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While the Ijaw and the Itsekiri have lived alongside each other for centuries, for the most part harmoniously, the Itsekiri were first to make contact with European traders, as early as the 16th century, and they were more aggressive both in seeking Western education and in using the knowledge acquired to press their commercial advantages. Until the arrival of Sir George Goldie's National Africa Company (later renamed the Royal Niger Company) in 1879, Itsekiri chieftains monopolized trade with Europeans in the Western Niger region. Despite the loss of their monopoly, the advantages already held by the Itsekiri ensured that they continued to enjoy an advantaged position relative to that held by the Ijaw. The departure of the British upon independence did not lead to a decrease in tensions between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. With the discovery of large oil reserves in the Niger Delta region in the early 1960s, a new bone of contention was introduced, as the ability to claim ownership of a given piece of land now promised to yield immense benefits in terms of jobs and infrastructural benefits to be provided by the oil companies. Despite this new factor, rivalry between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri did not actually escalate to the level of violent conflict between the two groups until the late 1990s, when the death of General Sani Abacha in 1997 led to a re-emergence of local politics.
The title one of the city's traditional ruler, the Olu of Warri, was formerly known as the Olu of Itsekiri. When the title was changed by Awolowo's Western Nigeria government from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri in 1952, members of the other tribes (Urhobos, Isokos and Ijaws) saw this as an attempt to impose an Itsekiri ruler over them. The title dispute has led to series of clashes between the tribes in Warri over sovereignty.
In 1997, The Federal Government under the late Gen. Sani Abacha created a number of local government areas, including a Warri South-West Local Government Council, whose headquarters it located at Ogbe-Ijoh, in the Ijaw area of Warri. But due to Political pressure by the Itsekiri on the Federal Government, the headquarters of the same local government council was relocated to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri area of Warri.
Riots ensued, hundreds died, and six Shell Nigeria (SPDC) installations were taken over, leading to a drop in oil production. The crisis is known as the "Warri Crisis." The headquarters have since been relocated to Ogbe ijaw by the Delta State House of Assembly, a decision that brought relative peace back to the city.
The issue of local government ward allocation has proven particularly contentious. Control of the city of Warri, the largest metropolitan area in Delta State and therefore a prime source of political patronage, has been an especially fiercely contested area. This has given birth to heated disputes between the Ijaw, the Itsekiri and the Urhobo about which of the three groups are "truly" indigenous to the Warri region, with the underlying presumption being that the "real" indigenes should have control of the levers of power, regardless of the fact that all three groups enjoy ostensibly equal political rights in their places of residence.
The Itsekiris, a tiny aggressive minority occupying lands containing some less than 5% of the total oil wealth of Nigeria, were never a target of the Ijaws and they were to be a quick and gain as the Ijaws envisaged they could easily be runover, considering their status as a minority of minorities and the fact that they, unike the Ijaws, were unprepared for war.
The so-called Warri crisis was when the then Military Administrator of Delta State, Colonel David Dungs, announced in a broadcast to the State that the Headquarters of the newly created Warri South-West Local Government Area was Ogbe-Ijoh, an Ijaw settlement, as was duly gazetted by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The Colonel Dungs could not be maneuvered, he being not from the area but from far away Plateau State in North Central Nigeria, and considering that the action was solely to the benefit of government closer to the marginalized Ijaws area of warri and with superior population advantage in that demography of warri. The Itsekiris put up resistance initially buttresses this point and the cinflict ensured.