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BENIN AND THE MIDWEST REFERENDUM

 

By Dr. Nowamagbe A. Omoigui, MD, MPH, FACC

INTRODUCTION

 

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 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.

 

PREAMBLE

 

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 results of the Referendum
No District Affirmative Answer “YES” Negative Answer “NO”
1 ABOH 33,072 722
2 AFENMAI 76,998 1,260
3 ASABA 68,637 365
4 BENIN 130,562 2,081
5 ISHAN 73,088 563
6 URHOBO 150,382 273
7 WARRI 30,703 1,377
8 WESTERN IJAW 15,635 577
9 Total 579,077 7,218

 

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]

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