Nigeria’s self-government was solidified in 1963 with a new constitution and new political structure. The first restructuring of Nigeria by Nigerians occurred with the Midwest referendum to pull out of the Western Region and own their own region.
Hinging its agitation on the same complaints of majority ethnic group domination expressed during the Willink Commission of Inquiry, the people of the Midwest collated enough signatures and applied for a referendum (to the Tafawa-Balawe led Parliament) to leave the Western Region it had been part of since the late 1940s.
Dr. Omoigui recounts the happenings culminating in the creation of the first and only democratically establish state or region in Nigeria’s history:
The title of my essay today is the story of “Benin and the Midwest referendum”.
Why Benin? After all, two provinces (Benin and Delta), and many divisions (including the Benin division) in what became the “Mid-West” were involved in the “War” to create the Midwest region in 1963.
There are two reasons. First, the history of the Midwest referendum and events leading to it is exceedingly vast and cannot in all honesty be addressed in a single lecture without losing focus. Secondly, I found a curious excerpt in the report of the Henry Willink Commission:
“In general, it is our view that desire for the State is strong in Benin City and Benin division, the heart of the old Benin Kingdom, and that the idea has progressively less appeal as one moves outwards from this centre.” [Colonial Office: Nigeria – Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the fears of Minorities and the means of allaying them. July 30th, 1958. Chapter 4, page 31]
This prompted me to know more about why Benin came to be considered by the Minorities Commission as the epicenter of the Midwest State Movement and how she mobilized herself and others to join hands to prosecute the “war for the Midwest”.
I shall conclude with two take-home messages:
a). Political parties come and go, but nationalities remain.
b). Organized and united across traditional and contemporary forms of leadership, nothing can stand in the way of the peoples of the Midwest.
On March 29th, 1963 the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs of Nigeria was given the responsibility for the organization of a referendum to decide whether a new Region should be created out of the Western region in a sub-region called “the Mid-West”, comprised of the Benin and Delta provinces.
Preliminary guidelines were contained in an official letter signed by Mr. F.B.O. Williams on behalf of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In accordance with the Constitutional Referendum Regulations, 1963, Mr. Gabriel Esezobor Edward Longe, Barrister-at-Law was earlier appointed on January 21st as the Supervisor and empowered to appoint other referendum officials. It was projected that about 71 officials, all Nigerians of Midwest origin, drawn from the Federal Public Service, Corporations in the Federal territory and from other suitable institutions, working full time for about three months, would be required.
On the day of the referendum, about 9,300 additional officials were anticipated to be required for operations. The Command Center for the Referendum was designated as No. 2 King’s Square, Benin City. It was to that office that all referendum officials reported on Saturday, April 6, 1963 to begin their historic assignment.
The appointed Referendum and Assistant Referendum Officers for the various districts of the Mid-West are listed in Appendix One (1). See comment box
On the 24th of June 1963, by order of the Federation of Nigeria Extraordinary Official Gazette No. 43, Volume 50, the Supervisor of the Mid-West referendum issued Government Notice No. 1265.
It declared that voting at the Constitutional referendum for the creation of the Mid-Western Region would proceed on Saturday, the 13th day of July 1963.
The referendum question was as follows:
“Do you agree that the Midwestern Region Act, 1962, shall have effect so as to secure that Benin Province including Akoko Edo District in the Afenmai Division and Delta Province including Warri Division and Warri Urban Township area shall be included in the proposed Mid-Western Region?”
Hours of voting at designated Polling Stations extended from seven o’clock in the forenoon until six o’clock in the evening. It is important to note that a new Voters registration List was not compiled for the purposes of the Mid-West referendum.
Only those listed four years earlier in the Federal Electoral Register of 1959 were entitled to vote. Those who wished to vote “yes” were to place their ballot papers in the “white box”. Those who wished to vote “no” were to place their ballot papers in the “black box”.
The results of the Referendum were as follows [GE Longe: Results of the Midwest Referendum, 1963. July 18, 1963. From D.A. Omoigui archives.]
See comment box...
The total number of eligible voters, being persons whose names appeared in the Federal Electoral register of 1959 was 654,130.
Of this number the percentage that voted in the affirmative was 89.07%, well in excess of the required 60% (or 392,478) for the creation of the Mid-West region.
The region that was born on August 9, 1963 as a result of the July 13th plebiscite remains the only major administrative unit of Nigeria created by due constitutional process.
Consequently, the structure of Nigeria’s administrative units became four units instead of the three it had been since Richard’s constitution.
It has been said that the Midwest State Movement flew the two expatriate counsels that led the testimony of the pro-Midwest witnesses at the Willink Commission, into the country. In point of fact Chief Omo-Osagie paid for their round trip fares and expenses out of his own pocket. Money was not forthcoming from the NCNC. The more senior of the pair was George G. Baker.
Three major sets of opinion were canvassed. The Midwest State movement was only interested in the creation of the Midwest (meaning Benin and Warri provinces en bloc) – to which it wanted the Edo-speaking Sobe and Ijagba areas of Ondo province appended.
The Action Group, represented by its lawyer, Fani Kayode, conceded that the Midwest might, as a last resort, be allowed to go (after all the legislative hurdles) but that Warri division and Akoko-Edo should join Ondo province, while the western Ibo should join the Eastern region and the western Ijaw should join eastern Ijaw. He even went further to suggest that Ishan division should be excluded from the “residual Midwest” for no other reason than because Ishan had a significant number of Action Group supporters.
The government of the Western region, represented by Rotimi Williams, differed slightly from Fani-Kayode, by accepting that Afemai and Ishan divisions could join the proposed “residual Midwest”, implying the Benin and Urhobo divisions, if they wished. [Willink Commission report. Cmnd. 505. London: HMSO, 1958]
The position of the MSM was based on fear of colonization by the Yoruba. Detailed testimony was heard from a broad range of witnesses, including Chiefs Ezomo, Oliha, Ineh and Osula. Other witnesses included the Chairmen of the Iyekovia, Uhunmwode and Benin City councils, namely Messrs Adonrin, Atohengbe and Ogbebor. Edo women made a submission through Madam Eweka. Complaints included lack of rubber markets and processing facilities, excessive local taxation, including “head taxes” which would then be remitted to Ibadan, poor infrastructure, and discrimination in the award of scholarships and opportunities for Edo women traders at Ibadan.
More recently, Mr. Isaac Asemota recalled that, “While Benin- City stayed in the dark with no electricity, running water, good roads, separate and unequal schools and grossly inadequate health clinics, there in Ibadan, Edo tax monies were being squandered in the construction of Cocoa House, Mapo Hall and Commercial Broadcasting Service Radio Station whose frequency we couldn’t even pick up in Benin-City. The best we could hope for was Redifussion radio which had a very low frequency and could not be heard more than two miles away from the broadcasting booth. “ (Isaac Asemota: “The last Edo Political Titan: Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie” unpublished manuscript, Edo-Nation Egroup, July 2, 2002.)
The most powerful and emotional testimony from Benin came from Chief H Omo-Osagie. He lamented the insidious cultural role of Ifa divination and Ogboni activities in inserting Yoruba values and ways into Benin society. He explained that Ifa divination required knowledge of Yoruba, while the Yoruba derived Ogboni society, was, according to him, “more dangerous than freemasonry.” In fact he openly stated that after independence, laws would likely be passed, making membership of the ROF compulsory.
He went on to criticize the Western region Chiefs Law No. 20 of 1957 which was being used with effect to intimidate traditional rulers and influence the selection of chiefs and Dukes inside the Midwest. The Chief also went into additional detail about perceptions of Yoruba domination of the Police, government boards, the public service, and the use of scholarships as a tool for punishing separatist divisions. The Benin division, for example, had not, under the period of review, received any scholarships, while the Ijebu province (home to Chief Awolowo) had secured 17 such awards.
Another complaint was that Rubber was being developed in the Ijebu province when investment in the promised Ikpoba Rubber processing factory for already established rubber plantations of the Midwest was being held up.
A similar shenanigan affected the Koko port. He went on to use examples of the decision by the Action Group government to dissolve the Benin Divisional Council in 1955 as an example of arbitrary misuse of power. In conclusion, Chief Omo-Osagie opposed the new “Welsh-type” arrangement implemented by the Action Group through the establishment of the “Ministry of Midwest Affairs” and the Midwest Advisory Council, and demanded either the creation of a Midwest region or a return to a unitary government at the center with provinces at the periphery.
Supporting testimony from the Ishan division, where the Action Group had deposed the Onogies of Idoa and Ubiaja was also heard from G. Ebea, A. Ibhazo, Prince Shaka Momodu, and His Royal Highness, Enosegbe II, Enogie of Ewohimi.
Similarly, the Commission heard from the Oba of Agbede who bluntly stated that the Oba of Benin, and not any of the Yoruba Obas, was his Oba. On their part, Messrs Utomi, Onyia and Odiakosa provided the views of the Asaba division. Interestingly, while scholarship complaints were commonplace in the Benin division, the Asaba division was doing very well with scholarships under the guidance of its representative, Dennis Osadebay, who was then the Chairman of the Regional Scholarships Board.
In Warri, there was a split among the Itsekiri. While Chiefs Arthur Prest and Festus Okotie-Eboh were in support, at this stage, of creation of a Midwest region, O.N. Rewane and the Olu of Warri were against it.
In response to testimony of pro-Midwest witnesses, a shadowy organization called the “Anti-Midwest State Movement” was put forward by the Action Group. It asserted that Edos had more to fear from Igbo than Yoruba domination, and that creation of a Midwest region would expose Edos to Igbo domination.
Among its observations, the commission noted that actual expenditure on road development in the Midwest area up to March 31, 1957, was only 15% of the estimates, compared with 50% in the Yoruba West. It also made the following observation:
“What is feared is a permanent Action Group majority in the Western House of Assembly. The Action Group drawing its inspiration from a Yoruba society, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa expressing itself….through the Ogboni Fraternity, controlling Boards, Corporations and Commissions, eventually even the Magistracy and Judiciary, aiming at the obliteration of all that is not Yoruba. That is what is meant by Yoruba domination.”
But in its recommendations, the Willink Commission advised that short of a new state, the “Midwest area” for which the Ministry of Midwest Affairs of the Western region was being established be reduced to a “Council for Edo Affairs” with responsibility for development, welfare and culture preservation, covering the Edo-speaking divisions of Benin, Urhobo, Afenmai and Ishan. In addition to a similarly proposed “Calabar Council” in Eastern Nigeria, the commission felt that “these two are the areas in which it seems to us, there is the strongest and most united local sentiment and the most clearly distinguishable culture.” (see Willink Report, Chapter 14, Section 4, Item 36, page 97.)
In reaction, the MSM rejected the Willink report, insisted on creation of the Midwest region, but left open the possibility of a “Provincial Commissioner for Benin and Delta provinces” at the federal level – an option the Action Group rejected outright.
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. ...
To be continued
Henry Omoregie

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