L-R: Deputy Governor of Rivers State, Dr Ipalibo Harry-Banigo, Governor Nyesom Wike, his wife, Suzzeth, the Methodist Primate, Rev. Samuel Uche, Anglican Archbishop of the Niger Deltas, North Diocese, Archbishop Ignatius Kattey and Primate of All Nigeria Anglican Communion, His Grace Most Rev Nicholas Okoh, at the inauguration of the Ecumenical Centre in Port Harcourt on Wednesday, as part of activities to mark the governor’s one year in office.
Chief Diggs Flaming Akobo is
a veteran of the Nigerian Civil War. He joined the Nigerian Army at a very tender age to fight the war of Liberation.
The former Chairman and Commander of the Nigerian Legion in Rivers State gave a recollection of May 27, 1967, the day the creation of Rivers State was announced in this interview with Opaka Dokubo. Excerpts.
How old were you by May 27, 1967 and what were you engaged In?
In 1967, I was about 15 years old. As a young lad, I was still with my parents. In the riverine area in those days, at that age, you were either in school, you were with your parents or you were at the fishing port. For me, I had just returned from Benin City where I had gone to start secondary school but got caught up with the war and was in the village in Tombia in present day Degema Local Government Area.
When the Biafran agitation began, I saw horror, I saw how my parents were punished; my brothers and sisters were maltreated and it touched on me that I should not just stay there and look at them being killed before me. So, when we heard that Bonny had been liberated, I didn’t even tell my parents, I escaped to Bonny. I met the officer but he said I was underaged and that I couldn’t go into the army but I told him I needed to join so I could go and liberate my people.
Where were you on May 27, 1967 precisely? How did you get the news and what was the atmosphere like?
Yea, it was a wonderful day. It was a day of happiness. A day that was diametrically opposite to the day Ken Saro Wiwa was killed. That day when we heard the announcement of the creation of Rivers State, oh wow! It was a wonderful day. The atmosphere was so ……… In fact, I can’t express it. Every person was so happy and I can say that even a child in the womb leap for joy that we were free.
It is the reason you had things like Liberation Stadium and such other names. In fact even communities took time to celebrate the dates they were liberated. Indeed it was a wonderful day for the Ijaw man and for Rivers people.
As a young boy, I had an aspiration right from the primary school. I had always seen myself as a soldier and so we had one bogus radio, we were always glued to that radio and always tuned to Radio Kaduna. There was also Radio Biafra. On this particular Radio Kaduna, there was this very fine broadcaster, Lamido Mohammed Boduga, I cannot forget that name, he usually gave us information on the Federal Government and the federal troops. He was the one who broke the news and we were so elated.
Where there others with you?
Yes, I could remember being with one of my older friends, Tonye Pokima. We were always locked up in his small mud house right there in the village, Tombia when the news came and it was celebration without limitation. It was wonderful.
Can you recall some of the things you actually did?
Well, in those days ogogoro was the order of the day, so we joined the ogogoro team and drank, drank and slept and smoked. Of course, as young boys we had our girl friends with us, we hugged them and shouted “wa firiteeh”. It was fantastic. The entire community was charged because it was some thing the people prayed and hoped for. The celebration was such that nobody tried to stop the other. It was free for everything.
Was this announcement actually being expected by the people or it came as a surprise?
Actually we didn’t expect it. Some of us who were very interested in what happened in the community kept track of events with our fathers as they went about the community affairs. My father specifically belonged to the Action Group and through him I tried to monitor what was happening. So we followed up the trend of events but we didn’t expect that it would come to pass. That’s why the news came to us as a surprise. It was even more so in that the creation went beyond what was being canvassed which was Calabar/Ogoja/Rivers St ate. We were pleasantly surprised that Rivers State came on its own.
We didn’t expect it to come in that way and that inspired people like us to say we must go and die to defend it if that was what was required for us to keep Rivers State.
Meaning You Joined The Army After The Creation Of Rivers State?
Yes, that was what prompted me to join the army because I said to myself that now I will join the army to see that I actualise and liberate Rivers State. Indeed, that was the talk of the day at that time. I joined the army in January, 1968. Actually, we thought that that was the expectation of the people who created the State. They believed that creating the state would make us rise up to fight for our destiny.
Why were you so happy about the creation? What was your understanding of the entire Event?
Now this is one area where Biafra got it wrong, if you say I am a Biafran, you can not come to my house and dispossess me of my property, you cannot take me away from my homeland and try to settle me in a strange environment. A lot of these things were happening. So, when the creation was done, we felt that we had been given the right to control our own lives, away from the suppression and oppression from our brothers, the Igbos who dominated our villages, who were sharing houses and everything else to themselves in the hope that Biafra would come to stay.
As a little boy, I grew up with them. I knew a lot of them, unfortunately, most of them died when we came to liberate the community. So, it was this feeling of freedom that gave rise to that wild celebration. You see, it felt like someone who always had to borrow clothes each time you wanted to go out and then suddenly somebody bought a setting of clothing and gave to you. That became your own, no more borrowing, no more going to ask with all the embarrassment that attended it. That was how we felt.
49 Years After, How Do You Feel?
49 years after, I feel sad. Infact, a while ago I just mentioned to one of my friends that I feel sad. I have expressed that feeling at least three times today. I was recalling to my friend that we used to sit by the riverside with Isaac Boro in Bonny when he came to recruit us. Our hope was that as soon as we liberated the state, we would own it. But we have not gotten the state, we have not owned it socially, economically and politically. We have not gotten a state of our own uptill now.
Of course, this is not the state of my dream. Others may think differently but I had a very clear idea of what Rivers State should be. Up till now, we have not arrived there. I am only hoping that this government of Barrister Nyesom Wike would try and help move us towards the direction of the ideal Rivers State. In doing this, he needs to take everyone along and then we will succeed. He needs to go down to the grassroots. Of course, he began with the Grassroots Development Initiative, GDI, and I joined in that movement because I believe in that philosophy.
For now everything seems to be happening according to the dictates of outsiders. They call this state no man’s state and it makes me weep. My heart bleeds as I speak to you because I know that a lot of young men died in the struggle, many of them even without service numbers. For some of us, it took quite a long time before we got service numbers. A lot of us jumped into the fight in the euphoria that we have gotten a state.
Did Gen. Gowon Who Created The State Ever Come Down Here?
Yes he did several times. I was a signal officer and I was one of the signal officers that followed him around after the Civil War when he came with Harold Wilson.
Can you remember anything the leaders of the state did to show appreciation to Gen. Gowon?
Actually, before he came here, there in Lagos, I remember that the Rivers Community presented him with a sword as a souvenir among other things in appreciation for the gesture. The Ijaws in Lagos did that.
How would you rate the present Governor for deeming it fit to name a stadium after Gowon where successive governments didn’t think about it?
I think Gen. Gowon is everything to Rivers people and they appreciate and love him for creating Rivers State but I know that it was a creation of convenience, it was created to achieve a purpose and by the grace of God, we were able to achieve that purpose. It was created to divide the Eastern Region. Were it not so, they would have allowed us to develop ourselves. And that is why I insist that now that Governor Wike is here, they should give him the chance to do his best, they should leave the state in his hands irrespective of the political party he belongs to. They should allow Rivers man to govern Rivers State. They should allow us to govern ourselves.
I have a special liking for Governor Wike first and foremost for the recognition he gave to Sir Celestine Omehia. It is a wonderful thing. And this is another one for him to recognise and honour Gen. Yakubu Gowon. Irrespective of the motive, it is a wonderful thing for someone to put your destiny in your own hands. So, it is a great thing that Governor Wike did by naming the former Liberation Stadium in Port Harcourt after General Yakubu Gowon and I cherish and thank him for that.
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