Captain Sam Owonaro, Nigeria’s Last Rebel-Hero Departs
For an Armed Forces ranked as 42nd in global military strength and considered the largest standing army in Black Africa, the passing of a “mere” Captain, in the midst of so many decorated Generals in Nigeria would normally be titling. However, the death of Captain Samuel Timinipre Owonaro at the age of 76 on 16th June 2020, and his final laying to rest on Saturday 28th November, 2020 following the relaxion of Covid-19 protocols, has attracted attention in different quarters for some curious reasons.
The riddle around this wartime Captain arises from the fact that he is the lone survivor of the young three-man squad who led the first secession attempt against the then infant Nigerian State in 1966. This occured just 8 days after the first military coup. More significantly, granted state pardon by then Head of State, Col. Yakubu Gowon on the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), this captain, along with his boss, Major Isaac Jasper “Adaka” Boro (1938-1968), and their 150 erstwhile rebel fighters all died while trying to liberate most critical part of Nigeria’s Oil and Gas infrastructure, including Bonny Export Terminal which could have unduly delayed the War. In nature’s peculiar dealings, he alone survived, 54 years after their successionist attempt, and later national heroism to tell the story.
WHY THE REBELLION OCCURED.
The 15th January, 1966 military coup d’état changed Nigeria’s historical match in different directions. Shortly after that putsch, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi (1924-1966), a conservative military officer of Ibo extraction found the reins of political power foisted on him. Days later, he was greeted with reports of an insurrection from the creeks of his own Eastern region. Surprisingly, not from the Ibos who had started to feel the pinch of reprisals in the north after the bloody military coup, but from the Ijaws of the Niger Delta. Intelligence Reports from the Special Branch of the Police (now Department of State Services – DSS) soon confirmed that on 23rd February, 1966, some young men all in their twenties, led by one Isaac Jasper Boro (a serving Police Officer, who was on study leave at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where was former Student Leader) had declared a “Niger Delta Republic.” He had also begun to maintain stand-off with police and military units sent to the area from Elele Barracks (in the outskirts of PortHarcourt).
Boro and his self-styled Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF), held their ground for twelve (12) days. As would be expected, the ring leaders and men were overpowered by the better equipped Nigerian Army and later charged to court for high treason. On 21st June 1966, under the banging gavel of Justice Phil Ebosie of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, Isaac Boro (28 years) and two of his henchmen, Sam Owonaro (22 years) and Nottingham Dick (19 years), were sentenced to death by hanging although they were not known to have killed anyone. On appeal, the sentence was affirmed by the Nigerian Supreme Court in December 1966. Dr. Timi Koripamo-Agari, a former top Federal bureaucrat termed this outcome in a recent piece “tyranny of the majority.” They were remanded at Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Lagos for about a year awaiting the hangman’s noose.
HOW THE TRIO MET AND THE AJEGUNLE CONNECTION.
Just like many important Nigerians, the life stories of Major Boro as well as Captains Owonaro and Dick, goes back to the favela environment of Ajegunle neighbourhood in Apapa, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub. Like the slums of Brazil’s Sao Paolo, “AJ City” has produced some of Nigeria’s globally prized footballers such as Sampson Siasia, Peter Rufai, Obafemi Martins, Taribo West, Emmanuel Amunike, Odion Ighalo, amongst many others. The “city” has also spurned out entertainers such as John Asiemo (Daddy Showkey), Kingsley Okonkwo (Kaycee), Michael Ajereh (Don Jazzy), etc. But another hidden truth is that AJ city, perhaps the most concentrated multi-ethnic community in Nigeria, is also where some of the country’s top politicians, businessmen and military brass were nurtured.
Nottighman Dick’s father, (Chief Ngbaraka Dick) worked in the Merchant Navy, a typical profession for the coastly Ijaws at the time, while Captain Owonaro’s father (Chief S.K Owonaro) was an officer of the Nigerian Department of Custom and Excise. Both had successful careers and like most others of Ijaw nation who came to Lagos, took residency in Ajegunle. Until recent times when urban renewal programmes have been introduced by the Lagos State Government, Ajegunle’s shanty town nature had made it unattractive to people from other parts of Nigeria. However, the Niger Deltans had particularly been drawn to Ajegunle because the area was a big swamp similar to their home environment, with good opportunities for fishing, their natural occupation. Early Niger Deltan settlers built a community in Ajegunle, it became a kind of home away from home for later emigrants of their stock into the Lagos area.
While Sam Owonaro and Nottingham Dick were born in Lagos and had their formative years there, Isaac Boro moved in there in his adolescent years after he joined the Nigerian Police Force. He was actually born in Oloibiri in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa in 1938. Interestingly, Oloibiri later famed as ushering Nigeria into the global petroleum economy in 1956. The trio, all of whom were originally from Kaiama town in the Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Area of Bayelsa soon etched a close friendship, in course of the endless political meetings in Lagos by “elders” and social interactions. This gave Isaac Boro the opportunity to market his revolutionary thoughts to them. He introduced them to Marxist-Leninist ideas, including copious readings of the writings of Ernesto Che Guevara and Franz Fanon, and took them on visits to Eastern European Embassies around West Africa.
RETURN TO KAIAMA AND REVOLUTIONARY EVANGELIZATION
Gradually, with various providential circumstances, the trio, now surfeited with revolution in their hearts, began to return to Kaiama. First, with the demise of his father in 1961, Nottingham Dick was forced to return home to Kaiama where he continued education at Proctor Memorial Primary School. On his part, Sam Owonaro also returned home in 1965, as his father retired from the service of the Nigerian Customs. King Moses Agara, Okun 111, the Paramount Ruler of the Kolokuma sub-ethnic group of the Ijaw nation still recalls that these two returnees from Lagos joined them in school, and were extremely tall, quiet and easy going. He narrated further that “Boro who was in government service, was on and off” preaching a rather belligerent message amongst the youth. Also, according to Maxwell Appah, now a retired Brigadier General of the Nigerian Army and contemporary of Sam Owonaro, “Boro’s message was appealing but frightening. He insisted that the newly born Nigerian state was founded on unequal grounds, especially against minorities, and must be resisted.”
RECALLING WILLINKS COMMISSION.
Sam Owonaro’s adventure, along with Isaac Boro and others, brings the outcome of the much referenced “Willinks Commission” to the fore. From the London Constitutional Conference of 1953 and up to 1957, some delegates representing the minority peoples of Eastern and Western Nigerian had made representations asking for separate states or provinces. The Constitutional Conference of 1957 was a watershed as the final inking of what would be a future Nigerian Constitution was done. The strong agitations from minority groups averred future marginalization and exclusion by the big three groups – Hausa/Fulani, Ibo and Yoruba.
Led by such dogged leaders as Founder of the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) Party, Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye, a one-time Nigerian Minister of Education, Chief Wenike Briggs (1918-1987), a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Okoi Arikpo (1916-1992), and others, they fought for a separate Calabar, Ogoja and Rivers (COR) Region or state. This was to be carved out, largely from the Eastern Region and Western Region. In the north, the motley of minority groups, under the aegis of the United Middle Belt Congress Party, led by Dr Joseph Tarka (1932-1980), a right-wing nationalist of Tiv nation, maintained spirited agitation on similar complaints.
The colonial government therefore constituted a high-level Commission on Minorities on 26th September, 1957 under British politician and former Chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Henry Urmston Willinks (1894-1973). The Commission also had Phil Mason, a Director in charge of Race Relations at the Chatham House, Gordon Hadow (1908-1993), then Deputy Governor in the Gold Coast and Mr J.B. Shearer. They were charged to “look into the fears of the minority groups and means of allaying them.” This was with a view to possibly include findings in the future Constitution of Nigeria. The team undertook its work from 23rd November, 1957 to 12th April, 1958 and held discussions in each region, in Lagos and in the Southern Cameroons.
As it concerned the issues that bothered Boro, Owonaro and Dick, in paragraph 26-30, the Willinks Commission had stated in its report released to the public on 30th July, 1958, that:
“We were impressed in both the Western and Eastern Regions, with the special position of the people, mainly Ijaw, in the swampy country along the coast between Opobo and the mouth of the Benin Rivers. We were confronted, first, with their own almost universal view that their difficulties were not understood at headquarters in the interior, where those responsible thought of the problems in quite different forms from those they assumed in those riverine areas; secondly, with the widespread desire of the Ijaws on either side of the main stream of the Niger to be united. We cannot recommend political arrangements which would unite in one political unit the whole body of Ijaws; we do however consider that their belief that their problems are not understood could be largely met without the creation of a separate state which has been rejected for the reasons mentioned elsewhere.”
After a very clear conclusion, the Commission left the people of the Niger delta in the lurch by recommending that a “Special Development Area” be created for them. In implementing the recommendations of the Willinks Commission and as agreed in the 1958 Constitution Conference, a Niger Delta Development Board was made via “Nigeria (Constitution) Amendment No (2) Order in Council of 1959.” In 1961, in compliance with Section 14 of the 1960 Constitution, the Federal Parliament established the Niger Delta Development Board to manage the Special Development Area. Although officials such as Chairman (Chief I.S Anthony), Executive Secretary later Senator (Amatari Zuofa) were appointed, there was scant funding. So little or no activity took place at the level of the Board and its Special Development Area status appeared superflous.
Meanwhile, the push for creation of states never stopped. So, on 23rd March, 1962 both Houses of Parliament passed by a two-third majority motion for the creation of Mid-Western region. However, in Eastern Nigeria, where the agitations for states or a new region was more rife, nothing was done. This aggravated the disaffection. Irritatedly to Boro and friends, despite the commencement of revenue from production of Crude Oil from the first 5,100 barrels per day which started in 1958 peaking at 52.4 million barrels per annum by 1966, there was virtually no impact on the communities. Gradually, the terrible environmental impact by way of gas flares and oil spillages also became glaring.
KILLING OF MR. PRIME MINISTER AND THE “D” DAY.
Against this backdrop, the three young men groaned under embittered feelings and were ready for action. They met endlessly in Kaiama during late 1965, early 1966 period. However, dimly hope fluttered in the horizon as their Niger Delta Congress (NDC) Party and the Prime Minister’s Northern People’s Congress (NPC) were in alliance. This enabled an Ijaw man, Chief Melford Okilo (1933-2008), who represented the NDC in the Parliament, to serve as a Minister in Prime Minister Tafewa-Balewa’s (1912-1966) Government. Owonaro had in an earlier discussion, broached that Melford Okilo had met the Prime Minister and made a demarche on the problems of the Niger Delta and reported back that the latter was positively disposed to addressing them.
Alas, alas, on that sad morning of January 15, 1966, the Prime Minister, the de jure political ally of the Niger Delta, was murdered in cold blood and the future of the country tethered.
So, they agreed that 23rd February 1966 was the “D” Day to strike and went on to form what they termed a “War Council.” This was comprised of the trio and two of their friends who were hitherto gainfully employed as teachers in the Federal Government College in nearby Warri town, in present Delta State. These were Boardman Nyanayo and George Amangala, both University graduates. Reflecting back, Emeritus Professor of History, Professor EJ Alagoa, who knew, closely, all these dramatis personae described the show of tenacity as “unparalleled”. On the D.Day, Boro was recorded as stating, inter alia:
“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. 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. Because their conditions were peculiar and the authorities did not understand our problems. There is nothing wrong with Nigeria. What is wrong with us is the total lack of mercy in our activities”.
Owonaro, Boro, Dick, and the other members of the inner circle were fully persuaded of the mission and were able to communicate it succinctly to their followers, all of whom bought-in intuitively. The message was clear: it was better to be free early than be part of a country where some groups will continue to dominate others. Though the mission appeared suicidal, the combatants propelled by their convictions, turned to divine approbation and intervention. In this case, it was a rather syncretic combination of Christian faith and Ijaw deities, especially, “Egbesus”, responsible for retributive justice and protection during the “just wars”. According to Owonaro “we were all from Christian background and most attended the CMS School here – Proctor Memorial, but going to such a mission to liberate our people, we had to also get the permission of our ancestors and the spiritual gifts of our land.”
Their main strategy was to cut off the territories separated by the River Nun and push the Nigerian Army into the maze of impenetrable creeks and rivulets. Owonaro explained that the main limitation of the Nigerian Army was the terrain. The only motorable road stopped at Mbiama town, which is at border with present Bayelsa State and even the road up to Ahoada was tortuous. Same on the Western end, were the motorable road stopped at Patani at the border with Delta State and was a nightmare getting up to town of Warri or further down to Benin. Although the Nigerian Marine Police (then known as Water Police) had been established since precolonial days of 1891, it had remained for many years limited to minimum crime patrol and surveillance. Even the Nigerian Navy which was established in 1956 did not, at the time, have the preparedness for such possible protracted engagement in the swamps of the deep creeks.
Capt. Owonaro adduced that if more supplies were available as Boro had arranged from some sources, the effort would have continued much longer and conflagrated around the world. Owonaro had himself traversed the various communities with young men but had also added that, “apart from few local guns available here and there, majority of the firearms shared to the boys were arranged through same manner in which they are obtained today. The scale may be much higher but weapons have always been here and there in this our peaceful Niger Delta which God has blessed us with. Boro himself being a policeman, had been well-trained in the use of firearms and coerced a few retired soldiers mostly from the Second World War who were in the communities to help train some of the recruits.” According to him, this is due to the fact that more and more people from different communities were enlisting and ready to hold their grounds. However, some of the promised sources failed to deliver.
Additional to this, Owonaro concluded that perhaps they would have needed to carry more elite and community leaders along. But he also expressed the fear that it would have leaked and Boro did not want that.
THE TRIAL AND DEATH SENTENCE.
Overpowered and arrested between 7th and 9th March 1966, Owonaro, his boss Boro and his accomplice Dick were kept under military detention initially at Elele Barracks and moved to Bori Camp Military base in PortHarcourt after which the long battle for their trial started in the court and subsequent condemnation to die. On hindsight, Owonaro explained that they were more concerned about sending a message through their action in calling Sir Willinks and members of his commission, the British Authorities, the global community and the attention of the Nigerian People to the plight of the Niger Delta. On this, Boro reminiscenced in his Prison Memoirs “Twelve Day Revolution” “the Ijaw people had long suffered to separate not because they loved power, but because their condition was peculiar and the authorities did not understand our problems. There is nothing wrong with Nigeria. What is wrong with us is a total lack of mercy in our activities.”
Paradoxically, the same men became the elite amphibious military hands and the core of the “Third Marine Commando” later popularized by the “Black Scorpion”, then later Brigadier General Benjamin Adekunle (1936-2014) and now General Olusegun Obasanjo. Sadly however, all paid with their lives; they died. Boro’s next in command, the elusive, Captain Sam Owonaro, whose Ijaw middle name “Timinipre” literally means “do not hurry away,” survived serious gun-shots on his left eye and right leg.
LIFE AFTER SERVICE – FROM REVOLUTIONARY TO POLITICIAN.
Sam Owonaro was one of few soldiers who survived from the very fierce fight which took place in the Bonny-PortHarcourt axis where over 100,000 soldiers and 2 million Biafrans died in the War. Post-War, he was briefly at the military Barracks at Apapa but left thereafter to Canada to seek medical attention and higher education. On return to Nigeria (1978) still nursing “progressive ideological orientation”, he took up the gauntlet and got himself involved in political activities in the Second republic (1979-1983) to contest for Governorship in the Old Rivers State under the platform of Chief Obafemi Awolowo-led Unity Party of Nigeria ((UPN). He lost to his erstwhile benefactor, the Governorship candidate of National Party of Nigeria, Chief Melford Okilo. This kept him relevant in the scheme of things until the Second Republic as a whole was sacked by the military on 31st December, 1983.
On another note, he was appointed Pioneer Chairman of Rivers State Environmental Sanitation Authority. Despite his infirmity and being permanently assigned to a wheelchair at a young age, his community honoured him as a Regent and bestowed on him the greatest traditional title of “Tibe Ola” – Principal Chief, until the time of his passing. Owonaro remained a symbol that typified what is commonly stated these days as a “living legend.”
Nigeria has had countless patriots who were of course, ordinary citizens but able to garner inner strength and outer courage in the midst of unimaginable circumstances to achieve great progress, and where necessary, lay down their lives for the country. The final resting of Capt. Sam Owonaru, in his hometown Kaiama, is therefore a metaphor of such great national service, not only of himself, Major Isaac Boro, Capt. Nottingham Dick, Capt. Boardman Nyanayo, Capt. George Amangala, and the 150 other young men, all of whom fell while trying to keep Nigeria one, but an actual celebration of the countless great patriateers.
The recurring question therefore is, to what extent does the country at various levels, reward such wholescale show of heroism? Once bitter against what they perceived as societal injustices, and embarked upon a suicidal mission that was rather episodic. Later, they recanted and gave their lives to the bigger picture of a united Nigeria. A country where they had hoped fairness, equity and justice would reign. They had particularly been piqued by the state of anomie and incipient, devalorization of the Niger Delta which at their time, was already gradually becoming relevant in contributions to national revenue, socio-economic development and growth. The question then is, what has changed since then? Could it be that such young blood spilled from different parts of the country to “keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” is in vain? Because in several parts of the country, the gale of exclusion, disaffection and feeling of rejection still loom large. Hence, before his ultimate hour, Captain Owonaro had being recorded by award winning journalist, Ibiba Don-Pedro as saying ‘that if his seriously injured limbs were in order, he would have still yielded himself again to fight to build a more just and united realm.
The last rebel “Captain” takes his final salute to and joins our heroes past. The inexorable burden of appreciating the bravery and heroism of those in yonderland and the building of a society where the warmth of feeling of belonging is created for all, is a task that must be followed with all valour and courage.
Dr. Igali, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria.