Chief (Engr.) Joe Omene is the President-General of the factionalized Urhobo Progress Union (UPU). Although a factional President-General, he is ever passionate and vocal on issues affecting the Urhobo nation. His country home in Mosogar, Ethiope West of Delta State, still remains a Mecca of sort as Urhobos from different kingdoms troops there daily for consultations. In this exclusive interview with John Oghojafor, Chief Omene, among other issues, strongly condemned the inclusion of the Urhobo nation in the so-called Biafra map, stressing that the Urhobos have nothing in common with the Igbos.
The Igbos under the auspices of the Independent People of Biara (IPOB) who are agitating for a country of their own have included the Urhobo nation in their map. What does this portend?
You cannot borrow a name and force other people to use the name with you. They are Igbos, they are Easterners from the Eastern part of Nigeria. There is what is called the Bight of Biafra and there is the Bight of Benin. So, if you say oh, you Igbos are Biafra, Urhobo cannot be Biafra. If we don’t want to be part of Nigeria then we can go alone. We have what it takes to be a nation. We have airport, we have seaports, we have rivers. Quite apart from that, we have human and mineral resources and we have agriculture to sustain us. So, there is nothing lacking in the Urhobo nation if it comes to the issue of the requirements for us to be a country of our own. We have nothing in common with the Igbos; traditionally, we have nothing in common. If you look at their culture, it is quite different from our own. So, what makes them feel that we should be part of them? You say you are being marginalized in Nigeria and for that you want to go it all alone, you want to have a nation of your own. Fine, you have the right to self-determination. Now, in wanting to have a nation of your own, you already have a head of state, you already have a capital, you already have your own religion as Judaism. You already have everything in place, whereas the people you want to join you to form your country you have not consulted them. So, what manner of country do you want to form? Urhobos are not part of the Igbo agenda, we are not part of them and we cannot be part of them.
There have been clamour from different parts of the country for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation, such that power will devolve to the different federating units. What in your opinion would be the take of Urhobo nation in such arrangement?
I’m in total support of the restructuring of this country. If it is to allow the individual federating units control their resources and pay tax to the Central government I support. The Urhobos will survive under that arrangement. We have oil and other mineral resources. And like I have said we also have good and arable land for agriculture. So, under any form of restructuring the Urhobo nation will do extremely well. I support restructuring and I can tell you, that is the position of the Urhobo nation.
Revenue from oil keeps dwindling even as it is being projected that in about 30 years, oil would dry up. Should this happen as projected are you sure the Urhobo nation can survive?
We were surviving before when there was no oil. The Urhobos have been known for agriculture and it sustained us even before the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta. We have very fertile land and nearly every type of crops you can think of does well in Urhobo land. Urhobos are farmers, fishermen and traders. This was what sustained us before the advent of crude oil. We have rubbers and palm oil. Our people have started planting rubber. Go and see Chief Dafinone’s rubber plantation. He is still planting. People are planting palm trees. The Urhobos account for more than 70% of the cassava produced in Nigeria. And don’t forget that Nigeria is the world largest producer of cassava. So, if the oil dries up today, it will be a blessing for the Urhobo people.
And let me also point out that in times of necessity, so many things are discovered. For instance, today you have very many Nigerians from the southern part of Nigeria abroad than those from northern Nigeria. Why? All of a sudden the federal government came up with a policy called quota system. Federal employment is based on quota system, admission to federal universities and other tertiary institutions is based on quota system, even admission to federal government colleges is based on quota system. This northern-oriented policy has made it impossible for our people who are more educated, more enterprising and more civilized to secure jobs in the federal civil service and other federal parastatals, even including the military and other agencies. Go to Europe, America and Asian countries, you will find many Nigerians from the south but very few from the northern part of Nigeria. In the UK, you will find very few northern Nigerians. In the US, you will also find many southern Nigerians but very few northerners. The same is in Asia and even Ghana. This is because the northerners are persuaded to go to school and when they graduate there are federal jobs reserved for them through the policy of quota system and they are ok. They occupy the federal ministries, agencies and parastatals. But millions of Southern Nigeria graduates and professionals remain jobless because they have been excluded by the policy of quota system.
Now, because our people are denied federal opportunities and have become victims of quota system, they travel out overseas in search of greener pastures. Those who are successful abroad come back home to take their brothers and sisters along with them. They also come home to invest and develop their father land. This is why you have so many Nigerians from the South abroad more than those from the North. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. So, if you are faced with challenges, you must exist as a people.
For example, the UPU UK branch has recently published an advertorial offering scholarships for qualified Urhobo sons and daughters in tertiary institutions in the country. This has been a yearly affair. Recently, the Urhobo students of a particular tertiary institution in the state were celebrating Urhobo Day in their school and the President of the Union came to invite me. I intimated the President of UPU in Asia and he sent me N100,000 (One hundred thousand naira) to give to the students to support their celebration. Also, any Urhobo son or daughter who genuinely needs assistance in Asia, the UPU President in Asia is always ready to assist.
So, as I travelled overseas, whichever country I got to, I reached to the Nigerian Ambassador of that country to thank him for his assistance to the Urhobo community and thereafter, I held meetings with the Urhobos in that country and discuss with them the type of assistance they can offer our people back home. And they, in most cases, always obliged me. I can categorically claim that I brought the UPU into an enviable position. It was not functional like this before. I did not run the UPU where the President-General sit in one place and at the end of the year, in August or September, travel to UPU UK and America and come back home. If not for this crisis, I would have had the UPU well established in not less than twenty African countries and many European, American and Asian countries.
When you have UPU in a place, it is not just for the name. They give assistance to their fellow brothers and sisters. For an example, a young girl who graduated with OND in Delta State Polytechnic, Otefe-Oghara is currently an air hostess in Malaysia, earning good money courtesy of the UPU Asia branch. She is constantly in touch with me. Another one has got a job in Australia and he is doing fine. And they are all in constant touch with me. If not for the crisis that is currently rocking the UPU, I can seek the assistance of the UPU Asia and give them a target for them to take 30 Urhobos to Asia this year; UPU Australia take 20 and different targets for UPU America, UK and other places, they will gladly do it. That was what I was negotiating with them before. This is because all of us cannot be here and hope to get government jobs.
I was not doing all these because of the personal pleasure I derive from it. I was in Burkina Faso to inaugurate the UPU branch there sometime last year. You could imagine the type of bed I slept on in the hotel where I lodged. Ordinarily, I would not sleep on such bed here in Nigeria. But I was glad to participate in the inauguration. After the occasion, I noticed they were struggling to pay my air fare back home, but I told them not to stress themselves and I paid for my return ticket. But back home, people will be thinking I had made so much money from such trip. It is the Urhobo spirit in me.
Now, let me tell you of a very pathetic incident that happened just recently. There is an Urhobo lecturer in University of Benin who wanted to apply for a scholarship overseas. The man is from Ughelli South. He had to meet one of the top Urhobo traditional rulers to get a recommendation letter. But the traditional ruler allegedly directed to go to Taiga for the letter. The lecturer travelled to Lagos and wasted all the time waiting for Taiga but could not see him until the opportunity for that scholarship lapsed. If it were to be me, he would meet me at home. Last week I was in Western Delta University to celebrate the Urhobo Student during their Urhobo Day. The upper week I was at PTI to celebrate with the Urhobo Students during the Urhobo Day. Next Saturday, I would be in Delta Polytechnic, Ogwashi-Uku to celebrate with the Urhobo students there. The reason is that I’m giving them inspiration. Or would somebody say that the students have money to give to me? The answer is no. They come here to invite me and I honour their invitations and when I get there I celebrate with them and give them money.
I did not seek to become President-General of Urhobo Progress Union to enable me secure an oil bloc. I was President-General of Mosogar for twelve years and I left an enduring legacy there. You can go and do your own private investigation on my tenure as President General of Mosogar. It was during my tenure that I partnered with Chief Amori to attract the network of roads in Mosogar today, including those in the College of Physical Education. It is amazing! It is on record that I was the only President-General in Urhobo land that was paying Youth Corpers posted to my community to teach our children. At that time, we also retained the services of Corpers who were teaching sciences, English and mathematics after their service years to continue to teach our children because some of the state government schools lacked Science, English and mathematics teachers.
Apart from that, as President-General of UPU in the community, we sponsored surgery operations for patients with hernia and appendicitis free. All those things no longer happen again. So, a good leader is a good leader. If you are good you will show it even in your own small village.
Could you comment further on the UPU UK-sponsored scholarship project for Urhobo Students?
It is my own initiative. The President of UPU UK branch is a very patriotic Urhobo person. It is not as if the members are the richest Urhobo people living in the UK. It is because Urhobo is in their blood. Urhobo must be in your blood before you can do anything. If it is in your blood, you will think of Urhobo first. But if Urhobo is not in your blood, you will think of yourself first. Urhobo is in my blood. If I tell you the kind of mouth-watering offers that some persons from outside Urhobo offered me just to endorse them in 2015 which I rejected, you will be dazed. And despite the fact that I didn’t accept them, people were still giving me names, accusing me that I took a bribe of N1.5 billion and $1 million. They went ahead and published them in newspapers. I have taken them to court. Why have they not been able to respond? The time has expired. I would soon approach the court for judgment.