April 17, 2024

Unsung Actors of The Midwest Referendum

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1963 Map of Midwest Region

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By Amb. Aiyamenkue Edokpolo fcdm

60 Years after the Midwest Referendum: Dissecting the Undercurrents of the Struggle, and Highlighting The Unsung Actors of That Era: A Villager’s Perspective – Being an Address Delivered by Amb. Aiyamenkhue Edokpolo fcdm, National Facilitator, United Patriots Assembly of Nigeria, 28th August, 2023.

Introduction: Until I received a personally endorsed invitation letter from His Excellency Governor Godwin Obaseki – in which he found me worthy of being one of the Very Important Personalities (VIPs) to grace the twin celebrations of the 60th Midwest Referendum anniversary, as well as Edo State 32nd anniversary, I almost forgot that the earthmoving plebiscite to determine a vote For or Against Midwest region creation – was 60 years 13th July 2023.

My notion of a ‘villager’ is someone – who speaks to facts, and he is unmindful of the vindictive nature of every organ of communal or public administration apparati. He believes that, truth-telling is an absolute obligation to his society.

Geopolitically speaking, Midwest region was an almagam of Benin and Delta provinces of the Western Region.

These provinces were the fulcrum of ethnic and tribal minorities of the Chief Obafemi Awolowo led Western Region, and by empirical evidences, the most suppressed, or marginalized, hence their agitation to secede and have a new region received strategic support from the Alhaji Ahmadu Bello led Northern Region government, and by extension, the Northern People’s Congress led parliamentary leadership of Nigeria’s federation.

Like every artist and his inalienable drawing perspective of the Sun or the Moon, which depends on the size of his or her viewpoint, the Midwest region creation, especially its undercurrents, as well as its most astute proponents or actual drivers of that liberation struggle – has been articulated in broad-minded contexts by thoroughbred public intellectuals.

As usual, some opportunistic historians have also painted somewhat myopic accounts of the facts in issue largely on grounds of envy and mischief.

To start with, His Royal Majesty Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Oba Akenzua II – the Oba of Benin was the chief proponent of the emancipation struggle, as he gave His prayers and blessings – largely because, he felt the brunt of the clandestine policies of marginalization of the geopolitical minorities of the hitherto Western Region government, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

My father of blessed memories – Apostle John Enoyogiere Edokpolo (as he was then called, before emerging as Archbishop Dr. J. E. Edokpolo JP) event-fully led the political counteroffensive in his capacity as the Founder/Leader of the Midwest Democratic Front (MDF) – a registered political party (whose registered and operational address was situated at my father’s No. 7 Eyaenugie residence), that mechanized the Yes Vote after securing an accord with the ruling Northern People’s Congress led by Alhaji Ahmadu Bello – the party that overwhelmingly passed the Referendum mandate, first as a Bill, and later as an act of parliament in the Nigeria’s national assembly.

It is noteworthy to categorically point out that the Midwest region creation struggle was largely bankrolled by Apostle John Enoyogiere Edokpolo, who was ordinarily expected to mount the exalted office of the Premiere of the newly created region; and a show of astute loyalty to His Royal Majesty – the Oba of Benin – Oba Akenzua II, he relinquished the partisan expectation of his teeming MDF followership for Premiere for the more suitable contemplation of having Benin City as the capital of the region, and he additionally offered and indeed served all through as Minister pro-bono (free of charge).

Little wonder, that His Royal Majesty Omo N’Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Oba Akenzua II shelved customary protocols, and paid a Royal Visit to my beloved father (Archbishop Dr. J. E. Edokpolo JP) at his SEM-EDO WIRE INDUSTRY OFFICE COMPLEX, situated at the present day Jemila Road, Oregbeni, Benin City.

Prior to the 5th Late Chief Jacob Uwadiae Egharevba Memorial Lecture of 20th December 2002, organized by the Institute of Benin Studies, I received a formal invitation by the chief organizers, to receive a plaque of honor in posthumous recognition of my Dad’s (Archbishop Dr. J. E. Edokpolo JP) illustrious intervention in the Midwest Region struggle, as well as setting up the Government, with my father handed a three portfolio Minister (Trade, Commerce and Industry) in the Denis Osadebe led parliamentary administration, and the remarkable success stories of that political microcosm.

The patriotic role of Pa. Agidigbi is noteworthy, as he provided a good number of his houses to the newly created region administration for ministries and liaison offices. The renowned Timber magnate – Pa. Agbonkpolor Ogiemwonyi aka “Enofeke-erimwinre” (of No. 7. Ivbiyeneva quarters) also made complimentary financial and morale impact likewise.

The Guest Lecturer – Dr. Nowa Omoigui (now late) extensively dealt with the theme of the lecture within his scope of knowledge of the varying accounts of the actors and actions of the very historic era.

On the sideline of the colloquium, I recalled sharing with some pressmen, what my Dad classified as the very daring or vexed verbal exchanges he had with Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the buildup to the great Referendum. According to him, there were several meetings in Ibadan (administrative capital of Western Region Government) and Ikenne (Awo’s hometown).

In one of those meetings, Awo sought to downplay my Dad’s determination for Midwest secession, “Apostle John Edokpolo, I know your strengths and weaknesses, and as far as the Midwest is concerned, you can’t go far. My Dad said, he replied to him, thus, “My dear Chief Awo by the time the result of the Referendum is made public, you will know that anything you do in the Midwest region, without Apostle John Edokpolo is a KPEKELEMESS”.

Just as every philosophy is hinged partly on the philosopher’s bias; historians are likewise not exempted from biases. There is no gainsaying the fact that 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.

However, I make bold to say that, some historical accounts of the Midwest Region’s creation, and the government thereof are laced with antagonistic biases, largely to downplay the most fundamental actors for clearly opportunistic grounds, and obviously to massage the egos of the mentors of such historians or essay writers, who had one axe or more to grind with some of the fundamental pilots of that lofty revolution, particularly Apostle John Enoyogiere Edokpolo – who had a bourgeoning rubber and timber empire, an enviable housing estate, and an expansive education service complex.

I pray to God and our ancestors to forgive those sycophantic authors or essayists. I dare say that the struggle to carve out the Midwest region from the Western Region was a suicide mission.

Apostle J. E. Edokpolo and some of his co-travellers have to renounce their fraternities or spiritual communions they have had for decades with their loved ones of Western Region extraction, as a pre-determined resolve for the Midwest region creation.

They had two choices in front of them. The choice to continue to bear allegiance to the political authority that ensured our peoples unbridled marginalization, and diabolic suppression of the Midwest minorities as it were; as well as the choice of total renunciation of anything that binds the leaders of Western Region government and Midwest region proponents together.

Apostle John Enoyogiere Edokpolo and some other Midwest patriots chose the latter. For me, it is that choice we are celebrating today.

They could have accepted juicy compromises to betray the highly revered Oba of Benin, as well as the huge confidence reposed in them by the oppressed minorities. My every day prayer has been, “Father in Heaven, grant me the grace to make the right choices”.

As we reminisce on the 60 years old freedom bequeathed by ancestors to us, we need to ponder on what enduring legacies we are going to bequeath to the next generation. It is popularly said in nuclear labour activism “the tougher the struggle, the sweeter the victory”.

The Midwest creation struggle was a war in all facets of classification. And its 60th anniversary is worth an earthmoving fanfare.

The issue of minorities’ suppression was replete across the regional governments of Nigeria, which comprised of the Northern region, led by Chief Ahmadu Bello; the Western region led by Chief Obafemi; and the Eastern region led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe .

In a way, there was this whimsical arbitrariness of autocracy in all the regional administrations, and very few minority leaders summoned the audacity to voice out, or explore means for political emancipation.

The game was such that, every Premier was mechanically grounded in the act of minorities’ agitation dislodgement. No Premier wanted minorities secession plots to succeed, and by all means, protagonists of secession were enemies of the regional Government as it were. 

Most of them were diabolically criminalized, summarily charged to court and sent to prison. Some were victims of high wired assassinations; some were mysteriously ambushed or kidnapped without traces of their dead bodies.

There were also accounts of spiritual tribulations that befell advocates of Midwest region creation. Yet, some of our brave fathers and grandfathers raised their heads and braced the trail to ensure that, regardless of the odds, regardless of the death sentence they stand to suffer should the Referendum favor the status quo ante – they sacrificed at great risks to their lives, their hard earned properties and investments. In Archbishop Edokpolo’s case, he already had Edokpolo Grammar School, Edokpolo Nursery and Primary School by Upper Lawani Street as far back as 1958.

He risked losing these huge assets if the Midwest region secession project had failed. It was that bad that some suffered mysterious disappearances of their wives and children. Unfortunately, Edokpolo Grammar School, as well as the primary and nursery schools were forcefully appropriated by the Dr. S. O. Ogbemudia military administration. That action was in my view an ironic punishment to a rare patriot.

This address seeks intellectual and immortalization justice for the unsung heroes of that era.

The government should attempt to chronicle these patriots, and place them in a hall of fame as a stimulant for next generation patriotism. Till date, most of these astute patriots are yet to be immortalized sixty years down the line.

Following the January 15th Kaduna Nzeogu’s military coup d’état, and the truncation of Nigeria’s regional democratic system, the commission of inquiry that was constituted to investigate alleged misappropriation of public resources of the Midwest Region government, exonerated only two parliamentarians, and they were Apostle John Enoyogiere Edokpolo (Minister of Trade, Commerce and Industry), and Honorable Erickson Osayande Imafidon (Minister for Labour and Welfare).

These men celebrated their exonoration till the day they transited to the great beyond. May their souls rest in peace, Amen.

As I begin to draw the curtains of this historical evaluation, it is imperative to note that, prior to the 13th July 1963 Midwest Referendum, the Chief Obafemi Awolowo led Action Group had quite formidable political intellectuals as members in the Midwest region. Notable among them was Pa. Anthony Enahoro, who had the audacity and honor of moving the famous Nigeria’s Independence motion before the British Parliament and Nigeria’s Parliament respectively.

However, he fiercely opposed Midwest region creation. Below is the breakdown of the famous Midwest Referendum results sheet as published by GE Longe.

GR Longe summarized as follows – “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.”

Let me pay my glowing tribute to the Maj. Gen. Charles Omoregie (rtd.) led Edokpolo Grammar School Old Students Association (EDOGRAM), for its quintessential epistle on the life and times of our dearly beloved Dad, entitled “Archbishop (Dr.) John Enoyogiere Edokpolo – The Eagle on the Iroko” authored by Dr. Osasu Isibor – an alumnus of EDOGRAM and renowned scholar. The very comprehensive biography offered deeply intellectual insights and testimonies of Edokpolo’s intervention for Nigeria’s Independence movement, including his attendance of various conferences, especially the Lagos, and London conferences.

In conclusion, I salute His Excellency Governor Godwin Obaseki for hosting this colloquium, which in my view, is an appreciation of a well mechanized democratic goal. That goal made the Midwest region – the only region that was created by an act of parliament. I respectfully seize this rare opportunity to appeal to Edo State House of Assembly to declare 13th July every year as Midwest Day or Midwest Referendum Day as an act of parliament, in commemoration of the past and fallen heroes of Midwest. They were very brave soldiers. This resonates with the political pedigree of the average Edo man and woman – as people with democracy in their DNA. I congratulate the Governor, and the good people of Edo State for this 60th anniversary, and I pray that our State will continue to witness sustainable development. Amen.

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