Remembering Isaac Adaka Boro who began the fight for the Niger Delta but was condemned by Aguiyi Ironsi
When stories are recounted about Nigeria and how the General Ojukwu’s declaration of the Republic of Biafra which led to the 18 months civil war, not much is said about the declaration of the first Republic within Nigeria called the Niger Delta Republic. The declaration was made on February 23, 1966 shortly after the January 1966 coup, followed by an intense fight which lasted twelve days, and finally ended in favour of the federal superior fire power.
The ‘Kaiama declaration’ as it was tagged was an attempt to liberate the Niger Delta people from the socio-economic oppression by the then eastern regional government of Nigeria.
Whether this omission is a result of the fact that it barely lasted 12 days or because it is simply best kept veiled to prevent a resurrection of such agitations cannot be certain, but notwithstanding the name Isaac Adaka Boro still rings a bell for the Niger Deltans, especially the militants and other agitators who subsequently fought for the region to enjoy the proceeds of the oil which is derived from the region.
Born in Oloibiri in present day Bayelsa state in 1938, Major Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, fondly called Boro, was a celebrated Nigerian nationalist, a Nigerian civil war hero and one of the pioneers of minority rights activism in Nigeria. Having a father who was constantly being transferred from one school to another as headmaster, he followed his education keenly and even entered the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he was studying Chemistry and later rose to become the Student Union President.
Being in the eastern region under which the Niger Delta was grouped, he was exposed firsthand to what he viewed as exploitation of his people, where the oil money gotten from the Niger Delta was being enjoyed by the federal government of Nigeria and eastern region with capital in Enugu and nothing was given to the Niger Delta people, who were already being subjected to various environmental hazards resulting from oil spillage. He believed that the people of the area deserved a fairer share of proceeds of the oil wealth.
He formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, an armed militia with members consisting mainly of his fellow Ijaw ethnic group. The group declared the Niger Delta Republic on February 23, 1966 and attacked a police station in Yenagoa, raided the armoury and kidnapped some officers including the police officer in command of the station.
They also blew up oil pipelines, engaged the police in a gunfight and declared the Niger Delta an independent republic. They gallantly battled the federal forces for 12 days but were finally routed by the far superior federal fire power. Boro and his compatriots were jailed for treason, put on trial on a 9 count charge of treason at Port Harcourt Assizes before Justice Phil Ebosie, and condemned to death by the Aguiyi Ironsi regime.
However, after the counter-coup in June of the same year, General Yakubu Gowon granted them amnesty on the eve of the Nigerian civil war in May 1967. As a condition for the freedom, they were enlisted into the Nigerian army, and Boro was commissioned as a Major in the army. He gave his men a brief training at Escravos before they were deployed to fight.
General Olusegun Obasanjo in his book “My Command” described the training of Boro’s one-thousand Rivers men as “hurriedly and poorly done with little or nothing in the way of training facilities and resources.” However, he acknowledged their contributions to the army despite the poor training. On page 47 of the same book, he stated that they were attached to the 3 Marine Commando Division (then 3 Marine) under the command of Col. Benjamin Adekunle.
Here, Isaac Boro and his Rivers men of Sea School Boys had become a significant factor in the operations of the division. Their knowledge of the riverine areas, their understanding of the local languages, their ability to live off the land and their swift though tactically less accomplished movement accounted for their huge success in areas around Opobo, Andoni, Obodo, Opolom, Oranga, Buguma and others.
Implicitly their contributions, though not tactical, was very helpful in the capturing of many areas from the Biafran troops even though Colonel Adekunle received all the credits for it, and thus a lot of suspicions were raised after Major Boro died under mysterious and unclear circumstances in May 16, 1968, at the young age of 30 with just three children.
It happened after a successful battle against Biafran forces at Ogu near Okrika in Rivers state, that Boro was ambushed by what many of his men then believed was a unit sent by Col Adekunle. In the brief and fierce battle which ensued, he was gunned down. Till date, there is no conclusive evidence on who killed Boro.
The suspicions surrounding his death led to a weakening of the soldiers’ morale afterwards and the fortunes of the 3 Marine Commando for which Adekunle took the initial credits began to dwindle. His men, who suspected he was killed by an insider became uncontrollable and no longer took commands from Adekunle.
According to Obasanjo, again in his book, “The morale of the soldiers at least of 3 Marine Commando Division was at its lowest ebb. Desertion and absence from duty without leave was rife in the division. The despondence and general lack of will to fight in the soldiers was glaringly manifest in the large number of cases of self-inflicted injuries throughout the formation…”
“It was here in Okrika that Major Isaac Adaka Boro was killed, apparently by a fleeing rebel soldier whom he encountered during a private visit. His death led almost immediately to the dissolution of 19 brigade which became uncontrollable without him.”
In a recent interview with the Vanguard, Timinipre Owonaru, the only surviving member of Isaac Boro’s guerrilla army, stated that pitiably the cause for which they fought in the first place is still yet to be fully actualized, even though there have been some changes. According to him: “The tenets which have us in a stranglehold, that deny us our right to be able to control and manage our resources, are still in place. And until those laws are either reviewed or abrogated outright from our statute book, the struggle continues.”
As second in command to Boro in the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, he stated that they had no support except from other Ijaws in Ghana.
The opening part of the Kaiama declaration which mobilized the youths for action read: “Today is a great day, not only in your lives, but also in the history of the Niger Delta. Perhaps, it will be the greatest day for a very long time. This is not because we are going to bring the heavens down, but because we are going to demonstrate to the world what and how we feel about oppression…. Remember your 70 year old grandmother who still farms to eat, remember also your poverty stricken people and then, remember too, your petroleum which is being pumped out daily from your veins, and then fight for your freedom.”
Giving his plea before he was condemned to death by Aguiyi’s government, Boro noted: “Most of the youths were so frustrated with the general neglect that they were ready for any action led by an outstanding leader to gain liberty…. we were clenched in tyrannical chains and led through a dark alley of perpetual political and social deprivation. Strangers in our own country! Inevitably, therefore, the day would have to come for us to fight for our long-denied right to self-determination.
“Economic development of the area is certainly the most appalling aspect. There is not even a single industry. The only fishery industry which ought to be situated in a properly riverine area is sited about 80 miles inland at Aba. The boatyard at Opobo had its headquarters at Enugu … Personnel in these industries and also in the oil stations are predominantly non-Ijaw.”
He claimed that his people sought for independence and sovereignty not because of an excessive love of power, but because “their conditions were peculiar and the authorities did not understand their problems” and as a result, the treatment they were getting from the government was lacking in mercy.
Since his death, there have also been others who, inspired by his actions, fought the same cause including the likes of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa