Yesterday we brought you excerpts detailing how two key operatives of 3MCD, Majors Fashola and Isaac Adaka Boro were killed during the march on Port Harcourt. You also read of how the Garden City was captured, emotional problems in Adekunle’s command which led to unravelling of the division and the OAU attack which claimed the life of Lt Col Philemon Shande. READ ON.
Adekunle ar rived once again from Lagos to Port Harcourt. Owerri situation, as noted, was already a disaster; and Adekunle sent for Akinrinade and I, to report at Port Harcourt at 7am. That was most difficult indeed, as I had to leave Uyo not later than midnight to arrive Port Harcourt at 7am. We did not have even a full day’s notice; otherwise, we would have gone to stay the night at Port Harcourt or at Akinrinade’s place at Asa, which was about three to four hours drive to Port Harcourt. My situation was worse, as I had to drive at night without headlights for fear of vehicle movements being detected by Biafran troops or stragglers or an ambush party on the way. So, I left at midnight and passed through areas where I had troops and their commanders from Uyo through Etinan, Ekeffe, and Akwette to Obigbo and to Asa to pick up Akinriande.
I got to Asa at about 4am. All the commanders’ enroute had sent their pass words to Akinrinade and me to be able to pass through their road blocks at night. Adekunle did not think at all about the implications of ordering us to arrive at 7a.m. in the morning. Otherwise, it was premeditated for us to have an accident. Akinrinade and I had two land rovers full of escorts each, all battle-ready. I had an old Mercedes Benz car which I bought at Uyo from one of Justice Ntia’s friends which I drove to pick Akinrinade up with. The man needed the money to pay his daughter’s school fees in Ibadan.
We set off at about 4.15am and headed to Port Harcourt without the headlights. However as we drove, the Mercedes car’s bonnet snapped open and almost shattered the windscreen. We stopped and put it right. It did the same thing after about another mile drive. We stopped again, and put it right, and in order not to get to Port Harcourt late, we thought that we should abandon the car and get into any of the Landover vehicles. Akinrinade was in the front vehicle and I was in the fourth at the back. We got to Port Harcourt at exactly five minutes to 7am; Adekunle was by the operational RS 301 radio.
With him was a Lagos musician called Roy Chicago. When we showed up at his office, he was shocked and sat up. He asked how we got to Port Harcourt. I wondered what type of question that was, since he was the one that ordered us to arrive Port Harcourt at 7am which he knew was difficult as we had to drive through enemy areas at night without our headlights on. Also, because there were no airports at Aba or Uyo, we had to come by road. We both thought that he had changed his mind, and that we were going to discuss Operations Pincer 1, 2 and 3 and since it was a weekend, we had civil dresses in our box. Roy Chicago kept saying “Please, do not quarrel;” I was not sure what he was talking about.
However, Adekunle became restless and was chain smoking. Within minutes, he had lit about three or four cigarettes. Then he gathered himself together and said, well fine, I will talk to you one by one, and then ordered that Akinrinade should stay outside while he talked to me first. So, Akinrinade went out and stood by the door. Barely a minute after, Adekunle was yet to say a word when Akinrinade kicked the door open and said we should get out of there fast. He showed me a note written by Capt. Richard, the Military Police commander who was at the head of an ambush party. He had been ordered to ambush our vehicles with a view to killing both of us.
Apparently, it was just about 200 yards away from the corner where the ambush was laid that my car was abandoned. The ambush party was waiting to attack the Mercedes Benz car which they were sure we would be traveling in. The motorcyclist that Richard sent with the note to me at Uyo missed me because I left at midnight and he got there at 4am, at which time I had reached Akinrinade’s HQ at Asa. Then the ambush party missed us because they were expecting a Mercedes Benz to pass by. That was why, in retrospect, Adekunle asked how we got to Port Harcourt; he was waiting by the RS 301 radio for reports of our deaths.
The note from Capt. Richard just simply said that we should not pass by Asa railway line on our way to Port Harcourt because an ambush had been laid to kill both of us. Adekunle had guessed right that we would both be in the car to Port Harcourt. When Akinrinade showed me the note, I was just short of shooting Adekunle dead.
Akinrinade then asked him why he wanted to kill us after all we had done. We both just walked out with our maps and the many books we had carried for discussions with him. With our escorts, we drove as if we were heading back to our stations. After about 30 minutes drive, we ordered the escorts to go back in three of the four vehicles, and we traveled in one of the vehicles to the airport at Port Harcourt.
We were lucky that a flight, a DC-3, had just arrived with ammunition and supplies and was just about going back to Lagos. We jumped into the flight and headed for Lagos. We changed to civil dress and removed our uniforms. Then at Lagos airport some soldiers came and asked Akinrinade if Lt. Cols Alabi Isama and Akinrinade were on the flight, I just walked passed him and the soldiers. There Akinrinade told them that he was a contractor that went to supply gari to troops at Port Harcourt, and that many more people in uniform were still in the plane. When he caught up with me, we double-marched and took a taxi and went to my mother’s place in Palm Grove in Lagos and picked up a car to General Hassan Usman Katsina the Chief of Staff (Army) and from there to General Gowon in Dodan Barracks. It was on the eve of General Gowon’s marriage.
General Gowon was very kind indeed; he gave us time to discuss with him despite the goings-on with people coming and going in preparation for his wedding. He spoke well and ordered that for safety, we should be taken to the Tarqua Bay on the Atlantic Coast by boat until he will contact us. We left him and the other senior officers there-Admiral Wey, General Ekpo and Gen. Hassan who later came to join us at Dodan Barracks read the note from Capt. Richard, which was the note warning us about the ambush. What I still could not understand till date was my offence to this officer, who was not only my boss; he was my friend and brother. I called him “Egbon mi”, meaning my elder brother.
The Alabi-Isama and Adekunle families were very close friends before the war. He also had assisted in clearing the Biafrans out of Kwale area which was my father’s area, and where I had obtained the chiefs letter of support for the Federal Government. Adekunle also sent food to my mother through Captains Ilori and Aliyu at Utagba-Uno when he heard that my mother was there. He detailed Lt. Rabo to keep a section of 10 soldiers to guard my family at Utagba Uno when the Biafrans attacked the town. Lt. Rabo knew my mother very well at Zaria NMS; Rabo was one of my 1962 military school recruits. When I finally got home and told my mother, she could not believe that Adekunle did that to us, my mother having just left him about a couple of days earlier.
This story was finally confirmed by Adekunle himself when Akinrinade became Chief of Army Staff. I had been thrown out of the Army by that time, and I was living abroad when Adekunle went to pay a courtesy call on Akinrinade at the Flag Staff House in Ikoyi. He did not deny that he wanted us killed at the war front. At least, he was honest enough to confess that to Akinrinade. “But why?” Akinrinade had asked him. The man was not sure why. Combat stress does strange things. The question was why did he want our parents to cry? Akinrinade asked him. It was later on that Akinrinade told me about Adekunle’s visit and the discussions between both of them.
Exit Adekunle, enter Obasanjo
General Gowon’s marriage ceremony had ended. Army Headquarters then focused on the problem created by our escape to Lagos from the 3MCDO war front. We had been armed with the failed ambush warning note from Capt. Richard, on the strength of which Akinrinade and I had requested to be posted out of 3MCDO.
Both of us had been in the war front non-stop from October 1967 until the failed ambush incident in April 1969, almost stretched to the limit by war effort activities on a daily basis. Of all my experiences at the war front the most heart-rending was talking to a dying soldier. To hook into the emotions of the man as the life drained from him at the same time as he enquired about his mother, wife, children and other loved ones, was to feel the pain of death and suffer along with the dying soldier. It sapped one’s energy, but that is hardly any reason for us to deserve death by ambush either, especially from what we would call friendly fire from the bullet of the tax payers of my country, and not from enemy fire. The country that I had served so creditably.
So when the decision was taken by AHQ to replace Adekunle as a result of the series of crises that culminated in the failed ambush, it affected all the other divisional commanders as well. Prior to these events, Adekunle had became so popular with the entire people of Nigeria, he had assumed the status of hero of the Civil War; which made the decision to replace him a difficult one for Gen Gowon.