The news of his passing June 16, 2020 hit many like a blow to the midriff. Although Samuel Timinipre Owonaro was human and therefore expected to end his mortal existence at some point, the depth and significance of the events in which he played a leading and defining role and which threw him into Ijaw and national consciousness in the 1960s, enveloped him in a cloud of superhuman ability. And having survived the mortal fate that befell his compatriots five decades ago, an aura of invincibility.
Owonaro was one of the three stout hearted young men, who led an insurrection popularly known as The Twelve-Day Revolution in the Niger Delta, which lasted from February 23 to March 6, 1966. The others were Isaac ‘Adaka’ Boro, leader of the group and Nottingham Dick. They had assembled, trained and armed a group of about 150 men on the platform of the Niger Delta Volunteer Service, NDVS through which they declared a Niger Delta Republic which was crushed by a force deployed by the Eastern regional and Nigerian government. These momentous developments occurred weeks after the first military coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu happened January 15, 1966.
Owonaro was born in 1944 in Lagos to Samson K. Owonaro and Doris, a lady from Olobiri near Kaiama in present day Kolokumo/Opokuma Local Government Area in Bayelsa State. His Father was a Customs officer who was also a historian and documenter of Ijaw history and migration.
Revolutionaries are not generally perceived as ordinary men. In reality, they are ordinary men or women who, at critical moments in the history of their people take bold sometimes unthinkable,often fatal steps to stand in the gap separating their people from a truly tragic occurrence including genocide or enslavement. Even a cursory look at the character of revolutionaries and other change agents throughout human history reveals traits of uncommon personal courage, self assurance, quiet personal dignity and love for fellow beings. Owonaro demonstrated throughout his lifetime that those traits resided in him and easily bubbled to the fore at significant moments.
Owonaro conducted himself with such wisdom and quiet dignity that was hard to ignore. It is hardly surprising that his home in Kaiama attracted a steady flow of visitors who felt a compelling impulse to spend time and share from his vault of wisdom.
Time and circumstances had polished, refined Owonaro and molded him into the icon,man, elder and highly respected communityand national leader he became untilhis death. He was conferred with the titleTibi Ola, literarily leader by his community Kaiama in Bayelsa State. He also received numerous accolades and awards from several Ijaw organisations in the country and the Diaspora. Owonaro, Boro along with an older generation of politicians and activists including men like Harold Dappa Biriye who formed a political party, the Niger Delta Congress to create the space for political self actualization for Ijaw people must be properly credited with the final urgent push that materialized in the creation of Rivers State.
The creation of Rivers State on May 27, 1967 was a crowning of the effort of the young men who dared to confront a political reality of oppression which the Eastern Region under which the Ijaw people were lumped as a minority ethnic nationality dominated by the Igbo represented.
Following the success of the May 29, 1967 military coup that saw the ascendency of the then Lt Col Yakubu Gowon as head of government, 12 new states six of them in the South and six others in the North of the country had been created. Rivers State was one of the states created as apolitical strategy to break the cohesion of the Eastern region. Following this action by the Gowon regime, Lt. Col Emeka Ojukwu then governor of the Eastern region, declared the Republic of Biafra and pulled the Eastern region comprising the Ijaw people of present day Rivers and Bayelsa States into Biafra. Owonaro, Boro Dick, along with other young bloods including Boardman Nyananyo, Captain George Amangala had left their quiet, comfortable lives to join the Nigerian army to liberate the Niger Delta. Their exploits certainly led to the collapse of Biafra. Most of them were killed in the fierce battle to free Bonny.
Owonaro who survived, was at once ordinary and extraordinary, mentally solid to have keyed into the dream of possibilities of freedom for the Ijaws of the Niger Delta which he, Boro as the leaders of the 12 Day revolution shared. Owonaro and his compatriots were without doubt brilliant young men and visionaries, who saw in clear bold lines a terrifying path to a secure life marked by freedom from domination by persons of another ethnicity and decided to walk that path to freedom.
The path of commitment and sacrifice to actualize an envisaged future of self determination and freedom from oppression for the Ijaw people in the Eastern region of post independence Nigeria, chosen by Capt Owonaro and his friends must be seen in the light of what it represents, a saga of bravery and sacrifice meant to teach men vital lessons of life. There certainly is a reason why Sam Owonaro survived the fate of Adaka Boro and Nottingham Dick and the scores of young men of Ijaw nation who first volunteered for the 12 Day Revolution and subsequently joined the Nigerian army and fought to liberate Rivers State and died in the ferocious battles to claim the Niger Delta by the Federal forces and the Biafran soldiers. Adaka Boro was killed reportedly by sniper fire in Ogu, an Ijaw community in present day Rivers State. Nottingham Dick reportedly died within that period. Many others died in the push to liberate Bonny, a key oil export terminal then and now. Owonaro who was injured in the eye and leg, lived to bear witness and breath life into the story of sacrifice, gallantry and valour of himself, his brothers and friends of the 12 Day Revolution legend.
50 years, in present day terms amidst a cultural reality of fast paced ubiquitous media, burgeoning brevity of attention, seeming shallowness of thought and swift demolition of carefully cultivated profiles of heroic exploits, appears to be such a long stretch of time. Within this stretch of time, it is so easy for acts of valour carried out by real men to gradually fade away and become perceived and recounted as stories of fiction to later generations. The exploits carried out by Owonaro, Boro and the about 150 brave men brought together under the NDVS have been regularly reactivated, renacted each time Owonaro spoke. Over the years, he spoke often. He spoke and by his words of encouragement, fired up the imagination of the younger generation to prime themselves for the next level of push.
Owonaro could have declined the invitation by his friend Isaac Boro to be part of The Twelve-Day Revolution. But he was the first volunteer and was as involved, as committed as Boro himself was to the imperatives of the path they had to ply to achieve freedom for the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta suffering oppression in an Igbo dominated Eastern region. In Adaka Boro’s personal account of their exploits captured in his book, The Twelve- Day Revolution, Boro noted in several sections how committed to their cause and reiterated at several points, how trusted Owonaro was. Indeed, it may be canvassed that without the presence of such a trustworthy, dependable ally, Adaka Boro may not have pulled off the Twelve- Day Revolution of February 23, 1966.
Owonaro walked with Boro all the way. At first though he and Boro were from the same community Kaiama, they did not really know themselves. They eventually got to meet in Lagos the national capital in the 1960s. Lagos of the epoch, the pulsating 1960s, was a place where many Ijaw and ethnic groups from all over Nigeria gathered to find opportunities in the emergent country. Boro was a police officer recently posted to the Police headquarters at Okesuna on Lagos Island. Sam Owonaro who was seven years younger, was born and nurtured on the Lagos Island. These brothers from Kaiama were able to form a firm friendship in a fast paced time where situations changed in frenzied frequency as the various nationalities scrambled for relevance, power and control in the new country.
The contenders were mainly the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa/Fulani who controlled the three regions, Western, Eastern and the North. In 1963, following sustained agitations, the Mid West region which comprised a diverse mix of ethnic nationalities was created through a referendum. This development did not escape the notice of the Ijaw people as well as other ethnic minorities including the Ogoja, Efik, Ibibio, who had kept up a vociferous campaign for autonomy and had tabled their concerns about being lumped together with the major tribes to the departing British authorities. The Ijaw people had men like Harold Dappa Biriye, persons who were of such sound intellect and depth of character that he along with others had set up a political party Niger Delta Congress, NDC to pursue self determination aspirations for the Ijaw people. It was at one of such meetings of Ijaw people to resolve a crisis in the NDC that Owonaro and Boro met, formed a brotherhood which eventually had impacts far beyond their youthful imagination.
We had our first glimpse of the tall, dark, handsome young man with the passion for service for the common good clearly ingrained in his genes, in the early stage of planning what eventually metamorphosed to the 12 Day Revolution. Boro recounted the risky journeys the two undertook to Ghana to seek support for their cause from the embassies of some socialist countries. We had an inkling of Owonaro’s forward outlook when news of the killing of the then Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was received and Owonaro urging for them to ‘take action’.
The social realities of Ijaw land (Niger Delta) of the 1960s was a whole universe away from the pulsating social space of the post civil war Niger Delta and especially in the presence of an aware, literate general populace socialized through experience of the bitter civil war, military coups whose ethnic undertones progressively diminished their political power, into greater understanding of ethnic relations and a burgeoning generation of University graduates socialized into awareness through left leaning political teaching in the Universities. The young men of the 12 Day Revolution fame did not have that space of local support. They faced local hostility driven mostly by fear of furious, punitive government response to their audacious enterprise.
Still, Owonaro and his friends pushed on. An obvious committed believer in the cause, he and his team of young, audacious, committed men were of the breed of original path finders who throughout the course of human history, create the space for change to occur in the affairs of men and people and by this, move human society to a higher, more bearable space a step at a time. They dared to impact an obnoxious system of ethnic domination under a regional system that evolved as Nigeria took its toddling steps following political Independence from Britain in 1960.
Interestingly, against the reality of a failing Nigerian State that has grown progressively worse in the years following the civil war of 1967-70, serial forceful power take over by a succession of military officers mostly of Fulani extraction seeking power and access to the stupendous wealth of Ijaw land and the Niger Delta, certain writers, columnists, commentators and analysts of the Nigerian situation, often write or speak in glowing terms of a Nigerian past under the regional arrangement of the 1960s, following the granting of independence. In recent times, there have been growing calls for a return to the republican 1963 constitution, a regional system of governance. Owonaro and his colleagues who experienced oppression from the Igbos who controlled the Eastern region, confronted the evil system that denied the Ijaw and other Niger Delta nationalities spoke up unceasingly of the urgency to return the country to the path of sanity which real federalism offers to all the diverse ethnic nations cobbled together by the British.
Today, the terms self determination, federalism, restructuring, bottom up development and people oriented governance are commonplace phrases tossed with little thought in discussions and debate on development in the Niger Delta and Nigeria. In the troubling descent into decay and disintegration to which Nigeria appears headed, it is indeed amazing how farsighted Owonaro and his group of young men were to have taken the decisions and actions they chose in an effort to give life to these developmental expressions that signpost the freedom they keenly craved for their people, fought for and for which most of the leading lights died.
Over five decades ago, a team of fearless young Ijaw men had foreseen the dire events of today play out unless certain actions were undertaken. Owonaro in his lifetime was the embodiment of the sacrifice and ideals of the 12 Day Revolution. His home witnessed a steady stream of adulating visitors of all ages for many years. His, Adaka Boro and Nottingham Dick’s hometown Kaiama, became the theatre of a fresh push to revitalize the struggle to attain self determination by the youth of Ijaw land captured though the issuance of a landmark document, Kaiama Declaration on December 10, 1998. This document which is a treatise of demands to the Nigerian State reiterating the imperative of granting the Ijaws the space to take control of their destiny in a truly Federal system, is accepted as the follow up to The Twelve-Day Revolution, conceived and activated by Adaka Boro, Owonaro and the men of the NDVS. The heirs of the protagonists of the 12 Day Revolution are the youth who in December 1998 assembled and formed the Ijaw Youth Council and produced the Kaiama Declaration.
Yet, inspite of the long cherished dreams of the political space for self actualization which drove Boro, Owonaro and their men to launch the The Twelve –Day Revolution, the years following the scrapping of the regional system of government in the country, the creation of Rivers State and others, may be described as decades of failed dreams and expectations. Owonaro and the few men who survived the targeted killings that led to the deaths of Nottingham Dick, Boro and the other enthusiastic young men who volunteered were unhappy men for much of their lives in the later years. The dream behind the formation of the NDVS, quest for a Niger Delta Republic and the youthful ripples it set in motion over forty years later have not translated to the desired space of freedom, human and infrastructural development it set out to actualize for the Ijaws and the Niger Delta. Still, Owonaro working with like minded warrior brothers had initiated a revolutionary effort, made personal sacrifices and took action that brought huge awareness and attention to the Niger Delta. Today, though the situation of underdevelopment persists, the awareness created about conditions of poverty, powerlessness and oppression in the Niger Delta makes it unthinkable that its issues will ever be swept to an obscure corner and its people ignored.
In her tribute to him following news of his death Nyengiebi Akamande, an Ijaw lady based in the United States who knew him while a child growing up in the early 1960s and lived in the same building on Kadiri Road in Apapa, Lagos summed up a side of Chief Sam Owonaro that is not so known to the generality of people, but is experienced by those who related closely with him in his lifetime. It offers an idea of the sort of depth and thoughtfulness that defined Owonaro and some explanation for the way his life on earth unfurled its many layers:
“This tall, ebony dark, handsome man ended up in a wheelchair but never lost his spirit and sense of humor! He also never forgot his long departed friends, looking out for and caring for his friend Isaac Boro’s widow and children these past 52 years! He encouraged, supported, cheered for and took care of her just as if his friend was watching! He was a friend indeed to the last! The kind of friend that everyone needs!”
Owonaro’s passing at nearly 76 years creates a gaping void impossible to fill. Many more who paid tribute to this uncommon visionary at the news of his passing, express wonder at how young he and the other patriots were at the time they took on the awesome responsibility of self sacrifice for their people. It was indeed sacrifice of the ultimate variety for, but for prevailing circumstances of the July 29 military coup that brought them reprieve as they awaited the hangman in a prison in Enugu having been sentenced to death after their rebellion was crushed, they were dead men waiting. Owonaro’s life as the one who lived is a gift. His place as an icon, a true hero of the Ijaw and Niger Delta is assured.