On January 15, 1966, just six years after Nigeria had become independent, a group of young army majors overthrew Nigeria’s democratic government in a military coup. The leaders of the coup said they were fighting corruption and ethnic rivalry. Those who staged the coup were mostly Christian southerners from the Igbo ethnic group. They killed several northerners including Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Northern Region Premier Ahmadu Bello.
Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an army commander who was an Igbo, was able to bring down the coup but he also seized power. Six months later, a group of northern soldiers staged a counter-coup against the Igbo, causing the Igbo to flee south and later form a breakaway country called Biafra.
But before declaring Biafra a republic, some young men from a minority ethnic group — the Ijaw — had also declared their independence from Nigeria. They were led by a 27-year-old student union leader turned revolutionary fighter Isaac Adaka Boro.
The Ijaw, numbering about 15 million, inhabit Ondo, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom and Rivers state in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Boro, in February 1966, declared the Niger Delta region where he comes from a sovereign republic and himself the head of state, stating that minority ethnic groups like the Ijaw were being suppressed.
He had condemned the January 1966 coup that killed Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, whom he admired and believed could protect the Ijaw. He, therefore, rejected the new regime led by Igbo leader Aguiyi-Ironsi, proclaiming the first secession from Nigeria at only 27 years old. Boro’s Niger Delta Republic would only last for 12 days though some believe that his act politically emancipated the Ijaw people.
Born September 10, 1938, in Oloibiri (Bayelsa), the site of Nigeria’s first commercial oil discovery and first industrial oil well, Boro’s father Pepple Boro was a school headmaster and this caused the family to move a lot as Pepple Boro was transferred to different schools throughout his teaching career. Boro first followed in his father’s footsteps by going into teaching before later joining the police force.
In 1961, he got a scholarship to study at the University of Nigeria (UNN) where he became Students’ Union Government President in 1964 after failing to do so twice. He believed that coming from a minority group (the Ijaw) was what led him to fail twice in becoming a student union leader.
In 1965, Boro left UNN and moved to Lagos, where he founded a political movement called the Integrated WXYZ. The movement argued that Ijaw people should be allowed to control and make their own decisions about their natural resources.
Then came the January 1966 coup led by the Igbo. Boro and others believed that the Igbo coup was going to suppress other ethnic groups and impose Igbo domination.
So on February 23, 1966, after having trained scores of young men in a militia camp behind his father’s compound in Kaiama, Boro proclaimed the Niger Delta Republic. Besides condemning the January 1966 coup, Boro argued that the Niger Delta region providing the country’s wealth had suffered for too long.
“Today is a great day, not only in your lives but also in the history of the Niger Delta,” he said in his declaration speech. “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 petroleum which is being pumped out daily from your veins; and then fight for your freedom,” Boro told his supporters.
But his republic survived for just 12 days. His armed militia was defeated by the Nigerian forces. On March 7, he and other leaders of his militia group were arrested and charged with treason. Boro and his comrades were sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life in jail.
In August 1967, after Ojukwu and his people had declared the Biafran Republic, the Yakubu Gowon-government released Boro and enlisted him in the Nigerian Army to fight in the civil war on the side of the Nigerian government against the Biafra, according to this report. Boro recruited his own force of about 1,000 soldiers and recorded some victories but was killed before the war ended around the age of 30.
In 1982, Nigeria’s president Shehu Shagari conferred a posthumous national honor on him. The Bayelsa State government also declared May 16 as Isaac Boro day to remember the death of their freedom fighter and hero.
Boro certainly knew that he wasn’t going to succeed with his secession but he went ahead with it largely because he wanted the world to know what the Niger Delta was facing and after many decades, Niger Delta communities say not much has changed.