I do not want to see any Red Cross, and Caritas, any World Council of Churches, any Poe, any Mission, or any United Nations Delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo having even one piece to eat before their capitulation.
--Major Benjamin Adekunle. The Economist(London) August 14, 1968.
Research by this writer reveals that ever before Benjamin Adekunle, who died this month—September 2014—of natural causes after a protracted illness, uttered the excerpt above to the World Press in 1968 as “one of the most notorious of the genocidist commanders in southern Igboland” (Ekwe-Ekwe, 2014) during Nigeria’s genocidal war against Biafra, he was not just an individual who woke up one morning and suddenly found himself in a situation of duty that compelled him to play a circumstantial role that happened to impact the Igbo adversely.
In the rapidly shifting scheme of events in the Nigeria project during the period that commenced with the termination of de facto British rule on October 1, 1960, the first time in the research for this piece that a young Benjamin Adekunle was encountered was in May 1966.
This was right after the May promotions in the Nigerian Army, which the Major-General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi-headed military regime that had just been in power for barely five months seemingly embarked upon to consolidate its delicate hold on state power and to of course placate the north and its ruling feudalist establishment over the death of their prominent politicians and personalities in the January 15, 1966 coup d’état.
As it turned out, in the super-charged atmosphere that arose then and has sustained in varied forms in the Nigeria project ever since, that promotion exercise, which “Under normal circumstances…would not have raised eyebrows” became an excuse for the hateful to let mayhem loose on the Igbo.
Although it “could be justified on the basis of merit and correcting the anomaly of deserving officers that had been passed over for promotion in the past …”, still, it “was interpreted as favoring Igbos (sic)”.
Benjamin Adekunle, then a major, and three others—Olusegun Obasanjo, Oluwole Rotimi, and Emmanuel Sotomi—who all happened to be Yoruba were by-passed in that promotion exercise. But that was not the first time when promotions in the officer corps had not favored some officers.
For instance, in 1964, when Yakubu Gowon, then a major was promoted to the rank of a lieutenant-colonel, his “course mates at Sandhurst—Alexander Madiebo, Patrick Anwunah, AnthonyEze, and Michael Okwechima—all Igbo were passed by and no eyebrows were raised.
Although, a significant number of the 21 officers who benefited in the May 1966 promotion exercise were Igbo, clarity remains that: “several majors were promoted to acting lt.-colonel and some others were promoted substantive lt-colonels”.
Those of them who were in the latter category, were prior to the coup d’état, “already acting lt-colonels, and simply had their temporary/acting ranks confirmed”.
Another reality worthy of mention is that although the Igbo predominated the officer corps especially the middle rank of major at the time, it was an ‘advantage’ that accrued to the Igbo by default:
‘The imminent end of de facto colonial rule forced the British who needed to replace the all-British officer corps with indigenous men, to alter their recruitment policy into the colonial military forces in the Nigeria project beginning from the 1950s to look for qualified indigenous men with the requisite Western educational qualifications.
They found them mostly in the nationalities that inhabit the lower Niger areas, especially amongst the Igbo. Since the Yoruba had not yet over-come their age-old aversion for enlistment and participation in the colonial military forces over the latter’s excesses during the course of colonial conquest and subjugation, even though the British on their part deemed the Igbo unsuitable colonial subjects due to their exceptional democratic social authority patterns, the prevalent acute military manpower pressure left the British no other viable option than the recruitment of the well qualified Igbo young men who presented themselves for recruitment.
As for the Igbo, this writer observed elsewhere that: “Ahead in Western education, and being a nationality in which the individual is free in society to embark on pursuits for personal advancement without first securing the approval of the ruling elite, the Igbo quickly took advantage of the window of opportunity which opened in the officer corps and enlisted in record numbers.
In 1956 and in 1960 when colonial ended, 68% of the officer corps was composed of the Igbo”. In contrast, only 17% and 14% respectively were from nationalities in the north and the Yoruba.
Furthermore, due to the preponderance of men from the nationalities that inhabit the upper Niger in the junior ranks of the officer corps, and the non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks, that promotion exercise benefited the north and its political establishment in the main.
One researcher puts it quite succinctly: “Conversely, most junior officers and NCOs were Northerners and the primary beneficiaries of the promotion exercise in the junior ranks were logically also Northerners. The promoted Northern soldiers included Theophilus Danjuma,Muhammadu Buhari, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, AbdullahiShelleng, Ibrahim Bako, Muhammadu Jega, Garba Dada (“Paiko”) and Paul Tarfa. Strangely there were no complaints about the preponderance of Northern promotions in this category. All eyes remained formed on the Igbo majors promoted to lt.-colonel. A group of Northern air force cadets were also dismissed due to their underwhelming educational achievements. The exercise seemed to be part of a broader leaning by Aguiy-Ironsi away from quota towards more merit based system” (p. 92).
Of the five northerners who were promoted—MurtalaMohammed, Joe Akahan, Hassan Katsina, and MohammedShuwa were the most generously favored: “The promotion to lt.-colonel of Murtala [Muhammed], Shuwa and Haruna was particularly generous because at the time of the promotions, all three were only substantive captains (holding temporary ranks as majors) yet they were promoted to lt.-colonel”.
So then, it turned out that in a time space of just a few months, the next phase was being readied to pounce yet again on the Igbo who Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe described as “the world’s most brutally targeted and most viciously murdered of peoples” with deadly, wanton orchestrated political violence.
As those heady days unfolded further, the next time that Major Adekunle is encountered in the thick of the tragic events that aimed at spilling innocent Igbo blood was late in the wee-hours of July 29 in Enugwu, Igboland, which was also the regional capital of the then Eastern Region where the army’s 1stBattalion was based. He was the deputy to the Igbo battalion commander, Lt.-colonel David Ogunewe.
The revolt and targeted massacre of Igbo officers and other ranks in all the army formations, which was systematically planned by MurtalaMuhammed, Theophilus Danjuma and a host of other officers from nationalities in the upper Niger, had already commenced in the Abeokuta Garrison late in the night of the previous day.
It had spread to Lagos and Ibadan, the capital of the Western Region where Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host, the military governor of the Region, Lt.-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyihad been abducted from the State House by northern soldiers under Theophilus Danjuma’s command.
Lt. Colonel YakubuGowon’s infamous telephone call from Lagos to the State House, Ibadan had, according to Theophilus Danjuma, been made and coincidentally taken by Dajanjuma himself and the following conversion had ensued between them:
Gowon: “Hello I want to speak to the brigade commander. I want to speak to Colonel Njoku.”
Danjuma: “May I know who is speaking?”
Gowon: “My name is Gowon. Yakubu Gowon.”
Danjuma: “Ranka dede.” This is Yakubu Danjuma.”
Gowon: “Yakubu. What are you doing there? Where are you?”
Danjuma: “I am in the State House here.”
Gowon: “Where is the brigade commander?”
Danjuma: “He is not around.”
Gowon: “Have you heard what has happened?”
Danjuma: “Yes. I heard and that is why I am here. We are about to arrest the Supreme Commander. The alternative is that the Igbo boys who carried out the January coup will be released tit for tat since we killed their own officer[s].”
Gowon (after a long pause). Can you do it?”
Danjuma: “Yes. We have got the place surrounded.”
Gowon: “Alright but for goodness sake we have had enough bloodshed. There must be no bloodshed.”
Danjuma: “No. We are only going to arrest him.”
What illogical meaning would any reasonable person readinto the chummy-chummy conversation between YakubuGowon, a lieutenant-colonel, and Chief of Army Staff at the time and Theophilus Danjuma, a junior officer who wasevidently caught red handed in the course committing a grievous offense?
The “Can you do it?” and “Alright…” clearly constitute a ‘go ahead’, while the “…but for goodness sake we have had enough bloodshed” is a worrisome after thought.
What would a junior officer who surrounded the location of his Supreme Commander with unidentified and armed soldiers and proclaim that they were “only going to arrest him” without explaining to the superior officer—who never bothered to ask—where he would take the former to, do with him after he does?
Take him to a picnic? The world has since that horrible dayknown that it was not what happened. Furthermore, it is incontrovertible that even Yakubu Gowon himself is implicated from that outset in the phases of the Igbo genocide that took place in the period, 1967-1970. Back to Benjamin Adekunle.
In Enugwu where Adekunle is encountered again in those stream of events, not much is heard about him even though quite a lot can be gleaned from the stream of events to implicate him in the genocide of the Igbo during the time.
In the 1st Battalion, there is a Captain Baba Usman, a northerner in the army intelligence unit who Murtala Muhammed and his gang designated to spearhead their assault on Igbo officers and men inEnugwu. But as fate would have it, Usman was in faraway city of Aba that night.
His absence deprived his fellow northern officers in the battalion of the catalytic leadership they needed to swing into action after they dressed up and got themselves ready. Ogunewe was quick to deploy his able crisis management skills right after he was alerted by the fabled distress telephone calls from a Lt. Ogbonna in the Abeokuta Garrison.
That, coupled with Usman’s God-sent absence from base, put Ogunewe ahead of the genocidists: “Ogunewe found Northern soldiers inn his battalion (including Captain GibsonJalo and Lieutenants Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, M. D. Jega and A. A. Abubakar) dressed in combat fatigues and readying themselves to commence an assault in Enugu.
Using all his persuasive powers, he managed to convince them to hand over the armory keys and negotiated a tense but effective truce with Northern soldiers”. That, not withstanding, MurtalaMuhammed’s repeated signals to his fellow northerners still galvanized some of them who still “attempted to break into the Enugu armory but were overpowered”.
As the spilling of innocent Igbo blood sustained, was it by happenstance that when Yoruba officers felt so ‘concerned for their safety’ and “sent a delegation consisting of Lt.-Colonel Obasanjo, Major Oluleye and Captains Akinfenwa and Timothy B. Ogundeko to the Northern Region’s military governor Lt.-Colonel Katsina, to report their fears” (p. 132), not Benjamin Adekunle whose father is Yoruba from Ogbomosho and mother is Bachama; a nationality in the upper Niger, not Emmanuel Abisoye, not David Jemibewon and the other Yoruba officers from northern Yorubaland, which was part of the then Northern Region were included?
The tenor, i.e. his complicity in the wanton wastage of innocent Igbo lives, of the narrative remained the same when next Benjamin Adekunle is encountered: As “the deputy commander of the 1st battalion in Enugu… [w]hen a decisionwas made to repatriate army officers [and rank and file] to their regions of origin, Adekunle and Northern soldiers in his unit (sic) were to leave Enugu and head first to Kaduna, and then to Lagos.
Simultaneously a group of surviving Igbo soldiers that had been detained in Kaduna prison for their safety were to be repatriated to Enugu via Lagos. When they were released for transportation by train to Enugu, Adekunle promised them safe passage to Lagos from where they could then proceed to Enugu.
Northern soldiers in Adekunle’s battalion and the Igbo soldiers were placed on the same train. Some Northern soldiers having long been frustrated at their inability to kill Igbo thus far, finally got their opportunity. They descended upon the Igbo soldiers, killed them and threw their bodies off the train.
For promising safe passage to the Igbo soldiers, Adekunle too was attacked, but was saved by the intervention of Captain Jalo. Although his father was a Yoruba from Ogbomosho, Adekunle’s mother was like Jalo, from the Bachama ethnic group of the Northern Region”.
Think of it: Major Benjamin Adekunle, the deputy battalion commander was simply ‘attacked’ by the same northern soldiers from his battalion, on the same train, who ‘descended on Igbo soldiers, killed them and threw their bodies off the train…but was saved’ by Gibson Jalo whose mother and BenjaminAdekunle’s mother are from the Bachama nationality in the upper Niger. For full disclosure, this is the same CaptainGibson Jalo of the Ist Battalion who was encountered on the night of July 29 when he was dressed in combat attire with other northerner officers ‘and readying themselves to commence an assault in Enugu’ to massacre Igbo officers and other ranks in the army.
As battlefield commander, Benjamin Adekunle projected such unparalleled ruthlessness from the very onset of the genocidal war against Biafra that earned him notoriety and theghoulish moniker, ‘Black Scorpion’.
He had no qualms looking the World Press in the eyes in 1968 in southern Igboland where he gave a press conference and proclaimed the following as the London-based weekly, The Economist reported in its 24 August 1968 issue: “I want to prevent even one Ibo having even one piece to eat before their capitulation”. In the same story in The Economist, he expressed what is best termed his combat conduct mantra being: “We shoot at everything, even at things that don’t move”.
Could such an individual with such checkered antecedence have cultivated such hatred against the Igbo overnight? He was Yakubu Gowon’s only battlefield commander in that war who was quietly removed from command and sidelined into private life and made to forfeit every opportunity to have the access to enrich himself as an actor in successive military and non-military regimes in the Nigeria project.
Benjamin Adekunle’s mortal sin could probably have been his loud mouth, which enabled him to get account of his atrocities perpetrated on the Igbo to the World Press in his own words.
Others—including Murtala Muhammed who was implicated in the massacre of Asabamales, and even Olusegun Obasanjo who personally outed himself in his 1981 war memoir, My Command over the downing of one of the clearly marked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) small civilian aircrafts that ferried relief supplies to starving Biafran women and children by Gbadamosi King on his orders on June 5—who kept mute over their own atrocities faired quite better.
The last encounter with Benjamin Adekunle is this time right after he passed away. From newspaper reports, in his last days, he experienced what he inflicted on the Igbo as battlefield commander: He could not even get enough to eat or with which he could seek adequate medical attention anywhere descent in the West.
His children scrapped around from his few benefactors for just enough to ferry him to India for the third-rate type of medical treatment that flourish over there in backyard hospitals and clinics. Perhaps the Bible is right on the mark when it intones: The measure you give, will be the measure you will reap.
Professor EC Ejiogu was with the Centre for Africa Studies at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is the author of the paradigm-changing, The Roots of Political Instability in Nigeria: Political Evolution and Development in the Niger Basin(Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2011).