BLOOD MONEY IV: History of ethnic clashes in Delta

Mophoto via JohannesIn Nigeria, the gift is a curse.

That the country is a culturally diverse society with over 500 different ethnic groups is at the root of many of its problems.

The Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba: the three largest tribes are the most popularly known of Nigeria’s over 200 million-strong population but there are several others.

In Delta State for example, there are five major ethnic groups – the Urhobos, Isokos, Ijaws, Itsekiris and Anioma – and with each struggling for superiority, there have been quite a few skirmishes. All of these prompted Olusegun Obasanjo as president to setup the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in the year 2000 to accelerate development of the area and cement the peace process.

Below are some of the most prominent ethnic clashes since the state was created by the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida administration on August 27, 1991.

Urhobo-Ijaw crise

Recently Ogbe-Ijoh and Aladja, two communities in Warri South West and Udu local government areas of Delta state which are predominantly Ijaw and Urhobo respectively, clashed over land – again.

The particular stretch of land that is the bone of contention was also the cause of war in 1996 and since then, both communities have been locked in a seemingly endless dispute.

A few weeks ago, some gunmen who are reportedly from Aladja snuck into the neighbouring community of Ogbe-Ijoh early in the morning to avenge the reported detention of a female trader from their community. The only road leading to Ogbe-Ijoh was blocked and sporadic gunshots fired into the air. By the end of the day, three people were dead and a soldier had been wounded.

Urhobo-Itsekiri crisis

The roots of this particular rivalry is tied to the ownership of oil-rich Warri, de facto commercial capital of Delta State.

The Itsekiris by virtue of their exposure to the Portuguese – the first Nigerian to attend a university was Dom Domingoes, the monarch who graduated from Coimbra University in Portugal in the 17th century – have always been educated and had the advantage of international exposure to boot so they became middlemen in the colonial system serving as clerks, interpreters etc. As a result they were envied by other ethnicities and were also given the upper hand in certain situations.

During the pre-independence period, the two major parties were the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and the Action Group (AG). The Urhobos joined Nnamdi Azikwe’s NCNC while the Itsekiris clave to Obafemi Awolowo’s AG, probably because of ethnic and lingual similarities between them and the Yorubas.

As premier of the Western Region in the 50s, Awolowo restored the title of ‘Olu of Warri’, after a lengthy interregnum in which the monarch was referred to as ‘Olu of Itsekiri’ and moved their traditional island of Ode-Itsekiri to mainland Warri. Since then, the ownership of Warri has been hotly contested.

Before Awolowo though, there had been trouble between both ethnic groups. For instance, there was in 1976, an attack by the people of Ekpan (Urhobo) on the ancient Itsekiri town of Ubeji in an attempt to seize ownership of Ubeji on which the Warri refinery is located. After the Itsekiris took the case to court, the Justice Omosun Commission found the Ekpan people to be in the wrong.

In the 40s, the Itsekiris and the Okpes, another minority group regarded by many as a clan of the Urhobos went to court over ownership of the port town of Sapele. This time, the Itsekiris lost and they quietly accepted their loss.

In 2003, both the Urhobos and Itsekiris clashed again during primaries held by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for the Delta South senatorial district. The reason for this particular clash was that the former were unhappy with the number of wards making up Okere area of Warri and the boundaries between them. In the end, most of Okumagba Estate, belonging to the influential Chief Benjamin Okumagba, a popular Urhobo chief was destroyed, over 6,000 people displaced and a few hundred people were dead.

Later that year, a militant group – the Ijaw-dominated Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) whose secretary at the time was Kingsley Otuaro, currently the deputy governor of the state – issued a seven-day ultimatum to the Nigerian government. One of their demands was the redrawing of electoral wards in Warri South West local government area. The ultimatum eventually expired without any incident in the area.

Ijaw-itsekiri crisis

The Ijaw-Itsekiri wars are perhaps the best known of all the ethnic conflicts in the Niger-Delta and South-South geopolitical zone as a whole. Hundreds of people died, thousands were displaced and troops were dispatched to Delta State to quell the crisis.

It was October 1996. Head of state, General Sani Abacha had just created 6 new states and 138 new local government council areas; including Warri South West LGA, cut out from both Warri South and Warri North LGAs. Initially, the headquarters was Ogbeh-Ijoh (or Ogbeh-Ijaw), a community dominated by the Ijaw ethnic group. When the official gazette legalizing the council was released, the headquarters had curiously been shifted to Ogidgben, a predominantly Itsekiri community and the relocation was effected. This – after an Ijaw, Mr. Couple Oromoni has been elected chairman – triggered the infamous 1997 Warri Crisis in which freedom fighters from both sides clashed.

From this emerged Tompolo and as a prominent actor in re-run episodes of clashes between ethnic militia of the Ijaw, Itsekiri, Urhobo and Ilaje between 1997-2003, he soon became a household name in the streets. Relative peace returned to Warri when the Delta State House of Assembly returned the headquarters to Ogbe-Ijoh.

In June 1999, there was a brief rematch with several casualties on both sides.

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