By Lindsay Barrett
Of the twelve states that were created as a result of the initial transformation from the colonial structure of regional administration in Nigeria in May 1967, the creation of the Rivers State, which was carved out of the Eastern Region, generated the most acrimony and resistance among those who opposed the initiative in the regions. This was because Port Harcourt in particular was regarded as a major commercial and industrial centre that members of the Igbo majority in the region had worked hard to develop, control and manage while members of the indigenous ethnic groups that were the original owners of the territory had agitated for greater autonomy and territorial independence for decades. This latter sentiment was widespread among all the so-called minority ethnic groups throughout Nigeria at the time but the response on the part of the so-called major tribes had not resulted in any notable success for their aspirations except in the Western Region from which the Mid-Western Region had been carved out in 1963. General Yakubu Gowon’s decision to make states rather than large regions the basis for communal governance addressed this concern, but it was regarded at the time as a strategy for military victory rather than for the strengthening of the political relevance of the diverse regional communities of the nation.
However, after the Civil War was won by the federal forces, the socio-political relevance of this decisive move became ascendant in the concerns of the leaders of opinion in the new states and issues of concern arose over allegations of marginalisation of some minority ethnic groups and domination by more populous groups.
After the Civil War, this concern took on special importance in Rivers State, as a major factor in the process of rebuilding Nigeria’s nationhood when the production and marketing of crude oil, gas and other petroleum products became the central element of the Nigerian economy. Rivers State, especially Port Harcourt, became a favourite destination of major international and domestic investors and commercial traders in the Eastern axis of the nation. Unfortunately, this aspect of the consolidation of Rivers State’s viability raised new tensions in the community between indigenes and non-indigenes, especially the Igbo. This development was exacerbated by the passing of the Abandoned Property Edict that was utilised to compensate for deficiencies in the allocation of properties to indigenous citizens, who had been affected by the instability of the times. However, many Igbo regarded the abandoned property policy, which granted the government the right to sell properties that were not reclaimed within a stipulated period after the end of the conflict as punitive and unfair. They argued that many properties were not claimed in time because the owners had passed away, either as a result of war or natural causes and their heirs had lost proper documentation during the unstable times that followed. In such circumstances, they felt that more tolerance and discretion should have been exercised in the disposal of these properties. On the other hand, many of the indigenes, who were able to acquire these properties regarded the exercise as having enabled them to get restitution for what they often described as marginalisation in their own homeland as a result of the old system of regional hegemony.
As these sentiments of bitterness and disenchantment threatened to dominate relationships between the indigenous citizens of Rivers State and its most dynamic neighbours in the early years of the state’s existence, after the Civil War, it became imperative for the state government to take special note of the need to restore harmony among the peoples of the region. Right from the onset of post-war governance, the then Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff-led administration encouraged collaborative partnership in developmental initiatives between local and external interests. The government established regulatory reliefs for investors and entrepreneurs, who wished to invest in industries and viable commercial ventures in Rivers State and made it plain that the members of the Igbo ethnic group, especially its business class, were welcome to return to the state.
The growth of cosmopolitanism in the state was encouraged by the constant expression of official support for national policies that promoted reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of services in the war-affected territories. As a consequence, over the first twenty years of its existence, the Rivers State, especially Port Harcourt, witnessed a resurgent influx of non-indigenous inhabitants among whom the Igbo were prominent, and probably the most numerous. Successive governments, especially those that were elected into office made notable efforts to restore the confidence of their regional neighbours in the hospitality of the Rivers people and government. As a consequence over the last fifty years, leaders of the Rivers State have been at the forefront of the struggle to have state’s rights, as an integral element of regional cooperation recognised as the driving force of Nigerian federalism.
In ways that might not be immediately obvious to observers who are not familiar with the historical context in which Rivers State was created, the state has been the most remarkable symbol of the benefits as well as the deficiencies of Nigeria’s transformation from a federation of regions to one of states. The early years of the state’s existence saw it divided into so-called upland and riverine communities. This concept created internal political tensions that contributed to the eventual creation of the new Bayelsa State in 1996 out of the old Rivers State that had been inaugurated in 1967. One of the consequences of that split has been to raise the political relevance of what was once considered the upland minority to greater importance in the emergence of leadership and conduct of public affairs in the new Rivers State. The most important factor of the modern Rivers State’s role as an economic powerhouse of the entire nation is the extent to which it can accommodate and enhance partnerships with its regional neighbours in both the South-East and South-South geo-political zones.
The growth of the old Rivers State into one of the major economic centres of the entire nation was based on access to its unique attributes of location, mineral resources and services by expatriate experts as well as people from all parts of Nigeria. In recent years, insecurity generated by political tensions and a breakdown of law and order provoked by the economic marginalisation of indigenous youth has undermined the reputation of the territory as a safe haven for investment and economic development. As a result the restoration of stability in the entire region has emerged as a major concern in the state as it sets out to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.
A major attribute of the Rivers State’s identity, as an important symbol of federal unity has been the extent of its presence in national affairs as represented by illustrious individuals, right from the onset of the new order in 1967. The decision to pardon the insurgent leader Isaac Adaka Boro and his followers and induct them into the Nigerian Army was a clear indication that the Gowon administration sympathised with the aspirations of the minority peoples of the Eastern Region. The first Rivers man to serve as Minister in General Gowon’s Government was the late Chief Wenike Briggs from Abonemma. One of the most respected elder statesmen, who had been a major force in the independence movement was Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye from Bonny. He crafted a close collaboration with the late Alhaji M.D. Yusuf, one of the most unusual and ideologically radical government officials that Nigeria has ever known, to wage a tireless fight for the separation of the coastal peoples from the control of the majority in the Eastern Region’s hinterland. Chief G.K.J Amachree of Buguma, a celebrated legal luminary, who rose to become an Under-Secretary of the United Nations and was reputedly the highest paid civil servant in the world at one time, was also a tireless advocate of the autonomy of the Rivers people. Later, one of the most respected Attorney Generals of the Federation was Chief Hon. Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, who had been a major advocate of Rivers autonomy, even when he was serving as Attorney General of the old Eastern Region. In subsequent years, a long list of illustrious sons of the state, including legendary figures, such as the late authors Elechi Amadi and the martyred Ken Saro-Wiwa and Senator Obi Wali as well as one-time NBA President, O.C..J. Okocha, and Chief Ferdy Alabrabah, former Chairman of UBA, and consummate technocrats like four-time minister, Alabo T.O.G Graham-Douglas, former national security and intelligence guru, Chief A.K. Horsfall, and administrator extraordinary, Dr. Patrick Dele-Cole, made their mark in service to the entire nation while tirelessly advocating the interests of their home communities.
As the landmark fiftieth year celebration is marked, the state’s role as a symbol of communal empowerment must take on wider significance. The main theme of this celebration should signal Rivers State’s position, as a location for regional cooperation in order to maintain peace and encourage the tolerance and collaboration of the indigenes with their compatriots as partners in the advancement of national interests. This has been the central objective of the Rivers State administrations that have been led by indigenes, such as Alfred Diete Spiff, Melford Okilo, Ada George, Peter Odili, Celestine Omehia, Rotimi Amaechi and now Nyesom Wike. For such indigenous leadership, the challenge has always been to ensure that local empowerment enhances partnerships for development and does not revive old animosities.
They have also been charged with ensuring that the most fundamental and morally positive purpose for which states were created, which was to enhance communal management of public affairs, will remain the core motive of the Rivers State’s impact on national affairs. In that event, the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of state’s creation should provide a golden opportunity for the Rivers State to lead the way in promoting regional cohesion without compromising its identity as a state that was founded to provide justice for communities that were marginalised under the structure of regional hegemony imposed by the colonial order.