Recently, Bayelsa State stood still for Major Isaac Boro, who is celebrated annually by his folks as the hero who spearheaded the movement for the self-determination of the Ijaw nation. Emmanuel Addeh examines Boro’s activism and what many regard as his largely unfinished business
“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 before she eats; remember also your poverty-stricken people; remember, too, your crude oil which is being pumped out daily from your veins; and then fight for your freedom,” Isaac Boro, February 23, 1966, during his declaration of a Niger Delta Republic.
Next year, it would be 50 years since the death of Major Isaac Boro, a young man then in the 60s, who though still seen today by a section of Nigeria as a patriot, having died in Nigeria’s bloody civil war, is mainly remembered by his folks as the man who sparked off the agitation for self-determination by the Niger Delta.
Even in death, the former minority rights activist, first ever person to declare a Niger Delta Republic, yet fought on the side of Nigeria, during the 30-month Biafra war in which the federal government sought to keep the country as one, still stirs controversy.
But love or loathe him, his Ijaw kinsmen, many of whom still regard him as a god of some sorts, believe that late Boro still remains the greatest and bravest Ijaw man to have walked the earth’s surface.
So, on the 16th of May every year, his admirers, family, friends, associates and indeed the government of Bayelsa and a handful of other states, gather in commemoration of this enigmatic Ijaw paladin.
Born in Kaiama, in today’s Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Council in Bayelsa, Boro who would have been 80 next year, only trod the earth for 30 years before his premature death in 1968 in the hands of enemy troops, while fighting for Nigeria.
Yet to many, fighting on the side of those he termed oppressors lies the contradiction in the short life lived by the late university students leader, teacher, policeman, Nigerian army officer and most importantly an activist for minority rights.
Boro, those who followed his trajectory say, first came to national prominence when as an undergraduate student of Chemistry and a student union president at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, left school to lead an armed protest against the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the Niger Delta areas.
At the time, the story goes, the late activist felt that the exploitation of the resources from the Delta region benefitted mainly the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Eastern region which then had its capital in Enugu.
An aggrieved Boro was then said to have formed the Ijaw Volunteer Force (IVF), an armed militia with members consisting mainly of his fellow Ijaw descendants, leading to the declaration of the Niger Delta Republic on February 23, 1966.
What ensued after that singular move is today referred to as the 12-day revolution, during which Boro, along with his group of just about 150 volunteers gallantly battled the federal forces for 12 days but were roundly defeated by the government’s federal might.
He was eventually thrown into the gulag, tried and jailed for treason, along with his compatriots where they spent about a year and were later released as a bargain to fight on the side of the federal government against the Biafra forces.
In 1967, in the heat of the civil war, the General Yakubu Gowon-led military government in a strategic move to neutralise the Biafra forces in the Rivers axis, deployed Boro to the warfront after giving him the rank of a major. He was later to die in the battlefield a year after.
But aside being a fiery warrior, what kind of father was the late Boro, who had four children, a boy and three girls from two women before he was killed, with the fourth one coming some months after the soldier’s death.
Madam Esther, first daughter of the late Ijaw icon, who was barely five years at the time her father died, recalls with the eyes of a child her relationship with her father vis a vis the awe that the man inspired in the last few years leading to his death.
She describes her father as a ‘phenomenon’, who probably lived way before his time, being ahead of his peers in terms of intellect and vision.
“Isaac Boro was a phenomenon. People used to get scared of me, even my fellow students. They felt that dating Isaac Boro’s child was like Boro was coming to kill them.
“They believed he used to take a walk with his army boots around the village (Kaiama); that if they had anything with his daughter, something terrible might happen to them,” she says.
That was it. A combination of reverence, veneration and even dread, years after he died.
Unarguably, the most celebrated Ijaw nationalist dead or alive today, what exactly are the enduring legacies of the late Major?
According to Esther, her father’s struggle was his life. Though she expresses sadness over the premature death of the man and the fact that there wasn’t much interaction between him and the family, she is nevertheless glad that her father made indelible marks in the sands of time.
“I think I like the struggle. It is part of the ideals I learnt from him,” she enthuses. In the struggle, he was not in it as an individual but it was what he stood for. It was his identity. What he stood for was encapsulated in some of his speeches,” Esther adds.
But the late soldier’s first daughter is peeved that her father has not really gained the recognition he truly deserves, even as a Nigerian hero, having died in the service of the nation.
“Celebrating a national hero is not just by word but by action,” she says. “If they said my late father was a national hero, how come his birthday is not recognised? Why is it that we do not read about him in the history books?
“He was an Ijaw hero and I am proud that he was. Not only an Ijaw hero, he was the Niger Delta hero because he is even better celebrated in Delta State, Edo State and other places,” Esther says.
She believes that if the grievances expressed by Boro when he took up arms against the federal government were addressed, the crisis bedeviling the Niger Delta today, would not have existed.
“If Isaac Boro’s ideologies were addressed, we would not have the Niger Delta problems as we have today. There could be some grievances that would pop up and it would have been an entirely different level,” she argues.
And she may not have been wrong after all. Boro may not have started the agitation for a better deal for the people of the Niger Delta, yet he took it to a whole new level with his brand of activism which was sometimes violent.
However, just like the seeds of of Boro’s agitations have grown and come full circle, probably because of the kid gloves with which the central government treated the recommendation of the Willinks Commission set up in 1958 to investigate the fears of minorities, eight years before Boro introduced his brand of activism, one can argue that the relationship between the government and the people of the region is not about to get smoother.
The Willinks Commission had confirmed that the fears of the minorities were real and recommended a special status for the Niger Delta, leading consequently to the setting up of the Niger Delta Development Board, (NDDB) by the Tafawa Balewa-led government to cater for the special needs of the region.
The NDDB, just like the proliferation of federal agencies to address development in the region today, failed in part because the other regions at that time refused to make any contribution to the board.
So, from Boro to Ken Saro Wiwa till now that the Ijaw Youth Council, (IYC) born during the Kaiama declaration in Boro’s homeland in 1998, now seems to be the arrowhead of the struggle, the story has remained almost the same, many would agree.
National President of the IYC, which is today the foremost Ijaw youth group in the region, Mr. Eric Omare, believes that like in the days of Boro, all the issues raised by the Ijaw warrior remain unresolved.
Omare posits that after an assessment of the development in the Niger Delta since the failed declaration of the region as an independent state 51 years ago, nothing has changed.
“As the Ijaw nation and the Niger Delta people celebrate the 2017 annual Isaac Adaka Boro’s Day, the IYC, worldwide calls on the Nigerian Government to find a lasting solution to the issues that led to the Adaka Boro insurrection in the 1960s.
“The IYC states that 51 years after the Isaac Boro’s declaration of the aborted Niger Delta Republic, the Nigerian state has failed to address the fundamental cause of the Niger Delta agitation.
“It (agitation) was to express dissatisfaction with the Nigerian state over the political and economic suppression and oppression of the Niger Delta people and it has been 49 years after the demise of Isaac Boro,” Omare said.
While also calling on the Niger Delta leaders to ensure the development of the region, the IYC posited that only resource control could truly resolve the current crisis in the region.
“The IYC holds the view that addressing the Niger Delta question requires resolution of the resource ownership and control question in Nigeria in such a way that the people and communities of the Niger Delta region would have the right to the control and ownership of the God-given oil and gas resources in their lands.
“The IYC states that addressing the resource ownership question together with an acceptable political restructuring of Nigeria to reflect the tenets of federalism are the panacea to the rapid and peaceful development of Nigeria.
“These were also the ideals that the late Major Isaac Adaka Boro fought for while alive,” he said.
But the IYC may have taken a pessimistic view of the situation from the 60s when the agitations first became serious till now.
At least the remains of Boro, which were “hoarded” for over 40 years by the federal government, have been released and reburied in Yenagoa, the state capital, an Ijaw indigene has headed Nigeria, which was unthinkable some years ago and of course there is now a state called Bayelsa, regarded as the “Jerusalem” of the Ijaw people.
Mr. Samuel Owonaru, the only surviving member of Boro’s guerrilla army and his number two man during the ‘revolution’, says although what Boro, himself and others fought for have not been realised, it would be untrue to say things are the way they were in the 60s when they took up arms against the centre.
“To be candid, what we fought for in the past hasn’t really been achieved, in the sense that we’re still in subjugation in the hands of the powers-that-be. So, in that sense, the struggle is still on.
“We’re hoping that better things will still come. On the other hand, to say that we haven’t achieved anything at all won’t be true, because things have changed somehow,” he said not too long ago.
But it was not until 2014, after much agitation that the remains of Major Boro were released and reburied at the Heroes Park in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital.
Before then, precisely in the year 2000, the government of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha made the Boro Day one to be celebrated by the entire Niger Delta.
As a result of the annual ceremony which took place last Tuesday at the popular Izon House, next to where his remains were interred, business activities were crippled.
Market and shops remained locked for the entire day while the few who managed to open for customers could only carry out skeletal services, while the busy Yenagoa-Mbiama Road was devoid of the usual traffic until later in the evening.
Governor Seriake Dickson who laid a wreath in honour of the late activist, agreed that nothing much had changed since the passing of the late soldier.
“We are raising a new generation of Boros and leaders that would take up the struggles. Now we have got to focus on intellectual struggle.
“Because we didn’t invest in education, our country left us behind and forgot about the Niger Delta and our people. Up till today, their (Nigeria’s) only interest is the constant flow of oil and now gas, nothing more. As it was in Boro’s time so it is till now,” the governor maintained.
And then the stinker! Coming back home, an angry governor Dickson took a swipe at those he described as Abuja people who he said have always undermined the Ijaw people and his own government.
”We cannot blame God who has been kind and merciful to us, particularly of late, but we ourselves, because our people were not committed to the Boro dream, not committed to the development of their own state.
“We have a habit such that someone is a minister, all they do for us in Abuja is how to undermine, blackmail, bad-mouth and bring down their own government, their state.
“That is the Bayelsa and the Ijaw disease. Till today, it has happened before and I have weathered all of that. Instead of people there that had the opportunity to work with us and ask the governor to come and ask what they could put down in our state, what I hear every day was: ‘we will remove him, he must go, we have got someone to take over from him, the other person will take over.’”
Dickson further said that “Six years, we just wasted it. Meanwhile, we were doing our work here. Is it not what happened? Till today, we have a minister there (in Abuja). We have people who say they have federal government in their pockets, but have they brought anything to add to what we are doing here?
“You see the Bayelsa disease I am talking about, you see the Ijaw man’s disease? Is that what Boro could have done? If Boro and his people were in Abuja, will this state remain like this?
”So, our people must change. If you are a minister, minister well, if you are a party leader and your government is in charge in Abuja, go and bring the goodies to join us.
“Instead, the Bayelsa disease of underdevelopment affecting their heads is how they can buy guns and support one criminal in one village, how they will assist some cult leaders, how they will talk to police not to arrest criminals, how they will bring soldiers to come and intimidate people. Devil has taken over their minds.”
He added, ”today, our people should be ashamed, not only that we did not take the advantage of the opportunities we have had, but we allowed partisanship to divide organs that we should hold sacred.”
He also berated the Ijaw National Congress (INC) and the IYC over the division within the two bodies and ascribes it to greed, selfishness and unnecessary politics.
But as the Ijaw people, nay the Niger Delta region marked the remembrance of the late rights activist and the day slowly wound down, not a few left the venue of the event with the impression that Major Boro left behind some unfinished business: that of ensuring that the Niger Delta gets a fair deal from the country they call their own.