Ukwuani: An ethnic people and language
The article, “Okpe People are Okpe People, Prof Natufe insists,” by Prof. Tony Afejuku which appeared on the opinion page of The Guardian newspaper of September 10, 2021, came as a very interesting read. It raises the issue of true ethnic consciousness and identity among indigenous peoples, in this case, the Okpe speaking people of Delta state.
As a teenager growing up in Sapele in the early 1980s I had always wondered why the Okpe people with a distinct language of theirs appeared subsumed ethnically under the Urhobo umbrella whereas their Isoko kin would not stomach being labelled anything but Isoko.
Prof Afejuku commends Prof Natufe for championing the cause of his Okpe people whose Okpeness inheres in their spoken indigenous language, which he described as the real power of the human beings that constitute Okpe people.
In the course of his article, however, Prof Afejuku did a great disservice to the Ukwuani people whom he referred to ethnically as Ndokwa while listing all the other ethnic nationalities in Delta state. I am certain that Prof. Afejuku did not know any Ndokwa ethnic group in his secondary school days because there was, and still is none. He may be pardoned for falling into this Ndokwa pit dug by some of our misinformed elites and politicians. Ndokwa is the name of some local government areas, not of any ethnic people or language.
The ethnic or indigenous inhabitants of those local government areas are Ukwuani and only Ukwuani. The name Ukwuani is of immemorial origin with etymological meaning in our language, unlike Ndokwa which is a recent meaningless coinage, except for being an acronym for the two administrative districts that made up the old Aboh division.
Ndokwa was invented when agitations against the continued use of the name Aboh to refer to the division was championed by the Ukwuani district. The influence of the Obi of Aboh was becoming overbearing and fears grew that the continued use of the name Aboh to refer to the division would create the erroneous impression that the Obi had suzerainty over all the clans in the administrative division.
A similar fear was raised by some ethnic nationalities in Warri province led by the Urhobo who petitioned that the change of designation of Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri would create the wrong impression that the Olu exercised suzerainty over all the peoples of the Warri province. The agitation led to the rechristening of Warri province as Delta province. Against the Obi of Aboh, agitations in the 1950s swelled from many angles led by clans in Ukwuani district.
The clans of Ashaka, Efor and Ossissa at one time or the other asked to be transferred from Aboh district to Ukwuani district. Ultimately, Aboh district was renamed Ndosimili district as a fallout of these agitations. This was about when the name Ndokwa came into existence, coined as an acronym from the names, Ndosimili and Ukwuani – the two districts comprised in Aboh administrative division in the mid-1950s but it was not to become the official name of the division until 1976, following the local government reforms of that year. All this while, the people of Aboh division which then became Ndokwa local government area identified themselves ethnically as Ukwuani and spoke the Ukwuani language. It is in this light that I see recent references to the people even in official circles as Ndokwa as an aberration and absurdity.
It is in asserting their Ukwuaniness that the people formed the Ukwuani Foundation Union, U.F.U., in about 1937 as their apex socio-cultural body. This body was very effective in protecting the interests and identity of Ukwuani people in the tumultuous period of the civil war. The UF.U. provided leadership that elicited the Ukwuani ethnic spirit across the division.
On July 26, 1974, traditional rulers, representatives and political leaders across Ukwuani and Ndosimili districts of Aboh division met in Kwale town to assert and reaffirm their Ukwuaniness, noting that they are Ukwuani people and speak the Ukwuani language across the division.
Unfortunately, since the invention of the name Ndokwa, especially since its official use as the name of local government, many people have mistaken it for the ethnic name of the Ukwuani. The so-called elite class is even most guilty of this error. Even the Church in Ukwuani land is falling into the error. I hear the Bible is about to be translated into Ndokwa language or Ukwuani-Ndosumili language.
The book of Luke, as a test case, has been translated into “Ndokwa”. An Ukwuani-Ndosumili dictionary is also in the offing. There is a group that goes by the name Ukwuani-Ndosimili Language Development Group. Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther translated the Bible into Yoruba, a known language, spoken by an existing ethnic people of the same name. Why should our case be different? If God were to ask us what language we speak as an ethnic people, can we in all honesty tell him we speak Ukwuani-Ndosimili? Simultaneously, the eastern half of the old Aboh division which has transformed into Ndokwa East local government now see themselves more as ethnically Ndosimili than Ukwuani speaking. But ask them what language they speak and you get responses like Aboh, Ndosimili, Ukwuani, Ndokwa or their respective clan names. Political balkanization has put a knife on the things that held our Ukwuaniness together.
About ten years ago, the Ukwuani Foundation Union split and from it emerged the Ndosimili Development Union. Then emerged also the Ndokwa National Union which later became Ndokwa Neku Union and claims to be the apex socio-cultural body of Ndokwa people on the same pedestal as the Ijaw National Congress, the Isoko Development Union, the Urhobo Progress Union, the Afenifere, Ohaneze or Arewa. But I fail to see how the Ndokwa Neku Union can be the apex socio-cultural body of a non-existent ethnic people. There is no ethnic people or language known as Ndokwa. Ndokwa is a nomenclature for a modern administrative unit, not an indigenous and autochthonous ethnic people or tribe. Its root lies in the 1950s and 1970s. Ukwuani pre-dates it, is aboriginal, autochthonous and God-given. So Ndokwa Neku Union is operating on a non-existent platform. All the above listed ethno-socio-cultural organizations are attached to known ethnic peoples, not a government creation like Ndokwa. Why should I belong to an “ethnic” group to which my father and forefathers did not belong?
The continued reference to our people and homeland as Ndokwa by some of our misinformed elites, politicians and government is a disservice to our true identity. Ndokwa was never meant to supplant our identity as Ukwuani. History does not tell us so. Ndokwa, an acronym like Bendel, will one day pass away and, when it does, what will become of us as an indigenous people? In fact, one of the three local governments has proudly reverted to Ukwuani.
I call on all well-meaning Ukwuani sons and daughters to pass on our Ukwuani heritage. All ethnic associations parading the name Ndokwa should forthwith drop that name for Ukwuani, our true identity. There is neither Ndokwa language, people nor culture. Only Ndokwa local government. But Ukwuani language, people, culture and history exist way back into timelessness. Ukwuani bu ani eze.
Ozah, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.