Witness of the troubles


Last Thursday, I finally got my copies of My Dialogue With Nigeria, the compilation of articles, interviews and reminiscences of Lt. General Ipoola Alani Akinrinade who retired from the Nigerian Army at 42. My friend, Kole Omololu, the organising secretary of Afenifere, had purchased two copies for me during the public presentation of the book in Lagos many weeks ago. The book editor is Soji Akinrinade, who was our General Editor in the newsroom of the old Newswatch. He was later elevated to the position of Executive Director and then Editor-in-Chief. He has done us a great favour by getting General Akinrinade to agree to publish this book.

For half-century, Akinrinade has been part of the Nigerian story. The book, My Dialogue With Nigeria, is the next best thing to a full memoir that we are still expecting from the reticent general. Reading this book makes you to understand why the general has been reluctant to write or to encourage anyone to write his story, especially about the Civil War.

There are simply too many ghosts, many of them angry and sorrowful, on the parts of the Nigerian journey. Both General Olusegun Obasanjo, Akinrinade’s former commander in the famous Third Marine Commandoes Division and Brigadier-General Alabi Isama, his old colleagues, have treated Akinrinade with affectionate reference in their books. In Obasanjo’s book, My Command and in Isama’s counter-book, Tragedy of Victory, both men virtually called Akinrinade as their witness, especially Isama.

In his 76 years on earth, Akinrinade had been many things: soldier, farmer, pro-democracy activist and minister of the Republic and he once served as the acting military governor of Western State, but nothing defines his career and public profile likes his military odyssey. He joined the army at 21 in 1960 and before the end of the decade, he was already one of the deciders of our country’s fate. He was trained at the Nigerian Military College, Kaduna, 1960 before moving on to Sandhurst Military Academy the same year completing his course in 1962. When he finished from the United States Army Infantry School, Fort Benning in 1966, he was stepping straight onto history’s center stage. He was a major at the age of 27.

Akinrinade belonged to a well-known family in Yakoyo, near Ile-Ife. Femi, his nephew was my classmate at Ife Anglican Grammar School. The patriarch of the family use to come to our school occasionally in an old Mercedes-Benz car. He was reputed to be one of the wealthiest of many Ife cocoa merchants of those days. Ife had been a fiery centre of the social upheaval that greeted the controversial victory of the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP, in the Western regional election of 1965. Then Ife was in the grip of a war of attrition with the forces loyal to the Action Group, AG, of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and those of the NNDP of the Premier, Chief Ladoke Akintola, pitted against each other on a daily basis. The AG team was led by the boisterous grassroots politician, Baba Pedro, while the NNDP leader was the deputy-premier, the self-confessed fascist, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode. By the time Chief Awolowo was released from Calabar Prisons in 1966, people of the Western Region were tired of war.

It was at this period that Akinrinade and his colleagues were drafted into war. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who was appointed military governor of the Eastern Region, by the late head of state, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, was at odd with the new regime in Lagos over the massacre of mostly Easterners in the Northern Region. He grew a beard as a sign of protest and by July 1967 proclaimed his region the independent Republic of Biafra. A last minute shuttle by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and a delegation of do-gooders, to prevail on Ojukwu to sheath his sword failed.

Akinrinade was one of the first Federal soldiers to see action. He was a commander in the 2nd Division led by the tempestuous Colonel Murtala Muhammed during the ill-fated battle to take Onitsha by frontal assault. After a third attempt and the loss of 2000 men in battle Akinrinade angrily left the front when Muhammed would not heed advice to review strategy. The military headquarters thanked him for his courage and gave Akinrinade the command of another brigade in Bonny as part of the 3rd Marine Commandoes Division.

It was in the 3rd Marine that Akinrinade was to get into conflict and cooperation with the legendary Black Scorpion, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, the division’s first General Officer Commanding. It was when he was commanding the 15th Brigade that his soldiers captured one Azuatalam, a Biafran officer who was barely out of his teenage years. In one single battle, the battalion, commanded by the late Major Makanjuola, lost more than 200 men and it was Azuatalam, a daring sniper, who was responsible for many of these deaths. They took the young POW (Prisoner of War) to the GOC. Akinrinade and Makanjuola told Adekunle that this boy was simply too gifted to be allowed to go. Therefore Adekunle talked to Gowon on the issue and Azuatalam, the Biafran, was admitted into the Nigerian Army and sent to Sandhurst for training. He later retired early with the rank of captain.

The war front was a field of heroism and death. That was where the likes of Isaac Adaka Boro and his old collaborator, Nottingham Dick, both now officers of the Nigerian Army, met their death. Indeed, death was having a bountiful harvest, aided by impetuous decisions by the leading commander, the legendary Adekunle. “The problem with Adekunle was that he was a very tired man,” said Akinrinade in the one of the interviews recorded in this enthralling book. “He had done well but he was getting tired. The law of diminishing returns had set in and was getting a little bit irrational.”

Akinrinade, Alabi Isama Ayo Ariyo and several of his other leading commanders wanted Adekunle to change strategies. The Black Scorpion would not budge. When they gave him a written advice about strategies, he threw it in their face. Akinrinade said he had had enough and moved to Lagos. One day, Gowon summoned him from the small chalet he was occupying at Takwa Bay in Lagos. In Doddan Barracks, he met with all the red-cap chiefs of the Gowon government. Present were the likes of Rear Admiral Akinwale Wey, General David Ejoor, General Hassan Usman Katsina, Theophillous Fagbola, the deputy Inspector General of Police and others. Gowon presided. Their decision: Akinrinade must go back to the war front.

But the High Command was faced with a stubborn man. Akinrinade insisted that he would not go back to the front unless Adekunle was removed. Based on Akinrinade’s suggestion, they decided to send Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, who as commander of the Second Rear Division in Ibadan, had played a leading role in the battle of Ore that signaled the defeat of the Biafran forces from the Mid-West. It was an historic decision. Obasanjo was different from Adekunle. He was a methodical strategist who preferred small victories to the spectacular forays so favoured by Adekunle. Mistakes were made and thousands of young men were sent home in body bags. Thousands more were buried on the battlefields scattered in the forests of today’s Abia, Imo, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Akwa-Ibom and Cross Rivers states.

By January 1970, Colonel Akinrinade, 30, was the commander of operation for the 3rd Marine. He had moved his headquarters to Owerri the former capital of Ojukwu. One night, one of his officers came and said the rebel High Command wanted to meet with the GOC of 3rd Marine to discuss surrender. Soon, General Achuzia of the Biafran Army was led in. It was around 5 a.m. After preliminary discussion, Achuzia said he would take Akinrinade to where the rebel high command was waiting. So they drove to Amichi where many of the top commanders of the Biafran Army were in conclave. Among the coterie were three old classmates of Akinrinade: Ben Gbulie, Iheadigbo and Nwakwo. Soon the party met with General Phillip Effiong, the new Biafran head of state after Ojukwu fled into exile.

With the new development, Obasanjo was asked to come from Port Harcourt to accept the formal surrender of the Biafran High Command. A speech was drafted for Effiong to broadcast on Radio Biafra announcing the surrender and shortly after Obasanjo also made a short broadcast. Then Radio Biafra was silenced forever. On January 13, 1970, Obasanjo led the former rebel commanders to Gowon in Doddan Barracks for the formal surrender ceremony. None of the other field commanders; Murtala Muhammed, Benjamin Adekunle, Mohammed Shuwa, Ibrahim Haruna, Illya Bissala, was present. Akinrinade said they were not invited and they were not aware of the ceremony.

We too are waiting for Akinrinade’s invitation for the presentation of his memoir. In 1979, when he was made the Chief of Army Staff, he was only 39. Before this, he had been the GOC of the 1st Division in Kaduna. At 41, with the rank of lieutenant-general, he retired from the army as the Chief of Defence Staff. Since then, he has been busy, as a farmer, a businessman and a chieftain of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, during the military regime of General Sani Abacha, one of his old subordinates. So he has a story to tell. This new book is only a snippet of the story.

So Akinrinade has not given us The Book. He owes us because he has a duty to posterity. That is a debt that he needs to pay. Nonetheless, MY Dialogue With Nigeria provides a rare insight into the mind of a man of profound humanity and grace, a great warrior who knows the horror of war, a patriot who knows the pains of nation building and now a patriarch who is afraid that we have not heeded the lessons of experience earned at a terrible cost. There are simply too many old ghosts to appease and many of them are still roaming and groaning in the forests of old battlefields.

In this article:
Ipoola Alani Akinrinade
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