Itsekiri people


Itsekiri / Isekiri

The Itsekiri (also called the Isekiri, iJekri, Itsekri, Ishekiri, or Itsekhiri) are an ethnic group of Nigeria's Niger Delta area, Delta State. 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.

Itsekiri People

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 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.

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.


Why the Name Itsekiri

IGINUA the eldest and disowned son of Oba Olua of Bini (Benin) was sent away from his home in Benin City and wandered to an unspecified location in the swampy forest regions around the Benin. His entourage haven been picked up in that portion of the forest known to the Ijaws as 'evil-land' (SEIKIRI) were aptly named by the Ijaws as "SEIKIRI-OTU", meaning people from the 'evil-land'. 'SEI', in Ijaw language means 'EVIL', 'KIRI' means LAND, while OTU means PEOPLE. Similar Ijaw compound words that are descriptive of land that, some of the readers would recognize are; AMAKIRI, BOROKIRI, TORUKIRI, TARAKIRI, DAUKIRI etc. With the passage of time, SEIKIRI-OTU became adulterated to ITSEKIRI by the non-indigenes, but the Ijaws to-date, still maintain the usage of SEIKIRI-OTU in reference to the descendants of IGINUA. Thus, ITSEKIRI, is not a derivative of either an Edo(Bini) or Yoruba language, but of an Ijaw word that underwent an innocent transformation.



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. Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. These interactions in the 16th century led the Itsekiri to become primarily Roman Catholic.

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 Itsekiris traditionally lived in a society that was governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and council of chiefs 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. 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.



Before the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, 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, only a minority of Itsekiris are Roman Catholics today whilst the majority are Protestants notably Baptist and Anglican.


Itsekiri language

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. 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 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



Traditionally, the Itsekiris are predominantly fishermen, living in the riverine areas of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The Warri Kingdom 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.


Itsekiri socio-political system

The word Itsekiri is very foreign to Nigeria. Most of them coined the following from it at its original version: (a.) Isekiri ene - people protected by blessing; (b.) Isekiri aghan - people set aside with special prayers and so on.

Itsekiri system of governance is gerontocracy, but priests are highly revered at every occasion. For instance, Gborodo, Ureju and Okere leadership is paternal, not necessarily by age. They are allowed to preside over every meeting that involves discussion of the deities because their existence is claimed to be controlled by ancestors and spiritual forces, particularly those from the seas.

Itsekiri has the following class:

  1. Otonolu (Royals)
  2. Omajaja (king-makers)
  3. Ibiedo (domestic workers)
  4. Egungun (people with shady historical origin)
  5. Ejoji (Strangers)

It should be noted that royals are never made priests at any public shrine or masquerades. They are the overlord at every point. A disregard of a royal can result into something that the ancestors do not cherish. It could be mentioned by Ife oracle when the ancestors or shrines are being appeased. An Itsekiri proverb succinctly put it this way:

Eru eka kpa Oton olowa. Or Osan ekaja gba kpa irumu ti owi edon ro. Translation: A slave does not kill his master’s child. Or a shrine does not kill the grass around it.

This is because everybody is at the mercy of the Olu and the royals. It is only Ife oracle that proves them wrong for anything contrary to the ancestors and shrines, not the masquerades. The only masquerade the royals reverend is Birikimo at Orugbo. It is the Olu that authorizes its celebration. The Olu is above all the shrines and the masquerades in Itsekiri, not the royals in all cases because indiscipline is not a virtue in Itsekiri. Nobody in the Niger-Delta glorifies acts of indiscipline.



The Itsekiri Traditional Marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals; both families arrange the day the bride price or dowry will be paid.

On that day the family of the bride prepares for their guests by providing drinks, food, kola-nut, dry gin, native chalk and palm wine. The bride will be dressed in a pair of georges and beads around her head and neck,with her face well made up, while the groom (husband of the bride) will be dressed in georges and a matching long blouse on top of it.

He comes on that day with his family to present a bowl of kola-nut, bottles of dry gin, soft drinks and a box of cloths for the bride.Then the father or any other head of that family will present the things they have brought, including 24naira for the bride price.

It is then accepted and followed by prayers from both families that the marriage should bring forth good things such as peace, love, long-life, prosperity and children. Then the merriment starts (eating, drinking and dancing).



Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a cap with a feather stuck to it.


Itsekiris today

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