As we know, prior to the independence of Nigeria, the Niger Delta minorities had expressed fears about majority ethnic domination and their concerns about their very difficult terrain, which takes a lot more resources to develop than it takes to develop any other part of Nigeria. In the light of these fears, the British government set up the Henry Willink Commission in 1957. In 1958, the Commission recommended amongst other things that a separate region be created for the Niger Delta minorities to allay their fears of majority ethnic oppression and to put them in charge of their own development. Brothers, as we also know, the British then presented a Faustian bargain of sorts to the politicians. If the politicians delayed independence, which the Northern Region supported, the British would be able to implement the recommendations of the Willink Commission before ceding control of the country to the politicians. If, however, the politicians wanted immediate independence, they would have to tackle the problems of the Niger Delta minorities themselves. As we know, the politicians of the Eastern and Western Regions opted for the former option.
Brothers, we also know that eight years after Henry Willink and his Commission made their recommendations, many of the minority groups of the Niger Delta were still in the Eastern Region, their dreams of self-determination within the Nigerian federation unrealized. And, so, on February 23, 1966, after the then head of state, Major General J. T. U. Aguiyi Ironsi, had replaced the federal form of government with a unitary form of government, a young ex-police officer, and former student union president at the University of Nigeria landed at Tontonbau with less than two hundred men and declared war against his fatherland. After initial victories against the Nigerian Police, Boro was defeated by a contingent of the Nigerian Army. He was subsequently tried for treason, and condemned to death on June 21. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Boro was given the rank of Major in the Nigerian Army, and sent to liberate the Niger Delta from Biafran forces. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary soldier, and died according to many under mysterious circumstances on May 16, 1968 after the war was almost over.
Brothers, I give this brief account of Boro’s intervention, not to tell you what you already know, but to tease out some very salient lessons from his life. Boro was a detribalized Nigerian. Many of you claim that Boro was an Ijaw nationalist. He was not. If Boro was an Ijaw nationalist, he would have declared an Ijaw Republic instead of a Niger Delta Republic. The Niger Delta as we know is not made up of only the Ijaw. It is instructive that Boro was reported as saying that he was fighting for the Niger Delta so that “man can be man” in the Niger Delta.
Boro’s Enlightenment ideal was a restatement of the motto of the University of Nigeria, his alma mater, where he was a former student union president: To Restore the Dignity of Man. In 1985, when I arrived at the University of Nigeria as a freshman medical student, the legacy of Boro, and other young Nigerian student nationalists before and after him, was still thriving at the university. As student activists at the University of Nigeria, we loved to brag that there were many universities in Nigeria, but there was only one University of Nigeria. As young, idealistic student activists, when we talked about the Northern part of Nigeria, for example, we dreamt of plans to close the huge educational gap between the Northern masses, or the talakawas, as we often called them, and the South. Where others are wont to gloat, we saw a problem that must be solved for Nigeria to attain the full measure of its potential. And, so, one of our most revered heroes was Malam Aminu Kano, the man we loving called the champion of the talakawas.
We had also imbibed Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe’s narrative of the role of Nigeria in Africa, and so our vision of a healthy and thriving Nigeria was never complete without the vision of a healthy and thriving Africa. As a result, there were organizations whose hopes and dreams were driven by a passionate desire to lift Africa out of its many problems and to make it a healthy and prosperous continent. No major student protest or demonstration was complete without a symbolic march to Chief Azikiwe’s Onuiyi residence or Zik’s Flats, the residential student quarters that he built for the university. This was the culture that informed Boro’s vision of restoring the dignity of man in the Niger Delta.
Brothers, it is also instructive to know that Boro’s insurrection was informed by an Enlightenment ethos as well as the Ijaw tradition of civility. Consequently, he forbade his men from stealing, rape, gratuitous killing, and other vices which many who today claim his mantle participate in. The atrocities they have committed against their own people will make Boro to take up arms against them if he were alive today.
Let us recall some of these atrocities. For same years now, members of the group Okoloma Ipangi, which operates in the Bonny Waterways, have raped women, including pregnant women by some accounts. They have terrorized fishermen, market women, and others simply making visits to Bonny. In one of its most gruesome acts of murder, it arbitrarily executed on the spot defenseless police officers, whose only crime was that they were accompanying as security detail a boat headed for Bonny. Brothers, you will recall that this gruesome murder took place after members of the group had threatened to kill all the passengers on the boat if they did not out the police officers in their midst. The passengers begged and wept to no avail. At last, the gallant police officers identified themselves and they were summarily executed on the spot. Brothers, as you will recall, it was after this incident that the central government asked the Nigerian Navy to move into the area to protect life and property. Where were the voices of those claiming the mantle of Boro? What did they do to stop Okoloma Ipangi from carrying out acts of rape, murder, and armed robbery against their own people?
Brothers, you will also recall the story of Priest Igodo, which one of us reported fully. Igodo’s men carried out acts of rape, murder, and robbery against their own people. When Igodo’s father called him to protest these atrocities, Igodo reportedly placed an AK-47 first on the right shoulder of the old man, and fired several rounds, and, then, on the left shoulder, and did the same. The father became deaf. Ijaw culture calls on us to revere the elderly, more so if the elderly is a parent. Igodo committed a sacrilege. No one called Igodo to order until the day he engaged in a turf battle with another warlord, who used his superior firepower to dispatch Igodo and his men. The entire town went into rapturous celebration that they had been freed from their tormentor.
Brothers, you will also recall that many of our villages and towns were overrun by armed groups fighting turf wars. Women were raped. In many cases, their bodies were abandoned in watery graves. Who spoke up for these women? Who held the hands of those who were fortunate to escape with their lives, violated, abused, terrorized, and forced to face the rest of their lives in the silent misery of their violated selves? Who spoke up for the child without a gun, as he fled a village under siege by two armed groups, scared, dumbfounded, not knowing why he is fleeing a village that he calls home? Who spoke up for the elderly, who toughened by years of suffering refused to flee their ancestral homes, vowing to die right in their own homes, as the sounds of gunfire sounded, not from enemy troops, but from their grandchildren fighting battles of supremacy?
Brothers, you will also recall that Port Harcourt descended into a Hobbesian wasteland, where life indeed became nasty, brutish and short. Armed groups
maintained a stranglehold on the city and operated as if they were a law unto themselves. In certain areas of the city, your girlfriend could be summarily taken from you, and if you protested too loudly, your life could be summarily wasted. These groups fought turf wars that resulted in the death of so many innocent people. It is instructive that after an outbreak of one of such turf battles, Governor Chibuike Amaechi asked men of the Joint Task Force to come and dislodge both groups from the city, and a faction of MEND sent its men to support one of the groups to fight the JTF. This faction of MEND turned a blind eye to all the atrocities that had gone on in Port Harcourt, how the city had become literarily unlivable, how people prayed to God to allow them to please not fall to the bullet of one of the armed groups, as my friend did every day before he stepped out of his home. The cries of the people meant nothing, absolutely nothing, to this faction of MEND, as long as it helped a trusted ally to maintain control of Port Harcourt. Yes, it did not matter to this faction of MEND that Port Harcourt had descended into a Hobbesian state where anyone could be summarily executed at any moment without any fear of facing the wrath of the law.
Of course, I have been told that Chief Government Ekpemupolo’s faction of MEND lives by the precepts of Boro. Its men do not carry out acts of rape and murder. They do not fight turf battles. They operate far away from villages and towns. I have also been told that Chief Ekpemupolo gives scholarships to indigent children, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, etc., and I say amen to all those good works, but, brothers, is it not apparent that for as long as Chief Ekpemupolo continues armed rebellion against his fatherland, those other groups who have caused so much misery to their people will continue to operate, and will continue to claim that they are fighting for the people, even though they have inflicted nothing but misery on their people? If Chief Ekpemupolo takes the amnesty offered by President Yar’Adua, and dismantles his camps, there will no longer be any cover for these groups to carry out their atrocities. Their cases will no longer come under the political; they will come under the criminal. And the Niger Delta, particularly the Ijaw villages and towns, will at last be freed from the stranglehold of these lawless elements.
Brothers, while you may not agree with this recommendation, you will at least agree that the name of Boro suffers violence any time a group that perpetrates acts of rape, murder, and armed robbery against its own people claims him as its inspiration. Boro was an Enlightenment man; his stated purpose was to restore the dignity of man in the Niger Delta, not to create a condition where armed groups will terrorize their own people, and live as if they were above the law. He was a leader who put the interests of his people before his.