The struggle for the creation of Midwestern Region was an epic in every sense.
At the peak, the Edoid nationalist movement became like a tsunami, bringing down every obstacle in its path to fulfilment.
It remains the longest , sustained war of self determination in Nigeria, full of promises, bridge building, individual and group heroism and betrayals, spreading across about forty years, ending with a chaotic mass evacuation on a short notice and a victory in the court of law.
On August 9, 1964, during the first anniversary of the region, the first Governor, Chief S J Mariere, had this to say,
“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…I invite all present to drink with me 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. 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 towards our successful deliverance into the promised land, whose first anniversary today we celebrate…
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…”
One of the chief ironies for me in the saga was that the man who moved the first motion for the independence of Nigeria and who founded the Midwest Party in the 50s, Chief Anthony Eromosele Enahoro, as Chairman of the Midwest Regional Committee of the Action Group, became a chief obstacle to the Midwest nationalist activism during the final years.
Chief Enahoro refused to explain to me why he chose party over region when I engaged him on the golf course in Benin City in 1990. I asked why he became Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s main agent for stopping the emergence of Midwestern Region.
He rather asked me when I was born.
Well, I was born a few days after we won that landmark victory.
When I suggested that perhaps if he and Chief Awolowo were not in detention during the Plebiscite, they could have sabotaged the referendum, the chuminess between us came to an abrupt end.
He had given me his autobiography, The Fugitive Offender, the evening before.
“I’ve said all I need to say in black and white. Now, I’ll like to enjoy my golf.”
So I wrote on his golf for Crown Prince magazine.
But the two chief obstacles, Awolowo and Enahoro were indeed in detention during the 13 July, 1963 referendum.
Their unfortunate incarceration presented a fortunate doorway to emancipation.
Another irony was that Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Balewa’s Minister of France, who was one of the major enablers of the emergence of Midwestern Region and Tafawa Balewa whose nod he managed to secure were both slain by the 1966 coupists. Well, first coupists.
Many may not be aware, but by 1906, Southern Nigeria was run as three provinces— Western, Central and Eastern, along with the Lagos colony. The Eastern province was run from Calabar, the Central Province from Warri, and the Western Province from Lagos.
The Central Province consisted of Aboh, Agbor, Asaba, Awka, Benin, Forcados, Idah, Ifon, Ishan, Kwale, Okwoga, Onitsha, Sapele, Udi and Warri districts.
The Great Benin Kingdom was sacked, looted and burnt in 1897.
The wealth of the kingdom shipped to Europe and Oba Ovonramwen exiled to Calabar. After his death, Prince Aiguobasimwin was crowned Oba Eweka II on July 24, 1914.
Though the ceremony was colourful and memorable, the monarchy under the colonial Benin Native Council was a far cry from the powerful institution of his fathers.
Following the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria, the River Niger was used for creating regions instead of nationalities.
The Edoid nation was fluxed under the Western Region. Even within the Benin province, the colonialists engineered competition between the new elite led by Iyase Agho Obaseki and the Oba.
The Palace was deliberately emasculated in favour of colonial proxies.
However, the historical, cultural and linguistic bonds remained. Therefore, in 1926, Oba Eweka II requested the British to bring all the Edoid and Anioma areas together in one region, on the basis of their linguistic and cultural affinity.
On record, the Oba Eweka II request in 1926, was the first articulation of a Midwest agenda, following the dissolution of the old central province.
The first pan-Edo association called the Institute for Home-Benin improvement emerged in 1932. Its mandate was to represent the “Edo speaking people of Nigeria viz: Benin City, Ishan, Kukuruku, Ora, Agbor, Igbanke, Sobe etc.”
A year after, in February 1933, ‘Ovbiodu’—the fond name for Oba Eweka II— joined his ancestors and the burden of rallying the Edoid nation fell on the shoulders of his heir, Oba Akenzua II.
Meanwhile, in Lagos, during the catalytic Second World War, a visionary Herbert Macaulay led the charge against the British usurpers until his untimely death in 1946 when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe took over the leadership of the NCNC.
Oba Akenzua II was cautious about external alliances because they were a threat to Edo National aspiration. Apparently, the new westernised elite had imbibed the culture of oppressing and exploiting other nationalities for gain.
As the British began to share power with them, they began to take advantage of the Middle Belt, the COR peoples and the Benin-Delta nation.
Anthony Enahoro and Gaius Obaseki, for example, became disillusioned with Nnamdi Azikiwe, for Ibo leanings after Macaulay’s death.
This is apparent in the Owelle’s quote in 1949: “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, Obafemi Awolowo introduced the dimension of cultism—initiating men on the rise into the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity in other to use them to frustrate nationalist activism in his domain.
Thus Gauis Obaseki was elected the Oluwo of the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF). The ROF was founded in 1914 by the Anglican Archdeacon Ogunbiyi. It had as founding member, the influential Egba prince who became the first Minister of Justice, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola.
He too referred me to his book. Why do they do that?
The fraternity became an instrument of intimidation and of subverting the legitimate Midwestern aspiration.
This eventually led to a counter initiative, the formation of the Owegbe society which the government soon banned.
Having struggled to place a literate young Iyase in a position of power in order to deflate palace autocracy, the people found that the Ogboni fraternity was too powerful and sinister for their comfort.
Being the Iyase in the council and the Oluwo in the Ogboni, the members began to dominate the councils and to infiltrate all walks of life in Benin.
To the progressives, it was unacceptable.
At the Warri and Benin provincial conferences of 1949, all Edoid people (including Urhobo) supported calls for a Midwest Region.
When Benin and Warri delegates 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 II in the lead, they walked out. Both Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe expressed preference for a Tri-State Nigeria at the All-Nigeria Constitutional Conference in Ibadan in January 1950, preparatory to the take-off of the MacPherson Constitution.
Back in Benin,
Oba Akenzua II stated for the records that Midwesterners were seeking freedom, “not only from the white man, but also from foreign African nations… 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 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…”
The Benin Delta Political Party (BDPP) was created, under 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.
Humphrey Omo-Osagie was invited to lead the Otu-Edo. The new party was dedicated to the “unification of all Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.” The new party was to promote “a sense of nationalism among the peoples of Benin” and combat threats to our “national unity.”
Otu-Edo later entered into an alliance with the NCNC at the national level. Meanwhile, at the local level in Benin, the Ogboni allied with the Action Group founded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo out of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in Yoruba land.
The council election, which took place in December, 1951 was fierce and brutal. There were waves of violence, arson and murder, in an uprising against the Action Group/Ogboni. Beginning in July, but with its high point on September 6th, farmers who opposed the Ogboni were mobilised and proceeded to burn down the houses of leaders of the Ogboni in villages all over Isi district. Many were detained, charged to court, fined and even jailed.
From this point on, Oba 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.
At the 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”. Western region government was criticised for the 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.
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.
The motion was 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. 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.
Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie come to power that year and aligned the “new elite” with the “traditional leadership”. This made possible the subsequent unified role of Benin as the heartland of the agitation for the creation of the Midwest.
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. The Alake of Abeokuta, rose to speak and made it clear that the “voice of the West” did not include the delegates from Benin and Delta.
Chief Awolowo 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 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 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.
NPC, NCNC and Action Group drew up a Joint Proposal which was submitted to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference, in London, June 1957.
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. This 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. It left for the UK on April 12th, 1958 and eventually submitted its report on July 30th, 1958.
The outcome of the London Conference agigated members of the MSM.
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.” The Willink Commission reported that the sentiment was almost limited to Benin City.
The report was rejected.
The nationalists 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.
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.
Meanwhile, the political profile of key Midwesterners was rising.
Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh of Warri emerged as the Minister for Labor and Welfare (NCNC), a position which gave him access to northern leaders. 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. The Oba who had been banking on Chief Awolowo’s assurance became skeptical and 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.
Eventually Festus Okotie-Eboh 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. Festus Okotie-Eboh was given a chieftaincy title in Benin— the Elaba of Uselu. Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie, with whom Oba Akenzua II had had ups and downs, was conferred with the title of Iyase of Benin.
When Chief Awolowo was confronted with his commitment in the Western regional House of Assembly 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.
The comment confirmed suspicions that he did not support the creation of the Midwest – under any circumstances.
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.
The motion ran into legal trouble later because no formal count had been taken, as constitutionally required.
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.
It had become 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.
The Federal House of Representatives and Senate approved the second Midwest motion by 214-49 on March 24, 1962.
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.
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.
*In May 1962, a crisis erupted between Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Akintola. This crisis had many causes, one of which was a struggle for control over spending of the Cocoa Marketing Board investment funds built up during the Second World War. Then there was 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 Akintola was expelled from the Action Group by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
V.E. Amadasun drove to Lagos to inform the Midwest community in the federal government of the chaotic development, which led to the eventual declaration of a State of Emergency in the West on May 29.
Under the “emergency administration” of the West led by Senator MA Majekodunmi, a fresh number of 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 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.
At another meeting in the Oba’s Palace, 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.
Unity and commitment were in full force. 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.
A week later on September 22, Chief Awolowo and many others were arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Balewa. Chief Anthony Enahoro escaped into exile but was extradited back from Ireland 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 a letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Midwest Affairs on October 2nd, 1962, in which he requested the lifting of the ban on Owegbe society.
1963. The close of an epic struggle was at hand. My birth as well.
With unity and security on the home front, all hands were now on deck for the final push.
The Akintola government was reinstated on January 1st, 1963 as Premier.
On January 21, Mr. Gabriel E. Longe, from Owan district of the Afenmai Division was appointed the Supervisor of the Midwest referendum. No non-Midwesterners were 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.
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.
Thereafter, Oba Akenzua II resumed his tours of the Midwest to garner support for the “Yes” votes. 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.”
On May 2nd, tragedy struck. Senator Dalton Ogieva Asemota, Chairman of the Midwest Planning Committee died suddenly.
Once it became apparent that the referendum was indeed going to be held, a tactical HQ was established at the Oba’s Palace, Benin City. Representatives of the Midwest State Movement met there regularly for briefing.
This was a war of liberation, advised the Oba, no stone must be left unturned to ensure victory in this last push. 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. It was not the intention of those who wrote such difficult clauses into the constitution that any new region would ever be created.
Fleets of Armels buses were leased by Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie and sent around the Benin province for 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 mobilised. The Urhobo Progress Union used every avenue known to man, including churches, to mobilise voters. Turn-out at ward level all over the state was planned to be close to 100% to make up for unknown ghost voters.
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.
From June 5th until 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.”
—As edited, with additional reports,
“BENIN AND THE MIDWEST REFERENDUM OF 1963”
By Nowamagbe A. Omoigui, MD, MPH, FACC
Columbia, SC, USA’
Being a speech delivered on Friday, December 20, 2002 at the Oba Akenzua II Cultural Complex, Airport Road, Benin City on the 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.