REAR ADMIRAL NELSON BOSSMAN SOROH
FIRST BLACK AFRICAN TO SAIL A WARSHIP FROM EUROPE TO NIGERIA
He could be referred to as the “perpetual first lord of the Nigerian Admiralty”. He is no other person than the man with the heart of a king, Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh (rtd). Admiral Soroh was not the first indigenous officer to rise to the headship of the Nigerian Navy, but his career was characterised by a litany of Nigerian, West African and African firsts.He 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.
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, was from Tungbo, while his mother, Adere Soroh, 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 10 at the Salvation Army Primary School in Enugu where his father had relocated 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 join the Nigerian Marine Department, rather than the police, later graduating in October 1949 as an Able Seaman 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 Aide to Princess Alexandra. At this point in Nigerian Navy history there were – in addition to then Lt. N.B. Soroh – no more than eight (8) Nigerian officers in all, namely Engineer Officers Lt. (later Vice Admiral) J.E.A. Wey and Lt. Pearse, Supply Officers Lt. Akinloye, Lt. Cheazor, 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 extra regimental 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 Conakry Guinea. 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 naval training team in what became the beginning of a long relationship with the Indian Navy.
The following year, he returned to Britain for additional training in long torpedo and anti-submarine 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, re-commissioned, 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, 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. She 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. It 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 Calabar 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 wished I knew!”
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 she 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 could be credited to the work of that committee. Captain Soroh also established the Navy’s first magazine, “Anchors Aweigh.” Earlier 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, Commodore Soroh served on the board of Inquiry that determined the fate of former Biafran officers seeking re-absorption into the Nigerian Armed Forces. The vast majority of former Nigerian naval officers who had served under the Biafran flag during the civil war were reabsorbed – although 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. 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 remained 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 Murtala Muhammed regime. He was succeeded by Commodore Michael Adelanwa.
During his illustrious career, aside 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 Government meeting in Britain. He later served as a special envoy to Guinea-undertaking delicate tasks on behalf of Nigeria, including behind the scene talks related to the mercenary invasion of Guinea in late 1970 as well as the intricate and difficult negotiations for Guinea to release the body of the late Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, who 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 Sailor’s Dream”, was published by Crucible Publishers in Lagos. Rear Admiral N B Soroh was the recipient of several Nigerian and foreign awards and medals. These included 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 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. The pride of the Izon people served the nation most diligently. He died on February 28th, 2006, at 78 and was buried on Saturday April 22nd, 2006.