Throughout much of the postwar years, Eastern Nigeria was under staunch military occupation and was governed by a series of appointed army officers. As a measure to subdue the once-rebellious region, Gowon’s government implemented a series of “divide and conquer” tactics aimed to effectively politically handicap the Igbo by taking advantage of the diverse ethnic composition of the East. From the old Eastern Region, three new administrative territories were carved as a means of “liberating” the various minor ethnic groups that had long been subject to “Igbo domination”. The creation of the South-Central State (most of what is today’s South-Eastern geopolitical zone), the South-Eastern State (modern-day Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom) and Rivers State (modern Bayelsa and Rivers States) fragmented the East and tilted the balance of power in Nigeria, as Igbo political hegemony was forever shattered.
The dissolution of the once-formidable Igbo political class in Nigeria transpired simultaneously with the emergence of new politically-motivated ethnic independence movements (most notably those of the Ikwere, Ika, and Ukwuani) amongst Igbo-speaking peoples in Bendel (what is now Edo and Delta states) and Rivers states, as it became increasingly disadvantageous to be identified as “Igbo” in an anti-Igbo Nigeria. Of the numerous catalysts of this rift in the Igbo identity was the distrust, tension, and misunderstandings that erupted as certain groups were blamed for the treachery and deceit which resulted in the failure of the Biafran experiment.
In oil-rich Rivers State, tensions had since been brewing as early as the mid sixties, as a result of the competition between indigenous Igbo/Ijo groups and migrant-workers and traders from the Igbo hinterland. The discovery of oil and natural gas in the region only further complicated matters as local groups were forced to seek their best interests and take actions that would prevent their land and resources from being “overrun” by outsiders. In the early 70s, a young Rumuigbo-born political activist by the name of Obi Wali championed the movement for the independence of the Ikwere ethnic nationality and
launched a ferocious campaign to distinguish the Ikwere from other Igbo peoples by any means necessary. In a bid to win the federal government’s favor, street and locality names were changed to seem “less Igbo” and Ikwere history was doctored to mask any historical relationship with Igbo groups, instead claiming the Benin Kingdom as the ancestral homeland of the Ikwere. The efforts of Wali and his cohorts were successful, and in 1979, after having sufficiently convinced the federal government of their distinction from the Isoma (the Ikwere name for the hinterland Igbo), Ikwere was recognized as a minority language in the Nigerian constitution.