By Owei Lakemfa
ISAAC Jasper Adaka Boro was thirty when he was shot dead in controversial circumstances 49 years ago. Yet, he continues to inspire youths in the Niger Delta who were not born when his restless soul was laid to rest. He became a romantic figure frozen in youth and time; inspiring generations to fight for peoples’ rights. In this wise, he was like the romantic Ernesto Che Guevara and the inspiring Bob Marley, both of whom died at 36, and the fiery internationalist, Franz Fanon who died at 39. All four, captured in the youth of time.
Boro Day, May 16, the anniversary of his death is commemorated annually in Kaima and as a public holiday in Bayelsa State. I was part of the commemoration this year. As I sat behind Captain Samuel Owonaru who was Boro’s deputy in the insurgent Niger Delta Volunteer Service, I wondered what inspired youths like him and Nothingham Dick, fifty one years ago, to pick up the gun and declare secession in the name of “the Niger Delta Peoples Republic”. Perhaps, the answer is in Boroh’s explanation to his father, Mr.Jasper Pepple Boro. On February 22, 1966, father and son met at home in Kaiama. The latter offered his son sponsorship abroad to further his education rather than take up arms against the government. He feared that the action will ruin the family.
Boro rejected his father’s offer. He explained why: “ The Ijaws were going into perpetual bondage; if we did not strike now, not only our families but also the entire Ijaws would be infernally chained.” The next day, he made a prophetic address to the rebels before they struck: “ 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. Before today, we were branded robbers, bandits, terrorists or gangsters, but after today, we shall be heroes of our land”. Indeed, although the revolt was crushed by the Nigerian military in twelve days and the leaders including Boro were sentenced to death – before being pardoned by another government – they became heroes with Boro passing into Ijaw folklore.
At the Boro Day, the Chairperson, Professor Ongoebi Maurene Otebu, the pioneer Vice Chancellor of the Nigeria Maritime University told the gathering: “Whatever I have become, as the first female Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is attributable to the three men; Major Boro, Captain Owonaro and Nothingham Dick. Their struggles opened up education for us. They sacrificed for us. But for them, my likes would not have gone to high school.”
The first Military Governor of the old Rivers State, HRM Alfred Diete-Spiff, the Amayanabo of Twon-Brass said anything that can be done to immortalise Boro should be done; “ I remember the Navy was deployed to Bori as part of the deployment to stop Isaac. He did not want bloodshed. All he did and fought for was justice; from his struggle, Rivers State was created, Bayelsa State was created. We hope and pray that one day we will hear that Oloibiri (where oil was first discovered) which has been discarded and is today, desolate, will become a state; Oloibiri State.”
The Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Brigadier General Paul Boroh (Rtd) reiterated his message: “Isaac Boroh was unique; when it was time for agitation, he agitated, when it was the season for protests, he led it, and when he thought the times called for armed struggle, he established the Ijaw Volunteer Service to prosecute it. However when it was time to lay down his arms, he did, was tried and got amnesty. For him, the amnesty was a bond to maintain peace, and he never again picked up the gun to fight his country… Boro fought for the unity, indivisibility and progress of our country. Let us continue in this path.”
The Bayelsa State Government, represented by the Commissioner for Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, Mr. Austin Dressman stressed the need to educate the youths on the origin of the struggles in the Niger Delta adding: “The future does not belong to the faint hearted; it belongs to the courageous.”
Captain Owonaru who was given an award for his invaluable contributions to the Niger Delta struggles, dedicated it: “To the on-going struggles of the Izon (Ijaw) man and to the struggles of the people of the Niger Delta in their efforts for self- actualization”
Isaac Boro at 20 had been a Deputy Headmaster of a 600-pupil primary school and a police officer. He was President of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Students Union and a graduate at a time there were very few graduates in the country. He had before him, an assured life of privilege and affluence; and that life spread before him, like a canvas in the sky. But Boro chose a different course, navigating into the creeks of the Niger Delta with its dense forests where he began what seemed an unwinnable armed struggle. He had been influenced by the Cuban revolution of 1959 and had told the rebel army to adopt its principles: “Fidel Castro’s popularity with the peasant population in Cuba was his sincerity of purpose and his self-restraint in dealing with the peasants. Therefore anybody within the Service violating this principle faced immediate court marshal”.
He had been born in Oloibiri where in 1956, oil had been discovered in commercial quantities and which like the rest of the Niger Delta was neglected. He complained that the three majority ethnic groups in the country were oppressing the minorities.
Also, as a Chemistry graduate, he must have fully understood the benefits of crude oil mining in the Region, its environmental implications, how the people were been short-changed because of their ignorance and the collusion between the oil companies and the authorities.
Even his efforts to explain the situation to the Niger Delta people might not have been accepted whole heartedly because of lack of consciousness. Also, they might not have understood his resort to armed struggle. These might explain the lack of wide support for the revolt. But three decades later, when youths, inspired by his example picked up the gun, they had massive support amongst the Ijaws.
Boro fought Nigeria as a rebel, then fought for the unity of the country; dying in the uniform of the Nigerian Army as a Major. It was a case of a man meeting a nation and sacrificing his life for its future.