At the moment the Urhobo nation is both essentially saviourless and leaderless, forget the ethnic bosses. Chiefs Mukoro Mowoe, Michael Ibru, Great Ogboru, and James Ibori have all been arguably seen as saviours of the Urhobo nation. However, only the legacies of Mowoe and Ibru remain as genuine saviours unperturbed and Mowoe the singular unobstructed unifying leader of Western, Central and Eastern [Isoko] Urhobo. This is shocking considering that Mowoe, the foremost Urhobo nationalist and first president-general of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), died 70 years ago. This no disrespect to UPU and its influential leaders. The Urhobo people have produced many illustrious sons and daughters in many endeavours of life, some even rivalling in achievement the four named saviours. One may wonder what it is that distinguishes these four men as saviours to Urhobos but not necessarily leaders?

Selfishness (amoral familism) and and wholesale uncooperativeness among a people requires saviours to help them out. Where the commitment to the common good (especially institutions of governance) is properly established among the majority, such a people produce strong leaders consistently. From this perspective the Urhobo nation is in bad shape.

When we examine the identity and fortunes of the Urhobo people from the inside out, which has never been impressive on the national scene, there is a hidden but pervasive desire for the emergence of a saviour to provide a grand unity among them. Why is it so? The search for a saviour is a sign of utter helplessness thoroughly distributed within the Urhobo nation. The Urhobos have the land, demography, personnel, capital, historical heritage and opportunities to produce strong reliable leaders who can lead their people to a given promise lands.

The big problem that defeats all attempts to foster and maintain Urhobo unity, is the Urhobos do not sincerely believe in it or have learned not to; they know who they are. It is easy to sing Urhobo unity when selling your songs, when campaigning for elected office in political or civil arenas, when looking for a favour or even when persuading a future spouse. Nothing else. Thus Urhobo unity is only useful when it is expedient for the individual concerned. As some will say Urhobo unity when uttered does not does not go into the body beyond the teeth – it is so easy to spit out.

Instead of progress, the Urhobo nation is back to pre-Mowoe times, the only difference is that Mowoe united the Urhobo nation on a background of colonialism while the Urhobos now have to do it on a playing field dominated by autocolonialsim [if we factor in crude oil politics].

The provision of money and jobs seems the only thing that can supersede the habitual selfish and non-cooperative nature of the majority of Urhobos. Michael Ibru as a major Nigerian business magnate employed thousands of Urhobos from every clan through the Ibru Organisation offering good salaries particularly in Lagos; he also made many Urhobos wealthy. As Ibru shifted his concerns from industrial to services industries his capacity to employ Urhobos declined but he had done enough to permanently cement his legacy a saviour to his people. Ibru was no political or social leader though.

By the 1980s Great Ogboru, a youthful business magnate, was taking over the role of saviour from Ibru by employing and empowering, most visibly, young Urhobo graduates again mostly in Lagos. Ogboru’s generosity to Urhobo folk was legendary at the time. It is safe to say if Ogboru was not involved in the military coup against General I B Babangida on April 22nd 1990 [ending his career as a magnate], he might have superseded Ibru as an Urhobo saviour. A case of what-might-have-been.

A return to democracy in 1999 saw James Ibori become Governor of Delta State. Ibori was very different from all previous Urhobos in top government office, in manner and style. Using public funds and structures of politics, generously provided the Urhobos [and the other ethnic groups in Delta state] jobs, contracts, grants and other opportunities without people having to beg him. Wow! An Urhobo man doing his compatriot a favour without begging? The charisma it created for Ibori is untold. By the time Ibori was gunning for the Vice-President of Nigeria in 2007, it was a mouth-watering signal to the Urhobo people that “Happy Days Are Yet To Come”. It was not to be. If Ibori did not go to to jail for corrupt practices he would have stood as the only unobstructed Urhobo unifying leader since Mowoe. Another case of what-might-have-been.

As things stand both Ogboru and Ibori are fighting “rehabilitation battles” despite their past with the intent of being unifying leaders which the Urhobo broadly support though the opposition to both of them is substantial due to credibility issues. Who are the alternatives or proven alternatives? None so far and the Urhobos have been cheated too many times by appearances and rhetoric to trust an untried hand.

While other ethnic groups in Nigeria have found strong leadership from professors, clergymen, lawyers, ex-corporate executives, ex-top civil servants and politicians, only very generous business magnates and politicians can do so for the Urhobo nation. This creates a cyclic problem. The typical high-flying Urhobo Big Man or Woman tends to be selfish and unwilling to help his or her people, perhaps for a good reason: no Urhobo person helped them on their way up and where they did the helpers turn it into an unbearable burden of gratitude to the person he or she helped. As such Urhobos in high places doubting the commitment of their people to the common good and and support of their own positions, have no incentive to build or foster enabling structures of governance for their people [leadership avoidance]. The people then have to wait for a saviour to emerge. The cycle is endless.

How is the cycle of saviour seeking and leadership avoidance effectively broken? It is a question worth answering.

Grimot Nane

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