THE ancient Benin Kingdom in its glorious days was well known and respected for its might and political exploits. Its popularity spread across many climes, and regions. Among the various towns and villages that in one respect or the other defined the history of the kingdom is Urhonighe. Just like a few other cities within the Benin kingdom, such as Benin-city, Urhonigbe commanded some level of respectability and popularity. Going by the existing configuration of Benin then, Urhonigbe wielded socio-cultural, religious, political and economic influence. Infact, it was believed then that the town was second to Benin-City in importance as it featured prominently in the historical development of the Bini people.
Apart from featuring as a town of note in the traditional administration of the Benin kingdom as an important centre for commerce, cultural and political activities, its visibility in the affairs of the region was further heightened when during the colonial era the town was made the headquarters of Iyekorhionmwon local government council. With this development, the status of the town was further shored up as it attracted a lot of physical development. A lot of people, from Benin and its environs took up residence in the town thereby helping to give the town its larger than life image. But surprisingly, the attendant twists and turns that greeted both the political and economic development of the then Mid-West was in turn to affect, adversely, the fortunes of the town. For instance, the change of name from Mid-West to Bendel State, which among others necessitated the re-alignment of the geopolitical configuration of the state, is said to be the most profound event that helped to bring the town from its olympus height to the nadir that it is today.
According to sources, the former Iyekorhionmwon local government council, which was about one of the biggest in the state was broken up with Abudu emerging as the headquarters of the newly created Orhionmwon local government council. Urhonigbe, a former headquarters, was brought under the newly created council as one of the towns that made up the council. With this new development, a shift in power was witnessed. Abudu became the new bride as all attention was turned to it. The result is that today, Urhonigbe hardly comes up for mention. The once important centre for commerce, and politics in the ancient Benin kingdom as well as in the Mid- West is in a state of static retreat. When this reporter visited the town recntly, the expectation was rather on the high side. But all of that turned out to be mere fantasy. It was as if all conspired to dash this high expectation as what one saw in the town could at best be described as that of a town resisting going into the backwaters of history.
All its colonial heritage and vestiges have given way. In their place, squalor, abandonment and utter neglect have set in. Approaching the town from the outside world as you ride through the Agbor stretch of road that opened up to Kwale and Sapele axis of Delta State, what you see is a rich and blooming natural vegetation. The moment you make a detour into Urhonigbe town, it is a different picture and vision that come to sight. As you inch further into the entrails of the town and begin to set eye on what presently defines the town, you are quickly reminded that the beautiful and natural sight that you earlier on had a glimpse of is a decoy of sorts. This is because you are quickly taken out of your reveries by what you see. All around you is a sad reminder of what the town once stood for. Indeed, the town has fallen on bad times. A feeling of total neglect and abandonment is what you get.
Erosion has devastated much of the land. Urhonigbe is riddled with gullies and ditches as the roads have been submerged. In their place, footpaths have been improvised. Houses are not spared from the devastating effect of erosion. Quite a number of houses have been submerged and pulled down. All around are roofless and dilapidated structures. Most of the owners are said to be away in Benin, Abudu and other places. Even the farm lands have not been spared. One could feel the palpable air of pains, sorrows and hardship that the people live under as Mr. Ojo Anthony, a youth of the town took the reporter round. No attempt was made to disguise this feeling by those encountered by the reporter.
At the palace of the Okavebo, enogie of the town, Chief Ekhator, there was nothing to show that here resides the seat of power. It was just like any other building. Like others around, the palace itself has had it own share of neglect and squalor. It was here that Ekhator sitting in council with Chiefs Idemudia Uduikhuemu, Imarhiaghomuan Egharevba, and Ambrose Ogbebor, Messrs. Robert Egharevba, Emmanuel Itohamwen (secretary of the community) Okunorobor Williams, Ojo Uyiekpen Anthony and Prince Peter Ekhator, representing some of the clans and quarters that make up the town told the sad tale of Urhonigbe. According to them, three main factors accounted for the prominence of the town. These are the political and administrative power that it wielded as the headquarters of Iyekorhionmwon, and as a food basket. Urhonigbe was once famed because of the potency of the god of the land. Olokun worship was very common among the people.
The influence of the town was said to have spread across like a burning bush in the harmattan. With this, the town was said to benefit immensely from the citing of facilities such as buildings for the administrators, courts (customary and magistrate), markets, schools and social amenities. But almost 40 years after, the town has lost its visibility and relative importance. In place of development, a state of inertia has set in as what use to be glorious and sweet tale is now bad dream and sad tale. But for the few elderly ones still around not many people remember the once glorious and blooming era of the town. What most people in the town easily recall is the abandonment and sheer neglect that is the lot of Urhonigbe. What appeared to be a litany of woes that now define the hitherto sprawling but now shrinking and decaying community was better told by Okavebo Ekhator and his chiefs.
According to them, the over 855sq km stretch of land habouring close to 100,000 population has been decimated by erosion. The problem was said to have assumed such disturbing dimensions that some time in the early 1990’s it attracted the Federal government’s attention. But nothing much came out of that. The administrative quarters that once housed the council government is now abandoned. The fate of one of the court buildings is also the same. The roof is almost gone. It is in disuse and bears the signpost of a church. Now there is the possibility of the town once again regaining it status as a judiciary headquarters as the state judiciary service commission is said to have agreed to post a magistrate to the town. Perhaps the areas where the town is affected most are in the areas of electricity, water, schools and industry. It was only in the hey days of the Rural Electrification Board (REB) that the town enjoyed the luxury of electricity.
All attempts in the past to revive the scheme have met with failure. It is only now that the present administration of President Obasanjo has taken up the task of bringing electricity to the town. Light is being connected from Obiaruku (Umutu). Already close to 70 per cent of the work is said to have been done. April was set as the completion date of the project. As for water, it was in the era of Prof. Ambrose Alli who bought a pumping machine for the only community bolehole that the people had good water to drink. Even though they have a river (Ehinmwin) which is said to flow into river Ethiope, they still suffer lack of water. Because the river is about 10km away from the town, the people have to make do with well water or purchase of water from the few privately owned boleholes. As regards schools, for a population close to 100,000 they have just three secondary schools (Urhonigbe Secondary School, Urhonigbe Mixed Secondary School and Ehangbide Grammar School) and 12 primary schools. They are said to exist by the grace of the community as government has abandoned them. The result is that pupils from the area now travel as far as Abavo, Umutu, Obiaruku, Abudu, Agbor and Benin to attend schools.
Commercial activities have also been greatly affected. But for the rubber estate that exists in the town, along the Agbor – Obiaruku road no other form of industry is present. The only form of commerce now is rather on the low side. The existence of two markets in the town (one at Iduogo and the main market at the centre of the town), both of which hold every other three days are now the driving force of commerce in the town. The markets which attract a lot of people from the east were in session when this reporter visited the town. Besides, people like Ojo Anthony have began to thrive on small-scale industry by setting up a local mill factory for the production of oil. The business which is just gaining ground is, according to Anthony, a capital intensive one requiring the assistance of the government.
Of all the colonial vestiges, Urhonigbe General Hospital is about the only institution that has remained on ground. Although the resident doctor, Osa I. Bruce, says the hospital has been adequately stocked, especially in the theatre and laboratory, even though a single operation has not be performed there, it suffers some level of neglect. Sources revealed that the State Hospital Management Board has for years abandoned the hospital by failing to adequately staff it. For instance, there was a period that the hospital was said not to have had a resident doctor for five years. The local people were said to have looked to places like Eku Hospital, Agbor, Benin and Obiaruku for health care. Even when a doctor is sent down, the people hardly notice it. That now is the current fate of Dr. Bruce, who recently assumed duties at the hospital. Since he came in, he said the people hardly turn up for treatment. Not happy with the state of affair, he said he has to embark on a campaign to attract attention to the hospital.
That the town has managed to hold its own in the face of the obvious neglect by the government is, according to the Enogie, Okavebo Ekhator due to the resilence of the people and the communal spirit existing among them. He said that most times they have had to levy the various quarters and clans in order to carry repairs and maintenance of the communal infrastructure. For instance, the roads, markets and schools are being held together through communal effort. At the Abudu headquarters of the council, sources revealed that the current council has assisted with the renovation of a health centre, one primary school and one of the roads. In spite of this the people of Urhonigbe believe that their greatest undoing has been that they have not been able to produce notable children who have held power at the state level. They also blame the removal of the headquarters from Urhonigbe to Abudu when Urhionmwon local government was created.