An eyewitness tells the story of a sprightly young man in the creek during the civil war. Ipoola Alani Akinrinade, then a major, saw a runaway Biafran. This kinrinade could not swim. But a sprinter he was. He would not allow the Biafran to escape. The squad was already conquered. But this Biafran would not surrender. Akinrinade asked him to stop. The man wouldn’t. So, he pursued him in a race to the death, through the turns and traps and treacherous marshes of the bushes. According to the account of his fellow soldier, both pursuer and pursued darted out of sight. In his book, The Tragedy of Victory, General Godwin Alabi-Isama, recounts his astonishment when Akinrinade materialised with his fleeing quarry, arrested barehanded.
In the quicksand and intrigues of war, Akinrinade might have been gunned down by a Biafran straggler the same way Adaka Boro fell. It was not only a testament to the man’s physical prowess but his mental acumen, a feat he demonstrated throughout the civil war. He evinced the full package of a man of war. He had physical courage, not only in the eye of battle as he conquered Aba, after others failed, but also in managing the tranquil tension of conquest. He showed strategy, advising Murtala Muhammed to foreswear his marabout whose counterfeit eyes foresaw victory instead of body bags for exposing men of the Second Division through the Niger Bridge. He also furnished Benjamin Adekunle (aka Black Scorpion) similar advice about the peril of attacking Owerri. Both commanders shunned his advice and many soldiers were cut to death in bungled forays.
He manifested himself a man not only of wise daring, but also of wise counsel in his reflex as commander, as a natural leader. When Obasanjo took over from Adekunle and the Third Marine Commando derailed and lost momentum to Biafra, morale fell. Alabi-Isama complained and was redeployed to the Second Division in Enugu. Obasanjo often ran to Lagos under the guise of updating the headquarters on the state of the war. Akinrinade stepped in, inspired the trust and confidence of his fellow officers, and he took the destiny of the proceedings in his hands.
Before Obasanjo knew it, Uli-Ihiala Airstrip symbolising the Biafran vertebral bone had fallen into Akinrinade’s hands. The famed Achuzia had to obey Effiong’s order to surrender to the lieutenant Colonel Alani Akinrinade. At that time, Obasanjo was on a wild goose chase elsewhere. Akinrinade inspired and perspired for victory. But when Biafra expired, Obj stood over the ruins and took over the surrender. One man builds, another occupies. The builder, Akinrinade and his men, were humble enough up till today not to boast of his triumphal soldiery.
He is not a man of malice. After all Obasanjo did by ignoring advice and undermining his men after taking over from Adekunle, Obj was in trouble during the Dimka Coup attempt of 1976. Akinrinade knew that with Murtala Muhammed assassinated, Obj was next in line. According to Alabi-Isama’s account, Akinrinade decided to lay siege to Obj’s hideout in the home of Chief S.B. Bakare until the fog cleared and he ascended as head of state. In his My Command, Obj did not acknowledge Akinrinade’s heroics.
It is in Obj’s character to be afraid to say thank you. It is what psychologists call the fear of gratitude. Somehow, he did not want Akinrinade to appear to have saved his life or played a role in his good fortunes.
Hence, when Akinrinade turned 80 last week, Obj was absent in the roll call of attendees. The list was like a cultural pageant. Enter governors: Gboyega Oyetola and Kayode Fayemi; ex-governor Abiola Ajimobi, Oluwole Rotimi. Enter kings, Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Alaafin of Oyo, the erudite Lamidi Adeyemi III, the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona, et al. Of course, fellow generals like Alabi-Isama and T.Y. Danjuma. Enter friends; enter business men like Alex Duduyemi; enter socialites, intellectuals. Enter honour. Absent obj.
Yet what few know about the latest octogenarian is his unassuming dignity. Handsome, spry and warm, he never draws attention to himself. He speaks with a debonair charm, smiles without the hauteur of a general, relates without the bruises of a war. If you saw him in a crowd, you would as quickly dismiss him as not a soldier but just a regular man with savoir faire, a sometimes ascetic oasis at public gatherings. Once in a while the warrior peeps out – a reflex of a spark in his eyes. Yet beneath this is an intersection of bonhomie and principle.
The most interesting thing about his biography is how the soldier embraces the republican. In his tribute, Gen. Rotimi talks of his Damascus journey, a conversion from the soldier to an anti-soldier. Buhari has been credited with such Pauline conversion. But the democrat always cooed in Akinrinade, a reflex for consultation and cooperative action, not the instinct of fiat and orders often attributed to brutes and hectoring commanders. It was in that spirit he wanted to save lives of fellow soldiers by advising Muhammed and Adekunle against adventures in suicide. He was a good soldier, and while there he played the part. During the civil war, he captured Bonny, an important economic stronghold because of oil and the push to Port Harcourt.
He is also a patriot. Hence he did not want to kill the runaway Biafran. The fellow, according to what Akinrinade himself told me, became his friend long after the end of the hostilities. He did not hate Igbo, hence he was a great soldier who did his duty in line with Poet William Yeats: “Those who I fight I do not hate.” Akinrinade the democrat was an easy switch if we recall that he retired early from the army at 42 because he thought the institution had lost its soul. He wanted an army of principle and patriotism. The army, as we now know, became a bedlam of rogues, scallywags and adventurers in avarice.
A story is told also when during the war Akinrinade left his personal box in a room, but when he returned he saw two. The other was full of money from the paymaster. Rather than corral it, he raised hell and punished the paymaster before ordering him to return the money to Lagos. It is a different army that Akinrinade left at 42. He was in tents of war but a tenant of principle who would not neglect the tenets of honour. If he was a warrior, he was also a worrier for good of all.
He became a democrat and committed professional suicide, fighting against the institution he helped to build. If he could not purify the army from within, he had to save the nation that gave birth to the army. Governor Fayemi noted in his tribute that the general funded the first set of electronic material for the pesky Radio Kudirat, showing he applied his life and treasure to freedom. His home was bombed in the NADECO days and he, a soldier, had to take shelter from the bullying of his juniors who had sullied the army and its high ideals.
I asked him a few years ago why he had not written a book. He said many of his evidence were destroyed in the bombing incident, in which he nearly lost his child. He did not want to write without proof.
In spite of that, we need him to pen something, or have something penned. He has too much integrity for his story to be frivolous. The records beckon; history pines. His narrative command will command integrity. Fayemi said with men like the general, 80 years is the new 50. His father died a centenarian, so his gene is promising for a book. So are the hopes of many who want his story.