Clans, Kingdoms In Urhobo History And Culture

The British made up for lost ground in their understanding of Urhobo culture by relying heavily on “intelligence reports” provided by colonial administrative officers. For centuries, Europeans, including the British, relied on Atlantic coastal peoples for their information on the Urhobo. As it turned out, much of that information was either wrong or outright mischievous. Now, the colonial administrators’ intelligence reports sought to paint a correct picture of Urhobo ethnography. These efforts led the British to conclude that the Urhobo culture was essentially based on clan system. They identified the units that we have been calling Urhobo’s subcultures along with many of their properties that we described above.
How did the British colonial officers come up with the word “clans” to describe these subcultures of Urhoboland? By the early 1900s and 1910s, when the label was applied, Colonial Social Anthropology was not mature enough to be helpful to colonial officers in their efforts at understanding such entities as Urhobo. It is more likely that the label was picked up from Scottish history of clans. In many ways, Urhobo sub-cultures were very much like ancient Scottish clans.
Urhobo Reactions to British Colonial Ethnography of Urhoboland. As can be imagined, Urhobos were the principal informants for those who composed the intelligence reports. These reports were of course not made public, but key decisions were made on the strength of the information provided in them. It was therefore the British policies, apparently based on the intelligence reports, which the Urhobo people could judge. While accepting and even appreciating many administrative policies of the British Colonial Government, a good number of them were rejected by the Urhobo people who fought against their implementation and indeed for their reversal.
Two instances will illustrate the point. The British wrongly assigned Orogun and Avwraka (which they misnamed as Abraka) to Kuale [that is, Ukwuani] Division in Warri Province for administrative purposes. Similarly, Idjerhe (misnamed Jesse by the British) was assigned to Benin Division in Benin Province for administration. The Urhobo people did not like these decisions and fought hard for their return from what they saw as their perverse allocation. All three of them were eventually returned to the Urhobo fold by being regrouped in administrative units that consisted entirely of Urhobo sub-cultures.
Urhobo Progress Union arose in the 1930s as a vehicle for conveying Urhobo concerns to the British Colonial Government. One of the first public responsibilities of Urhobo Progress Union was to convey Urhobo’s objection on the wrong rendering of their name to the British. Urhobos objected to unacceptable names given by the British to Urhobo and its sub-units, obviously owing to pronunciation problems that the British encountered with complicated Urhobo names. Thus, the British had difficulties with the “rh” in Urhobo. They simplified it, changing “Urh” to S” and thus yielding “Sobo,” a name that Urhobos found offensive.
Urhobo Progress Union fought very hard to change Urhobo’s spoilt name and it succeeded when the British made a correction in a Gazette of October 1, 1938. Urhobo Progress Union was itself involved in making changes in its own sphere, changing its name from its previous version of Urhobo Progressive Union in the late 1930s.
We have pointed to these Urhobo reactions in order to highlight the point that the Urhobo people were not unaware of what the British were doing with their cultural institutions. Urhobo Progress Union certainly knew of the label “Clans” which the British used to describe Urhobo’s sub-cultures. It had no objection. Indeed, UPU employed the term clans in its official duties of working for Urhobo progress. Right up until the mid-1960s, when UPU was in its high phase of activities on behalf of the Urhobo people, it used the term clans frequently. Thus, in his 1965 address to the General Council of Urhobo Progress Union, the President-General of the Union, Chief T. E. A. Salubi, referred to the role of the clans in spreading development in Urhoboland, as follows:
I would love to hope, indeed expect, that the degree of oneness and unity so transparently exhibited at Sapele on the occasion of Urhobo National Day Celebration will diffuse down to our different clan areas and be reflected in our ordinary life and day-to-day dealings with one another in our towns and villages (Salubi 1965, emphasis added).
It should be added that Nigerian nationalist scholars, including especially historians, objected to the use of such anthropological terms as tribes and clans, considering them to be derogatory and offensive. However, the general rejection of “clans” was from outside Urhoboland. The much preferred term of “kingdoms” did not catch up with Urhobo nationalist sentiments until the late 1990s!
Nigerian Governments’ Interactions with Urhobo’s Sub-Cultures
Various Nigerian Governments, at the Regional and State levels particularly, which followed British Colonial Government, have also dealt with the significance of these sub-cultural entities that the British labelled as clans of Urhoboland. It is fair to say that most Nigerian Governments have accepted and respected the fact that Urhobo is in essence a confederation of twenty-two sub-cultures whose bases and roots are ancient and prehistoric. Until the bizarre incident of 2006 in which Delta State Government sought to split an Urhobo sub-cultural unit into two, all previous Nigerian Governments had respected the integrity of each of the twenty-two units of Urhobo culture. Before dealing with the abnormality of that 2006 legislative episode by the Delta State Government that clearly violated the creed of Urhobo history and culture, it will be helpful to sketch how various previous generations of Nigerian governments, responded to Urhobo’s cultural system. Such an outline will probably help us all to see why the 2006 legislative affront on Urhobo history and culture is so remarkably different from the conduct of previous Nigerian Governments.
How Western Nigerian Government Dealt with Action Group’s Difficulties with the Urhobo People
The first Nigerian Government which the Urhobo had to deal with was led by the Action Group party of Western Nigeria, from 1952 to 1964. Unfortunately, Urhobos had a major problem with the Action Group and its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, concerning the dispute on the title of the King of Itsekiri and the ownership of the city of Warri (see Edevbie 2007). The Urhobo’s response was an uncompromising and consistent rejection of the Action Group at the electoral polls. At a time when voting counted, the Urhobo’s antipathy towards the Action Group was hurtful for a party that lacked a clear majority in the Western House of Assembly. No amount of punishment of the Urhobo worked to persuade them to switch to the Action Group in their political preferences.
The Action Group did its utmost to insinuate itself into Urhobo political affairs. Its bluntest tool was invocation of a property of Urhobo sub-culture. It is that every sub-culture was entitled to have an Ovie. It so happened that in the 1950s, few of Urhobo’s sub-cultures had their own Ivie. The Action Group Government therefore orchestrated the selection of candidates for the throne of Ovie in each sub-culture where there was no seating Ovie. The Action Group supported its own candidates for these thrones.
Although this ploy did not work in convincing Urhobos to vote for the Action Group at the polls, it opened up a new chapter in Urhobo history. Playing within the logic of Urhobo culture that allocated the right of kingship to its sub-cultures, it nonetheless expanded Urhobo’s royal institutions well beyond what the Urhobos themselves wanted. One reason why many sub-cultures of Urhobo neglected to exercise their right to have a king was that it was costly to maintain an Ovie. Now, members of the new class of Ivie were more dependent on government subsidies than on their own people, opening up new dynamics in Urhobo public affairs.
Mid-West Government and Ordered Selection of Ivie
By the time the Mid-West Region was carved out of the Western Region in 1964, it was very well established that kingship was mandatory in Urhobo sub-cultures, still then called clans. What the Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs sought to do was to bring order to the selection of the Ovie of each sub-culture. Urhobo chieftains seemed to have warmed up to the idea of this widespread kingship, hoping that it was one way of gaining sponsorship from the government.