Nonetheless, the IWU was not the only entity fighting for the emancipation of the Ijos in Burutu in that period. There was a lone ranger called Ariworiyai, a man with immense local Intelligence and courage.
Robert Nesta Marley it was who said “Don’t forget your history.” Our National Anthem also re-echoes this sentiment when it says “thy Labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” Still if we forget our history or fail to remember never to forget their labours, indeed in vain they shall labour. It is against this background that I have decided today to remember one Ijo man that perhaps the largest portion of Ijos are not opportune to be familiar with up to this point. I am talking about J.M. Ariworiyai, “The Troublesome Ariwiriyai” as HRM King Nicholas Abo Frank-Opigo fondly called him. His name still doesn’t ring a bell right? Don’t worry or feel guilty, I understand. This piece is aimed at solving just that problem. And by the way, lest I forget, I am still very much aware of my promise regarding the Great N.A. Frank-Opigo. I shall serve that meal at the most appropriate juncture.
Kemeowei Ariworiyai, a native of Ogobiri community in Sagbama Local Government Area of Bayelsa State lived in Burutu, an Ijo port town, which is presently the headquarters of the Oil and Gas rich Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State, which is the home of great men like Prof J.P Clark and his brother Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, at a time when due largely to lack of consciousness on the part of Ijos, the ownership of the town –as is still the case in some other parts of Delta State- was claimed by Urhobos and Itsekiris.
At the time, Burutu was administratively under the Western Ijo Local Council that had its Headquarters at Bomadi. The town was represented in the Council by a certain Chief Gabis, who was paying rents to a Chief Okorodudu, the man after whom the part of Burutu he lived in was named. In those days, Burutu was divided into Four parts, namely: 1. The UAC Area, which was akin to the Shell RAs or Chevron Lekkis of today that was peopled mainly by Expatriates and top level Nigerians under the employ of the United African Company; 2. Government Quarters, which housed government establishments like Post Office, Local Authority, Treasury, Customs Office and living quarters, Dispensary, etc; 3. Okorodudu, which consisted of almost one-third of the town and named after the aforementioned chief who claimed ownership over it, the Okumagba style; and 4. Chicoco that was claimed by an Itsekiri man known as Chief Eyim.
It took the conscious efforts of the Ijo Welfare Union (IWU) in Burutu led by the Honourable Frank-Opigo, then a Customs officer posted from Lagos to Burutu and an N.P.L. Apreala, a UAC employee to not only stop Ijos from paying rents to settlers, but also stop the Urhobo and Itsekiri men from laying claim to ownership of any section of the town. Now you could see why I picked interest in Opigo?
Nonetheless, the IWU was not the only entity fighting for the emancipation of the Ijos in Burutu in that period. There was a lone ranger called Ariworiyai, a man with immense local Intelligence and courage. He was a man who embodied Niccolo Machiavelli’s saying that “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”
This man wrote the UAC management one beautiful sunny Burutu afternoon claiming that the firm owed the Ijo Landlords of the town they have been operating in the sum of 1,200,000 Pounds which must be paid immediately if the company wanted to continue carrying out its business peacefully in Burutu. A copy of the audacious and groundbreaking letter got to the District Officer (D. O) who swiftly gave a copy to Chief J.O. Bozimo, an Ijo leader at the time and asked him to convene a meeting between the Ijo Chiefs and the D.O, at the latter’s office.
The import of this pivotal Letter – which I believe should be found and preserved for the sake of future generations as a vital piece of the history of the struggles for the Emancipation of the Ijo nation – would be much appreciated if we realized that this event happened in 1947 in the height of British Colonial Rule in Nigeria. It must be noted and remembered that this was barely 8 years after the1939 balkanization of the Ijo nation by Sir Bernard Bourdillon. Ijos were unjustly carved into the Western and Eastern Regions by Sir Arthur Richard in 1946 to further British interest at Ijo expense using Bourdillon’s template. Thus, while almost all other ethnic groups in the country were found only in one of the regions, the Ijaws were divided into the Western and Eastern regions making them an insignificant, expropriated and exploited minority in both regions. In my considered opinion, this singular act set the stage for most of the plights the Ijo man faces in Nigeria’s Unitary-Federal system today. But Ariworiyai was not a man to be bothered by such encumbrances.
Names are very important in Ijo cosmology. So it should not be too surprising that a man called “Ariworiyai” whose name could be translated as “Prophecy” in English had such foresight not to ask for peanuts but demanded 1,200,000 pounds in far back 1947 when many people were still thinking small.
So on the appointed day for the all-important meeting between the Ijo Chiefs and the DO that was convened by Chief Bozimo, the Chiefs (Owners of the lands occupied by UAC) who incidentally were not based in Burutu town itself but in satellite villages and therefore may not know Ariworiyai, who himself lived alternatively between Burutu and Warri were asked by the D.O with Bozimo as interpreter if they authorized Ariworiyai to write the epic letter demanding 1,200,000 Pounds, their response was in the negative. Thus the D.O ordered the immediate arrest and prosecution of Ariworiyai the trouble maker. He was expressly arrested and charged to a Magistrate Court in Warri. Now, I must warn you to brace yourselves because things are about to get more interesting. I told you Ariworiyai was a courageous man, but I did not explain the true extent of his courage and power. So like you, my dearly beloved long suffering readers, the British Authorities and their friends who were then afraid of the growing consciousness of the Ijos in Burutu and the threat it represents to their political-economic interests were not aware of Ariworiyai’s power. So blindly they went to court against Ariworiyai hoping to make him a scapegoat and a cautionary tale for all prospective Ijo troublemakers to learn a lesson or two in humility from.
When the Warri Magistrate’s Court commenced hearing of the lawsuit, the Police read the charges proffered against Ariworiyai and made a case for the Colonial government and the Company. That was not all, the prominent Chief Bozimo was also called as a state witness.
Ariworiyai on the other hand elected not to hire any Lawyer and thus served as his own Counsel. So in his capacity as his own Lawyer, he took his turn to Cross-Examine Chief Bozimo. The Chief was peeved by the fact that he had to answer questions from a perceived Nonentity and rascal. Still Ariworiyai routinely asked him his name, occupation, etc. Then like a Mohammed Ali bunch, out of nowhere he asked the Chief: “Are you the man who interpreted my Letter to the Chiefs?” Bozimo replied in the affirmative.
“Now can you tell this honourable Court the equivalent of 1,200,000 Pounds in Ijo language?” Ariworiyai pressed. The Chief flustered and could not answer the question. ‘Barrister’ A. then turned to the Magistrate and said “My Lord, you can see that the Chiefs were acting out of ignorance. And since the meaning of my letter was not properly interpreted to the Chiefs, it means I was arrested in error. I was merely making a legitimate demand which was wrongly interpreted, and the wrong interpretation led to my wrongful arrest and trial. The Chiefs did not know that I was trying to help them.”
The Magistrate who was incidentally a Nigerian ruled that Ariworiyai was right and therefore discharged and acquitted him.
After the judgment was delivered, jubilant Youths rushed to the Court premises and carried Ariworiyai on their shoulders to his home to kickstart celebrations of his legal victory that lasted for over 24 hours.
According to Frank- Opigo(2007) from that day on and for a very long time J.M. Ariworiyai was regarded as a Lawyer and was consulted by several people to provide them legal aid for their own cases.
This man may not have been wealthy or powerful enough in his lifetime to gain renowned, but in my considered opinion he was a hero who contributions to the emancipation of the Ijaw nation; and is worth remembering and celebrated. As of today, a Google (or another search engine) search of the name “J. M. Ariworiyai” would produce a blank result indicative of the fact that nothing has been written about him in the cyberspace. That is why I have written about him today. It is my hope that you now know Ariworiyai a little bit more.
Finally, given that I do not have a good budget for research and therefore write for leisure, there are a whole lot more about this great man that is not captured in my piece. Thus, it is my hope that this piece and others I do solely for my private entertainment but decide to share with the world from time to time, when I deem fit, would spur more rigorous investigations into the lives and times of many men and woman who have contributed to our development but are currently surpassed in ranking in the Ijo Hall, Wall or Walk of Fame by Militants and other people who rise to power, wealth and fame on the back of the collective struggle of Ijos but end up appropriating the spoils solely for their private enjoyment.
Keep doing Good for our people, someone somewhere someday will recorded it just as I have done for this maverick.
Thanks for your time.
Fortune God’sSon Alfred who tweets via @ElMagnificento1 is probably Bayelsa and the Niger Delta’s very best Social Media Expert. You could reach him via [email protected]