By MUSA JIBRIL
“If you call me mister I will sue you. I am not a Mister. I am Major. Major David Adeniyi Eletu, retired––but not tired.”
That is his introductory statement.
You can’t help but concur his retired-but-not-tired retort. His youthful agility belies his wizened, from weather-beaten outlook you can hardly guess his age right. July 4, 2017 was his 75th birthday.
As for his threat to sue, it was a joke. The Major has a sense of humour.
Nonetheless, he is a soldier to the marrow. Serving through turbulent decades when the military was bedeviled by coups, countercoups and civil war, he couldn’t have navigated his way without getting entangled in the dangerous distractions of the military.
Indeed, he was unwittingly conscripted into one of the bloodiest coups in the annals of the Nigerian Army, the so-called revenge counter-coup of July 29, 1966. Ironically, a sudden twist took him out of the equation at the last minute. “We were about to embark when the then Major T.Y. Danjuma instructed that two of us be replaced for no apparent reason,” Eletu recollects.
We settled down in the living room of his Toga home in Badagry, Lagos, to a warm tête-à-tête. For 145 minutes, the old major muses over memories of military life and juxtaposes the hazards and heroics of war against the hard, bitter lesson battle-hardened soldiers learned at the war front. The vanity-of-life lesson.
At times, he chuckles. At times, he fights back tears. Much as he tries to keep the hard-guy façade of the soldier, the ebb in his voice betrays his emotion.
He never set out to be a soldier. He was shunted into the military path by a dying father’s prophecy. He obliges Saturday Sun with an abridged version of his military experience.
A soldier by prophecy
Major David Eletu glories not in having been a soldier. Nay, soldiering was never his ambition. Quite early in life, he had charted a life for himself as a sailor. A seasoned seafarer who worked on a cargo ship that travelled to Europe. The army part of his life was a vision from his father.
His recalls: “I was in Liverpool when I got a cablegram that my father was critically ill in Ikare General Hospital. When I arrived at the hospital, the doctor told me he was suffering from old age and suggested we I take him back home. At home, my father said to me: “I want to tell you something. You are going to fight in a war. Your future is in the army, not being a sailor. You would pass through a lot of hardship, but at the end, you’d have a good story to tell.” Three days later, my old man gave up the ghost.”
The sequence of events thereafter aided and abetted his father’s prediction. Not quite three months after the burial, a visit to his lawyer cousin in Ibadan ended in his recruitment into the Nigerian Army at age 23.
He has a vivid recall of that fateful day 52 years ago. “My cousin was going to work in the morning when he saw a crowd at the artillery battalion at Top Camp. Upon hearing that the army was recruiting, he returned home to write a note for me to take to a recruiting officer who was his friend. I told him I did not need any letter for joining the army.”
Eletu made his way to Top Camp but found the situation at the recruitment centre discouraging. Of the 3000 applicants at the spot, only 25–19 from the West and six from Midwest–were to be picked. And there stood a Provost lance corporal wielding horsewhip to keep the horde in order.
Eletu, refraining from joining the fray, tuned his transistor radio to Northern Nigeria Broadcasting Service, where goge music was playing. He noticed the Provost lance corporal nodding his head to the music. That tells him the man was Hausa. The music was followed by labari (news) and then another programme. Still, the man followed it with rapt attention.
“Just as I was imagining how I could get in the queue, he beckoned at me. Come. He asked in the Hausa language: You come for recruitment? With the benefit of education in Kaduna, I was fluent in the language. He put me on the queue close to the screening point. But an Igbo Warrant Officer shoo-ed me out of the line. He told me I was not in the queue”.
The friendly provost beckoned him a second time, and assured him he would join those who would be writing the exams. “He asked me to remove my tee shirt, roll up my Wrangler jeans and singlet so those screening would see the shape of my body. An officer saw me and asked me to join those selected.”
Again, the warrant officer blocked his path, this time with a stern warning to jail him.
“I was as angry as to retort “How does going to jail come in when I am only answering the call to serve my country?”’ he recounts. His words carried far to the hearing of the other recruiting officers.
“They asked the warrant officer to let me be. I entered the exam hall.”
Fate took care of the rest––fifth in written test, third in a two-mile race from Top Camp to Mokola barracks; certified fit by urine and faecal tests, excellent blood pressure and good eye test––and ensured he was one of the selected 25.
With brand new army number, clean-shaved pate and 10-shilling feeding allowance, Eletu was on the path to his future where he’d spend the next 31 years kitted in beret, bandolier and boots. The recruits from the west were herded into a train from Dugbe, in Ibadan to Nigerian Army training Depot in Zaria, Kaduna, escorted by the friendly provost that facilitated Eletu’s enlistment.
“I bought him one packet of Three Rings cigarette, popularly called Mezobe at the time. Because of my fluency in Hausa, he liked me as his own brother He did not allow me to spend a penny of my shilling. He bought me everything I needed.”
In Zaria, the sailor-turned-soldier was the nominal squad leader of the recruits from the West and Mid West prior to the arrival of their counterparts from the east.
Even after the donkey’s years, the old major mulls that military training is not for weaklings. “Every morning and evening, we ran a cross-country 20 kilometres distance in specific time fro and to Depot. Many could not bear it. Some deserted,” he reflects.
Almost a coupist
Posting followed training. On Christmas Day 1965, Eletu was in 2 Recce Regiment, Abeokuta. Seven months later, an event of gruesome dimension took place. Eletu was shortlisted to be one of the actors of that theatre of tragedy but for the uncanny hand of fate.
At this point, his voice drops an octave: “We were selected for operations in Ibadan at a time the military head of state, Maj-Gen Aguiyi-Ironsi, was visiting Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, Military governor of the West. In the military context, the word operation tells you something was up. And when they tell you, you are going for an operation, your mind is made up on the possibility of either death or survival–that is why you are a soldier. The operation was led by Major T.Y. Danjuma. At the last minute, just before we boarded the vehicle to Ibadan, they made a pronouncement: Troopers Eletu and Abiodun Sorinwa were excused. Both of us Yoruba were replaced by Hausa troopers instead.”
A few days later, the news broke of the bloody assassination on July 29, 1966, of the head of state and his host in Ibadan, an event that remains a big exclamatory mark in Nigerian Army’s Annals of coups and counter-coups.
“I was not in the know of what was going to happen in Ibadan. It was after the operation I realised that was the job Danjuma wanted to use us for. Those he took along, were blindsided. Those Hausa boys had no idea about it until they got there.”
Perhaps his selection in the first place was a miscalculation. Eletu’s belief is contrary. “I am a weapon instructor. I had good weapon training. Armoured. I fired 76mm, 90mm and 105mm. I was a natural choice for the job.”
Discretion overrode competence.
Eletu recalls clearly Major Danjuma came from Lagos to Abeokuta. “They didn’t want to use soldiers from Lagos. They came to Abeokuta to the armoured corps, to pick soldiers specially trained in weapons. But he didn’t want any Yoruba soldier to avoid a leak to Fajuyi in Ibadan.”
The war a dying father predicted
Six months after, war broke out and he was not surprised. “I realised: here comes my father’s prophecy,” he said, “I had no fear going to the war. My father already told me.”
His training in weapon largely inspired his confidence. “I knew I would be in a tank.”
That does not make him invincible on the war front. On the first Sunday of 1968, he was wounded in Awka, right inside the armoured fortress of his tank.
“I had misfired some rounds, and I sat inside the armoured car and tried to clear the 60mm mortar gun when a mercenary fired from within the killing range and a shrapnel entered the barrel and struck my hand.”
His role at the war front came to an end. What followed was surgery and convalescence at the Auchi General Hospital and living with the pains of war. “My hand was not well operated. If you touch my finger, you could feel the iron particles. When you pressed, it pained me. I lost all sensations on the finger, even if I dipped it in hot water.”
He witnessed many vanities, but one struck him forcefully.
“While at the war front, I had no charms, no talisman, no amulets. But I saw soldiers who wore live tortoises round their neck. Yet they died. That is why I don’t believe in such things.”
His survival, he avows, was anchored on his trust in God. “I had my small Bible. I sleep in the armoured car. In the morning, I prayed, read the bible, sang choruses. I read the psalms, 23, 100 and 91, especially.
Staff Sergeant Eletu spent the rest of the war period in Ibadan, where he was responsible for starting the Armoured Corps School.
In 1972, he went on training to the Royal Armoured Corps Centre, Lulworth, Britain, where his hand was re-operated.
“You can see the hand is different from others,” he holds up the index finger of his left hand, scarred and withered.
“The veins were affected it was in Britain they re-operated it and removed the particles, at the Royal Armoured Corps Centre, Lulworth. Then blood started entering the veins of the hand.”
He went to Lulworth again for courses and later to India, each time for training in weapons. Before his retirement in 1996, he was Quartermaster General, 243 Recce Battalion, Nigerian Army, Ibereko Barrack, Badagry.
Gratitude to God and father
When he cast a backward glance, Eletu expresses overjoy at his exit from the military. “Some people served patriotically, but couldn’t leave the army successfully. Some were tied to stakes and shot. Some died of accidents. Horrible things happened to so many people. I was able to leave in one piece, hale and hearty,” he elaborates.
He owed gratitude to God and his father.
His father’s digest to him, he says, gives him insights to “what was going to happen to me when I joined the army,” and also serves as the creeds for his life (“…I should exercise patience, for in doing so, what I think is beyond me would come to me, and that I should not grumble nor be driven by money or position”).
Now retired, what is the old soldier up to?
He responds: “The way I look at life now is different. I don’t do much nowadays. I pray a lot. Every day I wake up, I thank God.”
He has been the patron of Akoko Descendant Union (ADU) since 2007. He is also a presiding elder of an assembly of The Apostolic Church.
Once a soldier, the saying goes, always a soldier. This is evident in Major Eletu’s philosophy––Live a controlled life.
His lesson of life he sums up this way: “Don’t force yourself to tread a path you are not destined to.”