Monday 8 August 2022

Thoughts on "The Supreme Undercover": Historical Fiction Novel Set During the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War

The Supreme Undercover by Valentino Alily published by John Bull Publishers, South Africa.

I was recently copied into a Facebook post regarding a newly published historical fiction novel set against the Nigerian Civil War, which was fought between the Federation and the secessionist Republic of Biafra between 1967 and 1970.

The publishers spiel went as follows:

“Intrigue, treachery, espionage and subterfuge are critical ingredients in this book that provoke deep questions:

. Did the Biafran High Command receive pre-Intelligence to enable the defeat of Colonel Murtala Mohammed at Onitsha?

. Did UK’s MI6 conspire in the death of Colonel Joe Akahan?

. Was the Abagana defeat of Colonel Mohammed a carefully planned plot to humiliate him?

. Why did Colonel Benjamin Adekunle ignore the battle strategies of his field Commanders, Colonels Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama to take Owerri and Uli and end the war earlier?

. Plus - who was Brigadier Ibrahim Saliba Dabar: a confidant of General Gowon’s, a double agent or BUFF’s deep cover operative at SHQ (Supreme Headquarters)?”

I quickly jotted down the following thoughts:

The subtext of the author's novel is intriguing. There has been little written about intelligence as a crucial factor in determining the course of the Nigerian Civil War, whether as the subject of scholarly research or as a project of popular fiction. Outside of matters directly impacting on the battlefield, the role of the Directorate of Biafran Military Intelligence in uncovering a plot to assassinate Colonel Emeka Ojukwu the Head of State of Biafra comes to mind.

Going through the selected points of intrigue one cannot help but think that intelligence in the form of deception on the part of the opposing parties played very little part in a war that was largely determined by materiel and numbers.

. Situating the idea of intelligence deceptions or espionage intrigues as influencing the complex and eccentrical behaviours of both Muhammed, the Commander of the Federal 2nd Division, and Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, the Commander of the 4th Division, would tax the creativity of the most ingenious of writers. Colonel Murtala Muhammed's failings in the attack on Onitsha were due to a manifestly flawed plan of amphibious attack, as well as the indiscipline of Federal troops when they did manage to enter Onitsha but could only hold it for a brief period. As for Adekunle, the most successful Federal commander of the civil war, a predisposition towards hubris and sheer bloody-mindedness arguably stand as the only plausible reasons for his ignoring the advice of his staff officers Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama, both of whom Isama related decades later had been set-up for death by Adekunle who had organised an ambush.

. The circumstances leading to the death of Colonel Joe Akahan, the Chief of Staff of the Federal Army, are fairly clear-cut in that he chose to fly by helicopter when it was dark and visibility difficult. Yet the book apparently provides an enticing plot involving the foreign intelligence service of Britain, MI6. It would be interesting to find out how this is woven into the story given that Britain was supporting the Federal side. A more credible line of MI6 involvement would be to reference the fact that Frederick Forsyth, a British journalist who was outwardly sympathetic to the Biafran cause and who had access to the highest echelons of the Biafran leadership had for the duration of the civil war being an agent of MI6.

. Perhaps the biggest test for the writer is how he can contrive a story to justify the plotline that a group of Biafran infiltrators at the Nigerian Army High Command helped prolong the war. How on earth could this have been accomplished? Sending out false signals? Issuing flawed battle orders? Disseminating false intelligence to the battlefield commanders? The premise of sabotage at the High Command would be hard to comprehend for the average person with some knowledge of the war because they are well versed with the realities of the autonomy exercised by the relevant war front commanders, each of whom conducted the war virtually independent of the control of the High Command in Lagos.

. One key factor which enabled the prolongation of the war was in fact a deal reached between mercenaries working for both Federal and secessionist sides to keep the runway at Uli Airport functioning. That, and the tendency of the Federal armies on the northern sector to inactivity especially once Biafra was encircled and the land and sea blockade effected.

The references to "treachery" and to "subterfuge" directed against the Federal side is I find most interesting given that these issues were a prominent feature in the Biafran war effort and played a significant role in the way the Biafrans conducted the war. The spectre of the "sabo" (spies and saboteurs working within the secessionist state to secure its destruction) was ever present. Unfortunately, the potential benefit of the Biafran state in weeding out potential saboteurs by encouraging vigilance among the general populace was overridden by a destructive and self-defeating form of paranoia which increasingly guided state policy and permeated the civil society.

The fascination among the reading public that the use and manipulation of intelligence can influence the outcome of war is an enduring one. But it is not based on the sound facts of military history. It is not intelligence but large armies who manoeuvre, attack, and encircle opposing armies that truly determine the outcome of wars. 

This was not lost on Ian Fleming who worked for British naval intelligence during World War 2. While he partook in formulation of "Operation Mincemeat", a successful plot aimed at deceiving the German Abwehr into planning for an Allied invasion of southern Europe via Greece and Sardinia rather than Sicily, such intrigues were not the ultimate deciding factors. This might have motivated his creation of the figure of James Bond whose one-man-against-the-world efforts brought tangible victories for the British Secret Service during the Cold War era which was marked by the diminution of British global power.

Valentino Alily's novel may be rooted in a similar romantic rationale.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2022).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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