Home truth from Kaiama
I love Yenagoa. When you are in the city, filled constantly with the din of new constructions, you know you are in the southern tip of Nigeria, with its white sands and unending potopoto. It is a city of brave men and women, comely most times, but sometimes in bad temper like their ever angry but clever mosquitoes. This is the heartland of the land that gives wealth to Nigeria producing almost 30 per cent of the country’s oil wealth. It is a land that is happy most of the times, but not all the time. There is money in the air and poverty that arrest the eyes. Yenagoa is the capital of Bayelsa State. This is where the Ijaws of Nigeria call home.
When the late Commodore Phillip Oladipo Ayeni resumed in this city as the first ruler of the newly created Bayelsa State on October 7, 1996, Yenagoa was essentially a one street town. Now many governors later, including Caleb Omoniyi Olubolade, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and Timipre Sylva, it has grown into a megaopolis, sprawling into the beach and the peninsula, embracing the smaller settlements and absorbing new communities. It is still growing like an insatiable octopus, with new roads and avenues and flyovers and modernistic hotels and restaurants and resorts to cater to the taste of the new ruling class and the cult of new wealth. Now Bayelsans are thinking of something greater, better and more long lasting than roads, castles, palaces, overhead bridges and the opulent lifestyles of mollified militants.
Last week, Governor Seriake Dickon of Bayelsa State, played host to top Nigerians as he declared open the Ijaws Academy in Kaiama, the old town of Isaac Adaka Boro, the late Ijaw hero. One of the persons invited was our leader during the Nigerian Civil War leader, General Yakubu Gowon. By taking the Academy to Kaiama, Dickson was making direct appeal to history and evoking the lore and exploits of Boro and his co-compatriots of the romantic, though still-born, Niger Delta Republic of 1966. Dickson says the Academy is to help the Ijaw to recover their history and culture and re-invigorate their language and dialects.
A few years ago, I met a young man in Yenagoa after an event at the Isaac Boro Stadium. I was in the company of my friend, Charles Tambou, the great Charlie T of old Unilag Mass Communication Department who is now a well-known member of the Yenagoa elite class. The youth thought Boro was an ancient hero of the Ijaws who lived many centuries ago. Like many young Nigerians, he was totally removed from the history of his country and his immediate environment. I told him that Boro was killed during the Nigerian Civil War at the battle of Okrika and if he had not died young, he would still be in his late seventies. But Boro paid the price of war.
In the true sense, Dickson has paid a great homage to Boro and the modern history of the Ijaw by planting the academy in Boro’s ancestral land. Boro, a former police officer, read Chemistry at the University of Nigeria, Nzukka, where he was also elected president of the students union. In 1966, he formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Force with about 20 other activists. Some of the other leaders included Sam Owonaro and Nottingham Dick. They met in Kaiama, Boro’s home village in the heartland of the Ijaw country. It was a daring but futile adventure. The rag-tag army was soon rounded up and Boro and company were charged with high-treason. Boro and some of his men were sentenced to death and it was only Gowon who freed them from the death-row in late 1966.
The Ijaw responded warmly to Gowon when he created Rivers State in 1967 as one of the new 12-states structure of the Federation in his attempt to pre-empt Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu move to declare the former Eastern Region the independent Republic of Biafra. When the Third Marine Commandoes Division landed in Rivers State in 1967, many of the old participants and sympathizers of the Boro forces joined the division. Boro was made an officer and so was Dick and both of them were to die on the battle-field.
Boro died 50 years ago. Boro and company were inheritors of an old struggle. When the British created the Nigerian State with the 1914 amalgamation of the Colony of Lagos with the Northern and Southern Protectorates, they decided to rule through the defeated and pacified potentates of the old kingdoms through a system called Indirect Rule. The Ijaws of the Niger Delta, scattered into small settlements and chiefdoms were lumped into either the Western or Eastern Regions when the regions were created by the colonial authorities. In the march to independence, leaders of the Ijaws and other minority ethnic nationalities of the Eastern Region formed the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) State Movement under the leadership of a charismatic lawyer, Udo Udoma who was later to become a justice of the Supreme Court.
When independence was achieved in 1960, the COR movement, like other similar movements – Borno Youth Movements, the Middle-Belt Movement and the Mid-West Movements, were consigned to the back burner. By 1966 when the military struck, only the Mid-West movement had succeeded with the creation of the Mid-West Region in 1963. That was only because the ruling coalition at the Federal level believed its creation would help to clip the wings of the opposition Action Group, AG. Both Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s titular President and leader of the Eastern Region, were not well-disposed to the idea of splitting up of their own regions. The game changed in August 1966 when Yakubu Gowon, a Northern minority, became the leader of Nigeria and created the 12 states the following year.
Fifty years on, though the door of opportunity has been open wider for Ijaws and other ethnic minorities, they are still asking for equity. “The continuing existence of Nigeria is desirable, but Nigerians, all of us, have issues to bring to the table for amicable resolution so that we can make our union more enduring and sustainable,” said Dickson last week at Kaiama where he had invited the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and some of his colleagues including the literary giant and Ijaw hero, Professor John Pepper Clark. He added with emphasis: “There is no shame, no crime in doing that.”
But some people think it is criminal to discuss the future of our beloved country, especially asking for the review of the Act of the Union. Our friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed for this. I remember that in 1993, while the rest of us were eager for the June 12 presidential election which produced Chief Abiola as the winner, Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni people boycotted the election. He was a passionate man who knew his onions and believed discussing the Act of the Union and agreeing on it was more important than a presidential election. After Abiola’s victory was voided, Saro-Wiwa intensified his campaign for which he lived and for which he was eventually killed along with nine of his compatriots in the Ogoni struggle.
By the time of the election in 1999 after Sani Abacha had joined Saro-Wiwa in the Land of the Dead, the ideas of Saro-Wiwa and Boro remained abroad. On November 2, 2012, two of my colleagues and I met with then President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja, for an interview appointment. He told us a story about an incident during the electioneering campaign for the governorship election in Bayelsa in 1998. He and his principal, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the governorship candidate of the new Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, were travelling one afternoon from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa when they met road blocks mounted by soldiers sent by the military authorities in Abuja to pacify the restive youths of the Niger Delta. Soon after the military checkpoint, the team soon ran into another roadblock mounted by militants. They ordered at gun-point both Alamieyesegha and Jonathan out of their vehicle and forced them to lay face-down on the dusty road. The duo escaped death by whiskers.
Today, the eloquence of violence is still attractive to the youths of the Niger Delta, but those in authorities need to move early enough to steer our country in another direction. The Ijaw Academy may be an institution to teach the Ijaws to remember their unique culture, their language, which is dying like most other Nigerian languages, and their music and poetry. But the Academy also need to teach the rest of us the usefulness of dialogue over violence. Neither Boro nor Saro-Wiwa can teach us that now. We need to learn the correct lessons from their lives of sacrifice.
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