Bye Bye Benji!!!

In 1958 when Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe (alias KO) rebelled against Nnamdi Azikwe, he founded a newspaper to give robust intellectual muscle to his revolt. The name of the paper was Daily Telegraph and the editor was maverick Smart Ebbi (alias Marshal Kebby). Marshal Kebby switched loyalty to Mbadiwe from Zik’s West African Pilot where he was senior sub-editor, but had been a well-known nationalist. He was one of the Zikists gaoled over their call for revolution in 1949. To him fear was a dead letter word.

Perhaps, Marshal Kebby had his own grudge over some appointment in the Pilot he felt he was due. So when Zik left Ikeja Airport on a trip soon after to America, the Telegraph’s front page headline was “Bye! Bye!! Benji!!!” – Benjamin being Zik’s baptismal name.

Mbadiwe and his co-rebels had been expelled from the NCNC and they formed the Democratic Party of Nigeria and Cameroons, DPNC, to retain their cabinet positions in the broad-based coalition of the federal government.

As the forces of Zik and KO battled to be accepted, though vitriolic and vicious, they still had the stomach for humour. The headline of this piece, “Bye! Bye!! Benji!!!”, my tribute to one of the most efficient officers the Nigerian Army ever produced, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, is to mellow a serious grief about ungratefulness to heroes and exaltation of villains. Adekunle, the Black Scorpion, has gone the way of all mortals in a nation that rewards disloyalty and punishes service.

It was early in 1968 Adekunle visited Benin from Bonny which he had captured in his sea-borne attack from Warri where the 3rd Marine Commandos were assembled.

He came to see our boss, Abiodun Aloba (alias Ebenezer Williams), at the Nigerian Observer newspaper. He was smartly dressed and moved with the speed of a sprinter trying to beat a record. When he spoke to us later about the operations of his division which was the latest to be commissioned, there was no doubting his intellect, organisational ability and leadership for such a huge task and campaign. Yet he was never awarded any national honour. These days they decorate themselves, con men and thieves, with national awards. Zik, Gowon, Muhammed, Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, IBB, Shehu Shagari earned none in office. Little to say he became the hero of the Observer journalists as he fought through the treacherous terrain of the Niger Delta creeks. Adekunle was a marvel when he addressed local and foreign correspondents who learnt fast to accord him due regard as a rare commander equal to the best any nation on earth could produce in the military sphere. He spoke first-class English; such that cowed many foreign journalists. He did not strain to make his point and was exact in his facts. Adekunle became the toast of the world press. The other fellow that matched his oratorical ability was the leader of the rebellion, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.

By the end of that year, Adekunle had taken over the eastern sea coast of Nigeria and also the littoral areas inland. Adekunle broke the back of the Biafran rebellion and Ojukwu paid him due respect as the war raged in one of the interviews, saying: “Adekunle was my boy, he used to be close to me! He always behaves like a Napoleon.” Let us leave Benji’s military campaigns and successes and visit Adekunle the man of the world.

Adekunle fought but he was very friendly with Igbos. He mixed with people of all colours and tongues with no complex. He told the truth as much as humanly possible. This did not endear him to even some of his bosses. Some of his ambitious and envious peers exploited his simplicity duplicitously in the military. Benji was very sociable like Murtala Muhammed, another war commander. Their ranks did not keep them out of touch with the ordinary Nigerian with whom they split beer and debated current matters. It was then some of us found that military officers’ training kept them abreast of the world at large and prepared them to solve problems. They did not make excuses for failure as it is now customary with Nigerians in all aspects of living.

I was not in Nigeria when Adekunle was retired from the Nigerian Army; but in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, where I was, it rang in my mind what Adekunle mentioned to his colleague, Colonel Nicholas Ajayi Ayanru, my brother-in-law, that if he left the force, General Yakubu Gowon would not last longer than six months in office because he had been protecting him from the hawks. It was prophetic. Adekunle and Ayanru served at Dodan Barracks as Gowon’s staff officers. Adekunle was described by his friend, Ayanru, then as the best staff officer he ever knew.

Despite Adekunle’s popularity and myth, he bowed to civil authorities. There was a time a court summoned him to appear in suit. He submitted and faced the law humbly. There was discipline in Nigeria then. As soft and smooth as the Gowon administration was, he did not allow his men to disobey civil laws, contrary to what we have seen of those in power since the inception of the present constitutional rule. Adekunle was my neighbour in Surulere, Lagos, his house being next to Aloba’s at Adelabu Close.

On the day Gowon was overthrown, it was from him I heard, while I was with Aloba, that the coup was successful. And when Muhammed was killed by Bukar Dimka, it was also from him we heard some hours later that the head of state was brutally assassinated. While some of his mates were hiding from the mutinous rabble, he was in the thick of the crisis, braving consequences in search of order, though out of service. There was always a ready bottle for me to do justice with any time I strolled to his house to share current affairs. I knew so much from him that this piece cannot contain. He rejected Muhammed’s offer to return to the army. Adekunle was a brilliant writer, a measure he shared with his great rival, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who also communicates in excellent English in writing. Was that an aspect of British officer’s training because their superior, Colonel Conrad Nwaiwo, in office also spoke and wrote excellent English?

In my stint with Newbreed magazine, the journal planned a story on retirement of military top brass so early in their careers. Don’t blame the young chaps there. They were too young to meet some of those top famous retired generals. I took my junior colleague, Gboyega Okegbenro, with me to Adekunle’s. I put him at ease because it looked a bit frightening to meet the Black Scorpion. It was during General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, and Okegbenro was surprised at the simplicity of the Black Scorpion and the ease with which he fielded questions. That day he read a few pages of the book he was writing. His communicating power was sharp and concise, expressed in true English idioms. He queried why I was not availing myself at his service for the preparation of the book. His elder brother came in and they spoke Hausa.

Adekunle said so much that day to enrich that report which earned Chris Okolie, the publisher, two weeks in detention. It was titled, Harvest of Generals. Journalists of my days suffered no complex reaching top public officers because they could trust us and would give valuable tips of happenings in the closets. And we were also curious reporters with the nose for news. I had no barriers meeting top officers and officials in office and at home. There was mutual respect. Adekunle was down-to-earth and believed in the “do-it-yourself” doctrine. That may be part of their excellent military training because it helped Gowon after office.

Adekunle told me that his family and Gowon’s were close. It pained him that they turned Gowon against him. I helped to push his car many times when it broke down. He was a restless human being who believed in action and result. That was why he successfully cleared the backlog at Apapa ports with alacrity, Bamanga Tukur by his side. In Yola when Bamanga Tukur was gunning for Gongola’s governorship, Adekunle told his friend, “Hold these fellows well. They made me and they brought me down.” He was talking of the press, Eddie Aderinokun and I, being present in the inner caucus of Tukur’s machine. We should allow sleeping dogs to lie because he told me how he got the scar in his face from a bayonet attack by a junior officer at Makurdi while leading northern troops from the East to the North after the July 29, 1966 coup. Lieutenant General Gibson Jallo was his competent aide on that trip.

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