Hon. T.N. Paul Birabi’s exclusion from the centenary awards list hurts the true spirit of our nationhood. It hurts the efforts of this great and exceptional founding father and nationalist, his friends like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who knew him personally and acknowledged his capacity during his speech at his graveside.
I am in difficulty of finding the most apt words to describe this government’s decision to exclude Hon. Birabi from Nigeria’s centenary honours list. I blame not just those who sat to make the selection but the fact that those who approved the selected list could not identify the absence of Hon. T.N. Paul Birabi is to show the level of depravity we accord to national commitment. I could only reason that those who made the selection were most likely not in right tune with Nigeria’s history, I reason that they were too much in a hurry to do a decent job or they could have been influenced by the fact that this great nationalist came from a small and marginalized community – Ogoniland.
Hon T.N. Paul Birabi’s achievements are simply staggering and i see no possibility of an Ogoniman who can match the heights attained by this gentleman. Unfortunately, he died in 1953 at the age of 37. May his soul rest in peace. Eminent historians, Profs. Tamuno and Alagoa, wrote his biography and had this to say about him:
“When Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi left the safety of his teaching profession to join the boisterous field of politics his challenges seemed to increase. In 1953 he was fully involved in the crisis that had entangled the National Council of Nigeria and with the Cameroons (N.C.N.C) hierarchy at the Eastern House of Assembly in Enugu. The Council of ministers led by Prof. Eyo-Ita had rebelled against the N.C.N.C party and the Eastern House of Assembly was dissolved just one year after the legislature had been introduced. This meant that he had to go back to the Ogoni electorate to seek re-election. His reputation before his death stretched beyond the precincts of his community and he had acquired national significance as a member of Nigeria’s highest legislative chamber the Federal House of Representatives.
It was as a member of N.C.N.C. team that he went to London in 1953 along with representatives of Northern People Congress (NPC) and Action Group Party to negotiate with British Government at constitutional conference that ushered in autonomous Government and subsequent independence for Nigeria. Although a member of the official N.C.N.C. delegation at that time he was also the president of River’s association, an organisation set up to campaign for special treatment in the provision of social amenities for the Niger Delta people of Nigeria. Timothy Naakuu Paul Birabi championed the proposal of chief Dappa Biriye for treating the people of the Niger Delta, which include the ogoni people, as unique area requiring a special development programme. It was these shared view that led the British Government to institute the Willink commission of inquiry in 1957 to explore the demands of the Niger Delta for the creation of a separate state to cater for peculiar needs of its people was either understood by their neighbours in what was then eastern Nigeria.
The commission headed by British administrator Mr. Henry Willink did not recommend the creation of a separate state. However, it recommended that because of specific challenges of the region and what appeared to be neglect by the Government of eastern Nigeria, the Federal Nigerian Delta Development Authority be established to find solution to address the problem of the region. These were all the precursors to the establishment of the present Rivers State which was created by the Federal Military Government in May 1968. Indeed Timothy Naakuu Paul Birabi M.H.R. (Member House of Representatives) had within his short spell with the N.C.N.C. made such an impact that he was already positioned as Minister for Education following the 1953 elections.
On his return to Nigeria in October 1953 from the Constitution Conference, he found his wife had fallen ill. Sadly Mrs Paul Birabi never recovered and later passed away from acute malaria shortly afterwards on 11th October 1953 at the age of just twenty two. This tragedy left Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi broken-hearted and with two small children. He fell ill himself shortly afterwards and was taken to General Hospital in Bori. However on the 23rd November 1953 Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi passed away at the age of 37 throwing the entire Ogoni community into mourning.
Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi path to greatness is connected with various activities and achievements during the last five years of his life. These were so profound that the history of the change which occurred in the social, educational and political history of Ogoni read like the history of the life and achievements of Timothy Naakuru Paul birabi. He was a leader and motivator and his personality was embossed on the mode of the various changes that occurred within Ogoni between 1948 and 1953. Never before or since has such a profound, lasting and momentous change occurred within Ogoni. Even if one concedes that the changes were bound to occur, the timing and style of these changes were certainly attributable to his leadership and sheer force of personality. Furthermore, he was the first Ogoni man not only to obtain an academic degree, but to critically use his education as an instrument to better his people by addressing fundamental issues of development.
Socially the Ogoni community into which Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi was born was essentially an illiterate one. Engrossed in agricultural pursuits, the Ogoni appeared to be under the yolk of their more civilized neighbours. As such the Ogoni nationality owes her exposure in educational pursuits and achievements in the 1950s and 60s both to his personal example and his mission. The success of Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi the first Ogoniman who rose from humble beginnings to frame through the attainment of University education – is still a shining beacon of what can be achieved if one applies oneself to academic pursuit for the benefit of the community.
For a man from one of the smallest tribes in Nigeria to have been held in such high esteem by colleagues from all parts of the region in the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (N.C.N.C) was proof of the recognition of Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi’s qualities and abilities among his party members. Although death deprived the nation of exploiting his full potential, it is a tribute to his memory that his potential was acknowledged by the party hierarchy.
His unrelenting representation of his people is still, to this day unparalleled. He pressured the N.C.N.C government of Eastern Nigeria to grant scholarship to qualified sons of Ogoni to study abroad. Two prominent beneficiaries were Messrs Monday Danwi (Medicine) and Ignatius Kogbara (History and Political Science). By spearheading the establishment of post primary schools in Ogoni he sought to bring education nearer to his people. Amongst all his achievements and contributions to his community, one intangible but immensely important milestone stands out and has lived on long after his death. Administratively, the Ogoni were treated as an appendage of the Opobo and administered as part of the Calabar province. Indeed it is due to Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi and a small number of other Ogoni leaders that Ogoni has its separate identity today. He preached the unity of the Ogoni and the right to equality with their neighbours. To the Ogoni, maligned and treated with derision by their more educated and wealthier neighbours, Timothy Naakuu Paul Birabi’s abilities and achievements stood unparalleled and helped to promote the confidence and pride of the people. As such the Ogoni have since held their own, politically and socially.
Dr. Azikiwe’s funeral service tribute at the grave side of the late Timothy Naakuru Paul Birabi, MHR., B.A., F.R.G.S. still remains the most apt description of this general, charismatic son of Ogoni: “Nigeria has lost a worthy son and the Ogoni nation has lost a sun “.
He is well and truly established as the father of Modern Ogoni.” T.N. Paul Birabi is accepted as the greatest leader the Ogoni community has ever had. He is yardstick against which subsequent leaders had been measured and his name still conjures amongst the Ogoni a reverence and call for unity which no other leader before or since has been able to achieve.
Nigeria did not deem it fit to honour this great gift to our dear country. An action that over 1,000,000 Ogoni people will consider a continuum of Nigeria’s oppression of the Ogoni people. An action that could evoke the perception of Ogoni oppression as a state policy. An action that could hurt Ogoni patriotism within the Nigerian state and move our society significantly backward as one where achievement and excellence are never rewarded.
An apology for this grievous mistake will not be enough. The remedy will be a national honour in recognition for this man, an exceptionally brilliant personality whose exit affected Nigeria’s future in a way only those who understand, his capacity and the educational revolution Nigeria forfeited by his not mounting the office of a federal minister for education, can appreciate. If for nothing, he deserves to be honored for his role in the negotiation of Nigeria’s independence and for the education and care he gave to a section of this country – the Ogoni people.