Encounters with Black Scorpion

THE SUN Newspaper

His fame had preceded him by many decades before I had the privilege of meeting him. And there was that particular story (fable is a better word) I’d heard about Nigerian Civil War hero, Benjamin Adekunle, popularly called Black Scorpion, which stuck in my memory.

I was a tender primary schoolboy when that internecine war ended in 1970, and it was in Primary 3 that I had a teacher called Mr Falode, an Ijesa man. One day, he decided to tell us about the man called Black Scorpion.

Now, when Mr Falode talked, woe betides the pupil who did not pay attention. Willy-nilly, you must listen, as there was no teacher who wielded the cane with as much dexterity as Falode. His whip was like the sting of scorpion. So, if he talked, and you were not following, and he asked a question midstream and you couldn’t answer, it was simply a bad day for you. Bad? The worst day, really!

Mr Falode was telling us about the battle for Ore, during the Nigerian Civil War, which had ended only three years earlier. Ore, in present Ondo State, was like the entry point from the East to the Southwest, and to Lagos, the then seat of the Federal Government. Biafran forces, according to Mr Falode, had laid siege to Ore, and a fierce battle ensued with the Federal forces. It was war at its toughest, and it lasted for many days. If Biafra won, then a march to Lagos was inexorable, and the war would be over. Both sides knew it, so they threw everything into the encounter. There is a saying in Yoruba today: O le ku, ija Ore. Translated freely, it means ‘as tough as the battle for Ore.’ That saying is legacy the civil war gave to the Yoruba language. If you fight a yeoman’s battle over anything, then it is said to be as tough as the battle for Ore.

But back to Mr Falode: the Biafran forces had the upper hand in the battle for Ore, had almost routed the Federal forces, and were advancing towards Ijebu Ode, and from there to Lagos. They were in an armoured tank, trundling on, when they met a very old man, bent double on his walking stick. The very old man greeted them, and they used the opportunity to ask for directions. The man obliged. As they moved further, the man crept under the armoured tank, struck a match, and set the fighting machine ablaze. That was how all the Biafran soldiers perished, and the old man transformed into a young man again. He was Benjamin Adekunle, the Black Scorpion.

Adekunle, according to our teacher, had mythical powers. He could suddenly transform into a small boy if he wanted, or even change himself into an Ibo man, who would infiltrate the Biafran camp to gather information. In our impressionable minds, the Black Scorpion virtually won the war for Nigeria single-handedly. Well, apart from the fact that the story titillated us, we had to believe Mr Falode whether we liked it or not, lest he stung us like scorpion.

Our teacher told the story in 1973, I met Adekunle 20 years later. I was a senior writer with the Weekend Concord, and President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida had just booked his way into infamy by annulling the presidential election held on June 12, 1993, won by Basorun M.K.O Abiola. Tension suffused the land like a diabolic cloak. Would Nigeria go to war again? Will she survive a second civil war? I was in the office that afternoon when the phone rang. The man at the other end introduced himself: “This is Benjamin Adekunle, the Black Scorpion.” I screamed, remembering the other scorpion called Falode, and the stories he had told us.

Brigadier Adekunle told me he was around Ikeja, when he saw soldiers in trucks, driving in the direction of M.K.O Abiola’s house. Did we have any information whether the man had been arrested or not?

I said there was no information like that. And he muttered something like: “Bullets will fly in this country again.” He then gave me his phone number, asking me to call if I had any information for him on Abiola.

Few days later, I was in Adekunle’s Surulere, Lagos home. How did it happen? My colleague and friend in Weekend Concord then, Shola Oshunkeye, had gone to interview the Black Scorpion on the June 12 crisis, and had broached the idea of doing an Adekunle biography. The man agreed. And because I had read widely on the Nigerian Civil War (plus Mr Falode’s apocryphal stories), Oshunkeye asked that I join him to conduct interviews that would culminate into a book on our civil war hero. I was more than willing to oblige.

For weeks running to months, we had many interview sessions with the Black Scorpion, during which he brought out maps and charts to illustrate the story of the war. He smoked like a chimney, and drank as if Star lager was going out of circulation. There were days we got there, and he was too drunk to be coherent, and there were other days we made steady progress with the interviews.

What was my first impression the first day I met the small, wiry man? He didn’t look like the larger-than-life man Mr Falode had painted to us. In fact, he was smallish, perhaps too small to have been a soldier, and his ears were rather big. To me, the ears were the most prominent things in his physiognomy.

But was the man sharp? Razor sharp! Very sound, articulate, and his power of recall simply awesome! By then, the war had ended for over 23 years, but he recalled all the facts as if they had just happened the previous day. The interviews ran well, and we made good progress, till the Black Scorpion’s drinking habit got progressively worse. Most days, he would be too drunk to be interviewed. Completely soused, and inebriated. He would then rather regale us with different sorts of stories, particularly on Nigeria and its contradictions, and how they had laid their lives on the line, fought for a country that was not worth anything. “Stupid country,” he would bellow.

Adekunle liked using the word ‘stupid.’ One day, we got to his house, and he had just acquired a new BMW car. It was gleaming, squeaky clean, and we congratulated him. But he rode the car for just a few months, before it crashed irreparably. What happened, I asked, as we got there to meet him in a very sober mood.

He then told the story of how he was driving the car in Maryland area of Lagos, and a water tanker ran into him. Not only did the truck smash the BMW badly, it proceeded to drag the car with Adekunle behind the wheels all the way to Anthony bus stop.

“He nearly terminated my stupid life,” the civil war hero spat out.

I offered my sympathies, but decided not to push my luck by asking how many bottles of Star he had taken before getting behind the wheels.

Adekunle was a man of steel. Tough, daring, stubborn! I asked him one day if he ever gives in to emotions, and if he ever weeps. His response:

“The last time I cried was during the civil war. There was this young officer from the Middle Belt. He was a Bachama (Adekunle’s mother was also Bachama, in present Adamawa State) and I had taken him under my wings. I wanted to groom him to be like myself. I wanted to transfer my devil into him. And he was coming up well. He was a Lieutenant.

“I had a coffin that I had purchased for myself, and I carried it round during the war. I always gave the instruction that if I was killed, I should just be put in the coffin, and buried. But one day, it was this young officer that got killed. I wept like a baby. I had big dreams for him, but he died in battle. I cried. I put him in my own coffin, and buried him. That was the last time I wept.”

One day, we asked him to relate what happened during the first military coup in 1966, and why he was not part of the putsch. He told us how he lived at Ann Barracks in Yaba then, and how he was at Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo nightclub, when the soldiers struck.

Then, he said he was either the Quartermaster or Adjutant, I do not remember well. But he spoke of his antipathy towards General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, and his wife. Mrs Ironsi, he said, had broken some plates and damaged some cutlery in their official residence.

“I had her billed for those items. I surcharged her husband’s salary,” said Adekunle, who was just a Lt Colonel. But he penalized the wife of a Major General. And the money was deducted from Ironsi’s salary.

“So, after the coup, the Supreme Commander (as Ironsi was called) summoned me to his office, and asked: ‘Benjy, were you part of the coup plotters or not?’ I then answered him: Sir, if I were part of the coup, you would not be seating where you are seated now, because I don’t like you.”

In other words, he was telling Ironsi he would have killed him if he had been among the plotters. Rascal!

On another occasion, I asked if he truly had supernatural powers, or if he had charms as was generally believed. He responded: “This one has not heard of bante oogun (skirt of charms).” He then challenged me to try to kill him, and I would discover if charms existed or not.

He further told me that the water that was used to bathe his mother when she died was still in a basin under his bed, and from time to time, he drank from it, and also would rub all over his body. Was the man serious? I didn’t intend to find out.

Adekunle had mood swings, and could fall into deep depression. That was one of the reasons Oshunkeye could not complete the interviews for the book, though he went really far. The Black Scorpion had got compulsorily retired from the army at 38, having been accused of using his position to assist a woman caught trafficking in drugs. The man told us the allegation was cooked-up, to get rid of him. “I was actually plotting a coup. I wanted to overthrow Yakubu Gowon, and that was why they got rid of me,” he said.

Adekunle was retired at age 38, and died at 78, last Saturday. That means he had 40 whole years to smoke and drink himself to death. And you know what his ashtray was? The casing of an exploded bomb! He had that in the sitting room of his Surulere home, and that was his ashtray. What morbid sense of humour.

We were with him one day, when his house girl brought the card of a journalist from a newsmagazine. That one wanted an interview appointment. Adekunle instructed the girl: “Tell him I’m dead, and my corpse has been taken to the mortuary.” And of course, dead men don’t grant interviews.

All through the Sani Abacha era, and in the early days of Olusegun Obasanjo as civilian president, the Black Scorpion wanted some relief from government. He frequented Abuja, perhaps to seek presidential pardon from the allegation that got him prematurely retired from the army, but he did not succeed. Don’t forget there had always been some sort of rivalry between him and Obasanjo since they were young officers. To make matters worse, Adekunle had prosecuted the civil war more than three quarters of the way, only for him to be recalled to Army Headquarters, and Obasanjo was the one that fortuitously received the instrument of surrender from the Biafran forces. The animus between them ran deep. It is ironic that those who consigned the Black Scorpion into depression, causing him to find refuge in drink, are now saying sugary things about him after his death. Typical of Nigerian hypocrites!

There was this day we were talking about the war, and we confronted him on his alleged brutality to both his own soldiers, and the Biafran forces. Why was he so merciless towards his own compatriots?

“War is war. There is no sentiment in war,” he snapped. “I had a job to do, and I did it.”

He then told of a serving General still in the Nigerian Army then, who was a very young officer in the Third Marine Commando that he commanded. “We got to a theatre of war, where the battle was particularly hot. Bullets were dropping round us like rain. This young man was then a 2nd Lieutenant or full Lieutenant. He lost his nerve, and began to run away. I then ordered him to stop, pulled my gun, and would have shot him if he hadn’t turned back. War is war. You just had to get the job done.”

I had asked of his relationship with God. His reply? “One day, I will appear before God, and will say, Sir, I have come.” And he got to his feet, and stood ramrod straight, at attention, adding: “But I don’t think heaven is for soldiers. We soldiers are going to hell.”

Last Saturday was the day. Adekunle breathed his last, and appeared before God. Did he get a hero’s reception? No one knows. It was said that in his office as war commander, he usually had on display a quotation from Dante Alighieri’s work, Inferno: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” It showed his cynicism about what he called ‘stupid’ life.

Well, here’s hoping our war hero will not end in that sordid place where all hope is abandoned.


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