By Sunny Awhefeada
Many of us were not born when Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere died on 9th May 1971. But we grew up with his name as a staple in our menu of formal and informal education in every Midwest, later Bendel and now Edo and Delta school and homestead. My parents’ generation and an earlier one could tell their children and grandchildren the story of Chief Samuel Adjereaton (Jereton) Mariere who served the Urhobo, Midwest and Nigeria. Our parents and grandparents told the story and it is now my generation’s to tell. Mainstream Nigerian history has subjected the achievements of most nationalists from minority areas, like Mariere, Mukoro Mowoe, Eyo Ita, Ernest Ikoli, Festus Okotie-Eboh, Harold Dappa Biriye, Magaret Ekpo, Dennis Osadebe, James Otobo, to erasure or at best to footnotes. This marginalization in the telling of the Nigerian narrative must be resisted and the Nigerian story be reconstructed.
Born in Evwreni in 1906, he was named Adjereaton, a name altered to Jereton for ease of pronunciation and writing. He was to be named Samuel by the compelling exigency of the missionary education he had in his formative years. He started off as a teacher before going into business and later politics. Mariere’s larger service beyond family began in the early 1930s when the organization that metamorphosed into the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) was founded. He was at the frontiers with other Urhobo patriots to draw the intersection between the past and the present and point at the way the Urhobo people should go. Mariere’s generation toiled so hard to give the Urhobo the head start they were to enjoy beginning from a decade later.
As a nationalist, Jereton Mariere, like Mowoe his mentor, was an early member of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC). Before Mowoe’s untimely death in 1948, he had offered Nnamdi Azikiwe the NCNC leader, free office accommodation for the Zik group of newspapers in Warri. Mariere kept the torch aglow after Mowoe’s death and went on to become a leading member of the NCNC. He became its treasurer and soon got elected into the Federal House of Representatives in 1953. He was a gifted parliamentarian respected by peers. In the countdown to independence he crisscrossed Nigeria with Azikiwe and other NCNC stalwarts spreading the gospel of freedom. A skillful negotiator, he helped in building the consensus that culminated in the resolution of the events that sparked off the Kano riots of 1953. The major achievement of that resolution was the broad consensus that finally birthed Nigeria’s independence in 1960 without any region being left behind or pulling out of the federation.
A thorny issue in the years leading to Nigeria’s independence was the emerging cracks occasioned by the fears of the minorities in an independent Nigeria in view of the overwhelming posture of the big three ethnic configurations of Hausa/Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba. Three tendencies reared their heads; the Middle-belt wanting to break away from the feudal yoke of the North, The Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers people wanting to leave the East and the Midwest insisting on a different destiny from the West. The minorities’ agitation engendered the Willinks’ Commission which looked into their fears. The Commission foreclosed the creation of new regions before independence deferring such an action till post-independence.
Once independence was achieved, Mariere and other Midwest leaders mobilized for a plebiscite for the creation of the Midwest Region. Mariere took the first constitutional step by filing the motion in the Federal House of Representatives on 22nd November 1960 barely a month after Nigeria’s independence. A titanic struggle ensued. Mariere, the astute parliamentarian deployed sublime tact, diplomacy, time, resources and energy to the cause. In the referendum that followed, Mariere got the Urhobo people to vote one hundred percent for the creation of the Midwest, the highest number from the region. The Midwest was created on 12th August 1963 and it remained till date the only region or state in Nigeria created constitutionally. Mariere wrote his name in gold.
When the Midwest Region’s administrative setup took off in 1964, Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere became the Governor with Chief Dennis Osadebe emerging as Premier and James Otobo as Deputy Premier. The region’s capital was Benin City. The three men set out to work in order to advance the cause of the Midwest and Midwesterners. They surprised the world because in less than three years the Midwest had become a model of economic development with three phenomenal industries that competed with their types in the world; the Glass factory at Ughelli, the Textile factory at Asaba and the Cement factory at Okpella. Unfortunately, the coup of January 1966 truncated the march to greatness for the Midwest and her forward looking people. Mariere was endowed with an accommodating pan-Midwest temperament. He was very much at home with every part of Midwest. He was chairman of social and Christian organizations across the region and different kingdoms conferred chieftaincies on him. A trait today’s politicians need to imbibe.
Jereton Mariere, according to General David Ejoor, “had a reputation for being honest, outspoken and honorable”. This is an endorsement only an infinitesimal number can earn in Nigeria’s political domain. When the then Lt. Col. Ejoor became the Military Governor of the Midwest Region, he appointed the Solomonic and honour bedecked Mariere as his Adviser. This provided Mariere another opportunity to reenact his character as nation builder. As the events that led to the Nigerian Civil War gathered momentum, Chief Mariere was among the few voices of wisdom that counseled against war and worked out strategies for the unity of Nigeria. In those heady days, Chief Anthony Enahoro led the Midwest delegation to the different conferences intended to avoid the War. Mariere was the voice of wisdom that restrained everybody when jaw-jaw was to degenerate to war-war. Nigeria’s wartime leader, General Yakubu Gowon and the military governor of Midwest, Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia duly ascribe credit to Mariere’s redemptive counsel.
The War took place all the same and ceased in January 1970. Chief Mariere died one year later one unfortunate day in May 1971. Those old enough to understand what was happening at the time of his death usually recount the story with profound sadness. It was said that fishes caught cold in the rivers across the Midwest. His Urhobo people felt politically orphaned with his death. Mariere was a titan in his time. He was the founding Chancellor of the University of Lagos where a students’ hall of residence is named after him. He received honourary doctorates from the Universities of Ibadan, Lagos, Nsukka and Ife, and was the first President of the Nigerian Christian Council. He was awarded the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) as well as its equivalent in the Republic of Senegal.
Fifty years after Mariere’s death his Urhobo people and other minorities are still being marginalized despite his struggles which culminated in the creation of the Midwest. The federalism that he stood for has been mangled. Fifty years after Mariere, the Urhobo people and the Midwest should have looked Nigeria in the face and asked her some stubborn questions. Nigeria is at the crossroads and it is the appropriate time for “to be or not to be”. The Urhobo have been oppressed, exploited, marginalized and of late massacred. The Nigerian state has plundered over a trillion dollars of crude oil from Urhoboland and her ecosystem is endangered. The Urhobo experience in Nigeria correlates with Mariere’s in death. So far, besides a street in Abuja and one in Agbor , Mariere Hall at the University of Lagos, Mariere Primary School, Evwreni and the central hospital in Ughelli, the Nigerian state which owes its continuing existence to Mariere’s stabilizing influence during the Civil War has not named any national monument after him.
Half a century after his death could have been a good time to memorialize him on a large scale, but it is not too late. It would also have been a time for the Urhobo people to roll out drums to celebrate him and use the moment to highlight Urhobo governorship of Delta State in 2023. It would have been a good time for the governments of Edo and Delta States to do him honour. It would have been a fitting moment to put an end to the crisis in Evwreni. Yes, a lot could have been done to memorialize him. Thankfully, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, family and friends came to Evwreni to honour Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere fifty years after.