Realising The Rivers Dream: Achievements Of Past Governors

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This circumference called Rivers State, today, was the epicentre of the Oil Rivers Protectorate that existed from 1885 to 1893, when it became part of the Niger Coast Protectorate. In 1900, the region was merged with the chartered territories of the Royal Niger Company to form the colony of Southern Nigeria. Following that merger, many fears of palpable marginalisation, neglect and oppression were openly expressed by minority crusaders and activists, given their difficult terrain. This led to the signing of several protection treaties between various indigenous communities and the British government, pledging to accord priority to the protection of the interests and development needs of the minorities. But those treaties were never implemented to the letter, due mainly to lack of political will and commitment to do the needful. Thus, those fears of neglect, deprivation and oppression remained unattended to for four decades.
Consequently, between 1941 and 1952, agitation for the creation of Rivers province began with the formation of the Ijaw Rivers People’s League (IRPL). About a decade later in 1953, the Council of Rivers Chiefs (CORC) was floated as a replacement for the league. That same year, another platform, the Calabar Ogoja Rivers (COR) State Movement was born. The CORC was later renamed in 1954 as Rivers Chiefs and Peoples’ Congress (RCPC), and in 1956, the organisation transformed to the Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference (RCPC). Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye was one of the pillars of that struggle. Until 1958, hopes of an independent state to drive and actualise their dreams resonated with the people, but lingered consistently in the minds of its purveyors.
However, about 20 years later at the constitutional conference of 1958, the country’s nationhood was affirmed while an agreement was, again, reached on some measures to mitigate the fears of the ethnic minorities in the deltaic region. Thereafter, the British launched a commission led by Sir Henry Willink to look into the misgivings of the autochthons. The Willink Commission initiated the conception of the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB), designed to tackle the problems of under-development, but, this agency failed to rise to the expectation of the masses.
After much discontent, some of the people, attempted to take the extralegal route to achieve their goals. Among the agitators were Isaac Adaka Boro, Sam Owonaro and Nottingham Dick, who alongside their supporters proclaimed a “Delta Peoples Republic” in February, 1966. The core of their complaint was that for over six decades, the centripetal forces failed to provide workable sustainable development masterplan to strategically and pragmatically tackle the special needs of the people in the deltaic region. Although the rebellion was immediately crushed by the Federal and the old Eastern Nigeria governments, it did not detract from the fact that the message has been sent of a sustained backlash in future should the central and regional governments remain adamant.
As a means of dousing tension created by the century-long neglect and marginalisation of the people, and the fierce quest for self-determination and resource control woven around the rebellion, the administration of Gen Yakubu Gowon, on May 27, 1967, issued Decree No. 14, announcing the creation of Rivers State. Even after the creation of the state, the complaints about political marginalisation, environmental degradation and economic pauperisation have remained, thereby begging the question: when would the dreams of the founding fathers of the state be realised?
Of course, the story of Rivers State is reminiscent of the complex paradox called Nigeria. Its struggle for identity, justice, equity and self-determination is simply the melting pot of the agitation of the minorities in Nigeria’s South for economic and political freedom. Carved out of the South Eastern Region, exactly 50 years today, Rivers State, also referred to as the ‘Treasure Base of the Nation’, is located in the now South-South Geopolitical Zone of Nigeria. It has a total land mass of approximately 11,077 square kilometres or 4,276.9 square miles, and ranks 26 in size, out of the 36 states of the federation. By 2007, it ranked second in Gross Domestic Products (PPP) only to Lagos at $21.07billion, with a per capita of $3,965. But is this a sign of progress made in realising the dreams of the founding fathers?
Rivers State, with capital in Port Harcourt, is one of the 36 states of Nigeria, and has been allocated 23 local government areas, politically. The state is bounded on the South by the Atlantic Ocean, to the North by Imo, Abia and Anambra, to the East by Akwa Ibom and to the West by Bayelsa and Delta states. It derives its name from the many rivers that border its territory. Rivers State is home to a variety of ethnic clans, including Abua, Andoni, Ekpeye, Engenni, Etche, lbani, lkwerre, Kalabari, Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni, Okrika and Ogoni. Its inland part consists of tropical rainforest while towards the coast features many mangrove swamps typical of the Niger Delta environment.
In terms of economic equation in Nigeria, Rivers State has one of the largest economies in Nigeria, and is the epicentre of the huge hydrocarbon resources in the Niger Delta. Thus, virtually all the international oil and gas companies as well as indigenous ones have their operational bases or administrative offices in the state. The state has two major refineries, a world-class petrochemical facility, two fertiliser plants, two major seaports, two airports, and various industrial estates spread across the state, particularly in the state capital. Other natural resources found within the state include silica, glass and clay sand.
The state is accessible by road, rail, air and sea. Apart from being a railway terminus and having one of the busiest airports in Nigeria, Port Harcourt has the unique natural advantage of hosting the nation’s second largest commercial sea port with another sea port (the Federal Ocean Terminal), designated the Oil and Gas Free Zone (OGFZ) in Onne.
Before the discovery of oil in commercial quantity in 1956, agriculture was the primary occupation of the people inhabiting the circumference now called Rivers State. Around 19th century, when the industrial revolution reached its peak in England, the area was referred to as Oil Rivers Protectorate, due mainly to its abundant palm oil and kernel, which basically constituted the main revenue source of the country. Available statistics from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development show that about 40 per cent of the rural inhabitants were committed to farming in 1983. Rivers State is one of the leading states in the production of yam, cassava, cocoyam, maize, rice and beans.
In fact, about 39 per cent (760,000 hectares) of the state’s total land mass, particularly in the upland area, is suitable for cultivation. Major cash crops produced are oil palm products, rubber, coconut, raffia palm and jute. Other crops grown for food include vegetables, melon, pineapples, mango, pepper, banana and plantain. The fishing industry is an important sector in Rivers State, with Oyorokoto, in Andoni, hosting the largest fishing settlement in Africa. There are approximately 270 species of fish existing; with many artisanal fishermen in the riverine areas. The state provides valuable sea-foods such as crabs, oysters, shrimps and sea snails, among others. Vertebrates like birds, mammals and reptiles are also found in large numbers in the state. It also hosts one of the largest wildlife reserves in Andoni, and aquatic lives that today, enrich the state’s biodiversity potential and ecosystem profile.
However, this rosy economic advantage endowed by nature, has not completely translated to a sustained buoyant and robust revenue profile both for the government and the people, 50 years after. This is because of high unemployment rate, poverty and crime, accentuated by the plunder and callousness of the majority ethnic groups whose oppressive actions and surreptitious inactions had undermined the dreams of the founding fathers for peace, sustainable growth and development in the state.
In education front, 50 years after its creation, Rivers State has around 2,805 public primary schools. There are also more than 3,500 private pre-nursery, nursery and primary schools. At the secondary level, there are over 243 public secondary schools, and about 700 private secondary schools. Most of these are located mostly in the LGA headquarters and in Port Harcourt City and its environs. Similarly, there are three Federal Government-owned tertiary institutions in the state, including a university, oil & gas polytechnic, and college of education (technical). There are also six tertiary institutions set up by the state government, including two universities, two polytechnics, and two health sector manpower training schools. Apart from the nine public tertiary institutions, there are well over 15 other private tertiary institutions in the state. But the question that deserves an answer is: has this multiplicity of educational institutions helped in the realisation of the dreams of the founding fathers of the state?
With regard to efforts to address injustice, deprivation and oppression, 50 years after, the state has eight institutional courts: High Court of Justice, Magistrates Courts, the Customary Courts, Customary Court of Appeal, Juvenile Courts, Revenue Courts, Sanitation Courts, Mobile Courts, and Ports-Related Offences Courts. The state has about 26 serving judges in the High Court of Justice, which comprises 10 Judicial Divisions, including Port Harcourt, Ahoada, Degema, Nchia, Bori, Omoku, Isiokpo, Okrika, Okehi, and Oyigbo. In addition, it has numerous magistrates and other senior judicial officers. Experts argue that the state’s judiciary is one of the most independent in the country, and has not failed to dispense justice to those who have cried to it for redress. Even so, the question remains: 50 years after, has this judiciary helped secure justice for the government and people of the state against the predation of the powerful majority in the country?
Politically, since creation 50 years today, Rivers State has had 10 military governors. The first was Navy Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, who administered the state from May 28, 1967 to July, 1975. He was followed by Maj-Gen Zamani Lekwot (July, 1975 to July, 1978; and Navy Commander Suleiman Saidu (July, 1978 to October 1, 1979). After the military coup at midnight, December 31, 1983, Police Commissioner Fidelis Oyakhilome was appointed military governor from January, 1984 to 26 August, 1986; followed by Col Anthony Ukpo (26 August, 1986 to July, 1988); Group Captain Ernest Adeleye (July, 1988 to August 30, 1990); Col Godwin Abbe (September 3, 1990 to January, 1992); Col Dauda Komo (December 9, 1993 to August 22, 1996); Col Musa Shehu (August 22, 1996 to August, 1998); and Group Captain Sam Ewang, who administered the state from August, 1998, and handed over to the third civilian governor on May 29, 1999.
Instructively, six civilian governors have governed the state since its creation in 1967. They are the first democratically elected governor, Senator Melford Okilo from October 1, 1979 to December 31, 1983; Chief Rufus Ada-George (January, 1992 to November, 1993); Dr Peter Odili (May 29, 1999 to May 29, 2007); Sir Celestine Omehia (May 29, 2007 to October 26, 2007); Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi (October 26, 2007 to May 29, 2015); and the incumbent governor, Barrister Nyesom Wike since May 29, 2015. Except Okilo, all other past civilian governors, who by their actions or inaction, helped to realise or mar the dreams of the founding fathers, and thus, contributed positively or negatively in shaping the history around the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the state, are alive today to witness the unfolding events.
Legacies Of Past Governors
The visionary first military governor of old Rivers State, Commander Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, and his team of able men and women set the pace and pathway for development in the state. An Ijaw from present-day Bayelsa State, carved out of the old Rivers State on October 1, 1996, was actually at 24 years, nine months, and 29 days when he was appointed military governor of the state on May 27, 1967.
He began his mission to realise the dreams of the founding fathers of the state in earnest, with determination and unwavering commitment to transparency and prudent management of scarce resources. But he was guided by his deep taste for excellence, class and finesse. Thus, he built the Rivers State Government secretariat, the tallest and biggest government secretariat in the country apart from the federal secretariat in Abuja. A cluster of about six units of nine storey buildings, including the Podium Block, and the principal secretariat, the Point Block, which is 17-storey high, the secretariat is rated the tallest building in the South-South and South-East of Nigeria. The buildings beat other state government secretariats in the only competing states of Lagos and Kano. The secretariat, located at the heart of the city, is besides the Government House, Central Bank of Nigeria, Port Harcourt City Council Secretariat, state House of Assembly Complex, state and federal High Court complexes, Federal Court of Appeal, Rivers State Police Command Headquarters, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation zonal office complex, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) complex, Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company (PHED) headquarters, among others.
Besides the above, Diette-Spiff also built the Rivers State Sports Complex, which comprises the present day Sharks Stadium and Alfred Diette-Spiff Civic Centre. He built the Olympia Hotel, Presidential Housing Estate, and began building the state high court complex. Diette-Spiff also built the state Psychiatric Hospital at Rumuigbo, general hospitals in all the local government headquarters, and established state-owned companies such as Metaloplastica, West African Glass Industry (WAGI), Pabod Breweries Company Limited (PBCL), Rivers State Vegetable Oil Company (RIVOC), Risonpalm, Superbod Stores and Pabod Finance and Investment Company Limited (PFICL), as well as Eastern Iron Wrought Industries Limited (EIWIL), among others. Almost all the companies closed shop under the Abacha draconian rule and uncertain business environment between 1993 and 1998. In fact, the only surviving ones today – WAGI, PBCL, RIVOC, Risonpalm, Superbod Stores (now PH Mall) – have been privatised.
Diette-Spiff selected the best brains to man the various ministries, departments and agencies of the state government, and made significant milestones in virtually all sectors. He is reputed for awarding foreign scholarships to hundreds of Rivers sons and daughters to study various courses that could help realise the dreams of the founding fathers, and established most of the best educational institutions in the state till date. Among them are the Rivers State College of Science and Technology (renamed Rivers State University of Science and Technology by Okilo), facilitated the establishment of the University of Port Harcourt, Choba, gave identity to the Rivers State School of Nursing and Midwifery, Rivers State College of Education, (renamed Ignatius Ajuru University of Education by Amaechi), teacher training colleges, and Rivers State School of Health Technology, among others, which have impacted positively to the socio-economic and political development of Rivers State.
In addition, Diette-Spiff established the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation (RSNC), Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation (RSBC) AM Station, and initiated the establishment of Rivers State Television. His administration further established New Layout Market in Old Port Harcourt Township, and the Port Harcourt Zoological Park at Okujagu-Ama. He handed over the reins of power in the state to Maj-Gen Zamani Lekwot in July, 1975. But till date, posterity continues to judge Diette-Spiff’s nine-year government fairly as the best that had pursued, with vigour, the realisation of the dreams of the founding fathers of the state.
Having taken over in July, 1975 under the new head of state, Gen Murtala Mohammed, Zamani Lekwot’s government took off from where Diette-Spiff had stopped. His three-year regime saw an attempt to consolidate the gains already made by his predecessor. Thus, he strived to complete some of the critical infrastructure development projects started by Diette-Spiff. Lekwot commenced building the stadium project, initiated by Diette-Spiff, which he also relocated to Elekahia. He further built the imposing Rivers State Liaison Office in Lagos.
With the death of Mohammed, and take over by Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, Navy Commander Suleiman Saidu was appointed military governor of the state in July, 1978. Within the short spell of one year and three months as military governor, Saidu worked hard to make some impact in the state. He initiated some road infrastructure development projects, just as he began tenacious efforts to complete numerous projects he inherited from his predecessor. But history would pen his name in gold as the first military governor to hand over power to the first democratically elected governor after 12 years, four months and five days of the state’s creation, on October 1, 1979.
Chief Melford Obiene Okilo, was that first civilian governor of Rivers State. He governed the state for four years, and three months. He dusted the Diette-Spiff masterplan, laced with a dream to make the state stand out in the comity of states, and began implementing a deliberate policy of massive redevelopment that included canalisation of many creeks in the state. With this policy, massive swamps were reclaimed, including Borokiri, for development purposes, just as several road projects were embarked upon to give deserved facelift to the state. Apart from the more than 350 housing units built across the state to provide accommodation for the teeming population of particularly civil servants, Okilo also engineered and managed the construction of the Kolo Creek Gas Turbine Station in the present Bayelsa State to enhance electricity supply to the people. He also built Rivers State Television, and Radio Rivers FM Station.
Okilo also played a monumental role in developing education infrastructure and enhancing human capacity to drive economic growth and development in the state. To this extent, he converted then College of Science and Technology built by Diette-Spiff to Nigeria’s first science and technology university in Port Harcourt. But he did not end there. He also upgraded the state College of Education to a degree-awarding institution, and built many primary and secondary schools. But Okilo’s landmark momentum was cut short by the Gen Muhammadu Buhari/Tunde Idiagbon coup of midnight December 31, 1983, which returned military rule to Nigeria.
Following the coup, Police Commissioner Fidelis Oyakhilome, who later became assistant inspector-general of police, was appointed to take charge of governance in Rivers State on January 1, 1984.  He served until August 28, 1986, becoming the fifth governor of the state. He ruled for two years and seven months. Oyakhilome accelerated the development of the agriculture by realigning the state to its original economic prowess as the agricultural melting pot of Nigeria. To drive this template, he established the School-to-Land Programme in Iriebe, Community Block Farming Programme as well as the Skills Acquisition Programme in the state. He also signed the edict establishing the Rivers State School of Basic Studies, which later was renamed Rivers State College of Arts and Science, Rumuola, and embarked on other development projects in many sectors of the economy. He coordinated and drove the Mile One Flyover project to a reasonable state of completion.
Col Anthony Ukpo, who retired as brigadier-general, was appointed military governor of the state on August 28, 1986. He ran the affairs of the state until July, 1988. As the sixth governor of the state, Ukpo governed the state for nearly two years. He inaugurated the provisional council of the Rivers State Polytechnic, Bori, and established the Rivers State Accelerated Integrated Rural Development Programme. Ukpo also initiated the Ndoki Waterfront Housing Estate, CARNIRIV 88, and laid the foundation stone for the construction of Rivers State Polytechnic, Bori. He also completed the Mile One Flyover project.
After Ukpo was dropped in July, 1988, Group Captain Ernest Adeleye was appointed as the seventh governor of the state. Within the two years and one month he held sway as governor, Adeleye signed the edict establishing the Rivers State Polytechnic, Bori; commissioned the Marine Base Housing Estate, and initiated the Flying Doctors’ Scheme. His administration came to an end on August 30, 1990.
On September 3, 1990, Col Godwin Abbe, who later retired as major-general, became the eight governor of Rivers State. He served for one year and four months, thus leaving office in January, 1992. Abbe’s regime witnessed many milestones in infrastructure development of the state. These landmarks include the magnificent Government House Auditorium, the Green Verge Housing Estate, as well as the Aggrey Road Waterfront Housing Estate. He also initiated the popular Eagle Island Water Scheme, and numerous other infrastructure development projects.
After the Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida junta organised governorship elections across the country, Chief Rufus Ada-George took over as the ninth governor of the state in January, 1992. As the second civilian governor of the state, Ada-George, whose tenure, the June 12 imbroglio and the Gen Sani Abacha coup forced to leave office in December, 1993, served for nearly two years. He is reputed for according priority to road infrastructure and housing development in the state. Thus, he opened up the city of Port Harcourt and the adjoining communities in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area through many link roads, including the now Peter Odili Road, Ada-George Road, the NTA-Mgbuoba-Airport Road, and the Okujagu-Woji-Akpajo Road, Eastern Bypass, among others. However, his brief administration had to abandon the roads at different levels of conception and execution. He also embarked on maintenance of existing roads and built some housing estates in the local government headquarters. But the success of the administration was punctuated by the high security challenges it face owing to numerous communal conflicts and violence across communities in the state.
With Abacha take over arising from consequential unease and tension following the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, and disturbing breakdown of law and order in Ogoniland, triggered by the gruesome murder of five prominent leaders of the area by a mob of youth under the aegis of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) led by environmentalist and playwright, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, and National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), led by Dr Goodluck Diigbo, the military junta deployed no-nonsense Col Dauda Musa Komo  on December 9, 1993, to manage a state of emergency, crush the seeming uprising and punish those against Federal Military Government’s position in Rivers State. Komo, the tenth governor of the state, ran Rivers State like a garrison command and occupation force, and left office on August 22, 1996, after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and three other activists by hanging on November 9, 1995.

Nelson Chukwudi