ARTICLE | THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE STRUGGLE IN THE CREATION OF RIVERS STATE – ELLA PREST 

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Ella Prest

​I am Ella Prest an indigene of Rivers State. I am over 80 years and a living witness to some of the major activities that led to the emergence and development of Rivers State. I personally know some of the actors in the agitation, formation and development of Rivers State including, Chief P.G Warmate, Chief Dappa Biriye, Chief Melford Okilo, His Royal Majesty Francis Alagoa Mingi X of Nembe, Chief Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree, Reverend E.T Dimiari, Chief Emanuel Aguma, Chief Thom Manuel, Chief Napoleon Graham Douglas, Chief Opuogulaya and Mr. Ken Sarowiwa to mention a few.

Between 1956 -1964 I worked in the Nigerian Civil Service, first in the Administrator General‘s Office (Lagos, Federal Capital of Nigeria), then in the Director of Public Prosecutions office, Lagos, Federal Ministry of Justice and finally the Federal Civil Service Commission, Lagos. I left for the United Kingdom with my family in 1964. Whilst in the United Kingdom I worked in the British Civil Service Commission, Savile Row, London and thereafter in the

Nigerian High Commission Northumberland Ave, London, U.K.

During this period I participated in the Rivers Students Union, marching and agitating for a separate identity for the People of the Riverine Area during the Biafra War. Our President was Mr. Hebron Tom George, a Kalabari from Buguma who later became a Judge in the Rivers State Judiciary. Another principal member was Mr. Koko from Okrika who was always very active in our campaigns, ferrying us up and down in his car. It was at this time that Mr. Hebron Tom George our President submitted copies of memoranda to the British Parliament that referred to the Willink Commission Report which defined the Riverine People as a distinct group in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria.

Pan African Bank owned by Chief Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree was central to the establishment and development of Rivers State. Whilst I was working in the Nigerian High Commission, Chief GKJ Amachree himself invited me to come and work for him in his bank. In light of the foregoing I am therefore familiar with most of the major events that led to the creation and development of Rivers State.

REASON FOR THE STRUGGLE

The reason for the struggle for the creation of a Rivers State was to allay their fears of marginalization, promote development and support the proper identification of the Riverine People as a distinct group in the former Eastern Region of Nigeria. This was firmly supported by the British Government, Nigerian Government and all political parties and was fought primarily by the chiefs and People of the Riverine Area of the former Eastern Region.

THE PEOPLE – THEIR IDENTITY CULTURE & TRADITIONS

Rivers State, the Venice of Nigeria, surrounded by Rivers and Seas, a God given State rich in human, mineral and natural resources, is situated in the South Eastern part of Nigeria and Port Harcourt, also known and called the “Garden City of Nigeria” is its Capital. The Rivers People consisting of Ikwerre, Kalabari, Ibani, Nembe, Yenagoa, Okrika, Ahoada, Ogoni, Opobo – Nkuro and Bile are a minority group in the southern part of the former Eastern Region along the coastal Areas of Nigeria. They are mainly traders, fishermen, and farmers. Most of them live on small islands and towns along the Atlantic Ocean and the creeks. They embraced Education due to their early contact with the Europeans in the 17th – 18th century and a good number of them were highly educated and qualified in their various fields. The dominant group in the Eastern Region are the Ibos who live on the mainland area. They are farmers and traders with a totally different history and culture from the Rivers People.

The Chiefs in the Riverine Area were very civilized and powerful because of their early trade contacts with the Portuguese and other Europeans that first came to the area now called Nigeria in the 17th to 18th century. Due to the lucrative trade with these Riverine Chiefs, the British Government in 1884 declared sovereignty over the Riverine Areas by establishing it as the Oil Rivers Protectorate which was confirmed in the Berlin Conference in 1885. The Oil Rivers Protectorate was administered by the British Foreign Office. This means trading with Europeans in what is now called Nigeria started in the Riverine Areas of the Niger Delta, Badagry and Lagos.

The Rivers Chiefs traded with the early Europeans in Palm oil/kernel, timber and slaves in exchange for canons, coral beads and clothing. Abonnema established in 1882 was a major Sea port. The Riverine People have a long standing history and culture that make them a distinct People in Nigeria.

From 1900 there was a Rivers Province made up of 4 divisions, Degema, Ahoada, Brass and Ogoni with Port Harcourt as headquarters. Most of the islands along the sea and towns in the creeks were in Degema District directly under a British District Officer. Degema had its Police Barracks, High Court, the Native Court, the Tax Office, Prisons, General Hospital, Post Office etc. It also had a sea port in Abonnema where the palm oil/kernel, timber and other merchandise were exported to Europe.

Before independence, the Riverine Areas were buoyant with trade and commerce. Individual Chiefs owned their Launches ( passenger boats), like Idoniboyeobu, Amakrita owned by Chief Tom Big Harry, Soberekon by Chief Soberekon, Wahihi and Good News by Chief Briggs and many more with ‘flyboats’ running river transport networks to Degema the district headquarters. Surprisingly the Abonnema port which promoted commerce and jobs for the People in Degema Division was closed down with no replacement. People from Ahoada and Nembe, who travelled to Abonnema through the Creeks to export their merchandise at the Abonnema port, now have to travel to Port Harcourt at great economic disadvantage.

The Rivers Area was difficult to develop due to the coastal nature of the place which attracts huge amount of money to reclaim land from the sea and also build bridges to connect the towns and villages in the sea and creeks to the main land. But Lagos Island, Victoria Island, Apapa are all islands connected to one another and to Ikeja the state capital in the mainland with the same oil money. I do not see any reason why Bonny, Old Bakana, Bakana, Tombia and Buguma down to Degema and others cannot be connected to each other and the mainland with bridges as was envisaged in the Master Plan of OMPADEC (Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission) if there is fairness and Political Will. The Rivers State developmental problems are huge, which is surely why God gave us Oil and Gas and Sea Ports. Unfortunately this God given advantage has not been utilized for our People. Most of the main towns and villages along the ocean and creeks in the Riverine Area are still not connected to the mainland in spite of the abundant resources from the Area. The lack of good road network and meaningful transportation has hampered communication and development in the Area. Bonny, Brass, Buguma, Abonnema, Okrika, Onne, and some other oceanic towns in Opobo, Andoni etc., if connected to the mainland can be turned into cities and thereby create commercial activities and jobs for the People. They can also be the Wonders of the World for trade and tourism. One only has to look at tourism “Paradise Destinations” all over the world to know that it is a blessing to be by the Sea. My visit to Venice gave me the hope that we can still be developed when politicians will regard development as a duty to the Nation. Development is a Fundamental Human Right.

May I categorically state that the Peoples of the Riverine areas have been civilized centuries ago, they even have their Bible and Hymn books translated in the various languages of the State, thanks to Bishop Fubara and the Christian Council.

THE STRUGGLE

THE WILLINK COMMISSION REPORT JULY 1958

This report highlighted the fears of the minority groups of the former Eastern Region and identified them as very distinct groups with a different culture from the dominant group of Eastern Nigeria. The report proposed an ‘Area for a River State to be comprised of the whole of the Rivers Province which will include the Divisions of Brass, Degema, Ogoni, Port Harcourt and Ahoada together with the Western Ijaw Division from the Western Region and two small sections in Eastern Region from outside the Rivers Province, Opobo and Andoni being one, Ndoki the other.’ This confirms the claim of the Riverine People as a distinct group in the Eastern Region of Nigeria.

The anxiety about possible neglect of their Area and the fear of marginalization, compelled the Chiefs and People of Rivers Area to form various political and pressure groups like The Ijaw Rivers Peoples’ League established 18/11/43, Ijaw Union, C.O.R State – Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers State –supported by the Action Group Party. Chief H. Dappa Biriye (Ibani) from Bonny as Secretary and Chief Thom Manuel (Kalabari) from Abonnema as President, Rivers State Congress (RSC.)/ Niger Delta Congress,

supported by the Northern People’s Congress Party led by Chief Melford Okilo (Izon) from Yenagoa, and Chief H. Dappa Biriye (Ibani) from Bonny, and finally Rivers Chiefs and Peoples’ Conference (RCPC) which embraced all the sections of the Riverine Area, initiated and led by Chief P.G. Warmate of N.C.N.C, the ruling party in the then Eastern Region where the Rivers People were domiciled. The RCPC eventually served as the umbrella party for all the Rivers People, irrespective of their political beliefs and differences, in the struggle for the creation of Rivers State. Chief Ordor, N.C.N.C. from Etche was also in attendance. Chief P.G. Warmate moved the motion, seconded by Chief D.S. Oribo which gave birth to the formation of the Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference on 4th July 1956 at the Rex Cinema Hall in Harbour Road, Port Harcourt. Chief P.G. Warmate further moved and was seconded by Chief D.S. Oribo for the nomination of His Royal Majesty Francis Alagoa – Mingi X of Nembe as the Protem Chairman and Chief Harold Dappa Biriye as Protem Secretary.

This became the first effective political platform for the creation of Rivers State. It was also as a result of the Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference (RCPC) that the Eastern Regional Government accorded a distinct seat out of two seats intended for Chiefs of former Eastern Nigeria at the Constitutional Conference in London in 1957. Chief Dappa Biriye being the Protem Secretary of the Chiefs and Peoples Conference (RCPC), was nominated to represent the RCPC in London in 1957 for the Nigerian Constitutional Conference and other events in 1958. Chief P.G Warmate a top member of the NCNC, the ruling party of Eastern Nigeria was responsible for the formation and eventual acceptance of RCPC by the then Eastern Regional Government. The Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference, (RCPC) became the first effective political platform for the creation of Rivers State.

Historians should never forget these facts which have been supported by previous publications (Ref. Nigerian Tide of August 13th, 1999. Focus – 9.), also refer to Chief E.D.W. Opuogulaya’s book – History of the Creation of the Rivers State of Nigeria. Chief H. Dapa Biriye personally remarked on this issue on 24th November 1991 at the inaugural special meeting of Leaders of Thought from former Degema Division where he stated that P.G Warmate was responsible for the formation of (RCPC), which was the effective political platform for the struggle and creation of River State.

At the time of the initial struggle the Rivers People made several petitions and demands for State creation. These were rejected on the floor of the Federal Parliament. The reason given was that Rivers State was not viable to create in spite of the full commercial activities going on and the abundant resources of the Area. Chief Melford Okilo, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Alhaji Tafawa Balewa wept openly when these decisions were taken. Chief Okilo was one of the primary activists in the struggle for the creation of Rivers State.

ISAAC ADAKA BORO AND HIS VOLUNTEER FREEDOM FIGHTERS

Isaac Adaka Boro (Izon) from Yenagoa, an undergraduate from University of Nigeria Nsukka and his fellow undergraduate Freedom Fighters, declared war on the Federal Government demanding a Niger Delta Republic without which the Rivers People will no longer support the Federal Government in the civil war. The rebellion lasted 12 days. With him were Sam Owonaro (Izon), Nottingham Dick (Izon) , Nyanayo (Nembe) and Okumaye, (Kalabari) (Buguma) and many other University Undergraduates, from the State who took up arms and were arraigned for treason. They were defended by Chief GKJ Amachree QC. This rebellion constituted one of the major pressures on the Federal Government for the eventual creation of the Rivers State.

Apart from these activists, all the People of the Riverine Area including Paramount Chiefs, politicians, civil servants, clergy men, university lecturers and even children were involved in this struggle for our cultural identity. In fact all the Rivers Men and Women were in the struggle because they all agreed to work under one umbrella irrespective of their political differences as people of one destiny to make this happen. – I salute all of them for their wisdom and incorruptible patriotism.

Finally, Gen. Yakubu Gowon the Military Head of State immediately after the Nigerian civil War, turned Nigeria into a 12 State nation including Rivers State on 27/5/67. Rivers State was created 27th May 1967 with Port Harcourt as the State capital. Lt. Cmdr. Alfred Papapreye Diete Spiff now the Amayanabo of Twon Brass, from Nembe, was appointed by the Federal Military Government as the First Military Governor of Rivers State. It was however not immediately possible to move to Port Harcourt the Rivers State Capital due to the ravages of war in the Eastern Region. It was therefore a Government in exile run from No. 24 Queens Drive, Ikoyi, Lagos, the then Federal Capital of Nigeria. So, prominent Rivers indigenes like Chief GKJ Amachree, (Kalabari), from Buguma contributed most of the resources needed, including his office, to co-ordinate the Rivers State Military Governor’s Office in Ikoyi, Lagos and Port Harcourt the State Capital, until 1st September 1968. While the Military Governor’s office was still in Lagos, Chief Dr. Melford Graham-Douglas (Kalabari), from Abonnema, was made the first Administrator by the Government. Mr. Ken Sarowiwa, (Ogoni) from Khana was appointed the Administrator for Bonny, and Captain Elechi Amadi an Ikwerre from Alu, was also appointed the Administrator for Port Harcourt, until 1968 when The Military Governor took up office in Port Harcourt, Capital of the Rivers State.

CHIEF GODFREY KIO JAJA AMACHREE Q.C

The Rivers People had their Kings and Chiefs that ran their communities as self- governing units. Their Kings and Paramount Chiefs own their lands and Sea, and allocate the land to their citizens on request, and control the sea for Fishing Rights away from Government interference. They also have their own dress codes which are now used by many other Nigerians. Apart from trading with the Europeans, they also educated their children and produced the early educated sons and daughters of Nigeria, amongst whom was Chief Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree, (Kalabari) from Buguma, who became the first Nigerian-born Solicitor General in 1958 and by the time the colonial administration’s Legal Department was transformed into the Ministry of Justice, he also became the first Permanent Secretary. Chief GKJ Amachree was among the first Nigerian lawyers to be admitted to the Inner Bar in Britain as a Queens Counsel at the age of 43 and Chief GKJ Amachree was also the First Black under- Secretary General to the United Nations. He was the first Nigerian to own a Private Jet. He was also a key figure in the struggle for the creation of Rivers State. He was the wealthiest Rivers Man who used his wealth to create wealth for the Rivers man and woman by the establishment of the Rivers State Pan African Bank Ltd, and became its first Chairman. With the assistance from the Pan African bank, contractors, traders and businesses emerged. This generated commercial activities and created a new Middle Class and C.E.O’s in the newly created Rivers State because of the availability of finance from the bank to these groups. He also brought the Delta Air Charter to solve air transportation problems in the State. Indeed he should be described as the father of Rivers State. His contribution to the creation of the state behind the scenes and the development of the Rivers State was second to none.

Also Chief W.O. Briggs, Kalabari from Abonnema was the first Federal Minister of Education from the Rivers area. He was also reappointed as Federal Minister of Trade in 1971.

NAVAL LT. CMDR. ALFRED PAPAPREYE DIETE SPIFF

Lt Cmdr. Alfred Papapreye Diete Spiff, (Nembe) the first Military Governor of Rivers State took up office at the Rivers State capital, Port Harcourt on 1st September 1968. He was a young but mature, patriotic and selfless governor. He was a listening Governor, a true Rivers Son. He was supported at different times by two able Heads of Service, Chief Daniel Kalio, (Okrika), and Chief W.S. Tieinabeso (Kalabari) from Buguma, and patriotic Commissioners including Prof. Isaac Dema from Abua as Chairman Civil Service Commission, and Super Permanent Secretaries of Rivers origin who were transferred from the Federal/State Public Services to serve in Port Harcourt. Naval Lt. Cmdr. Alfred Papapreye Diete Spiff made Port Harcourt one of the best State Capitals in Nigeria with most of the infrastructure necessary for governance and development. A special mention must be made of Chief Dr. Napoleon. Graham- Douglas (Kalabari), from Abonnema who was the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice who produced the document on Abandoned Property Law that enabled Rivers State indigenes to own landed properties in Port Harcourt and other parts of the Rivers State. This singular act fulfilled one of the aspirations of all the rivers people as owners of their land. His Law Firm was destroyed during the Nigerian civil war, Chief Eke Spiff, (Nembe), the Permanent Secretary for Land and Housing Port Harcourt, with Chief C.T.Horsfall, (Kalabari), from Buguma, the Surveyor General, in the same Ministry, should be commended for preserving the State lands for good use by the Government and the Rivers People.

The State had the best Secretariat, High Court, PABOD SUPPLY, Rivers State Transport Corporation, Rivbank Insurance, the Risonpalm, 2 Five Star Hotels, and Catering Rest Houses in every local government area. Governor Spiff gave several scholarships to Rivers indigenes for higher education and vocational training to study Hotel Management, Catering, Driving, Building and Construction etc. in Nigeria and abroad and automatic scholarship for science students in Universities. He established Schools for specially gifted Rivers children. He built a 30 Bed Hospitals in all the Local Government Head Quarters, a University of Science and Technology, constructed new school buildings, repaired old ones and built canals in the Riverine Area for ease of movement in the creeks, and good roads to connect the towns on the main land, and in Port Harcourt.

The Pan African Bank established by Chief GKJ Amachree financed all these projects. The bank boosted the economy of the Rivers State and brought a new lease of life to the People that were ravaged by the civil war, thereby providing the much needed development. The various construction works created jobs for the indigenes in the State. This created middle class men and women who were able to send their children to good schools and universities in Nigeria and abroad. This progress was also made possible because of the full cooperation of the State Governor who was patriotic and anxious to develop the State. The Military Governor was also given full support by all the Rivers People too in spite of the challenges of Upland and Riverine politics and the presence of the different political groups in the State. At the end all the various groups and political party supporters buried their differences and worked under the same umbrella as Rivers People with one destiny.

The Nigerian Tide and Radio Rivers should be commended for their part in disseminating information and news in the various major languages of the State, in Ikwerre, Kalabari, Khana, Izon, and Pigeon English which gives the true identity of the Rivers People.

Ironically, the Rivers State that was rejected as not viable has become The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg, providing almost 97% of Nigeria’s income. Unfortunately the wealth enjoyed by the whole country is yet to be beneficially applied to the People of our State. The development of the Riverine Area of River State requires a lot of money which fortunately our Area produces.
OUR GOAL TODAY SHOULD BE TO DEVELOP THE RIVERINE AREA INTO THE TOURISM PARADISE DESTINATIONS OF AFRICA LIKE THE MALDIVES, SEYCHELLES and BALI with Port Harcourt as its Gateway. Becoming a tourist destination is natural to our terrain and very profitable today and will be more profitable in the future. This will support productivity in the whole State and prepare our People for the near future when oil is no more

I SALUTE OUR RIVERS CHIEFS AND ELDERS, OUR FOUNDING FATHERS, WHO DID NOT SELL US OUT FOR CHEAP SELFISH BRIBES AND INDIVIDUAL LOVE OF MONEY AND POWER. I SALUTE THEIR COURAGE AND DIGNITY FOR NOT ALLOWING THEMSELVES SWALLOWED UP BY THE BIG GROUPS. THEY HAVE PRESERVED OUR IDENTITY, CULTURE AND DIGNITY. LET US FOLLOW THEIR FOOTSTEPS.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Rivers State we should reflect on the goals and aspirations of our Founding Fathers and see how far we have gone and plan for the future as a united People with one goal and one destiny. A Golden Jubilee is historically and biblically an important landmark. Our Governor Nyelson Wike who is at the helm of affairs at this point of our history is not only blessed but is saddled with the enormous responsibility of fulfilling the dreams of our Founding Fathers and the People of Rivers State.

Long Live Rivers State
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Mrs. Ella Prest, Public Administrator

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