By Austin Emaduku
The visit was touted as a fact finding visit to the Niger Delta as part of the federal government’s efforts to find a rapprochement with Niger Delta militants over the issues in the region, but it ended up to have been designed to exclude, or at best, to humiliate and or, to make a statement about the place and importance or otherwise, of some ethnic groups especially, the Urhobos a major ethnic group and oil and gas producing tribe in the Niger Delta.
The visit was understood by all to include an interactive session with all stakeholders under the leadership of PANDEF, the Edwin Clarke pan Niger Delta body representing all oil producing groups in the state and the region to be held at the Petroleum Training Institute Conference centre, Effurun, Uvwie local government area
Perhaps the first sign that some stakeholders will be treated more important than others, or the interactive sessions will be sectional appeared at the Osubi airport in Okpe Local government area where His Excellency the Governor and other dignitaries gathered to welcome the Vice President. No traditional ruler or personage of Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic extraction was at the airport for the welcome ceremonies. Of course, it had been advertised that the VP will visit Gbaramatu, an Ijaw enclave – undisputed headquarters of the Niger Delta struggle and home to Niger Delta war lord, Chief Government Ekpemupolo. So, the near, if not complete absence of the Ijaws at the airport, even though curious, could be understood to a large extent.
By the advertised programme of the visit, all stakeholders were to gather at the Petroleum Training Institute, PTI, Conference Center under PANDEF for the interactive session which was to commence at 11.00am. So, while the Vice President in company of Governor Okowa took off from the Osubi Airport for the fact finding visit to Gbaramatu, the rest of the stakeholders including traditional rulers mainly of Urhobo extraction headed straight to the PTI conference centre. It was when the other stakeholders saw the programme distributed at the venue that they began to suspect that something was amiss.
Again, aside from the large contingent of Urhobo traditional rulers and other ethnic leaders, no Ijaw or Itsekiri personage was in the hall. The distributed programme of events stated that the VP will, aside from paying courtesy call on the king of Gbaramatu and visiting the site of the proposed Maritime University, hold an interactive session with the Ijaws there. Pictures flooding social media from Gbaramatu indicated that Ijaws from every state of the Niger Delta region and their traditional rulers were all gathered in Gbaramatu for a separate interactive session with the VP.
This greatly agitated and caused unease in the mind of the traditional rulers of Urhobo nation and other ethnic extractions who have spent countless hours in the hall waiting for the joint session to start. To add to the disquiet was the information that the VP would depart Gbaramatu for the palace of the Olu of Warri for a courtesy call on the monarch. The question started going round the hall why the VP would choose some traditional rulers for courtesy visit and totally ignore the traditional rulers of other ethnic nationalities, especially the king of Uvwie whose domain the interactive session was to hold? This was in addition to the fact that these traditional rulers had been kept waiting in the hall from 11am till about 3:30 PM when personages of Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic nationalities started trickling into the hall obviously after having held their private sessions with the VP. Chief E. K. Clark, an Ijaw and PANDEF leader sauntered into the hall and was ushered to a front seat on the high table. A prominent Itsekiri leader, Chief Isaac Jemide, came in about this time too.
Soon after, a representative of the Olu who came in and was equally ushered to the high table. Meanwhile, other traditional rulers mostly of Urhobo extraction, who have been waiting in the hall since 11:00am were not accorded such recognition! The silent murmuring which has been in the hall raised a decibel. The boiling point came when Diette Spiff, an Ijaw and King of Tuon Brass, Bayelsa State, who had been at the Gbaramatu events, came in and was ushered straight to the high table.
This was when the Urhobo and other ethnic traditional rulers realising that they had been disregarded staged a walk out from the hall. Unfortunately, or fortunately, their walk out coincided with the time their Excellencies were entering the premises of the conference center. The security lock down of the moment prevented those of them that were already in their cars from driving out.
This provided Governor Okowa the opportunity to intervene by moving from car to car to prevail on their “Royal Highnesses” to come back to the hall.
Many Urhobo sons and daughters present were miffed with the action of their traditional rulers, for it is unheard of, if not a taboo for a king of Urhobo land, if after having left his seat in anger at a ceremony to return to that same seat at the same time. But whether sacred tradition should have prevailed over the fact that His Excellency, the Governor, was physically pleading with them is a question only those who wear the royal crowns can answer before their forebears and for history to interrogate and dissect in the future.
In narrating the sequence of events as they happened that sad Monday 16th January 2017, I cannot help but situate them within the current leadership crises rocking the Urhobo Progress Union and other developmental and political problems bedeviling the Urhobo nation. Urhobo is the 5th largest ethnic group in Nigeria and the largest in Delta State. It is also a major oil and gas producing nation. The Otorogun gas plant which is in Urhobo land is the largest gas producing facility in the whole of West Africa. But the Urhobos due to a combination of greed, infiltration, political naivety and hunger have been unable to harness their numerical, intellectual and material assets into advantage.
From a position of strength and leadership, the Urhobo have almost become a beggarly nation. Urhobo traditional rulers, custodian of culture and symbol of pride and authority, have not helped matters. They have not conducted themselves in a manner befitting of their revered statuses.
The saddest thing I heard at the PTI conference centre was when an Ijaw youth quipped: “Today is the day I am happy not to be an Urhobo man.” He went further to derisively say that the PTI conference centre was the Urhobo palace. That anytime anyone wants to see Urhobo Kings he should invite them to the conference centre as they have no palaces. He went further to say that, in his opinion, once the Kings have resolved and left the hall in protest, they should not have returned to those same seats.
What more can I say but to hope that the event of Monday 16th January 2017 is not the final nail on the Urhobo coffin. I am inclined to hope rather, that it will serve as an eye opener and become a turning point in the way the Urhobos conduct their affairs. This is however doubtful as I have seen some comments by Urhobo youths and some so-called chiefs that have almost made me adopt the statement of the Ijaw chap quoted above, but I cannot unfortunately.
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