Atamu in a mission to save Urhobo land

Celebrating Urhobo culture

Celebrating Urhobo culture

Plans N10b Development Fund

It sounds unfair to tell a people to stop crying when they are knocked again and again. But that exactly was the message members of Atamu Social Club of Nigeria sent out to people from their ethnic group at the end of a three-day retreat in the reclusive enclave of Hermitage Beach Resort, Akodo in Lagos State.

For many years now, it has become the culture of members of the pan-Urhobo group of professionals to withdraw from their families, friends and jobs to appraise and retool their commitment to the wellbeing of their homeland – for the whole of three days.

Since the first edition in 2013, members of Atamu have seized the opportunity of the retreats to reflect on the fate of their fatherland – and then, plot a way out of any itemised challenge. It was like that this year. But at least two critical issues made this year’s exercise a much more serious affair.

With well over two million indigenes, the Urhobo are an easy majority in Delta State, which is peopled by plural ethnic groups. That number ensured that the late Chief Felix Ibru had an easy ride to power as the first civilian governor when the state was created in 1991. When the nation returned to civilian rule in 1998/99, the number again played a major role in the Urhobo retaining the seat through Chief James Ibori.
Then, things suddenly changed.

The numerical fortress of the Urhobo people succumbed to a major political assault planned and staged from within. Successive occupants of the State House Asaba after Ibori had made it in spite of the Urhobo, and not because of them.

For instance, just months away from the 2015 polls, the little fires of discord in the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), the umbrella body that best approximates the interest of Urhobo people had become a conflagration. It was factionalised along two broad lines. While Chief Joe Omene, who was before the crisis, the union’s president general, led one of the factions, Chief Tuesday Onoge, who was the 1st vice president general in the former’s team, directed the affairs of the other as president general.

The two warring factions spurned interventions by different groups and leaders to check the rift in the interest of the Urhobo nation. The situation did not only ensure that the two frontline candidates of Urhobo origin, Olorogun O’tega Emerhor and Chief Great Ogboru, lost the governorship to their Delta North counterpart, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, but also completely deflated any hope of arresting the worsening security situation in Urhobo land, especially the issue of kidnapping.

When things became almost irredeemably bad, Urhobo royal fathers, community leaders and other key stakeholders stepped in and the leaders of the two feuding factions were sacked. But the factional leaders have yet to accept their sacking. They insist they are still in charge. So, the leadership crisis has persisted even as insecurity fuelled by youth unemployment and complaints of government’s failure to give the Urhobo nation its fair share of political patronage and allocation of public resources grow.

This was the background. And as members of Atamu revved up preparations for their fourth retreat, it was easy to predict that these issues would dominate their deliberations. Although the theme of the retreat, Building a Strong and Sustainable Future for Members of the Club, was apparently crafted with the interest of Atamu members in mind, they decided to get a resource person to dissect the topic: “Leadership in Atamu and Urhobo Land” –a broader perspective that accommodated all the issues.

Unlike the three previous editions where the club hired external resource persons to present the key retreat papers, members of the club this time decided to recruit someone from within to do justice to the topic. The lot fell on Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, Mr. Abraham Ogbodo.

The retreat speaker’s choice was not an accident. A lot of careful considerations guided the decision to pick him. He was right there when the late Chief Benjamin Okumagba, who later became His Royal Majesty, the Orosuen of Okere-Urhobo Kingdom of Warri, held sway as president general of UPU. He witnessed first-hand as a member of the UPU Council of Representatives, the wars and intrigues of the Okumagba era. And he has remained committed to issues of the union under its successive leadership and Urhobo land in general.

But not many expected him to approach his task on this particular day from the perspective he took. He hit the nail on the head right from the outset. And he arrested everyone’s attention at once.

The "Huge Beast" (eravwe gangan) is the largest and most elaborate masquerade piece that appears on the second and final day (Ohworhu-Ode) of the Ohworu Festival at Evwreni. Three people, two inside and one holding the tail dance this creature. It represents the animal forces that are part of the water spirit Ohworhu. This masquerade tradition, common to many southern Urhobo and Isoko village groups is believed to have been brought north by itinerant Urhobo fishermen from Izon (Ijo) fishing camps perhaps 300 years ago. Photographed by Perkins Foss and Susan Moore in September 1972

The “Huge Beast” (eravwe gangan) is the largest and most elaborate masquerade piece that appears on the second and final day (Ohworhu-Ode) of the Ohworu Festival at Evwreni. Three people, two inside and one holding the tail dance this creature. It represents the animal forces that are part of the water spirit Ohworhu. This masquerade tradition, common to many southern Urhobo and Isoko village groups is believed to have been brought north by itinerant Urhobo fishermen from Izon (Ijo) fishing camps perhaps 300 years ago.<br />Photographed by Perkins Foss and Susan Moore in September 1972

The Urhobo, he insisted, were good at “endless lamentations” without “action.” Dreams not backed by strategic planning, he warned, would not set the Urhobo nation on the path of growth and development.
He urged leadership at all levels in Urhobo land to discharge an “inferiority complex” that has held them down from attaining full potentials for far too long.

“This idea that we must attach to some group before we can assert is not helpful; we are big enough to proclaim and stay by our proclamations,” he said.

Although Ogbodo admitted that the Urhobo were also facing their fair share of the debilitating global economic downturn, he enthused that a greater future lay ahead if they would “organise rather than agonise” and “move forward from the past.”

He said, “we have had enough advocacy and lamentation. Let’s move to intervene in all the big issues of the day including the unemployment and alienation of our youths, which has precipitated violent crimes in the form of kidnapping and robbery in Urhobo land.”

He then anchored his lecture on a practical note, recommending the setting up of a N10 billion fund to drive development in Urhobo land. “With just one million subscribers committing themselves to the tune of N10,000 each, the N10 billion will be in the kitty” he said. “What matters in all of this is the honesty and sincerity of purpose of the drivers and the fund can even be oversubscribed,” he explained.

Although Ogbodo’s lecture was delivered unscripted, it was clear from the participants’ approval that he had armed Atamu with all the essential ingredients to package a development plan for building the future of the Urhobo nation from within in the next few years.

President of Atamu Social Club, Mr. Johnson Agagbo, while thanking the lecturer for “supplying a wonderful lead to the task of building Urhobo land”, noted that modalities for the utilisation of the fund would be worked out such that none of the 23 kingdoms that constitute the Urhobo nation would feel short-changed in anyway.

He said, “if government is short-changing us, we cannot short-change ourselves. And if government is refusing to develop us, we cannot stay aloof and wait to be completely obliterated. This fund is to tell the world of our determination to remain sustainable within the Nigerian federation.”

A seven-man Strategy/Trust Fund Committee led by Vice President of the club, Mr. Matthew Ogagavworia was immediately constituted to create a framework to successfully drive the initiative even as the club called for an end to the crisis in the UPU so that the impression of a divided Urhobo land is not continually conveyed to the outside world.



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