should be. Some pertinent questions to ask at this point include is (a) whither Urhobo in this flow of political developments? (ii) Should any Urhobo group such as Urhobo Progress Union or Urhobo Historical Society also seek to join as plaintiffs in the court case to protect Urhobo interests? (iii) What are the concerns of the Urhobo people in this issue of restructuring?

Urhobo Concerns with certain aspects of proposals for restructuring Nigeria

While the Urhobo people identify with the rights and aspirations of ethnic nationalities for self-determination, the Urhobo people have cause to be concerned with the efforts of some groups creating the arbitrary configuration of political units. Some of the political maps have been drawn in ways that encroach on territories belonging to other ethnic nationalities. Urhoboland, for example, is being included, without consultation and the consent of the people, in some maps as parts and parcels, of a future Oduduwa Republic, and at the same time, of the Republic of Biafra, both of which are to be controlled by non-Urhobo groups: the Yoruba and Igbo-speaking peoples respectively. Urhobo before the colonial arrangements that produced Nigeria as a country, were not known to have any cultural or historical affiliation with either the Yoruba or the Igbo peoples, structural ties that would justify the brazen attempts to incorporate Urhobo people. Urhobo like some other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria’s Niger Delta was an autonomous political and cultural entity before the advent of British colonialism. The attempts to carve Warri areas out of Urhoboland, and incorporate them into an ‘Oduduwa Republic’, began when the colonial government of Western Nigeria illegally designated the Itsekiri King as the Olu of Warri in 1952. The action of the western government was political and not based on any credible historical evidence. Neither was Urhoboland made part of the Republic of Biafra when the former Eastern Nigeria was declared as such by Lt. Colonel Odumegu Ojukwu and his fellow secessionists, albeit unsuccessfully, as an independent country in 1967.

The Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) wishes to reaffirm that Urhobo, a major ethnic nationality in Nigeria’s western Niger Delta, is of prehistoric existence that antedates the formation of Nigeria. Next, UHS also likes to draw attention to several British colonial policies through which Urhobo and other ethnic nationalities were unwittingly incorporated into that corporate body. Third, it will be prudent for UHS to characterize the efforts of Nigerian leaders during the decade of decolonization of the 1950s that laid down constitutional principles for running the government of an independent Nigeria. The model was arrived at the Ibadan Conference of 1950, out of necessity and only after intensive negotiations to reach difficult compromises among competing ethnic and regional interests. Ultimately the model chosen was federalism, a system that reorganized ethnic nationalities as the basis for governance. Also crucial for UHS’s position, is a review of the baneful consequences of the military that set aside the guiding principles of the 1950s and replaced them with an inefficient system that breeds corruption and nepotism. Urhobo Historical Society believes that Nigerians can overcome the destructive consequences of military rule if they can fashion a system of governance based on equal rights for all ethnic nationalities, giving them a government, they can accept and live with.

Some background to the Place of Urhobo in Nigerian Polity

Urhobo is one of over 250 ethnic nationalities that were arbitrarily and forcefully annexed with others in 1914 to form a corporate entity that came to be known as Nigeria. At the onset of British colonial rule when colonial officials were empowered to enter treaties with various ethnic nationalities including Urhobo in Niger Delta, the imperial powers acknowledged that the communities with which, they made treaties, were the owners of their land. Urhobo, by itself as an ethnic nationality, and its people have survived as a nation-state through ancient times, colonial rule, and military occupation to arrive at its present situation. Since the forced amalgamation of 1914, and particularly so, since 1966, Urhobo has however been subjugated into a minority status to other ethnic nationalities in a political system in which they are marginalized when it comes to the distribution of political and economic resources. The Nigerian military, which seized power from civilian governments of Nigeria in January 1966, for example, nullified the framework for revenue allocation, particularly for oil revenue for the benefit of those outside the Niger Delta where virtually all Nigerian oil is produced. The framework as enshrined in Sections 133 and 134 of the 1960 Independence Constitution of Nigeria, had stipulated that 50% of revenue accruing from any mineral resources or commodities be allocated to the region where the resources involved are located, with the other 50% going into the coffers of the Federal Government.

Given the equitable distribution of revenue from mineral resources and commodities, each region of the Nigerian Federation was allowed to develop at its own pace using revenue on hand. The Northern and Western Governments of the time had groundnuts and cocoa respectively to their advantage before oil was discovered in 1956 and became the mainstay of the Nigerian economy since the 1960s. The West, for example, used revenue from cocoa to develop its area: offering free primary education, setting up the first television station in Africa, erecting major public buildings like the Cocoa House, Ibadan and Western House, Lagos, and engaging in many other developments for the benefits of the people. With the illegal injection of military rule into the affairs of the Nigerian federation, the Federal Government now arrogates to itself the right to keep most of the revenue from oil and decides which part of Nigeria to develop, thus curtailing the ability of the federating units to plan for the development of their respective areas.

Consequences of Military Rule for Urhoboland

The most destructive effect of military rule in Nigeria is the overthrow of the political achievements of the decolonization process of the 1950s. The military rejected the major tenet of the achievements that ethnic nationalities were not only central but also essential for the political welfare of Nigeria and chose instead to initiate a process of centralization. First, it abolished various instruments of government including the 1960 constitution and a slightly modified version of 1963 when Nigeria became independent and a republic respectively, concentrating all powers in its hands. For example, Nigeria’s Independence Constitution of 1960 as amended in 1963, was a set of four different documents, namely the Constitution of the Nigerian Federation, the Constitution of Eastern Nigeria, the Constitution of Northern Nigeria, and the Constitution of Western Nigeria, each tailored to the specific needs of governance for each area with the proviso that none of the regional constitutions can supersede the provisions of the common federal constitution. The Midwestern Region was also allowed to operate its own constitution when that region was created in 1964. Now in a sharp departure from the norm, the Nigerian Constitution of 1999, a hand-over from decades of military misrule, ignored the need for regional constitutions. The makers of the 1999 constitution chose not to recognize that the interests of a diversity of multicultural groups of ethnic nationalities, such as those of Nigeria, cannot be adequately accommodated in a centralized system. For the interests of the various ethnic nationalities in the group to be properly addressed, the task will require a substantial devolution of power to the federating units.

In a poorly conceived idea of reaching the people, the military, engaged in state creation without concern for the needs and interests of the people. The country is now arbitrarily broken into 36 states and 768 local government authorities (LGAs). Apart from the huge cost of running the various governments, many of the states and the LGAs are not economically viable nor can they be adjudged capable of raising the revenue needed to provide services for the people they are supposed to serve. Besides, the creation of LGAs did not differentiate between the needs of rural areas and those of urban centers which are expected to shoulder the greater burden of services to the people because of higher levels of population. The uniformity of local governments that was imposed by the military since 1978 has led to the collapse of the local government system. Why for example, should the needs of rural communities in Zamfara be put on the same level as those of urban centers in Lagos and Warri? Many have come to believe that these multiple states and local government councils were deliberately created for the purpose of unfairly distributing the largesse from oil revenue from Urhoboland and other areas of the Niger Delta. The states and LGAs regard allocations from the Federal as gifts not to be used for development but shared among individuals without fear of retribution. As a result, many of the LGAs be they in rural areas or urban centers are not functioning, or providing for the people. The prevailing conditions in Urhobo urban centers of Sapẹlẹ, Ughelli, and Warri, for lack of resources to provide services, have pushed many, like never before into committing crimes in their struggle for survival.

Another destructive effect of over-centralization that has a great impact on Urhoboland can be observed in the way the Nigeria Police is being used to intimidate people. Article 214 (1) of the military-imposed constitution of 1999, clearly states: There shall be a police force for Nigeria and no other police force shall be established for the Federation or any part thereof. The prohibition has created the stand-alone Nigeria Police which is ill-equipped to respond to the needs of security in a country as vast as Nigeria. The persistent lack of security must be blamed on the over-concentration of security powers in the hands of the Nigeria Police which has little or no presence in many of the towns and villages in Nigeria. There are also indications that many police officers of northern Nigeria origin bribe their way to Urhoboland where they intimidate and extort money from innocent citizens. With the prohibition on the establishment of regional or local police, the people could not protect themselves say for example against the herdsmen that have invaded Urhoboland. The people are no longer in the mood to trust the Nigerian State, and now rely, more and more on their kith and kin for security and survival. Can anything be more irresponsible for the Nigerian government to constitutionally deny the people the right to defend their lives and properties? The Governors of the South-West states have now, for example, set up in defiance of the constitutional prohibition, the Western Nigeria Security Network, code-named Amotekun, an indigenous and audacious system to protect life and the property of the people in their region. It is noteworthy to indicate that some of the most efficient police departments in the world such as the New York Police Department in the United States, and the London Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom are owned and run by local city governments.

Still, the Nigerian central government somehow does not seem to have learned much from its inability to handle centrally managed resources. The Nigerian Senate and the House of Representatives, urged on by majority members from the North want to pass the Water Resource Bill. The bill is intended to give the federal government exclusive rights to surface and underground water affecting more than one state. Urhobo Historical Society like other groups including southern Governors is opposed to the bill. The bill is yet another attempt to deepen the over-centralization of resources in Nigeria. The bill if passed will restrict the ability of many in Southern Nigeria including Urhobo people to use and regulate waterways including restriction on the construction of boreholes for commercial use. Yet, the bill as designed, grants free access for livestock, a boom for herdsmen, most of whom, are from Northern Nigeria including those streaming in, illegally from Niger, Chad, Senegal, and other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. Besides, nothing in the Water Resources Bill refers to the need for any venture to reclaim or restore to their natural state, waterways: rivers, streams, and lakes that were left to decay since the building of the Kainji Dam in 1968. Neither is there any attention paid to the fate of numerous river ports at Sapẹlẹ, Warri, Burutu, Koko, Calabar, etc., that are either underutilized or abandoned. The bill also offers no remedy for dealing with the problem of seasonal flooding that has resulted in considerable loss of life and extensive damage to property in the low-lying lands of the Urhobo people, and other areas of the Niger Delta. The southern Governors met on the bill, after which they issued a communiqué to rightly condemn the bill as inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Concluding Remarks and the Way Forward

Many of the internal problems of Nigeria can be traced to the years of inattention to the structural defects of the Country, which concentrated power in a few hands. Urhobo Historical Society strongly believes in self-determination and stands for the convening of a Sovereign National Conference of equally represented ethnic nationalities to discuss the future of a democratic federation of Nigeria. However, the Society does not subscribe to the idea of using the courts to compel the Nigerian Legislature to order a referendum to determine the will of the people. The court typically exists to interpret laws passed by the legislature and not to force or mandate the legislature to make laws. The legislature and the judiciary, in deference to the dictates of the Doctrine of the Separation of Powers, are considered equal arms of the government with specific functions, and one cannot constitutionally control or order the other around. In effect, any decision to compel legislative action could be nonbinding as the courts themselves may not have the constitutional means of enforcing it. Nevertheless, UHS has decided to join as a party to the lawsuit filed by the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), to compel the Nigerian National Assembly, the Attorney-General, and the Federal Minister of Justice to conduct a referendum to determine the future of Nigeria. Society feels that it cannot afford to wait until it is too late to defend Urhobo’s interests.

The lack of a functional constitutional government is creating problems in many parts of Nigeria. But no region is more impacted than Urhoboland and its neighbors in Niger Delta. There are others who are taking advantage of the constitutional crisis in Nigeria to reap fortunes from the Niger Delta which they regard as a “cash cow”. Urhobo has clear interests in joining with others in the Niger Delta to push for reforms to ensure that the resources of the region are better managed. If the exploitation of the resources continues at the current pace, Niger Delta may not last into the next century. With such a level of risk, Urhobo culture, lands, and waterways including the people themselves like others in Niger Delta may not survive in the face of the infinite greed of those who believe that the oil resources of the region are there for them to exploit. The various peoples of the Niger Delta thus have the responsibility to protect their interests. Niger Delta seems blessed with significant groups, inside and outside the region, capable of providing leadership for collective action. The amount of intellectual resources that Urhobo and its neighbors can provide in matters of theory and practice of constitutions are considerable and can match what is available to any of the majority ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.

Nearly a century ago, John Calhoun, an American statesman and political theorist observed the same kind of tension among the various interest groups in the United States as one now finds among the people of Nigeria. He realized that the central problem of American politics was how to find ways of holding the conflicting groups together without the use of force. Calhoun reasoned that any essential decision that would affect the life of the people would have to be adopted by a “concurrent majority” – by which he meant a unanimous agreement of all parties involved. However, a government by the concurrent majority is possible when no one party is powerful enough to completely dominate and only when all the parties, recognize and agree to abide by the rules of the game. The rules must be such that they will compel each group, to tolerate the interest of others, with none allowed to press its special interests to the detriment of others.

Given the threat to our common destiny, the various ethnic nationalities in Niger Delta will of necessity, have to follow Calhoun’s advice. They need to work with others of like mind to push for a national sovereign conference of equally represented ethnic nationalities or a referendum to determine the will of the people. A number of countries including Canada, South Africa, and Venezuela have successfully used these types of extra-parliamentary forums to determine the will of their people on national and constitutional issues. Canada held a referendum to seek a mandate on whether to give more power to its French-speaking province of Quebec while South Africa and Venezuela used the conference approach with de-facto sovereignty to arrive at new constitutions. In the case of Venezuela, from the villages in the Amazon rain forests to slums in its capital city of Caracas, the people were given wide latitude to debate the issues. Grass-root groups, unions, and professional organizations were all involved in nominating candidates for election into the constituent assembly, plotting campaign strategies, and writing proposals. The 34 indigenous ethnic groups, often ignored in national matters, were also given the opportunity to organize a National Assembly of Indigenous Peoples to elect its own representatives to the National Constituent Assembly. In all of these efforts for constitutional reforms, the various peoples involved respected the identity of one another and did not make any attempt to incorporate or assimilate others without consent.

Yet, unlike Venezuela and South Africa which used constitutional forums to solve constitutional problems, Nigeria has not been able to achieve the same level of success with its conferences. Why because the Nigerian National Conferences lack legal frameworks to make their recommendations legally binding. Many of the recommendations of the last 2014 constitutional conference, including the idea of creating additional 18 states to replace the local authorities were rejected. Thus, the absence of a legal framework has rendered the lofty intent of the conferences to be nothing but illusionary. The major obstacle is the requirement that amendments to the constitution must be approved by the National Assembly and two-thirds of the States’ Houses of Assembly. In effect, the 2014 conference like others before it could not discharge mandates that were not conferred by law, especially for issues that lack national consensus. To overcome the legal obstacles, the Urhobo Historical Society recommends taking another look at what happened in Venezuela where all delegates to its conference were nominated or elected to confer a level of sovereignty that makes the recommendations binding on the National Assembly and the people. The country could in the process, return to a parliamentary system that is not only less expensive to run but also one that is well-known to our people. If the people could not agree on any form of governance, Nigeria could also opt for a peaceful dissolution as decided in a referendum in Czechoslovakia in 1993. The Czech Republic, one of the detached units, has succeeded not only in building a high-income economy with one of the lowest poverty rates in the world but has also become one of the safest and most peaceful countries in Europe. The romantic view that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable should be cast aside for the reality that no country on earth is sacrosanct. The four-nation union of the United Kingdom, once considered indivisible, is facing the threat of a breakup. The Financial Times of London has argued in recent times that for a variety of reasons, the break-up of the United Kingdom is a possibility.

A pluralistic state, like Nigeria, can follow the principles laid down by Calhoun in its desire to solve its constitutional crisis. A sovereign national forum offers the best option for the various ethnic nationalities to come together to resolve issues based on Calhoun’s concept of the concurrent majority. Urhobo people like others in the federation will have the opportunity to defend their identity and resources. Without negotiation, the future of Nigeria would not be in doubt. It will disintegrate and could be mired in chaos of unimaginable proportions. The status quo is equally dangerous and unacceptable. Under the current constitutional framework, the Urhobo people and their land may not survive into the next century. Nigeria needs constitutional reforms mutually agreed upon, to produce a government that can serve the interests of all ethnic nationalities well into the future. Under such a political arrangement, Urhobo like others will have the opportunity to create viable leadership capable of generating ideas for internal security and development of their land. It is high time Urhobo came up with a system of leadership, one that does not have to rely only on orders from Abuja and Asaba, or leave to other ethnic groups, the power to dictate ideas and decisions that Urhobo people must accept and follow even when such run counter to their Urhobo interests.

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