1. This presentation highlights in a summarized form the historical background of the Warri crisis starting with the advent of British colonialism, the evolution of the name, WARRI, the role of the British Political Agent, Dore Numa, the British imposition of the alien concept of overlordship and the restyling of the Itsekiri monarch as ‘Olu of Warri’ from ‘Olu of Itsekiri’ and the various Court cases on these issues.
2. British Colonialism effectively took off in the Western Niger Delta with the proclamation of the Oil Coast Protectorate by Great Britain in June 1885. British colonial administration was carried out through local chiefs like Nana Olomu of Ebrohimi in Benin River. This administration was effectively restricted to Benin River and its environs as the British were content with conducting trade with the people of the hinterlands through the Itsekiri as middlemen.
3. Eventually the scramble for Africa by various European powers intensified leading to the conveyance of the Berlin Conference of 1885 where Africa was partitioned. In order to lay a claim to a particular African region, it needed to be shown that there is ‘effective occupation’ by the concerned European power and one of the ways of showing this was by signing treaties of protection with the various tribes.
4. Great Britain signed such treaties with the Itsekiris as a tribe and several with the various Urhobo villages. The treaties acknowledged the ownership of the lands which the various tribes occupied and on which the British met them offering them protection in exchange for acknowledging the suzerainty and protection of Great Britain.
5. The British treaty with the Itsekiri was signed in 1884 and (resigned in 1894 after the fall of Nana Olomu) acknowledged the Itsekiri territories to be Ode Itsekiri, Benin River and the people and country of both banks of the Escravos River. No Itsekiri territory in the present Warri Township was mentioned because none existed at this time. In contrast, the British signed treaties with the various Urhobo villages in the territory which now constitute Warri Township and Uvwie as follows:
Ekpan (Toree) 25/2/1893
Igbudu (Obodoodoo) 30/3/1893
6. Consequent upon the treaty with Agbassa, a civil servant in the colonial administration, Mr. S. P. Wilkey took a lease of 90 acres from Chief Igbi of Agbassa in 1898. The lease was witnessed by the British Vice Consul and it recognized the Agbassa people as owners of their land.
7. In order to have effective occupation of their territories, the British decided to penetrate the hinterlands and by an order-in-council of 1893, the Oil Rivers Protection was extended into the hinterlands and renamed Niger Coast Protectorate.
8. With the extension into the hinterlands, the British appointed ‘Political Agents’ to help in contacting people of the hinterlands. In 1895, Dore Numa an Itsekiri and George Eyube, an Urhobo were appointed Political Agents. Dore was appointed for Sapele District covering much of the Itsekiri Country and some parts of Urhoboland whilst George Eyube was appointed for Warri District covering much of the Urhobo Country.
9. Unfortunately, George Eyube died in 1901 by an accidental discharge from his own gun and Dore Numa’s authority was extended to cover Warri District. By this appointment Dore became the Paramount Chief of both districts with all appointed warrant chiefs under him. Part of Dore’s authority included granting of leases to the colonial administration on behalf of the natives for public purposes.
10. By virtue of his colonial appointment, Dore arrogated to himself the title of and pretended to be the “Olu of Jekri, Sobo and Ijoh” even though none of the tribes recognized him as such as they only regarded him as a government appointee.
11. The name ‘WARRI’ was first associated with the Itsekiri ancestral town of Ode Itsekiri which the locals also refer to as ‘Iwerre’. A mispronunciation of Iwerre by several European explorers probably resulted in various names like AWERRI, OUWERI, WARRE, WARREE, etc. The British eventually anglancised it as WARRI.
12. The British decided to move the seat of the administration of the Niger Coast Protectorate from Ode Itsekiri (Warri) to the uplands to have effective control of the hinterlands. In order to achieve this, the British in 1906 took a lease of a new trading station opened in 1898 on virgin lands for Alexander Miller Brothers Limited of Liverpool at the mouth of the Okere Creeks. This new trading station was also named WARRI after Ode Itsekiri but the Itsekiris started calling Ode Itsekiri BIG WARRI in order to differentiate between the two places.
13. The Itsekiris acted as agents/middlemen for the European traders and so started moving from their various villages to the vicinity of the new trading station to found new settlements close to it. This was how Itsekiris came to Warri Township.
14. The lease of the new trading station which measured 360 acres was signed by Dore and one other Itsekiri, Chief Ogbe Yowuren for £100 per annum for 99 years starting from 30th July 1906 even though they or the Itsekiri did not own the land.
15. Two years later in 1908, the colonial administration took an additional 90 acres lease covering Ogbe-Ijoh at £60 per annum for 99 years starting from 18th July 1908. The lease was also signed for by Dore Numa and his lackey, Ogbe Yowuren, even though the land was occupied by the Ijaws who were consequently evicted and resettled in Okrotomu near Aladja in Udu.
16. Furthermore in 1911, a further lease of 350 acres extending into Agbassa village was made at £30 per annum for 99 years starting from 25th February 1911. The lease was also signed for by Dore Numa and Ogbe Yowuren without the consent of the Agbassa people who are not Itsekiri but Urhobo.
17. These 3 leases are known as B2, B5 and B7 which constituted the new Warri as of then which have now grown into the present Warri Township.
18. Public acquisition of lands by law is for public purposes but the colonial administration in Warri turned it into a racket by seizing lands in Warri and getting Dore Numa to lease it to it for a fee or present. The land is then re-leased to third parties or back to the owner. An instance of this anomaly being the case of Mr. S. P. Wilkey above who had taken a lease from Chief Igbi of Agbassa. In 1908, the colonial administration had Dore lease various tracts of land to it which the included Mr. Wilkeys 90 acres. He was however compelled to take a new lease of his land despite his prostestation. The Agbassa people also protested and two of their chiefs, Owe and Oweriavwe who were identified as leaders of the protest were arrested, tried and banished from the area. Thus, the Agbassa were silenced.
19. Dore Numa made the leases on the pretext that he was the Olu Itsekiri and that all lands in Warri District belonged to the Olu as overlord. This assertion was resisted by the Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ijaw alike as will be shown below.
20. In 1921, the Ugborodo Itsekiri people insisted that they do not recognize Dore as Olu Itsekiri as he was not so appointed under Itsekiri native law and custom and that in any event, they were not the subjects of the Olu nor were they aware of the Olu’s authority over lands in Warri District.
21. The colonial administration which desired Ugborodo lands instructed Dore to go over there and get the Ugborodo people to sign a declaration that Ugborodo lands belong to the Olu as overlord and when this was resisted, Dore had his cousin, Edede, sue the Ugborodo people in Olue v. Edede for rent in the Native Court headed by Dore himself where Dore entered judgment that Ugborodo land belongs to the Olu as overlord.
22. The Ugborodo people appealed the decision and the British Resident mandated Dore to apply to be joined in the suit and the suit was changed to Dore v. Olue in the then colonial supreme court. Seeing the complexity of the matter, the Resident had to explore amicable resolution and a consent judgment was procured wherein the Ugborodo people were compelled to accept that they own their lands but that same were held in trust by Dore as Olu and that any lease of their lands can only be made through him.
23. The descendants of the last Olu Itsekiri, Akengbuwa, also sued Dore Numa for parading himself as Olu Itsekiri when he was not so appointed by the Itsekiri people and demanded the proceeds of the above 3 leases. Eventually, this case was also settled on the intervention of the Lieutenant Governor of Southern Nigeria, Col. Moorhouse, whereby an Olu Fund was established where the proceeds from the leases will be paid with Dore only entitled to one sixth of the proceeds. The consent judgment however recognized Dore as Olu Itsekiri.
24. Eventually, the Agbassa people lost their fear of the colonial administration and also sued Dore Numa in Ogegede v. Dore Numa for leasing their lands without their consent or not paying to them the proceeds. They were also offered the same deal as the Ugborodo people and that contained in the Moorhouse Settlement, recognition of Dore as overlord in exchange for ownership of their lands. The Agbassa people declined the offer. The colonial court eventually dismissed their case on the ground that the legal position of Dore had been decided by the Court in the case brought by the descendants of Olu Akengbuwa which recognized Dore as the Olu Itsekiri. How this pertains to Agbassa who were not parties in that suit and who are not Itsekiri but Urhobo was not pronounced upon by the Court.
25. The Agbassa people were not deterred but sued again in Ometan v. Dore Numa. Seeing the complexity of the case especially as regards extending the Olu’s overlordship to the Agbassa people who were not Itsekiri, the colonial administration offered them a deal that if they win they won’t interfere with the leases made by Dore but will only be entitled to the proceeds which hitherto were paid to Dore. The Agbassa people were non-committal and the colonial administration was alarmed that the Agbassa people could embarrass if they win therefore all machinery were put in place to ensure they lost. Even when Dore lost interest in the case and refused to pay a lawyer to defend it and eventually when he died and the Olu Fund succeeded him, the Itsekiri people also refused to take over the case or fund it as it was perceived as a bad case. The colonial administration was compelled to pay for the defence of the case on appeal at the Privy Council at a cost of £300.
26. Eventually, the Privy Council upheld the decision of the lower court that the Olu is the overlords of the Agbassa essentially on the technical ground that the issue of Dore’s overlordship is res judicata having been decided in the previous suit resulting in the Moorhouse Settlement which was essentially an Itsekiri in-house affair.
27. The decision of the Priviy Council shocked everyone as it was unexpected. Mr. Fitzgerald, an administrative officer commenting on the verdict to the then Secretary Southern Provinces in 1935 wrote that “it is evident from what was written while the appeal to the Privy Council was pending that the decision of that august tribunal came as somewhat of a surprise to the Jekri and also the Government, their lessee.”
28. The decision of the Privy Council was further predicated on the ground that Dore was the successor of the Olu Itsekiri and that he is the paramount chief of the Itsekiri, has exercised ownership over most of the lands the subject of the leases, the leases were made with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Agbassa people, the Agbassa people were granted permission to settle on their land by the Olu which land was called Bomali by the Itsekiri and that the Agbassa people rendered service to the Olu for being allowed to stay on their lands and that none of the neigbouring Urhobo tribes supported the Agbassa claim.
29. This finding of fact by the trial Court which was upheld by the Privy Council was faulty for the following reasons:
a) The Agbassa people were not parties in the case resulting in the Moorhouse Settlement and the decision was therefore not binding on them and so cannot constitute res judicata;
b) The status of Dore as Olu is disputed even among the Itsekiri and cannot be binding on the Agbassa who are not Itsekiri but Urhobo;
c) The treaty of protection the British signed with Agbassa clearly stated Agbassa as the signatories not the Itsekiri Bomali which existence has not been proven even till date. Curiously, the Court refused the Agbassa application to subpoena the Lt. Gov. to produce the treaty in court;
d) The Court also refused to admit in evidence a letter Dore wrote to the lawyer to Agbassa stating that the Olu’s overlordship has nothing to do with ownership or title to land and that Agbassa lands belonged to Agbassa on the ground that Dore did not understand the letter he signed;
e) The Agbassa people protested the lease of their lands but two of their chiefs were arrested, tried and banished. It is therefore not correct that they did nothing but acquiesced to Dore’s act;
f) Dore in his previous judgment in the Native Court had ruled that the Igbudu people (a sub-clan of Agbassa) and Okere-Urhobo people cannot pay rent to the Itsekiri as the “The Jekri and Sobos have been living together without question of paying rent to the other and cannot do so now” yet here it is being claimed that they paid tribute to a non-existent Olu to stay on Agbassa lands;
g) The Agbassa people could not call much witnesses from neigbouring towns because the few witnesses that agreed to testify for them from Effurun were rounded up, tried and sentenced by the colonial administration for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. This was meant to intimidate other potential witnesses;
h) Meanwhile, the Warrant Chiefs for Effurun, Fugbe and Odion who were appointed by Dore, were compelled to come to court to testify for their boss, Dore Numa. The Effurun Warrant Chief, Agbamu, tried to avoid coming to court by feigning illness but was forced down and he was made to falsely testify that the Agbassa were tenants as Effurun had boundary with Itsekiri not Agbassa. Another Agbassa man who had been banished from the village was also brought in to testify against Agbassa. The court relied on the testimony of these tainted witnesses for Dore whilst completely discountenancing the testimony of the Agbassa and their witnesses.
30. The decision of the Privy Council did not however deprive the Agbassa people of their lands. They were adjudged to be entitled to possession subject to the Olu’s overlordship. This fact was buttressed by the fact that when more land was acquired from Agbassa for the extension of the African Cemetery, the commissioner for Lands had to go to Court in 1941 to be told who should receive compensation for the land acquired. Compensation was awarded in the ratio of 5% to Olu Fund and 95% to Agbassa.
31. It is worthy of note that nobody, Itsekiris and Urhobos alike, won even a single lawsuit against Chief Dore in his life time thus he collected and lived on subsidies which were due to other men.
32. William Moore who in his book ‘History of Itsekiri’ called Dore Numa “the worst usurper in Itsekiri history; like Prince Otselopun Dore deserved to be hanged”. Of him Moore also says, “the slogan against him is, “fie upon thee,” fie upon thee!” Saying “he was instrumental in the success achieved by the British government in Brohimi War of 1894” with Nana. He also subverted the Benin people leading to the exiling of Oba Ovoranmwen. Moore says Dore was the kind of man who today would be tried for treason. According Moore, “… Chief Dore Numa self-established himself as Head of Itsekiri people whereas he was never so made by the Itsekiri people, because they only regarded him as a chief created by the government in like manner as other Chiefs.”
33. Based on the verdict of the Privy Council, the Itsekiri starting pushing for the revival of their monarchy after the death of Dore in 1932 in order to take full advantage of the judgment even though they fought Dore until his death but were too happy to reap the windfall of overlordship which he bequeathed as legacy. The British eventually agreed to this request but refused the other request to restyle the monarch as Olu of Warri instead of Olu Itsekiri. A new Olu Itsekiri was coronated in 1936 as Ginuwa II.
34. Eventually, in the run up to independence, internal administration was granted the regions and the Itsekiri taking advantage of their connections with Awolowo and the Yorubas got the Western Region Government to change the title of the Olu to Olu of Warri in 1952. The British reluctantly agreed to this change with the caveat that this does not extend the Olu’s traditional authority as he was the monarch of the Itsekiri only.
35. The Urhobo and Ijaw kicked against this change and a riot ensued in Warri which was quelled. Eventually, the Western Region Government also signed into law and established the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust to which the 3 leases made by Dore were transferred.
36. There was however a proviso in the law setting up the Trust that restricted it to the said 3 leases thereby excluding private individuals and family lands were from its reach but the Trust ignored this and went after all lands in Warri. Eventually, the Trust hijacked the lease of the Ogbe Family to the NPA and it was challenged by Chief Arthur Prest as head of the Ogbe Family. In 1971, the Court ruled in favour of the Ogbe Family stating that the Olu’s overlordship did not extend to all lands in Warri District as it does not extend to lands held privately or to family lands.
37. The Ugborodo land dispute also resurrected again when the Federal Government of Nigeria sought to lease land at Ogidigben. The Trust attempted to claim the compensation and were challenged successfully when the Court held in 1970 that the land belongs to the Ogidigben Ugborodo people and that they were not subject to the Olu’s overlordship.
38. The above two cases instituted by litigants who were themselves Itsekiris marked the beginning of the end for the Olu’s alleged overlordship predicated on British Colonialism.
39. The death sentence for the Trust however came in the celebrated case of Idundun v. Okumagba where the Trust through the Ogitsi family of Okere sued the Okere-Urhobo people for rent asserting the Olu’s overlordship over their lands. The Trust lost all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that there is no evidence to show that whatever kingdom founded by Ginuwa (whom the Itsekiri asserted founded a kingdom which covered the whole of Warri Division) extended to Okere. The Supreme Court put a lid on overlordship by stating thus: “the Olu by title is Olu of Warri, but his rights of overlordship relates only to lands of Itsekiri people and even then, there is ground for saying it does not relate to all lands of all Itsekiri”. Remarkably, the Court relied on Dore Numa’s said decision that the Urhobo and Itsekiri have been living together for long without question of the one paying rent to the other which the Privy Council glossed over in Ometan v. Dore Numa.
40. The claim of overlordship over Sapele lands by the Itsekiri was also defeated in Court by the Sapele people the Court held that Dore only leased Sapele lands as agent of the Sapele people and not as overlord.
41. The final nail in the coffin of overlordship was the passage into law in 1978 of the Land Use Decree entrenched in section 274(d) of the 1979 Constitution which effectively abolished the Trust and transferred its functions to the Governor of Bendel State through the Ministry of Lands.
42. Premised on the foregoing, it is apparent that the Warri crisis is a by-product of British Colonialism exercabated by the actions of the Western Region Government under Awolowo.
43. Inspite of the decision of the Supreme Court in Idundun v. Okumagba and Arthur Prest v. The Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust above, the Itsekiri have persisted in their claim to overlordship over all lands in Warri Division (the 3 Warri LGAs) to the annoyance and irritation of their Urhobo and Ijaw neighbours who insist on their autonomy and right to self-determination on their ancestral lands notwithstanding that they were administratively included in Warri Division and Warri District.
By Michael Oboyovwi Dedon (Attorney at Law)