Perspectives On Benjamin Adekunle’s Heroism

The death of Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, the GOC of the Third Marine Commando division during Nigeria's civil war has concentrated my mind on the nature and concept of heroism. Virtually everyone who has commented since his death has praised the warrior, extolling his heroic qualities on and off the battlefield. He has been commended as a dogged, doughty fighter; a leader of men; a contributor of no mean order to the bid to keep Nigeria united. Undoubtedly more commendations will come in days to come.

Although I have some reservations about the pedigree and sincerity of some of these praise singers, especially sections of the political and military constituencies who have a record of less than cordial relations with the Brigadier when he was alive, this article is concerned with my perspectives about his heroism.

Was the formidable Brigadier a hero? This is a loaded question. Answering it demands an honest insight into that phase of his life that affected Nigerians and the rest of the world, specifically his military career from the turbulent 1960s to his retirement in 1974. There are lessons to be learnt from it by all Nigerians, especially in this troubled period of the country's evolution.

First, it is significant that despite his charisma, leadership qualities and controversial nature, Brigadier Adekunle was uninfected by the coup virus that afflicted the Nigerian army in the 1960s. No historical evidence, to the best of my knowledge, connects him to the January and July 1966 coups, in spite of his close relationship with some of the actors in both coup dramas. I doubt if his position was because he graduated from Sandhurst Military Academy, that British training ground that ingrained subordination to civil authorities in its graduates.

Many coup plotters of that period. e.g Nzeogwu, also attended Sandhurst. Some of Adekunle's contemporaries who emerged on the national military and political scene following the second coup always feared he would pull a fast one on them, coup-wise, given his immense following in the army. In those dark, tribalism-riddled days of the 1960s, when the Yoruba did not have a commanding height in the army officer corps, a Yoruba soldier of Adekunle's pedigree would be seen as a threat by the emerging coup merchants.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that following the confusion of the first coup, Adekunle was brought before General Ironsi who had put down the putsch in Southern Nigeria. Ironsi was unsure of the extremely fluid situation and feeling his way. Questioned by the General, Adekunle allegedly retorted that if he was involved in the coup he would have dealt decisively with Ironsi since he disliked the General! This unverified story highlights Adekunle's personality; a straight-shooter who gave it to both friend and foe from the hip.

Among most citizens of the secessionist republic of Biafra, especially the Igbo, Adekunle understandably was not their flavour of the month. As the commander of the campaign that captured Bonny, effectively cutting off Biafra's coastal access, and several other operations that systematically overran most of today's Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom states. Adekunle dealt a terrible body blow to Biafra. He had a job to do as an officer of the Nigerian army; he, alongside Colonel Murtala Muhammed, was largely instrumental to rolling back the Biafran tide after the secessionist forces successfully invaded the Mid-West (now Delta and Edo states).

It would be unrealistic to expect him to act otherwise. But the pertinent issues that raise question marks against his war record are:

1 as the GOC of the Third Marine Commandos, did Adekunle have to resort to starvation, arbitrary killing and other measures that could be regarded as brutal and probably beyond the demands of warfare to conquer the Igbo heartland after seizing the non-Igbo areas of Biafra? Least ethnic sentiments are read into the above question the Brigadier's comments in an interview in those heady days of the war are noteworthy:

(Adekunle was a key champion of the food blockade to Biafra. In a wartime interview he had with Randolph Baumann of Stern Magazine in Igweocha (published on August 18, 1968), he stated:[3])

ADEKUNLE: In the section of the front that I rule—and that is the whole south front from Lagos to the border of Kamerun—I do not want to see the Red Cross, Caritas Aid, World Church delegation, Pope, Missionary, or UN delegation.

STERN: Does that mean that the many thousands of tons of food that are stored in Lagos will never get to the refugee camps in your section of the country?

ADEKUNLE: You are a sharp one, my friend. That's exactly what I am saying.

STERN: But you said yourself that most of the refugees in the part you captured are not Ibos.

ADEKUNLE: But there could be Ibos among them. I want to avoid feeding a single Ibo as long as this whole people have not given up yet.

STERN: Do you sometimes feel sympathy for the Ibos?

ADEKUNLE: I have learned a word from the British, which is “sorry”! That's how I want to respond to your question. I did not want this war but I want to win this war. Therefore I have to kill the Ibos. Sorry! The End.

2. Adekunle's Chief of Staff at the Third Marine Commandos, Brigadier Godwin Alabi-Isama, gave detailed insight into his commander's modus operandi in his book 'The Tragedy of Victory' and an interview with 'The News' magazine (24 June 2013 edition).

Although Alabi-Isama exploded some of the unwholesome stories surrounding Adekunle and portrayed him as a humane soldier who even cared for abandoned Biafran babies, he also revealed that the Brigadier was too stubborn for his good. He did not accept his Chief of Staff's counsel to keep off the Igbo heartland till his troops were ready. In Alabi-Isama's words: 'The attack on Owerri, Aba and Umuahia was his (Adekunle) undoing.' (page 18 of 'The News'). According to Alabi-Isama, Adekunle sought to eliminate him and General Alani Akinriande who was also in the Commandosfor their trenchant opposition. The Chief of Staff concluded that his commander's downturn and removal was due to 'Post-Trauma Stress syndrome.'

Available historical evidence indicate that, despite his unwholesome displays against the Igbo in Biafra, it might be stretching things a bit too far to call Adekunle an Igbo-hater. This is a paradox but then mankind's history is full of paradox and contradiction.

During the July 1966 coup and subsequent massacres targeted at Eastern Nigerians, the then Major Adekunle nearly lost his life for, among other things, protecting Eastern Nigerian military personnel from their rampaging Northern Nigerian comrades. Max Siollun, the ace Nigerian military historian, stated in his online essay 'The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story' that Adekunle drew the anger of Northern soldiers for giving safe passage to fleeing Igbo officers and nearly died for this gesture. Nowa Omoigui, another scholar of Nigeria's military history, confirmed this with detailed insights in his essay on the second coup titled 'Operation Aure: The Northern Military Counter-Rebellion of July 1966.' Both essays can be accessed on any search engine, including Google.

For a man who has been widely praised as a vehement fighter for Nigeria's unity, Adekunle, in his later years, must have been pained as he came to terms with the contradictions and injustice that define Nigeria. The politics of the June 12 1993 presidential election won by his kinsman, MKO Abiola but annulled by Adekunle's military constituency was undoubtedly among the factors that made him declare in a 2001 interview with the 'Punch' newspaper: 'We fought for oil, not for Nigeria's unity.' Does this statement imply that he and his colleagues who clubbed Biafra to death had been wrong all along? Similar sentiments have been expressed by some top ex-Nigerian commanders during the war. Eg. Retired Brigadier John Shagaya who said in an interview: 'Many of the young officers who fought the war did not actually understand why they were fighting, especially on the federal side. They were made to believe they were quashing a rebellion. And they fought with that impression.'

Although Adekunle was retired in 1974 following an international hemp scandal, the possibility that he was a victim of power play in the military high command cannot be ruled out. The high command comprised of officers who prosecuted the war and many of them had unpleasant memories of the brave but brash Adekunle who openly flouted orders, resorted to unorthodox measures and challenged superiors just to get the best for his men in the field and achieve his goals.

Few civil war era military officers have been eulogized, demonized and fictionalized like Adekunle. On the Biafran side his closest rival in all aspects, including ruthlessness, is Colonel Joe 'Hannibal' Achuzia. Unfortunately, in his twilight years, the Nigeria for which he gave his best neglected Adekunle. I winced as the picture of a neglected hero hit my face from the pages of material about the Brigadier's post war years. Was the sacrifice worth it? Is there any military formation named after Adekunle in Nigeria? Indeed, there are many like him, on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides, whose sacrifices mean nothing to those who are reaping from their labour. If we do not give these veterans their due Nigeria's woes will only escalate. Blood is powerful.

Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos-based historian and writer. Email: [email protected]

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Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema