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Itsekiri And Ijaws’ Creation of Hyper-Modern Path to Peace Via Football Tournament

Benikrukru Community field, Gbaramtu kingdom, Warri South West Local Government Area, Delta State, the kickoff venue of the Ijaw/Itsekiri peace and unity football competition initiated by Chief Sheriff Mulade, Ibe-sorimawei of Gbaramatu kingdom and National Coordinator/CEO, Centre for Peace & Environmental Justice (CEPEJ), was on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, filled to capacity and moderately dotted with imposing banner conspicuously positioned with screaming but familiar inscriptions that emphasise on the importance of peace and unity to humanity.

The ambience at the venue was refreshing as merrily dressed guests strolled in. Community members of Ijaw and Itsekiri origins were relaxed in their sitting positions. They were entertained to the rhythms from the stable of Ijaw and Itsekiri traditional dancing maestros.

Their humble and friendly dispositions complimented each other and made it very easy for non-indigenes to be at ease in their presence, even as that was the maiden visit to the community.

Aside from having in attendance former Super Eagles players, Christian Obodo and Sam Sodje, among others, the event was also graced by courageous Niger Deltans, who have met resistance from their own government in the past but refused to give up in their quest to build a better Niger Delta region and Nigeria by extension.

But of all that I observed, the gathering acknowledged what has been on the mind of Nigerians.

Fundamentally, it frontally demonstrated a strong conviction that non-discrimination, justice and fairness are the foundation for peace, unity, stability and economic prosperity of any nation. From the love that existed among the two ethnic groups on that day, at that time and in that place, it was obvious that building a nation where all citizens of the country shall not be discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, birth or other status is possible.

Essentially also, from the way the two teams entered the field with a stride of confidence and fair play, the competition provided Ijaw/Itsekiri with an opportunity for introspection by the two ethnic groups on the journey so far. Some gave the ‘union’ kudos for the tremendous progress it has made in forging unity and peace and riding the area of hatred and hostility, while others felt that the new challenge before the two ethnic nationalities is to transform into a strong economic bloc in order to position for the challenges of the 21st century as it patterns Niger Delta region.

To assist readers in appreciating this current journey to sustainable peace by the two ethnic groups via football tournament, it is important to underline that the district of Warri in Delta State, going by reports, has been the scene of ethnic and territorial conflicts between the Itsekeri and the Ijaws since March 1997, when ethnic violence broke out between the Ijaws and the Itsekeris following a government decision to relocate the headquarters of the Warri south local government council from an Ijaw community to a community belonging to the Itsekeris.

Though the hostility was overtly arrested and brought under control, covertly, it has remained a zone where fierce war has been raging between ethnic and social forces in Nigeria over the ownership and control of oil resources. And as a direct result, a long dark shadow has been cast on efforts to improve the well-being and economic development of the region’s individuals, peoples, and communities.

Without a doubt, the Ijaw/Itsekiri hostility is not only telling evidence of the numerous problems facing the people of the Niger Delta region, but largely an expose of unwillingness by the government over the years to address problems which possess the potent capability to affect the stability of Niger Delta as a region.

The above claim, in my view, becomes more telling after listening to Mulade, who spoke on the sidelines in the kick-off match, where he stated that ‘’The essence of this tournament is to try and reduce the hostility among us. Some years ago, we had some misunderstandings. That led to what is known as the Warri crisis. So, what we are doing is building the relationship. So, for you to join us is to support this celebration of peaceful co-existence.”

Certainly, there are grains of truth in the above position. The tournament has not only brought out something different and fundamentally new that will help shape the relationship between the two ethnic groups. Rather, it has assisted in providing health and vitality of peaceful co-existence, rededicating commitment to peace, promoting unity and intensifying harmonious development of the Niger Delta region.

The facts are there and speak for it.

On Monday, November 7, 2022, it was reported that the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse III, while playing host to Chief Mulade Sheriff and members of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) who paid him a courtesy visit in his palace, gave his endorsement and royal blessings to the peace and unity football event. The Olu applauded Chief Comrade Sheriff Mulade for initiating such a laudable programme and promised to liaise with Mr Amaju Pinnick to bring his wealth of experience in football management to support the process.

In a similar style, members of the LOC, on November 11, 2022, were received by Oboro Gbaraun II, Aketekpe, Agadagba of Gbaramatu Kingdom in his palace at Oporoza, the traditional headquarters of the kingdom.

In his response, the monarch appreciated the organizer’s initiative and implored him to continue preaching and spreading the need for peaceful coexistence because peace is not negotiable. He also enlightened the LOC team on the importance of peace to attract development to Delta, particularly Warri and its environs. He encouraged the untiring contribution of the LOC towards uniting Ijaw/Itsekiri, the importance of which is crucial to harnessing the dividend of development and opportunities to our people.

While this piece celebrates the feat, there are, however, accompanying beliefs in my views that the Ijaws are a truly peaceful set of people.

The first such example is a recent statement by an Ogbe Ijoh-based political pressure group, the Independent GrassRoots Liberators (IGL), where the group, among other comments, pleaded with the Senator Ifeanyi Okowa’s led Delta State Government to immediately settle the communal disputes between Ogbe-Ijoh, Ijaw ethnic nationality of Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta state and Aladja, an Urhobo community in Udu Local Government Area of the state, adding that they want to live in unity as they have been living before. “We don’t want to be killing ourselves anymore,” they said.

The second has to do with the recent comment credited to Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Oboro-Gbaraun II, Aketekpe, Agadagba, at his palace in Oporoza, the ancestral headquarters of Gbaramatu Kingdom while he played host to Mr Ali Muhammad Zarah, Managing Director, Nigeria Petroleum Development Company (NPDC), on Sunday, November 13, 2022.

The first-class monarch, according to media reports, said; “This is Gbaramatu Kingdom, and we are very peaceful people. If you come closer to the people, you will know the kind of people we have here. Some people can castigate our names or tarnish our image, but we are not like that. We know who we are.”

Waxing philosophically, the Monarch said, “We want to say, if the children are happy, definitely the father is happy too. Recently, I told some senators that instead of staying in Abuja and speculating about what is happening in the Niger Delta region, they should take a trip to the region for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation. If they come, they will know how the people are, but staying far from them, you cannot know how they really are. So I am very happy for people like you visiting our Kingdom.”

As the author of this piece, while I commend the efforts of the tournament organisers, the piece, on its part, thinks that there is a lesson government must draw from the above words of the revered traditional monarch.

Utomi Jerome-Mario is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Policy) at Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via [email protected]/08032725374

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