Many reports, books, accounts and testimonies have been written about the late Commander of the Third Marine Commandos, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, and his exploits during the Nigeria civil war of 1967-70. These stories, told by actors, historians, colleagues and even family members paint different shades of the man, who was later to be known as the Black Scorpion. Without doubt, Adekunle remains the most controversial figure during the war.
Accounts of his escapades, bravery, fearlessness, brutality and sometimes, savagery have been told from both the Nigerian side and from secessionist Biafra’s perspective. Surprisingly, Adekunle, who passed away, last week, at the age of 78, did not write his memoirs on a war he was overwhelming a major player.
The only attempt made in this regard was the effort of his son, Abiodun Adekunle, in 2004, to publish some of his father’s letters and correspondences during the war along with some personal inputs by this father in The Nigeria Biafra War Letters- A Soldier’s Story.
In this work, the younger Adekunle tried to paint the picture of a humane father. The book also sought to portray him as a nationalist executing an order bestowed on him by his fatherland. Though the author said he used the book to refute some long standing historical misconceptions about his father which, over the years, had grown to assume the status of historical fact, he made it clear that the story was not entirely from the horse’s mouth. He said the project was compiled from discussions with his father and research into the late army officer’s personal records. The book also drew from other accounts of the war as recorded by Adekunle’s colleagues.
In a May 2004 interview with Bowker Magazine, the author told Richard Lorenzo that his father never shared his experiences during the war with his family.
“My father never shared any of his experiences during the war with me. Everything I know about the war and his participation in it I have derived from research by sorting through his personal records. Now, I don’t mean we never talked about this. Usually after I had read an account by someone else and required more insight or his perspective, he would give that. But sharing war stories at dinner was not a tradition I grew up with. I think he did that intentionally with us to create some distance with the controversy of the war policies and the controversial figure he became.
The controversy that clung to Adekunle during his military career, especially the war period, still trails him in death. Last week, as the National Assembly resumed hearing after a long recess, a call by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, for the House to observe a minute’s silence for the late war hero was met with stiff opposition by some lawmakers from the South-East. They were of the view that the actions of the deceased during the war were inglorious and undeserving of any national recognition.
Many Nigerians of Igbo extraction have not forgotten about his perceived hatred for their people, especially his outburst in an August 1968 interview with Randolph Baumann of Stern magazine. He reportedly said, “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary, no United Nations delegation. I want to prevent even one Igbo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shot at everything that moved, and when our troops moved into the centre of Igbo territory, we shot at everything; even those that did not move.”
Before the emergence of written accounts of the war by some actors started appearing, Adekunle was regarded as perhaps the most popular officer that prosecuted the war. His battle exploits and myths surrounding his prowess were reported all over the world by the international media. Also, his penchant for giving foreign journalists statements reverberated across newsrooms all over the world and made him the most sought after commander prosecuting the war.
According to the November 3, 1967 edition of the New York Times, when the Third Marine Commandos stormed Calabar, Adekunle asked the newspaper’s correspondent to announce to the world that soldiers under his command were more than Barbarians.
“We are just a people fighting for freedom, fighting to keep our country one,” he insisted.
His face represented the warlord; Nigerians saw him as the man at the war front, trying through thick and thin to restore the unity of the country after the political crisis which culminated into the war. He was seen as a hero to the Nigerian side at the time, and an exterminator and brutal killer by the people of Biafra. To some of his colleagues in the army, he was seen as an ambitious officer who had a political ace up his sleeve.
They believed he was using the war as a platform to realise this ‘selfish’ objective.
Adekunle was retired from the army in 1974. Ten years after the war ended, the first account of the inside story from some actors that fought the war came from former head of state, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who coincidentally took over command of the Third Marine Commando which was organised, built and even christened by Adekunle.
In My Command, Obasanjo’s 1980 account of the civil war, his first mention of Adekunle was as a mutinous commander who wanted to kill some Igbo officers who were being evacuated from the North after the first coup of 1966. This action, he claimed, happened after an ad hoc conference of the representatives of the regions called on August 1966 in Lagos, where the Supreme Commander recommended that military personnel be posted to barracks within their respective regions of origin in order to stop the killings of the Igbo within the North.
He went further to hint on Adekunle’s alleged zeal to use the war for personal political influence. Obasanjo wrote that after the commandos captured Obubra in present-day Cross River State, Adekunle issued orders for an advance to Port Harcourt. When the objective was achieved, Adekunle saw the conquest as a means to build up his profile for future political exploits.