Urhobo Historical Society

Harold Dappa-Biriye (1920-2005)
Guardian Editorial

Wednesday, March 2, 2005  

CHIEF Harold Dappa-Biriye, who died on February 17, 2005 at the age of 85, was one of the founding fathers of modern Rivers State. A few days before, a galaxy of Nigerian leaders and politicians had thronged Port Harcourt to launch the patriarch's biography entitled, Dappa-Biriye: His contributions to Politics in Nigeria. The many Nigerians from all walks of life in the East, West and North who attended the book launch is a testimony to the wide esteem with which the elder statesman was held.

Born in 1920, Chief Dappa-Biriye was a product of the renowned Bonny Government School and Kings College Lagos. In 1941, he entered politics. Two years later, he became one of the foundation members of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun (NCNC). A political maverick, Chief Dappa-Biriye was also at one time a member of the Action Group (AG). In 1959, dissatisfied with the policies of both the NCNC and the AG, he formed his own political party, the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) which he allied to the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC).

His relationship with the North ever since has been warm and he is said to have been a useful bridge between the South and the North. He was a politician, a statesman, but he was also an environmentalist. He made it known at every point that he was also concerned about the ecology of the Niger Delta. Although he fought for the rights of the minorities, he always made it clear that he stood for Nigerian unity.

A native of Bonny, Chief Dappa-Biriye was brought into political limelight when as a member of the Eastern delegation he attended the pre-independence constitutional conference in 1957/1958 at Lancaster House, London and also in Lagos. During these conferences he fervently championed the Niger Delta struggle for fairness, justice and self-determination for ethnic minorities in the then Eastern Region. At Lancaster, he initiated, with the support of others, the establishment of an Eastern House of Chiefs. This action brought chieftaincy matters of Eastern Nigeria to be in line with those of the North and the West which already had similar bodies.

The Willink Commission which was an offshoot of the Lancaster conference undertook to look into the fears of the minorities and to find ways and means of allaying such fears. The Commission recommended the provision of a Niger Delta Special Area and the setting up of a Development Board for the area.

During his time Chief Dappa-Biriye fought many political battles. He clamoured for the restructuring of Nigeria into smaller political groupings and personally prevailed on General Yakubu Gowon, a former military Head of State, to create a Rivers State. The promulgation of 12 states by decree in 1967 appears to have addressed this concern.

An advocate of true federalism, he is revered in Rivers State where he is generally regarded as the spearhead for the creation of the state in 1967. General Gowon who was chairman at the book launch in a tribute to Chief Dappa-Biriye said that his creation of 12 states in 1967 was largely owed to the dogged fight of Chief Dappa-Biriye who fought for the recognition of Nigerian minorities especially his own ethnic group, the Ijaws.

Chief Dappa-Biriye was thorough, energetic, capable, honest, courteous and forthright. He was also a natural orator. But he did not seek to dominate others even when making his point. In the search for a viable Niger Delta, he seemed to have maintained a singular consistency. And when he deemed his political work done, he quietly retired from the limelight and settled for the life of a grand old man. It must be said, that unlike the sickening acquisition of wealth by latter-day politicians after a few years of doubtful work, Chief Dappa-Biriye did not enrich himself even after 60 years of political work. In this regard, the chief has perhaps earned his best accolade as a role model for the youths of Nigeria.

Chief Dappa-Biriye held various political offices. He was at one time Commissioner of Agriculture and then Commissioner of Works in the Rivers State. Chief Dappa-Biriye was a member of the five-man delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1967 who mediated in the Arab/Israeli conflict culminating in Resolution 242. From 1968 to 1973 he was a member of Ahmadu Bello University Governing Council and from 1973 to 1975 , Chairman of the National Council for Arts and Culture. In appreciation for his role in the promotion of arts and culture, the Federal Government honoured him with the award of office of the Order of the Niger (OON).

Chief Dappa-Biriye's legacy lay in a man who saw the plight of his people and decided to do something about it. In all his struggles, he impressed as a gentleman who was not prone to rancour. The unfolding story of the Niger Delta and the continuing injustices will be incomplete without him. In his death, Nigeria has suffered a great loss.