Different figures have been given at different times as the population number(s) of the Okpes who definitely number among the owners of the largest populations and landmass in Delta State. But I must return to Professor Natufe. He is a thoroughly well-bred Sapele person, a product of Zik’s Academy, Sapele (then primarily a co-educational college very famous in Western Nigeria in the nineteen-fifties/nineteen-sixties – if my memory is not failing me. It then was a really remarkable college founded by the late Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh, our country’s first minister of finance).
Professor Natufe was in his very youthful and college days a popular footballer, a re-doubtable left-winger, who donned the shirt of the 1960s fabulous Amukpe Football Club founded by the Sapele-based Lebanese, Mr. Ibrahim (?) Khali, who is now no more, but still well remembered by many members of my generation. It was a great club that took Western Nigerian football by storm in the then years.
Professor Natufe, before anyone knew it, proceeded to the then Soviet Union and thence to Canada to acquire degrees in Political Science – indeed, he has since the sixties been traversing familiar and unfamiliar academic and professional longitudes and latitudes. What I am trying to establish is that Professor Natufe is a brilliant, tough, steadfast, objective Nigerian patriot and intellectual of Okpe origin whose life and attitude are governed by his sports experience. This is not an exaggeration. He, in the main, reacts to issues from the standpoint of a sports personage who yields to defeat when he is defeated fairly.
By the way, he was also a very important member of the management board of the Benin-based Flash Flamingoes Football Club (in the nineteen-eighties), where he exhibited his tough but fair-minded and useful force of character – which he equally demonstrated at the University of Ibadan and the University of Benin, two great universities, where he taught on his temporary return home – before his final good-bye to Nigeria, our back-water country.
As I said above, I have not set my eyes on my big brother Igho Natufe, the one and only Professor Igho Natufe, for ages. Of recent, however, I have been following his patriotic fisticuffs with his equally patriotic Okpe people on matters relating to Okpe identity. Indeed, who are the Okpe people? What is the true or correct identity of Okpe people whose homeland and kingdom cannot by any stretch of the powers of the imagination or by any stretch of the inordinate powers of politics be regarded as a backwoods homeland or a backwoods kingdom.
Without illusions, Okpe people and their kingdom and homeland have their peculiarities. Perhaps the most important or most significant of the peculiarities is very glaring in the language the people speak. And the Okpe language is the language of the kingdom and denizens of the homeland. It is the real power of the human beings or of the people Natural, or Ethnic, or Cultural History records and recognizes as a special creation or achievement of the ancestors.
Now, I remember my failed attempts aeons ago to learn the Okpe language – or what some persons and linguists might call a dialect of the Urhobo language. Dr. Natufe (as he then was) admonished me for calling the spoken language of the Okpe people a dialect of Urhobo. His baritone voice gave my ears a bang: “Okpe people are not Urhobo. Okpe people are Okpe people.” I was confused and confounded. I was put off learning Okpe, a very hard, difficult language (or “dialect”) no Urhobo outside Okpe homeland of the indigenous people can catch and speak (without labour). I don’t speak and understand Urhobo despite my centuries of fruitful association with the people, yet how come I will ever pass the test to speak Okpe language? I ask (re-ask) this question bearing in mind what my big brother told me in the gone, gone years.
Today, we are back to square one – Professor Natufe and the Okpe Union which he leads as President-General from his base in Eastern Europe are pursuing patriotically the Okpe dream and posture to give Okpeland its distinct identity as Isoko people have since done when they carved themselves out of Eastern Urhobo Division a long, long time ago. Recently, writing on behalf of the Okpe Union, he said and insisted as follows, among other things: “Unlike the Udogun Okpe and the political opportunists, the Okpe Union is firmly a promoter of Okpe Identity without any apologies. The position is based on the historical and linguistic constructs of the Okpe ethnic nationality which even the Orodje recognized and hailed in 2007. There are eight ethnic nationalities in Delta State as listed below, in alphabetical order: Anioma, Ijaw, Ika, Isoko, Itsekiri Ndokwa, Okpe,Urhobo.
The Udogun Okpe and political opportunists will tell you that there are seven ethnic nationalities in Delta State, as they subsume Okpe under Urhobo. This is a fundamental difference between Okpe Union and the Udogun Okpe political opportunist alliance.”
I found this submission of the Okpe Union intriguing. Clearly, Professor Natufe and his executive members were reacting to an advertorial published in the Vanguard of Tuesday, July 13, 2021 (page 20) which the Okpe Union claimed was “discrediting the letter” it wrote to Delta State’s governor, Senator, Dr. Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa on the 22nd of June 2021 “requesting for the recognition of Okpe as a distinct nationality.” But it is the view of another Okpe son (or daughter?), Sanco Ese, that “Okpe will forever remain Urhobo, until otherwise stated by Odogun in Council,” that is, the Orodje of Okpe and his Supreme Council of Chiefs. Furthermore, he/she stated and stressed that it is only a “few Okpe indigenes [who] have this identity crisis, there are so many Okpe communities that speak general Urhobo dialect as their first language and identify with the Urhobo tag.” Continuing, he/she stressed thus: “The insignificant few who are having this identity crisis must be made to understand that divided we fall and united we stand.”
This is a different perspective, however, from an earlier message he published in opra.news, which equally published the above cited essay. Let me quote a tiny portion from his “Why Okpe People Are Having Identity Crisis? “How can Delta central remain home when Okpe, the biggest kingdom in Urhoboland is classified as just one when a government headed by our brother systematically stopped the broadcast of television news in the Okpe Language? How can Delta Central become one when the Okpe are deprived of learning their language and history in our schools as it used to be before? How can Delta Central remain one when Orerokpe being the then headquarters of Western Urhobo remains the most backward and underdeveloped local government in Delta State, Nigeria?”
Was Sanco Ese pressurized to make his about-turn release different from this quoted statement he earlier uttered and publicly ushered to us? Maybe in the final analysis, Professor Igho Natufe is right after all. The sharp, steadfast and courageous Professor of Political Science knows in-to-to the science of “secessionism in African politics” and as is applicable to modern Nigeria, where “aspiration, grievance, performance, disenchantment” leading to ultimate secession are high.” And who can/will prove Natufe and Akpederin Kingsley, the Secretary-General of Okpe Union, wrong in the spirit of a healthy debate?
Now what is my interest in the matter? I love the debate. Let it continue in this season of self-determination that President Buhari is compelling our ethnic nationalities to capture in the consciousness of their fearless patriots and heroes who want to go to their dream-lands.