Admiral Akin Aduwo, 80, is a former Chief of Naval Staff during the Shehu Shagari regime. He was also a military governor of the Western State for a month. He shares some of his experiences with Adeola Balogun and Ademola Olonilua
When you reflect on your life at 80, what would you thank God for?
I thank God for his abundant grace; merciful blessings and for keeping me alive longer than my expectation. Coming from my background, I did not travel anywhere outside the environment I was born until I was 13 years old. At that time, I was admitted to Igbobi College, Lagos, where I found myself in the midst of children of the rich, powerful and influential people. I started my secondary school with late Olusegun Awolowo, who was the son of the Premier of the Western Region at the time, Obafemi Awolowo. We were in the same class and our beds were beside each other. I was also with the likes of Oduola Aderemi who was the son of the then Ooni of Ife. I made friends with a prince of Ile Ife, Tunji Ademiluyi, among others. We were about 60 in the class but it was divided into class A and B. When I left the school, I became a civil servant in Ibadan at the ministry of education where I served under a political state minister; Prof. Awosika. He was later succeeded by Chief Odebiyi. That was my first employment and it was in January 1957. That was where I learnt how to type because I was Chief Odebiyi’s typist for a short period of time.
It means that you did not join the military immediately after you left the secondary school.
No I did not. I was a civil servant. I started work in the ministry of education in January 1957. In September of that same year, there was an advertisement in the newspaper that the Federal Government wanted to recruit young Nigerians to be trained in the Nigerian Ports Authority and they would form the first set of recruits to start the Nigerian Navy. It was that advertisement that I responded to and I was interviewed in Lagos. I was one of the nine cadet officers that were trained at the present Nigerian naval base which used to be under the NPA in Apapa. That was where we started our basic training. After the completion of our training, we were posted to various ships for sea training and I was sent to Elder Dempster Lines, a British shipping line based in Liverpool. I did my first three years sea training on different ships. At the time, the Elder Dempster Lines plied the following routes; Nigeria, Britain, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Monrovia and Liberia. It was when I completed the sea training that I was sent to the Liverpool College of Technology which is now known as Liverpool Polytechnic; I had a year training there in shipping management. We had done the practical which included navigation and piloting the ship during my three-year training with Elder Dempster Lines. After leaving Liverpool College of Technology, I was appointed as the fourth officer on the NV Orion which was a passenger liner which carried people between Lagos and Britain. Sometimes we sailed to the European ports as well as Germany, Italy, etc. Being the fourth officer on a ship means that I was the fourth in command on that ship and by that time, I only had what we called a Second Class Certificate of Competence which was issued to me after passing my exams at the Liverpool College of Technology. It was while I was on the NV Orion that I met the father of the late Ikemba Ojukwu. I was later called, interviewed and recruited into the Nigerian Navy as a Sub-Lieutenant in November 1962. I had to resign my appointment from the NPA that sponsored my sea training.
Does it mean that when you were in Igbobi College, you never nursed the ambition of venturing into the military?
No. As at then, it was not my dream to become a military officer but I am from Okitipupa division, a riverine area which is bordered in the south along the coast of the Atlantic. A week after I reported to the Naval base when I returned from the UK, I was transferred to Calabar and that was where I started my career as the first commanding officer of that Naval Base.
Why did you switch careers, was it that you did not find your job at the ministry of education fulfilling?
The civil service job was too boring. Having spent three years in sea training, I had become so practical; besides there was never a dull moment on board the ships. We went to different ports in different countries within and outside the African continent. The adventure was so exciting and interesting but in the ministry of education, my first job was a dispatch clerk. It means that all the mails that went to the ministry were brought to my desk first. I had to open them all, look for their files and then pass them on to their intended recipients. It was a very boring job. It made me miss my active days at Igbobi College where I was involved in various sports like football. I was a member of the Mosquito team which was made up of young lightweight students. We also had cricket and a vibrant debating society. I left all that to sit behind a desk and my primary assignment was to tear open letters. It was a very boring job.
You were very close to your mother but did she not fear for your life when you told her about joining the navy?
My mother was a prayer warrior and she taught me to pray to God every time. I was taught to pray before leaving the house. If you wanted to eat and you did not pray, you would be in trouble. If you were in a hurry, my mother would make a sign of the cross on the food just to bless it. So, when everybody, including my uncle who was the king after my father’s death, advised me against joining the navy, my mother and my elder brother supported me. My uncle told me that no one in our family had been privileged to work at the secretariat and he wondered why I had to resign from the job to become a sailor. He said that if I quit the job, I should never return home. But my mother and my elder brother who was a Wesley College trained teacher supported me fully. My mother said that although I was going to the sea, if that was where God wanted me to prosper, she would keep praying for me and that was the ‘visa’ I needed. My mother never thought for a minute that I was going into a dangerous career because her family were riverine dwellers. It never occurred to her that anyone could drown at sea except in war. Even during the war, my ship led all the nine coastal operations during the civil war and people kept telling my mother lies that the Igbo people had sunk her son’s ship and many people had been killed but she never believed them. She always told me that her God would not send me to a place where I would die. Any time I returned to Lagos from the war front, my mother always arrived the next day and the first thing she would say was that we should all kneel to pray to God.
Did you ever encounter any near-death experience during your years in the Nigerian Navy?
There were moments of concern especially during the time we were faced with a hurricane grade six or seven sea storm. The extreme ones are usually the hurricane grade nine. Human beings can only control the ship but not the sea and weather. However, it was a great experience when you wake up to see the sun rising slowly from under the cloud and when it is night time you would see the sun setting slowly and beautifully, golden in colour. Those are the interesting things that not many people have witnessed even when you travel on an aeroplane.
There is a general notion people have about sailors that they have a larger than life attitude towards life. Is that true?
I agree with them but that does not bother me. It is the same way a lot of civilians hardly believe I am 80 years old. They have this general belief that in the military, we are given a special injection. We are used to hearing all that but the truth is that nobody gives us special injections. If you fall ill, you would be given prescribed drugs by the doctor and nothing special. We never received any special injections to prolong our lives. It is just a silly thought.
People believe that women love men in uniform. How were you able to cope with them in your heydays?
I spent about 30 years in my seafaring career so we have got used to all these misconceptions about sailors. I would say the only situation that I allowed myself to participate in was smoking and it was because the British cadets on the training ships made fun of those who did not smoke. They teased and taunted us a lot. When you go through that for about a year, however strong-willed you might be, you would succumb to pressure. The first few days I coughed because I swallowed the smoke. That was my situation; I got dragged into smoking to avoid being taunted and I smoked for 19 years before I quit. I quit smoking during the war because it used to make me feel seasick and tired. The war was a time when you needed to be on alert; there was no room for resting because you had to be vigilant. Sometimes the Biafrans would know where the Nigerian troops were and there was a time that they put mines in the Calabar river. One of those underwater bombs exploded and hit my ship’s propeller so it was disabled for about two weeks till I managed to get it to Burutu harbour. I had a pleasant experience in Burutu because the people were so kind and we did not need to send messages for reinforcement or food supply. My ship was safe as well because the Burutu harbour had grown trees that hid the ship from helicopters.
We learnt that when you were the commander of the NNS Ogoja, you led a sea battle in July 1967 that led to the fall of Bonny. How did you do that?
I took Brigadier ‘Black Scorpion’ Adekunle on my ship from Apapa Warf to the landing at Bonny and that was the start of the civil war. I was followed by three patrol boat crafts and two landing crafts carrying the army troops, their vehicles and gunnery equipment. My ship led them to enter Bonny after we left Lagos at about 6 pm. We moved under radio silence until the following morning so that the Biafrans would not intercept our signals. We used flags to communicate. We got into Bonny just before the sun rose and by the time we started the bombardment with my 20-inch gun and the other ship followed suit, we caught them unawares; we gave them surprise attack and that was it.
In the history of your career, you have fought so many battles and won. Was there a time you ever lost a battle?
Not on the ship I commanded, Ogoja. Even the sound of my 20-inch gun scared the Biafrans, it was a bombardment. I remember a time one of my personnel was hit with a small bullet that was fired by a sniper. This happened after we captured Bonny.
Have you ever been shot?
Yes and no; this is because a bullet once grazed my rib cage in Calabar where I started my career. The bullet grazed my rib cage, slightly burnt my skin, pierced my shirt and hit the bridge of the ship. I went to pick it even though it was hot. I still have the bullet till date. Luckily, no life was lost. My front gun was manned by a naval rating, Seaman Bello, when the Biafran helicopters were dropping bombs on our ships. This fellow was firing his anti-aircraft gun but it got jammed and he could not fire anymore. The moment I noticed that, I took the megaphone and ordered him to get down from the danger zone because it was his gun post that they would target but he ignored my order. I called him about three times but he ignored me and held on to his gun. He did not run away. I thought that he did not understand me because he was Hausa, so I told my gunnery officer, who later became Admiral Saidu, a military governor of Rivers State and later on Chief of Naval Staff, to call him for flaunting my order. When he was brought before me, I asked why he disobeyed my order and that he could have been killed but he told me that he did not disobey my order. He said that I was a human being like him and the captain of the ship but I did not run away from my duty post in time of trouble, likewise, he was a gunner and his duty was to fire at the enemy as they were bombing the ship. He said he could not run away because he was not a coward. He said that if he did that, it meant he deserted his duty post. He said that I did not run away from the bridge while they were bombing the ship, so why should he run away from his gun which he was hoping and praying would still work. He said that was why he did not run away when I called. I looked at him and said to myself that I had to report him to the naval headquarters because all he was saying to me was a declaration of his devotion to his job and he was very brave.
That is the kind of attitude of my men and that ship was so successful. I heard that people were lobbying to be transferred to the NNS Ogoja ship. Everybody was ready for the war as far as the navy was concerned.
After the war, did you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?
No, I did not. I was of the rank of a Lieutenant commander and when the war started in 1967, I had been in the navy since 1959. I got used to the good and bad times. The only thing that really upset me was that I used to drink beer but not to the extreme, probably a bottle a day but if I smoked a cigarette at that time, I would be seasick.
Is it true that the captain of a ship must go down with his ship?
If he has to do so; for instance, the ship that countered mine in Bonny was a ship I had commanded some years back. It was the first brand new ship built for the Nigerian navy. It was what we called Inward Patrol Boat, it was meant for the inland waterways and not the ocean. It was stationed in Calabar before the Biafrans took over the ship and it was their main vessel. It was manned by some of our officers that crossed over to Biafra; this time it was controlled by my best Igbo officer in the navy, Captain Pascal Odu.
While we had sent out the bombardment shot that woke everybody up, the ship which was untied began to head for the harbour entrance towards us. He fired a few shots at me but missed, then he began to stir towards the Degema Creek which was after Bonny. Because it was a small channel, the captain thought he could get away and I would not be able to pursue him because my ship was bigger and would not sail smoothly on the creek but my first shot from the Ogoja landed on their ammunition dump and we could hear the explosion it caused as the ammunition was set on fire. Odu realised that if they continued with the journey, the whole ship would sink and everyone would die; so he tilted the ship to lean on the port side of the channel and he supervised his crew members as they jumped ashore. I was watching with my binoculars and he was the last man to step out of the ship as it was the tradition as the captain of the ship. I got a loudspeaker, introduced myself and told him to come on board my ship. I told him that I had ceased firing and I could lower my boat to pick him up but he ignored me. When he got on shore, he disappeared. I did not have any contact with him until three years after the war. He came to my office and while he was filling the visitor’s form I had seen him through my window but I pretended as if I did not. As the rating brought the visitor’s form to me, I told him to let the officer in and as he stepped into my office I asked, ‘Who are you and what do you want?. He replied saying, ‘Akin, it is me, Pascal.’ I told him that I knew, he should tell me what he wanted. He moved towards me but I ordered him to stop. He then began to explain that the last contact we had was three years ago during the war but he was in my office as a friend and there was no war between us. When he said that, I got a bit emotional; so I got up, walked towards him and we hugged. I had to ask him why he ignored my call to come on board my ship. He then told me to look at things from his perspective. He said that if I had sent my boat to pick him up and as he was approaching my ship and any of my men who did not know him shot him dead, nothing would have happened. He said that even though I had ceased fire, I gave the command from the bridge of my ship but there were other men at the port side of the ship who did not see what was going on. Odu continued by saying that even if I had got him on board and the news went round, what did I think Ojukwu would have done to his family? He would have been declared a saboteur in Biafra and his family would suffer greatly, so he just had to report to his authority and by doing that, it kept him alive. He then asked if we were still friends and I replied in the affirmative. I said that it was a war we had to fight even though we did not start it. I told my staff to serve him drinks and we continued our friendship. That is the kind of experience I had to pass through.
One incident you always said you regret in life was when you were made the military governor of the western region for just a month. Why?
That was the most regrettable appointment because I was not looking forward to being appointed as a military governor. I was already a navy captain; I was a senior officer. I had no interest, and still, have no interest in politics or any political position. So to be extracted from my career which I loved was not something I wanted. As a naval officer, there are two positions that are considered to be the best; the first is being the captain of your ship in any rank and also being the Chief of Naval Staff.
But one would think it was prestigious being a military governor…
What is prestige among liars and deceitful people? Have you ever heard of politics without bitterness? Nigerian politics has been with bitterness, it is still in bitterness and it would continue like that. My upbringing and human feeling could not reconcile with the politicians. Many people have asked me why I did not go into politics after retirement. Like we say in the navy, an admiral does not participate in anything he cannot see or reconcile with his mind. I did not like the appointment; in fact, my name was announced as Akin Oduwa for the Western state. After General Murtala Mohammed had mentioned the name, I had to ask him that I did not hear properly the name of the officer appointed to the Western state; he looked at me and told me I was the one. When we were called in for the briefing by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, I had to ask again and Obasanjo confirmed it. I could not decline the appointment because it would mean that I was prepared to resign and after that, I would be sent to prison because it meant that I was a deserter.
When I got to Ibadan, they were preparing the government house for me so I had to stay at the Premier’s Lodge and it was in the same lodge that Chief S. L. Akintola was murdered. In the bedroom that I slept, the bullet holes were still on the walls. I felt worse than I did on the war front because I was sleeping in a room where bullets had killed a former premier. Remember, Chief Akintola was killed as premier of the west, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi was the first military governor of the west but he was assassinated. Even Papa Awolowo was alive but he was sent to prison. So why should I have been happy when I was made a military governor? As the captain of a ship, you were responsible for everyone on board and also the ship and everyone had to work together to make your command a successful one. If I did that successfully, why would I want to become a governor and people would be planning against me. They would be envious and plotting for my downfall. Why would I be happy to leave my seagoing command where my officers saw me as their leader, guardian, protector only to venture into trouble as governor? Is it because I would have money to steal? A friend asked me if I made sure I took care of myself even though I was there for only four weeks. I told him I did not know what he was talking about and he told me that there were some military governors that looked after themselves for only few weeks because an opportunity like that came once in a while. I told him that I was not born nor trained to do such a thing and went further to tell him the kind of mother that raised me. My father died when I was barely three years old so my mother was the only parent I knew and she died when I was 36 years old; five months before I became a military governor of the Western State, which was the most buoyant state at the time. The west could have ruled this country in education and productivity which was built under Papa Awolowo.
What did you do for them to remove you only after four weeks?
That was the question some journalists asked me after it was announced that I was removed from office on my way from my home at the Railway compound to Dodan Barracks. Ninety nine per cent of my 24 hours in a day, my mind was always on my ship; that was why I joined the navy, to be able to ply, navigate and command my ship and I was specially trained for that and not to sit down in an air-conditioned room as governor. Three people could be in the same party but it does not mean that they would not plot against each other. Few hours after I assumed office, I got an anonymous call informing me to be wary of a particular man that welcomed me. When the person hung up, I received another anonymous call some minutes later that I should ensure that I made a particular person my friend. Both callers neither told me their names nor the name of the person they were talking about. They just said that in time, they would tell me more. A few days later, I was talking to my permanent secretaries and from the conversation we had, I figured that the anonymous callers were talking about the same person. So that post kept me between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Did you forgive people who removed you from the post especially someone like Obasanjo?
I had nothing to forgive anybody about; in fact, I thank everybody that was instrumental to my removal from Ibadan as governor. It was as if they saved me from the gallows. That is the feeling I had when I was recalled. I am grateful to Obasanjo till today for removing me from that post because he saved my career by that decision. He saved my reputation and five years later, President Shehu Shagari sent me a letter appointing me as the Chief of the Naval Staff. When I got the letter and read it, I did not believe its content. After I left Ibadan and arrived Lagos, I reported to General Murtala Mohammed and he told me that I did not do anything wrong and that my removal as the governor would not affect my career because I was a good naval officer. When I was told that, I felt so good that even if I had a high fever, I would have been cured at that moment. If I had given away the University of Ile Ife that was built by the sweat of Yoruba cocoa farmers like the late Oba Aderemi told me, I probably would have been dead a long time ago.
Culled from the Punch Newspaper.