In Nigeria’s political and economic history, Rivers State is revered in the comity of states that constitute the Nigerian Federation. Perhaps, that is why torrents of encomiums and congratulatory messages from individuals and corporate organisations have continued to flood the state to mark the state’s Golden Jubilee anniversary. From the North to the West, to the East and indeed down to the common man, the encomiums have been tremendous, overwhelming and phenomenal. The state, perhaps, may have never witnessed such phenomenal applause since its inception on May 27, 1967.
In more sense than one, Rivers State in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, is unique. Popularly known as the Treasure Base of Nigeria, the state’s uniqueness is not without basis or justification. The abundance of human and natural resources coupled with the hospitality of its people, among other considerations, make the state to stand out shoulder high among its contemporaries.
Rivers State, the envy of other states, and the hub of oil and gas of Nigeria prides itself as the mainstay of the country’s economy. Created years ago, precisely on the 27th May, 1967, the state, among other states, were created through a military fiat by the General Yakubu Gowon’s military administration. The creation of the state was greeted with much fanfare, jubilation and expectations; and, therefore, the golden jubilee anniversary marks a milestone in the struggle for Rivers identity in the comity of ethnic nationalities and states that constitute the Nigerian federation.
Its proclamation by Gowon as a distinct and unique state was, indeed, a realisation of the vision of the founding fathers of the state, who over several decades, lamented the obvious marginalisation by the dominant ethnic groups in the Nigerian project, particularly the Ibos, who co-habited the then Eastern region with its capital in Enugu.
Rivers State, created through Decree 14 of 1967 was and still part of the oil-rich Niger Delta region that remains marginalised in the Nigerian political equation, despite its abundant natural and human resources.
Its inception in 1967 therefore was seen as liberating Niger Delta people who since the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 had suffered untold hardship in the Nigerian federation.
The Rivers identify struggle however predates the creation of the state. Infact, the founding fathers of the state who were so agitated, during the colonial era in several ways protested to the then British administrators over their fears in the Nigerian project. They cried out against dominance of the major ethnic nationalities – the Hausas (Fulanis), Yorubas and the Ibos who dominated the political and economic landscape of Nigeria and thus needed a special attention due mainly to the peculiar environment that the Rivers people and other minorities find themselves.
The founding fathers’ relentless struggle to question the imbalance and injustice of the Nigerian federation remained the philosophy behind the creation of the state. Their mission and vision were to ensure that Rivers State gets its pride of place in the geo-political entity called Nigeria. The question till date, however remains whether that vision has been achieved or not.
So, as activities for the 50th anniversary of the state climax today, the need to have a retrospective analysis of the vision and mission of the state’s founding fathers becomes more imperative and inevitable.
The struggle, agitations and creation of Old Rivers State, now Bayelsa and Rivers started in about 1939 and climaxed in 1967. The state as presently constituted was under the Eastern group of provinces in 1939 with administrative headquarters in Enugu. The group of provinces later became Eastern region of Nigeria, made up of Ibos, as the dominant ethnic nationality with other minorities making up the region. The minorities include, the Ijaw, Ibibio, Efik, Anang, Ogoja, Ikwerre, Ibani, Ekpeye, Engenni, Ogba, Kalabari, Nembe, Ogoni, among others.
These ethnic groups between 1941 and 1952 agitated for an identity that led to the creation of Rivers Province under the auspices of Ijaw Peoples League (IPL). The struggle which actually began with the league culminated in the formation of the Council of Rivers Chiefs and Elders.
Other similar groups within the minorities were also floated, prominent among them is the Calabar Ogoja Rivers Movement which was later called the Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Congress in 1954. Up till the late ‘50s, agitations for an independent state to actualise the dreams and vision of these ethnic groups gathered more momentum as days, months and years rolled by.
It would be recalled that such agitations and movements by various groups and individuals led to the inauguration of the Willink’s Commission in 1958 under the British colonial administration.
Prominent personalities that featured in the struggle and agitation for the creation of Rivers State included, Chief P.G. Warmate, Chief Dappa-Biriye, Chief Melford Okilo, Francis Alagoa, Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree, E.T. Dimiari, Emmanuel Aguma, Thom Manuel, Napoleon Graham Douglas, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chief Emmanuel Opurum, just to name but a few.
The movement for a separate state called Rivers also has the students’ perspective (to the struggle). The Rivers Students Union played a vital role as it submitted memoranda to the Willink Commission set up to examine the fears of the minorities in the larger Nigerian federation.
It was indeed the Willink Report which was submitted to the British parliament that defined the riverine people as a distinct group in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria that require special attention occasioned by their ecological and peculiar circumstances. Perhaps, it will be right to say that the creation of Rivers State, among other states that fall within the minorities engineered the Gowon’s administration to create the state.
It must be noted that the Riverine people who co-habited the Eastern region with the Ibos are distinct in their culture, customs, occupation and lifestyle while the Ibos are mainly farmers and traders who live in the mainland; while the Rivers people are predominantly fishermen and farmers but with abundant human, mineral and natural resources. They have a different history and culture.
Due to the early contact with Europeans through the sea, especially the Portuguese, the British and other European counties, Rivers chiefs and people established lucrative businesses with Europe which flourished for decades and also got early western education. Trading and commerce with Europeans actually started in Nigeria with Riverine people in Niger Delta, Badagry and Lagos. Hence, their early exposure to education propelled, in no small measure, the agitation for Rivers identity.
Rightly or wrongly, it was the ‘Willink Commission which highlighted the fears of the minorities. It identified them as a very distinct group with different cultural heritage from the dominant ethnic groups of Nigeria. The report provided for an “Area for a Rivers State”. This report laid the foundation for the state to evolve.
Before the evolution and creation of the state, several political and pressure groups emerged. These included the Ijaw Union, Niger Delta Congress, Rivers State Congress, among others. One thing was common, and that is the struggle for creation of Rivers State. Despite their political and religious differences, the Rivers spirit ran through the spine of all the agitators and visioners.
It was because of the agitations and pressure from various groups domiciled in the old Rivers State that made the former Eastern region to grant legislatuve seats to the area called Rivers State. Similarly, the London Constitutional Conference, in 1957 recognised the riverine people from Nigeria as a distinct group.
The Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference (RCPC) largely provided the effective political platform for struggle and creation of Rivers State. It is worthy to note that before the 1957 constitutional conference several demands and petitions from people of the area were thrown out in the Nigerian Federal Parliament.
Isaac Adaka Boro, an under-graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and his fellow compatriots who formed Freedom Fighters Movement, added another dimension and declared war on the Nigerian government, demanding a Niger Delta Republic. He and his colleagues categorically said that the Niger Delta people will no longer support the Federal Government to execute the Civil War, if the Niger Delta people were not granted a republic. The rebellion lasted for just 12 days and they were charged for treason for taking up arms against the Federal Government.
This whole struggle came to fruition on May 27, 1967 when the state was eventually created with Alfred Diete-Spiff taking over the mantle of leadership on September 1, 1968 after the state was liberated from Biafran troops.