…Ijaws are our tenants, land belongs to Oba of Benin—Benin Chiefs …We will defend our land with the last drop of our blood—Ijaw Chiefs
The prevailing tension in Ijaw communities in Edo state is heightening each day and the war songs between the Binis and the Ijaws have continued to increase. The crisis over the ownership of Ijaw occupied lands became visible after Governor Godwin Obaseki decided to build a multi billion dollars Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Gelegele, Ovia North East Local Government Area of Edo state. The Ijaws occupied some communities in Ovia North East and Ovia South West Local Government Areas of Edo state, an area that is under the enclave of the Oba of Benin. The entire seven Local Government Areas in Edo South are seen as the main Benin Kingdom. However, the crisis became worse after Ijaw traditional rulers made an attempt to install one Mr Godwin Oguyenbo as the Pere of Olodiama Kingdom, Ovia North East Local Government Area. Saturday Vanguard gathered that security operatives stopped the installation which attracted Ijaw traditional rulers from the six South South states. But the Ijaws who insisted that they had been living in the coastal areas before the arrival of the Benins, described the attempt to stop them from having a king as oppressive and unacceptable. After the botched installation, the Iyase of Benin Kingdom, Chief Sam Igbe and other top Benin Chiefs, addressed journalists insisting that the Ijaws were tenants on the land. According to him, “ Ovia North East Local Government Area is under the authority of the Oba of Benin, who is the prescribed authority. We have only one monarch in the whole Edo South senatorial district and that is the Oba. The title Pere of Olodiama Kingdom does not exist. Gelegele is under the over lordship of the Oba of Benin and there cannot be two monarchs in Benin. We are advising the Pere of Gbaramatu, Delta state to avoid falling foul of the relevant laws of Edo state. The Ijaw people in Gelegele are free to live in the area just as any other ethnic groups that live in that axis. Any attempt to lay claim to non-existent title and community or village under any guise would be totally resisted. We call on law enforcement agencies to fully investigate and arrest those that are behind this abominable and sacrilegious act”. The state government in a statement signed by the Secretary to the Government, Osarodion Ogie, declared that “the claim of such a non-existent title in a non-existent community under any guise is a clear and pre-meditated breach of our laws particularly the Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Law of Edo state which said law sets out the lists of all recognized traditional rulers and Chiefs of Edo state. The said law further makes it a criminal offence for any person to recognize or purport to install any person as a traditional ruler except as provided for under the law and in fact makes it an offence for any unqualified person to present or permit himself to be so addressed”. But last Friday, the Ijaws gathered at the palace of the Kalasuo of Okomu Kingdom, Ovia South West Local Government Area, declaring the claim that the Oba of Benin owns the land in Ijaw communities as arrant nonsense. Giving the historical account of the ownership of Ijaw lands in Edo, the Fiyewei of Okomu Kingdom, Chief Ajele Sunday, asserted that “ the Ijaws are autochthonous as opposed to being settlers as the Binis would want the world to believe. The Okomu Kingdom just like every other Ijaw Kingdom in the Niger Delta has been on the coast line stretching from Akwa Ibom State to the Mahin River in Ondo state from a dim past. Okomu Kingdom is among the Kingdoms in Ijaw Nation that contributes about 60% of Nigeria’s foreign earnings, making the Ijaw Nation the economic pillar on which Nigeria rest herself for survival. In the same manner Okomu Kingdom and their kith and kin of Olodiama, Egbema Furupagha and Gbanraun Clan are the economic life wire of Edo state, due to their endowment with natural and mineral resource. “The Portuguese who came into Nigeria first met the Ijaws of Ogulagha Kingdom (whom the Portuguese referred to as Gulani) in the Fekedosi (Forcados) River via the Oporoza Toru (Escravos) of Gbaramatu Kingdom down to the Ijaws of Okomu, Olodiama and Egbema Kingdoms of the Ijaw Nation before making contacts with the Binis at the hinterland. It is important to note that the Bini people are not of aboriginal stock in their present settlement and also do not belong to the coastal belt of the Niger Delta that is occupied by the Ijaws, since the Binis of Edo state neither know how to paddle nor are they aquatic by nature. “The rich pool of incontrovertible scholarly evidence and documentation in support of the aboriginal status of the Ijaws of Okomu, Olodiama, Egbema, Furupagha and Gbanraun Clans of the Midwestern Region, which later metamorphosed to Bendel state that later gave birth to Edo and Delta states was sealed by the most outstanding Bini historian Dr Jacob Uwagboe Egharevba of blessed memory. This is the most reliable and celebrated historian of a Royal blood of the Bini enclave”. Stressing that Ijaws were not part of Benin Kingdom and can never be, Chief Ajele told the Binis that “the Ijaws have never been conquered people therefore it would be an aberration for the Binis to describe them as tenants. The Ijaws of Edo state were on the land you presently claim as yours. You were settled by the Ijaws at a village called Udo, your first settlement, presently still called same. We witnessed the invitation you extended to the Oni of Ife to bring one his sons by name Oranmiyan to settle the internal crisis that engulfed the entire environment due to the influx of the Binis to our land. The original name of the land presently called Benin is Ado Bou or Igodomigodo (meaning the key to the kingdom in Ijaw language). Oramiyan in anger after failed attempts to reconcile the aborigines and the Ife settlers at Udo Village called the land “Ile-Ibinu” before his departure back to Ile-Ife. The Ijaws of Okomu, Olodiama, Egbema, Furupagha and Gbanraun Clans of Edo State are not quick to forget about the relationship that had existed between the Benin Kingdom and their ancestral home of Ile-Ife. This was evidenced by the practice of the Bini people of Edo State taking the bodies of their late Obas back to Ile-Ife for burial. Hitherto, the Bini people known for their antecedent for expansionism had always been checkmated by their coastal Ijaw neighbours of Okomu, Olodiama, Egbema, Furupagha and Gbanraun Clans in Edo state. History has it that, the Ogbe family in Udo gave out one of his daughters, Afunde in marriage to one of the Traditional Rulers, King Beri of Okomu which consequently strengthened the relationship between the Okomu Ijaw and the Bini people of Udo. “Okomu Kingdom like every other Ijaw Kingdom in Edo State is of aboriginal status, this is further buttressed by other historical facts besides ownership of the Okomu Forest that has been our sacred grove. Just like it is obtained in all ethnic nationalities that evolved distinctly in Nigeria and Africa, monarchs are sourced within the particular ethnic groups and so Okomu Kingdom cannot be different. It will be a serious aberration and the height of cultural and traditional sacrilege for the Binis to overlord the Okomu people. At this juncture it is important to note that the Peres (Kings) of Ijaw Nation are neither elected nor by inheritance but through divine selection by the national gods of the Ijaw Nation, they are both Spiritual and Political in their sovereign dispensations. Unfortunately through the economic and political marginalization of the Ijaws there is an attempt to demean our monarchs and deny us our aboriginal rights of ownership. We are ready to defend with the last drop of our blood our Kingdoms and Kings”. Addressing journalists also, the President of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Eric Omare, raised an alarm over alleged plan by the state government to deploy soldiers to Gelegele and other Ijaw communities in Edo state including Okikoro where they have their Egbesu shrine, saying that such action will be a declaration of war against the Ijaw nation and will be resisted. But the state government through the Special Adviser to the governor on Communication, Mr Cusoe Osagie said there were no such plans yet, adding however that the state government would ensure that lives and property of indigenes of the state living in those areas were protected in the event of any threat to peace in the area. According to him, “I am not aware of any deployment of soldiers to that area. However, the state government has the right to protect all law abiding citizens in the state. Nevertheless, no breach of peace has been reported yet, but if and when that is done, the state government will ensure that lives and properties are protected. If the IYC are law abiding people in the state then they have nothing to fear about¨. However, Omare, president of the Ijaw Youth Council alleged that “¨Only this afternoon we got a message that the government of Edo state in collaboration with the Benin Traditional Council have perfected plans to send soldiers to Ijaw communities starting from Gelegele and the Egbesu shrine in Okikoro. We want to advice, if they do that it will be a declaration of war against the Ijaw nation, they should not take the Ijaw nation’s silence for weakness. The Ijaw nation has the capacity to defend its people anywhere in Nigeria¨. Reacting to the Supreme Court judgment which the Binis said gave them the right to the land, Omare asserted that “I have read the judgement they are referring to between two individuals in Gelegele and Ughoton, that judgment has nothing to do with the entirety of the land owned by the Ijaw people of Edo state. You cannot use a land dispute between two individuals from two communities to rope the entire nation, it is ridiculous. So, that judgment has no relevance to the issues at stake. We want to warn the government of Edo state to behave like a government and not an extension of the palace. Also speaking, Dr Tommy Kolodowei, Otunba Kalasowei of Ijaw Apoi nation, insisted that ¨this land belongs to my ancestors. The Apoi ancestors occupied this land for centuries. The Apoi in Ondo state today moved from Okomu to Ondo state. Now if Apoi people left Okomu to Ondo state and in Ondo state today, Apoi has ten approved kings, and where they moved from does not have a king, that does not make sense to anybody. I want Nigeria to solve that puzzle for me. ¨Benin people live on land, they don’t know anything about water, now they are claiming they own water. How can you own something you don’ know nothing about? They should allow Ijaw people own their land. How can the Edo state government be claiming ownership here when they have not done anything here. No primary school, no secondary school, no road, so if they own this place how come they don´t provide any basic amenities here. We have been crying since but nothing has been done. So the Ijaws own Okomu and anyone who thinks he can take the land from them is joking, the whole might of the Ijaw nation will deal with such a person¨ he stated. However the Public Relation Officer of the Oba of Benin, Mr Desmond Agbama, said “the issue of who owns the land is not debatable because it belongs to the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare 11 and the facts are there. The Ijaws are only creating tension where there is none. They are tenants in Benin land and I will advise them to respect themselves by abiding with the existing laws of the land”.