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We cannot be free until they are free

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niger-deltaThe name Sir Henry Urmston Willink (1894-1973) does not ring a bell in the modern day Nigeria. It was not so about fifty-nine years ago. Sir Willink was a British politician and public servant. He rose to be British Minister of Health from 1943-1945. He later became Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge between 1953 and 1955. His papers are held till today at the Churchill College, Cambridge.

On September 2,1957, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa(1912-1966) deputy leader of the NPC and Federal Minister of Transport was appointed Nigeria’s First Prime Minister by the then second Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir James Wilson Robertson(1899-1983) who served from June 15 1955 to November 16 1960.

On September 26 1957 the British government appointed Sir Henry Willink to chair a commission to inquire into the fears of Nigerian minorities and means of allaying them. The commissioners arrived in Lagos on November 23, 1957 and between that date and April 12, 1958, they held public sittings and had private meetings and discussions in each region, in Lagos and in the Southern Cameroons. They returned to London on April 12, 1958.

In its report published on July 30, 1958, the Commission stated that although real fears existed in every region, it was satisfied that setting new states would create problems as great as those they sought to eliminate.” In every region the fears expressed were of a government based on a tribal, or in the North a religious, majority. Rightly or wrongly, it was feared that the Regional governments, secure in their majority, would not be ready to respond to criticisms or to meet the wishes of the minorities”. Other members of the commission were Gordon Hadow, Phillip Mason, J.B. Shearer while K. J. Hilton served as the Secretary. The commission published 108 pages for its conclusions and recommendations.

In paragraph 26-30, the Willink team recommended as follows: “We were impressed in both the Western and Eastern Regions, with the special position of the people, mainly Ijaw, in the swampy country along the coast between Opobo and the mouth of the Benin Rivers. We were confronted, first, with their own almost universal view that their difficulties were not understood at headquarters in the interior, where those responsible thought of the problems in quite different forms from those they assumed in those riverine areas… We cannot recommend political arrangements which would unite in one political unit the whole body of Ijaws; we do, however, consider that their belief that their problems are not understood could be largely met without the creation of a separate state.”

27-This is a matter, which requires a special effort and the co-operation of the Federal, Eastern and Western Government; it does not concern one Region only. Not only because the area involves two Regions, but because it is poor, backward and neglected, is the whole of Nigeria concerned. We suggest that there should a Federal Board appointed to consider the problems of the area of the Niger Delta. In this we would include the Rivers Province without Ahoada or Port Harcourt and would add the Western Ijaw Division.

29- We suggest that constitutionally it would be necessary to place on the concurrent list a new subject which might be “The Development of Special Areas”. It would be open to the Federal Government to announce in the Gazette that a certain area had classified as “Special” and from that moment special plans for its development would become a Federal as well as a Regional Responsibility…”.

30- We consider that when the Board has drawn up the schemes it considers desirable and possible, it should place them in an order of priority and endeavor to obtain the agreement of the Governments concerned. We do not recommend powers of compulsion, which we believe would defeat their own object.
These were part of the suggestions by Sir Henry Willink commission.

We cannot but make reference to the British in discussing our National problem because they created Nigeria along with the mess that we are still coping with. It should be noted that the first discovery of oil in Nigeria in-bloc OML 29 onshore at Oloibiri in Ogbia Local government of the present Bayelsa State was made on January 15, 1956 and production did not start until 1958. I am not sure Sir Willink was aware of the discovery of oil before making the suggestion.

But the 1963 constitution married the suggestion of Sir Willink. In section 159 of that constitution “(1) there shall be a board for the Niger Delta which shall be styled the Niger Delta Development Board. (2) The members of the Board shall be- a person appointed by the President, who shall be chairman; a person appointed by the Governor of Eastern Nigeria; a person appointed by the Governor of Mid-Western Nigeria; and such other persons as may be appointed in such manner as may be prescribed by Parliament to represent the inhabitants of the Niger Delta… (4) The Board shall be responsible for advising the Government of the Federation and the Governments of Eastern Nigeria and Mid-Western Nigeria with respect to the physical development of the Niger Delta, and in order to discharge that responsibility the Board shall—-cause the Niger Delta to be surveyed in order to ascertain what measures are required to promote its physical development; prepare schemes designed to promote the physical development of the Niger Delta, together with estimates of the costs of putting the schemes into effect;… Parliament may make such provision as it considers expedient for enabling the Board to discharge its function under this section, In this section, ”the Niger Delta” means the area specified in the Proclamation relating to the Board which was made on the twenty-sixth day of August, 1959 and lastly this section shall cease to have effect on the first day of July, 1969, or such later date as may prescribed by Parliament.”

No region in Nigeria has so far been designated as “special areas” except the Niger Delta and no region also has suffered environmental calamity as Niger Delta now with no land and no water with heavy military presence.

It was the spirit of Willink report that gave birth to Decree 22 of 1992 which led to the creation of Oil Minerals Producing Commission (OMPADEC). Same to NDDC. Same to the Amnestyprogramme. Contrary to recommendations of Sir Willink, states have been created in the region as well as local governments, yet the problem persists. So when you read about oil fields being bombed in Niger Delta and other ugly incidents, one is bound to ask, ‘what do these people really want?’, We need to go beyond asking such a question. There seems to be a disconnect between them and us. We don’t seem to understand them and they don’t understand us. At times, they don’t understand themselves. The situation in the region is much more complex than imagined.

One of their leaders, Major Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro (1938-1968), while being sentenced to death by hanging for fighting the cause of Niger Delta as the leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force by Justice Phil Ebosie in Port Harcourt on March 27, 1966 under the regime of General Thomas Johnson Umanakwe Aguiyi Ironsi (1924-1966) said his people “had long sought to separate not because they loved power but because their conditions were peculiar and the authorities did not understand our problems. There is nothing wrong with Nigeria. What is wrong with us is the total lack of mercy in our activities”.

To the people of Niger Delta, I plead that violence has never solved and will never solve any problem. I have visited the Niger Delta area several times and with billions of naira poured into that region by the central, states and local governments and oil companies also for developments, it is still the same old story – misery, frustration, poverty, neglect, militancy, etc.

A leadership that emerged from there recently failed to address the chronic problems of the region and made worse their plight by distributing massive wealth to just few who eventually lost focus. Pity. In spite of that, the central government cannot give up on Niger Delta which at present provides most of Nigeria’s wealth, just like the government cannot give up on other parts of the country, too, including the northeast region that is completely devastated today as a result of religious insurgency. In the words of James Baldwin (1924-1987), the black American novelist in his essay titled, My Dungeon Shook, “We cannot be free until they are free”.

• Teniola, a former Director at The Presidency, resides in Lagos.



1 Comment
  • Basil Ogbanufe

    “We don’t seem to understand them and they don’t understand us”. This is enough reason for the creation of additional countries from Nigeria. It’s not a must to live together as brothers and sisters, we can live as neighbours.