Amby Uneze recalls the life and times of the first civilian governor of the old Rivers State, Senator Melford Okilo

It is exactly twelve years since Senator Melford Okilo passed on. Okilo who was the first elected Civilian Governor of the old Rivers State died on 5th July, 2008 after a protracted illness.

As family, friends and political associates of Chief Okilo mark twelve years of his exit from this world, it is imperative to once again remember the unique attributes, achievements and uncommon legacies of the man who even in death, is still acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders and political figures that ever emerged from the Niger Delta. Apart from Okilo, Chief Harold Dappa Biriye, Prof. Eyo Ita, Dr Egbert Udo Udoma, Okoi Arikpo, Ken Saro Wiwa and Isaac Adaka Boro were also great sons of the Niger Delta whose lives remain inseparable from the history of their People.

Melford Obiene Okilo was born on 30th November, 1933 in the serene riverine community of Emakalakala in Ogbia Kingdom in present day Bayelsa State. His home town, Emakalakala is less than two kilometers away from Location 001, Nigeria’s first commercial oil well. His life, indeed, was a history of the triumph of the human spirit over adversities and challenges.
Okilo was born to peasant parents. He rose from grass to grace and left indelible marks in Teaching, Philosophy, Law, business, Civil Service, Religion and the politics of Nigeria.

Commenting on Chief Okilo’s background and the challenges he encountered on his journey to the top, Nigeria’s former President and Okilo’s, kinsman, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan states: “His story strikes a particularly strong cord with me. Aside from coming from the same background as Chief Okilo, his sojourn from the back waters of the Niger Delta, through countless personal challenges, political travails and triumphs, right up to the national stage, mirrors my own story from a ‘shoe less childhood’ to the highest office in the Land”.

The story of the life and times of Okilo is one that should interest the present and future generations of Nigerians, particularly the youth who are challenged by unemployment and lack of opportunities for growth in the system. A child who once dropped out of school due to the inability of his parents to pay his school fees, later rose to become an accomplished Teacher, Lawyer, businessman, Clergy, Councilor, Member, Federal House of Representatives, Minister, Governor and Senator.
After completing his primary school education at St. Michael Primary School, Oloibiri and professional qualification as a teacher at St Paul Teacher Training College, Diobu, Port Harcourt, Okilo taught in some primary schools in the riverine areas and in May, 1956 joined the Eastern Nigeria Judiciary as a Court Clerk and Interpreter. The period he spent as a teacher in village schools and Court interpreter in the Niger Delta enabled him experience the squalor, poverty, neglect and environmental degradation confronting the Niger Delta people.

What Okilo witnessed in the Niger Delta, spurred him to dedicate his life to the service of his people and humanity
In 1956, Shell struck oil at Oloibiri in Bayelsa State. Okilo was then a court interpreter. He saw how the people were dispossessed of their Land without adequate compensation. This pathetic situation moved Okilo to mobilize the people to establish The Oloibiri Land owners Association which became a platform for agitating for better compensation for those whose Land was acquired for oil exploitation. Okilo’s struggles in this regard at Oloibiri and its environs endeared him to the riverine people and made them see him as a leader to trust, a patronage he enjoyed throughout his political career.

As Nigeria approached independence from Britain in 1960, there were apprehensions as to whether the Country would survive as one united and indivisible Nation. The amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates into one country by Lord Lugard in 1914, brought together over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups with mutually antagonistic interests into one Country. The divisions were deep and the fears were real. Okilo emerged as one of the politicians that worked assiduously to hold Nigeria together despite the differences among her people.

For the Niger Delta people and their kit and kin on the mainland of what is today Rivers, Bayelsa and parts of Delta State, they demanded a Federal Territory–Niger Delta Special Area, to be autonomous and responsible only to the Federal Government in Lagos. A request that was not granted by the British Government. This led to the formation of the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) led by the great nationalist and statesman, Chief Harold Dappa Biriye. Though he was given the ticket to contest election into the Brass Federal Constituency, Okilo had no funds to execute his campaign. He had to sell his Raleigh Bicycle for thirteen Pounds to raise funds. He contested on the platform of NDC and won. The NDC was the opposition Party in the Eastern Region which was then controlled by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council for Nigerian Citizens (NCNC).

In the Pre – independence National Election of 1959, the three major political parties were regarded as regional in character. Although the NPC won majority of the seats in parliament, the party was regarded as a regional party that could not muster the national spread to justify being called upon to form Federal Government by the British. But being in alliance with the NCNC and the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) which won a single seat from the extreme South, the British Government was satisfied that the NPC had reflected the geopolitical spread and national character to form the Federal Government. It has been suggested that if not for the singular seat won by Melford Obiene Okilo in the Niger Delta which brought the NDC, NPC and NCNC together, the British would not have handed over power.

Following the alliance between the NPC and NCNC, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa of the NPC became the Prime Minister while Dr. Azikiwe became the President. The young Okilo emerged as Parliamentary Secretary to Balewa and later Junior Minister of External Affairs where he worked under late Dr. Jaja Nwachukwu who was the Senior Minister of External Affairs and member of the NCNC. As a junior Minister, he participated in establishing Nigeria High Commission offices in major countries across the globe, providing statutory and administrative framework for the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and infused venom into the Liberation Movements in Africa.

In the Parliament, Okilo played the role of a bridge- builder between the North and the South. He brought the problems of the Niger Delta to the floor of the Parliament and succeeded in making Prime Minister Balewa to set up a Committee on the Niger Delta. The Committee which was headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, recommended the creation of a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB). Shagari was later appointed Minister of Niger Delta affairs Ministry with mandate to develop the infrastructure of the Niger Delta. For five years, he was the lone voice in parliament advocating for the creation of Rivers State.

Okilo continued his struggles for the Niger Delta people until he went into self-exile in America as a result of the violence and chaos that characterized the politics of the first Republic. He completed his Law programme in America and went ahead to obtain a degree in Theology. When he returned from exile, he joined the efforts to keep Nigeria united despite the damage done to national unity by the 1966 military coup and the Civil war which lasted between 1967 and 1970. The creation of Rivers State out of the old Eastern Region by the Gowon regime was one of the aspirations of Okilo in parliament and other Niger Delta activists. He served as cabinet commissioner in the military administration of Commander A.P Diete Spiff in the old Rivers State.

In 1977, Okilo was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly which was set up by the Obasanjo regime to fashion out a new Constitution for the Country. Earlier, Okilo had contested election to become a Councilor representing Oloibiri Ward 1 in Brass Local Government Area in present day Bayelsa State. This was after he had served as a Member of the House of Representatives, Junior Minister and Parliamentary Secretary. He was returned unopposed as Councilor.

At the Constituent Assembly, he met late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari with whom he founded the National Movement that later metamorphosed into the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Also, at the Constituent Assembly were: Mallam Maman Ali Makele, Alhaji Uba Ahmed, Chief Meredith Adisa Akinloye who later became the National Chairman of NPN, Late Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN) among others. They all became key actors in the politics of the Second Republic.

At the return of civil rule in 1979, Okilo contested election on the Platform of the NPN to become the Governor of old Rivers State which included the present day Bayelsa State. He won and became the first elected Civilian Governor of old Rivers State. As Governor, he transformed Rivers State by executing projects that brought development and created enormous opportunities for the people of the State. He transformed the Healthcare system, education and built infrastructure for even development. It is on record that Okilo was the first Governor in Nigeria to establish a University of Technology and an Independent Power Plant (IPP). Till date, most of the projects executed by the Okilo Government are still seen all over Rivers and Bayelsa States.

He also mobilized his colleagues in the oil producing states to place the issue of principle of derivation on the front burner of national discourse and explored statutory and legal means to ensure that the principle of derivation was entrenched in the revenue allocation formula of the nation. Speaking on Okilo’s struggles that led to the restoration of the derivation principles as one of the criteria for revenue allocation, Second Republic Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas said : “Okilo was instrumental to the passage of the new revenue bill of 1981 that restored derivation. He should be appreciated for his commitment to justice, unity and oneness of Nigeria as one indivisible entity.” When the military terminated the second Republic, Okilo was detained for three years for no just cause. He was later cleared and given a clean bill.

In 1993, Gen. Sani Abacha appointed Okilo Minister of Commerce and Tourism where he explored other alternatives to oil as a foreign exchange earner for the Country. He promoted the growth of Export Processing zones in order to stimulate and boost non-oil exports in Nigeria. As an active member of the administration, he used his political contacts and personal relationship with the Head of State to influence the creation of Bayelsa State, the only homogenous Izon state in the Federation.
In 1999, Chief Okilo was elected into the Senate. He contributed to the efforts that made the passage of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Bill possible. This led to the establishment of the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs which are today carrying out massive development projects in the Niger Delta.

Not done with political accomplishments at the State and National level, Okilo aspired to become president and Vice President of Nigeria on different platforms including the National Republican Convention (NRC), Nigeria Solidarity Movement (NSM) and Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJ).

Throughout life, Chief Okilo demonstrated uncommon Commitment to the Niger Delta people and the survival of Nigeria as one indivisible and united Country. He shunned wealth and ostentation for the good of the ordinary people. He was a good family man and benefactor to a lot of under-privileged people.
History will forever remember Melford Okilo as a sstatesman, nationalist, bridge-builder, Philosopher and administrator.