Itsekiri people

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Itsekiri People
Itsekiri traditional marriage in Nigeria.jpg
Total population
c. 800,000 - 1M
Related ethnic groups
Yoruba people, Edo people, Urhobo people

The Itsekiri (also called the Isekiri, iJekri, Itsekri, Ishekiri, or Itsekhiri) are an ethnic group of Nigeria's Niger Delta area, Delta State. [1] The Itsekiri presently number just under 1 million people and live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State on the Atlantic coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can be found in parts of Edo and Ondo states and in various other Nigerian cities including Lagos, Sapele, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Many people of Itsekiri descent also reside in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.The Itsekiris are closely related to the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria and more widely to the Urhobo (especially the Okpe) and Edo peoples.

Ethnic group Socially defined category of people who identify with each other

An ethnic group or ethnicity a category of people who identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry or on similarities such as common language or dialect, history, society, culture or nation. Ethnicity is often used synonymously with the term nation, particularly in cases of ethnic nationalism, and is separate from but related to the concept of races.

Nigeria Federal republic in West Africa

Nigeria, officially the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is a country in West Africa, bordering Niger in the north, Chad in the northeast, Cameroon in the east, and Benin in the west. Its coast in the south is located on the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The federation comprises 36 states and 1 Federal Capital Territory, where the capital, Abuja, is located. The constitution defines Nigeria as a democratic secular state.

Niger Delta delta of the Niger River in Nigeria

The Niger Delta is the delta of the Niger River sitting directly on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean in Nigeria. It is typically considered to be located within nine coastal southern Nigerian states, which include: all six states from the South South geopolitical zone, one state (Ondo) from South West geopolitical zone and two states from South East geopolitical zone. Of all the states that the region covers, only Cross River is not an oil-producing state.


The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or 'Iwerre' as its proper name – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government districts. The area is a key centre of Nigeria's crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri (a multi-ethnic metropolis) forms the industrial and commercial nucleus of the Delta State region.


The Itsekiri are a people of very mixed ethnic origins who speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba of south western Nigeria and the Igala language of central Nigeria [2] but which has also borrowed some cultural practice from the Edo people of Benin City, given the hegemony that the Benin Empire once exercised over the area, Portuguese in trade terminologies, as the Itsekiri were the first people in Nigeria to establish contact with the Portuguese who were exploring the West African coast, and also more recently, English. Although linguistically related to the Yoruba and Igala ethnic groups, however, through centuries of intermingling modern day Itsekiris are of mixed ethnic origins. They are most closely related to the South-Eastern Yorubaland sub-groups - Ijebu, Akure, Ikale, Ondo and Owo), but also Edo, Urhobo, Ijaw are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion.

Yoruba is a language spoken in West Africa. The number of speakers of Yoruba is around 40 million. It is a pluricentric language spoken principally in Nigeria and Benin, with communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, other parts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The non-vernacular remains of the language in the Caribbean, Lucumi, is the liturgical language of the Santería religion of the region. Many Yoruba words are used in the Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé. Yoruba language remants are also used in many other Afro-American religions in the Americas and the Caribbean. Yoruba is most closely related to the Itsekiri language and to Igala.

Igala is a Volta–Niger language. It is spoken by the Igala ethnic group of Nigeria. In 1989 an estimated 800,000 spoke Igala, primarily in Kogi State, but also in fringe portions of Delta State (Ebu), Edo State and Anambra state. Dialects include Ebu, Idah, Imane, Ankpa, Dekina, Ogugu, Ibaji and Ife.

Portuguese language Romance language that originated in Portugal

Portuguese is a Western Romance language originating in the Iberian Peninsula. It is the sole official language of Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe. It also has co-official language status in East Timor, Equatorial Guinea and Macau in China. As the result of expansion during colonial times, a cultural presence of Portuguese and Portuguese creole speakers are also found in Goa, Daman and Diu in India; in Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka; in the Indonesian island of Flores; in the Malacca state of Malaysia; and the ABC islands in the Caribbean where Papiamento is spoken, while Cape Verdean Creole is the most widely spoken Portuguese-based Creole. A Portuguese-speaking person or nation is referred to as "Lusophone" (Lusófono).

Thus having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a hybrid of the many cultures that have influenced its development. Similarly owing to the complex genetic mix of most Itsekiris over the centuries, many individuals self-identifying as Itsekiri would usually be a complex mix of any of the aforementioned ethnic and racial groups. Thus modern day Itsekiris may be the only southern Nigerian ethnic group to be almost totally heterogeneous (mixed) in its genetic composition. The total absence of any dialectal variation in the Itsekiri language is also unique for the region and is most likely the result of the early coalescing of the Itsekiri people into a small and highly centralised nation state from the 15th century onward.


In the 15th century, the early Itsekiris adopted a prince Ginuwa (also called "Iginuwa" in Bini Language) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule. [3] Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. [4] These interactions in the 16th century led the Itsekiri to become primarily Roman Catholic.

Kingdom of Benin pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria

The Kingdom of Benin, also known as the Benin Kingdom, was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. It is not to be confused with Benin, the post-colonial nation state. The Kingdom of Benin's capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state. The Benin Kingdom was "one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE", until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.

Portugal Republic in Southwestern Europe

Portugal, officially the Portuguese Republic, is a country located mostly on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is the westernmost sovereign state of mainland Europe, being bordered to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean and to the north and east by Spain. Its territory also includes the Atlantic archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, both autonomous regions with their own regional governments.

The Itsekiri monarchy has continued to the present day, with the coronation of Ogiame Ikenwoli on 12 December in 2015. The Itsekiri's historical capital is Ode-Itsekiri (also called "big warri" or "Ale iwerre"), though the monarch's main palace is in Warri town the largest city in the area and home to diverse other communities including the Urhobos, Ijaws, Isoko, and many other Nigerian and expatriate groups working in the oil and gas industry.

The Urhobos are people located in Southern Nigeria, near the northwestern Niger Delta. The Urhobo are the major ethnic group in Delta State, one of the 36 states of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Urhobos speak the Urhobo language.

Ijaw people ethnic group

Ijaw people are people in Niger Delta in Nigeria, inhabiting regions of the states of Ondo, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, and Rivers State. Many are found as migrant fishermen in camps as far west as Sierra Leone and as far east as Gabon. Population figures for the Ijaws vary greatly, though most range from 13 million to 15 million. They have long lived in locations near many sea trade routes, and they were well connected to other areas by trade as early as the 15th century.

Isoko people Nigerian people

Isoko people are an ethnolinguistic group that inhabits the Isoko region of Delta State, and Bayelsa State Nigeria. They are people of southern Nigeria, near the northwestern Niger delta. Delta State and Bayelsa State are part of the 36 states of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Isokos speak the Isoko language, which is very linguistically similar to the Urhobo language, Epie-Atissa language, Engenni language. James W. Welch asserted that Isoko language is a dialect of Urhobo language and many people hold that opinion. The Isoko culture is related to several cultures in the Niger-Delta - namedly, Urhobo, Ijaw and Anioma. Urhobo are related in language and culture, leading to the missionaries erroneously labelling the Urhobo and Isoko cultural groups as Sobo. This name was strongly rejected by both tribes.

Itsekiris today

The Itsekiri, though a minority group within Nigeria, are considered to be a highly educated [ citation needed ] and affluent ethnic group [ citation needed ] with a very high rate of literacy [ citation needed ] and a rich cultural heritage.[ citation needed ] The Itsekiris have one of the oldest histories of western education in West Africa, [ citation needed ] and are noted for producing one of its earliest university graduates – the Olu of Warri Kingdom, Olu Atuwatse I, Dom Domingo [5] a 17th-century graduate of Coimbra University in Portugal. Today, many Itsekiris can be found working in the professions [ citation needed ] particularly medicine, [ citation needed ] law [ citation needed ] and the academic professions [ citation needed ] and in business, [ citation needed ] trade [ citation needed ] and industry [ citation needed ] and were among the pioneers that led the development of the professions in Nigeria during the early-to-mid 20th century .[ citation needed ]

Literacy ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word; ability to read, write, and use arithmetic

Literacy is traditionally defined by dictionaries as the ability to read and write, although broader interpretations insist that any particular instance of reading and writing is always taking place in a specific context, as the proliferation of concepts like "conventional or basic literacy, functional literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, legal literacy, computer literacy, medical literacy and information literacy" suggest. The general consensus among researchers that literacy always includes social and cultural elements is reflected by UNESCO's inclusion of numbers, images, digital media, cultural consciousness, and other means of understanding, communicating, gaining useful knowledge, problem-solving, and using the dominant symbol systems of a culture in its definition of literacy. The concept of literacy is expanding across OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts.

West Africa Westernmost region of the African continent

West Africa is the westernmost region of Africa. The United Nations defines Western Africa as the 16 countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, as well as the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The population of West Africa is estimated at about 362 million people as of 2016, and at 381,981,000 as of 2017, of which 189,672,000 are female and 192,309,000 male.


The Itsekiris traditionally lived in a society that was governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and council of chiefs [6] who form the nobility or aristocracy. Itsekiri society itself was organised along the lines of an upper class made up of the royal family and the aristocracy – the 'Oloyes and Olareajas' these were mainly drawn from noble houses including the Royal Houses and the Houses of Olgbotsere (Prime Minister or king maker) and Iyatsere (defence minister). The middle class or Omajaja were free-born Itsekiris or burghers. As a result of the institution of slavery and the slave trade there was a third class 'Oton-Eru' or those descended from the slave class whose ancestors had come from elsewhere and settled in Itsekiriland as indentured or slave labourers. [7] In modern-day Itsekiri society the slave class no longer exists as all are considered free-born.

Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a hat with a feather stuck to it. The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads. Itsekiris are also famed for their traditional fishing skills, melodious songs, gracefully fluid traditional dances and colourful masquerades and boat regattas. [8]


Before the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, [ citation needed ] like many other African groups, the Itsekiris largely followed a traditional form of religion known as Ebura-tsitse (based on ancestral worship) which has become embedded in modern-day traditional Itsekiri culture. Once the dominant form of western Christianity in Itsekiriland for centuries, [ citation needed ] only a minority of Itsekiris are Roman Catholics today whilst the majority are Protestants notably Baptist and Anglican.

Itsekiri language

Togo, Benin, Western, Southern and Central Nigeria
Linguistic classification Niger–Congo
Glottolog yoru1244  (Yoruboid) [9]

Whilst genetically, the Itsekiris are a complex mixture of the many different ethnicities and races that have settled in their area, however, the Itsekiri language is very closely related to the Ilaje and other south-eastern Yoruba dialects and to the Igala. [10] It has also been influenced significantly by the Bini, Portuguese and English languages due to centuries of interaction with people from those nations. However, it remains a key branch of the Yoruboid family [11] of languages even retaining archaic or lost elements of the proto Yoruba language due to its relative isolation in the Niger-Delta where it developed away from the main cluster of Yoruba language dialects.

Unlike nearly all key Nigerian Languages, the Itsekiri language does not have dialects and is uniformly spoken with little or no variance in pronunciation apart from the use of 'ch' for the regular 'ts' (sh) in the pronunciation of some individual Itsekiris, e.g. Chekiri instead of the standard Shekiri but these are individual pronunciation traits rather than dialectal differences. This may be a relic of past dialectal differences. The English language continues to exert a strong influence on the Itsekiri language both in influencing its development and in its widespread usage as a first language amongst the younger generation. Modern standard Yoruba (the variety spoken in Lagos) also appears to be influencing the Itsekiri language partly due to the similarity between both languages and the ease of absorbing colloquial Yoruba terms by the large Itsekiri population living in Western Nigerian cities. Itsekiri is now taught in local schools up to university degree level in Nigeria.

There are a number of semi-autonomous Itsekiri communities such as Ugborodo,koko, Omadino and Obodo whose history predates the 15th-century establishment of the Warri Kingdom. The Ugborodo community claims direct descent from the Ijebu a major Yoruba sub-ethnic group [12]

Notable people

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Erejuwa II was a Nigerian traditional title holder and paramount leader of the Itsekiri who was Olu of Warri from 1951 to 1964 and from 1966 to 1987. He succeeded his father Ginuwa II as Olu. Ginuwa II was a great grandson of Olu Akengbuwa the last Olu who died in 1848, he was appointed in 1936 after an interregnum that lasted 88 years when Warri's political leadership was dominated by merchant princes.


  2. Merchant prince of the Niger delta, Prof Obaro Ikime, Heinemann Educational 1968
  3. journal of the Anthropological Institute, Old Series Vol. XXVIII by Messrs. R.K. Granville and F.N. Roth
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 24 November 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Prof P.C. Lloyd Ethnographic Survey of Africa, Western Africa, Part XIII (1957)
  6. A History of Itsekiri, William A Moore
  7. Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta by Prof Obaro Ikime, Heinemann 1968
  8. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Yoruboid". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  10. Ethnologue Languages of the World Sixteenth edition 2009
  11. "CRY, MY BELOVED UGBORODO" A Diary of a Painful Visit to Itsekiri Homeland Made Desolate By Oil Pollution and Inter-Ethnic Conflict; by Oritsegbemi O. Omatete