The Itsekiri (also called the, Isekiri, Itsekri or Ishekiri or Itsekhiri) are a peculiar and unique riverine people who were traditionally fishermen and skillful traders living in the Nigerian Niger delta. They have inhabited their homeland, which now constitutes the three Warri Local Government Areas of Delta State, Nigeria, for centuries. The Itsekiri make up an appreciable proportion of the modern towns of Sapele, Warri, Burutu, and Forcados. The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or 'Iwere' as its proper name
Professor Obaro Ikime in his "Merchant Prince of Niger Delta" published in 1968 described Itsekiri Country as follows: "… The Itsekiri inhabit the North-Western extremity of the Niger-Delta in an area bounded approximately by lat. 5°. 20' and 6°.N and long. 5°5' and 5° 40' East. Their neighbors are Binis to the North, the Ijo to the South; the Urhobos, to the East and the Yorubas of Ondo province to the Northwest"
Historically Itsekiri are said to have migrated from Egypt to their present day location in Nigeria. According to Jackson Omasanjuwa Ireyefoju and Florence Ejuogharanmakelesan Ireyefoju in their seminal work "Ife Oracle in Itsekiri Social System of Nigeria," Itsekiri people came from Egypt after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. They arrived and settled in the present Warri Kingdom in about 28 B.C in Gborodo, Ureju and Ode Itsekiri. The leaders of the teams were Iset, Iweret and Ipi.
Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. The Itsekiri are a minority ethnic group in Niger-Delta but they were well-respected by the Europeans that met them during the pre-colonial and the colonial era. Dapper in 1668 had described the Itsekiri as being in many ways cleverer than the Bini (Roth H. Ling. Great Benin). Captain Leonard described the lsekiri thus: ‘on the Warri and Benin rivers we find the ltsekiri middle men who are not only the most intelligent and tractable but quite the best mannered of all the tribes in the lower Niger’ (southern Nigeria) (Captain Leonard 1906).
Itsekiri elders wearing their traditional dress
The Itsekiri who have rich traditional and cultural practices are now people of complex mixture of the many different ethnicities and races and speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba language of South Western Nigeria but which has also been significantly influenced by other languages particularly Portuguese, Edo (Benin), English.
Itsekiri mother dressing her daughter. Orode Enadeghe
Although linguistically related to the Yoruba ethnic group, however, through centuries of intermingling modern day Itsekiris are of very mixed ethnic origins (primarily of Yoruba (Ijebu, Ilaje,Ondo and Owo), Edo, Urhobo, Ijo, Anglo-Scottish and Portuguese descent) and are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion. Thus having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a hybrid of the many cultures that have influenced its development. Similarly owing to the complex genetic mix of most Itsekiris over the centuries, many individuals self-identifying as Itsekiri would usually be a complex mix of any of the aforementioned ethnic and racial groups.
The Itsekiri presently number over a million people and live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State on the Atlantic Coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can be found in parts of Edo and Ondo states and in various other Nigerian cities including Lagos, Sapele, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Many people of Itsekiri descent also reside in the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada. The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or 'Iwerre' as its proper name – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government districts. The area is a key centre of Nigeria's crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri (a multi-ethnic metropolis) forms the industrial and commercial nucleus of the Delta State region.
Why the Name Itsekiri
IGINUA the eldest and disowned son of Oba Olua of Bini (Benin) was sent away from his home in Benin City and wandered to an unspecified location in the swampy forest regions around the Benin. His entourage haven been picked up in that portion of the forest known to the Ijaws as 'evil-land' (SEIKIRI) were aptly named by the Ijaws as "SEIKIRI-OTU", meaning people from the 'evil-land'. 'SEI', in Ijaw language means 'EVIL', 'KIRI' means LAND, while OTU means PEOPLE. Similar Ijaw compound words that are descriptive of land that, some of the readers would recognize are; AMAKIRI, BOROKIRI, TORUKIRI, TARAKIRI, DAUKIRI etc. With the passage of time, SEIKIRI-OTU became adulterated to ITSEKIRI by the non-indigenes, but the Ijaws to-date, still maintain the usage of SEIKIRI-OTU in reference to the descendants of IGINUA. Thus, ITSEKIRI, is not a derivative of either an Edo(Bini) or Yoruba language, but of an Ijaw word that underwent an innocent transformation.
The Itsekiris speak the Itsekiri language, which is very closely related to the south-eastern and Ilaje Yoruba dialects and to the Igala. Today Itsekiri language is said to be Yoruboid, but Agharowu and Olomu (2008) made it clear that Olugbo was around before the advent of Oduduwa to Ile-Ife. Olugbo moved down South West to settle at the present site of Ugbo. Ilaje is a dialect of Yoruba now but Itsekiri, according to Yoruboid classification, is very distinct from Ilaje and popular Oyo.
It has also been influenced significantly by the Bini, Portuguese and English languages due to centuries of interaction with people from those nations. However, it remains a key branch of the Yoruboid family of languages even retaining archaic or lost elements of the proto Yoruba language due to its relative isolation in the Niger-Delta where it developed away from the main cluster of Yoruba language dialects.
Unlike nearly all key Nigerian Languages, the Itsekiri language does not have dialects and is uniformly spoken with little or no variance in pronunciation apart from the use of 'ch' for the regular 'ts' (sh) in the pronunciation of some individual Itsekiris, e.g. Chekiri instead of the standard Shekiri but these are individual pronunciation traits rather than dialectal differences. This may be a relic of past dialectal differences. The English language continues to exert a strong influence on the Itsekiri language both in influencing its development and in its widespread usage as a first language amongst the younger generation. Modern standard Yoruba (the variety spoken in Lagos) also appears to be influencing the Itsekiri language partly due to the similarity between both languages and the ease of absorbing colloquial Yoruba terms by the large Itsekiri population living in Western Nigerian cities. Itsekiri is now taught in local schools up to university degree level in Nigeria.
There are a number of semi-autonomous Itsekiri communities such as Ugborodo whose history predates the 15th-century establishment of the Warri Kingdom. The Ugborodo community claims direct descent from the Ijebu a major Yoruba sub-ethnic group
The history of Itsekiri has many versions which are almost being hinged on Ilaje and Bini. However, the ancient truth about the Itsekiri has made it clear that Olugbo (section of Itsekiri speaking people) was around before the advent of Oduduwa to Ile-Ife. Olugbo moved down South West to settle at the present site of Ugbo. Recent findings about the aborigines of Itsekiri hinge on Iset, Iweret and Ipi shows that they were all migrated from Egypt to settle in present Warri kingdom in about 28 B.C. The people left Egypt during the battle of Actium between Augustus Octavian Caesar versus Mark Anthony and Cleopatra of Egypt.
The Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse II,
They found places like Gborodo. Iset and Ipi lived there and Iweret occupied Ode-itsekiri with Seikiri. Gborodo is very far from Ode-Itsekiri but they speak the same language without dialectal differences. The people of Gborodo have no quarter in Ode-Itsekiri like other ltsekiri settlements of the era of Olu Atogbuwa, Erejuwa I and Akengbuwu I. The people of Inorin, Omadino and Ureju are pre-Ginuwa, the first Olu in 1480 but the Olu and his people were quickly absorbed into Itsekiri language like the Romans who conquered the Greeks but were civilized by the Greeks.
The people, Iset, Ipi Seikiri and Iweret came with some religions. Most of the gods were of the water.
In a book titled "HISTORY OF THE ITSEKIRI" written by a renowned Itsekiri historian, William A. Moore, came more revelations. He wrote, "Prior to the advent of the Benin Prince Iginua, the territory now known as the Kingdom of ITSEKIRI or IWERE, was inhabited by three tribes, namely, Ijaws, Sobos and the Mahims. The most populous among them were the Sobos. They (Sobos) occupied the hinterland while the Ijaws occupied the coastline and the Mahims squatted on the seashore near the Benin River…. Prince Ginuwa first landed at Amatu where he squatted for about three decades. He moved to Oruselemo where he married an Ijaw woman named Derumo. After several years stay at Oruselemo, a dispute arose between him and the Ijaws of Gulani (Ogulagha) on account of the woman, Derumo who was killed by him…, He therefore moved to Ijala where he later died and Ijijen (Ijeyem), his senior son took his place. Hence Ijala is held to be the Olu's burial ground by the Itsekiri. Ijijen led the entourage from Ijala to Iwere or Ale-ode-Itsekiri…." The settlement at Ode-Itsekiri, the ancestral homeland of Itsekiris occurred at about 1520AD.
In the 15th century, the early Itsekiris adopted a prince Iginua (Ginuwa) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule. When Prince Ginuwa came to found the Iwere kingdom in 1480, people were around. The IJaw of Isiloko that paddled the canoe which brought the Prince and his entourage from Bini speak the Edo language. Hence they were able to assist them (the Prince and his subjects) with their canoes down to establish the kingdom. Itsekiri language was already predominant before they came, thus they were not able to dominate the Itsekiri
Governor of Delta State Emmanuel Uduaghan with the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse II,
The Kingdom of Warri or 'Iwere' as its proper name – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government areas` reigning monarch is the Olu of Warr, Ogiame Atuwase II.
THE OLU OF WARRI HERITAGE 1480 AD - DATE
Traditionally, the Itsekiris are predominantly fishermen, living in the riverine areas of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The Warri Kingdom is a key centre of Nigeria's crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri (a multi-ethnic metropolis) forms the industrial and commercial nucleus of the Delta State.
Itsekiri socio-political system
The word Itsekiri is very foreign to Nigeria. Most of them coined the following from it at its original version: (a.) Isekiri ene - people protected by blessing; (b.) Isekiri aghan - people set aside with special prayers and so on.
Itsekiri system of governance is gerontocracy, but priests are highly revered at every occasion. For instance, Gborodo, Ureju and Okere leadership is paternal, not necessarily by age. They are allowed to preside over every meeting that involves discussion of the deities because their existence is claimed to be controlled by ancestors and spiritual forces, particularly those from the seas.
Itsekiri has the following class: (1) Otonolu (Royals), (2) Omajaja (king-makers), (3) Ibiedo (domestic workers), (4) Egungun (people with shady historical origin), and (5) Ejoji (Strangers). It should be noted that royals are never made priests at any public shrine or masquerades. They are the overlord at every point. A disregard of a royal can result into something that the ancestors do not cherish. It could be mentioned by Ife oracle when the ancestors or shrines are being appeased. An Itsekiri proverb succinctly put it this way:
Eru eka kpa Oton olowa. Or Osan ekaja gba kpa irumu ti owi edon ro.
Translation: A slave does not kill his master’s child. Or a shrine does not kill the grass around it.
This is because everybody is at the mercy of the Olu and the royals. It is only Ife oracle that proves them wrong for anything contrary to the ancestors and shrines, not the masquerades. The only masquerade the royals reverend is Birikimo at Orugbo. It is the Olu that authorizes its celebration. The Olu is above all the shrines and the masquerades in Itsekiri, not the royals in all cases because indiscipline is not a virtue in Itsekiri. Nobody in the Niger-Delta glorifies acts of indiscipline.
Olu of Warri receiving a visitor
The Itsekiri Traditional Marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals; both families arrange the day the bride price or dowry will be paid.
Itsekiri women in their traditional wedding attire
On that day the family of the bride prepares for their guests by providing drinks, food, kola-nut, dry gin, native chalk and palm wine. The bride will be dressed in a pair of georges and beads around her head and neck,with her face well made up, while the groom (husband of the bride) will be dressed in georges and a matching long blouse on top of it.
He comes on that day with his family to present a bowl of kola-nut, bottles of dry gin, soft drinks and a box of cloths for the bride.Then the father or any other head of that family will present the things they have brought, including 24naira for the bride price.
It is then accepted and followed by prayers from both families that the marriage should bring forth good things such as peace, love, long-life, prosperity and children. Then the merriment starts (eating, drinking and dancing).
The people, Iset, Ipi Seikiri and Iweret who were the early Itsekiri people to migrate from Egypt to Niger Delta came with some religions. For example, the Itsekiri national anthem confirms this position:
Ara oloriri afomasin
Oluromi owami Ogie
Ira wo gba gba mije
Mon gbe ji were
Ira we gba gbamije mon
Ara olorire afomasin
Oluromi owami Ogie.
Itsekiri believe in Supreme Being and Creator God known as Oritse. Their neighbours The Edo called God Osalobua, Ilaje called him Olorun and Itsekiri say Orise which is closer to Osiris in Egypt than any of the first two. Ra, the god of the sun in Egypt that helps the crops to mature is the wife of Umalokun in Itsekiri, the provider of sea foods. Ife oracle with its 256 literary corpus is a compendium of the cultural practices of the people. It includes the metaphysical and psychic studies of the people, a source of ethics and discipline of the people. It must be sustained to raise the spiritual level of the people.
Itsekiri, Ijaw and Urhobo of the Niger Delta in South South Nigeria share service and obedience to different deities assumed to be responsible for their protection and predicaments. Evil, the measure of goodness is always unacceptable by the deities except a few that need blood before being potent enough to protect the people.
ltsekiri was using Albino (Afen) to appease the god of the sea. Later they changed it to white he-goat. Most of the effective war shrines were appeased every year with blood. Some of such shrines include Benikurodo and Afinayan of Usele, Osunya of Daleoketa, Opuegba of Ebrhimi and Koko, Osankporo of Deghele, Osonikia of Jakpa and Oro of Ureju. In Okere it is Ogungbaja Okere di Ola and Ugbokua of Gbolokposu.
Itsekiri thanksgiving ceremony
Itsekiri as a people communicate with the spirit world through Ife oracle. The 256 literary corpus of Ife oracle in Itsekiri have distinct esen, names with their oracular languages – Ogbe. They are logical coupled with oratory and poetic expressions. They may sound open ended to the ignorant who does not understand the metaphysical concepts of the Ife oracular languages. Ramakacharaka (1978) said words are images and symbols that constitute evil and good which the spirit of truth discerns to apportion blame on the people according to their contributions.
Itsekiri women of Warri dancing
Ife oracle with its arranged literary corpus is anti-evil among the Itsekiri. This is basically found among these Ogbe: Obara – blood, Igite obara – evil deed
Oghorilogbin ti oda
Oghori mi no Ukuti ofe
Kpa imino ka wi Ugogoro
This implied that the evil that men do lives after them.
They are arranged in cosmic language, and the ability to use the pass words to open the seal is learned. Words like Owun (incantation), Ogbe (Ife language), “Odu” (pass words) must also be studied. These are part of levitation and psychic study. These words raise the Ife oraclist level of clairvoyance to discuss the past deeds and make futuristic conclusions during divination.
Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a cap with a feather stuck to it.
The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads.
Itsekiris are also famed for their traditional fishing skills, melodious songs, gracefully fluid traditional dances and colourful masquerades and boat regattas