Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, the 'Black Scorpion' of Nigerian Civil War fame was a man of great complexity and as a military leader he generated fierce, polarized controversy among both his federal army colleagues and the Biafran opposition which included the European mercenaries who came up against him in the battles which raged among the creeks and mangrove forests of the southern Nigerian terrain with his Third Marine Commando Division.
He provided a lot of ‘copy’ for the foreign journalists who covered the conflict which officially endured from July of 1967 to January 1970, but which was an extension of the concatenation of violence which had racked the former British colony in 1966. Two army mutinies and a succession of pogroms against mainly members of the Igbo ethnic group led to the declaration of an independent state of Biafra by Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Adekunle was the commander of a Garrison at the time of the onset of the troubles.
Born in the largely Muslim northern Nigerian city of Kaduna to a bi-ethnic marriage –his father, Thomas Adekunle was a Christian from the Yoruba Western Region while his mother, Theodora, also a Christian, was from the northern Bachama group –the 22-year-old Benjamin Adekunle enlisted into the colonial administered Nigerian Army in 1958.
He was trained in England at Mons Officer Cadet School and at the prestigious Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and after graduating was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
His early army career included stints in the troubled central African republic of the Congo where as part of a United Nations peace-keeping mission, he served as a platoon commander in the Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment. In 1962, he served as the aide-de-camp to Sir Francis Akanu-Ibiam, the governor of the Eastern Region. Back in the Congo in 1963, and newly promoted to the rank of captain, he was appointed as the staff captain of the Nigerian Brigade Headquarters.
He returned home where he was posted to Army Headquarters to serve briefly as Adjutant General until his appointment on the eve of war at the Lagos Garrison.
The expansion of what was a small garrison of troops into two battalions to form the Third Infantry Division under Adekunle’s command, was due to the prevailing political circumstances of the day.
The fractures in the Nigerian Army had occurred along ethnic lines; this, the result of a wider rivalry between the Hausa and Igbo tribes. As events shaped into a confrontation between the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region and the rest of the federation, it was felt necessary to establish a larger presence of the Yoruba group in the army, an institution within which they were underrepresented.
The great level of personal drive and single-mindedness that were his signature traits played a significant part in the successful exploits during the war of this military group which would later be dubbed the ‘Third Marine Commando.’
But first he effectively built up the division from scratch by actively involving himself in the recruitment of a largely Yoruba pool of infantrymen from a range of civilian backgrounds: tradesmen, students, street thugs and even former prisoners.
It was this division which was charged with the seaborne assault of the town of Bonny in July of 1967; a strategic necessity in the overall federal objective of encircling Biafra.
The significance of this operation cannot be underestimated. As the Nigerian political scientist, B.J. Dudley wrote in his book Instability and Political Order: Politics and Crisis in Nigeria (1974):
After Nsukka, the only other notable success of the federal troops in July was the capture, on the 26th, of the oil terminal in Bonny in an amphibious landing which was described as “brilliantly planned and executed” and the first of its kind ever to be attempted by African troops. The fall of Bonny to federal forces commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Adekunle was important. It not only gave the Federal Government control of the main river leading to Port Harcourt, but it also deprived the rebels of one of their principal counters in any bargaining with the oil companies that they might have envisaged.
Adekunle proved himself to be a talented and quick-thinking battle commander who combined imaginative planning with a boldness of execution.
The success at Bonny was repeated three months later with the capture of the city of Calabar. The liberation of the whole of the south eastern area was completed by April of the following year and in May of 1968, the fall of Port Harcourt, a coastal city in the delta area effectively cut Biafra from any access to the Atlantic Ocean.
Adekunle’s management of the war was accompanied by much commentary in the media. His conduct as head of Three Marine Commando typified the belief held by those covering the war that the divisional commanders wielded absolute power and authority in their prosecution of the war; much to the extent that the man who was nominally their supreme commander, General Yakubu Gowon had enormous difficulty in controlling them.
The extent of such autonomy was illustrated by the fact that each division had its own international arms buying representative. Adekunle himself was consistent in his quest to secure the best in terms of materiale for his troops; tenaciously overseeing acquisition and payment to the minutest detail.
His commitment to the welfare of the men under his command was also matched by an almost tyrannical form of leadership. He inspired both fear and respect from his troops.
His detractors have continually alleged that Adekunle bore responsibility for the commission of war crimes and point to his now notorious comments to a Dutch correspondent in 1968 as evidence that he sanctioned indiscriminate killing and genocide:
I don’t want to see no Red Cross, No Caritas Aid, no World Council of Churches, no pope, no missionary and no United Nations delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything; even at things that don’t move.
They were words which were redolent of the harsh invective frequently employed by military leaders such as U.S. Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey’s famous wartime exhortation to “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs. You will help to kill the yellow bastards if you do your job well.”
They were also suggestive of a mean-spirited relish at the brutal subjugation of an enemy on its knees as was Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s recollection of having “scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 (1945) than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
Yet, there is much evidence that Adekunle acted humanely and with gallantness when dealing with the populaces of the territories that he had conquered as well as with the treatment of Biafran prisoners of war.
Markets, hospitals and schools were re-opened and orphans taken into care. And the fate of many captured Biafran soldiers was not that of the firing squad or the kerosene-drenched pit but absorption into the ranks of Three Marine Commando.
After he had secured the southern and eastern borders of the secessionist state, his division began moving into the Igbo heartland with the capture of the cities of Aba and Owerri.
His battle-field successes accompanied by his media relations management turned him into something approaching a national hero. Both man and exploits became mythologized.
However, Adekunle’s feisty character which accommodated much in the manner of braggadocios statements and other ill-considered comments before the international press did not bode well for his future.
A remark to a foreign correspondent about how he expected one day to fill the mantle of (supreme) army commander alerted Gowon, whose tenure at the top was consistently threatened by his rivalry with another divisional commander Colonel Murtala Muhammad, to the possibility that the mercurial Adekunle, who as leader of Three Marine Commando controlled a great swathe of Nigerian territory might attempt to overthrow him.
This, along with the general difficulty Gowon had in keeping his main commanders in order, were the underlying reasons why on May 12th 1969 he removed Adekunle and Colonels Ibrahim Haruna and Mohammed Shuwa from their command posts. The re-capture of Aba by Biafran forces was ostensibly part of the reason for his redeployment.
However, it is likely that Adekunle was the main target and that the two others were sacrificed so as not to make it appear to be a tribally motivated act against a soldier who was enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity among his Yoruba kith and kin.
Gowon replaced him with another officer of Yoruba origin, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, a future Nigerian ruler as military head of state and civilian president. It was Obasanjo who accepted the instrument of surrender from Colonel Phillip Effiong, the soldier who succeeded Ojukwu as Biafran head of state after Ojukwu fled into exile, in January of 1970.
Adekunle’s division had been responsible for the capture of an estimated 70% of Biafran territory and had he remained in his post would almost certainly have overseen its eventual capitulation. It was a blow from which many insist he never recovered.
In 1972, Adekunle was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. His problem-solving skills were put to good use by the military regime who appointed him as the administrative czar tasked with relieving Lagos port of appalling levels of congestion; a mission at which, according to John de St. Jorre, he was “immensely successful”.
He nonetheless continued to have problems in the army where he was impeded, Adekunle claimed, by “rivals”. This alluded to a group of officers who laid the basis for the future domination of the higher echelons of the Nigerian Army by those of northern Muslim heritage.
In any case, his penchant for stepping on toes and according to a declassified U.S. State Department dispatch from 1976, his tendency to “excesses that have turned many against him” led to his compulsory retirement from the army in 1974.
Adekunle’s name had been mentioned in the London trial of a Nigerian society woman, Iyabo Olorunkoya, who had been tried and convicted for smuggling marijuana into the United Kingdom.
Adekunle, who had been suspended prior to his retirement, claimed that he had been set up and not given a fair hearing by the army authorities who were influenced by an “Adekunle must go” campaign orchestrated by his rivals in the service.
In later years, he privately admitted to a journalist that he had been involved in a plot to overthrow the government of General Gowon. This claim has not been corroborated.
However, it is accurate enough to state that rumours of anti-Gowon coup conspiracies involving Adekunle were common at the time and the ‘Iyabo Scandal’ provided an effective route by which his enemies could effect his downfall.
Adekunle drifted from the spotlight, only coming into public view when the ever thorny subject of the Nigerian Civil War was debated in the national media.
He did continue to maintain high-level contacts in the military regime which succeeded Gowon. In February of 1976, he appears to have played a part in negotiating the sale of jet aircraft, military equipment and also massive quantities of food to the MPLA faction in Angola.
But as time went on, his contacts within successive civilian and military administrations diminished. He did not enter the political arena and was not appointed to any prominent public position, instead he lived quietly dividing his time between homes in the Surulere district of Lagos and in his hometown, the northern Yoruba city of Ogbomosho.
Many continue to vehemently insist that he was a “hater” of the Igbos. An interview conducted by Randolph Baumann for the German Stern magazine which was published in August of 1968 put his infamous wartime comments into context:
I don’t dislike Igbos. But I learnt one word from the British and that is “sorry.” I did not want this war. I did not start this war-Ojukwu did. But I want to win this war. So I must kill Igbos. Sorry!
To the best of anyone’s recollections, Adekunle had not betrayed any hint of an antipathy towards Igbos. In fact he put himself in danger when during the brutal purges of Igbo soldiers by their Hausa counterparts in the counter-coup of July 1966 he promised safe passage to a group of Igbo army officers.
An ambush had already been set for these unfortunates, several of whom were eventually murdered, and the then Major Adekunle was himself saved only by the intervention of a northern officer, Captain Gibson Jalo.
Ever candid and forthright in his views, Adekunle surveying the contemporary circumstances of a perpetually dysfunctional and corrupt state, and doubtless ruing the manner in which he had been continually marginalised during and after his army career, opined that he regretted fighting to keep Nigeria together as one nation:
Personally, now and for some time, I feel so ashamed to have killed people to sustain the unity of Nigeria. I feel so sad to have shed blood for the unity of Nigeria. While some of us were dying in the battlefield for the restoration of one country, some people have their eagle eyes on one particular subject: oil; the livewire of the economy; the new fulcrum or pendulum of power. While we fought for one country, some people have been reaping where they did not sow. They have been reaping from bogus population figures fashioned to suit their selfish purposes.
This thinly veiled attack on northern Muslim domination, albeit vastly reduced since the return to civilian rule in 1999, did not win him many friends. Not from the north and certainly not from many Igbos who like the late Chinua Achebe, whose reminiscences in the civil war memoir published shortly before his death, remain hardened in their views on the man.
It was typical Adekunle, although whether representing a final, settled view on the matter of Nigerian unity is debatable. He was from all accounts as ever the provocative, cynical and impulsive man in his later years as he had been as a young man.
At Sandhurst where he admitted to making only one close friendship among the three hundred cadets during his two year stay, his debates with the officer-instructor of the political science module; based on Adekunle’s objections at what he felt was the over glorification of Western culture and the denigration of Africa, were considered acts of insubordination.
They led to him receiving sixty four days of restrictions with hard labour, a punishment record he continued to believe for second year cadets.
Adekunle was on many occasions the epitome of cheekiness and effrontery. When after the first military mutiny, the Nigerian ruler, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi who had been targeted by the mutineers had called him to his office to enquire whether he had been among the plotters, Adekunle had replied: “Sir, if I were part of the coup, you would not be seating where you are seated now, because I don’t like you.”
While on a visit to Nigeria in March of 1969, Prime Minister Harold Wilson made a request to visit Adekunle at his headquarters in Port Harcourt, and true to form, the ‘Black Scorpion’ took the opportunity to reproach Wilson for not having sent British troops to the then Rhodesia to crush the rebellious government of Ian Smith.
His cynical and biting wit was often on display. Adorning the walls of the offices which he inhabited during the war years was a quotation from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
His hard-as-nails demeanour was broken only a few times. He once offered the revelation of having cried for the last time in his life at the funeral of a young officer who he had been mentoring in his division during the civil war.
The young man had been buried in a coffin which up until his death had accompanied Adekunle while executing his duties on the frontlines; it being earmarked for his own use in the event of his demise.
But aside from the complex and eccentrical behaviour of the man was the soldier. The memoirs of many of his colleagues, even those who did not claim any fondness for him, acknowledged his vast level of competence as a battlefield commander and his rightful mantle as the best army leader during the civil war.
His opponents said no less.
Rolf Steiner, the German mercenary who commanded the Fourth Commando Brigade of the rebel army, admired his “quick mind” and wished that he could have faced him at the helm of equally matched armies, while Ojukwu himself paid him the ultimate compliment when stating that he wished that he had "an Adekunle” on the Biafran side.
Benjamin Adekunle died on September 13th 2014. He was born on 26th June in 1936. He was married to Folake Adekunle by whom he is survived along with their children.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)
Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer and law lecturer with a research interest in intelligence and security matters.