THE CHRONICLE OF RIVERS STATE, THE FOUNDERS AND PIONEERS OF THE FIRST RIVERS STATE BY MPIGI GBENEKANU

The entire Rivers area (now Bayelsa and Rivers States) was part of Owerri Province at a time. The first documented pressure for a Rivers Province was generated in the old Legislative Council in Lagos by the late Rev. E. T. Dimiari, member of the Legislative Council from 1944 to 1946. He was a priest from Bonny, Rivers State He was supported by Chief the Hon. Obaseki, Prime Minister of Benin, Edo State. The Hansards of 1946 are replete with speeches of these two legislators on the issue.

However, the person that championed the struggle for the creation of Rivers State for a quarter of a century until the goal was realized is Chief Harold J. Dappa-Wilcox, later Dappa-Biriye, also from Bonny.

Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye actually sacrificed his life, time and career for the titanic struggle for the creation of a Rivers State. His father, Mr. R.T.E. Wilcox, the first Bonny lawyer, graduated in Law from the University of London, England in 1948 and later became a Magistrate in Nigeria. Chief  Harold Dappa-Biriye’s performance in the school certificate examination at Kings’ College, Lagos in 1941 was, simply superlative! He scored Alphas (A1) in all his subjects.

  This excellent performance instantly earned him exemption from the London University Matriculation examination. That implies automatic admission at the University of London, England. However, the struggle for the creation of a Rivers State so attracted his attention that he sacrificed his going to study at the university, for the struggle for the creation of a Rivers State.

It is now of common knowledge that in 1941, Mr. Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye, fresh from Kings’ College, Lagos effectively convinced his father, late Mr. R. T. E. Wilcox, the reality of the fact that a separate province for the various communities traditionally styled by our Ibo neighbours as Rivers people would induce a government based in Lagos to provide relevant facilities for the people. He also suggested to his father the need for the organisation of a body for those communities to press for the creation of a Rivers Province.

The developments mentioned above took place during nearly three decades (1939 to 1967), and greatly fuelled the various groups, both constitutional and militant that combined their efforts over the decades to fight for the creation of Rivers State.

Some of the major organisations that championed the fight for the creation of Rivers State include the Rivers State Congress (RSC), Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference (RCPC) and Niger Delta Congress (NDC). These bodies pursued their goal through constitutionally approved methods.

At least, one prominent agitator for the creation of Rivers State, the late Major Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, dramatized the struggle by employing an unconstitutional method. The struggle for the creation of Rivers State shall remain incomplete if the actions that constituted the Isaac Boro episode is not examined.

Isaac Boro was President of the Student Union at the University of Nigeria in 1965. He was a Chemistry student. He was a policeman in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He abandoned his university studies, summoned Nigeria’s one and only Prime Minister, Sir, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in a law court over irregularities in some national issues. Prime Minister Balewa had in 1963 created the Mid Western Region out of the Western Region. He struck a deal with Boro: ‘Let us settle out of court and you work for us. We shall create a Rivers State for you’. Boro immediately declared his loyalty for Prime Minister Balewa. As soon as the Prime Minister was assassinated on the 15th of January 1966, Boro decided to take the laws into his hands. He spent about 5 weeks recruiting and training volunteer freedom fighters.

On 23rd of February 1966, Boro declared an independent Niger Delta Republic and successfully defended it with arms against the Federal Government troops for twelve days. He later gave a good account of this episode in his one and only book – The Twelve Day Revolution (Benin: Idodo Umeh Publishers, 1982).

Although the Federal Government troops overpowered the Isaac Boro Freedom Fighters, his action greatly raised consciousness amongst the Rivers peoples for the need for a separate Rivers State.

Fortunately, Isaac Boro and his volunteer Freedom Fighters, all of whom had been condemned to death by the Port Harcourt court at the time were yet to be physically executed. The agitators for the creation of Rivers State began to gather strength.

Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye obtained a record breaking School Certificate result at the famous Kings College, Lagos in 1941 and was the doyen of the London Constitutional Conferences of 1957, 1958 and 1959 that finally yielded Nigeria’s political independence on 1 October 1960. Chief Biriye, at these conferences effectively rubbed academic and intellectual shoulders with the legendary Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo.

It was Dr. Okoi Arikpo and Chief Biriye that advised Colonel Gowon (as he then was) to quickly create more States They suggested a South Eastern State with capital city at Calabar and a Rivers State with capital city at Port Harcourt for the Eastern minorities.

They concluded their advice to Gowon by rightly claiming that if such a development takes place, the Eastern Nigerian minorities that have been agitating for the creation of a separate State for them since the early 1940s, would effectively support ‘ One Nigeria’.
Gowon heeded their advice and it worked like magic! Gowon created twelve States out of the existing four regions on the 27th of May 1967. Rivers State with capital city as Port Harcourt was one of the original twelve States.

For the purpose of clarification now that States have multiplied into 36, the twelve original States and their capital cities include Benue-Plateau State (Jos), East Central State (Enugu), Kano State (Kano), Kwara State ( Ilorin), Lagos State (Ikeja), Mid Western State (Benin), North Central State (Kaduna), North Eastern State (Maiduguri), North Western State (Sokoto), South Eastern State (Calabar), Western State (Ibadan) and Rivers State (Port Harcourt).

The first serious step Colonel Gowon took towards actualizing the creation of Rivers State was the appointment of a Military Governor for the newly created State.

Lieutenant - Commander Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff of the Nigerian Navy from Nembe in present day Bayelsa State was finally appointed first Military Governor of Rivers State.

Commander Diete-Spiff ran a Government in exile in Lagos. His office was based at No. 24 Queens Drive, Ikoyi, Lagos.

There were three major co-ordinators of the numerous activities of the agitators and freedom fighters for the creation of Rivers State. Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye, from Bonny, of who much has already been said above jointly with Dr. Isaac John Fiberesima from Okrika, co-ordinated the struggle at the Port Harcourt war-front. The first medical doctor from Okrika, Dr. Fiberesima studied Human Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland and qualified in 1953.

Chief Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree, popularly known as G.K.J., co-ordinated the Lagos war-front of the struggle. Chief Amachree was an exceptionally wealthy man who placed many of his resources at the service of the struggle for the creation of Rivers State.

He studied Law at the University College, London, England and qualifies in 1948. In 1958 he became the first indigenous Solicitor General of the Federal Government of Nigeria. In 1960, Chief Amachree and Chief Rotimi Williams, alias ‘Timi the Law’ were the first two Nigerians to earn the prestigious Queen’ Council (Q.C.), the highest legal accolade throughout the British Empire (now Commonwealth Nations).

Chief Amachree is the first significant United Nations Official (Under Secretary) from Africa (1962-1966), during when he was the ‘highest paid civil servant in the world’. He was also Head of State of Democratic Republic of Congo (once known as Zaire) from 1962 to 1963. He was also the first Nigerian to own his private jet (New York, 1966).

He made both his residence and chambers (the second largest in Lagos) as available meeting points for Rivers people. As at 1967, Chief Amachree was better known worldwide than Governor Emeka Ojukwu.

Two prominent sons of Rivers State played the role of scouts for Governor Diete-Spiff. Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni was Civilian Administrator of Bonny whereas Captain Elechi Amadi, an Ikwerre, was Civilian Administrator of Port Harcourt, and successfully put together the bits and pieces of what was left of the war-ravaged city of Port Harcourt before handing over to Governor Diete-Spiff on 1 September 1968. Both Saro-Wiwa and Captain Elechi Amadi, being creative writers chronicled their stewardship in book form. Saro-Wiwa accounted for his in his book "On A Darkling Plain: An Account of The Nigerian Civil War" (Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1989) whereas Captain Elechi Amadi did so in his book  "Sunset In Biafra" (London, Heinemann, 1973).

The pioneer Executive Council of the Rivers State Government  appointed in 1969 was made up of the following eleven members (“The First Eleven of Rivers State”) : Commander Alfred P. Diete-Spiff, a Nembe (now in Bayelsa State) was Military Governor. Mr. W. P. Daniel-Kalio from Okrika was Secretary to Government and Head of Service. Chief Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye, an Ibani from Bonny was Commissioner for Agriculture, Fisheries and Natural Resources. Dr. N. B. Graham-Douglas, a Kalabari was Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. Chief S. F. Kombo-Igbeta from Nembe was Commissioner for Establishments. Dr. Lawrence Ekpebu an Izon (now in Bayelsa State) was Commissioner for Finance, Dr. W. T. Wakama was Commissioner for Information and Local Government.

Others included Dr. Obi Wali, an Ikwerre, was Commissioner for Rehabilitation. Mr. K. B. Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni, was Commissioner for Education. Chief E. J. A. Oriji, an Ikwerre, was Commissioner for Economic Development, Trade and Industry. Mr. Nwobidike Nwanodi, also an Ikwerre, was Commissioner for Health. Professor Isaac Dema, from Abua was Chairman, Civil Service Commission. He was a special member of the Executive Council in the sense that his office was not affected by any cabinet re- shufflement.

At the Federal Government level, at the time, the late Chief Wenike Opurum Briggs, a Kalabari became the first indigene of the Old Rivers State to serve as a Federal Government Minister. He qualified as a lawyer from the University of Shefield, England and was called to Bar in Grays Inn, London in 1958. General Yakubu Gowon, then Military Head of State of Nigeria appointed Chief Wenike Briggs Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Education in 1967 and later he reappointed him Federal Commissioner for Trade, an office he held from October 1971 to 1974.

Space will not allow us to continue chronicling the details of the story of original Rivers State. Let us end this essay by calling a few more names of some key freedom fighters. It may be unfair to talk of the Isaac Boro episode without mentioning his two immediate lieutenants: Sam Owonaro and Nottingham Dick.

At the Lagos warfront, the names include Prince Emmanuel Opurum (now Oyichi-Etche), William Pikibo Daniel Kalio, Chief S. N. Uzor (late Nze Obi of Egbema), Dr. Melford Graham-Douglas. Others were  Chief Eke-Spiff, Dr. Oruwariye and Chief Horatio Agedah.

On 1 October 1996 an important restructuring of the State took place. The fresh water part of the Old Rivers State was carved and added to the Salt water Nembe region to become a new Bayelsa State with Yengoa as its capital city. The name Bayelsa was formed from the three merging old divisions or local government areas, including Brass, Yenagoa and Sagbama. Port Harcourt remained the capital city of the new Rivers State.”

- Excepts culled and edited from ‘Nigerian Tide’ newspaper of May 27, 2016

PS:

Chief Melford Okilo, Reverend Paul Birabi,Chief Frank Opigo, Chief P.G.Warmate,Chief Kemte Giadom, Chief Kombo -Igbeta, Chief L.R.Nabena and Chief  Opugulaiya were not mentioned in the article from which this excerpt was culled from, but they selflessly contributed to  the struggle for the creation of Rivers State in 1967.

Because of the support of Dr.Nabo Graham - Douglas for the creation of Rivers State his law library at Abonnema was burnt, just as the house of Brigadier George Kurubo at Bonny was burnt because of his support for Rivers State.

LONG LIVE GBENE OGONI
LONG LIVE RIVERS STATE.

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