Cheta Nwanze: Suberu Sabongida, A Private With The Royal West African Frontier Force

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At dawn on 4 July, 1918, Suberu Sabongida, a Private with the Royal West African Frontier Force faced a firing squad. Sabongida, who’s service number was 5529, was shot for “cowardice” in the face of enemy fire during the East Africa campaign. Almost 90 years later, Sabongida, along with 305 other British Empire soldiers was issued a post-humus pardon by Britain. The pardon, was the result of a long campaign by descendants of some of the men who had been branded cowards, and executed. The pardon was also made possible by better understanding of the effects of modern weaponry on the human being, e.g shell shock.

But what led to the sad end for Suberu Sabongida, who hailed from Sabongida-Ora in today’s Edo state? How did he get involved?

Sabongida, and at least 1439 other Nigerians died serving a King who never cared for them, in a war that didn’t concern them.

Today, we will be looking at the theatre of World War I that involved Nigerians, the Kamerun Campaign.

The First World War started exactly 100 years ago this week. At the time Africa’s colonial masters were very different. What we know as Cameroon, was Kamerun, run by the Germans. Togo was Togoland, also German, as were Namibia and Tanzania. When war started in Europe, the German colonial administration in Africa offered neutrality options to the Brits and French. But the French especially, were eager to expand their empire, and so the Allies refused the offer of keeping Africa neutral.

On 6 August 1914, the French invaded Kamerun from Equatorial Guinea, while the Brits began to mobilise the RWAFF in Nigeria. On 25 August, the Brits moved into Kamerun in three directions; Mora in the north, Garua in the centre, Nsanakang in the south. That day, the first battle took place at Tepe, near the source of River Benue, and ended in a German withdrawal from the area. Buoyed by this victory, the RWAFF advanced towards Garua and were met in battle there between 29 and 31 August. They lost.

Meanwhile, in Mora to the north, the Brits and French attacked, and besieged the German fort. The siege lasted a year and half. To the far south the Battle of Nsanakang resulted in a German victory and the first significant loss of Nigerian life, 95 dead. The British retreat from Nsanakang was disorderly, and the Germans, gaining confidence, pursued them as far as Yola. However, Allied naval superiority meant German troops in Africa could not be reinforced, so they couldn’t build on Nsanakang.

Despite losing at Nsanakang the British stayed on the offensive, and on 7 October, attacked Yabassi, capturing it a week later. The German withdrawal from Yabassi gave the Allies a strategic naval advantage as they now controlled the entire coast. A footnote to the Yabassi victory, it gave Britain (Nigeria) possession of a territory called Bakassi, which, err, long story.

Following Yabassi, the next strategic objective Edea. The assault started on 20 October and was a joint Franco-Brit operation. Edea was important because it linked Douala and Yaounde, and capturing it would give the Allies a major strategic advantage. Following the French and British assault from north and south, the Germans abandoned Edea on 26 October, 1914. Given the strategic importance of Edea, in January 1915, the Germans tried to retake it but they failed and it remained French.

Remember though that following the failures in Garua & Nsanakang, the Germans had some leeway in the north of Kamerun/Nigeria. They made use of it to try relieve the pressure in the south. They attacked Gurin in today’s Adamawa state on 29 April 1915. The Battle of Gurin was the largest battle on Nigerian soil in World War I and ended in a British victory, but 30% troops dead. One of the dead British was the commander of the garrison, Captain Pawle, and it resulted in another battle at Garua. The Second Battle of Garua, this time aided by the French, was the attempt to cripple German incursions into Northern Nigeria. It started on 31 May, 1915 with a naval bombardment from the Benue River. The heavy naval guns weakened German positions. The constant naval bombardment sapped morale, and by 9 June, most of the African soldiers under German command mutinied. Many of those who attempted to swim to safety drowned in the Benue River, and the next day, the Germans surrendered Garua.

The victory at Garua which was a large German fort, and the weapons and ammunition captured, gave the Allies a great advantage. At the same time as the Allies were trying to take Garua from the Germans, they attacked Jaunde, the capital of Kamerun. The First Battle of Jaunde failed, as the Allies did not take into account the heavy rainy season which aided the defenders. Meanwhile, the victors at Gaura continued their advance to Ngaundere, where on 29 June, 1915, a battle was fought and they won. The victory at Ngaundere was significant because it essentially eliminated German threat to northern Nigeria once and for all.

After that, Brigadier Cunliffe, the victor at Garua was given orders to march south and link up with the Allied troops there. This resulted in the Battle of Banyo, in Cameroon’s Adamawa Province, between 4 and 6 November, 1915. The Brits won, 50 Nigerians died.

Again, the surrender of another German fort (Banyo) strengthened the British position as Banyo was very well supplied. From a strategic viewpoint the Banyo victory enabled the Brits and French to link up and prepare for a final assault on Jaunde. The final assault on Jaunde, and its eventual surrender on January 1, 1916, signalled the end of the war in West Africa.

Afterwards, some Nigerian troops, including Private Sabongida, were sent to East Africa where war raged for another 2 years. The end of war in West Africa resulted in Togoland being split into two. Britain took Western Togoland, part of today’s Ghana. France took Eastern Togoland, which is today’s Togo. Kamerun was split between Britain & France as well, Jaunde became Yaounde. Parts of Kamerun can be found in Nigeria, Gabon, C.A.R, Congo Brazzaville, and of course, Cameroon today. May the souls of Pte. S. Sabongida, and the 1440 Nigerians who died in forced service to the colonists, rest in peace.


Cheta Nwanze writes from Lagos Nigeria and can be reached via @Chxta on twitter


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