Ayomike’s Relucent Biography Of Prince Ogbe Yonwuren Of Warri
J.O.S. Ayomike is a notable Itsekiri historian, although he did not study History as a subject or as a discipline in the University. Through persistent, rigorous, diligent and independent study, this well grounded graduate of Business Administration has over the years acquired his especial research bootstraps with which he attains, so to say, his current well earned reputation as a first-rate historian – whose specialty is the history of his Itsekiri people. Currently, there is hardly a front-line historian or an author of Itsekiri affairs, including Itsekiri history, an author who is or can be said to be more first-rate than J.O. S. Ayomike who has just published Prince Ogbe Yonwuren, a relucent biography of the great personage of history from the Itsekiri Kingdom of Warri.
As Ayomike wishes us to know, Prince Ogbe Yowuren (1830-1916) of Akengbuwa I (1808-1848), 16th Olu of Warri Royal House, was a unique Itsekiri and Niger Delta personage whose actions “positively affected Itsekiri history” and that of his neighbours. In this book which was published in late December of 2015 Ayomike relates Ogbe’s “commercial, political and cultural” roles which reveal the great personage’s “dexterity and courage under the creeping-in British imperial scheme of things” in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Ayomike’s primary motivation in taking the glance he has taken in his biography of his subject is two-fold: firstly, in acquiescent to the request of the family, relations and descendants of the great man as part of the events to commemorate his one century death-anniversary (February 6, 2016); secondly, in recognition of the supreme achievements of his distinguished subject who history has not given the due that befits him.
As Ayomike informs me in my brief discussion with him before my interest in the present exercise – and as evident in the book – no work of value or of real interest has been done on such a major historical Itsekiri and Niger Delta figure, a true prince of Warri who was an unusual prince of commerce and culture who was at par or at near-par with the likes of the much better known Nanna Olomu and Dore Numa – Ayomike’s glance at his subject which he treats with delicious relish tells us as much. Many persons familiar with Itsekiri history, politics, commerce and culture in the late 19th century or early 20th century, at least may rightly – and without qualms – disagree with Ayomike’s concerted chronicle to put Ogbe on a par with Nanna (his bosom friend) and Dore Numa, but there can never be doubt that Ogbe was a sagacious prince of commerce and of politics. His “enormous compound where he lived” in his homestead of Ugbuwangue where he held sway marked him as “a prosperous merchant,” one of the “big oil merchants of yester-years” and one of the multi-millionaires, by his time’s standards, who had “steady single source of supply of oil and kernels” which the several boats in his fleet “would haul to shipping centres” in Warri and elsewhere in the Niger Delta. Prince Ogbe’s “organization was complex, and widespread but with effective synchronized management to deliver goods [and] services to the foreign buyers” and other customers.
Ogbe was a diligent and hardworking merchant in an age of resilience and diligence that honestly and earnestly shunned covetousness, envy, jealousy and greed – what Itsekiri call onejukokoro. Like many of his contemporaries, he was not, he was never educated, never literate, but he knew deeply and richly the basics of the language of commerce and politics.
And his political significance shone forth and brilliantly in the roles he played in British acquisition of land in the Kingdom of Warri. He, together with Prince Dore Numa, granted three significant leases to British colonial masters who wanted land in Warri metropolis to establish firmly their presence in Warri Kingdom, and especially in the metropolis. On behalf of the Itsekiri people, he and Dore Numa, his fellow royal relation, who was Paramount Chief of Warri, granted leases of 1906, 1908 and 1991 to the Colonial Masters and Lords, with whom they had a symbiotic relationship. These “three (3) leases constitute the nucleus of the present Warri metropolis covering the whole of Odion, Ogbe Ijoh (including Warri GRA and up to the Warri port) and Agbassa (including Igbudu”).
A very interesting revelation in the biography pertains to how Prince Ogbe and his contemporaries acquired the appellation of “Chief” which has since become a title in Itsekiri-land and also in Nigeria as a whole. According to Ayomike, “With the introduction of Native Courts came the Utopian title or position of “Chief.” The first chiefs who were provided with judicial warrants to hear and determine cases, criminal and civil, were the national rulers among the people.” Needless, to say, Prince Ogbe, Ayomike’s subject, was among the eighteen princes he listed in the biography.
What I find really relishing – and curiously so – in this wise is that the title “Chief” is foreign to our land. The colonial concept of “Chief” is totally different from the Itsekiri concept of “Ojoye” (the British equivalent of Lord, Earl, Count and Countess, etc.) which is actually a title meant for people of sound, impeccable character, nobles – who, strictly speaking, should not see themselves (and were never seen), no matter their wealth and influence, as “superior” to or higher than princes and princesses (oton-olus).
Another source of interest in the biography derives from the very rare historical photographs which adorn it. They tellingly speak volumes. Let me resist the urge to cite any for discussion here for the simple reason that I don’t wish to dwell on an essay-within-an essay in a brief exercise of this nature.
My final statement: J.O.S. Ayomike’s a tip-of-the-ice-berg mode of delivery or narration of his subject is captivating. It makes the biography to be tellingly relucent. This is a remarkably apt introduction to a hugely historical figure of the Niger Delta widely unknown until now. Ayomike has opened the door and window of research for scholars, historians and researchers interested in this icon (and other icons) that oblivion can no longer hide from the pages of our inquisitive minds.
• Professor Tony Afejuku, a notable columnist, poet and critic, is of the University of Benin, Benin City