Rivers State at 50: IT IS NOT YET THE RIVERS STATE OF OUR DREAM – Chief A.K.Horsfall

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Rivers State was created on May 27, 1967 and the state government rolled out the drums this year in celebration of 50 years of its existence. Half of a century is such a long time and almost all the founding fathers have passed on, leaving the younger generation with very little information about the struggle that gave birth to the state they call their own.

Chief A.K. Horsfall

In this interview, the Se Kuro of Kalabari land, Chief A.K. Horsfall. OFR, recollects the dreams, aspirations and monumental achievements of the founding fathers of Rivers State. He juxtaposes his reminiscences with the unimpressive achievements that followed; the poor socio-economic and political environment, especially the current state of youth restiveness and insecurity in Rivers State. His verdict is that: It is not yet the Rivers State of our dream.

Chief A.K. Horsfall is also the Izon Ebidowei of Ijaw Nation, a lawyer, the founding Director General of the Nigerian Intelligence Agency (NIA) and Head of the State Security Service. He is an elder statesman and Chairman of the Rivers State Elders and leaders Council.

Has Rivers State lived up to the dreams of the founding fathers?

Unfortunately, it has not. The Rivers State of our dream was a state which was clearly meant to be inclusive and cohesive in almost every aspect of our activities: political, social, economic, cultural and so on. A state where all Rivers people would see themselves as a cohesive unit within the concept of a Niger Delta region.

When you talk of Niger Delta, Rivers State has always been its pivot, and the “capital” because everything about Niger Delta, its dream, its formation, its activities and politics are centered around the capital of Rivers State, Port Harcourt. This is where the dream and all the activities that factored the dream all began and played out!

As a young man in the 1950s, I recall that our leaders used to have regular meetings at Harbour Road, Port Harcourt. I was about 15 years old or there about. They held these meetings sometimes under the aegis of a political party which of course I could not belong to because I was a teenager. We go there as young people to watch the elders like Chief Harold Dappa Biriye, Chief P.G. Warmate, Chief Wenike Briggs and others discussed and debated what the proposed Rivers State should be and look like. There were a number of prominent leaders from the mainland parts of the state, Chief Onorsi, Paul Birabi and others whose names I cannot now remember. They were all passionate to have a Rivers State and worked hard for it. As kids we enjoyed their debates with a lot of sentiment and determined to play our part when our time came!

All their debates and discussions centered around a united and all-inclusive Rivers State, not a Rivers State of Riverine and Upland; not a Rivers State of Ogoni, Kalabari, Ikwerre or whatever. So 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.

What went wrong?

 We missed it more or less from the time when this issue of Port Harcourt State agitation started. At that time, I was based in Lagos as I am till date. The late Ken Saro Wiwa was a good friend of mine and we related very closely throughout his lifetime. At the beginning we both lived in Lagos. He lived in Surulere and I lived in Ikoyi and he was my very frequent visitor.

One day, Ken came to my house in Lagos and was so angry and unlike his previous visits when we had meals together, this time he refused to eat and announced to me (banging the table, he was obviously worked up), that from that day forward, we can only be friends again after the creation of Port Harcourt State. He said that he can assure me that they had it all worked out and that General Danjuma who was a member of the Supreme Military Council would support their demand.

I was shocked, completely taken aback and asked him what he was talking about. I asked him if we were no more fighting the same cause and I wanted to know when this Port Harcourt State matter erupted to that point. I did not know at the time that tension had arisen because of some cabinet reshuffle in the Rivers State Government of Diete-spiff, where eight of Saro’s friends had been affected. (BOX)Ken Saro Wiwa was so angry and walked out on me and left my house. But before he left, I said to him: ‘Saro, you will not get Port Harcourt State by the attitude you have displayed here’. He banged on the table and walked out.

This was where things actually began to go wrong in Rivers State. Thereafter series of political infighting followed everywhere; the Dr. Obi Wali group joined by other groups, some of them very nice and intelligent persons like Chief Emmanuel Aguma who played matured politics and was a very polite person. He never really joined them but kept his cool even though he was their friend but he was trying to bring together the two sides all the time.

And so this ugly phase went on and on and situations began to drift and fall apart. Then Diete-spiff left government and the era of non-indigenous military administrators began, starting with then Col. Lekwot and the dichotomy deepened as Rivers people were no more at the helm of affairs.

Has Rivers State done well in terms of physical development?

No! without even thinking, I will say no. Rivers State has not fared well in infrastructural development, especially in the riverine areas. (BOX)The whole objective of creating Rivers State was to send development to the topographically difficult riverine areas. That objective has never been achieved; not even effectively commenced over the years.

I had a discussion some time ago at the Port Harcourt International airport with our highly respected war time Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon whose administration created Rivers State. He reminded me that the development of the riverine minority communities was the main reason he created a distinct Rivers State instead of the COR (Cross River, Ogoja and Rivers) State that was being demanded by politicians in the First Republic. He expressed surprise that many years after, we the riverine people are still complaining?

But why are we still complaining today? The reasons are twofold. First, we ourselves from the riverine communities have not been able to put our acts together and speak with one voice to identify the things we want. What kind of development, social, political, infrastructural, economic or whatever? We have not come together forcefully to present our case. Secondly, the governors who had ruled the state, except Chief Okilo and Chief Ada-George (who were governors when Bayelsa was part of Rivers State), all the other indigenous governors of the state have come from the upland section of Rivers State.

So the interest of the riverine people has not received the required attention as expected because the riverine communities are the more difficult areas to develop in terms of infrastructure.

Prior to the creation of Rivers State, the basic economic life in the riverine communities was very simple. Our riverine communities were mainly fishermen and traders and petty farmers and they were able to sustain a lively local economy but now with the development of townships like Port Harcourt and the availability of civil service and corporate jobs, people began to drift to Port Harcourt for jobs. Therefore, you find a fisherman or farmer of yesterday coming into Port Harcourt to become gatekeeper and night watchman. This is strange, very funny and unfortunately it does not address the economic wellbeing of the people. I think it was a psychological thing, people who yesterday, were able to fish and farm and earned some money for sustenance and a good living standard left their homes, their occupation, and came to Port Harcourt to be gatekeepers and petty workers, who didn’t now earn much to sustain themselves and their families but are lured by the attraction of city life, even though some of them didn’t have accommodation good enough to compare with what they had in their hometowns.

This has taken a lot of population away from the rural community into Port Harcourt and the consequent socio-economic hardship have blown everybody in the face. These are some of the things that eroded the cohesiveness, the expectations etc. of the ordinary Rivers people.

For instance, I will recall that in earlier times, anytime you come from wherever you are, Lagos, abroad or wherever, and you come home, you find people relaxed, enjoying themselves, one club or the other is playing, masquerades are playing, and so on and so forth. This is no longer the case because everybody is struggling now to find a living in the townships and they don’t really fit.            

Lagos State also celebrated 50 years and like Rivers State, Lagos is made of islands. While Lagos has connected its islands to the state capital at Ikeja, Rivers has been unable to link the islands of Bonny, Bakana, Opobo, Andoni etc. to Port Harcourt? Why is this so?

Lagos like you said, more or less enjoy the same topography and socio-political environment like Rivers State but the reason for the gap in development are twofold. Apart from being a former Federal Capital, Lagos has enjoyed a good and stable political leadership in the last 18 years. It started with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu who became governor in 1999 and he handed over in 2007 to Babatunde Fashola, the current minister of Power, Works and Housing, who in turn handed over to Ambode in 2015. (BOX) Lagos State has witnessed a chain of good governance in the hands of people of same political party, same orientation and share the same vision about Lagos, so Lagos has enjoyed a stable socio-political environment. The same cannot be said of Rivers State.

Interjection: But we have had the same party in power here too in Rivers State?

Yes, but, I will come to that… And so Lagos has enjoyed the stability of process. Unlike Rivers State which from 2001, I think, especially beginning from 2003, had been bedecked with violence, criminality and instability. This is the second reason for the yawning gap in development between Lagos and Rivers. There was no need for violence in the first place, but the unstable political environment had given rise to this element of youth restiveness and violence.

There are youths everywhere and if we are comparing Lagos and Rivers State for instance, we have youths in Lagos aplenty, just as we have in Rivers State. But the youths of Lagos State see some future, there is education for those who want to go to school and there are more employment opportunities. In Rivers State, until recently, the contrary was the case and I have written a lot about this before. It is very sad that from nowhere, politicians in the government of the day in 2001 or so, introduced this reign of youth restiveness and unleashed so much violence and fracas all over the place, killings, maiming, all sorts of things. But why? What was this for? We asked the government at that time. Why enlist and arm young men to produce terror gangs? For what political purposes?

I was here when that government was installed, they invited me from Lagos and it was a very peaceable and free atmosphere, nothing was threatening anybody. It was a PDP government and there was no party that was strong enough to threaten the PDP’s hold on power then, yet the government introduced these youths, armed them and they started creating violence all over the place.

It is this instability, this youth violence, restiveness, and joblessness that has created the problem of Rivers State up to this day. Added to it is the factor of ethnic unrest in parts of the state, the riverine areas, Asari-Toru, Buguma, particularly, Tombia, Bakana to some extent and the mainland area, you had them all over the place, Ahoda-East, Ahoda-West, Omoku, Ekpeye, even in the Ogoni, all over. These factors persisted, continued and created this element of instability, restiveness hanging over the state as if it is a cloud that has refused to go away. That is why Rivers State is unable to develop as fast as it should.

Chief, your generation has been blamed for not taking political leadership of the state in 1999. It is the opinion that if Ada-George, T.O. Graham-Douglas, Ombo Isokrari or yourself had become governor in 1999, Rivers State would have been saved most of the troubles.

Yes! I also protested against what happened then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here then. I was away for three years on self-exile because of my disagreement with the then military ruler, General Abacha. I came back to meet the situation you have just described. When I came back, in August 1998, I couldn’t understand what was going on at the time but the elders at the time who were giving political leadership, happened to be my friends and relatives, so I queried them and asked what was going on. I hear you are trying to instate Peter Odili who has not been sufficiently tested politically but my friends and relatives who were championing the cause of getting Odili to the seat of governance, assured me that they were doing it for good reasons. 

As a person, as I know him, Odili wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t close to him for a while but indications are that he was even respectful to elders and we cherish that a lot in our communities. But I think two things went wrong with the Odili administration. There was too much money at the time for Rivers State and Odili administration had no plans
 how to spend that money profitably to develop Rivers State.  Rivers State money was just thrown about the place. Donating huge sums of money to causes outside the state, etc.

At the end of the day, the state was shortchanged very badly. Very little development took place and there was a lot of dissatisfaction within the communities and this element of youth violence erupted because they have now been armed. Like I said earlier, for no good reasons, there was no political opposition, not to talk of military opposition and you armed these youths and they took up arms and they are all over the place and they are looking for something to do with the arms.

That is part of the problem. Secondly, because the state has not been able to provide sufficient engagement by way of job and wealth creation for this youth. Restiveness has to continue and I hear there has been an amnesty lately for gun carrying youths which has somewhat calmed the situation but not enough to erase the threat of kidnapping, killings, and so on.

Some people are of the opinion that because former Governor Odili had the hidden agenda to install his cronies as governors, he needed to dislodge the existing political leadership at the time by force. What is your take on this?

I don’t think that is very correct. I think what is more correct would be the fact that some of our people turned the blind eye and that is, if we did not even collaborate with him. I think that is not quite correct. If we had been firm in opposing what Odili had attempted at that time to do perhaps he would think twice. Mark you, Odili did some good things as well, so some of those who should challenge him tolerated him. But few of us actually spoke out and upbraided him.

The fact that he was brought into government just so freely, not because of his electoral potential or anything like that but our own brothers and friends had arranged to bring him to power and so he wanted to sustain himself in position and didn’t want them to be able to get rid of him again. Therefore, he strengthened himself the way he though best in case they attempted to remove him from power. So he became a monster, you created him and now you cannot control him. But I recalled at that time there was a contest for governorship between himself and Ebenezer Isokrari who was a civil servant and I thought civil service background would guarantee that such person will operate with some level of discipline and decorum. But somehow Odili got elected and had to sustain himself in power with some of the under-hand methods you now accuse him of. 

In 50 years of the existence of Rivers State, it is the belief in some quarters that the riverine areas of the state have been shortchanged. That the riverine communities have remained swampy just the way they were before 1967. The riverine people are saying that they can no more rely on governors from the upland to develop their areas and they therefore want a governor from the riverine. Do you agree with this position?

This has been obvious and unlike some of our elders, I don’t hide my feelings because I am a nationalist, not a politician as such. I have said it again and again, that the way we operated in the state even before Bayelsa left was Riverine/Upland. I say this wherever, whenever, however.  To demonstrate this, whenever we have a governor of this state from the mainland area, the Minister to represent this state would come from the riverine area. So that both sides were represented in the political governance of the state. But that situation had been reversed.

I recalled that before the 2015 elections, when Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was the President in power, we had gone to see him with a delegation which I led, including Chief Ada-George, Admiral Fingesi and some other persons from the mainland, about five of us. We went to plead with Jonathan to ensure that he presented a Rivers State governor from the riverine area. The upland had then produced the governor for sixteen years, which was contrary to the power rotation arrangement of turn-by-turn.

For about three hours we were talking to President Jonathan, this was in the house of Chief E.K. Clark in Abuja. But Jonathan would not commit himself rather he said to us that he would try but he was not sure that he would succeed. So you can see that we have never been docile about it, we have been working but we are yet to get results.

The key thing is that nobody will give political offices to the riverine area or to the upland area or to any area for that matter on a platter of gold. We must work for it. We have to work for it. If we really do want to have it, we have to work for it. Nobody is going to give it to you on a platter of gold NO!  You really have to struggle in order to get even what you deserve and we have not shown that ability and determination.

What is the way out for the riverine people of Rivers State?

The way out to my mind is for the riverine to cohere and then discuss with the other ethnic groups of Rivers State. I think there are about nine geo-political groups, but I usually talk about three main areas: I demarcate the riverine, the Upland and the Ogoni. I separate Ogoni from the rest of the upland because they are a distinct ethnic configuration.

The component units would have to dialogue among ourselves and agree to a certain formula of producing political leadership in the state. Once we agree on that, then although in politics nothing is biding, even if you sign an agreement, but you have to work for it. You don’t go to sleep, if you go to sleep and don’t fight for your right, then like the quick fast fox that jumped over the lazy bits and dogs, somebody else will wake up and take what may be yours. Nobody will give it to you free. So we have to work for what we consider as our right.

First of all, we should try and produce that forum on which the discussion would take place and understanding reached that Rivers State is made up of two main blocs plus one. The two main blocs are riverine and upland and the plus one is the Ogoni area. So you work out some formula on how to distribute political power among ourselves.

What is your message to Rivers people as they celebrate 50 years of existence?

My message is simply this. To all Rivers men and women, especially the younger generation. We started this struggle for Rivers State a long time ago around 1934. There were meetings in Lagos and it went on and on; in 1956 there were meetings here in Port Harcourt at Harbour Road. Series of other subsequent meetings took place. And then the political leadership of Chief Dappa Biriye came into force. Biriye was a very brilliant, committed and strong advocate for the creation of Rivers State. Thank God it happened in his life time. When the founding fathers were advocating for Rivers State, they did not think of a dichotomy. Upland/Riverine, or whatever was never in their thought or action!

Let us reawaken the dream of the founding fathers. Let us continue to work in the belief that Rivers people are one and we struggle together, fight together and enjoy together. The essence of political struggle is that it will bring some benefits – political, economic and even social benefits. Let us hope that when those benefits come, whether it is in sharing political office or for economic advantages, we should be able to accommodate each other in sharing them and enjoying them and when it comes to fighting for other things we should all join hands as a people to work for the interest of Rivers State#