Obi Wali and Ken Saro-Wiwa Created the Upland/Riverine Dichotomy

Introduction: There have been efforts by selfish and deceitful politicians to distort history and becloud the minds of young and/or uninformed memb

Ijaw Project endorses Dumo Lulu-Briggs for 2019
Dumo Lulu-Briggs is the Kalabari-Ijaw governorship candidate for 2019


There have been efforts by selfish and deceitful politicians to distort history and becloud the minds of young and/or uninformed members of the populace about the term upland/riverine dichotomy; its origin; its purpose and its implementation.

More than 60% of the people that constitute the current Rivers State population were born after the creation of Rivers State in 1967 and may not be quite aware of the history behind the upland/riverine dichotomy. Unfortunately, history is no more taught as a subject in our secondary schools.

In the beginning, there was nothing like dichotomy in the nomenclature of Rivers State and our people lived in one united entity. This was corroborated by Chief A.K. Horsfall, the Sekuro I of Kalabri, when he said, that “during the struggle for the creation of Rivers State, all the debates and discussions centered around a united and all-inclusive Rivers State, it was not a Rivers State of Riverine and Upland; not a Rivers State of Ogoni, Kalabari, Ikwerre or whatever. The Rivers State that our founding fathers dreamt of, was a united and strong entity of a group of people sharing one political vision, cultural background etc. Unfortunately, that is not the situation today”.

Chief A.K. Horsfall, Sekuro I of Kalabari

After the creation of Rivers State in 1967 and especially after the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, Rivers people lived largely in unity and harmony. This was due to their long history of interaction and coexistence which was strengthened by the common struggle against oppression and marginalization. This peaceful atmosphere engendered the rapid development of the state capital, Port Harcourt under the military administration of Navy Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff.

Lt. CDR. A. P. Diette-Spiff, first Military Governor of old Rivers State

This harmony was shattered during the twilight of Governor Diete-Spiff’s administration when he reshuffled his cabinet and dropped seven Commissioners. Incidentally the dropped Commissioners were from the Mainland section of the state, including Dr. Obi Wali and Ken Saro Wiwa of blessed memory. These Commissioners ganged up and fought back vigorously, claiming victimization and marginalization against what they called the “Upland” section of the state. This gave birth to the concept of Upland and Riverine segregation and led to the agitation for the creation of a Port Harcourt State.

Upland political leaders created the dichotomy

Documented evidence supports the fact that upland political leaders led by the late Dr. Obi Wali and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa used the Upland/Riverine divide as a defining terminology to describe the Ijaws and their Mainland co-indigenes in the old Rivers State. They used this definitive terminology as a campaign tool against the perceived domination of the upland by the riverine-Ijaws in the affairs of the old Rivers State. It was a concept coined out of protest.

Ken Saro Wiwa said this much when he wrote that:

“With the war ended, and as a Commissioner in Rivers State, I soon found that the Rivers State for which I had fought did not end my nightmare. In the first place, oil money from Ogoni country (as well as Ijaw country) was being carted away to Lagos, leaving the Ogoni illiterate and backward. This is anti-federalism.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, agitated against Ijaw domination barely four years after the creation of Rivers State

“Worse still, the Ijaws were taking their frustrations out on the non-Ijaws of the State. For the Ijaws alone number more than the eight other ethnic groups in Rivers State put together. Though historically disunited, the Ijaws find unity when it comes to lording if over the non-Ijaws. The Ijaws will want to perpetuate this. Today, there is not even a Commissioner from my Local Government Area in the Rivers State Cabinet. My dilemma as an Ogoni is not about to end.

“Lost in this dreadful nightmare, I went in 1971 to see Chief Awolowo at the Federal Ministry of Finance. There was nothing I told the sage that he was not aware of. He showed me his writings on the issue and bade me seek the mid-Southern State he had proposed in 1966. Thus, was the quest for a Port Harcourt State begun. In 1974, when we started, there was no shortage of opponents. To the Ijaws, I became a traitor. The creation of this State would alleviate my nightmare”.

It is noteworthy that this complaint by Ken Saro Wiwa in 1971 was made barely four years after the creation of Rivers State in 1967; and Governor Diette-Spiff had only relocated from Lagos to Port Harcourt in 1968 to establish a government in which Ken Saro Wiwa was a Commissioner after he had served as the Administrator of Bonny.

Another documented evidence is Ochereome Nnanna’s article ‘Rebisi in history’ in which he said that:

“When the civil war started in 1967 and Biafra lost control of Port Harcourt to the Federal forces, the newly created Rivers State was handed over to the Ijaw. Ijaw leaders continued to maintain that Rivers State, with Port Harcourt as its capital, was created for them as reward for ceding their coastal terrain to the Federal side, thus making the sea blockade of Biafra possible. The Ijaw groups claimed to constitute the majority and continued to dominate the state both during military and civilian dispensations. With time, however, the Igbo speaking people of the state, particularly the Ikwerre nationality, decided they wanted a state of their own where they would be able to assert their own political and economic interests. This was what led to the quest for the creation of Port Harcourt State”.

Dr. Obi Wali agitated for a Port Harcourt State

Again it is noteworthy that an Ikwerre political leader, Dr. Obi Wali was at the forefront for the agitation of Port Harcourt State, protesting the perceived domination of the upland by the Ijaws.

Consequent upon the crisis created by the agitation for a Port Harcourt State and the disunity it was causing among the people, the political leadership at the time, came up with the principle of rotation based on the upland/riverine dichotomy to ensure equity and harmonious co-existence amongst the Upland and Riverine (Ijaw) people of old Rivers State. This was the advent of a deliberate sharing formula for major elective and appointive positions among the Upland and Riverine people of the state.

For example, when a Riverine (Ijaw) man is governor, the deputy is chosen from the Upland and vice versa. The office of the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Secretary to Government, Head of Service etc. rotate between the Upland and the Riverine (Ijaw).

Now that Ikwerre domination has replaced Ijaw domination, they say that upland/riverine dichotomy should be abrogated and in fact never existed

Since 1999 and especially when Ikwerre assumed political dominance in 2007, there have been concerted efforts to abrogate the upland/riverine dichotomy which was created as a result of the outcry of the upland and implemented by the founding fathers as a veritable mechanism for inclusiveness and stability in a multi-ethnic Rivers State. The upland has used the benefits of the dichotomy to achieve its goal and now calls for its abrogation by ridiculing and stigmatizing the upland/riverine dichoyomy.

How did Ikwerre turn the table against Ijaw?

Again we rely on excerpts from Ochereome Nnanna’s article ‘Rebisi in history’ which is most revealing. He wrote:

“It was agreed that as the touted largest Minority group, the Ijaw needed a state of their own. But with their emotional attachment to Port Harcourt, how would Rivers State be split without creating a permanent ethnic war front in Nigeria’s premier oil city?

“With the Ijaw groups obviously being favoured by the Northern-led Federal Government, Eze Woluchem, a lawyer who was installed paramount ruler of Port Harcourt in 1977 turned to Dr Azikiwe, appealing for him to support the aspirations of his Igbo kinsmen in the struggle. An ageing “Zik” referred the Eze’s delegation to Commodore Ukiwe, who had become Zik’s close political confidant. The Eze’s delegation of four, which included the late Chief Okogbule Wonodi and Chief Andrew Uchendu, met with Ukiwe in his office in Victoria Island.

“Their proposal was that Port Harcourt State should only be for Igbo-speaking Rivers people, while the Ijaw-speaking part would be named New Rivers State. On the other hand, the Kalabaris did not want to be parted with Rivers State, neither did the Okrikas, and Ukiwe advised that it would be “unstrategic” to cut out Bonny, Opobo, Kalabari and Okrika, apart from the fact that the Head of State, General Abacha, who was pro-Ijaw, might be pushed not to create any new state at all.

“Between Ukiwe and the Ikwerre delegation, and taking into account the expressed needs of others, the maps of the present Rivers State and Bayelsa State were drawn and presented to Abacha, who found it acceptable.

Gen. Abacha, created Bayelsa and subjugated Rivers Ijaw

“On October 1, 1996, General Abacha included Bayelsa as one of the six new states approved by the Provisional Ruling Council, PRC. The postulations put together by Ukiwe and the Rebisi’s delegates worked like magic. Today the Ijaws have a state of their own with a capital (Yenagoa) which is being styled the “Jerusalem of the Ijaw Nation”. The Igbo-speaking groups in Rivers State also have a state in which they constitute a comfortable majority and have led since 1999”.

The dichotomy has been used by the upland to achieve their goal and can now be discarded.

It was Dr. Peter Odili, who as governor made the first announcement that there was no more Upland and Riverine in Rivers State. Ironically, Odili was the first beneficiary of the Upland/Riverine dichotomy in the New Rivers State who was supported to be governor on the basis of the Upland/Riverine rotation principle.

Former Gov. Odili

Angry, Rivers Ijaw leaders told Governor Odili that “Nobody can abrogate the Upland/Riverine divide by fiat when the overwhelming disparity in development and the lopsided distribution of amenities stare us in the face; our diverse languages, mangroves, mud skippers and periwinkles define us as a distinct people”.

Governor Nyesom Wike in April this year, while speaking with the organizers of Zik Leadership Prize Award, declared that one of the greatest achievements of his administration is the elimination of the upland/riverine dichotomy which he said plagued the state in the past. He said “In this state before, all you see and hear was tribalism; that you are from the upland, you are from the riverine and so people were not doing things as if we are one Rivers.

Gov. Wike

“So, we felt that, one way we can make progress is if we see ourselves as one and once that is done, then we have moved to the next step. So today, our concern is that the issue of upland/riverine is no longer necessary”.

Another Ikwerre man who is the Publicity Secretary of the Rivers State chapter of PDP and Chairman of Ikwerre LGA, Samuel Nwanosike said Gov. Nyesom Wike has changed the aged-long riverine/upland dichotomy, which hindered development. Speaking to newsmen he said that “Today, you cannot differentiate between the riverine and the upland because everywhere is connected by roads, credit to Nyesom Wike and nobody can change that vision” (Sun Newspaper March 19, 2018).

Yet another Ikwerre man who is the Rivers State Director of the National Orientation Agency, NOA, Mr. Oliver Wolugbom said that those who are still propagating the riverine/upland sentiment are not only dwelling in the past but are also unfair to the state. Mr. Wolugbom described such persons as selfish opportunists who do not mean well for the state and its people, insisting that what had limited the progress and development of the state was this issue that pitched Rivers people against themselves and did not engender unity and collective action towards advancement.

Now that Ikwerre domination has replaced Ijaw domination, they say that there is no more need for the upland/riverine dichotomy.


Benefits of the Upland/Riverine Dichotomy

Engr. Beks Dagogo-Jack captured the essence of the principle of Upland/Riverine dichotomy when he said that “the principle was never a divisive phrase as it is currently being labeled. This principle was unanimously agreed upon, introduced and applied across board on all such critical areas as scholarship awards, rural roads, sitting of health and education institutions with a conscious program to bridge the gap and seek a more even spread of development across the state.

“It was applied as a unifying balancing tool to achieve inclusiveness and even spread of development. It was the single most potent peace and unity device. The clear noble aim underlying this principle was to achieve a fair, equitable, integrated and balanced development of the State”.

To instill the spirit of belonging and equality and inclusiveness, when a Riverine (Ijaw) man is governor, the deputy is chosen from the Upland and vice versa. The office of the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Secretary to Government, Head of Service etc. rotate between the Upland and the Riverine (Ijaw).

In accordance with the Upland/Riverine principle of rotation, prominent Riverine (Ijaw) leaders led by Alabo T.O. Graham-Douglas and the late Dr. Marshall Harry spearheaded the election of Governor Peter Odili, an Upland person in 1999.

The need to retain the Upland/Riverine Dichotomy

Baridorn Sika in his article, ‘Rivers Creation and Genuine Agitation’ said that:

“The essence of the demand for state creation was to engender the creation of political units to bring about a degree of ethnic and regional balance in the allocation of resources and power equation”.

Also, Ella Prest in her essay, ‘Nigeria: Struggle for the creation of Rivers State’ wrote that:

“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”

The demand for the creation of Rivers State was anchored on the desire to have a state in which the component units could have ample opportunities for self-determination; freedom from domination and oppression.

The agitation by Upland political leaders less than four years after the creation of Rivers State against perceived Ijaw domination and the consequent introduction of the Upland/Riverine dichotomy to address the complaint, was a political defining moment.

The gains of this principle since its introduction as the central development guideline is huge. Today, we have graduates from every corner of the State. Erudite professors, engineers, lawyers, judges have emerged from places where their numbers were either grossly insignificant or none by say 1967 when the State was created. Most significantly political power rotated to the upland.

But since power rotated to the upland about 20 years ago, the beneficiaries of the Upland/Riverine dichotomy are saying that what is important is not where the governor comes from but how projects are distributed equitably to all the communities in the state.

Some academics like Dr. Wonah have posited that

“ideally, democracy requires that the best person emerges as the leader of the people based on popular vote. What matters most is that the person should be able to rule with the interest of the people at heart, no matter where he comes from. If somebody comes from the upland and sees everybody, whether from riverine or upland, as people from his own constituency and delivers the dividends of democracy, there is nothing wrong with that…even if I am Ikwerre, I can (should be able to) see the riverine people championing my cause to come back because of what I’ve been able to do, using state resources fairly and equitably for all”.

King Diette-Spiff

However, in his speech as the chairman of the Obi Wali 8th Annual Memorial Lecture, HRH Alfred Diette-Spiff, the Amayanabo of Twon Brass and the governor under whom Obi Wali served described him as a great illustrious son of Ikwerre saying that “during my administration as the Military Governor of Rivers State, I had a formidable team and Late Senator Dr. Obi Wali was among the first cabinet in my administration. He was appointed as the commissioner for Rehabilitation and later Commissioner for Education and Information, he was in my inner caucus, describing him as intelligent, upright man who stood strongly for what is right and never a dull man, recalling that he agitated for the creation of Port Harcourt State”.

It is noteworthy that Dr. Obi Wali led the Upland campaign against the perceived political domination by Ijaw even when virtually all the developmental infrastructure executed by Diette-Spiff were in the upland areas of Port Harcourt where Obi Wali comes from.

The issue at stake then was not about discrimination in the spread of infrastructural development but about political inclusiveness and power sharing.

By 2019, the Upland would have retained the governorship for 20 unbroken years. This was the same Upland that began agitation for a Port Harcourt State in 1974, barely eight years after the creation of Rivers State in 1967, due to perceived riverine political domination.

This time, they have not only seized political power, they have used it to develop their already developed areas to the detriment of the Riverine. Worse still, upland politicians stigmatize those that fight for the political emancipation of Rivers Ijaw which is in contrast to how Diette-Spiff praised Dr. Obi Wali, describing him as an illustrious son.

The sense of equality, the feeling of belonging and inclusiveness are values that promote peaceful coexistence. They are beyond infrastructural development.

The issue of Upland/Riverine dichotomy is about upholding the sense of belonging and equality. It is more than physical development and the distribution of projects, which though grossly skewed against the riverine, is not the main reason for the clamour for power rotation between the Upland and the Riverine. The reason is about justice, equity and inclusiveness. #