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The ISOKO People

The Isoko ethnic group of the Niger Delta of Nigeria is one of five ethnic groups of Delta State. The territory, the language and the people bear the same name. They occupy an area of about 470 square miles with a residual population of about 750,000, as extrapolated from the 2001 census, and about 500,000 others residing as immigrants in the fishing grounds and agricultural land areas of Ndokwa East of Delta State; Sagbama of Bayelsa State; Edo State; Ogun State; Ondo State; Ghana; as well as the commercial hubs of Ughelli, Warri, Benin City, Lagos, Ijebu-Ode and Kano.

The origin of the Isoko people is shrouded in mystery and whatever has been gleaned from oral history is not devoid of contradictions, nor separable from myths. However, it is safe to assert that a general consensus exists to the effect that Isoko peoples came, in most part, in four migratory waves from the ancient Benin Empire and Eastern Nigeria. The first wave was that of Erohwa, Uzere and Okpe, circa 1600 A.D. This was followed half a century later by Iyede. Soon after, Ozue led the movement of another batch of migrants to Aviara. The last to come were Igbide, Enhwe-Okpolo and Umeh who are said to have migrated from Eastern Nigeria across the River Niger. Emede people, however, claim pre-eminence. They contend that their founder, Eweri, was the first to arrive Isoko, having migrated from Benin circa 1490 in a route that took him through Elele in present day Rivers State.

Thereafter, there were years of internal expansionary demographic mobility and splits amongst the clans. For instance, Irri came from Uzere while from Irri, in later years, came Oleh, Ivrogbo, Uro, Ada, Idheze, Ikpidiama and Oyede. From Oyede came Bethel. Migrants from Irri also moved to Agbon (Kokori, Eku, Okpara Inland, Okpara Waterside) in Urhoboland. Members of Okpe Clan migrated to Ofagbe,and Ozoro. Others from Okpe moved futher inland to Orerokpe and Sapele in Urhoboland. From Iyede came Emevor, Owhe, Iyede-Ameh. Later, a splinter group from Owhe moved to Ilueologbo and Ellu, whence a group later migrated to Aradhe and Ovrode. To the south, second generation migrants from Aviara founded Araya, Aberuo, Ehwokpaka, Edherie, Ukpude, Ekregbesi and the others that make up the nine villages of Aviara Clan. Effurun in Urhobo is said to have been founded by migrants from Erohwa which is also ancestral to Anibeze. The same is said of the Jeremi clan in Urhobo whose descendants are of Igbide extraction. The only Isoko community to have migrated from Urhobo is Olomoro who are said to have moved from Olomu in Ughelli South Local Government Area.

Isoko people thrive on subsistence farming, artisanal fishing, petty trading as well as small-scale industrial and commercial enterprises. However, with a population density that more than doubles Nigeria's national average, there is an acute shortage of farmland and fishing grounds. To make matters worse, most of the arable land and aquatic resources have been polluted by years of exposure to oil exploration. Unresolved challenges posed by gas flaring, oil spills from pipelines, waste mismanagement and deforestation continue to complicate and exacerbate the hardship experienced by Isoko.

Isoko, therefore, is a bitter irony in the Nigerian economic essay. Even though the region produces more than its fair share of the national wealth from 130 oil wells (Nigeria's second oil well was discovered in Uzere in 1958 after Oloibiri in 1956!) it remains the most under-developed area of Nigeria. Unemployment is beyond measure; poverty is rife and endemic; and the quality of life is far below the standard of living recommended by the United Nations Development Organization.

In spite of this, the Isoko see life not just for living but also as an anthem of celebration! They are a compassionate, peace-loving, hard-working and deeply religious people, always with a joyful song in their hearts.