Saturday comment1

Leroy Chuma Edozien canvasses more federal presence in Anioma

Last year, I packed up my clinical and medico-legal practice in the United Kingdom and entered the political arena back home with a view to contributing meaningfully to national development.  Charity, we say, begins at home. I returned to my rustic hometown, Asaba, to help restore the glory of both this historic town and Delta State in general. I say ‘historic’ because the town is steeped in the political and commercial history of Nigeria, having served as the capital of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and headquarters of the Royal Niger Company in its heyday. I am committed to raising the profile of Asaba and pushing for its accelerated development. In taking up this mantle, I have two historical figures of Asaba as my role models.

Chief Dennis Osadebay (informally referred to by the moniker ‘Osadennis’), is by far the most accomplished politician to have emerged from Anioma, the Delta North senatorial district. He was the second person ever to hold the position of President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Prior to that he was Leader of the Opposition in the Western House of Assembly. He was active in the Nigeria independence movement.  His greatest achievement, in my humble opinion, was his establishment and leadership of the Midwest State Movement which successfully fought for the creation of a Midwest Region (now Edo and Delta States). In May 1956 Chief Osadebay convened a meeting of people of Benin and Delta provinces to address the issue of a new region and it was at this meeting, held in Agbor, that the Midwest State Movement was formed, with Chief Osadebay as Leader, Chief H. Omo-Osagie as Deputy Leader and Chief James Otobo as General Secretary. These leaders of Igbo, Edo and Isoko origin respectively worked together assiduously, with other leaders such as Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh (Itsekiri), Chief Jereton Mariere (Urhobo) and Dr Christopher Okojie (Ishan), to achieve the greater good of the region – a true exemplar of unity in diversity.

The success of the Midwest State Movement inspired other minority groups, such as the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) Movement and the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) to demand for their own states. I feel, therefore, that all 36 states in Nigeria should recognise and appreciate the place of Chief Osadebay as progenitor of states creation in Nigeria.

Chief Osadebay was in office as head of the Midwest government for only 29 months, but during this short time his government built a textile mill at Asaba, a glass factory at Ughelli and a cement factory at Okpella, implemented numerous infrastructural development projects, and laid the foundations for the University of Benin.

In his maiden speech as Administrator of the Midwest Region, Chief Osadebay said: ‘It is my intention that Benin City shall be the capital of Midwest region… We shall embark on re-planning the city. We shall build modern roads and streets with a good drainage system…We aim to make Benin City a beautiful capital where tourists attracted by its ancient history may be delighted in its modern progress, a capital of which we can all be proud’.

Given this track record it is disheartening that Chief Osadebay’s own hometown, which has since 1991 become a state capital, has not been developed into ‘a capital of which we can all be proud’. Even more disheartening is that the man himself has not been appropriately recognised in the way that his contemporaries have been. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dr Michael Okpara, who served as Premier of the Northern, Western or Eastern Region at various times, all have universities named after them. We need more federal presence in Anioma, and I call on the federal government to establish a Dennis Osadebay Agricultural and Mechanical University here. A School or College of Agriculture has been in existence in Asaba since 1947, and we currently have a Federal College of Education (Technical), so there is a heritage that can be built on, and this would fit with the drive towards mechanised agriculture for national food security.

The establishment of this university will not only give Chief Osadebay the long-overdue recognition but also provide some of the also long-overdue restitution for the Asaba massacre which took place during the civil war.

It will be recalled that in October 1967 hundreds of Asaba men were killed by federal troops in an open square. The people of the town had emerged singing and dancing in ceremonial akwaocha (white cloth) to welcome the troops and pledge their support for ‘One Nigeria’. The troops segregated the women and children from the men, then gunned down the latter. A recently-published international research study reported that ‘official suppression of the massacre has left a legacy that perpetuates resentment and has kept ethnic tensions alive’. In the same way that ethnic tensions associated with June 12 have been released by the 2018 official recognition of Chief M. K. O. Abiola and declaration of Democracy Day, so would recognition of Chief Osadebay help to douse the embers of resentment that persist in Asaba.

I also have as role model my grandfather, Chief N. O. E. Edozien, late Ajie of Asaba, who was active in politics following his retirement from the Nigerian Coal Corporation, Enugu where he was once the topmost indigenous employee. As a staunch member of the Action Group political party, he pursued the interests of Asaba through the Western Region House of Chiefs sitting at Ibadan.  The following statement about him was made in the funeral oration delivered by an Asaba high chief:

‘He died as a true lover of truth…He stood firm by his conscience and did not waver….Without doubt the services which Chief Edozien had rendered to the British government and his country helped in some measure for Nigeria to earn its independence in 1960.’    

Nigeria needs not only lovers of truth but also men and women who are prepared to resolutely defend the truth, standing firm by their conscience. Chief Dennis Osadebay was one such Nigerian, and deserves appropriate recognition. I hope and pray that in the fullness of time, I too, will be counted as one of such Nigerians.

  Edozien is a medical doctor and lawyer