• Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Adekunle and the Nigerian Civil War (1)


The most authoritative account of the life of Brigadier General Benjamin Maja Adekunle, without doubt the preeminent hero of the Nigerian Civil War, known across Nigeria and the World as “The Black Scorpion” is the book, “The Nigeria-Biafra War Letters: A Soldier’s Story. Volume 1” compiled and edited by his son, Abiodun A. Adekunle. Benjamin Adekunle was born in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria on June 26, 1936 fifth of six children born to Amina Theodora and Thomas Adekunle. His father was Yoruba from Ogbomoso in Western Nigeria but had lived in Kaduna since 1908 while his mother was Bachama from Numan in the Adamawa Province of Nigeria’s North. Theodora was a staunch Christian who converted Adekunle’s father to the faith and Benjamin and his siblings were raised as Anglicans.

Both Adekunle’s father and grandfather served in the colonial army and combined with his mother’s Bachama (a Northern minority tribe famed for their military exploits) ancestry and his early upbringing in military surroundings, Adekunle’s valour was family heritage! He was physically small and in childhood his slight frame attracted bullies so he learnt to return three blows for everyone he received. In the famed general’s own words, “I also learnt the effectiveness of what in military language is termed “psychological warfare”-make sufficient noise, look sufficiently threatening and you will have your world. Over time, my willingness to engage all comers earned me the nickname “Maja” (“don’t fight” in the Yoruba language). At the age of nine in 1945, after his father’s death, he ran away from home to serve an unknown Reverend Ayiogu in exchange for educational support, refusing to return home even after entreaties from his elder brother and the police; lived with the clergyman for two years before coming under the ambit of another Master, a certain Mr Quinni, a native of Ugep under whose guidance he earned a scholarship to Dekina Primary School (in the Kogi area) and later passed the entrance examination to Okene Middle School. Adekunle enlisted in the Nigerian Army in 1957 immediately after his school certificate examination.

He underwent military training at the Regular Office Training School, Teshie, Ghana; Mons Officer Cadet School, UK; and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and his difficult relationship with his old course mate, Olusegun Obasanjo may have stemmed from Obasanjo’s non-selection for Sandhurst after their training at Mons. Adekunle notes, “I considered my selection for the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst to be an honor and privilege. To my mind, Sandhurst was the best military institution in the world. Not all the Mons graduates were so privileged-for example while Adegoke, Idiaja, Chukwuka and I were selected, Obasanjo was not. He finished at Mons and returned home.” He attributed “some of the actions of my former course mates in the national arena, especially with regard to their colleagues, to the need to assuage feelings of inferiority which may have sprung from having been publicly adjudged and labelled inadequate in the midst of their cohorts”. Adekunle underwent additional training at the School of Infantry, Warminster and the School of the Tactical Wing, UK.

After his commissioning, Benjamin Adekunle was posted to the First Queen’s Own Regiment based in Enugu. It was in Enugu that he met his wife, Comfort Akie Wilcox, a police woman, sister of Chief Harold Dappa Biriye and daughter of Chief Roland Dappa Wilcox, a Bonny Chief. In Enugu, he perfected his Igbo language skills which he had learnt from neighbours in Idah and later served two tours of duty in the Congo before proceeding to the Staff College, Wellington, India for nine months in 1964. Upon return to Nigeria, he served at Army Headquarters until the January 1966 coup which triggered the chain of events that led to the Nigerian Civil War. The Adekunle book contained a detailed account of the last interjection before war broke out, the Aburi discussions and Accord, which stipulated that military headquarters will comprise equal representation from the regions; required creation of area military commands corresponding to the regions; matters of military policy and postings were to be handled by the Supreme Military Council; and military governors were authorized to take control of the area commands. Adekunle opposed these stipulations and wrote a memo to Gowon to that effect arguing that “the full implementation would tantamount to instituting a CONFEDERATION through the back door”. I do not support Gowon and Adekunle’s rejection of Aburi and I personally think Nigerian history and development may have been better served by greater decentralization, at least until tensions eased off, but I also do not believe Ojukwu’s decision to proceed to war was either wise or optimal. All things considered, it may have been better strategy for Ojukwu to accept the residue of Aburi (all “foreign” troops were already out of the East; all Easterners were back home; and Ojukwu was in effective control of the whole of eastern region), while bidding time for an inevitable restructuring of Nigeria as proposed by Chief Awolowo and the West.

Adekunle seemed to believe that Ojukwu’s secessionist agenda was motivated by an elephant in the room-oil! Adekunle wrote, “While some people, namely the aggrieved Ibos, perceived their struggle in terms of survival and self-preservation, some of their leaders harboured ulterior motives fuelled by ego. Whilst some were fighting for their own brand of Nigerian nationalism, others had their eyes fixed squarely on the resources which belonged to other people; OIL. Oil politics with its attendant financial prowess prevailed on both the North and the East in their ultimate decision about the fate of the political existence of Nigeria.”

Opeyemi Agbaje