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Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War - Part 2


Nowa Omoigui


OWERRI, 1969 -  PART 2


Background to the Siege of Owerri


The year 1968 opened up in earnest, continuing a pattern that had been set on September 2nd  1967 when Major General Yakubu Gowon declared “total war” against Biafra in response to the Biafran invasion of the Midwestern Region/State of Nigeria.   Up until that time, “Operation Unicord,“ as the federal “internal security” operation against the breakaway Biafra (Eastern region of Nigeria) was called, was described as “Police action.”  Increasingly violent shooting went on side by side with increasingly cynical talking. 


As the war raged, various external actors sought ways to resolve various elements of the crisis in favor of one or the other of the contending forces.  These included the Commonwealth, World Council of Churches, Organization for African Unity, and various nations, among other state and non-state actors.  Both Nigeria and Biafra conducted a furious war to influence international opinion by various means. Both entities send delegations abroad for this purpose as well as to shop for weapons and ammunition. For example, former Eastern Region Premier Michael Okpara and former Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe were roving Biafran ambassadors to some East African and Francophone countries.   In the wake of Azikiwe’s diplomatic offensive, Tanzania, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Zambia recognized Biafra.  Importantly, on August 1st, General de Gaulle of France openly acknowledged already ongoing support for Biafran self-determination.  But there were other pro-Biafran forces in the background.  Biafra also sought and got support (of varying quantity and quality) from Israel, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa, the Vatican and non-state actors like Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International, MarkPress, US Catholic Relief Services, etc.


Meanwhile, federal delegations visited many other African countries to stem the tide of Biafran recognition and obtain official OAU backing, considerably enhanced by the sympathy of the OAU Consultative Committee on the Nigerian crisis.  (The members of this committee, led by Emperor Selassie of Ethiopia were Cameroun, Congo Kinshasha, Ghana, Liberia and Niger).  At the same time Nigeria was negotiating with countries like Belgium, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, West Germany, Hong Kong, Spain, Poland, the USSR, and the United States for weapons and other items of military ordnance. In August, for example, Dr, Okoi Arikpo was dispatched to the USSR on what was described as a goodwill visit coming exactly one year after a “cultural pact” between both countries – negotiated by Soviet Ambassador Alexandr Romanov - had resulted in the supply of Mig-17 fighter aircraft to Nigeria.   The Nigerian international shopping list in 1968 included Artillery, Armoured fighting vehicles, shells, battle rifles, rifle ammunition, machine guns, side arms, etc.  In the background, peace talks were stuttering in London, Kampala, Niamey, and Addis Ababa, as international concern increased about relief for civilians caught in the fighting. 


On the battlefield, however, facts were being created and recreated on the ground and in propaganda.  In March, Onitsha finally fell to federal troops of the 2nd Infantry Division, after many bloody unsuccessful attempts.  In April, Abakaliki was captured, followed in May by the fall of Port Harcourt to troops of the 3rd Marine Commando Division.  On July 30th, an increasingly confident Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, GOC of the 3rd Marine Commando Division announced to the Press that he would capture Owerri, Aba and Umuahia (O.A.U) within two weeks. Nevertheless, it was not until August 15th, 1968, that Major General Gowon announced that the “final offensive” which would bring the war to an end would begin on August 25th.  Following this announcement, Aba fell to federal forces on September 4th followed on September 16th by Owerri.  But by the time Okigwe was taken on October 1st, it was evident that all was not well with the “final offensive.”


For quite some time, federal radio reports notwithstanding, it had not been all losses for the Biafran Army.  In April, Biafran troops overran federal units at Onne, Arochukwu, and Aletu, followed in May by another of the many recaptures of Afam Power Station.  This pattern was to continue when Ikot-Ekpene, Oguta and Enugu-Aku were seized from federal troops in September and Colonel Adekunle’s Operation “OAU” ended in calamity near Umuahia in October.  In fact, unknown to the public, the scale of the loss was such that the 3rd Marine Commando Division was reduced to one-third of its original 35,000 man size before Operation OAU!  By November, Owerri’s line of communication was being threatened, and as Colonel Oluleye put it, the 3rd Marine Commando Division was “reeling back to east and south.”  Interesting reports surfaced in the international Press that the federal “final offensive” was being stoutly resisted by Biafran troops, courtesy of French weapons and ammunition. 


Indeed, the French operation, beginning in September 1968 and directed by M. Jacques Foccart was code-named “Operation Mabel”.  Foccart was the Secretary-General of the Franco-African Community.  In collaboration with the French Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs, he used Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Sao Tome as staging and resupply points for gun running to Biafra with the full connivance of the French Secret Service.  However, following aggressive diplomatic representations from Nigeria, Fernando Po  (now called Equatorial Guinea), and Cameroun refused to cooperate with Foccart. Indeed, none of Nigeria’s Francophone neighbors – Benin, Cameroun, Chad, and Niger – supported Biafra.


But it would be simplistic to think that it was all about French weapons and ammunition.  Long before General de Gaulle publicly declared support for Biafra and began sending in large consignments of weapons, the federal Army had already begun betraying bad habits that would eventually be brilliantly exploited by cunning Biafran commanders and determined Biafran troops thoroughly familiar with the ground.     First was the sheer size of the area of responsibility allocated to the 3rd Marine Commando, for example.  They were stretched across a vast area of jungle and riverain creeks called the “southern front” extending 150 miles from the Orashi river through Owerri, Aba and Ikot Ekpene to Itu along the Cross-River.  The second factor was the federal tendency to rely on main roads for advance.  The third was the notorious tendency (particularly among units of the 2nd and 3rd Divisions) to rush in to seize objectives without securing and vigorously patrolling lines of communication and flanks.  The 2nd Division took Onitsha like that with no contingency for securing control of the Onitsha-Enugu road.  During the 3rd CDO Division dash to Umuahia, no effort was made to secure lines of communication either.   To amply this dangerous tendency, fourthly, federal battalions, brigades and divisions rarely acted in coordination and GOCs often-disobeyed higher command from Lagos.  Fifthly, the many hastily recruited and trained federal troops, although initially enthusiastic, were unfamiliar with the ground and superstitious about darkness, making nighttime operations highly unattractive, for fear of “juju”.  Lastly, such daytime operations as were carried out, again, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, were characterized by heavy expenditure of ammunition and poor fire discipline.  The sheer volume of fire they could deliver ‘at anything that moved’, was the basic source of motivation for the average federal soldier as he carried out “clearing operations.”   Junior tactical level leadership was seriously lacking outside the 1st Division, which had the benefit of retaining the core of the old Nigerian Army.   Planners, for example, projected 5 million rounds of ammunition for the 3rd Marine Commando Division alone at the beginning of Operation OAU in 1968.  But even more startling, in planning for offensives after May 1969, the AHQ projected a minimum of about 15 million rounds of 7.62-mm rifle ammunition for each division, supplemented by another 15 million rounds held in reserve in Lagos.  All of this was to be purchased from the USSR, Spain and the UK.  In other words, enough ammunition to kill the entire 60 million strong population of the country at that time!  This does not include Mortar and Artillery shells,  etc.    This “ammunition mentality” was amplified by reassurances that Biafran soldiers were unarmed or poorly armed.  But as federal casualties mounted and it became apparent that Biafran soldiers could also be well armed (albeit only from time to time), federal soldiers became increasingly reluctant to take risks on patrol – unless numerical and firepower advantage were overwhelming. 


To these ‘bad federal habits’ must be added certain “good habits” and advantages of the Biafran soldier.  The first was that they were very highly motivated and determined, fighting on home ground.  To federal troops the battlefields might have been little more than places on maps and abstract names of hamlets, villages, and towns populated by misguided civilians.  To Biafran troops they represented the safe haven of ancestral lands held by generations of their people, homes, farms, burial grounds, places of ritual significance etc.   The role of such motivation became increasingly apparent as federal divisions crossed from the usually pro-federal or neutral minority areas of the eastern region into the core Igbo areas whose fear of “genocide”, dating back to the events of July – September 1966, was constantly reinforced by Biafran radio. Biafra clearly had the edge in psychological warfare.    The second was the enterprising and recurrent ability of Biafran units and sub-units to penetrate federal lines, sometimes even operating far in the rear of supposedly captured federal areas – where they could rely on a sympathetic population.   The third was the ability of some Biafran commanders to resourcefully exploit the natural terrain in defensive positions (including concrete bunkers) well connected by all-weather communication trenches.  Such defensive positions were often set up to cover strategic roads and demolished bridges as well as any lines of federal retreat from pre-positioned Biafran home-made minefields.  The problem, though, was that the defensive positions were often not deployed in depth, and Biafran soldiers were chronically short of weapons and ammunition, inspite of heroic scientific efforts to produce their own. 


Double Envelopment at Owerri



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