Who Are The Itsekiri? Close Window

The Itsekiri are a peculiar and unique people 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 have rich traditional and cultural practices.

Itsekiri modern history dates from the late fifteenth century when the Itsekiri people adopted a prince from Benin Kingdom as their monarch. Prior to this time, Itsekiri lived independently in different communities that included Irigbo, Ureju, Omadino and Ugborodo. With the arrival of the prince and adoption of the monarchy. These communities coalesced to become a Kingdom. The current monarch is Ogiame Atuwatse II, who was crowned at an impressive ceremony in 1987.

History reveals that in several waves of migration before the 15th Century, and some a little later, groups from Igala in Nupe country came in through the creeks; Yoruba from ljebu-Ode, Akure and Owo found their way into parts of the Kingdom and a group from Aboh also came in. Some along the coast came in through Gulani/Amatu.

Historically, the ltsekiri have a monarchy, over 500 years old, and which, as a rallying point in their society, remains its supreme government. From 1480 to now, there have reigned 19 Olu of Warri: five Olus of the pre-Christian era; 1480 - 1597: eight Roman Catholic Olus from 1597-1735, and six Olus of the post-Roman Catholic Christian era. Atuwatse I, baptized as Dom Domingo reigned between 1625 and 1643, having studied in Coimbra University in Portugal for eleven years where he obtained a degree. The first-ever church monastery built in what today is Nigeria was erected in Big Warri (Ode-ltsekiri) before 1700 and was christened Saint Anthony (today, the site is known as Satone). As an ethnic nationality, the Itsekiri people are a micro-minority in Delta State. Estimated at over 450,000, Itsekiri is one of the five distinct ethnic nationalities in Delta State, Nigeria.

The Itsekiri ancient Kingdom of Warri dates back to the 15th century. Their 1,520 square mile homeland, known over time in history as Iwere or Awyri, Warree, Aweri and Wari etc, had diplomatic, Christian and trade relations with Medieval Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. It became a prominent trade centre within the Oil Rivers Protectorate.

Obaro Ikime, a prominent historian described the Itsekiri homeland as follows: "The Itsekiri inhabit the North Western extremity of the Niger Delta in area bounded approximately by latitudes 50 20 and 60 N and longitudes 50 5 and 50 40 East. Their neighbors are Bini to the North, the Ijaw to the South, the Urhobo to the East and the Yoruba of Ondo province to the North - West." ( Obaro Ikime Phd Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta, 1968).

The following also appeared in the footnote of Professor Allan Ryder's, book, Benin and Europeans 1485-1897 {page 108. "A.S.C. Scritture originali vol. 249 F328} - many varieties of the spelling of Iwere (Itsekiri word) appear in European documents. In the twentieth century English version - Warri has become the most common and will be used in future for the Kingdom of Itsekiri"

A highly cultured people, over the centuries they had impressive trade and cultural links with different people and these ties helped to broaden and enrich their cultural life. The Itsekiri were among the first to have contact with the Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. Traditionally, the ltsekiri are fishermen and traders.

The promotion of economic activity was a major pre-occupation of the ltsekiri monarch from the 16th Century. The fact that there existed a kingdom was important in the decision of the Europeans to do business with the ltsekiri. (Europeans tended to go to areas, which had a political system that could guarantee peaceful trade). The early contacts of the Itsekiri with medieval Europe, especially Portugal, helped to foster a conservative Christian education and civilization in Itsekiriland and the people remain proud of this historical circumstance.

The coastal location of the kingdom and accessible waterways and rivers did not only lead to the early contacts of the Itsekiri with medieval Europe, especially Portugal and foster a conservative Christian education and civilization, but it led to its significant prosperity between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as trade with neighboring ethnic groups and Europeans flourished.

These interactions also led to an Itsekiri prince, christened Domingo, going to study in Portugal for eleven years in the seventeenth century and returning as the first Itsekiri to graduate from college. Itsekiri prosperity proved to be a fertile environment for the emergence of prominent Itsekiri leaders like several kings or Olu. They include, Diare, Olomu and Nanna. The latter three all serving as Governors of Benin River.

However, unlike in the past when prosperity from their homeland propelled the Itsekiri people to glorious heights, recent riches have paradoxically become bane to them. Not only has exploitation of crude oil in the area debilitated the ecosystem and destroyed local trades and economies, from 1997 to 2003, Itsekiri were victimized by some of its violent neighbors.


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