BENIN AND THE MIDWEST REFERENDUM (2)
[See Part 1 and Part 3 ]
WILLINK MINORITIES COMMISSION -- NIGERIA (1957-58)
1958 – 1960
While the Constitutional Conference and Willink Commission were finalizing their activities, 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 [Sklar - Benin: A Study in the Mechanics of Chieftaincy Control. P238-42, In: Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties.].
During the Lancaster House conference in London which took place in September and October 1958, the concept of a minority area inclusive of Benin and Delta provinces, except Warri division and Akoko-Edo district was discussed and vaguely agreed to, pending further consultation, without plans for a Special Ijaw Area Board. [Report by the Resumed Nigeria Constitutional Conference Held in London, September and October 1958, Cmnd. 569, London: HMSO, 1958]
In the meantime, the rising political profile of key Midwesterners who would come to play critical roles in the creation of the Midwest was unmistakable. A national government was formed based on the 1957 constitution, in preparation for independence. In this government Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh of Warri emerged as the Minister for Labor and Welfare (NCNC), a position which gave him direct access to northern leaders with whom he consolidated strong personal relationships which would be used by the Midwest movement with devastating effect after independence. The Action Group was represented by Chief SL Akintola (Communications and Aviation) and Mr. Ayo Rosiji (Health). 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. It was in May 1958 that initial talks to enter into a post-independence government coalition were held between the NCNC and the NPC [Enahoro, Fugitive Offender, Op. Cit.].
Back in Benin, the battle to undermine Chief Omo-Osagie’s power base was continuing – on all fronts. Local government elections took place in Benin on May 17th, 1958 [Oronsaye, Op. Cit.]. The manipulation of post-election council nominations made it possible for the Action group to dominate the council although the party did not win the elections. On November 25th, Action group stalwart S. Y. Eke, moved a motion to ban Owegbe “juju” (also known as Isigidi, Aimuekpensulele or Iselogha) from the Benin division. The motion was carried and confirmed on March 19th, 1959 by an order of the Western region Governor-in-Council – with the support of Oba Akenzua II [West Regional Gazette, No. 14 of 19 March, 1959]. The Oba, who was then a Minister in the government, had commented in a letter on January 23rd, 1959, that Owegbe was an imported juju and that its existence in Benin was a threat to peace. Chief Omo-Osagie demanded a formal judicial inquiry, saying the ban was politically motivated, and explained that that there was no “juju” or “cult” as such, but that there was indeed an “Owegbe society” which was the “youth wing” of the Otu-Edo party. The existence of youth wings was by no means a new phenomenon in Nigeria. The Zikist National Vanguard and Awo National Brigade were examples, according to the Chief, who also directed attention to the violations of fundamental human rights and freedom of association which the ban implied [Debates of the Western House of Assembly, May 27, 1959; col. 863].
When however, Chief Omo-Osagie asserted that the Oba would testify that there was no such thing as “Owegbe juju” known in the Benin division, the Oba, in a letter dated July 22nd, 1959 stated that there was such a “juju” which, in his opinion at that time, as a Minister in the Action group government, was dangerous. In what seemed to reflect the underlying political fear, the Oba said the danger was not with claims of powers to kill or save but in the ability of intelligent citizens based in Benin, having convinced less sophisticated rural based folk to take oaths, could then by order, cause disturbances anytime they wished – a veiled reference to the disturbances of 1951. Using this cover, the western region government moved to emasculate the Owegbe society, which was actually originally created to provide sanctuary for those who wanted a way to fortify themselves from Ogboni recruitment drives. To illustrate the political nature of this development, the Oba reversed himself when he wrote a letter in 1962 (having since left the Action group) to the government saying he no longer had any concerns about Owegbe (see below).
At the same time, the national wing of the NCNC was seeking to wean itself from its dependence on the Otu-Edo. It accused Otu-Edo of restricting choices for candidates in elections to Benin indigenes, to the detriment of resident Igbos who wanted to contest in Benin and represent the party at the center. This complaint was curious, considering that Chike Ekwuyasi, an Ibo speaking Midwesterner from Ogwashi-Uku was actually elected on Otu-Edo platform to represent Benin back in 1951 – and no Benin indigene had ever been elected from any Igbo district. Nevertheless, the party established the Orizu and Onyia Commissions of inquiry to probe Otu-Edo – resulting in a recommendation by J.I.G. Onyia of Asaba to dissolve Otu-Edo and replace it with straight party membership of the NCNC, also known as “NCNC simplicita.” The report also pointed out that Omo-Osagie had not held elections for the position of President-General of Otu-Edo since 1950. This aspect of the report was attractive to Omo-Osagie’s critics within Otu-Edo – like GI Oviasu, DEY Aghahowa etc, who then formed a faction called “NCNC pure.” Nevertheless, Omo-Osagie, leery of non-Edo based political parties, insisted that Otu-Edo would not be swallowed by any national party but would remain independent. [Oronsaye, Op. cit.]
Other noteworthy developments in 1959 include the decision of the NCNC to establish a Midwest secretariat in Benin and the emergence of the States creation issue in the campaigns for federal elections in December 1959. In that election, the Action Group – which said it would also support the creation of the Midwest, but only if it occurred simultaneously with states creation in other regions - won three out of fifteen seats in the Midwest, two of which were in Ishan (A. Enahoro and P.D. Oboh) and one in Afenmai (M. Obi). The other twelve federal legislators from the Midwest were all members of the NCNC, including A. Opia, U.O. Ayeni, E. A. Mordi, J.B. Eboigbodi, Jereton Mariere, J.K. Deomonadia, O. Oweh, Festus Okotie-Eboh, and N. A. Ezenbodor. In the Benin division, H.O. Osagie, D.N. Oronsaye and D.E.Y. Aghahowa secured the federal seats. (Daily Times, December 14, 1959, pp5-6). These legislators would all play crucial roles in the fight for the Midwest after independence. For example, Jereton Mariere, a distinguished member of the Urhobo Progress Union, and businessman who had managed the late Mukoro Mowoe’s business at Agbor, would later emerge the first Governor of the Midwestern region. [personal communication, Professor PP Ekeh]
As was the case in previous years, 1960 was full of action, for and against the creation of the Midwest, including false and real hopes and intrigue. [Isuman JU. Facts about the Midwest State. Amalgamated Press, Lagos, 1960]
On July 7th, the Oni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, became the Governor of the Western region while the Alake of Abeokuta became the President of the House of Chiefs. Chief Omo-Osagie wasted no time in making a public statement about the development. Oba Akenzua II, who had been generally snubbed and cut off from many day to day decisions in the Ministry of Midwest Affairs except his approval was important to some Machiavellian scheme or the other, finally had enough. Independence was approaching and the Midwest region had still not been created. The post-independence federal government was going to be formed by the NCNC and the NPC. The vast majority of the federal legislators from the Midwest belonged to the NCNC. Therefore, the Oba 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.
But shortly after he did so, the Action Group won 15 out of 30 seats from the Midwest in the Western House elections of August 8, 1960, even barely beating an Otu-Edo candidate in Benin as well Prince Shaka Momodu in Irrua, in what was regarded as an upset, perhaps influenced by manipulation of the 1959 voter’s register. This outcome emboldened Awolowo and Akintola to publicly declare that they would not support the creation of the Midwest until after the 1964 federal elections when they would be in power at the center – although they kept up pressure for creation of the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers and Middle Belt States in other regions. Meanwhile, Barrister SO Ighodaro had taken over the Ministry of Midwest Affairs from Anthony Enahoro, when the latter elected to go federal, having lost out to SLA Akintola who returned to the West to succeed Awolowo as the Premier.
The 1960 constitution specified that for a referendum to take place seeking to establish support for a new region, two-thirds majority must approve it in the Federal House of Representatives and Senate, followed by majority approval in two-thirds of regions. Recognizing the key role which the governing party in the federal government in Lagos would have in initiating any legislative move toward the creation of the Midwest, Festus Okotie-Eboh and his mentor, Humphrey Omo-Osagie, were busy lobbying northern leaders. Eventually Festus Okotie-Eboh almost single handedly 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, knowing they were generally opposed to States creation. Without this crucial achievement on the part of Chief Okotie-Eboh, the creation of the Midwest would have been dead in the water. It was in recognition of this strategic feat that Festus Okotie-Eboh was given a chieftaincy title in Benin, the Elaba of Uselu. Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie, the indefatigable fighter with whom Oba Akenzua II had had his ups and downs but whose firm resolve and loyalty to his people had stood the test of time, was conferred with the title of Iyase of Benin. [Egharevba, Op. Cit.]
Nevertheless, the Akintola government in Ibadan moved quickly to consolidate its gains. It appointed many Midwesterners to ministerial positions, created a Midwest minority area and advisory council, and reorganized its administrative structure to create six new regional conferences, as if in tacit recognition of the six regions it was canvassing for the country. Chief Anthony Enahoro became the Chairman of the Midwest regional executive – which did not include Akoko-Edo district and Warri division. Dalton Ogieva Asemota, a well known independent, distinguished retiree from the United African Company (UAC), personal friend of Oba Akenzua II and first Chairman of the Midwest Advisory Council, became appointed by the Western region as the first post-independence Senator from Benin Province in Lagos, while Senator M.G. Ejaife, a household name in Urhoboland, was appointed to represent the Delta.
Dennis Osadebay, leader of the Midwest State movement, left Ibadan for Lagos to take up his new position as Senate President, to replace Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who had become the Governor-General. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh became the Federal Minister of Finance and leader of the parliamentary party. The straight shooting Michael Okpara replaced Nnamdi Azikiwe as Premier of the Eastern region and leader of the NCNC. Alhaji Tafawa Balewa of the NPC became the Prime Minister. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello held fort in the Northern region.
The ducks were lining up in a row.
The years 1961 and 1962 moved with dizzying speed. At the Midwest regional conference of the AG, Chief Awolowo kept up his oft repeated statement that he would work for the simultaneous creation of the Midwest, COR and Middle Belt States. In the Midwest, however, his comments were regarded with skepticism, all the more so considering what was regarded as his preference for a balkanized version of the Midwest. In any case, in March 1961, the NCNC – urged by Chief Okotie-Eboh - formally opposed the exclusion of Akoko-Edo and Warri from the Midwest minority area. When Chief Awolowo was confronted with the commitment the Western regional House of Assembly had made to creation the entire Midwest back 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 [Federal Parliamentary debates, April 4, 1961]. The comment merely served to confirm suspicions that he did not support the creation of the Midwest – under any circumstances – even though he challenged Balewa to create the Midwest before the end of May 1962.
Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, the NCNC and Action Group were locking horns in increasingly aggressive confrontation between party thugs regarding the alleged misuse by the AG of customary courts and tax assessments to harass political opponents, particularly in Ishan division, where the pro-Midwestern Prince Shaka Momodu was active, but just as much elsewhere [West African Pilot, August 30, 1961]. In the near crisis atmosphere that this created in the Midwest, Michael Okpara and the NCNC wanted the Balewa government to declare a state of emergency in the West, but Balewa resisted the temptation, seeing as it had other problems on its hands such as the controversy over the Anglo-Nigerian defence pact and the Congo controversy. Balewa also wanted to reach out to the Action Group during this period.
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 [Federal Parliamentary Debates, 4 April, 1961, col. 802]. It was a private member’s motion, which would run into legal trouble later because no formal count had been taken, as constitutionally required, of those in favor or against, and many complained that they had left the council chamber before the voice vote was taken. 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. During this period newspaper articles written by AG loyalists appeared in which various ethnic groups of the proposed Midwest were warned of “Benin domination.” In the smear campaign, designed to derail Midwest unity, rumors were spread about how certain posts were going to be dominated by “Benin.”
In early 1962, Dr. Okpara’s plans for a contrived state of emergency in the Midwest petered out, reportedly because it had been leaked by a reporter. In February, faced with what seemed to be a constitutional certainty, the AG met with the NCNC in Lagos, in order to get an agreement on the proposed Midwest Constitution Act which would respect its views on what should constitute the Midwest. By this time it was 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.
Late on March 23rd, 1962, Senator Dalton Asemota of the Benin province received an important visitor in his apartment at the federal legislator’s Legco Flats in Victoria Island, Lagos. His visitor was none other than Chief Anthony Enahoro, Vice President of the Action Group and leader of the Midwest Regional Executive. Enahoro stayed on in Senator Asemota’s flat until the early hours of the morning lobbying him to adopt the party position of the AG to vote against the second Midwest motion. The Senator, who was not a party man, was nonetheless reminded that he owed his position to the goodwill of the Action Group government in Ibadan. Early on the 24th, late Senator Asemota’s wife, late Mrs. Onaiwu Asemota (nee Obinwa family of Onitsha) rushed to my parent’s house to report the conversation Enahoro had with Senator Asemota. On this basis, the Senator’s brother in Benin, late Pa Elekhuoba Asemota was contacted emergently by phone with a report of what had transpired. My parents rushed to the Senator’s flat to ask him whether he had decided to oppose the motion. The late Senator, to his eternal credit, smiled and told my parents, “Do not worry, my children, even if it costs me this position, I shall not act against the interests of my people.” (personal communication, GO Omoigui)
After overcoming an attempt by Action group legislators, therefore, to amend the motion by deleting Akoko-Edo, Warri and western Ijaw from the definition of “Midwest” and then obfuscate issues by adding the creation of 11 new states as a pre condition, the Federal House of Representatives and Senate approved the second Midwest motion by 214-49 on March 24, 1962. The final count-down had begun.
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. Separately, the Olu of Warri and Chief Reece Edukugho filed court proceedings to contest the inclusion of Warri in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, 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 [Daily Times, April 14, 1962].
In May 1962, an important development occurred within the Western region and Action Group which would open the way for the Midwest to bolt out of the West. A crisis erupted between Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo (Party Leader and Leader of the Federal Opposition in Lagos) and Samuel Akintola (Premier of the West). This crisis had many causes [Sanya Onabamiro, Glimpses into Nigerian History. MacMillan Nigeria, 1983. p149]. For one, the positions of party leader (Awolowo) and head of government in the western region (Akintola) were held by two different persons, one from the non-Oyo group of rain forest Yorubas (Awolowo from Ijebu) and the other from the Oyo group of savannah Yorubas (Akintola from Ogbomosho). Secondly, Akintola felt that Awolowo ought not to have allowed any competition with him as “deputy leader” for the position of Premier when Awolowo left Ibadan to go to Lagos as Federal Leader of Opposition at the end of 1959. Thirdly, control over spending of the Cocoa Marketing Board investment funds built up during the Second World War from caused friction between them. Fourthly, they disagreed over whether to accept an invitation by Prime Minister Balewa for the Action Group to join the federal government. In this proposal, Balewa intended for Awolowo to be deputy-Prime Minister and Minister for Finance – which would have displaced Okotie-Eboh from that position. To all of this was added 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 SL Akintola was expelled from the Action Group by Chief Obafemi Awolowo after an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation. The Governor of the West, Sir Adesoji Aderemi was advised by a majority of Action Group legislators at Ibadan to dismiss Akintola as Premier and replace him with Alhaji D. S. Adegbenro – an act that was challenged all the way up to the Privy Council in London. On May 26, 1962 an attempt by the Western House to meet and ratify Akintola’s dismissal ended in confusion, leading to Police intervention. Armed with his wet handkerchief as an antidote to teargas, V.E. Amadasun was one of the first to rush to Lagos from Ibadan to inform the Midwest community in the federal government of the development, which led to the eventual declaration of a State of Emergency in the West on May 29 [Federation of Nigeria Official Gazette, supplement to No. 38, Vol. 49, May 29, 1962]. Although the Privy Council eventually approved the Governor’s action, its “approval” had been overtaken by events in Nigeria because of a constitutional amendment by the Federal House of Representatives. Meanwhile, under the “emergency administration” of the West led by Senator MA Majekodunmi, a fresh slate of predominantly 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 – which was boycotted by most members of the Action Group - was a confidence building measure designed to iron out party differences and differences between ideological and ethnic interest groups. 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.
On September 9th, there was another all-party round-table at the Oba’s Palace in Benin which most members of the Action Group, except Ja Isuman and JE Odiete boycotted. At this meeting, 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. 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. [Vickers, Op. Cit.]
A week later on September 22, Chief Awolowo and many others were arrested for an apparent plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Balewa. Chief Anthony Enahoro initially escaped into exile in Ireland but was extradited back 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 an interesting letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Midwest Affairs on October 2nd, 1962, in which he said:
Dear Permanent Secretary,
Your MWP144/358 of 26/9/62. I do not now see any justification for the continued ban on “Owegbe”. I, therefore, support the suggestion that the ban on “Owegbe” should be lifted. I recommend that the ban on “Owegbe” in the Benin Division and elsewhere should be lifted.”
(sgd) Oba of Benin
(see Exhibit 63/5 p143, Owegbe Commission of Inquiry, 1966)
With unity and security on the home front, all hands were now on deck for the final push. Balewa had decided that he would not conduct the referendum until there was a formal government back in office at Ibadan. By order of the federal government, the Akintola government was reinstated on January 1st, 1963 as Premier, this time with support from a new coalition consisting of the NCNC and his new party called the United People’s Party (UPP). This action caused an additional misunderstanding within the old Action Group just as it was reeling from the report of the Coker Commission of Inquiry into management of Cocoa Marketing Board investments and newspaper coverage of the ongoing trial of Chief Awolowo and others for treasonable felony [Enahoro, Op. Cit.].
On January 21, Mr. Gabriel E. Longe, from Owan district of the Afenmai Division was appointed the Supervisor of the Midwest referendum. He had been the legal adviser to the Benin Delta Peoples Party back in the fifties. No civil servants from the Western region were to be selected (to avoid a conflict of interest or fear of victimization) and no non-Midwesterners were to be 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.
A few days later on January 24th, the Midwest Planning Committee met again to get updates on developments and plan for the referendum. Two days later, on January 26th, KSY Momoh, who had taken over from Chief Anthony Enahoro as Chairman of the Midwest Regional Committee of the Action Group publicly announced that the Action group would oppose the creation of the Midwest, but, unknown to him, the horse had left the barn. 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. Under such pressure Action Group hardliners and anti-Midwest region politicians like KSY Momoh, C. Akere and Olatunji Oye, who were all former Ministers under Akintola before the split in the AG, decided to attend the next meeting of the Midwest Planning Committee (MPC) on March 9th. [Vickers, Op. Cit.]
Thereafter, Oba Akenzua II resumed his tours of the Midwest to garner support for the “Yes” vote. 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. Even those who die before the plebiscite takes place will be condemned in the other world, if they die with the bad intention of voting against or persuading people to vote against the creation of a Midwest region.” [Speech by Oba Akenzua at Agbor, March 12, 1963]
On April 23rd, Mr. James Otobo, a pro-Midwest politician who had decamped from the NCNC to the AG before independence and had since crossed over to the UPP requested for a postponement of the referendum pending clarification of certain issues. Therefore, another meeting of the Midwest Planning Committee was called on May 20th, followed by yet another meeting on May 30th at which final agreement was reached on the creation of new divisions for the Akoko-Edo and Isoko people, as well as the composition of the interim Midwest administration.
In the meantime, on May 2nd, tragedy struck. Senator Dalton Ogieva Asemota, Chairman of the Midwest Planning Committee died suddenly.
THE DEATH OF SENATOR DALTON ASEMOTA
At the end of April 1963, Senator Asemota came to Lagos to attend a scheduled meeting of the Senate. The Senate adjourned on April 29th, and so he made plans to return to Benin on May 2nd. On May 1st, however, he woke up early and telephoned his older brother Pa Elekhuoba Asemota to tell him that he would be returning to Benin the next day. Then he went to the General Hospital in Lagos to see Dr. Laja in follow-up to a Chest X-ray he had earlier ordered. Dr. Laja gave him a prescription, some of which the Hospital pharmacy did not have, so he was asked to find them at a private pharmacy. From the hospital he went shopping but returned home at about 3 pm to take his medications on an empty stomach. After this he left for the Commercial Medicine Store on Nnamdi Azikiwe Street owned by his friend, Senator Wusu from Badagry. On arrival he handed the prescription to his friend who in turn gave it to his assistants to get the medications. Meanwhile Senator Asemota was resting on the counter along with his wife, Onaiwu, waiting on the prescription. Then suddenly, and without warning he slumped.
He was then rushed to the General Hospital Casualty department. His wife then came to my family house on MacDonald Avenue in Ikoyi, Lagos, where we were neighbours to Chief Anthony Enahoro on our back side and Dr. Rilwan, a well known Lagos physician, on the other. Dr. Rilwan, my parents, and Mrs Onaiwu Asemota rushed back to the hospital to find out what was happening, only to be directed to the mortuary where the Senator’s lifeless body was lying. It was my father that had the unenviable responsibility to break the devastating news to Chiefs Omo-Osagie and Okotie-Eboh. Chief Omo-Osagie notified Pa Elekhuoba Asemota in Benin.
Meanwhile, my father went to Dr. Laja’s house to get permission for release and embalmment. While on their way to the hospital the Doctor said the Senator had had an enlarged Heart on Chest X-ray. When Senator Asemota asked him how his Chest X-Ray looked, he told him: “It is okay, Papa.” to which the Senator responded by smiling.
Senator Dalton Asemota, the consensus builder, did not live to see the Midwest he worked so hard to make possible. Descended from Chief Osemwota, the Eson, and a descendant of the Ezomo Nehenua family of Benin, and Madam Iyeye Ero, the later Senator was buried in the Asemota family compound after a sermon led by Reverend Akinluyi at the St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Benin City [personal communication, Mr. DA Omoigui]. He was replaced as Chairman of the Midwest Planning Committee by Chief Morgan Agbontaen.
ACTIVITIES AT THE OBA'S PALACE AND AT WARD LEVEL IN PREPARATION FOR THE REFERENDUM
Once it became apparent that the referendum was indeed going to be held, a tactical forward HQ was established at the Oba's Palace, Benin City. Representatives of the Midwest State Movement met there regularly for briefing. At one of the early meetings Oba Akenzua II warned all concerned that it was a rare event indeed for a government to lose a referendum in its area of jurisdiction. He reminded them that in 1962 General DeGaulle had conducted a successful referendum for a new constitution in France.
The government of reference in the Midwest, Oba Akenzua II was referring to, was that of the Western region, which, inspite of public pretensions Oba Akenzua said, was opposed to the creation of the new region. He told those gathered that no stone must be left unturned to ensure victory in this last lap of what he said was a war of liberation. 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 after accounting for “No” votes. It was not the intention of those who wrote such difficult clauses into the constitution that any new region would ever be created.
Quite apart from open campaigning for voters to vote "YES", as well as tours to various parts of the Midwest, detailed operational plans were made to ensure victory on polling day. Fleets of Armels buses, for example, were leased by Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie and sent around the Benin province in 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 mobilized. The Urhobo Progress Union used every avenue known to man, including churches, to mobilize voters. Turn-out at ward level all over the state was planned to be close to 100% to make up for unknown ghost voters.
About two weeks prior to the official referendum, to minimize uncertainty, at every potential polling station in every ward vote forecasts were generated by Midwest enthusiasts, based on a pre-referendum poll. 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. Many of such "No" votes had been confused by conflicting campaigns to vote against the creation of the Midwest by some interests. Anti-Midwest campaigners told villagers that putting their votes in the “white box”, was a vote for return to the rule of “white men”. Pro-Midwest campaigners told villagers that a vote in the “black box” was a vote for “Evil”.
But more mundane methods were also used to campaign. For example, in one case, the retired Head of a Household asked his visitor what the whole referendum controversy was about. What, he wondered, was he to gain from going to the polling station at his age? The Midwest protagonist he spoke to explained it very simply in this way: If the referendum were to approve the creation of the Midwest, he would no longer have to travel all the way to Ibadan to collect his pension. All he would have to do was to go to Benin City nearby. The old man thought about what he had just heard and said: "In that case my son, everybody in this house will go there and vote 'Yes'.”
In yet another case, this time in Benin City itself, a local ward leader of the Action Group was approached by some colleagues in the Action Group to notify him that party policy was to oppose the creation of the Midwest. The gentleman concerned calmly told his visitors that it would be sacrilege for him to go against the wishes of Oba Akenzua II.
From June 5th until June 14th, and again from June 20th until the 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.” (Vickers, Op. Cit.)
THE BAUCHI MEETING: OKOTIE-EBOH AND BALEWA’S SECOND THOUGHTS
On the surface, all had seemed set to go for the referendum, once all the legislative bills had been passed and the supervisor appointed. Behind the scenes, however, Chief SL Akintola had been warning some of friends in the NPC that they were setting a precedent by supporting the creation of the Midwest region which would someday come back to haunt the North. It seemed clear to Akintola that if the Midwest referendum was allowed to go forward, the Midwest would, indeed, opt out of the West. Once the Midwest was so created, a precedent would have been set for the creation of other regions, a prospect that was not attractive to the northern leadership. On this basis, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa began to have second thoughts.
In the last week of May 1963, the supervisor of the referendum, GE Longe was summoned for what he thought was another of his routine briefings for the Prime Minister. At this meeting, which took place in Bauchi, rather than Lagos, he witnessed a private show down between Okotie-Eboh and Balewa. Okotie-Eboh insisted that he had received Sardauna’s commitment, things had gone too far and that Balewa could not back out. After a hot exchange, Balewa conceded to Okotie-Eboh and gave the final go ahead for the referendum [personal communication, Kenneth Longe, Benin City]
THE REFERENDUM DIARY
The Midwest was divided into eight districts for the purpose of the official referendum. They were Aboh, Afemai, Asaba, Benin, Ishan, Urhobo, Warri and Western Ijaw. Counting Stations for each of these districts were located at the Recreation Hall, Kwale; Town Hall, Auchi; Council Hall, Asaba; Conference Hall (Urhokpota), Benin City; Town Hall, Irrua; Council Hall, Ughelli; K.G.V. Memorial Hall, Warri; and the Court Hall, Bomadi, respectively.
The diary below was developed from interviews with and the personal records of Mr. D. A. Omoigui, Assistant District Referendum Officer for Benin NE (I) in what is now known as Uhumwode local government area.
April 6th, 1963
Upon arrival on April 6th, 1963, at the headquarters of the Referendum at Kings Square, Benin City, the Supervisor welcomed all referendum officers. The Secretary to the Supervisor (Mr. G. B. A. Egbe) then provided each officer with copies of the Constitutional Referendum Act, 1962 and Constitutional Referendum Regulations, 1963 along with Circular No. 1 which contained “General Instructions. ”
The eight major Districts identified for the Referendum were placed under District Referendum Officers (DRO). Each district was divided into Constituencies. Assistant District Referendum Officers (ADRO) were operationally responsible for the conduct of the exercise in each constituency which were further subdivided into wards and finally, 1,841 polling stations. The ADRO was responsible for providing the name and address of each polling station as well as the staff. At each polling station, there was a Presiding Officer, two Polling Officers, one Orderly and one female searcher in reserve. For each polling station the ADRO reconciled the 1959 Federal Electoral register for that station and provided it to the Presiding Officer for use in verifying the legitimacy of individual voters on polling day. The ADRO was also responsible for instructing Polling Officers in their duties, providing all equipment to be used and ensuring that all ballot boxes were delivered to the District Referendum Officer at the counting center. The DRO on the other hand was responsible for coordination in addition to conducting the count at the counting center. Only he had the legal authority to open each ballot box, but he was allowed to delegate that responsibility to the ADRO if necessary. At the end of the Referendum every officer was expected to submit a report on his work.
Public information leaflets with directions on “How to Vote” were printed at the Nigerian National Press, Ltd on Malu road, Apapa, in Lagos. Voters were instructed on eight basic steps:
1. Find out where your Polling Station is (same as it was in 1959)
2. Find out when Polling day is. (To be announced by the Prime Minister)
3. Go to the Polling Station.
4. Go to the table where the Polling Officers are sitting. (Show your card or provide your name, address and registration number, subject to challenge by any of the polling agents representing various political parties)
5. Have your left forefinger marked with special ink.
6. Take your officially stamped ballot paper. (Your registration card will also be stamped)
7. Go to the screened compartment and place your ballot in either the white box for YES or the Black Box for NO.
8. Leave the Polling Station.
Thursday April 18th, 1963
The Supervisor welcomed all referendum officers back to Benin City. Based on advance reports, claims for reimbursement according to standard civil service rules were received from officers and requested financial advances made to enable them discharge their duties. Some had trekked for many miles through bush paths infested with wild animals just to identify polling station locations. Others had the problem of dealing with a low proportion of all-season motorable roads and made requests for back-up LandRovers. Then there was the little detail of paying for supervising presiding officers who either had cars or motor-cycles, rather than those who would need transportation arrangements. This was necessitated by concerns about communication, particularly during rains.
Having secured the names of all polling stations and names of officers (recruited locally) expected to man them, as well as reconciled voters’ lists, the officers were now ordered to begin an intensive lecture tour for all polling officers. Booklets containing detailed, standardized instructions were distributed to ADROs who were expected in turn to give them to Presiding and Polling Officers. Such pamphlets included “Instructions to Polling Officers”, “Instructions to Referendum Officers” and guidelines developed for “Law and Order”.
The DROs on the other hand were charged with preparing the ballot boxes and polling compartments. Boxes were brought from Lagos, then cleaned. Their clips, nobs, nutches and locks were tested for efficacy. Each Referendum Officer was given two delicate specially designed security keys and then trained how to use them.
Between April 18th and 20th, Mr. Egbe organized additional short lectures on various aspects of their duties. Clarification was provided, for example, for use of two voters' lists in sub-divided wards. Further instructions were issued by the Supervisor regarding the importance of ensuring that the exact number of voters in the register for each polling station was precise and could be defended in court. They were then ordered to return to their districts and constituencies until the next scheduled meeting on Monday May 13th, 1963.
In the Uhumwode District Council area, the ADRO, Mr. D. A. Omoigui, conducted lectures to polling officials at 10 am and 4 pm respectively, at the Council Hall, Ehor and the Eyaen Court Hall on Tuesday 23rd and Friday 26th of April.
May 13th, 1963
The meeting of DROs and ADROs originally scheduled for May 13th had to be put off until May 20th because the Supervisor had been invited to a meeting of representatives of political parties of the Midwest at Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s house in Lagos on the same day. At that meeting, party representatives from the NCNC, AG, MPC and UPP requested assurances that they could discuss any concerns about arrangements for the referendum with the Supervisor, including compliance with the referendum regulations. They also wanted clarification about the powers of their polling agents and their ability to raise objections about specific Referendum Officers and polling officials with alleged party sympathies which might be detrimental to their cause. The Prime Minister directed the Supervisor to keep all parties informed of his activities.
May 20th, 1963
On May 20, 1963, his referendum officers submitted the ratified figures based on an audit of voters projected for each polling station to the Supervisor. Residual problems with the inspection and testing of ballot boxes were reported for Benin City, Ubiaja, Warri and Ughelli and arrangements made to address them. The list of locations where new polling booths were to be constructed and the associated costs were obtained. There were discussions about line item costs of contracting private typists and hiring of outboard engines in riverain areas. Officers were warned against any non-neutral activities, which might bring the referendum into disrepute. They were alerted that the Supervisor could change lists of polling officers recommended if there were complaints of favoritism. Having been directed to continue lectures to Polling Officers, work to get all ballot boxes ready, arrangements for construction of polling booths and compartments, and packaging of equipment for each polling station, they were asked to return on Monday June 10th for further instructions. It was expected that the referendum might take place at the end of June.
June 10th, 1963
At this meeting it was made clear that the referendum would not take place in June as earlier hoped. Discussion focused on estimates for construction of screens and booths. The Supervisor expressed concern that in the past, such items were discarded after elections. He expressed the hope that the use of anti-termite frames would enhance reusability and save money. He also directed the officers to ensure that all materials and equipment supplied for the referendum was returned in good condition. They were expected to plan this ahead and rehearse their plans, in order to identify transport and security requirements.
Instructions for the counting of votes were then issued. The procedure was rigidly spelled out to the Referendum Officers as follows:
1. All boxes, envelopes and articles delivered by the Presiding Officers were to be checked.
2. The Returning Officer would then be given the statement of invalid papers.
3. An accounting was then to be made of unused ballot papers, unused tendered ballot papers, spoilt ballot papers and canceled papers.
4. At this point the returning officers would be provided pencils, clips and forms for “Record of Votes.” (Form C1)
5. The seal on each Ballot box was then to be broken, the box unlocked and its contents emptied on the counting table, after which the returning officer begins counting the ballots, face upwards in bundles of 100 each, removing any further invalid papers.
6. If ballots were unmarked with official markings or issued in a different polling station they were to be rejected, and the word “rejected” written boldly on them. If any rejection was contested by a party counting agent the phrase “Rejection objected to” was to be inscribed under the word “Rejected.”
7. At this point the returning officer would complete the ‘Record of Votes’, sign and hand it over to the ADRO along with unsealed envelopes containing rejected and counted papers from the WHITE and BLACK boxes.
8. Then the ADRO would tally the total number of votes in each box, total number of valid votes, and the number of rejected papers.
9. After each of two boxes from every polling station had been counted and tallied, the numbers for the constituency were to be totalled and reconciled with the numbers of ballot papers and boxes originally provided to each polling station and the constituency as well as the Voters’ register.
10. At this point the statement would be signed and dated by the ADRO
11. Form C2, containing all figures, was then to be declared publicly for that constituency and a copy sent to the DRO.
Before parting ways to their specific zones of responsibility, they were reminded to continue training polling officers, preparing ballot boxes and building up parcels of equipment for each polling station. It was anticipated that they would meet again on Monday July 1st.
On June 12th, 1963, however, the Prime Minister announced on radio that the long awaited Midwest referendum would take place on Saturday, July 13th, 1963. Therefore, all Referendum Officers were summoned back to Benin City.
June 13th, 1963
At this meeting detailed instructions were issued regarding the impending referendum. The Supervisor, Mr. GE Longe, did not attend because he had to go to Lagos for an assignment. As a result, he made arrangements to make field trips to various locations between June and July 13th.
His address at the meeting was read out in his behalf. To ensure authenticity, he decided to restrict the power to appoint polling agents to the Midwest Regional Secretaries of the four recognized parties, namely the UPP, AG, NCNC and MPC. He did so to avoid town or district secretaries sending all sorts of unverifiable names. Of the four polling agents approved in each polling station, two were for political parties in favor of the creation and two for parties against the creation of the Mid-West. A similar formula was used for the Counting agents.
However, Referendum Officers were only authorized by law to guide political parties in this process, if so requested by the parties involved, but not actually solicit them to make appointments.
For Law and Order, the Police was provided with the list of all polling stations and their locations, as well as collecting points for ballot boxes at the end of polling.
The ADRO (HQ), Mr. Edgal, was to distribute supplies of public leaflets and posters to referendum officers. Officers were expected to release these every week, assisted by the Western region Ministry of Information and the Federal Territory Ministry of Information.
Once again it was emphasized that DROs rehearse how to open Ballot boxes during the count. Polling Screens were supplied directly to those polling stations located on motorable roads. For those which could be so reached or which were located on bush paths that were not large enough to allow porters carry the sticks on which the cloth screen would be mounted, presiding officers were paid up to 10 shillings to make local arrangements in the bush for sticks. Presiding Officers in remote unmotorable areas were also charged with the construction of polling booths for a fee not to exceed 4 pounds. For stations in villages on on motorable roads (or accessible by an outboard launch or canoe), two polling screens were to be used as a booth while sheds could be constructed in front of the booth to reduce heat. Presiding Officers were paid up to 15 shillings for each shed so constructed.
On the basis of these guidelines Mr. Longe asked the Officers to estimate the numbers of booths, bush sticks, and sheds they would need in the more remote areas of the Midwest.
Because polling screens at that time were made out of anti-termite timber and highly durable cloth, they cost the Government over 3,000 pounds. Therefore, detailed arrangements were made for their storage in the event of future use after the referendum.
Officers were then told to put final touches to their list of names of presiding, polling and returning officers. These lists would then be used to prepare vouchers for their remuneration. Formal certificates of appointment would also be issued. Each returning officer was paid 7/6d.
June 24th, 1963
Mr. Longe addressed the DROs. A checklist of requirements was itemized and reviewed. They were asked to collect the certificates for polling and presiding officers, as well as the certificates to be attached to each copy of the voters’ lists given to each presiding officer. Arrangements were completed with Messrs Edgal and Odikpo for the transportation of polling screen frames, as well as collection of ballot boxes, publicity materials, materials and equipment for the counting centers. Addresses of collecting centers were confirmed and transport arrangements reviewed for collection of Ballot boxes and polling equipment at the end of the poll. Names of counting clerks and other polling officials were confirmed.
Finally, DROs were told to return on July 1st along with their ADROs.
July 1st, 1963
At this crucial meeting, a number of last minute details were clarified and rehearsed. The list of equipment for each Counting Center was rehashed. Lists of packeted articles for use at each polling station and items to be handed over to ADROs by presiding officers at the close of polling were reviewed. In addition to handing over count results, along with all envelopes, articles, ballot boxes and keys used at polling and counting stations, ADROs were charged to write post-mortem reports on the referendum in their various constituencies, explaining any particular difficulties encountered and making suggestions for future improvement.
Mr. Longe issued a general approval of all the counting clerks, orderlies and female searchers that had been nominated. In larger towns ballot papers were to be distributed on the morning of the poll. In scattered but motorable areas, ballot papers were to be distributed the evening before at identified central locations to presiding officers. For very remote areas, including villages located deep inside the Delta, referendum officers were advised to make arrangements to collect their ballot papers from the Referendum HQ a few days prior, subject to arrangements for security. Ballot paper stamps were issued to referendum officers during the meeting but were not to be distributed until the ballot papers were being given to presiding officers. Officers were reminded once again to notify presiding officers that unstamped ballot papers would be rejected during the count.
The critical importance of the Ballot paper account was again stressed, with emphasis on the need for appropriate signatures appended by polling agents, presiding and referendum officers. Another very important document Mr. Longe was concerned about was the certified extract of the Voters' list. Each extract was to be certified and officially marked. Mr. Longe emphasized again and again the need for referendum officers to think pro-actively and ensure that all elements of the referendum could be defended in court. As of this time political parties had not made their choices of polling agents known but it was obvious that polling agents would in fact be appointed by the time the referendum was conducted.
Officers were directed to cross-check the adequacy of lighting at their counting centers. Counting was expected to begin once ballot papers arrived from individual constituencies. Once results were collated and signed, they were to be telephoned to phone number 326, the official phone number for the Referendum Secretary (Mr. Egbe) in Benin. Simultaneously, a special courier was to be physically sent with the original signed and certified Form C2 to the Secretary in Benin. (A copy of Form C2 was to be retained by the ADRO and DRO on site).
Posters were to be put up at each polling station at least seven (7) days prior to the referendum. Extra posters were made available to replace those destroyed by rain or removed by unscrupulous characters opposed to the referendum.
Final lists of polling officials were accepted. Payment for services was to be made as approved at the various counting centers after close of polling.
For law and order, the Police expressed the opinion that it would be unnecessary for referendum officials to be escorted by the Police while moving around on polling day. However, the Police promised to send out periodic patrols. Therefore, Mr. Longe suggested that ADROs identify a central location to their subordinates at which they could be reliably reached. Whatever movements were to be undertaken by the ADROs was to be prioritized, focusing in particular on ensuring that all ballot boxes arrive safely at the counting center. This unwillingness of the Police to provide bodyguards for referendum officials prompted some referendum officers to hire their own private bodyguards. The DROs in particular were directed to move about their districts in a supervisory role but were advised to use their counting centers as their offices in order that they could be reached if necessary, either by their ADROs, the Police, or the Supervisor.
For transport, one lorry was allocated to every district except riverain Western Ijaw which was supplied with motor launches. The Lorries were to be used to distribute polling equipment and materials and recollect them at the end of polling. (Polling Screens were to be stored at central locations at a cost of rental not to exceed 15 pounds yearly). Alternative special arrangements were made for the collection of ballot boxes. Each counting center was alloted several back-up vehicles and arrangements made to ensure that no more than one collection trip was made by any one vehicle. At about 4pm vehicles were to be deployed to the farthest polling stations from the counting centers. At 7pm these vehicles would then begin a preplanned, secure one-way trip back to the counting station, stopping to pick up ballot boxes at predesignated polling stations.
Lastly, officers were requested to return on July 19th, following the referendum, for final debrief and audit prior to departure back to their regular jobs on Monday July 22nd 1963.
POLLING DAY, July 13th, 1963
In most constituencies – except in the Benin and Asaba divisions - polling went off without major problems. In Benin City, Mr. C. Akere, a known Action Grouper, reportedly kept coming in and out of the Headquarters of the referendum on Ring Road with complaints, particularly about the unexpected massive turn-out of voters. On each occasion, Mr. Longe would ask him to bring evidence of malpractice but he had none to show.
According to Mr. D. A. Omoigui, ADRO for Benin NorthEast (I) there were few Police patrols in his constituency. The Police stayed put at Ehor without transport, cutting off polling officials in the Eyaen area from any kind of formal security protection. Many were beaten up or rough-handled by Action Group thugs who even tried to prevent voters from voting. For example, Mr. H.R.A. Iruegbae, then Presiding Officer at the Ugha Native Authority School Idumwumgha was beaten and his plastic bag seized. When the ADRO went to get Police at Ehor, he found them at Adobadan. The procession then returned to Idumwungha where for unexplained reasons the Police Officer in Charge, Mr. Izevbizua-Iyamu, refused to arrest the thugs or clear them out of the polling station. This type of Police behavior was not universal. At Ehor, for example, another Police officer, one Mr. Omonudo, carried out his security assignments with despatch and seriousness when reports were made to him. At Orio, a privately hired bodyguard called “Dogo” from Auchi physically threw obstructionists out of the polling station when the Police did not show up.
During counting at the Conference Hall in Benin, a special representative of Chief Akintola who had been sent to “monitor” the counting, was chased out of the Hall by members of the Owegbe society, when it transpired that his name was not on the official list of agents representing the various political parties.
July 18th, 1963
After interim results from 22 out of 30 polling constituencies had already shown on July 16th that over 60% voted “Yes”, final results were released by Mr. Gabriel Esezobor Longe on Thursday July 18th, 1963. Almost 90% of voters had opted to leave the western region. Shortly, thereafter, there was an attempt by the legal adviser to the Action Group, Barrister SO Ighodaro, to file a motion contesting the referendum. However, this was later withdrawn.
CONTINUE HERE.... (PART 3)