The Arrival of Midwest – THISDAY Newspapers



0805 500 1974

It was an opportune moment in Benin two days ago to reflect again on the lingering issues of the Nigerian federalism. The occasion was a colloquium organised by the Edo state government commemorate the 60th anniversary of the creation of the old Midwest Region, from which the present Edo and Delta states have emerged.

Fitting tributes were richly paid to the memory of the leaders who led the struggle for the creation of the region. These historical figures included the first premier of the region, Sir Denis Osadebay, Oba Eweka II, Oba Akenzua II and the great nationalist, Chief Anthony Enahoro. Consisted with the theme, “60 Years After the Referendum, Which Way Midwest?,”  speakers at the forum looked back into history as they expressed hope for the future.     

The arrival of the Midwest into Nigeria’s federal landscape was remarkable in many respects.

On July 13, 1963 the federal government conducted a referendum to determine the wish of the people of the Midwest on the question of carving the area out of the old Western Region. Western region stretched from Badagry in the present Lagos State to Patani in today’s Delta state. Almost 90% of the people voted in favour of the creation of the new region as the fourth in the Nigerian federation at the time. In the last 60 years, more states have been created by successive military regimes. The four-region structure of 1963 is today a 36-state federation. Yet, the agitation for more states has hardly abated. 

However, as a former governor of Edo state, Professor Oserheimen Osunbor, put it in his goodwill message at the forum, because of its democratic content the story of the creation of the Midwest Region should be read in a fundamentally different way from that of the creation of any other state. The Midwest has been the only geo-political unit created based on the will of the people expressed in a popular referendum. According to Osunbor, just like the colonialists never reckoned with the people in the shaping of Nigeria, the military regimes also created states by decrees. In contrast to the use of force, the Midwest region arose out of political negotiations and mobilisation. Yes, there were manoeuvres in the process!. For instance, the prime minister himself, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, moved the motion for the referendum in the federal parliament. Doubtless, a lot of politics was played in the process as will be shown later in this column. But it was all legitimate. After all, like another scholar puts it, what is federalism if not a perpetual negotiation? The mere fact that two regions have emerged from the one region created 60 years ago is a proof that the political manoeuvres in a federation are unending. Perhaps, more than any other point, it is the democratic origin of the Midwest region that has distinguished it from the states subsequently created.

The standard case for state creation has been that this exercise in political engineering would bring development closer to the people. The chief host of the forum and Edo state governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, provided a yardstick to measure how far the dream has been realised. Obaseki aptly put it as follows: “Sixty years after the referendum, we are still bedevilled with numerous socio-economic challenges, which require a reset of the institutions and structures that propped the region up in the past.

“This is why we have undertaken holistic reforms of our institutions in Edo State in the last seven years. We have advanced reforms and innovations in various spheres of the economy that have opened Edo up for investment.

“We must continue to work together to overcome challenges, build on our successes, and sustain collaborations toward building a strong and virile region.”

The theoretical underpinning for the discussions was set by the director-general of the Institute of International Affairs, Professor Eghosa Osaghae focussing on the idea of  “federal solutions’” to the problems of federalism. State creation is a form solution. Other forms of federal solutions include devolution and decentralisation. For some, it could be outright separation. The political scientist paraphrased a famous authority on federalism, Sir Kenneth Clinton Wheare, to say that textbook prescriptions on federalism should only be used as guides because federalism would evolve practically according to the realities of a particular polity. Enthusiasts of the federalist option often call for ‘true federalism.” But as Osaghae reminded the forum, every nation would practise federalism according to its political, historical and cultural peculiarities. The American federalism is not identical to the Indian federalism. Neither is the Australian federalism identical to the Canadian federalism. So, instead of the pursuit of the phantom of a “true federalism,” genuine federalists should be more creative in making the Nigerian federalism workable. In Osaghae’s view, the Nigerian federalism has evolved as a result of the aggregation of federalist principles.  Referring to the 1963 referendum as a “bargaining solution” by a people poised for self-determination, he made a distinction between the “region-centred” and the “nation-centred’ approaches.

Other speakers built on Osaghae’s eloquent formulation. Another keynote speaker, Professor Edward Erhagbe harped on the imperative of “fiscal federalism” and the revision of the legislative list to give more powers to the state. A radical scholar, Professor Godini Darah, unequivocally called for “resource control” as the solution to the fundamental problems of Nigerian federalism. Darah advocated that Nigeria should rather go back to the 1963 Constitution in the same tone as elder stateman, Chief Edwin Clark. Former Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Mrs Nkoyo Toyo, and former Member of the House of Representatives identified the oppression of the “micro minorities” within a minority group. The contradiction between a minority group and a micro-minority within it is often eclipsed by the bigger contradiction between the minority group and a majority group. This trend is worth pondering because the issues of the Nigerian federalism are not only geographical; the ethnic bases are very pronounced.

Ambassador Godknows Igali, who moderated the colloquium, drew attention of the audience to the “elite consensus’” that was manifest in the politics of the creation of the Midwest region. For him, a pan-Nigerian approach would be indispensable in solving the problems of the Nigerian federalism. He challenged former Edo State governor and now a senator, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, to give an account of how members of the National Assembly from the south-south were forging elite consensus on solving the problems of the region.. Oshiomhole paid compliments to his successor, Obaseki, for appropriately organising the forum to reflect on the journey of the Midwest in 60 years and Edo state in the last 32 years of its birth.  He said senators from different parties representing the three districts of Edo state in the senate are pushing for the rehabilitation of the federal roads in the state. In his first few days in the senate, Oshiomhole moved a motion on the derelict state of the Benin-Auchi road which also links Edo state with Kogi state. Oshiomhole also called for the revitalisation of the concept of regional development bloc for the south-south states of Bayelsa (B), Rivers (R), Akwa Ibom (A), Cross River (C), Edo (E) and Delta (D) – BRACED. According to him, properly organised the BRACED Commission could propel joint development efforts that could make the south-south states a stronger bloc. Well, politicians usually focus more on states as federative units of sorts and less on economic regional blocs. Oshiomhole also made an observation that is worthy pondering by those still demanding creation of more states out of the existing 36: the more the federating units are atomised, the weaker they become relative to the centre. 

The element of the “elite consensus’ suggested by Igali would be crucial in achieving federalism as famously defined by K.C. Wheare: “the method of dividing power so that general and regional governments are each within a sphere coordinate and independent”.

One aspect of the Midwest story which was not emphasised enough at the symposium was that the elite consensus was not easy to forge in the creation of the fourth region. Balewa was enthusiastic to move the motion for the 1963 referendum. But the same prime minister was not eager to support the creation of the Middle Belt region which Joseph Tarka and other leaders of the region fought for gallantly. Leaders of the Middle Belt also wanted to be out of the Northern Region. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe ‘s party, the National Council of Nigerian Citizen (NCNC) was at the centre of the demand for the creation of the Midwest Region and Osadebay, who emerged the region’s premier, was an NCNC leader.  The NCNC was not backing the creation of the Calabar- River-Ogoja  (COR) state out of the Eastern Region. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of the old western region, was in custody and on trial for treason by the time the Midwest was created. In principle, Awolowo was not opposed to state creation of Midwest or any other region for that matter. As far back as 1947, Awolowo wrote in his book entitled: “Path to Nigerian Freedom” that the “ultimate goal” of the federalist pursuit should be the following: “Each group, however small, is entitled to the same treatment as any other group, however large… Each group must be autonomous in regard to its internal affairs. Each must have its own Regional House of Assembly.”  That was the position of his party, the Action Group (AG). And under Awolowo’s premiership, the Western House of Assembly in 1955 passed a resolution to back the demand for the creation of the  “Benin-Delta,” state. Benin-Delta state was the original name given to what later became the Midwest Region. Before the resolution, Enahoro, who was also a leader of the AG, had called for a conference in Sapele to demand for a Benin-Delta state.

As Oshiomhole said in his unusually brief goodwill message to the colloquium, telling the story of the factor of the Midwest in the evolution of the Nigerian federalism is a deep service to history. It was remarkable that a good number of young people were in the audience listening to the various perspectives brought into the important reflection.

Eminent historian, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, once remarked that proceeding on the path of development without a good knowledge of history is like driving car without a rear-view mirror.  Doubtless, such a journey could be accident -prone. That’s why those policymakers who once removed history from the school curriculum committed an unforgivable error of judgment with their warped concept of education. A historical retrospection is important in discussing issues such as state creation so that all sides of the debate would be sufficiently illuminated.

All told, 60 years after the creation of the Midwest, the agitation for state creation has not ceased in parts of the country including Edo and Delta states. Looking back into history could, therefore, help in finding the federal solutions to geo-political problems of Nigeria.

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