Okpella is a town that lies along Benin-Abuja expressway and a border town between Edo and Kogi State. Okpella is rich in mineral resources such as limestone, calcium and granite, which draw investors to the kingdom in droves. the town plays host to Edo Cement Company and several other companies. Western post’s agene akhere visited the community recently where he had a chat with the traditional ruler, HRM Alhaji Eshioramhe Dirisu, the Okuokpellagbe of Okpella kingdom…
Your majesty, is your title hereditary?
No it is not hereditary, we have ruling houses. It means the symbol and unity of Okpella people
What have been your major challenges since you ascended the throne of your ancestors over 40 years ago?
As far as I am concerned, Okpella is not just one as you see it, it is a very large place. Population wise, from the 2006 Population Census, Okpella is the third populous town in Edo State after Benin, Uromi and its environs, then its Okpella. It is a very large place because from this palace you have up to 10 kilometres East and West. Since I ascended the throne, we had been trying our best to make sure that we bring in development. For example before I ascended the throne, there was no electricity in Okpella but under me, I have fought to ensure that we have electricity in the whole of Okpella. There are so many things we do to make sure that we enhance the standard of living of the people and we are happy that we have certain raw materials, which attract investors to come and invest in our area that is why you have many companies. Edo Cement being the premier company in Okpella, of which Bua International is now the new owner. First, it was called Okpella Cement, then Edo Cement and now Edo Cement Bua Group. So that is how it has been, we also have West Africa Fertiliser Company and several other companies that give employment to our youths, that is how it has been. God has been helping us to reign comfortably and we will continue to pray to Him to give us more years to see that by the time we are going to meet Him, we will be leaving very happily. For me, if I die today, I am happy that I have been able to work for my people. We used to have only one secondary school here but today they are so many. There could be challenges at times but when you have means of solving challenges, they are no more difficulties. There is nothing that has happened so far that we have not been able to resolve. We have 112 villages that make up Okpella. We are in a unique settlement.
What about the historical background of Okpella Kingdom?
We are from Benin; we came from Benin, the Okpella you hear today derives from somebody who is Okpei, he was the son of Ikpomwosa. He came with his father Ikpomwosa to this community. Okpei came because of a dispute between him and a prince of Benin kingdom at that time, over a lady, over marriage and because nobody dared argue with a prince of the monarchy of Benin, he had to leave Benin totally and go into the wilderness. He walked into a place called Opuzobe, that’s where we have the Okpella today. He married a woman called Eveva, who gave birth to four kids, Obute, Ase, both male children; the third a female, Ekure, and the fourth a male, named Onmegere. Those four children were of Eveva and Okpei stock, which is known as Okpella kingdom today.
What are the festivals that are peculiar to Okpella people?
There are age groups; you have the ones you call Ukhuareke, which does not belong to any special grade. Then you move from there to Okhikoria, from there we have a ceremony which maybe will come up this year, we call it Idache, where we go to the original place of settlement. There is a stone, which everyone will climb and name up to three or four of your ancestors to show that you are really an Okpella person, that ceremony is the most unique here. Our people are already warming up for it because it is going to be celebrated this year. Once it is performed in three months, the people who participate in it will now graduate to another grade, then from there you can perform the ceremony of Asogua, that is the highest title in Okpella. The last one was performed in 1997, they are usually given a name but nobody knows the name until after they have climbed the stone and have come back to the Otaru’s place (Erame), who gives them the name they will bear. In most cases it is celebrated in not less than 25 years interval. The last one before 1997 was done in 1973 but now, we don’t want to wait for that long because there are people who are itching to get to such high level so we now bring it down to 10 years. Women don’t go to the stone but they can perform the ceremony. There are other ceremonies like Osokus that both men and women can perform. We also have the one purely for the women. Okpella people are handsome and beautiful and they are proud people.
What are the special food items associated with Okpella?
Our traditional food is pounded yam; our elderly men don’t eat any other food apart from pounded yam. It is only these days that we do eat eba, wheat and others. Our elders don’t know what these other foods are. When my father was alive, I remember one of his friends was talking about eba as a good food and my father said tell us that you have no yam in your barn, tomorrow send you wives and children to come and get yam from me so that you can eat pounded yam, which is our food. So we are known for pounded yam, that is the first food of the Okpella man.
We notice that the people here are also predominantly Muslims, why.
There is no special reason, but as you see Muslims so you have Christians; there are plenty Muslims and Christians and they all live together, they don’t discriminate. In my house I have both Christians and Muslims in my family and they live together, that is how it has been and you know we are close to the North and Islam came from that side. The person who brought Islamic studies through Afegbua came from the North.
How did this crisis between you and the Ohinoyi of Ebiraland in Kogi State began?
It is true that there is a boundary dispute between us and the Ebira people, not just between us and Egbira people but at the north and south boundaries. The one between us and Okene, this area, our own side of it, which is not close to the boundary, we have a lot of limestone deposits there. Then one time, we noticed that Ado Ibrahim, the present Ohinoyi, was parading (even when he was not at the time Ohinoyi) some mining licences or leases over some of the deposits, deposits yet because they are in the Exclusive List reserved for the federal government, that is the deposit but the land in which they are situated, belongs to the state. Because we know that Ado Ibrahim did not acquire them even if he had the prospective mining licenses or mining rights, they were not properly acquired because you have to get the consent of the people. Today, as the traditional ruler of Okpella, wherever within the area called Okpella you discover any natural resources, you have to apply to me to execute the application on behalf of myself and the community as the traditional ruler because don’t forget that the whole land in Edo State today is owned in trust for the people by the governor of the state, then when you come down to the local government, where it is the chairman of the local government, then down properly like in the case of Okpella, me as the traditional ruler of Okpella. I know the land tenure system of Okpella people, so whatever is arising from land I execute it on behalf of myself and the people in that capacity. So we went to court to challenge some of these prospective mining leases that he was parading and all the cases went in our favour and he was duly restrained from coming into these land again and this area that we are talking about that is bringing this problem now is one of the places. Now, this place we are talking, we who have the area know it to be Obu area, which Ado Ibrahim is adulterating to read Ubo. We know it to be Obu but he is calling it Ubo; he claimed he acquired some mining leases there for the Obu itself and we said no, and because of that, a matter is in court now to tell him that since he did not follow the due process, it means it cannot belong to him. What is giving us problem now is that he now sold this place we are talking about to Dangote Cement Company. The transaction was made between Dangote Cement Company and Prince Ado Ibrahim, that is his son. In the advertorial we placed, we stated the communication they exchanged and we now said before they come and attack us, because I am not a violent person and I always believe that when issues like this arise, they should be resolved at the round table. As far back as when Elder Odion Ugbesia was Minister of Solid Minerals, we were invited to Abuja because of these arguments here and there, I stated my case very clearly; where Obu is, is not near the boundary at all it is some kilometres before you get to where we know as the boundary. It is just that it is not mapped on the ground and that is not our fault because the National Boundary Commission went into this matter and they traced it but they have not come to mark it on the ground for the people to know. Even the Ebira people know that they are just unnecessarily looking for our trouble but I have told my people that I don’t want them to go into war because you can never know the person you are going to lose in the process so I have been telling my people to take it easy. Constitutionally, we will be following the matter. The mater has been heightened from them because of the new extension. Bua International that is now the new owner of Edo Cement Factory is putting up new structures there and that is part of the area Ado Ibrahim is claiming are his areas and we say no it cannot be, that is why I have to make that publication so that the whole world will know that this is the plan of these people.
Dangote, as a person, did not do anything wrong to us the way I have seen it, he is not from this area. Ado Ibrahim is the one bringing this problem between us and the Dangote Cement Company.
Before this latest crisis, what was the relationship between Okpella people and Ebira people and have you ever made any attempt to have one on one with Ado Ibrahim?
We are very good neighbours, some of the Ebira people live with us, our people also live there, we have had a good relationship. Like I said, we have met at certain fora several times with the federal government. In fact when we stated our case, all he said was that it was when I became the traditional ruler that I began claiming all these places but I said I don’t claim any land for Okpella, it is what I met and we know all these boundaries so that is it. There are no two ways to it, I have told him severally, that we don’t want an inch of Ebiraland but we are not prepared to concede an inch to Ebiraland as well, let everybody keep to its side. There was a time he applied to get certain mining lease license and it was refused based on the fact that it was not feasible to give out this same area to him, whether he has forgotten I don’t know. Because of my recommendation to the Council, it was refused and this is the same area he is now turning round to say belongs to Ebira people because he is now Ohinoyi (traditional ruler).
Don’t you have this fear that the fight you are trying to avoid may come to pass if there is no amicable settlement of the problem?
Well, you know when patience is over tasked and we lose it, then nobody knows what happens next. But in this case, I am happy that immediately the advertorial came out, the Governor of Edo State called me and called the Dangote Group, we met in his office and after discussions, he promised that he was going to call another meeting where Dangote would sit down, Bua Group would sit down, then I would be there to find out how this matter can be resolved, that is what the governor said. He is the governor of the state and I have told my people that nobody should do anything until we hear from the governor, when the governor calls us for the meeting and the matter is tabled, I am sure it will be resolved amicably but for now, I have told my people that, in the face of any provocation, don’t do anything, don’t fight. I told them that war doesn’t solve issues; we use dialogue to resolve issues.