Clans, Kingdoms In Urhobo History And Culture

MODERN Urhobos correctly boast that they represent the largest group in the Western Niger Delta. Moreover, Urhobo occupies a sizeable chunk of the dry lands of the Western Niger Delta. All these we owe to those whose courage and heroism enabled the Urhobo to occupy prime rainforests. We must not forget that we shared the same rainforests with the Isoko and the Ukwuani. That our share of these lands is enviable owes everything to the fact that our prehistoric ancestors were able to conquer them.
“Conquest” is an evocative term in historical scholarship. Conquerors often subdue their own people and then overcome others. Such conquerors of peoples are frequently crowned as kings. But the conquest upon which our ancestors embarked was of a different type. It was the conquest of an untamed and unoccupied rainforest that was deemed to be dangerous. Today, we cannot imagine how fearsome these lands were in their pristine form. They had wild animals in abundance. That they are all gone from our territory is probably due to the fact that part of the responsibility of our founding ancestors was to destroy wild animals. It is said that Evwreni was founded by a group of hunters who were hired by Iyede to kill menacing elephants. Elephants (eni in Urhobo), lions (okpohrokpo), tigers (ẹdjẹnẹkpo), gorillas (ọsia), and hippotemuses (ẹrhẹ) have all gone from our lands, but they were once here in Urhoboland in some abundance.
There is another point of significance to be stressed. Apart from the fact that the secondary and tertiary subcultures of northwestern Urhoboland have larger territories than those in the low-lying swampy southeast, it is noteworthy that – with the remarkable exception of Olomu – these primeval subcultures of the southeast are almost all single-town cultures. In contrast, the larger secondary and tertiary subcultures of the northwest are multiple-town cultures. The multiplicities of towns and villages in these cultures – in Ughelli, Agbarha-Otor, Orogun, Okpe, Agbon, Agbarho, Idjerhe, etc. – are striking. Such multiplication of settlements of towns and villages within each subculture enabled the conquest and occupation of as much territory as was accomplished in these lands that were once untamed.
Properties and Characteristics of Cultural Units of Urhoboland
These subcultures of Urhobo have borne the burden of Urhobo history. They also carry the weight of Urhobo culture and its political organisation. Together, they all bear certain markers and characteristics that set Urhobo and its people apart from other cultures and peoples. So that we may be sure that these subcultures define what Urhobo is, we should map out their properties and characteristics.
(i) Territory with Boundaries and Integrity
Every Urhobo subculture has a territory that has boundaries with other sub-cultures and occasionally with non-Urhobo cultural entities, such as the Isoko, Ijaw, and Ukwuani. A unique aspect of Urhoboland is that the Urhobo people were the first to occupy their own portions in the hinterland of the rainforests of Western Niger Delta. In most instances, therefore, bearers of each subculture of Urhobo occupy territory that their ancestors were the first to conquer and occupy. This attribute of the Urhobo’s subculture has imparted a sense of collective ownership of the territories of these units of Urhobo culture. The integrity of each of Urhobo’s subcultures derives from its ownership of its own territory that it has conquered and occupied through its own exploits.
(ii) Sub-Cultural Headquarters and Eponymous Ancestral Shrines
Each subculture has its own headquarters. It is usually located in the first place in which the founding ancestors settled. These headquarters have eponymous ancestral shrines, venerating the spirits of the founding ancestors whose names are associated with the entire subculture.
It is noteworthy that the high regard for these ancestral shrines is shared across all communities, including Christian families. In effect, these eponymous ancestral shrines are regarded as historic institutions.
(iii) Endowment of Individual’s Identity as an Urhobo Person
Every person who claims to be Urhobo does so only through his or her membership of a subculture or subcultures as their father’s or mother’s birth right. No one can claim to be Urhobo directly, without belonging to a subculture or subcultures of Urhobo. This attribute carries with it the claim of certain rights from members of the subculture who are expected to work for the survival and improvement of the entire subculture. But it is an attribute that also imposes important responsibilities on the subculture in its relationship to individual members. Until recent times, protection of the individual and care for his remains after death were responsibilities of the subculture or its further divisions.
(iv) Totems and Taboos of Sub-Cultures
For the sake of maintaining the spiritual welfare of its members, some subcultures instituted their own set of totems and taboos whose observance would be binding on their communities. The power of totems instituted by Ughelli and Orogun – even over those of their members who are now converted to Christianity – is legendary. Other sub-cultures have similar regimes of totems.
(v) Sub-Cultural Control of Urhobo’s Linguistic Dialects
In the realm of language, Urhobo is a land of great dialectic variability. Remarkably, each subculture has its own dialect of the Urhobo language. Native speakers of the Urhobo language can easily tell from what sub-culture a speaker of the Urhobo language hails.
(vi) Urhobo Sub-cultures and the Institution of King (Ovie)
One of the most powerful cultural tools that each of Urhobo’s subcultures has (or had) at its disposal was the institution of kingship. Called Ovie throughout Urhobo culture, an Urhobo, king exists only at the sub-cultural level. Each subculture controls the rules that govern the ascension to the subculture’s throne. More importantly, each subculture could decide to exercise its right to have a king or not to have one. However, by common Urhobo usage, no subculture is allowed to have more than one Ovie at a time.
It is noteworthy that until the explosion of royal institutions began in the 1950s, from instigation from various Nigerian governments, only a handful of Urhobo’s sub-cultures exercised their inherent rights to have kings. Ogor and Ughelli had stable regimes of kingship for a good portion – but by no means all – of their history. The Okpe had an historic instance of monarchy that went awry and thereafter the Okpe were reluctant to revive the institution, until 1945, centuries afterwards. The Agbon people chose for centuries of their history to make do with the maxim Okpako r’ Agbon oy’ Ovie r’ Agbon – meaning, Agbon sub-culture’s eldest is its king. Many other attitudes toward royal institutions emanated from the other subcultures of Urhoboland. The point is, it was their right to determine whether they wanted a king and if so on what terms.
(vii) An Axiom of Co-Equality among Urhobo Sub-Cultures
There is an underlying axiom in the relations among the units of Urhobo culture. It is that they are co-equal. For instance, although Okpe and Agbon are each many times larger in land and population than most of the Urhobo subcultures of the southeast, they cannot claim to be culturally superior to the much smaller sub-cultural units of southeast Urhoboland, such as Okparebe and Arhavwarien.
British Colonial Rule and the Naming of Urhobo’s Sub-Cultures as Clans
British colonial rule in Urhoboland began effectively in the first decade of the 20th century, following a delay lasting many years (1894-1899) on account of a dispute between the Royal Niger Company and agents of the Niger Coast Protectorate Government over what British interest had administrative jurisdiction in Urhoboland (see Salubi 1958). When British colonial rule commenced, it was clear that the British had little knowledge of Urhobo culture. This was largely because missionaries had not been as active in the Western Niger Delta as they had been elsewhere, say in Yorubaland and Igboland (see Ekeh 2005).
To be continued