• Sunday, May 19, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Adekunle and the Nigerian Civil War (2)

businessday-icon

It was from command of Lagos Garrison that then Lt. Colonel Adekunle was appointed Commander of 3rd Infantry Composite Division (he re-named it 3rd Marine Commando-3MCDO)on July 4, 1967 to open a Southern Front with mandate to capture Bonny by July 25, barely three weeks later (!)and Port Harcourt and Calabar. Adekunle observed that “when the boys of the division were first presented to me, with the exception of a few officers, they were raw, ill-trained, ill-disciplined set of ruffians” yet he transformed them into a well-trained, motivated and successful fighting force and duly captured Bonny between July 25 and 27, 1967 with a naval assault led by himself, Captains Adelanwa, Nelson Soroh, Akin Aduwo and Abdullahi and troops under Major Gibson Jalo. Two days later, he rescued his wife and young children trapped in Peterside Village, near Bonny at the onset of war suggesting perhaps that Adekunle had not expected degeneration to war haven allowed his family visit Bonny. He subsequently overran Calabar (October 1967), and Odukpani, Creek Town, Iwuru, Ikot-Okpora Waterside by Christmas 1967.

Adekunle’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Godwin Alabi-Isama, Ndokwa with Yoruba (Ilorin) mother in “The Tragedy of Victory: On-the-Spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre” described Adekunle as a “very brilliant and fearless soldier who led from the front and fought side-by-side with his troops…the personal example he set as the commander worked wonders”,noting that Adekunle“loved debates on military tactics and strategy”and prepared thoroughly for every campaign which differentiated him from other commanders. Alabi-Isama declared, “I am very proud of Adekunle and what he stood for. We looked after the civilians and the Biafrans alike. We fed the Biafrans, clothed them, recruited them, treated their wounded at our hospitals and clinics and those who wanted to go back to Biafra were allowed to go. Before they left, we addressed them on ONE Nigeria. The strategy worked. Those who went back told stories of how they were well treated and looked after and were told to go home. This was unbelievable. I had an ex-Biafran soldier orderly who went and came back and he is still my orderly till today. His name is Amechi Ekaeze.”

While Adekunle’s 3MCDO and to a lesser extent Muhammed Shuwa’s 1stdivision recorded remarkable successes, Murtala Muhammed’s 1 division diverged. Max Siollun in “Oil, Politics and Violence” noted “While Murtala’s 2 division embarked on daring gung-ho assaults against the enemy (often against orders from army headquarters), Shuwa’s 1 division was methodical and greatly efficient”-curiously Siollun made no comment on Adekunle’s division whose rapid and strategic approach eroded Biafran territory and morale. Murtala’s precipitate actions especially two failed crossings into Onitsha caused tragic losses in men and materials! In February 1968, Adekunle and Alabi-Isama devised a plan to link up with 1 division at Enugu through Ugep, Obubra, Afikpo and Abakaliki which they swiftly executed and then captured Port Harcourt (and then Aba) by May 1968. By May 18, 1968 when Adekunle entered Port Harcourt, he was globally acclaimed as a war hero!

Yet he was an emotional and passionate individual though his strategy of bluster and intimidation to cow adversaries and motivate comrades masked that reality-when he learnt of the death of one Captain BubaYaro, Alabi-Isama records that he wept bitterly; Time Magazine reported Adekunle’s trial and execution of a federal soldier guilty of shooting an unarmed Biafran; he told Sunday Times that killing Biafrans was painful to him and when he launched his attack on Port Harcourt, he deliberately left open a two-mile corridor for Biafrans to escape; and he complimented them noting that “it is to their credit that the Biafrans managed to maintain high levels of optimism till the very last days of the war” though he regarded their “vigorous enthusiasm” as “completely misguided”.

Adekunle’s extraordinary successes on the war front brought him global acclaim…and made him powerful enemies! The Sunday Times report earlier cited (September 8, 1968) wrote, “The officer is Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, 30 years old, trained at Sandhurst and Mons and already a legend. His tough and noisy discipline, infectious enthusiasm for a fight, and popularity with his troops have been almost entirely responsible for the federal Nigerian army’s near-complete defeat of breakaway Biafra” and went on to speculate on his future touting him as a future Nigerian leader-“Adekunle will certainly gain the lion’s share of the military glory for a federal victory and then he must become at least kingmaker if not king” Reports like this probably nailed Adekunle’s fate as less charismatic but more devious colleagues moved to remove him first from the theatre of war and then from the military itself! Adekunle’s son argues that “my father’s series of war letters reveal a soldier, a patriot and a nationalist who was committed to his ideals…whose principles lead him into antagonistic relationships with his peers, and who declined to take the less troubled road, to his ultimate detriment. It was this unyielding stance inherent in my father’s character that ignited and fueled the efforts of the Lagos High Command, and led them to characterize him as a ‘threat’ to the post-war political set-up. It was this view more than anything else that would lead to his loss of command and eventually his forced retirement from the military in 1974”

When Adekunle handed over command of 3MCO to Obasanjo on May 16, 1969, Biafra had lost 90 percent of its territory and the major campaigns of the war had been accomplished. Adekunle and many heroes of 3 division-Alabi-Isama, Alani Akinrinade, Godwin Ally, Obeya, Sunny Tuoyo, Ayo Ariyo, Yemi Alabi, Alimi Ogunkanmi, S. S Tomoye, Kunle Elegbede etc. have not received due recognition for their sacrifice. General M. C Alli, former Army Chief in “The Federal Republic of Nigerian Army” writes on Adekunle, “He remains one of the most indefatigable, physically and mentally versatile warriors the nation and the army has produced-Nigeria’s Napoleon or Shaka the Zulu without a personal empire. That may account for his misplacement in the nation’s history. At critical times of national anxiety during the civil war, he repeatedly gave the nation hope and certainty by his predictions and victories on the battle front. He proved that the art of war is one of superior intellect, continuous and fluid motion, precision, physical and moral courage. Today the powers that be pretend that the Black Scorpion can be denied his monumental contributions and place in history. However the history of the civil war will be written, and by whosoever, Brigadier General Benjamin Maja Adekunle will live in the hearts of all Nigerians as the tiny great soldier who, amongst others, won the war to keep Nigeria one…He concretely paved the way to Biafran subsequent surrender. He falls into the category of Nigerians who gave everything but denied their glory, and powerless to command justice and fair play. He remains the most revered and internationally acclaimed warrior-commander of the civil war, nothing can change that.”

General Benjamin Adekunle, “the Black Scorpion”, patriot and nationalist, military strategist and courageous Nigerian died on September 13, 2014 aged 78 years.

Opeyemi Agbaje