Rear Admiral Kehinde Komolafe(Rtd)
I have had my binoculars trained on him for the past thirty-three years. It started first as an official duty and then ripened into the sweet pleasure of a hobby. I witnessed as sickness crept in and saw the brave fight he put up to the end.
I peered into the press to see if they understood the weight of our loss. I saw the bare mention and the near mocking indifference of an institution that should have been our light, collective memory and social vanguard. I looked, but there was little else to see. Only the bell tolled ceaselessly in my mind…
Within the rigid structures of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, the Office of the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) has always been a hallowed one. Between this high office of the CNS and my position as a junior Naval Officer in the mid 1980s, there certainly was a whole world. My little stream was not supposed to flow near the river of the CNS – ordinarily. But the extraordinary happened one day while I was tucked away in Warri, doing my official duties. It was announced that the new Chief of the Naval Staff was coming over to Warri on a familiarization tour. We were all ready and expecting him. I too, thought I was ready. I didn’t know how unprepared I was until the August visitor arrived.
Rear Admiral Patrick Suebo Koshoni was the CNS; we all knew him by name and by his picture which hung ubiquitously, wherever we turned. That afternoon, the CNS strode in confidently and cast a sweeping gaze at the naval personnel on deployment at the entrance of the Base. He was sparkling in his appearance and carriage. All eyes feasted on him as if he came from outer space, our faculties switched to high-pitch alertness. His official business proceeded with military dispatch, then things relaxed a bit. Not long after, I felt his gaze rest on me and I noticed that he made enquiries about me. I didn’t know him from Adam, but the strangest thing soon followed. By the time I knew what it was, he had appointed me his Flag Lieutenant(aide de camp-ADC). I was stunned. I didn’t know what qualified me. People of his pedigree often appointed to such sensitive positions staff who shared close kinship ties with them; it was the norm in this hemisphere. But, apparently, this CNS was not made for the standards of this hemisphere!
I try not to speak too much about people in the superlatives so as not to be caught in the act of aggrandizement. But there are no other qualifiers appropriate for describing Admiral Koshoni except the superlatives. I will devote the rest of this short piece to snapshots from memory to narrate why only the superlatives merit the description of this spectacular officer and gentleman of the Nigerian Navy- One of the very few who left a legacy of glittering wits, excellent training and top-notch professionalism.
People who have an inkling of the rigour of training and the sheer intellectual and professional discipline that officers are called upon to bring to duty in the Armed Forces, particularly the Navy, will understand that for me to speak in this manner is to testify to the end that I indeed found one in the noblest cast of the lords of the Nigerian Navy who was unequalled among his peers and who left a legacy that is nonpareil. I saw him at close quarters and at many theatres of engagement, so I will share just a bit of what I saw for you to be the judge.
It is a huge understatement to say that Admiral Patrick Seubo Koshoni was professionally sound and very brilliant. He was much more than that. I recall a visit we made to the United Kingdom in January 1987 to see the First Sea Lord(as the Head of the Royal Navy is called). We were given only 10 minutes to conclude the visit, but we ended up spending about an hour. The First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir, William Stavele, was amazed at the quality of discussion he was having and was so deeply engrossed in it that his staff forgot about time. The man was dazed because the encounter turned out to be vastly different from the stereotypical encounters with most African leaders. As both men sat at a diplomatic distance from each other on the sofa, I saw the First Sea Lord gravitating towards Koshoni. He was so engrossed he probably didn’t notice. He obviously didn’t care either. Admiral Koshoni made a deep impression on the minds of the British military elite with this single meeting, and I felt immensely proud just standing behind him as he made the Nigerian and African military proud even if they didn’t know it.
Still on this same official visit to the United Kingdom, it was arranged for Admiral Koshoni to meet some parliamentarians, some members who had something to do with the Royal Navy. As usual, Koshoni took the podium and when he finished, the leader of the British team didn’t hide the fact that he was stunned. He said it was unusual for him to respond after a visitor to them had spoken but that he couldn’t but respond to what the CNS of Nigeria had said. He said he was so impressed by Koshoni’s eloquence and that if he had been told it was the Secretary-General of the United Nations speaking, he would not have doubted it! What the Britons saw in that one visit was what the Nigerian political elite of that time saw every day in the Federal Cabinet but which most Nigerians knew nothing about.
If there is something to be said of the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, it was that he made a point of recruiting the very best talents and brains in the country into his cabinet. Professors Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Bolaji Akinyemi and Tam David-West and Dr Chu Okongwu were among the impressive minds in that cabinet. And what’s more? even these great minds seemed to have a deep respect for Admiral Koshoni! In a rare personality interview granted by Professor Tam David-West, (who also passed on recently) regarding members of the Federal Cabinet, he said: “I am a professor of several years standing, but the depth of knowledge of this man [Patrick Koshoni] baffles me”. He said the way Koshoni handled issues in Council was simply baffling. He observed that if cabinet members had big memos to read, Koshoni would be the first one to read, summarize and make notes such that his summary would easily be adopted as the working paper for the meeting. David-West concluded by saying: “I doff my cap to him any day, he is a professor of professors”.
An indication that Professors David-West’s opinion of Koshoni was largely shared by other people in the government occurred during one of General Babangida’s visit to Rev. Father Joseph Slattery, Founder of Patrick Koshoni’s alma mater, Saint Finbarr’s College, Akoka, Yaba, Lagos. Wanting to discover Patrick Koshoni’s secrets from his old school principal, IBB had asked Father Slattery: “How did you teach Patrick that he came to master the use of English language so well?” Father Slattery couldn’t help laughing. When I got the news of his passing away on Saturday, 25th January, I sent text messages to some of his colleagues in the Cabinet, to which Prof Akinyemi responded as follows, “Oh dear. Eternal rest grant him O Lord. I had a lot of respect for him”. I had the privilege of visiting his military alma-mater, National Defence Academy, India, in 2005 and I listened with joy in my heart when the College told my team of some Nigerians that came years back and won laurels. Among the names given were Zamani Lekwot, Ndubuisi Kanu and of course, Patrick Koshoni.
Admiral Koshoni was a thoroughbred seaman, and his professionalism shone brightly. He became CNS at 43, by which time he had served as the Hon. Minister of Health; Hon. Minister of Employment, Labour & Productivity; as well as the Hon. Min. of Transport and Aviation. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only non-medical Minister of Health. He took his ministerial responsibilities so seriously that becoming the CNS at 43 was like the icing of the cake for him. He was young in age but a dynamite in experience and management. A detribalized leader per excellence. By the time he retired as CNS at 46, his level of maturity, commitment, professionalism was high profile. I have never met anybody as neat as Admiral Koshoni. His carriage is out of this world.
Nigerians were deprived the opportunity of having a truly transformed Navy under his watch because of the antics of some of his colleagues who didn’t allow him to operate the Navy the way he wanted to. Each time he took memos to Council on behalf of the Navy, these people- for self-seeking reasons, shot them down. I witnessed his frustrations in this respect.
I am certain now that most Nigerians have forgotten that it was Patrick Koshoni who chaired the Civil Service Reforms of 1989 that introduced among other things professionalism into the Public Service and re-designated the head of public parastatals as Directors-General. The Committee had eminent members such as Chief Olu Falae, Alhaji Adamu Fika, Mrs Abisola Willams, Professor ‘Dotun Phillips, and so on. These were all very senior and highly cerebral public servants, yet Patrick Koshoni earned the respect of all of them as their chairman. I recall that after the work of the Committee had been done, Government felt there was a need to defend that report in the media; hence President Babangida summoned the Chairman of the Committee and told him to go and feature on an NTA Network programme. Admiral Koshoni had less than two hours to prepare for the interview, yet he received incredible accolades nationwide. Not long after the interview was aired, I ran into His Excellency, Ambassador A Adekuoye, a highly rated diplomat who was serving then as Nigeria’s Ambassador to China. Ambassador Adekuoye asked me to tell Admiral Koshoni that he had always had great respect for him but that the respect doubled because of the level of intelligence he, Koshoni, displayed at that interview.
Admiral Patrick Koshoni took many of these accolades in his strides and did not allow them to get into his head. He was a deep and down to earth person. He mentored me so expertly, showed great respect and extended much courtesy to me, the subordinate role I played notwithstanding! He always valued good work and energized his staff to keep producing top quality harvest. Admiral Koshoni was outstanding and endeared himself so greatly to my heart. In all, simplicity and the fear of God were the two golden rules that governed his life. They were the principles by which he lived.
A major strength of the Admiral was his love for his family. He received tremendous support from his indefatigable wife, Mrs Margaret Aderoju Koshoni with whom he worked closely to give their children the best. He had immense respect for this great woman.
In closing, I dare say that had this been in another clime, the experience and brilliance of Admiral Koshoni at the age of 46 on retirement, would have earned him a top job at a national or an international level. Either as a brilliant member of a Defence or a Navy Committee in the National Assembly. He could well have been engaged as a minister in a strategic ministry or deployed as an envoy, probably at the United Nations. Unfortunately, that was not to be!
Adieu dear Admiral Patrick Suebo Koshoni!
… Rear Admiral Komolafe(Rtd) was the Flag Lieutenant(aide de camp-ADC) of late Admiral Patrick Suebo Koshoni! (Rtd).