Saturday, 15 July 2017


                                  BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Originally shared by George Eleady-Cole
"A man with the heart of a King" - A Tribute to Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh (rtd)

Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh (rtd), who died on February 28th, 2006, aged 78, joined the Nigerian Marine Department as an ordinary seaman in 1948, and became the first Able seaman to successfully rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a Merchant Marine Officer against incredible odds.
He transferred to the Nigerian Navy in 1958 and rose through its officer ranks as the first executive combatant officer, following training as the first African officer to be educated by the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, eventually becoming the second indigenous Nigerian Chief of Naval Staff in May 1973. As a Captain, he commanded the joint combined Navy-Army Amphibious Task Force that captured Bonny in July 1967 during the civil war - the first such combined military operation in Africa by an African country. He also commanded the Joint Amphibious Task Force that seized Calabar later that year.
The late Admiral rose from humble beginnings. He was born at Nsukka in modern Enugu State into an Izon (Ijaw) family on February 15, 1928. His father, Keregbeye Soroh, hailed from Tungbo while his mother, Adere Soroh, hailed from Sagbama, both in modern Bayelsa State. He spent his early life paddling canoes through the creeks around the Forcados river as well as up and down the lower Niger. He began kindergarten and primary education at age ten (10) at the Salvation Army Primary School in Enugu where his father had relocated to. Nelson, as he later came to be known, worked as a "Live in" House servant (i.e. "House-Boy") for two years while in primary school, which he completed in 1944. As a secondary school student at the Salvation Army Central School in Lagos he became the first School Prefect, first President of the senior pupils association, and rose to become a Boy Scout Cubmaster.
After secondary school, he worked briefly as a clerk at the Territorial Trade department of the Salvation Army in Lagos before taking up an appointment as a clerk at the Scout Headquarters. During this time he also worked part-time as a House servant, took correspondence courses, and taught himself to type. In March 1948, encouraged by a dream, he elected to enter the Nigerian Marine department, rather than the Police, later graduating in October 1949 as an able seaman at the top of his cohort from the School of Seamanship "Quorra." Not to be deterred, he plotted his rise and appointment as a Merchant Marine Officer through sheer hard work, persistence and discipline, eventually passing the final cadet qualifying examination in March 1953.
In 1955 he won a "Palm Line" Scholarship for training in Britain as a full Merchant Marine Officer on secondment from the Nigerian Marine. In this capacity, he became one of the first two Africans to undergo deep sea training, punctuated by ground training and certification of competency at the Liverpool College of Technology. On October 1st, 1956, he made his first sea crossing of the Equator.
Soroh was accepted in transfer as a probationary Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Nigerian Navy in July 1958 - in training with RN Course P34 at a variety of shore facilities in Portsmouth. His eventual area of combat specialization was in Torpedoes and Anti-Submarine warfare. He took part in Cameroon counter-insurgency operations aboard the HMNS Nigeria, subsequently gaining greater levels of responsibility aboard the HMNS Challenger, HMNS Calabar, and finally command of the HMNS Kaduna, making him the first Nigerian to command a warship. He was promoted Lieutenant in March 1960. During Nigerian independence day ceremonies, he was officer commanding the Governor General's Barge and Special BodyGuard to Princess Alexandra. At this point in Nigerian navy history there were - in addition to then Lt. NB Soroh - no more than eight (8) Nigerian officers in all, namely Engineer Officers Lt. (later Vice Admiral) JEA Wey and Lt. Pearse, Supply Officers Lt. Akinloye, Lt. Chea zor, sub-lieutenants Duyile, Oni and Martins.
In July 1961, Soroh was appointed substantive Commanding Officer of the HMNS Calabar, an inshore minesweeper. However, his tour of sea duty was interrupted by extraregimental tasks such as his membership of the Nigerian ministerial military delegation to Ethiopia and India and subsequent appointment as Naval ADC to Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa during the latter's official visit to Guinea Conakry. Upon return from Guinea in late 1961 he was promoted Lieutenant Commander. Soroh's recommendations led to the decision of the Nigerian government to accept an Indian Navy Training Team in what became the beginning of a long relationship with the Indian Navy.
The following year, in 1962, he returned to Britain for additional training in Long Torpedo and Antisubmarine warfare at HMS Vernon. After this course he briefly became the Naval Attache at the Nigerian High Commission in London, after which he attended the Joint Services Staff Course (JSSC) at Latimer in 1963. Upon completion of the JSSC, Soroh was promoted Commander and tasked as Commander designate of the HMNS Ogoja (former Queen Wilhemina) which was refitted, recommissioned, and brought to Nigeria from Holland under his command. This journey marked the first time a black African sailed a warship under command from Europe to Africa. As Commander of the HMNS Ogoja (which became the NNS Ogoja in 1964), Soroh was effectively the Senior Officer Afloat. He led the Flag tour of the West African coast that year.
In February 1965, then Commander Soroh was appointed Commanding Officer designate of the future NNS Nigeria*, Nigeria's first Frigate, then under construction in Holland. Upon his successful return to Nigeria on December 14, 1965, in command of the ship, after sea trials, he was promoted Captain. Under his pioneer command, this ship was to play many key roles in historic events of that era. For example, following the collapse of the bloody January 15 "Majors mutiny", coup suspects were initially kept aboard the detention cell on NNS Nigeria before being transferred to land based prisons. During the last weekend of July 1966, it was the NNS Nigeria under Soroh that provided offshore refuge to the late Brigadier B Ogundipe when discipline broke down completely following the "Northern Counter coup." Ogundipe subsequently transferred to the MV Aureol and left for the United Kingdom, as Nigeria's new High Commissioner, by sea.
The NNS Nigeria overcame several serious attempts by secessionist sympathizers to sabotage it during the run-up to hostilities in early 1967. It subsequently took active part in the naval blockade of the Eastern region in June and July 1967, during the opening phase of the civil war. It was as the Commanding Officer of the NNS Nigeria that Captain Soroh functioned as overall Task Force Commander of the joint amphibious assaults on Bonny (July 1967) and Calabar (October 1967). Other ships involved were the NNS Penelope, NNS Lokoja, NNS Ogoja, NNS Benin, NNS Enugu, MV Bode Thomas and MV King Jaja. The NNS Nigeria in particular was credited with beating back a determined Biafran attempt to retake Bonny in late September 1967. She also gained international spotlight when she seized the Dutch Ship MV Jozina (which became the NNS Kwa River). MV Jozina had unsuccessfully attempted to penetrate the blockade. Nevertheless, at one difficult point during the break out phase of the Calab ar landing, the ground force commander, then Lt. Col. Benjamin Adekunle, stopped responding to signals from the NNS Nigeria requesting situation reports. In response to frantic inquiries from higher-ups in Lagos, then Captain Soroh sent a controversial signal to Supreme Headquarters that simply stated "I wish I knew!"
Then Captain Soroh relinquished command of the NNS Nigeria to then Commander Michael Adelanwa on October 27, 1967, in preparation for further training at the Imperial Defence College in London. (*NNS Nigeria later became NNS Obuma, when it yielded its position as Nigeria's Flagship to the NNS Aradu.) When Soroh returned to Nigeria in early 1969 he was appointed Commanding Officer of the shore base, NNS Beecroft. He became immersed in plans for Naval reorganization and later became the first Naval Officer-in-charge (NOIC) of the Lagos area - the forerunner to what is now known as the Western Naval Command. In this capacity he continued to be deeply involved in policy, planning and developmental efforts as the Chairman of the Naval Projects Development Committee. Much of the subsequent expansion efforts of the Navy that became visible in later years can be credited to the work of that committee. Then Captain Soroh also established the Navy's first magazine, "Anchors Aweigh." Ea rlier on, following the July 25 1967 Bonny operation, Soroh was appointed deputy Chief of Naval Staff, a position that was created specifically for him. There has been no other "deputy Chief of Naval Staff" in Nigerian history. He was promoted to the rank of Commodore in June 1969.
Following the end of the war in January 1970, then Commodore Soroh served on the Board of Inquiry that determined the fate of former Biafran Officers seeking reabsorbtion into the Nigerian Armed Forces. The vast majority of former Nigerian naval offficers who had served under the Biafran flag during the civil war were reabsorbed - albeit with loss of seniority for time served in Biafra. Some of those reabsorbed later attained leadership positions in the Nigerian Navy.
On October 1st 1971, Commodore Nelson Soroh was promoted Rear Admiral. Ten (10) days later a new Naval Structure was formally approved and he became the first Flag Officer commanding the Western Naval Command. On May 11, 1973, he was appointed Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) - an appointment that automatically conferred membership of the Supreme Military Council on him. As CNS, Rear Admiral Soroh continued to implement his dreams for an expansive modern Navy. His legacies include joint Army-Navy exercises, the Navy Dockyard and many naval bases and ships that remain in service. He also inaugurated "Navy Week" - a series of events that have become part of Nigerian Navy tradition. He held the position of CNS until the coup of July 29, 1975, after which he was retired, along with other Service Chiefs and all officers of the rank of Major General or above, by the new Murtala Mohammed regime. He was succeeded by then Commodore Michael Adelanwa.
During his illustrious career, aside from his military and closely related defence diplomatic duties, Soroh undertook several politically sensitive diplomatic missions. In September 1966, for example, he was the deputy leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting in Britain. He later served as a special envoy to Guinea-Conakry, undertaking delicate tasks on behalf of Nigeria, including behind the scenes talks related to the mercenary invasion of Guinea-Conakry in late 1970 as well as the intricate and difficult negotiations for Guinea-Conakry to release the body of the late Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, who had died in 1972 as an exile from Ghana.
In retirement, he established and managed Keregbeye Marine services (KEMAS Ltd), named after his father. He also served as Special Adviser on Security matters to the Government of Rivers State from 1979 until 1983. In 2001, his autobiography, "A Sailors Dream", was published by Crucible Publishers in Lagos. It is a must read for any serious student of Nigerian naval history.
Rear Admiral NB Soroh was the recipient of several Nigerian and foreign awards and medals. These include the Senegalese Order du Lion in November 1972, Togolese Order of Mawo in 1974 and Nigeria's Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 1981.
Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh (rtd), got married, first in 1952 and then in 1960, to Bintu Soja and Dora Eti, and was blessed with 16 children, one of whom is a senior Air Force Officer. The late Rear Admiral was named "Obieze" by his father at the time of his birth - an Igbo word that means "A man with the heart of a King." As he grew up, the name fell into disuse, as he became better known as "Bossman" (which is what his Uncle fondly called him) and "Nelson" which he added later, for reasons that are unclear. I have wondered though whether it had anything to do with that other famous Naval Nelson - Nelson of Trafalgar. If the Nigerian Armed forces should - as I hope it will - construct a well deserved statue in his honor inside Bonny Camp in Lagos, or in Bonny town, it would make perfect sense for the epitaph to read "Nelson of Bonny."