The area of Okomu is not owned by the Ijaws but the Edo people. Benin was the capital of an Empire, so various peoples, tribes and ethnic groups of today’s Southern Nigeria often migrated to Benin and had significant presence in the capital. When the British colonial government started after the Benin kingdom invasion, for 17 years Benin was without a King.
It was under the British that the empowering of various sub-tribes, clans etc under the former expansive Benin empire took place, such that when the Oba’s son and heir was crowned then the amalgamation of what was to become Nigeria as we know it, it was so difficult for the Oba to maintain his power and government over the entire former empire. Many of them already became colonial territories and native authorities distinct from the Benin native authority comprised of just the core of the former empire at the height of its glory. The Federal Supreme Court already passed the verdict on the matter. The land belongs to Benin. The Ijaws are just being forgetful or rather allowing their current waywardness overshadow their common sense.
Again, it was when the forest exploitation became lucrative during the erstwhile colonial period that Ijaws moved into Okomu in large numbers to ferry timber (gedu) through the creeks to large mills at Sapele and Lagos where they would be processed. After-all, What business have traditional fishermen with forests except to cut wood occasionally for canoe?. The Ijaws were tenants of the Oba of Benin and there are extant documents written by Ijaws to prove it as they all paid rents for using the land, until recent times.
Benin was the only West African kingdom built entirely in the heart of rainforest. Check Asante, Dahomey and others, they were built either on the fringes of the forest or in the Savanna. Benin and Ondo rainforests of Western Nigeria were reputed to be the richest forests in Nigeria during the colonial period and accounted for two third of Nigeria’s timber export. The town of Sapele +AT & P (African Timber and Plywood) were built on the exploitation and proceeds of forests to the coast all within the former Benin empire.
The forest was teeming with elephants and leopards in the past and special quarters still exist in Benin that were responsible for hunting, trapping and taming these animals- namely Oreẹgbeni (quarters of Elephant hunters) and Ehaẹkpẹn (quaters of Leopard tamers). The Oba never stepped out of the palace without his pet leopards preceding him. One tusk of any elephant hunted in the empire belonged to the Oba and he had the prerogative to buy the other tusk at his price. Any leopard killed in the kingdom must be surrendered to the Oba. There is a proverb among the Eastern Yoruba clans of Ondo, Ekiti, Akoko, Owo, Ilaje and Ikale area that: “A person who kills a leopard sends himself on an errand to the Oba of Benin”.
The elephant tusk were used for documenting the Oba’s every achievement as they were carved on the numerous tusk placed on his ancestral altar. Chiefs also used ivories for ornaments in Benin, Owo, Yorubaland and other places. Ivory was never imported. There are still a very few forest elephants surviving and protected in Okomu forest reserves and were sighted by researchers in the 1990s. As such, Okomu has always been a land under Edo identity, both historically and officially in Government.
Constant bush burning lead to development of derived type savanna and destruction of the habitat and wildlife. This is in addition to unregulated logging of the forest . What saved the Cross river – Cameroon basin forest was the mountainous terrain that made logging difficult during most of the colonial period and the European companies lack of interest in developing infrastructure for their exploitation until very late into the colonial period. But the Chinese are busy logging the cross river basin now and a planned super highway is going to finally destroy it. Benin and the surrounding areas of Western Nigeria being on a lowland with adjoining rivers to float the logs did not require heavy investment in infrastructure development and so they concentrated on destroying the Benin rainforest during the colonial period. That destruction is still ongoing
The British looted textile materials (apliqued clothing, bark materials), leather (ekpokin leather boxes & ezuzu-fans, ema-drums), gourd and shell works among numerous other artifacts of the Benin Kingdom.
I have a relative who only specialized in hunting elephant and he does not have to travel to Kenya or Zimbabwe to hunt elephant. Like I said we have elephants in Edo land, if you have no idea of that, then your Business is ask an Edo elder where in Edoland they have elephant he will tell you. Nri in the Northern Igboland lived in a derived savanna as their forest had been cleared long time ago, due to Eastern Nigeria settlement patterns. Vegetations change and that is what has affected some areas of Igboland. But some parts of Igboland have always been guinea savanna particularly Northern Igboland near benue and kogi borders.
If you look at Nigeria’s Biomass and vegetational cover map today, one would notice that only two areas of the country still have an extensive natural vegetation cover: The Western Nigerian lowland forests (Of which Southern Edoland and Okomu regions as well as parts of Yorubaland are part of), and the Cross river Basin forests which are found in the far east of the country near the border with Cameroon.
Ijaws are making claims on Edoland and Okomu because of Oil in these areas which they are trying to claim ownership of. They were and are still historical tenants to the Benin people and ultimately the Oba.
The forest was never Ijaw ancestral homeland. The documents are not online, but you can read them from intelligence reports on Ekenwan and Siluko District at the National archives Ibadan. Today the Urhobos for example claim Jesse as their land, but it was Benin land that was transferred in the late 1930s by the British to the then Warri province for administrative convenience, and they paid rents to the Oba till recently.
Watch Out for part II ….