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BENIN AND THE MIDWEST REFERENDUM
Dr. Nowamagbe A. Omoigui, MD, MPH, FACC
Speech delivered on Friday, December 20, 2002 at the Oba Akenzua II Cultural Complex, Airport Road, Benin City on occasion of the Fifth Late Chief (Dr.) Jacob Uwadiae Egharevba (MBE) Memorial Lecture and Award Ceremony, under the distinguished Chairmanship of S. A. Asemota Esq. (SAN), sponsored by the Institute for Benin Studies.
It is a great honor to me to be invited to address this gathering of important sons, daughters and friends of Benin on the occasion of the 5th Chief (Dr.) Jacob Uwadiae Egharevba (MBE) memorial lecture.
Therefore, I would like to express my profound appreciation to the Institute for Benin Studies, ably coordinated by Uyilawa Usuanlele. The Institute’s foresight and persistence in organizing this annual event rightly honors a deserving son of Benin, whose priceless historical scholarship in difficult circumstances has placed key aspects of our history as a people on record for present and future generations.
In coming before you today, I am humbly following the path of more eminently qualified individuals before me. Professor Unionmwan Edebiri set the tone when he spoke on "Benin and the outer world." Professor Eghosa Osagie reflected on "Benin in contemporary Nigeria." Dr. Iro Eweka reminded us that "We are, because he was." Professor Peter P. Ekeh then reached deep into the archives of our ancestry when he presented " Ogiso Times and Eweka Times: A preliminary history of the Edoid Complex of Cultures."
I am neither a professional political scientist nor historian. However, story telling is part of our culture and tradition. It is one of the ways ordinary folk have passed the story of our people from one generation to another for centuries. When I was originally invited to deliver today’s lecture, I tossed and turned for many months. What singular event in my lifetime, I wondered, did the most, even at a tender age, to shape my sense of whom I am? What was so singularly unique in its ramifications, as told to me by my father, that I could sit in the moonlight and tell it again and again to my children, and someday, God willing, to my grandchildren and great grandchildren? That event was the MIDWEST REFERENDUM OF 1963, when I was four years old.
The Political & Spiritual Purpose of the
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The title of my essay today is the story of “Benin and the Midwest referendum”.
Why Benin? After all, two provinces (Benin and Delta), and many divisions (including the Benin division) in what became the “Mid-West” were involved in the “War” to create the Midwest region in 1963.
There are two reasons. First, the history of the Midwest referendum and events leading to it is exceedingly vast and cannot in all honesty be addressed in a single lecture without losing focus. Secondly, I found a curious excerpt in the report of the Henry Willink Commission:
“In general, it is our view that desire for the State is strong in Benin City and Benin division, the heart of the old Benin Kingdom, and that the idea has progressively less appeal as one moves outwards from this centre.” [Colonial Office: Nigeria - Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the fears of Minorities and the means of allaying them. July 30th, 1958. Chapter 4, page 31]
This prompted me to know more about why Benin came to be considered by the Minorities Commission as the epicenter of the Midwest State Movement and how she mobilized herself and others to join hands to prosecute the “war for the Midwest”.
I shall conclude with two take-home messages:
a). Political parties come and go, but nationalities remain.
b). Organized and united across traditional and contemporary forms of leadership, nothing can stand in the way of the peoples of the Midwest.
On March 29th, 1963 the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs of Nigeria was given the responsibility for the organization of a referendum to decide whether a new Region should be created out of the Western region in a sub-region called “the Mid-West”, comprised of the Benin and Delta provinces.
Preliminary guidelines were contained in an official letter signed by Mr. F.B.O. Williams on behalf of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Internal Affairs. In accordance with the Constitutional Referendum Regulations, 1963, Mr. Gabriel Esezobor Edward Longe, Barrister-at-Law was earlier appointed on January 21st as the Supervisor and empowered to appoint other referendum officials. It was projected that about 71 officials, all Nigerians of Midwest origin, drawn from the Federal Public Service, Corporations in the Federal territory and from other suitable institutions, working full time for about three months, would be required. On the day of the referendum, about 9,300 additional officials were anticipated to be required for operations. The Command Center for the Referendum was designated as No. 2 King’s Square, Benin City. It was to that office that all referendum officials reported on Saturday, April 6, 1963 to begin their historic assignment.
The appointed Referendum and Assistant Referendum Officers for the various districts of the Mid-West are listed in Appendix One (1).
On the 24th of June 1963, by order of the Federation of Nigeria Extraordinary Official Gazette No. 43, Volume 50, the Supervisor of the Mid-West referendum issued Government Notice No. 1265.
It declared that voting at the Constitutional referendum for the creation of the Mid-Western Region would proceed on Saturday, the 13th day of July 1963. The referendum question was as follows:
“Do you agree that the Midwestern Region Act, 1962, shall have effect so as to secure that Benin Province including Akoko Edo District in the Afenmai Division and Delta Province including Warri Division and Warri Urban Township area shall be included in the proposed Mid-Western Region?”
Hours of voting at designated Polling Stations extended from seven o’clock in the forenoon until six o’clock in the evening. It is important to note that a new Voters registration List was not compiled for the purposes of the Mid-West referendum. Only those listed four years earlier in the Federal Electoral Register of 1959 were entitled to vote. Those who wished to vote “yes” were to place their ballot papers in the “white box”. Those who wished to vote “no” were to place their ballot papers in the “black box”.
The results of the Referendum were as follows [GE Longe: Results of the Midwest Referendum, 1963. July 18, 1963. From D.A. Omoigui archives.]
The total number of eligible voters, being persons whose names appeared in the Federal Electoral register of 1959 was 654,130. Of this number the percentage that voted in the affirmative was 89.07%, well in excess of the required 60% (or 392,478) for the creation of the Mid-West region. The region that was born on August 9, 1963 as a result of the July 13th plebiscite remains the only major administrative unit of Nigeria created by due constitutional process.
EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE REFERENDUM
FROM 1897 – 1933
As is well known, Benin City, capital of the independent Benin Kingdom and Empire, and traditional spiritual center of Edo speaking people fell to British troops on February 19, 1897. From that day onwards we became part of the British colonial system and whatever administrative structures its agents and latter day surrogates created. The last independent Oba, Idugbowa Ovonramwen Ogbaisi, was deported to Calabar on September 13th, 1897, where he died in 1914. [Jacob Egharevba: A Short History of Benin. Ibadan University Press, 1968, p60]
In the meantime, Benin was administered as part of the Niger Coast Protectorate, which later became the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900. From 1906 “Southern Nigeria” was administered as three main provinces, Western, Central and Eastern, along with the Lagos colony with which it had been merged that year. The Eastern province was run from Calabar, the Central Province from Warri, and the Western Province from Lagos. The Central Province was also known as the Niger province. It consisted of the Aboh, Agbor, Asaba, Awka, Benin, Forcados, Idah, Ifon, Ishan, Kwale, Okwoga, Onitsha, Sapele, Udi and Warri districts. The protectorate of Northern Nigeria, on the other hand, was initially organized into 13 provinces (run by Provincial residents) before Ilorin and Kabba were merged into one. According to the “Anthropological Report on the Edo speaking peoples” by Northcote Thomas in 1910, Edo-speaking peoples were mainly located in the Central Province of “Southern Nigeria” and the Ibie and Ukpilla districts of Kabba province of “Northern Nigeria.”
The protectorates and colonies of Northern and Southern Nigeria were later amalgamated on January 1st 1914 to create “Nigeria”. [FD Lugard: Report on the Amalgamation of Northern and Souther Nigeria, and administration, 1912 – 1919. H.M. Stationery Office, 1920]. In Benin, after a 17 year interregnum, Prince Aiguobasimwin, (also known as Ovbiudu – the courageous one) eldest son of Oba Ovonramwen, was crowned Oba Eweka II on July 24, 1914. Indeed, the splendor of that coronation ceremony is what initially triggered the interest of the late Jacob Egharevba to write down the history of his people. Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien has eloquently discussed the remarkable story of how Eweka II regained the throne against incredible odds in his paper “Edo Man of the Twentieth Century.” [http://www.dawodu.net/aisien.htm] The Ibie and Ukpilla districts of Kabba province of “Northern Nigeria” were merged with their kith and kin in the Benin province of “Southern Nigeria” in 1918.
After 1897, the opening of core traditional Benin lands to so-called “legal trade” in Oil Palm and Forestry by British agents and surrogates created new opportunities and encouraged mass migrations of southern Edoid peoples, among who were the Urhobo. The period of the interregnum also witnessed aggressive missionary activity, establishment of schools, institution of a system of Warrant Chiefs and the beginnings of what later became the western educated elite. After 1914, the structure of the colonial Benin Native Council provided a platform for competition between elements of the new elite (like Iyase Agho Obaseki) who controlled the District Council, and the Oba. The Oba was further weakened by not being allowed to collect taxes, appoint chiefs without British consent or control land designated as reserved for Government activity. Following the introduction of polls and direct taxation in 1920, the new westernized elite in Benin became increasingly epitomized in the years to come by social and later political groups known at various times as the “Benin Tax-Payers Association” and “Benin Community”. With the restoration of the indigenous monarchy on one hand, and the simultaneous nurturing of a colonial proxy elite on the other, therefore, two tracks in the leadership of Benin were invoked and waxing and waning tensions inevitably developed between them [Igbafe: Benin under British Administration].
In spite of British gerrymandering, primordial linguistic and cultural bonds (and differences) that had evolved over centuries could not be wished away overnight. The appropriate administrative structure for Nigeria was, therefore, always a source of controversy during the colonial era, as evidenced by the number of constitutions that were promulgated in 1922 (Clifford), 1946 (Richards), 1951 (Macpherson), 1954, and finally 1960. Since independence in 1960, our flirtation with numerous constitutions in 1963, 1979, 1989, 1995 and 1999 as well as states creation exercises and calls for a “sovereign national conference” continues to reflect this dilemma.
For example, early British administrators toyed with various proposals for combining groups of provinces into regions and thus nullifying the distinction between “Northern Nigeria” and “Southern Nigeria”. In 1912, the Editor of the African Mail, Mr. E. D. Morel, suggested that Nigeria be consolidated into the Northern, Central, Western and Eastern provinces [ED Morel: Nigeria, Its Peoples and Problems, London, 1912, p201-10, 2nd Edition]. Charles L. Temple, one time Resident of Bauchi and later Lt. Governor of Northern Nigeria, proposed seven provinces, namely, the Hausa States, Benue Province, Chad Territory, Western, Central and Eastern provinces along with the Lagos colony. The Governor-General, Sir Frederick John Dealtry Lugard accepted neither of these proposals. Thus after amalgamation, Northern and Southern Nigeria were left intact under powerful Lt. Governors while the three previous large provinces of Southern Nigeria, which had been run by Provincial Commissioners, were broken down into smaller provinces and placed under Provincial Residents. Northern Nigeria comprised the Sokoto, Kano, Bornu, Bauchi, Zaria, Nupe, Kontagora, Ilorin, Nassarawa, Munshi (Tiv), Muri and Yola provinces. The old “Central province” of Southern Nigeria was split into the Benin and Warri provinces. The “Eastern Province” was divided into the provinces of Calabar, Ogoja, Onitsha and Owerri. The “Western province” became the Abeokuta, Ondo and Oyo provinces, joined thereafter by the new Ijebu province in 1916. Lagos remained The Colony. But some provinces were more equal than others, in Lugard’s eyes. Those that were “more important” were classified as “First Class” provinces. These were the Sokoto, Kano, Bornu, Bauchi, Zaria, Oyo, Owerri and Abeokuta provinces. [FD Lugard: Report on the Amalgamation of Northern and Souther Nigeria, and administration, 1912 – 1919. H.M. Stationery Office, 1920]. The headquarters of the Southern Provinces was later moved from Lagos to Enugu in 1929.
Even in those early days, there were already stirrings of nationalism. In October 1923, Humphrey Omoregie Osagie, then only a 27-year-old clerk, delivered a political lecture in Lagos under the auspices of Herbert Macaulay and the Nigerian National Democratic Party. The young man from Benin would one day become a Titan in the struggle for emancipation of his people. [A. J. Uwaifo: Omo-Osagie and Party Politics in Benin, Department of History, University of Ibadan, May 1985]
Meanwhile, Oba Eweka II became increasingly concerned about the long-term implications of various administrative proposals for new regions that would ride roughshod over the unique history and independence of most of the peoples of the Central Province, which later became the Benin and Warri Provinces. Therefore, in 1926, he requested the British to bring all the Edoid and Anioma (Western Ibo) areas together in one region that would have a direct reporting relationship with the center. He argued that the people of the Benin and Warri provinces were predominantly of one linguistic, cultural, religious, chieftaincy and historical stock and had functioned in the same cultural system before the British came. [File BP 44,VOL 1, The Oba of Benin. National Archives, Ibadan].
To the best of my knowledge, therefore, Oba Eweka II, in 1926, was the first, following the dissolution of the old Central province, to conceptualize the consolidation of what later became the Midwest region of Nigeria in 1963. It was during his reign that the first pan-Edo association called the Institute for Home-Benin improvement emerged in 1932. Its mandate - according to its own documents - was to represent the "Edo speaking people of Nigeria viz: Benin City, Ishan, Kukuruku, Ora, Agbor, Igbanke, Sobe etc." [Uyilawa Usuanlele: The Edo Nationality and the National Question in Nigeria: A Historical perspective. In Osaghae and Onwudiwe (Eds). The Management of the National Question in Nigeria. PEFS. Ibadan 2001] In the same year, Thomas Erukeme, Mukoro Mowoe, Omorowhovo Okoro and others formed the Edoid Urhobo Brotherly Society in Warri.
Unfortunately, Oba Eweka II joined his ancestors on February 8, 1933 and did not live to see his dream come true. It was, therefore, on the shoulders of his son, Oba Akenzua II, crowned on April 5, 1933, after overcoming opposition from his older sister that the spiritual and royal leadership of the future Midwest State Movement was to fall. [H Osadolo Edomwonyi: A Short Biography of Oba Akenzua II. Bendel Newspapers Corporation, 1981.]
FROM 1934 - 1945
The Urhobo Brotherly Society evolved into the Urhobo Progressive Union in 1934, and was later known as the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU). This tightly knit organization would prove to be a powerful ally in the fight for the Midwest. In 1935, the Institute for Home-Benin improvement lobbied for an Edo speaking person to represent the Benin province in the Legislative council. Up until then Benin was represented by a Yoruba trader called Mr. I. T. Palmer who was living in Sapele. This wish was eventually granted when Gaius Obaseki became the first Edo speaking representative on the Legislative council in the early forties (Usuanlele op. cit.). In 1937, the first conference of traditional Obas and rulers in the Southern Provinces of Nigeria took place in Oyo. At that meeting a decision was taking to rotate the venue of the meetings to the domains of various prominent rulers. Coincidentally, the Ibo State Union was also formed that year.
Then in 1939, what Oba Eweka II had feared came to pass. The ten Southern Provinces (along with the Cameroon trusteeship province) were consolidated around the Igbo and Yoruba nationalities into two groups now called the “Eastern provinces” based at Enugu, and the “Western Provinces” based at Ibadan. In this new set-up, the Benin and Warri provinces of the independent old “Central Province” were now part of the so-called “Western group” with the River Niger as a natural boundary. The “Anioma” or “Western Ibo” subgroup of the Benin province, led by Asaba indigenes, requested to be merged with the Aboh division of the Warri province in a new Western Ibo province, but were overruled by the British because of the advent of the Second World War. [JIG Onyia: My role in Nationalism. 1986 JID Printers Ltd. Asaba]. Oba Akenzua II took note of the Asaba-led agitation. However, in the years preceding it, he was distracted by internal problems in Benin like the Forest reserve dispute of 1934, the abolition of District Heads in 1935, Uzebu uprising and Benin water rate agitation of 1936 – 1940 [Igbafe, op. cit.] . It was not long, however, before the Richards Constitution of 1947 crystallized both groups of provinces into the Eastern and Western “regions” of Southern Nigeria, each with its own Regional Assembly. The old “Northern Nigeria” remained as one large region.
Professor P.A. Igbafe has discussed much of the dynamics of colonial rule and its impact on traditional Benin in his outstanding book “Benin under British Administration”. The late Jacob Egharevba also discussed tensions between Oba Akenzua, a few of his prominent chiefs (like Iyase Okoro-Otun) and the emerging Benin educated and commercial elite in his seminal book “A Short History of Benin.” Such tensions were driven by different agendas but manifested opportunistically from time to time. Nevertheless, these tensions - which undermined the Oba’s stature and even threatened his throne - were temporarily resolved after negotiated concessions following appeals from British officials and Traditional Rulers in other jurisdictions, like Warri.
During this era too, Oba Akenzua II, motivated by visions of a united pan-Edoid nation, agreed to the British proposal for transfer of large tracts of land from the Benin province to the Warri province for “administrative convenience. Affected tenants, who agreed to continue to pay royalty in return, populated such lands, many of which had opened up after 1897, including places like Jesse, Ogharefe and other lands across the Ethiope River - which are now in the Delta State portion of the former Midwest.
In August 1942, the conference of traditional Obas and rulers in what was now the Western Provinces of Nigeria took place in Benin City. It is said that at that meeting, there was an attempt to speak Yoruba as the Lingua Franca, thus causing some irritation among delegates from the Benin and Warri provinces. Nevertheless, the Second World War was in progress and all efforts were focused on its successful prosecution, so sleeping dogs were allowed to lie. The war was interrupted only by reports that the Institute for Home-Benin Improvement had transformed into the Edo National Union in 1943 and that Nnamdi Azikiwe proposed eight (8) protectorates in his “Political Blueprint for Nigeria” [RL Sklar: Nigerian Political Parties. Princeton, 1963]. At about this time tribal unions like the Bauchi Improvement Association, Ibibio State Union, and the Pan-Ibo Federal Union became known. The pro-independence National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) was formed by Herbert Macaulay in 1944. It attracted many young educated elite from the Benin and Warri provinces initially. Among them were men like Mr. Anthony Enahoro, TJ Akagbosu, Chief Gaius Obaseki, Arthur Prest, O.N. Rewane, Begho and Edukugho. [EA Enahoro: Fugitive Offender, London: Cassell, 1966]
AFTER WORLD WAR II
In 1945, two significant events occurred in Benin. Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie, already mentioned earlier in this essay, retired from the public service and quietly returned to Benin. He was an ex-student of King’s College Lagos where he was a Schoolmate of Oba Akenzua. 1945 was also the year that Oba Akenzua re-established the Aruosa Church as the Edo National Church of God. He later wrote its catechism and published two volumes of liturgical books as well as a rule-book based on its constitution.
In the same year, Michael Adekunle Ajasin and Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo conceptualized founding the “non-political” exclusively Yoruba vanguard cultural group called the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Society of Descendants of Oduduwa) in London. It would later be formalized in 1947 and then metamorphose into the Action Group political party in 1950/51. [Sklar, op cit]
After the war, the momentum for independence began to gather strongly, led by Macaulay until his untimely death in 1946 when Nnamdi Azikiwe took over the leadership of the NCNC. By this time Obafemi Awolowo had begun staking positions publicly and was quoted in 1947 as saying, “Opportunity must be afforded to each group to evolve its own peculiar political institutions.” [Awolowo: Awo – The autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Cambridge University Press, 1960]
Indeed, one of the controversial issues of that era was the extent to which Edo based parties and groups should ally themselves with parties and groups outside the Edoid region. Oba Akenzua II was opposed to external alliances because he saw them as a threat to Edo National aspirations. In 1947, for example, there was a conference of delegates from the Benin and Warri provinces at the old Conference Hall in Benin City, where fears of domination in the West were articulated.
On the other hand, some Edo speaking politicians like Anthony Enahoro and Gaius Obaseki, for example, became disillusioned with Nnamdi Azikiwe and the NCNC allegedly for Ibo leanings after Macaulay’s death. [Enahoro, op. cit.] The Pan-Ibo Union had been one of the founding organizations of the NCNC. However, Azikiwe later assumed its Presidency in 1948. The West African Pilot later quoted him in 1949 as saying “It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Ibo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of ages….”
Meanwhile deep discomfort in Benin with the provincial administrative changes of 1939 was heightened by proposals in the new Richards Constitution of 1946 for the formal creation of the Eastern, Western and Northern Regions in Nigeria. The new constitution created a separate House of Assembly and House of Chiefs in the Northern region. Initially, the Eastern and Western regions were allotted a unicameral House of Assembly each, to which were later added a House of Chiefs for each of the Regions. But back in Benin, Oba Akenzua II found himself once again in dispute with elements of the “new elite” even as he kept an eye on events at the national level.
Following the death of Iyase Okoro-Otun in 1943, efforts by the Oba in November 1947 to abolish the title of Iyase (“Prime Minister”) on account of his experience during the water rate agitation were strongly opposed. Opposition was mobilised by the new “Benin Community Tax-Payers Association” primarily formed to pressure the Oba to confer the title of Iyase on a literate individual. Thus he reconsidered his position, even though supported by a group of chiefs and prominent citizens including Omo-Osagie, Egbe Omorogbe, Ogieva Emokpae, J. O. Edomwonyi, D.E. Uwaifo, C.Y. Legemah etc. These chiefs and other men later created the Edo Young People’s party [Edomwonyi, op. cit.] . After an unsuccessful attempt to confer the title on Idehen, then the Esogban of Benin, Oba Akenzua eventually conferred it in April 1948 on Hon. Gaius Obaseki, son of the late Iyase Agho Obaseki, some say under pressure from British authorities. In the next few years to follow the Oba was subjected to humiliations such as a decrease in his salary and ban from conferring titles without permission [CN Ekwuyasi: Benin Situation as it is today. Daily Times, April 26 1950, p8].
As the Iyase, Gaius Obaseki was executive Chairman of the newly re-organized Benin Divisional Council while Oba Akenzua II was the President. Obaseki was also the concurrent Chairman of the Benin City Council and its powerful Administrative Committee. In addition he was elected the Oluwo or Leader of the influential Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF), a fact that would assume great significance in the politics of Benin. The ROF was a religious order said to be have been in existence since the late 19th century but formally founded in 1914 by African Christian clergy led by Anglican Archdeacon Ogunbiyi. It was later introduced into Benin society from Yoruba land, (but is different from the much older traditional Ogboni society of Yoruba Obaship). The ROF describes itself as the equivalent in the United States of “the Freemasons, Odd Fellows Fraternity, The Rosicrucians, etc. [Morton, Williams. The Yoruba Ogboni Cult in Oyo. AFRICA Vol. xxx 1960, p 362-374].
At the Benin provincial level, there were two conferences that year, both marked in part by growing rivalries between two prominent sons of Benin – Chiefs Gaius Obaseki and Humphrey Omo-Osagie. It was also in May 1948 that Bode Thomas, an emissary of Obafemi Awolowo paid a visit to the Benin and Warri provinces to canvass support for a new political party with a “Yoruba orientation”. The result of Bode Thomas’s visit was to split the hitherto united nationalist front of young Midwest based politicians into pro-NCNC and anti-NCNC factions. At about this time, midwesterners barely took note of a new northern organization called the Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa, which was founded in May 1948. It would later evolve into the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), a political party that was destined to play a critical role in the creation of the Midwest region after independence.
Anyway, having accepted the Iyase situation, on October 16th, 1948, Oba Akenzua II addressed the inauguration of what was known as the “Reformed Benin Community”, formed by Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie in Benin:
He said, inter alia:
“The aims and ideals of this new political body seem very laudable and there is no doubt that it will help develop usefully like its counterparts, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa of the Yorubas, the Federal Union of the Ibos and so on….
In the scheme of things, all Benins should strive for a state or principality of Benin in the new Nigeria in the making. The Hausas, the Yorubas, the Ibos, and so on are on the move and the fact that this or that non-Benin political party has awarded scholarships to Binis for higher studies should not deprive us of our identity, custom, tradition, language and culture, or lull us into a false sense of security. …..
I believe Nigeria expects each of her states to do or mind its own business, though all states have one common business to perform, that is work together in order to achieve in a short time independence for a United States of Nigeria.....
Therefore, the Richards Constitution in 1950 must aim at creating more regions with full autonomy than there are at present, each with its own Governor. At least there must be a fourth region to be known as the Central or South West provinces……
I sincerely hope that the day will come when there will be a larger body to be known as the Federal Union of the Central or South West Provinces in which the Edo, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ishan, Ora, Ivbiosakon, Sobe and so on will be principal members of the union…." [SOURCE: National Archives of Nigeria, Ibadan; File BP2647. Reformed Benin Community. ]
Akenzua further advised the Reformed Benin Community to unite all the Edos, critically study the Richards Constitution, which was due for review, and make the creation of the new region the main focus of the organization. At about this time, the only other voice that was loudly heard in the wilderness of States agitation was that of Barrister Udo Udoma who was the first to conceptualize the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) State.
Meanwhile, the new Iyase of Benin, Gaius Obaseki, was waxing stronger, exploiting his unique concentration of powers. Jacob Egharevba wrote: “As a result of various differences, ill-feeling grew up between the Oba and the Iyase.” Professor Igbafe was more direct:
“Like Cardinal Wolsey of Tudor England, Gaius Obaseki concentrated power in his own hands with ruthless efficiency and uncompromising vindictiveness against known opponents……..The Ogboni began to indulge in excesses. Gaius embarked on a vigorous membership drive. Those who held out were persecuted.
The result of this over-concentration of power in the hands of a single individual and the excessive exercise of that power vis-à-vis the Oba’s loss of prestige, stipend and power, produced an inevitable but opposite and equal reaction. There was bitterness against the Ogboni, which now began to dominate the councils and to infiltrate all walks of life in Benin. Progressive young men found the Ogboni influence a social menace and unacceptable to their way of thinking. Possibly the Iyase’s position in the council and in the Ogboni gave excessive political importance to this cult. Having struggled to place a literate young Iyase in a position of power in order to deflate the Oba’s palace autocracy, the people found that the Ogboni cult was now too powerful and sinister for their comfort.” [Igbafe: op. cit.]
At the Warri and Benin provincial conferences of 1949, all Edo-speaking people (including Urhobo) supported calls for a Midwest State [Files BP/2328, BP/2678/1, BP/742; WP/569/1 National Archives, Ibadan]. During this period opinion among leaders from Asaba division was predominantly in support of consolidation with the Eastern region or creation of a western Igbo province within the Western region. Asaba, western Ijaw, and an Itsekiri faction all opposed creation of the Midwest. When Benin and Warri delegates in favor of creation of the Midwest region attempted to raise the issue at the Western regional conference on Constitutional reform that year, they were prevented from doing so. Therefore, with Oba Akenzua in the lead, they walked out. Meanwhile both Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe at this stage were expressing preference for a Three-States based Nigeria, a position they elucidated at the All-Nigeria Constitutional Conference in Ibadan in January 1950, preparatory to the take-off of the MacPherson Constitution.
Back in Benin, the fear and resentment of the Ogboni was amplified the suspicion that it was some sort of mechanism for the Yoruba infiltration and control of Benin society [Abiodun Aloba: It is a choice between Ogboni and Benin. Daily Times, October 1st, 1951, p8]. This later became the template for a popular uprising. Many who had tormented Oba Akenzua in the difficult days of the 1930s and early forties became royalist. The “Reformed Benin Community” noted above, later evolved, first to “Otu-Adolo” and then to “Otu-Edo” on March 15th, 1950, specifically, according to J. Osadolo Edomwonyi, to “counter the excesses of the ill-motivated activities of the so-called Taxpayers Association cum Ogboni.” [Edomwonyi, op. cit] After a crack-down by Obaseki against local demonstrations, a delegation of leaders led by E. O. Imafidon was sent to Lagos to invite Humphrey Omo-Osagie back to Benin from a meeting in Lagos, to lead the Otu-Edo. The new party was dedicated to the “development of Benin and the unification of all Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.” In its constitution it also said it would promote “a sense of nationalism among the people of Benin” and combat threats to “the structures of our laws and custom” and “national unity.” [Orobosa Oronsaye: Cultural Organisation and Political Development – The case of the Otu-Edo. University of Ibadan, Department of History, June 1977.]
It was in this context that the Otu-Edo party was formed in a crisis atmosphere, to support the Oba in his fight against the taxpayers association under Iyase Gaius Obaseki at the local level while mobilizing support for the Midwest State Movement at the provincial level. [Otu-Edo Union, File No. 1170/1 National Archives, Ibadan] Although, there were some initial problems with key NCNC leaders like Ernest Ikoli, Mbonu Ojike and Nnamdi Azikiwe, some of whom were suspected of being members of the ROF in Lagos, Otu-Edo later entered into an alliance with the NCNC at the national level. Meanwhile, at the local level in Benin, according to Professor Igbafe:
“……..the Ogboni allied with the Action Group founded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo out of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in Yorubaland…”
How did all this play out?
After Otu-Edo was created, another political party, called the Benin Action Group was created in Benin in March 1951, in response to the activities of Bode Thomas mentioned earlier. They were both opposed to Ogbonism in Benin politics, as crystallized, in their opinion, by the Benin Community Taxpayers Association. Indeed both parties overlapped and shared membership.
In the weeks preceding the formal launching of the united “Action Group” at Owo from April 28 – 30, 1951, Anthony Enahoro had organized a meeting of Benin and Warri leaders of thought in Sapele, ostensibly to discuss Midwestern solidarity. People like Gaius Obaseki, Arthur Prest, Festus Edah (Okotie-Eboh), Okorodudu, S. O. Ighodaro etc. were present. At the meeting, most participants expressed sentiments against the creation of a separate midwestern region. However, two dissenters, Chike Ekwuyasi and E. O. Imafidon who were present, rushed back to Benin to alert Omo-Osagie who then called a rally of his own and initiated counter-measures [Oronsaye, op. cit.; Uwaifo, op. cit].
On April 28, delegates from Benin and Warri provinces attended the main Action Group conference at Owo, at which merger of the Midwestern and Western components was accomplished. Gauis Obaseki emerged as the Vice President for Benin Province, S.O. Ighodaro, as Treasurer, Anthony Enahoro as Assistant Secretary, while Arthur Prest and W. E. Mowarin emerged as Vice Presidents from the Warri province. However, Benin Action Group delegates, like D.N. Oronsaye, C. N. Ekwuyasi, S. O. Ighodaro, and others, who were not members of the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity, opposed Gaius Obaseki’s election at Owo. When they returned, the Benin Action Group dissociated themselves from Chief Awolowo’s Action group and later allied themselves with H Omo-Osagie’s Otu-Edo party in what was known as Otu-Edo/Benin Action Group Grand Alliance. Iyase Obaseki, now Vice President for the Awolowo Action group, moved immediately, some say ruthlessly, to consolidate his hold on Benin division [Oronsaye. Op. cit.].
The stage was set, therefore, for a bitterly fought council election, which took place in December 1951. The period preceding it was associated with waves of violence, including arson and murder, in an uprising against the Awolowo Action Group/Benin Taxpayers Association/Ogboni known locally as “Airen Egbe Ason”, meaning “people do not recognize each other at night”. Beginning in July, but with its high point on September 6th, it was allegedly triggered by actions of two members of the “Ogboni Action group”, namely Iyare and Obazee, at Evbowe in Isi district. [File 1818/6/B National Archives, Ibadan] Farmers who opposed the Ogboni were allegedly mobilized and concentrated at Eguaholor from where they proceeded to burn down the houses of leaders of the Ogboni in villages all over Isi district. The epidemic breakdown of law and order necessitated massive mobilization of Policemen to many parts of rural Benin province [File B.D. 1818/7. Benin Situation Report. National Archives, Ibadan]. Many were detained, subsequently charged to court, fined and even jailed. GCM Onyiuke, Charles Idigbe, and Mr. S. O. Ighodaro, then the Secretary of the Benin Action group, comprised the legal team hired by Otu-Edo to defend its members.
Nevertheless, after the mayhem, with the Ogboni infrastructure broken in the rural areas, Otu-Edo, under Humphrey Omo-Osagie, with the Oba as its patron, came to power in Benin in 1952 - while at the regional level, the Awolowo Action Group dominated the legislature in Ibadan. The Macpherson Constitution replaced the Richards Constitution in 1952. It created a central legislature that was called the House of Representatives and initially led to false hopes that a quick mechanism for States Creation would be established. Meanwhile, Oba Akenzua had to preside over the residual bitterness that accompanied the recruitment drive for ROF, followed by the uprising of 1951 in Benin division. It tore families and communities apart. However, with no justification intended for the violence, had Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie not come to power that year to align the “new elite” with the “traditional leadership”, the subsequent unified role of Benin as the heartland of the agitation for the creation of the Midwest may never have seen the light.
When the Western House of Assembly opened in January 1952, 21 out of 24 Midwesterners were allied with the NCNC while three – S.O. Ighodaro, Arthur Prest, and Anthony Enahoro - were allied with the Action Group. One immediate source of irritation was the government’s official pamphlet, which insensitively described the Parliamentary Mace with four ceremonial swords as representing the authority of Yoruba Chiefs. To aggravate matters, when the unicameral Western House of Assembly was formally declared open by then Lt. Governor Sir Hugo Marshall, the Alake of Abeokuta, rose to speak immediately after Sir Marshall and said:
“On my right sits the Oni of Ife; On my left, the Leader of our Government, Obafemi Awolowo. The Voice of the West is complete.” [Hansard of Western House of Assembly: January 7, 1952]
In other words, as the delegates from Benin and Delta saw it, the “voice of the West” did not include those of the people of Benin and Delta provinces. To compound matters, Benin and Delta delegates later complained too about derogatory epithets that had allegedly been hurled at them, such as “KoboKobo”, used to refer to persons (or barbarians) whose diction cannot be understood. [File BP/2328/1 National Archives, Ibadan]
From this point on, the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, supported by the Benin and Warri (Delta) legislative delegation, began openly touring Benin and other Divisions of Benin province as well as the Delta province to campaign for the Midwest (Central) region. According to Professor Michael Crowder:
“In the Western region, as a reaction against the allegedly Yoruba-dominated Action group, the Mid-West State movement was started, supported largely by non-Yoruba-speaking peoples and in particular the people of the old Benin Empire.” [M Crowder: The Story of Nigeria. 3rd Edition, 1972. Faber]
Indeed, at the very next Benin Provincial Conference at Ogwashi-Uku in June 1952, attended by pro-Midwesterners like JO Odigie of Ishan, Chike Ekwuyasi of Benin and Dennis Osadebay of Asaba, separatist sentiments were strongly expressed, resulting in the creation of the “Central State Congress”. [File BP/2328/1 National Archives, Ibadan] One of the criticisms of the Western region government was the alleged decision to spend 225,000 pounds in Awolowo’s home province of Ijebu with a population of 383,000, as compared with 169,000 pounds in the Benin province with a population of 624,000. Subsequently, a subgroup known as the Committee of the Midwest Organization emerged under R.O. Odita.
Before the end of 1952 another significant event occurred. It was the decision of the Action Group government based in Ibadan to restore the title of the ‘Olu of Itsekiri’ to ‘Olu of Warri’ as it had been known in previous centuries. Non-Itsekiris in Warri Province reacted violently, concerned that there was an implication of suzerainty over the whole province. Thus a compromise was reached. In exchange for acceptance of the designation of the Olu as ‘Olu of Warri’, the province was renamed ‘Delta province’. [personal papers, Alfred O. Rewane] In spite of this compromise, the experience soured the relationship between many Urhobo leaders of thought and the Action group leadership, which they felt, had been beholden to a powerful Itsekiri lobby. It served to drive Urhobos, already so inclined, further into the warm embrace of the Midwest Separatist Movement.
Back in Benin, another one of the many clashes between H. Omo-Osagie and Gaius Obaseki was playing out. In 1953, Otu-Edo got Iyase Obaseki deposed as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Benin Divisional Council allegedly for not attending meetings. His Orderly and Police escorts were withdrawn and monthly salaries stopped [Oronsaye, Op. Cit.]. However, the Oba did not cooperate in the attempt to strip him of his title as Iyase, allegedly for not performing the rites of the office. Thus Obaseki retained his title as Iyase – although he never really performed the formal traditional ceremonies of acceptance of the title in the first place. Nevertheless, colonial authorities removed the Resident in Benin province, Mr. H. Butcher for his role in during and after the controversial Iyase affair of 1948.
In July/August 1953, Councilor J. Osadolo Edomwonyi moved a motion in the Benin Divisional Council praying the Constitutional Conference in London to include on its agenda, the creation of a separate region for the Benin and Delta provinces [Edomwonyi, Op. Cit.]. However, overshadowed by a bitter fight between Obafemi Awolowo of the Western region and Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Eastern region over excision of Lagos on one hand and Southern Cameroons on the other, creation of new States was overruled at the London Constitutional conference [Report of the Conference on the Nigerian Constitution, held in London, July-August, 1953 Cmnd. 8934, (London: H.M.S.O., 1953, p4)]. When he returned from London, Chief Omo-Osagie briefed Oba Akenzua II, who then made arrangements to host a conference of traditional and political leaders of the Benin and Delta provinces on September 18, 1953 in Benin City. Anthony Enahoro, S. O. Ighodaro, Arthur Prest and the Olu of Warri boycotted this well attended meeting. In his address, Oba Akenzua II said, among other things that Midwesterners were seeking freedom, “not only from the white man, but also from foreign african nations…” He went on to state that,
“Benin-Delta was a sovereign nation before the occupation of the country by the British.” Akenzua also said, “The divide and rule policy of the British Government had done much harm to the national solidarity of Benin-Delta Province in the past but as God now wants things to be what they were before the advent of the British Government, that is, the Yoruba State for the Yorubas and Benin-Delta State for the “BENDELITES”, that is, the inhabitants of the Benin-Delta Province, steps should now be taken without further delay or fear to move the British Government to repair the damage they have done by restoring the national status of Benin-Delta Province before they transfer power back to the Nigerians from whom they have taken it.”
Mr. JIG Onyia of Asaba then moved a motion, which said inter-alia:
“Be it resolved, and it is hereby resolved that:
1. We (the peoples of Benin-Delta Province) in a conference holding at Benin City this 18th day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty three, demand as of right an immediate creation of a separate State for the peoples of Benin-Delta Province…….” [Edomwonyi, Op. Cit.]
Spurred on by stronger and stronger perceptions of discrimination in the West, exemplified by matters such as the state ment of Alake of Egbaland in 1952, Adegoke Adelabu’s emergence over Osadebay as NCNC leader of Opposition in the West, threats of Western regional control of Midwestern forests, etc. H Omo-Osagie urged the assembly to create a “party which will serve as the Vanguard in the battle for the Midwest.” The envisioned party was to be independent of parties based in other regions. After overruling an alternative concept put forward by JIG Onyia of Asaba, that the organization so created should be a “movement” rather than a “political party”, the Benin Delta Political Party (BDPP) was created. It was to function under the patronage of a President General (Oba Akenzua II) and six Vice Presidents (Ogirrua of Irrua, Emeni of Obiaruku, Ovie of Ughelli, Momodu of Agbede, Ovie of Effurun and Ogenieni of Uzairue). Members of the Executive Committee were D.E. Odiase, T.O. Elaiho, G. Brass Ometan, J. W. Amu, J. D. Ifode, J. Igben, Martins Adebayo, John Uzo, H. O. Uwaifo and Barrister Gabriel Edward Longe. Chief Oweh later replaced JD Ifode. Other BDPP stalwarts included Onogie Enosegbe II of Ewohimi, E. A. Lamai of Fugar and Martins Adebayo of Akoko-Edo. [File Ben Prof 2/BP/3022, National Archives, Ibadan]
Oba Akenzua II subsequently notified the Western House of Chiefs of this development, quipping, “I think that the Benin Delta State can succeed very well without being tied to the apron strings of the Yoruba State.” He also said “The fact is the Benin/Delta People’s Party will not allow the Benin/Delta State to be annexed to the Yoruba State whether the North and the East are broken into small States or not.” [Western House of Chiefs Debates, Oct. 20, 1953] Then he proceeded to lead a series of tours all over the Midwest to campaign for the Midwestern region. Such tours were undertaken in December 1953, February and May 1954. The BDPP hinged its success on the prestige of various traditional rulers, inspite of undercurrents of tension with some western Ibo, specifically Asaba leaders like F. Utomi and G Onyia, who issued public statements after the Western Igboid Conference of December 1953, that Asaba people should not attend BDPP meetings. In his memoirs, Dennis Osadebay says “they feared that the creation of the region would mean the resuscitation of the old Benin Kingdom and it’s alleged oppressive rule and domination of minorities.” [DC Osadebay: Building a Nation: An Autobiography. MacMillan, 1978.]
In 1954, Obafemi Awolowo became Premier of the Western region under the 1954 Constitution that created the Federation of Nigeria. At the same time Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh of Warri, representing the NCNC, became the Regional Minister of Labour and Welfare. Dennis Osadebay emerged as NCNC Opposition leader in the West, while V.I. Amadasun became NCNC Chief Whip. Meanwhile the BDPP relied increasingly on the local NCNC operational infrastructure, even while foreswearing any party links in public. As time went on, therefore, pressure grew from within the BDPP to formally ally the party with the NCNC – which the Oba was opposed to. Meanwhile there were unconfirmed rumors at the end of 1954 that the Oba had reached a secret deal with Chief Awolowo. [Michael Vickers, Ethnicity and Sub-Nationalism in Nigeria, p93] Concerned about these rumours, Chief Omo-Osagie decided to ignore the General Secretary of Otu-Edo, Mr. J. Osadolo Edomwonyi, who had close links to the Palace, and unilaterally nominate Mr. Eric Imafidon to contest the All-Nigerian Parliamentary elections. Both Omo-Osagie and Imafidon defeated Edomwonyi’s “Oba of Benin BDPP faction” candidates. [Uwaifo, Op. Cit.; Oronsaye, Op. Cit.]
The Action Group had in the meantime conceptualized a plan to seize political control of Benin by co-opting the Oba and destroying Chief H Omo-Osagie.
According to testimony from Dr. Obas. J. Ebohon,
“My father was the personal driver of Chief Omo-Osagie through out his political career and what both himself and B2 went through before, during, and after the creation of Mid-West is unimaginable and sometimes better than some of 007 epic films. My father once told me that the journeys to and from the Western House of Assembly in Ibadan was the type of journeys one makes to and from the battle field. Firstly, they never exceeded four people and they travelled by Bedford Lorry instead of a car to which his status demanded. The reason for this was security as his life was threatened openly by those enraged by his demands for Mid-West State. He said on approaching Ore, they would disembark and B2 would come out of the comfortable second row and climb into the back of the Bedford lorry and be covered with trampoline and that is where he would remain through the numerous roadblocks put out to hunt him down and, that is how he would remain until they arrive Ibadan. Sometimes, for the need to confuse his detractors, he would be hidden in lorries carrying plantain to Ibadan and guess where he would be sitting - buried among the plantain and that is how he remains until the outskirts of Ibadan and be transferred into the Bedford lorry again. On numerous occasions they escaped death with the skin of his teeth. My father indicated that when they are travelling, it usually was like preparing for a funeral at B2's house and those of his entourage and the worst is expected and, when they return unharmed, it was jubilation.” (Source: OJ Ebohon. Edo-Nation Egroup, July 5, 2002. RE: [Edo-Nation] The Last Edo Political Titan: Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie)
Under these circumstances, on March 8th, 1955, Obafemi Awolowo invited Oba Akenzua II for a meeting in Ibadan. According to the minutes of the meeting, Chief Awolowo told Oba Akenzua II to disengage himself from politics before it becomes a disadvantage. Awolowo told him that he had planned to preserve the position of traditional rulers as an "important part of the social and spiritual life of the people" outside the political arena. In response, Oba Akenzua II politely but firmly drew a distinction between politics and his activities with the Midwest State movement. He went further to query why the Ooni of Ife and the Alake of Abeokuta were open supporters and contributors to the Action Group but were not being similarly advised. Awolowo reacted by promising to give other Obas similar advice, but also told Oba Akenzua II to go back to Benin and seriously reflect over his comments. [National Archives, Ibadan; File B.P.215 Correspondence with the Oba of Benin.]
This meeting between Oba Akenzua and Chief Awolowo was to presage a complex series of intrigues that would unfold in the next few months. Just as Chief H Omo-Osagie was to leave for Lagos in March 1955 to take up a new position as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, he was involved in a factional split with a sub-faction of the Edomwonyi group led by A.G. Bazuaye within the Otu-Edo [Otu-Edo Secretariat: Confusion in the Otu Edo. March 4, 1955]. This was coming to a head just as the mandate of the Benin Native Authority Council was expiring. The Action Group Government in Ibadan refused to renew the mandate of the council, preferring instead to appoint a provisional caretaker council. This caretaker committee was under the chairmanship of the Oba, but consisted of a mixture of the pro-Action Group Bazuaye faction of Otu-Edo and elements of Iyase Gaius Obaseki’s pro-Action Group Benin Tax Payers Association, pending new elections. The new provisional council included well-known Action Groupers like S.Y. Eke and V.O.E. Osula [Benin Native Authority Files 730/4 (April 2, 1955) and 730/5 (May5, 1955)]. It increased the salary of the Oba in a move that appeared to signal a rapprochement between Oba Akenzua and Iyase Gauis Obaseki. It was hoped that the Oba would cooperate with an alliance of the Bazuaye and Obaseki groups to oust Omo-Osagie from power. But the Oba wanted some kind of public indication that the Action Group would stop being ambivalent or even hostile toward the creation of the Midwest.
Therefore, on June 14th, 1955, a legislator, MS Sowole, moved a motion, seconded by JG Ako, a minister of state, which was carried in the Western House of Assembly titled “Creation of a Separate State for Benin and Delta Provinces.” Chief Awolowo’s curious reaction to this development on the floor of the House was to announce that “the Government adopts no official attitude whatsoever” towards the Sowole motion [Western House of Assembly Debates, 14 June, 1955].
According to Professor Michael Crowder, at this stage, the Action Group:
“…..gave its blessing to this movement, partly because it was beginning to find the Mid-West an electoral and economic liability and partly because it realized that if it were to champion the creation of new states in the Eastern and Northern Regions it could hardly object to the creation of one in the Western region itself.”
The problem, though, was that the Action group was never trusted by core Midwest Protagonists, who saw opportunism and duplicity in its behavior. Dennis Osadebay, for example, was of the opinion that the Sowole motion was little more than a vote catching gimmick to secure victory at the 1955 and 1956 general elections [Osadebay, Op. Cit.]. In time to come his suspicions would be confirmed when, after independence, Chief Awolowo openly said that the Sowole motion was not binding on the Western region.
It was in this situation that local government elections took place in Benin in September 1955. Once again, Chief Omo-Osagie and the Otu-Edo were victorious [Oronsaye, Op. Cit.]. A few weeks later, on October 25th, 1955 Oba Akenzua was appointed Minister without portfolio in Awolowo’s government at Ibadan – an announcement that practically destroyed the BDPP. The Oba explained that henceforth he would use his membership of the Action group Government of the Western region to push for the creation of the Midwest. In response, members of Otu-Edo in Benin staged a mock funeral of the Oba right in front of his Palace.
Meanwhile, according to Michael Vickers, in December 1955, western Ibo leaders, not unmindful of developments in Benin, but also confident in their trained manpower advantage over others, decided that a future Midwest would best serve their interests, rather than either the West or East. Thus they began renegotiating the terms of renewed cooperation with the now moribund BDPP. [Vickers: Ethnicity and Sub-Nationalism in Nigeria. Worldview Publishing, 2000. p121] Thus, inspite of his stature as the earliest and most consistently committed advocate of the Midwest cause, H. Omo-Osagie would later concede the leadership of the Midwest State Movement to Dennis Osadebay, also known as the “Gentleman Leader of the Opposition” in exchange for support.
In January 1956, the Oba removed himself as a Patron of Otu-Edo, and stopped making public demands for the creation of the Midwest, hoping to achieve it, nonetheless, by some kind of internal understanding with Chief Awolowo’s government. The Oba’s high stakes moves throughout 1955 caused a lot of mistrust within Otu-Edo as well as pro-Midwest sympathizers in other parties. But Oba Akenzua remained convinced that his presence in the government was the tactical thing to do in the circumstances. He would give Chief Awolowo time to fulfill his promise. In February, he hosted the Queen at the Benin Airport and made a point of emphasizing the uniqueness of the grand Benin-Delta reception. Tragically, Iyase Gaius Obaseki died in April and was mourned throughout the region as a man of great stature. [Egharevba, Op. Cit.]
Another development in the Western Regional Assembly that created consternation in the Benin and Delta provinces was the attempt in 1956 to enforce Yoruba as a language medium in all schools throughout ALL the provinces. The British Lt. Governor, Sir John Rankine, vetoed compulsory implementation in the Benin and Delta provinces, explaining that it was a time–bomb. It is not clear what role Oba Akenzua II played in securing this veto. [personal communication, D. A. Omoigui]
On May 5, 1956, the Midwest State Movement (MSM) was inaugurated from the ashes of the BDPP. Its patron was the Obi of Agbor. Members of the Executive Committee were Dennis Osadebay (Leader), Chief H. Omo-Osagie (Deputy Leader), J. E. Otobo (Secretary), G.E. Odiase, O. Oweh, F. Oputa-Otutu and M.A. Kubeinje. Its legal advisers were A. Atake, M. Edewor, W. Egbe, GE Longe, and JM Udochi. [JA Brand. The Midwest State Movement in Nigerian Politics. Political Studies, Vol. XIII, 3 (1965), p351] In preparation for the September 1956 London Constitutional Conference, the MSM embarked on fund raising drives and political tours through the Delta and Benin provinces [Vickers, Op. Cit.]. It also began developing detailed arguments to justify the creation of a new region. Such arguments included the proposed region’s distinct way of life, various examples of discrimination including allocation of funds to various line items in the budget. The proposed region’s economic viability was also studied, taking note of its agricultural base, Rubber, Timber, Palm oil, brown coal, water resources, ports and its capacity to create secondary industries from the African Timber and Plywood Factory in Sapele. The conference was, however, later deferred until 1957.
Meanwhile on May 26, during Western parliamentary regional elections in Benin, Otu-Edo secured victory once again. Notably, G.I. Oviasu of Otu-Edo/NCNC defeated S.O. Ighodaro of the Action Group and the Oba’s second son, Felix Akenzua, lost to VI Amadasun. One irritant during this election was the complaint that many students from the Benin and Delta provinces at the University College Ibadan were so mistrusted by Action group operatives on campus that their names were surreptitiously removed from voters’ registration lists in Ibadan.
LONDON CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE OF 1957
During the 1957 London Constitutional Conference, the MSM declared that it would be willing to accept a plebiscite in the Benin-Delta area. However, efforts by the MSM to insist that the creation of states be discussed before self-government were outflanked as the NCNC and AG resisted any effort to create new states in their own regions [Report by the Nigeria Constitutional Conference held in London, May and June 1957. Cmnd. 207. London: HMSO, 1957]. The AG, for example, accused the NCNC of stalling about the proposed COR State because of the possibility of discovery of Oil, even as it was busy proposing regions elsewhere. The NPC was also uninterested in the creation of new regions in the North. All three parties did not want any delays in independence merely on account of creation of new states for minorities.
Eventually, Chief Awolowo, while opposing all State requests except those of the Midwest, COR and Middle Belt, which he said should be created simultaneously, got his rivals in the NCNC and Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) to accept certain fundamental principles which would guide creation of new regions and which would be enshrined in the proposed new constitution. These requirements included a two-thirds majority consent of the legislature of the concerned state from which the new state was to be created, as well as the federal parliament; that ethnic groups should not be split; that ethnic groups that chose not to separate could stay with the original state; and that both the proposed new state and the residual state from which it was created should meet tests of viability.
For the Midwest in particular, Anthony Enahoro proposed an idea patterned after the Ministry of Welsh Affairs that had been created in 1951 in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government. This concept meant that rather than a new Midwest region, the Midwest would be managed under a “Ministry of Midwest Affairs” concurrently under his supervision as the Western region Minister for Home Affairs. Chief Awolowo accepted this concept.
By the time the conference came to an end, delegates from the three major ethnic groups had agreed that in addition to tough legislative requirements at federal and regional levels, a plebiscite should be conducted in the area of any proposed new state to determine if 60% of registered voters in the area wanted a new state [Joint Proposals by the NPC, NCNC and Action Group Delegations: The creation of New States. Statement submitted to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference, London, June 1957.]. As a consolation prize, a Commission of Inquiry was recommended to ascertain the facts about the fears of minorities and consider what safeguards should be included in the new constitution, with the proviso that creation of states only be considered as a last resort. The Rt. Hon. Alan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies, appointed this commission in September 1957. It later came to be known as the Willink Commission. Its members were Henry Willink, Gordon Hadow, Phillip Mason and J.B. Shearer. It arrived in Nigeria on November 23rd, 1957 and held public sittings and private meetings from December 8th to 23rd at Benin and Warri. Following an extensive schedule of visits all over the country, it left for the UK on April 12th, 1958 and eventually submitted its report on July 30th, 1958. [Cmnd. 505. London: HMSO, 1958]
Before settling down to prepare for the Willink Commission visit, reaction to the outcome of the London Conference among members of the MSM was extremely negative. Chief Omo-Osagie, for example, said,
“The people of the Midwest would willingly submit to the use of nuclear weapons, devastating bombs or machine guns to annihilate them, rather than remain in a self governing West.” [West African Pilot. July 14, 1957]
TESTIMONY AT THE WILLINK COMMISSION
It has been said that the Midwest State Movement flew the two expatriate counsels that led the testimony of the pro-Midwest witnesses at the Willink Commission, into the country. In point of fact Chief Omo-Osagie paid for their round trip fares and expenses out of his own pocket. Money was not forthcoming from the NCNC. The more senior of the pair was George G. Baker.
Three major sets of opinion were canvassed. The Midwest State movement was only interested in the creation of the Midwest (meaning Benin and Warri provinces en bloc) – to which it wanted the Edo-speaking Sobe and Ijagba areas of Ondo province appended. The Action Group, represented by its lawyer, Fani Kayode, conceded that the Midwest might, as a last resort, be allowed to go (after all the legislative hurdles) but that Warri division and Akoko-Edo should join Ondo province, while the western Ibo should join the Eastern region and the western Ijaw should join eastern Ijaw. He even went further to suggest that Ishan division should be excluded from the “residual Midwest” for no other reason than because Ishan had a significant number of Action Group supporters. The government of the Western region, represented by Rotimi Williams, differed slightly from Fani-Kayode, by accepting that Afemai and Ishan divisions could join the proposed “residual Midwest”, implying the Benin and Urhobo divisions, if they wished. [Willink Commission report. Cmnd. 505. London: HMSO, 1958]
The position of the MSM was based on fear of colonization by the Yoruba. Detailed testimony was heard from a broad range of witnesses, including Chiefs Ezomo, Oliha, Ineh and Osula. Other witnesses included the Chairmen of the Iyekovia, Uhunmwode and Benin City councils, namely Messrs Adonrin, Atohengbe and Ogbebor. Edo women made a submission through Madam Eweka. Complaints included lack of rubber markets and processing facilities, excessive local taxation, including “head taxes” which would then be remitted to Ibadan, poor infrastructure, and discrimination in the award of scholarships and opportunities for Edo women traders at Ibadan. More recently, Mr. Isaac Asemota recalled that, “While Benin- City stayed in the dark with no electricity, running water, good roads, separate and unequal schools and grossly inadequate health clinics, there in Ibadan, Edo tax monies were being squandered in the construction of Cocoa House, Mapo Hall and Commercial Broadcasting Service Radio Station whose frequency we couldn’t even pick up in Benin-City. The best we could hope for was Redifussion radio which had a very low frequency and could not be heard more than two miles away from the broadcasting booth. “ (Isaac Asemota: “The last Edo Political Titan: Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie” unpublished manuscript, Edo-Nation Egroup, July 2, 2002.)
The most powerful and emotional testimony from Benin came from Chief H Omo-Osagie. He lamented the insidious cultural role of Ifa divination and Ogboni activities in inserting Yoruba values and ways into Benin society. He explained that Ifa divination required knowledge of Yoruba, while the Yoruba derived Ogboni society, was, according to him, “more dangerous than freemasonry.” In fact he openly stated that after independence, laws would likely be passed, making membership of the ROF compulsory. He went on to criticize the Western region Chiefs Law No. 20 of 1957 which was being used with effect to intimidate traditional rulers and influence the selection of chiefs and Dukes inside the Midwest. The Chief also went into additional detail about perceptions of Yoruba domination of the Police, government boards, the public service, and the use of scholarships as a tool for punishing separatist divisions. The Benin division, for example, had not, under the period of review, received any scholarships, while the Ijebu province (home to Chief Awolowo) had secured 17 such awards. Another complaint was that Rubber was being developed in the Ijebu province when investment in the promised Ikpoba Rubber processing factory for already established rubber plantations of the Midwest was being help up. A similar shenanigan affected the Koko port. He went on to use examples of the decision by the Action Group government to dissolve the Benin Divisional Council in 1955 as an example of arbitrary misuse of power. In conclusion, Chief Omo-Osagie opposed the new “Welsh-type” arrangement implemented by the Action Group through the establishment of the “Ministry of Midwest Affairs” and the Midwest Advisory Council, and demanded either the creation of a Midwest region or a return to a unitary government at the center with provinces at the periphery.
Supporting testimony from the Ishan division, where the Action Group had deposed the Onogies of Idoa and Ubiaja was also heard from G. Ebea, A. Ibhazo, Prince Shaka Momodu, and His Royal Highness, Enosegbe II, Enogie of Ewohimi. Similarly, the Commission heard from the Oba of Agbede who bluntly stated that the Oba of Benin, and not any of the Yoruba Obas, was his Oba. On their part, Messrs Utomi, Onyia and Odiakosa provided the views of the Asaba division. Interestingly, while scholarship complaints were commonplace in the Benin division, the Asaba division was doing very well with scholarships under the guidance of its representative, Dennis Osadebay, who was then the Chairman of the Regional Scholarships Board. In Warri, there was a split among the Itsekiri. While Chiefs Arthur Prest and Festus Okotie-Eboh were in support, at this stage, of creation of a Midwest region, O.N. Rewane and the Olu of Warri were against it.
In response to testimony of pro-Midwest witnesses, a shadowy organization called the “Anti-Midwest State Movement” was put forward by the Action Group. It asserted that Edos had more to fear from Igbo than Yoruba domination, and that creation of a Midwest region would expose Edos to Igbo domination.
Among its observations, the commission noted that actual expenditure on road development in the Midwest area up to March 31, 1957, was only 15% of the estimates, compared with 50% in the Yoruba West. It also made the following observation:
“What is feared is a permanent Action Group majority in the Western House of Assembly. The Action Group drawing its inspiration from a Yoruba society, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa expressing itself….through the Ogboni Fraternity, controlling Boards, Corporations and Commissions, eventually even the Magistracy and Judiciary, aiming at the obliteration of all that is not Yoruba. That is what is meant by Yoruba domination.”
But in its recommendations, the Willink Commission advised that short of a new state, the “Midwest area” for which the Ministry of Midwest Affairs of the Western region was being established be reduced to a “Council for Edo Affairs” with responsibility for development, welfare and culture preservation, covering the Edo-speaking divisions of Benin, Urhobo, Afenmai and Ishan. In addition to a similarly proposed “Calabar Council” in Eastern Nigeria, the commission felt that “these two are the areas in which it seems to us, there is the strongest and most united local sentiment and the most clearly distinguishable culture.” (see Willink Report, Chapter 14, Section 4, Item 36, page 97.)
In reaction, the MSM rejected the Willink report, insisted on creation of the Midwest region, but left open the possibility of a “Provincial Commissioner for Benin and Delta provinces” at the federal level – an option the Action Group rejected outright.
1958 – 1960
While the Constitutional Conference and Willink Commission were finalizing their activities, the Western region passed what was known as “amendment No. 4” to the local government law of 1957, which gave it new powers by which it could manipulate the control of local councils. The combination of the local government and chieftaincy laws, control of customary courts and heavy handed use of tax assessments was then exploited in an aggressive drive by the Action Group to take control of the Benin and Delta provinces [Sklar - Benin: A Study in the Mechanics of Chieftaincy Control. P238-42, In: Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties.].
During the Lancaster House conference in London which took place in September and October 1958, the concept of a minority area inclusive of Benin and Delta provinces, except Warri division and Akoko-Edo district was discussed and vaguely agreed to, pending further consultation, without plans for a Special Ijaw Area Board. [Report by the Resumed Nigeria Constitutional Conference Held in London, September and October 1958, Cmnd. 569, London: HMSO, 1958]
In the meantime, the rising political profile of key Midwesterners who would come to play critical roles in the creation of the Midwest was unmistakable. A national government was formed based on the 1957 constitution, in preparation for independence. In this government Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh of Warri emerged as the Minister for Labor and Welfare (NCNC), a position which gave him direct access to northern leaders with whom he consolidated strong personal relationships which would be used by the Midwest movement with devastating effect after independence. The Action Group was represented by Chief SL Akintola (Communications and Aviation) and Mr. Ayo Rosiji (Health). Other Midwesterners like H. Omo-Osagie, James Otobo, V. I. Amadasun, Oputa-Otutu, Shaka Momodu, FH Utomi and others also became more prominent in party and legislative affairs at regional and national levels. It was in May 1958 that initial talks to enter into a post-independence government coalition were held between the NCNC and the NPC [Enahoro, Fugitive Offender, Op. Cit.].
Back in Benin, the battle to undermine Chief Omo-Osagie’s power base was continuing – on all fronts. Local government elections took place in Benin on May 17th, 1958 [Oronsaye, Op. Cit.]. The manipulation of post-election council nominations made it possible for the Action group to dominate the council although the party did not win the elections. On November 25th, Action group stalwart S. Y. Eke, moved a motion to ban Owegbe “juju” (also known as Isigidi, Aimuekpensulele or Iselogha) from the Benin division. The motion was carried and confirmed on March 19th, 1959 by an order of the Western region Governor-in-Council – with the support of Oba Akenzua II [West Regional Gazette, No. 14 of 19 March, 1959]. The Oba, who was then a Minister in the government, had commented in a letter on January 23rd, 1959, that Owegbe was an imported juju and that its existence in Benin was a threat to peace. Chief Omo-Osagie demanded a formal judicial inquiry, saying the ban was politically motivated, and explained that that there was no “juju” or “cult” as such, but that there was indeed an “Owegbe society” which was the “youth wing” of the Otu-Edo party. The existence of youth wings was by no means a new phenomenon in Nigeria. The Zikist National Vanguard and Awo National Brigade were examples, according to the Chief, who also directed attention to the violations of fundamental human rights and freedom of association which the ban implied [Debates of the Western House of Assembly, May 27, 1959; col. 863].
When however, Chief Omo-Osagie asserted that the Oba would testify that there was no such thing as “Owegbe juju” known in the Benin division, the Oba, in a letter dated July 22nd, 1959 stated that there was such a “juju” which, in his opinion at that time, as a Minister in the Action group government, was dangerous. In what seemed to reflect the underlying political fear, the Oba said the danger was not with claims of powers to kill or save but in the ability of intelligent citizens based in Benin, having convinced less sophisticated rural based folk to take oaths, could then by order, cause disturbances anytime they wished – a veiled reference to the disturbances of 1951. Using this cover, the western region government moved to emasculate the Owegbe society, which was actually originally created to provide sanctuary for those who wanted a way to fortify themselves from Ogboni recruitment drives. To illustrate the political nature of this development, the Oba reversed himself when he wrote a letter in 1962 (having since left the Action group) to the government saying he no longer had any concerns about Owegbe (see below).
At the same time, the national wing of the NCNC was seeking to wean itself from its dependence on the Otu-Edo. It accused Otu-Edo of restricting choices for candidates in elections to Benin indigenes, to the detriment of resident Igbos who wanted to contest in Benin and represent the party at the center. This complaint was curious, considering that Chike Ekwuyasi, an Ibo speaking Midwesterner from Ogwashi-Uku was actually elected on Otu-Edo platform to represent Benin back in 1951 – and no Benin indigene had ever been elected from any Igbo district. Nevertheless, the party established the Orizu and Onyia Commissions of inquiry to probe Otu-Edo – resulting in a recommendation by J.I.G. Onyia of Asaba to dissolve Otu-Edo and replace it with straight party membership of the NCNC, also known as “NCNC simplicita.” The report also pointed out that Omo-Osagie had not held elections for the position of President-General of Otu-Edo since 1950. This aspect of the report was attractive to Omo-Osagie’s critics within Otu-Edo – like GI Oviasu, DEY Aghahowa etc, who then formed a faction called “NCNC pure.” Nevertheless, Omo-Osagie, leery of non-Edo based political parties, insisted that Otu-Edo would not be swallowed by any national party but would remain independent. [Oronsaye, Op. cit.]
Other noteworthy developments in 1959 include the decision of the NCNC to establish a Midwest secretariat in Benin and the emergence of the States creation issue in the campaigns for federal elections in December 1959. In that election, the Action Group – which said it would also support the creation of the Midwest, but only if it occurred simultaneously with states creation in other regions - won three out of fifteen seats in the Midwest, two of which were in Ishan (A. Enahoro and P.D. Oboh) and one in Afenmai (M. Obi). The other twelve federal legislators from the Midwest were all members of the NCNC, including A. Opia, U.O. Ayeni, E. A. Mordi, J.B. Eboigbodi, Jereton Mariere, J.K. Deomonadia, O. Oweh, Festus Okotie-Eboh, and N. A. Ezenbodor. In the Benin division, H.O. Osagie, D.N. Oronsaye and D.E.Y. Aghahowa secured the federal seats. (Daily Times, December 14, 1959, pp5-6). These legislators would all play crucial roles in the fight for the Midwest after independence. For example, Jereton Mariere, a distinguished member of the Urhobo Progress Union, and businessman who had managed the late Mukoro Mowoe’s business at Agbor, would later emerge the first Governor of the Midwestern region. [personal communication, Professor PP Ekeh]
As was the case in previous years, 1960 was full of action, for and against the creation of the Midwest, including false and real hopes and intrigue. [Isuman JU. Facts about the Midwest State. Amalgamated Press, Lagos, 1960]
On July 7th, the Oni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, became the Governor of the Western region while the Alake of Abeokuta became the President of the House of Chiefs. Chief Omo-Osagie wasted no time in making a public statement about the development. Oba Akenzua II, who had been generally snubbed and cut off from many day to day decisions in the Ministry of Midwest Affairs except his approval was important to some Machiavellian scheme or the other, finally had enough. Independence was approaching and the Midwest region had still not been created. The post-independence federal government was going to be formed by the NCNC and the NPC. The vast majority of the federal legislators from the Midwest belonged to the NCNC. Therefore, the Oba decided to abandon the Action group, resigning his position as a Minister without portfolio. By so doing, he realigned the traditional establishment with the “new elite” for the final push to secure the Midwest.
But shortly after he did so, the Action Group won 15 out of 30 seats from the Midwest in the Western House elections of August 8, 1960, even barely beating an Otu-Edo candidate in Benin as well Prince Shaka Momodu in Irrua, in what was regarded as an upset, perhaps influenced by manipulation of the 1959 voter’s register. This outcome emboldened Awolowo and Akintola to publicly declare that they would not support the creation of the Midwest until after the 1964 federal elections when they would be in power at the center – although they kept up pressure for creation of the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers and Middle Belt States in other regions. Meanwhile, Barrister SO Ighodaro had taken over the Ministry of Midwest Affairs from Anthony Enahoro, when the latter elected to go federal, having lost out to SLA Akintola who returned to the West to succeed Awolowo as the Premier.
The 1960 constitution specified that for a referendum to take place seeking to establish support for a new region, two-thirds majority must approve it in the Federal House of Representatives and Senate, followed by majority approval in two-thirds of regions. Recognizing the key role which the governing party in the federal government in Lagos would have in initiating any legislative move toward the creation of the Midwest, Festus Okotie-Eboh and his mentor, Humphrey Omo-Osagie, were busy lobbying northern leaders. Eventually Festus Okotie-Eboh almost single handedly got Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello of the NPC to agree in principle to make an exception for the Midwest based on its unique history, knowing they were generally opposed to States creation. Without this crucial achievement on the part of Chief Okotie-Eboh, the creation of the Midwest would have been dead in the water. It was in recognition of this strategic feat that Festus Okotie-Eboh was given a chieftaincy title in Benin, the Elaba of Uselu. Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie, the indefatigable fighter with whom Oba Akenzua II had had his ups and downs but whose firm resolve and loyalty to his people had stood the test of time, was conferred with the title of Iyase of Benin. [Egharevba, Op. Cit.]
Nevertheless, the Akintola government in Ibadan moved quickly to consolidate its gains. It appointed many Midwesterners to ministerial positions, created a Midwest minority area and advisory council, and reorganized its administrative structure to create six new regional conferences, as if in tacit recognition of the six regions it was canvassing for the country. Chief Anthony Enahoro became the Chairman of the Midwest regional executive – which did not include Akoko-Edo district and Warri division. Dalton Ogieva Asemota, a well known independent, distinguished retiree from the United African Company (UAC), personal friend of Oba Akenzua II and first Chairman of the Midwest Advisory Council, became appointed by the Western region as the first post-independence Senator from Benin Province in Lagos, while Senator M.G. Ejaife, a household name in Urhoboland, was appointed to represent the Delta.
Dennis Osadebay, leader of the Midwest State movement, left Ibadan for Lagos to take up his new position as Senate President, to replace Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who had become the Governor-General. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh became the Federal Minister of Finance and leader of the parliamentary party. The straight shooting Michael Okpara replaced Nnamdi Azikiwe as Premier of the Eastern region and leader of the NCNC. Alhaji Tafawa Balewa of the NPC became the Prime Minister. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello held fort in the Northern region.
The ducks were lining up in a row.
The years 1961 and 1962 moved with dizzying speed. At the Midwest regional conference of the AG, Chief Awolowo kept up his oft repeated statement that he would work for the simultaneous creation of the Midwest, COR and Middle Belt States. In the Midwest, however, his comments were regarded with skepticism, all the more so considering what was regarded as his preference for a balkanized version of the Midwest. In any case, in March 1961, the NCNC – urged by Chief Okotie-Eboh - formally opposed the exclusion of Akoko-Edo and Warri from the Midwest minority area. When Chief Awolowo was confronted with the commitment the Western regional House of Assembly had made to creation the entire Midwest back in 1955 by approving the Sowole motion, he replied that he was no longer bound by that motion because the country was under colonial rule at the time [Federal Parliamentary debates, April 4, 1961]. The comment merely served to confirm suspicions that he did not support the creation of the Midwest – under any circumstances – even though he challenged Balewa to create the Midwest before the end of May 1962.
Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, the NCNC and Action Group were locking horns in increasingly aggressive confrontation between party thugs regarding the alleged misuse by the AG of customary courts and tax assessments to harass political opponents, particularly in Ishan division, where the pro-Midwestern Prince Shaka Momodu was active, but just as much elsewhere [West African Pilot, August 30, 1961]. In the near crisis atmosphere that this created in the Midwest, Michael Okpara and the NCNC wanted the Balewa government to declare a state of emergency in the West, but Balewa resisted the temptation, seeing as it had other problems on its hands such as the controversy over the Anglo-Nigerian defence pact and the Congo controversy. Balewa also wanted to reach out to the Action Group during this period.
On April 4th, 1961, what is now known in history as the first Midwest motion was moved and carried by voice acclamation in the federal House of Representatives [Federal Parliamentary Debates, 4 April, 1961, col. 802]. It was a private member’s motion, which would run into legal trouble later because no formal count had been taken, as constitutionally required, of those in favor or against, and many complained that they had left the council chamber before the voice vote was taken. The April 1961 Midwest motion in the federal legislature was followed by initial approval in June 1961 in the Eastern region and in September 1961 in the Northern region. During this period newspaper articles written by AG loyalists appeared in which various ethnic groups of the proposed Midwest were warned of “Benin domination.” In the smear campaign, designed to derail Midwest unity, rumors were spread about how certain posts were going to be dominated by “Benin.”
In early 1962, Dr. Okpara’s plans for a contrived state of emergency in the Midwest petered out, reportedly because it had been leaked by a reporter. In February, faced with what seemed to be a constitutional certainty, the AG met with the NCNC in Lagos, in order to get an agreement on the proposed Midwest Constitution Act which would respect its views on what should constitute the Midwest. By this time it was obvious that the first Midwest motion was inadequate because no vote count was taken. Therefore, on March 22nd, 1962, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa introduced the second Midwest motion.
Late on March 23rd, 1962, Senator Dalton Asemota of the Benin province received an important visitor in his apartment at the federal legislator’s Legco Flats in Victoria Island, Lagos. His visitor was none other than Chief Anthony Enahoro, Vice President of the Action Group and leader of the Midwest Regional Executive. Enahoro stayed on in Senator Asemota’s flat until the early hours of the morning lobbying him to adopt the party position of the AG to vote against the second Midwest motion. The Senator, who was not a party man, was nonetheless reminded that he owed his position to the goodwill of the Action Group government in Ibadan. Early on the 24th, late Senator Asemota’s wife, late Mrs. Onaiwu Asemota (nee Obinwa family of Onitsha) rushed to my parent’s house to report the conversation Enahoro had with Senator Asemota. On this basis, the Senator’s brother in Benin, late Pa Elekhuoba Asemota was contacted emergently by phone with a report of what had transpired. My parents rushed to the Senator’s flat to ask him whether he had decided to oppose the motion. The late Senator, to his eternal credit, smiled and told my parents, “Do not worry, my children, even if it costs me this position, I shall not act against the interests of my people.” (personal communication, GO Omoigui)
After overcoming an attempt by Action group legislators, therefore, to amend the motion by deleting Akoko-Edo, Warri and western Ijaw from the definition of “Midwest” and then obfuscate issues by adding the creation of 11 new states as a pre condition, the Federal House of Representatives and Senate approved the second Midwest motion by 214-49 on March 24, 1962. The final count-down had begun.
Six days later on March 30th, 1962 the Midwest referendum Bill was passed. It was followed on April 17th and 18th by the Midwest Parliamentary Bill which specified the addition of Akoko-Edo, Warri and Western Ijaw areas to the proposed Midwest. No sooner did this vote take place than Barrister S. O. Ighodaro, Attorney General of the Western region, went to court to challenge the validity of the Midwest Parliamentary Bill and the Eastern region’s approval of the federal Midwest Bill. Separately, the Olu of Warri and Chief Reece Edukugho filed court proceedings to contest the inclusion of Warri in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, on April 4th the Eastern region passed the second Midwest motion, followed on April 5th, by the Northern region. On April 13th, a counter-motion was passed by the Western House of Assembly, opposing the federal Midwest motion [Daily Times, April 14, 1962].
In May 1962, an important development occurred within the Western region and Action Group which would open the way for the Midwest to bolt out of the West. A crisis erupted between Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo (Party Leader and Leader of the Federal Opposition in Lagos) and Samuel Akintola (Premier of the West). This crisis had many causes [Sanya Onabamiro, Glimpses into Nigerian History. MacMillan Nigeria, 1983. p149]. For one, the positions of party leader (Awolowo) and head of government in the western region (Akintola) were held by two different persons, one from the non-Oyo group of rain forest Yorubas (Awolowo from Ijebu) and the other from the Oyo group of savannah Yorubas (Akintola from Ogbomosho). Secondly, Akintola felt that Awolowo ought not to have allowed any competition with him as “deputy leader” for the position of Premier when Awolowo left Ibadan to go to Lagos as Federal Leader of Opposition at the end of 1959. Thirdly, control over spending of the Cocoa Marketing Board investment funds built up during the Second World War from caused friction between them. Fourthly, they disagreed over whether to accept an invitation by Prime Minister Balewa for the Action Group to join the federal government. In this proposal, Balewa intended for Awolowo to be deputy-Prime Minister and Minister for Finance – which would have displaced Okotie-Eboh from that position. To all of this was added the undercurrent of a serious conflict between their wives.
On April 19, 1962, one day after S. O. Ighodaro went to court on behalf of the Akintola government to challenge the Midwest motion, Chief SL Akintola was expelled from the Action Group by Chief Obafemi Awolowo after an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation. The Governor of the West, Sir Adesoji Aderemi was advised by a majority of Action Group legislators at Ibadan to dismiss Akintola as Premier and replace him with Alhaji D. S. Adegbenro – an act that was challenged all the way up to the Privy Council in London. On May 26, 1962 an attempt by the Western House to meet and ratify Akintola’s dismissal ended in confusion, leading to Police intervention. Armed with his wet handkerchief as an antidote to teargas, V.E. Amadasun was one of the first to rush to Lagos from Ibadan to inform the Midwest community in the federal government of the development, which led to the eventual declaration of a State of Emergency in the West on May 29 [Federation of Nigeria Official Gazette, supplement to No. 38, Vol. 49, May 29, 1962]. Although the Privy Council eventually approved the Governor’s action, its “approval” had been overtaken by events in Nigeria because of a constitutional amendment by the Federal House of Representatives. Meanwhile, under the “emergency administration” of the West led by Senator MA Majekodunmi, a fresh slate of predominantly pro-Midwest Midwesterners became ministers, including Mark Uzorka, T. E. Salubi, Webber Egbe, A. Y. Eke etc, with Oba Akenzua II and the Olu of Warri as “advisers.” It was the emergency administration in the West which gave the Western region’s approval for the Midwest referendum to proceed.
In May, there was an All-party Midwest conference in Benin at which Senator Dalton Asemota of Benin was made Chairman of the Midwest United Front Committee (UFC). The conference – which was boycotted by most members of the Action Group - was a confidence building measure designed to iron out party differences and differences between ideological and ethnic interest groups. The conference resulted in the creation of many committees to plan for the future Midwest. In addition to the UFC, these committees were the constitutional and legal, finance and general purposes, civil service, delimitation, and minority protection committees.
In June, the Majekodunmi regime filed a motion to withdraw the court cases that were pending against the Midwest motion. Both motions were eventually dismissed in July by the Supreme Court.
On September 9th, there was another all-party round-table at the Oba’s Palace in Benin which most members of the Action Group, except Ja Isuman and JE Odiete boycotted. At this meeting, a 75 man Midwest Planning Committee including all Midwest legislators at regional and federal levels was created. It too was chaired by Senator Dalton Asemota, assisted by EB Edun-Fregene, JAE Oki, Dr. Christopher Okojie, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Dennis Osadebay and Humphrey Omo-Osagie. Various sub-committee chairmen were Olisa Chukwura for the constitutional and legal, Chief A. Y. Eke for the finance and general purposes, J.I.G. Onyia for the civil service, Chief Obasuyi for delimitation, Ja Isuman for the Plebiscite, and Chief Odiete for minority protection. About one week later a new political party called the Midwest Peoples Congress (MPC) was formed. It was allied to the Northern Peoples Congress and led by Apostle Edokpolo. [Vickers, Op. Cit.]
A week later on September 22, Chief Awolowo and many others were arrested for an apparent plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Balewa. Chief Anthony Enahoro initially escaped into exile in Ireland but was extradited back to Nigeria in May 1963 to stand trial.
With the Promised Land in sight, there was need for all resources to be mobilized for known and unknown threats during the referendum. Therefore, Oba Akenzua II wrote an interesting letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Midwest Affairs on October 2nd, 1962, in which he said:
Dear Permanent Secretary,
Your MWP144/358 of 26/9/62. I do not now see any justification for the continued ban on “Owegbe”. I, therefore, support the suggestion that the ban on “Owegbe” should be lifted. I recommend that the ban on “Owegbe” in the Benin Division and elsewhere should be lifted.”
(sgd) Oba of Benin
(see Exhibit 63/5 p143, Owegbe Commission of Inquiry, 1966)
With unity and security on the home front, all hands were now on deck for the final push. Balewa had decided that he would not conduct the referendum until there was a formal government back in office at Ibadan. By order of the federal government, the Akintola government was reinstated on January 1st, 1963 as Premier, this time with support from a new coalition consisting of the NCNC and his new party called the United People’s Party (UPP). This action caused an additional misunderstanding within the old Action Group just as it was reeling from the report of the Coker Commission of Inquiry into management of Cocoa Marketing Board investments and newspaper coverage of the ongoing trial of Chief Awolowo and others for treasonable felony [Enahoro, Op. Cit.].
On January 21, Mr. Gabriel E. Longe, from Owan district of the Afenmai Division was appointed the Supervisor of the Midwest referendum. He had been the legal adviser to the Benin Delta Peoples Party back in the fifties. No civil servants from the Western region were to be selected (to avoid a conflict of interest or fear of victimization) and no non-Midwesterners were to be given any significant roles in the exercise. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh was the link man to the Prime Minister to make sure there were no mistakes at federal level.
A few days later on January 24th, the Midwest Planning Committee met again to get updates on developments and plan for the referendum. Two days later, on January 26th, KSY Momoh, who had taken over from Chief Anthony Enahoro as Chairman of the Midwest Regional Committee of the Action Group publicly announced that the Action group would oppose the creation of the Midwest, but, unknown to him, the horse had left the barn. On February 23rd, Midwestern dissenters from the Action group and elements of the Midwest State Movement and NCNC entered a secret pact to make sure the Midwest referendum was hitch free. Faced with a choice between the party and their region, and urged on by appeals from Senator Dalton Asemota, many opted for their region. Under such pressure Action Group hardliners and anti-Midwest region politicians like KSY Momoh, C. Akere and Olatunji Oye, who were all former Ministers under Akintola before the split in the AG, decided to attend the next meeting of the Midwest Planning Committee (MPC) on March 9th. [Vickers, Op. Cit.]
Thereafter, Oba Akenzua II resumed his tours of the Midwest to garner support for the “Yes” vote. He was quoted as saying,
“Whoever does not drop his or her ballot paper into the WHITE ballot box will be condemned by future generations. Even those who die before the plebiscite takes place will be condemned in the other world, if they die with the bad intention of voting against or persuading people to vote against the creation of a Midwest region.” [Speech by Oba Akenzua at Agbor, March 12, 1963]
On April 23rd, Mr. James Otobo, a pro-Midwest politician who had decamped from the NCNC to the AG before independence and had since crossed over to the UPP requested for a postponement of the referendum pending clarification of certain issues. Therefore, another meeting of the Midwest Planning Committee was called on May 20th, followed by yet another meeting on May 30th at which final agreement was reached on the creation of new divisions for the Akoko-Edo and Isoko people, as well as the composition of the interim Midwest administration.
In the meantime, on May 2nd, tragedy struck. Senator Dalton Ogieva Asemota, Chairman of the Midwest Planning Committee died suddenly.
THE DEATH OF SENATOR DALTON ASEMOTA
At the end of April 1963, Senator Asemota came to Lagos to attend a scheduled meeting of the Senate. The Senate adjourned on April 29th, and so he made plans to return to Benin on May 2nd. On May 1st, however, he woke up early and telephoned his older brother Pa Elekhuoba Asemota to tell him that he would be returning to Benin the next day. Then he went to the General Hospital in Lagos to see Dr. Laja in follow-up to a Chest X-ray he had earlier ordered. Dr. Laja gave him a prescription, some of which the Hospital pharmacy did not have, so he was asked to find them at a private pharmacy. From the hospital he went shopping but returned home at about 3 pm to take his medications on an empty stomach. After this he left for the Commercial Medicine Store on Nnamdi Azikiwe Street owned by his friend, Senator Wusu from Badagry. On arrival he handed the prescription to his friend who in turn gave it to his assistants to get the medications. Meanwhile Senator Asemota was resting on the counter along with his wife, Onaiwu, waiting on the prescription. Then suddenly, and without warning he slumped.
He was then rushed to the General Hospital Casualty department. His wife then came to my family house on MacDonald Avenue in Ikoyi, Lagos, where we were neighbours to Chief Anthony Enahoro on our back side and Dr. Rilwan, a well known Lagos physician, on the other. Dr. Rilwan, my parents, and Mrs Onaiwu Asemota rushed back to the hospital to find out what was happening, only to be directed to the mortuary where the Senator’s lifeless body was lying. It was my father that had the unenviable responsibility to break the devastating news to Chiefs Omo-Osagie and Okotie-Eboh. Chief Omo-Osagie notified Pa Elekhuoba Asemota in Benin.
Meanwhile, my father went to Dr. Laja’s house to get permission for release and embalmment. While on their way to the hospital the Doctor said the Senator had had an enlarged Heart on Chest X-ray. When Senator Asemota asked him how his Chest X-Ray looked, he told him: “It is okay, Papa.” to which the Senator responded by smiling.
Senator Dalton Asemota, the consensus builder, did not live to see the Midwest he worked so hard to make possible. Descended from Chief Osemwota, the Eson, and a descendant of the Ezomo Nehenua family of Benin, and Madam Iyeye Ero, the later Senator was buried in the Asemota family compound after a sermon led by Reverend Akinluyi at the St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Benin City [personal communication, Mr. DA Omoigui]. He was replaced as Chairman of the Midwest Planning Committee by Chief Morgan Agbontaen.
ACTIVITIES AT THE OBA'S PALACE AND AT WARD LEVEL IN PREPARATION FOR THE REFERENDUM
Once it became apparent that the referendum was indeed going to be held, a tactical forward HQ was established at the Oba's Palace, Benin City. Representatives of the Midwest State Movement met there regularly for briefing. At one of the early meetings Oba Akenzua II warned all concerned that it was a rare event indeed for a government to lose a referendum in its area of jurisdiction. He reminded them that in 1962 General DeGaulle had conducted a successful referendum for a new constitution in France.
The government of reference in the Midwest, Oba Akenzua II was referring to, was that of the Western region, which, inspite of public pretensions Oba Akenzua said, was opposed to the creation of the new region. He told those gathered that no stone must be left unturned to ensure victory in this last lap of what he said was a war of liberation. Midwest patriots like the late Israel Amadi-Emina, Senior Divisional Adviser for the Benin and Delta provinces to the Western region Government were in regular attendance, at a risk to their civil service careers in the western region, explaining the inside mechanics of Action group rigging methods. It was from him and others in the system that all the administrative traps in the 1959 voters’ register were learnt, including fake names that had been planted there at the time of the voters’ registration in 1959. Without knowing the number and identity of the fake names, he explained, it would be impossible to get 60% of those registered after accounting for “No” votes. It was not the intention of those who wrote such difficult clauses into the constitution that any new region would ever be created.
Quite apart from open campaigning for voters to vote "YES", as well as tours to various parts of the Midwest, detailed operational plans were made to ensure victory on polling day. Fleets of Armels buses, for example, were leased by Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie and sent around the Benin province in operational support. The Otu-Edo party machine went into high gear. Prince Shaka Momodu and his “militia” were on alert. The Owegbe society was completely mobilized. The Urhobo Progress Union used every avenue known to man, including churches, to mobilize voters. Turn-out at ward level all over the state was planned to be close to 100% to make up for unknown ghost voters.
About two weeks prior to the official referendum, to minimize uncertainty, at every potential polling station in every ward vote forecasts were generated by Midwest enthusiasts, based on a pre-referendum poll. Records were meticulously collected from hut to hut and house to house and recorded with entries for "Total Electors", "Total entitled to vote (based on the 1959 federal register)", "Number of people dead (since the 1959 federal elections)", "Number of people that have left the area (since the 1959 federal elections)", "Number of people likely to vote 'Yes'", and "Number of people likely to vote 'No'." On this basis detailed plans were made to target potential "No" votes to convince them otherwise, through education, direct lobbying, and traditional sanctions. Many of such "No" votes had been confused by conflicting campaigns to vote against the creation of the Midwest by some interests. Anti-Midwest campaigners told villagers that putting their votes in the “white box”, was a vote for return to the rule of “white men”. Pro-Midwest campaigners told villagers that a vote in the “black box” was a vote for “Evil”.
But more mundane methods were also used to campaign. For example, in one case, the retired Head of a Household asked his visitor what the whole referendum controversy was about. What, he wondered, was he to gain from going to the polling station at his age? The Midwest protagonist he spoke to explained it very simply in this way: If the referendum were to approve the creation of the Midwest, he would no longer have to travel all the way to Ibadan to collect his pension. All he would have to do was to go to Benin City nearby. The old man thought about what he had just heard and said: "In that case my son, everybody in this house will go there and vote 'Yes'.”
In yet another case, this time in Benin City itself, a local ward leader of the Action Group was approached by some colleagues in the Action Group to notify him that party policy was to oppose the creation of the Midwest. The gentleman concerned calmly told his visitors that it would be sacrilege for him to go against the wishes of Oba Akenzua II.
From June 5th until June 14th, and again from June 20th until the 25th, massive campaign tours were undertaken by the MSM, led by Dennis Osadebay. On July 1st, Michael Okpara, Premier of the Eastern region, came on tour to encourage the people of the Midwest to vote “Yes”. Also in attendance during the referendum were many other NCNC national leaders who were made interim divisional team leaders. They included GC Mbanugo, TOS Benson, RA Fani Kayode (who had since decamped from the AG), RA Akinyemi, KO Mbadiwe, Akinfosile, as well as Okotie Eboh and Omo Osagie. On or about July 10th, with all the signs pointing to a successful referendum, even Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Action Group, faced with dissension within the ranks of the Midwest Action Group, sent a note from prison to his supporters urging them to vote “Yes.” (Vickers, Op. Cit.)
THE BAUCHI MEETING: OKOTIE-EBOH AND BALEWA’S SECOND THOUGHTS
On the surface, all had seemed set to go for the referendum, once all the legislative bills had been passed and the supervisor appointed. Behind the scenes, however, Chief SL Akintola had been warning some of friends in the NPC that they were setting a precedent by supporting the creation of the Midwest region which would someday come back to haunt the North. It seemed clear to Akintola that if the Midwest referendum was allowed to go forward, the Midwest would, indeed, opt out of the West. Once the Midwest was so created, a precedent would have been set for the creation of other regions, a prospect that was not attractive to the northern leadership. On this basis, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa began to have second thoughts.
In the last week of May 1963, the supervisor of the referendum, GE Longe was summoned for what he thought was another of his routine briefings for the Prime Minister. At this meeting, which took place in Bauchi, rather than Lagos, he witnessed a private show down between Okotie-Eboh and Balewa. Okotie-Eboh insisted that he had received Sardauna’s commitment, things had gone too far and that Balewa could not back out. After a hot exchange, Balewa conceded to Okotie-Eboh and gave the final go ahead for the referendum [personal communication, Kenneth Longe, Benin City]
THE REFERENDUM DIARY
The Midwest was divided into eight districts for the purpose of the official referendum. They were Aboh, Afemai, Asaba, Benin, Ishan, Urhobo, Warri and Western Ijaw. Counting Stations for each of these districts were located at the Recreation Hall, Kwale; Town Hall, Auchi; Council Hall, Asaba; Conference Hall (Urhokpota), Benin City; Town Hall, Irrua; Council Hall, Ughelli; K.G.V. Memorial Hall, Warri; and the Court Hall, Bomadi, respectively.
The diary below was developed from interviews with and the personal records of Mr. D. A. Omoigui, Assistant District Referendum Officer for Benin NE (I) in what is now known as Uhumwode local government area.
April 6th, 1963
Upon arrival on April 6th, 1963, at the headquarters of the Referendum at Kings Square, Benin City, the Supervisor welcomed all referendum officers. The Secretary to the Supervisor (Mr. G. B. A. Egbe) then provided each officer with copies of the Constitutional Referendum Act, 1962 and Constitutional Referendum Regulations, 1963 along with Circular No. 1 which contained “General Instructions. ”
The eight major Districts identified for the Referendum were placed under District Referendum Officers (DRO). Each district was divided into Constituencies. Assistant District Referendum Officers (ADRO) were operationally responsible for the conduct of the exercise in each constituency which were further subdivided into wards and finally, 1,841 polling stations. The ADRO was responsible for providing the name and address of each polling station as well as the staff. At each polling station, there was a Presiding Officer, two Polling Officers, one Orderly and one female searcher in reserve. For each polling station the ADRO reconciled the 1959 Federal Electoral register for that station and provided it to the Presiding Officer for use in verifying the legitimacy of individual voters on polling day. The ADRO was also responsible for instructing Polling Officers in their duties, providing all equipment to be used and ensuring that all ballot boxes were delivered to the District Referendum Officer at the counting center. The DRO on the other hand was responsible for coordination in addition to conducting the count at the counting center. Only he had the legal authority to open each ballot box, but he was allowed to delegate that responsibility to the ADRO if necessary. At the end of the Referendum every officer was expected to submit a report on his work.
Public information leaflets with directions on “How to Vote” were printed at the Nigerian National Press, Ltd on Malu road, Apapa, in Lagos. Voters were instructed on eight basic steps:
1. Find out where your Polling Station is (same as it was in 1959)
2. Find out when Polling day is. (To be announced by the Prime Minister)
3. Go to the Polling Station.
4. Go to the table where the Polling Officers are sitting. (Show your card or provide your name, address and registration number, subject to challenge by any of the polling agents representing various political parties)
5. Have your left forefinger marked with special ink.
6. Take your officially stamped ballot paper. (Your registration card will also be stamped)
7. Go to the screened compartment and place your ballot in either the white box for YES or the Black Box for NO.
8. Leave the Polling Station.
Thursday April 18th, 1963
The Supervisor welcomed all referendum officers back to Benin City. Based on advance reports, claims for reimbursement according to standard civil service rules were received from officers and requested financial advances made to enable them discharge their duties. Some had trekked for many miles through bush paths infested with wild animals just to identify polling station locations. Others had the problem of dealing with a low proportion of all-season motorable roads and made requests for back-up LandRovers. Then there was the little detail of paying for supervising presiding officers who either had cars or motor-cycles, rather than those who would need transportation arrangements. This was necessitated by concerns about communication, particularly during rains.
Having secured the names of all polling stations and names of officers (recruited locally) expected to man them, as well as reconciled voters’ lists, the officers were now ordered to begin an intensive lecture tour for all polling officers. Booklets containing detailed, standardized instructions were distributed to ADROs who were expected in turn to give them to Presiding and Polling Officers. Such pamphlets included “Instructions to Polling Officers”, “Instructions to Referendum Officers” and guidelines developed for “Law and Order”.
The DROs on the other hand were charged with preparing the ballot boxes and polling compartments. Boxes were brought from Lagos, then cleaned. Their clips, nobs, nutches and locks were tested for efficacy. Each Referendum Officer was given two delicate specially designed security keys and then trained how to use them.
Between April 18th and 20th, Mr. Egbe organized additional short lectures on various aspects of their duties. Clarification was provided, for example, for use of two voters' lists in sub-divided wards. Further instructions were issued by the Supervisor regarding the importance of ensuring that the exact number of voters in the register for each polling station was precise and could be defended in court. They were then ordered to return to their districts and constituencies until the next scheduled meeting on Monday May 13th, 1963.
In the Uhumwode District Council area, the ADRO, Mr. D. A. Omoigui, conducted lectures to polling officials at 10 am and 4 pm respectively, at the Council Hall, Ehor and the Eyaen Court Hall on Tuesday 23rd and Friday 26th of April.
May 13th, 1963
The meeting of DROs and ADROs originally scheduled for May 13th had to be put off until May 20th because the Supervisor had been invited to a meeting of representatives of political parties of the Midwest at Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s house in Lagos on the same day. At that meeting, party representatives from the NCNC, AG, MPC and UPP requested assurances that they could discuss any concerns about arrangements for the referendum with the Supervisor, including compliance with the referendum regulations. They also wanted clarification about the powers of their polling agents and their ability to raise objections about specific Referendum Officers and polling officials with alleged party sympathies which might be detrimental to their cause. The Prime Minister directed the Supervisor to keep all parties informed of his activities.
May 20th, 1963
On May 20, 1963, his referendum officers submitted the ratified figures based on an audit of voters projected for each polling station to the Supervisor. Residual problems with the inspection and testing of ballot boxes were reported for Benin City, Ubiaja, Warri and Ughelli and arrangements made to address them. The list of locations where new polling booths were to be constructed and the associated costs were obtained. There were discussions about line item costs of contracting private typists and hiring of outboard engines in riverain areas. Officers were warned against any non-neutral activities, which might bring the referendum into disrepute. They were alerted that the Supervisor could change lists of polling officers recommended if there were complaints of favoritism. Having been directed to continue lectures to Polling Officers, work to get all ballot boxes ready, arrangements for construction of polling booths and compartments, and packaging of equipment for each polling station, they were asked to return on Monday June 10th for further instructions. It was expected that the referendum might take place at the end of June.
June 10th, 1963
At this meeting it was made clear that the referendum would not take place in June as earlier hoped. Discussion focused on estimates for construction of screens and booths. The Supervisor expressed concern that in the past, such items were discarded after elections. He expressed the hope that the use of anti-termite frames would enhance reusability and save money. He also directed the officers to ensure that all materials and equipment supplied for the referendum was returned in good condition. They were expected to plan this ahead and rehearse their plans, in order to identify transport and security requirements.
Instructions for the counting of votes were then issued. The procedure was rigidly spelled out to the Referendum Officers as follows:
1. All boxes, envelopes and articles delivered by the Presiding Officers were to be checked.
2. The Returning Officer would then be given the statement of invalid papers.
3. An accounting was then to be made of unused ballot papers, unused tendered ballot papers, spoilt ballot papers and canceled papers.
4. At this point the returning officers would be provided pencils, clips and forms for “Record of Votes.” (Form C1)
5. The seal on each Ballot box was then to be broken, the box unlocked and its contents emptied on the counting table, after which the returning officer begins counting the ballots, face upwards in bundles of 100 each, removing any further invalid papers.
6. If ballots were unmarked with official markings or issued in a different polling station they were to be rejected, and the word “rejected” written boldly on them. If any rejection was contested by a party counting agent the phrase “Rejection objected to” was to be inscribed under the word “Rejected.”
7. At this point the returning officer would complete the ‘Record of Votes’, sign and hand it over to the ADRO along with unsealed envelopes containing rejected and counted papers from the WHITE and BLACK boxes.
8. Then the ADRO would tally the total number of votes in each box, total number of valid votes, and the number of rejected papers.
9. After each of two boxes from every polling station had been counted and tallied, the numbers for the constituency were to be totalled and reconciled with the numbers of ballot papers and boxes originally provided to each polling station and the constituency as well as the Voters’ register.
10. At this point the statement would be signed and dated by the ADRO
11. Form C2, containing all figures, was then to be declared publicly for that constituency and a copy sent to the DRO.
Before parting ways to their specific zones of responsibility, they were reminded to continue training polling officers, preparing ballot boxes and building up parcels of equipment for each polling station. It was anticipated that they would meet again on Monday July 1st.
On June 12th, 1963, however, the Prime Minister announced on radio that the long awaited Midwest referendum would take place on Saturday, July 13th, 1963. Therefore, all Referendum Officers were summoned back to Benin City.
June 13th, 1963
At this meeting detailed instructions were issued regarding the impending referendum. The Supervisor, Mr. GE Longe, did not attend because he had to go to Lagos for an assignment. As a result, he made arrangements to make field trips to various locations between June and July 13th.
His address at the meeting was read out in his behalf. To ensure authenticity, he decided to restrict the power to appoint polling agents to the Midwest Regional Secretaries of the four recognized parties, namely the UPP, AG, NCNC and MPC. He did so to avoid town or district secretaries sending all sorts of unverifiable names. Of the four polling agents approved in each polling station, two were for political parties in favor of the creation and two for parties against the creation of the Mid-West. A similar formula was used for the Counting agents.
However, Referendum Officers were only authorized by law to guide political parties in this process, if so requested by the parties involved, but not actually solicit them to make appointments.
For Law and Order, the Police was provided with the list of all polling stations and their locations, as well as collecting points for ballot boxes at the end of polling.
The ADRO (HQ), Mr. Edgal, was to distribute supplies of public leaflets and posters to referendum officers. Officers were expected to release these every week, assisted by the Western region Ministry of Information and the Federal Territory Ministry of Information.
Once again it was emphasized that DROs rehearse how to open Ballot boxes during the count. Polling Screens were supplied directly to those polling stations located on motorable roads. For those which could be so reached or which were located on bush paths that were not large enough to allow porters carry the sticks on which the cloth screen would be mounted, presiding officers were paid up to 10 shillings to make local arrangements in the bush for sticks. Presiding Officers in remote unmotorable areas were also charged with the construction of polling booths for a fee not to exceed 4 pounds. For stations in villages on on motorable roads (or accessible by an outboard launch or canoe), two polling screens were to be used as a booth while sheds could be constructed in front of the booth to reduce heat. Presiding Officers were paid up to 15 shillings for each shed so constructed.
On the basis of these guidelines Mr. Longe asked the Officers to estimate the numbers of booths, bush sticks, and sheds they would need in the more remote areas of the Midwest.
Because polling screens at that time were made out of anti-termite timber and highly durable cloth, they cost the Government over 3,000 pounds. Therefore, detailed arrangements were made for their storage in the event of future use after the referendum.
Officers were then told to put final touches to their list of names of presiding, polling and returning officers. These lists would then be used to prepare vouchers for their remuneration. Formal certificates of appointment would also be issued. Each returning officer was paid 7/6d.
June 24th, 1963
Mr. Longe addressed the DROs. A checklist of requirements was itemized and reviewed. They were asked to collect the certificates for polling and presiding officers, as well as the certificates to be attached to each copy of the voters’ lists given to each presiding officer. Arrangements were completed with Messrs Edgal and Odikpo for the transportation of polling screen frames, as well as collection of ballot boxes, publicity materials, materials and equipment for the counting centers. Addresses of collecting centers were confirmed and transport arrangements reviewed for collection of Ballot boxes and polling equipment at the end of the poll. Names of counting clerks and other polling officials were confirmed.
Finally, DROs were told to return on July 1st along with their ADROs.
July 1st, 1963
At this crucial meeting, a number of last minute details were clarified and rehearsed. The list of equipment for each Counting Center was rehashed. Lists of packeted articles for use at each polling station and items to be handed over to ADROs by presiding officers at the close of polling were reviewed. In addition to handing over count results, along with all envelopes, articles, ballot boxes and keys used at polling and counting stations, ADROs were charged to write post-mortem reports on the referendum in their various constituencies, explaining any particular difficulties encountered and making suggestions for future improvement.
Mr. Longe issued a general approval of all the counting clerks, orderlies and female searchers that had been nominated. In larger towns ballot papers were to be distributed on the morning of the poll. In scattered but motorable areas, ballot papers were to be distributed the evening before at identified central locations to presiding officers. For very remote areas, including villages located deep inside the Delta, referendum officers were advised to make arrangements to collect their ballot papers from the Referendum HQ a few days prior, subject to arrangements for security. Ballot paper stamps were issued to referendum officers during the meeting but were not to be distributed until the ballot papers were being given to presiding officers. Officers were reminded once again to notify presiding officers that unstamped ballot papers would be rejected during the count.
The critical importance of the Ballot paper account was again stressed, with emphasis on the need for appropriate signatures appended by polling agents, presiding and referendum officers. Another very important document Mr. Longe was concerned about was the certified extract of the Voters' list. Each extract was to be certified and officially marked. Mr. Longe emphasized again and again the need for referendum officers to think pro-actively and ensure that all elements of the referendum could be defended in court. As of this time political parties had not made their choices of polling agents known but it was obvious that polling agents would in fact be appointed by the time the referendum was conducted.
Officers were directed to cross-check the adequacy of lighting at their counting centers. Counting was expected to begin once ballot papers arrived from individual constituencies. Once results were collated and signed, they were to be telephoned to phone number 326, the official phone number for the Referendum Secretary (Mr. Egbe) in Benin. Simultaneously, a special courier was to be physically sent with the original signed and certified Form C2 to the Secretary in Benin. (A copy of Form C2 was to be retained by the ADRO and DRO on site).
Posters were to be put up at each polling station at least seven (7) days prior to the referendum. Extra posters were made available to replace those destroyed by rain or removed by unscrupulous characters opposed to the referendum.
Final lists of polling officials were accepted. Payment for services was to be made as approved at the various counting centers after close of polling.
For law and order, the Police expressed the opinion that it would be unnecessary for referendum officials to be escorted by the Police while moving around on polling day. However, the Police promised to send out periodic patrols. Therefore, Mr. Longe suggested that ADROs identify a central location to their subordinates at which they could be reliably reached. Whatever movements were to be undertaken by the ADROs was to be prioritized, focusing in particular on ensuring that all ballot boxes arrive safely at the counting center. This unwillingness of the Police to provide bodyguards for referendum officials prompted some referendum officers to hire their own private bodyguards. The DROs in particular were directed to move about their districts in a supervisory role but were advised to use their counting centers as their offices in order that they could be reached if necessary, either by their ADROs, the Police, or the Supervisor.
For transport, one lorry was allocated to every district except riverain Western Ijaw which was supplied with motor launches. The Lorries were to be used to distribute polling equipment and materials and recollect them at the end of polling. (Polling Screens were to be stored at central locations at a cost of rental not to exceed 15 pounds yearly). Alternative special arrangements were made for the collection of ballot boxes. Each counting center was alloted several back-up vehicles and arrangements made to ensure that no more than one collection trip was made by any one vehicle. At about 4pm vehicles were to be deployed to the farthest polling stations from the counting centers. At 7pm these vehicles would then begin a preplanned, secure one-way trip back to the counting station, stopping to pick up ballot boxes at predesignated polling stations.
Lastly, officers were requested to return on July 19th, following the referendum, for final debrief and audit prior to departure back to their regular jobs on Monday July 22nd 1963.
POLLING DAY, July 13th, 1963
In most constituencies – except in the Benin and Asaba divisions - polling went off without major problems. In Benin City, Mr. C. Akere, a known Action Grouper, reportedly kept coming in and out of the Headquarters of the referendum on Ring Road with complaints, particularly about the unexpected massive turn-out of voters. On each occasion, Mr. Longe would ask him to bring evidence of malpractice but he had none to show.
According to Mr. D. A. Omoigui, ADRO for Benin NorthEast (I) there were few Police patrols in his constituency. The Police stayed put at Ehor without transport, cutting off polling officials in the Eyaen area from any kind of formal security protection. Many were beaten up or rough-handled by Action Group thugs who even tried to prevent voters from voting. For example, Mr. H.R.A. Iruegbae, then Presiding Officer at the Ugha Native Authority School Idumwumgha was beaten and his plastic bag seized. When the ADRO went to get Police at Ehor, he found them at Adobadan. The procession then returned to Idumwungha where for unexplained reasons the Police Officer in Charge, Mr. Izevbizua-Iyamu, refused to arrest the thugs or clear them out of the polling station. This type of Police behavior was not universal. At Ehor, for example, another Police officer, one Mr. Omonudo, carried out his security assignments with despatch and seriousness when reports were made to him. At Orio, a privately hired bodyguard called “Dogo” from Auchi physically threw obstructionists out of the polling station when the Police did not show up.
During counting at the Conference Hall in Benin, a special representative of Chief Akintola who had been sent to “monitor” the counting, was chased out of the Hall by members of the Owegbe society, when it transpired that his name was not on the official list of agents representing the various political parties.
July 18th, 1963
After interim results from 22 out of 30 polling constituencies had already shown on July 16th that over 60% voted “Yes”, final results were released by Mr. Gabriel Esezobor Longe on Thursday July 18th, 1963. Almost 90% of voters had opted to leave the western region. Shortly, thereafter, there was an attempt by the legal adviser to the Action Group, Barrister SO Ighodaro, to file a motion contesting the referendum. However, this was later withdrawn.
WHY WAS THERE OPPOSITION FROM SOME KEY MIDWESTERNERS IN THE ACTION GROUP TO THE CREATION OF THE REGION?
Those from Benin who opposed the creation of the Midwest are best placed to explain their actions, party loyalty aside. In an interview in the United States, Chief Anthony Enahoro made reference to the fact that at a certain stage, Chief Samuel Akintola was using the Midwest issue for internal power play within the Action group. It is not clear whether, this, therefore, was his reason for acting the way he did, as a rival and opponent of Chief Akintola within the party. In any case this would not explain his position on the matter back in the fifties.
According to testimony by Phillip Obazee, who was in a position to know what transpired in Action group circles within his own ward in Benin,
“What may explain the "why"
question as I know it from my ward-level
AFTER THE REFERENDUM
In Ibadan, less than 48 hours afterwards, the Premier, SL Akintola ordered civil servants of Midwestern origin to leave, with less than 24 hours notice. As federal referendum officers were returning to their places of work in Lagos on August 22nd, long columns of vehicles carrying over 600 Midwestern families returning from Ibadan, jammed the roads from Owo, and headed for Benin City. As one witness put it, it was like the “great trek.”
For many months, Benin City became a large refugee camp with Western region returnees squatting all over the place in open fields, verandahs etc. There were very few quarters and the sleepy old provincial capital with dusty untarred roads had long been denied the kind of infrastructure that could support such a sudden population influx. Drivers of western region official vehicles disposed of their vehicles in ways that depended on their place of origin. If they were Yoruba, they tried to make it to Ifon just beyond the border. If they were Midwesterners, they hid their vehicles within Midwestern territory. As things turned out, to this day, the Western region has never shared its joint assets with the Midwest, a sub-region which accounted for one third of its area and one quarter of its population. All these years the Midwest (later Bendel State) has had to remain contented with whatever fixed assets were physically on the ground as of August 9, 1963 and could not be moved out. The Western region and its successor States took what was left.
THE DEATH OF CHIEF GABRIEL ESEZOBOR LONGE
On August 6, 1963, death came calling again. Gabriel Esezobor Longe, the supervisor of the well organized Midwest referendum and former legal adviser to the Benin Delta Peoples party, died suddenly, in his sleep, in Benin City. He was 59 years old. He had been born in 1904, and was a successful teacher for many years before he went to study law and was called to the Bar on August 20th, 1951 [personal communication, Kenneth Longe, Benin City].
AUGUST 9, 1963
According to testimony from the late Mr. Ebohon, driver to the late Chief H Omo-Osagie, the only time he ever saw the Iyase of Benin shed tears was when the Midwest was finally created (personal communication, Dr. Obas Ebohon).
On August 9, 1963 Chief SL Akintola moved a motion in the Western House of Assembly to excise the 30 regional constituencies of the Midwest from the original 124 constituencies of the West [Daily Times, August 10, 1963]. The motion was seconded and carried. On August 12, 1963, Chief D. C. Osadebay, at that time the President of the Senate, was appointed Administrator for the new region. Along with his new administrative team (Appendix 2) he arrived in Benin from Lagos via Ibadan, on Saturday August 17th to resume duty [Daily Times, August 18, 1963]. When he met Akintola at the Ibadan airport, Osadebay was presented with a complete set of laws of Western Nigeria and a beaded puff. On August 19th, Chief SL Akintola of the Western region congratulated the 29 Midwestern members of the Western House of Assembly and 28 Midwestern members of the House of Chiefs on the creation of their new region [Daily Times, August 20, 1963]. On August 27, 1963, the Administrative Council of Midwestern Nigeria declared Benin City the capital and administrative headquarters of the Midwestern region, in a move Dennis Osadebay described as “appropriate”, since most Midwesterners claimed ancestral origins from the ancient city. On October 8, 1963 the Akoko-Edo and Isoko divisions were created out of the Afenmai and Urhobo divisions, respectively, in line with a pre-referendum promise. On January 8, 1964, as the 6-month term of office of the interim administration was coming to an end, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa moved the Midwest Act in the Federal House of Representatives. The new Midwest regional constitution, negotiated in great detail, contained provisions for protection of ethnic minorities like the Itsekiri.
Parliamentary elections were then held in the Midwest on February 3rd, which the NCNC won with 53 out of 65 seats. Thereafter, posts were shared in a zoning formula. Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere was appointed Governor, while Dennis Osadebay became the first Premier, and Oba Akenzua II the President of the House of Chiefs. Mr. P.K. Tabiowo became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives. (See Appendix 3 for the list of names of the first cabinet)
After the Midwest had been successfully created and was fully functioning, there was an attempt in 1964-65 by KSY Momoh, an Action Group operative, to get a court injunction to declare the region illegal, based on criticisms of the delimitation exercise that accompanied the creation of the region. The suit was thrown out by then Chief Judge Chike Idigbe (personal communication, Mr. KO Longe).
What began as a request to colonial authorities in 1926 from Oba Eweka II, took on a sense of political urgency in 1948, and was finally attained during the reign of his son, Akenzua II, on August 9, 1963. On August 9, 1964, at the first anniversary celebration of the Midwestern region, the first Governor, Chief S J Mariere, said, among other things,
“I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that if, in any sense, one single person could be said to be responsible for a turning point, Oba Akenzua II must be classified as one such person…..when, later this evening, I invite all present to drink with me the toast of the Federal republic and the toast of Midwestern Nigeria, I am sure that, in some special way, we will be drinking the toast of Oba Akenzua II, Uku Akpolokpolo, Omo n’Oba n’Edo. Along with toast, we will also be drinking the toast of other potentates of Midwestern Nigeria who, in diverse ways and fashions, in several nooks and corners, in places low and high, in circumstances difficult and easy, have contributed their quota and mite towards our successful deliverance into the promised land, whose first anniversary today we celebrate………In quite a different vein we must also remember those great men and women who toiled and sweated on the journey to this land of our fathers but died in harness when already the land was in sight. Today, I am sure, that the spirit of late Senator Dalton Ogieva Asemota and the soul of Chief Gabriel Esezobor Longe will specially rejoice in their abode in the great beyond…..” [Ayeni, P (Ed): Midwestern Nigeria First Anniversary 1964. Ministry of Information, Benin City]
In addition to Senator Dalton Ogieva Asemota and Chief Gabriel Esezobor Longe, many of the great figures mentioned in this essay have since died, some violently. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the great enabler, was assassinated during the January 15, 1966 coup. The story I have related traces the origins of a determined nationalist agitation, confident in its historical heritage, pure in its strategic formulation, complex in its operational implementation, but persistent nonetheless, complete with the kind of ups and downs, promises and betrayals that characterize all sustained human endeavors. But, as I noted at the beginning, two lessons stand out from the saga:
a). Political parties come and go, but nationalities remain.
b). Organized and united across traditional and contemporary forms of leadership, nothing can stand in the way of the peoples of the Midwest.
Let us keep the lives of all the great Midwesterners discussed today in our thoughts for all time. However, let us not forget those non-Midwesterners who did their part to make the Midwest constitutionally possible. With the exception of the UN supervised separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia after a long civil war, what those who fought constitutionally for the Midwest achieved has not been replicated in Africa.
Let us ask ourselves why, to this day, in Benin City and other towns of the Midwest, later called Bendel, and now Edo and Delta States by military fiat, many of our heroes have never been honored or memorialized. Why are there no statues, buildings, airports or prominent streets named after many of these great men and women who achieved the impossible? Why have they not been recommended for post-humous awards?
It is my recommendation, therefore, that the Edo and Delta Houses of Assembly should create a special award titled “Hero of the Midwest” to be conferred on the visionaries, strategists, operational and tactical leaders, key allies and referendum officers whose efforts ensured our “successful deliverance into the promised land.” Furthermore, the history of the creation of the Midwest should be taught in schools and a designated area should be established in Benin to be named the “Midwest Memorial”. The memorial should contain a small museum, have statues of the most prominent fighters and plaques dedicated to all those that made it possible.
On my part, as a son of Benin, in the Midwestern region of Nigeria, on behalf of my generation and future generations, I say to all of you alive or dead, who made it possible, “Thank you.”
List of Referendum Officers and Assistant Referendum Officers and their respective Areas
All-Party Midwest Interim Administrative Council (August 19, 1963 – February 8, 1964)
THE FIRST MIDWEST CABINET, 1964