The West African Nation That Lasted Only 12 Days
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Right after independence, Nigeria was already playing its minority populations off each other.
By Eromo Egbejule
Fifty-three years ago, the 27-year-old student union president of Nigeria’s first full-fledged university declared the oil-rich Niger Delta region from which he hailed a sovereign republic and himself the head of state.
“We are going to demonstrate to the world what and how we feel about oppression,” Isaac Boro told his supporters in his speech. “Remember your 70-year-old grandmother who still farms before she eats; remember also your poverty-stricken people; remember too, your petroleum which is being pumped out daily from your veins; and then fight for your freedom.” Nigeria had only been an independent country for six years, after an intense struggle against the British colonial administration.
About 150 volunteer soldiers joined the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) to wage guerrilla war against the Nigerian government. It was the first of many secession attempts Nigeria would encounter, and it didn’t go well for the secessionists: After 12 days, the experiment was over and the revolutionaries were arrested and jailed.
The wave of independence and nationalism that had swept through Africa in the 1940s and ’50s began to bear fruit in the early ’60s. The year 1960, in particular, was fruitful for 17 different countries as they gained independence from Great Britain, France and a couple of other colonial masters. It has since been known as the Year of Africa.
But that struggle for independence emboldened separatist movements too. Dozens of groups sought freedom from the fragile new states they were nominally part of, and young revolutionaries like Boro — born Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro in 1938 — took that to its logical conclusion. His birthplace, Oloibiri, was the site of Nigeria’s first commercial oil discovery and first industrial oil well in the late ’50s.
His father was the village headmaster and Boro initially followed a similar path, going into teaching. But after serving as a school teacher and later as a policeman, he quit to enroll at the recently founded University of Nigeria to study chemistry. By Feb. 23, 1966, he had dropped out to devote himself full time to declaring an 11,000-square-mile chunk of his country an independent state. Disillusioned by the independent government’s lack of respect for minority groups — a reflection of how the white colonizers had treated Nigerians — Boro saw an opportunity in the Niger Delta’s oil wealth to split off and allow the region to make its own decisions about its natural resources.
The turning point came in January of 1966, just weeks before Boro’s big announcement. Nigeria had its first coup: a group of majors, mostly of Igbo extraction, overthrew the civilian government of Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa, the well-liked prime minister. Boro and many others saw the action as “an Igbo coup” and worried that the dominance of the eastern Nigerian ethnic group would bring about an “impending tribal holocaust,” says Port Harcourt-based activist, Nubari Saatah. Boro also blamed his own loss in two student government elections on such ethnic politics.
But it turned out secession was no picnic either. After 12 days of fighting, Boro was captured on March 7 and charged with treason. He was sentenced to death — but when Gen. Yakubu “Jack” Gowon became head of state later that year, he gave Boro a presidential pardon and enlisted him as an army officer. He was sent to quell another secession — Igbos in the east were attempting to split off and form their own nation, Biafra, which would eventually make a solo go of it for nearly three years.
“He noted that most of the things the minority groups were benefiting were brought by the North,” says Saatah. “All that made him join the Nigerian side.” Boro’s knowledge of the Niger Delta’s topography proved useful, but he didn’t survive the campaign, dying in 1967 at the age of 29.
Timinipre Owonaru, Boro’s second-in-command and the only surviving NDPVF member, believes that the marginalization of the delta is still on, several decades later. “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,” he says. “The inability to control and manage our resources was the reason our agitation took place and even now we’re still not controlling our resources, and that’s a big tragedy.”
Boro’s socialist revolution may have failed but it laid the path for others agitating for true resource control, like the intellectual Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged in 1995, and more violent militant groups that sprung up in the early 2000s. His hometown is today revered as the spiritual home of all Ijaws because of its association with Boro. In December 1998, Ijaw youths worldwide gathered there for the Kaiama Declaration, a resolution to push for increased resource control and mobilization against the environmental degradation of the delta.
“[The secession] wasn’t going to succeed and he knew it,” explains Saatah. “But it was going to show what was a possibility to both the people and the government … He wanted to draw the world’s attention to what the Niger Delta was facing.”
- Eromo Egbejule