Federal Nigerian Army Blunders 5


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Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War-Part 5

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Nowa Omoigui



OWERRI, 1969 - PART 5

The Plot Thickens

Although assisted by heavy rains, poor federal logistics and coordination along with overextended lines of communications, Madiebo’s plan for the encirclement of Owerri was by no means a lightning strike.  Because of the relatively limited combat resources available to him, it was designed to be a slow process – aided no doubt by federal ineptitude.   To facilitate Biafran troop support during this ambitious scheme, soldiers were expected to live off the land, harvesting what they could lay their hands on to supplement provisions from the Biafran Food Directorate.  Careful preparations were made even as other developments favorable to Biafra were occurring elsewhere.  In the last two weeks of September, for example, Colonel Adekunle, in an effort to get there before Colonel Shuwa’s 1st Division, and at the same time present Major General Gowon with an Independence day present, made a disastrous effort to capture Umuahia. He lost the equivalent of four or more battalions in the process, trapped and destroyed as a result of insecure lines of communication and supply.   By mid-October advance Biafran units were within five miles of Aba, probing along the Umuahia-Aba road.  This was when the proposal to change Colonel Adekunle as GOC, 3MCDO and/or split the division into two was first broached with Major General Gowon, who initially refused the recommendation of AHQ partly for political reasons.  Thus, Adekunle felt vindicated and made no efforts to adjust his tactics in light of the terrible experience at Umuahia.  The stage was thus set for the Owerri disaster.

The 3MCDO Division had previously been reorganized after the initial fall of Aba and Owerri. Brigades were grouped into four (4) sectors.  The 15 and 16 Brigades in the Oguta-Owerri axis comprised Sector 1 under Col. Godwin Ally, who had transferred to the 3MCDO from the 2nd Division where he had commanded the 7 Brigade at Asaba.  The 14 and 17 Brigades were grouped in Sector 2 under Lt. Col. Alani Akinrinade – another former Brigade Commander in the 2nd Division who left that division after clashing with Colonel Mohammed over the Onitsha debacle and had himself experienced a disaster at Onne.  The 12, 13 and 18 Brigades - all badly mauled at Umuahia  - were in Sector 3 under Lt. Col. Alabi-Isama.  Lastly, a Sector was created in Calabar for rear administrative purposes. It was under the command of Lt. Col. Ayo-Ariyo.

While Major General Gowon was distracted by rear internal security dilemmas like the Omopupa and Agbekoya “anti-tax” riots in the West, repositioning and battlefield preparation for the first phase of Madiebo’s master plan to surround Owerri was being implemented gradually but surely. The first sign of trouble detected by then Lt. Col. Etuk was when he observed that whenever he sent his quarter-master (QM) from Owerri back to Sector and Divisional HQ at Port Harcourt for supplies, the QM would often be ambushed and his supplies retrieved by small Biafran patrols. 

According to Col Etuk (rtd),

“Each time he was coming back he would be ambushed. At times he escaped and a lot of goodies he collected from them would be shared by the rebels and the balance he would bring to me.  So I reported back to my Divisional Commander, Adekunle.  He didn’t take the matter seriously and this continued until when supplies were no longer coming. I couldn’t communicate with the outside since the battery of my radio was dead. I couldn’t talk to anybody.”

By November 1st, Etuk’s second-in-command, Major AT Hamman, who was leading those elements of the federal 16th Bde responsible for protecting its southern flank, was already filing radio reports saying his line of communication was threatened.  In fact, it is said that the International Military Observer Team mentioned earlier was at one time briefly trapped inside Owerri with Etuk and his boys.   In desperation, a heavily armed 120-man federal rifle company was emergently airlifted from Lagos to Port Harcourt, according to an account provided by Major General Oluleye (rtd).  When the Relief Company arrived, however, it found itself enmeshed in the internal politics of the 3MCDO.  Just as he did against other Divisions when dealing with the Army HQ, Colonel Adekunle’s Brigade Commanders were fighting one another for access to ammunition and fresh troops, so they would often file false casualty, ammunition, and battlefield reports with Division HQ in order to gain advantage.  Rather than deploy the federal company as a unit to link up with Major Hamman and Lt. Col Etuk at Owerri, therefore, Adekunle split up the force into little bits and shared them out among his warring Brigade Commanders.  Eventually, only fifteen (15) soldiers were given the task of securing the Port-Harcourt-Owerri road to link up with the 16th Brigade!

On the Biafran side, while still trying to infiltrate the Midwest, Ojukwu announced in November that he had dismissed eight (8) white mercenaries, including Colonel Rolf Steiner, following allegations of indiscipline and piracy, including the waylaying of CARITAS relief supplies.  Steiner apparently encouraged his special 4th Commando Brigade to commandeer not only food and drink, but also women.  These acts did not go down well with regular Biafran units who were already seething with envy over Ojukwu’s preferential treatment of Steiner and his unit. In fact, according to Mr. Jensen of Radio Denmark, Steiner had been ordered to use the 4th Commando Brigade to lead “Operation Hiroshima” – the unsuccessful Biafran attempt to recapture Onitsha. When he lost over half of his troops in that operation, Steiner accused Ojukwu of murdering his men and slapped him in anger. But for Ojukwu’s intervention Steiner would have been shot immediately by Ojukwu’s bodyguards.  He was, however, arrested and then expelled from Biafra the following day.  Brigadier Conrad Nwawo took over command of the 4th Commando Division.  [Nwawo is a former Nigerian Defence Attache in London. He was the one who secured the surrender of Major CK Nzeogwu to Major General Ironsi in January 1966, and was the last Commander of Midwestern 4th Area Command prior to the Biafran invasion of the Midwest in August 1967.]

After this “house-cleaning” in the High Command, on November 27, the “Umuahia Brigade”, which was actually a special 500-man battalion led by Major Njoku, repulsed a federal attack launched from Awka toward Agulu and Adazi junction.  Njoku completely destroyed the 81 Battalion of the 1st Division in the process.   The significance of this battle is that Nnewi, Ojukwu’s hometown, as well as Uga Airport were directly threatened.  If federal forces had prevailed, the HQ of the Biafran 11 Division would have been put out of business.

With these loose ends tied up, then Colonel Ogbugo Kalu’s 14 Division was finally ready to move on Owerri.  The 63 Brigade under Colonel Lambert Ihenacho launched a diversionary attack aimed at Elelem and Eziama on December 3rd.  The main thrust of the first stage of the Biafran siege of Owerri later began on the 5th of December 1968, led by the 60 Brigade under Colonel Asoya.  During the first week of the operation, 50,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 200 rounds of 105-mm howitzer shells, 300 rounds of mortar bombs, 20 rounds of anti-tank rockets, along with grenades were supplied to the Biafran units involved.  All of this ordnance was thrown against Etuk’s 16th Brigade in one week or less as they were dug in and around Owerri.

According to Madiebo,

“60 Brigade moved with a battalion each on three fronts.  On the left, a battalion moved to clear Izombe and Obudi.  From there, while a part of it moved to clear Ogbaku on the Ihiala road, the rest of the battalion moved to Ofogwe.  From the centre, another battalion moved from the area of Okwuzu and Mgbede and took Obigwe and, shortly after, were in full control of Okuku.  This particular move was so swift that the enemy Battalion Headquarters at Obudi did not realise for some time that it had been cut off together with most of the battalion sub-units.  Thus many enemy soldiers and vehicles, which were either moving to Obudi or returning from there fell into our hands in the area of Okuku.  The third battalion of 60 Brigade moving on both Ohoba-Umukanne road and Asa-Awarra road, took Umuakpu quite easily.  Thus, in the first three days, the 60 Brigade had completed their tasks in the first phase, resulting in the clearing of several hundreds of square miles of enemy occupied territory.

68 Battalion was equally successful in clearing all enemy held areas left of the Port Harcourt road down to Mgbirichi, thus establishing a permanent link with the 63 Brigade.  The 68 Battalion success left us completely in control of all areas southeast of Owerri town down to Owerrinta Bridge to a depth of about ten miles.  The 52 Brigade facing the enemy forward concentrations made only small gains as expected.  Once or twice they cleared Orji but lost it again.  At the end of one week, the first phase was considered to be over and the results, particularly in 60 Brigade area were very encouraging.”

On the diplomatic front, however, all was not well with the Biafran leadership.   Raph Uwechue, Biafra’s envoy in Paris, resigned in protest against Ojukwu’s approach to leadership.  Meanwhile, on the battlefield the 16th Brigade regrouped and fought back.  For example, Abiaka was retaken on December 19, while Avu and Afrola were regained on December 29, even as Imu-Ikwe was being seized by Biafran troops.         

The fits and starts of French ordnance supply and inability to use captured but incompatible federal ammunition had compelled Madiebo to make changes in his original plans. He proceeded to carry out the second phase  “with only one brigade fighting at a time, and as soon as its objectives were completely attained, the next brigade or formation would start”.  In other words, a rolling choreographed offensive (like the first week of American attacks on Iraq during the 2nd Gulf War), rather than a decisive coordinated massive application of force exploiting the principle of momentum.   Therefore, 60 Brigade began by once again assaulting Avu and Obinze while other units adopted a defensive posture.  Each time, though, elements of the 16th Brigade would successfully counter-attack from Owerri, using armored personnel carriers, Ferrets and Saladin vehicles.

For this reason Madiebo decided to modify stage two (2) of his plan by cutting off the Port-Harcourt-Umuahia road further southwards.  Along these lines, beginning on January 6th, early in the New Year (1969), the 60 Brigade took Umuakpu, Umuagwo and Omanelu from Umukanne on their right, while 68 Battalion detachment of “S” Division, under Major Ikeji seized Obinze.  Every attempt, though, to retake Avu from Obinze was beaten back by Etuk.

At this point, Madiebo recalls,

“By the end of the day we were controlling over 20 miles of the road which was before then the last link between Owerri and Port Harcourt, thereby having the enemy brigade at Owerri completely surrounded.  In order to ensure that the enemy on both sides of the corridor did not link up ever again, we used several hundreds of civilians to render that stretch of road absolutely impassable using mines, ditches and heavy trees felled across the road.  Thereafter, the 68 Battalion which had grown gradually and been renamed the 68 Brigade, took charge of the defence of the Port Harcourt road (inclusive) westwards to 63 Brigade, while the 60 Brigade defended eastwards to Orashi River.  From the 8th of January, 1969, the enemy began his counterattacks to reopen the road.  These attacks, which came from the Port Harcourt end, persisted for several months unsuccessfully until we cleared Owerri town itself.”

The Biafran units involved were, however, experiencing some internal difficulties.  Fatigue from the month long offensive, ups and downs with logistic support and illness resulting from hunger and inadequate clothing undermined morale.   But the effort was continued by determined Biafran troops urged on by their commanders.  On January 15, 1969 the final phase “to clear Owerri” was launched. 60 Brigade was to take the Holy Ghost College, the Cathedral and the Progress Hotel after which it would swing rightwards toward the Clock Tower and Motor Park, destroying the bridge over the Otamini river in order to prevent armored counter-attacks.                  

However, once they came upon abandoned Federal supplies of ammunition, food and clothing near the Holy Ghost College, rather than maintain hot pursuit, hungry and naked Biafran troops ignored their commanders.  They stopped short of the Otamini Bridge not only to eat but also to  “evacuate enemy abandoned food” and “change into the newly captured uniforms”.  But while they happily savored the liberated food and clothing a federal armored counter-attack across the Otamini Bridge swept them out of Owerri back to the previous jump-off lines at their trenches in the perimeter. 

This became the established pattern.  Every week, Biafran units would launch a number of attacks in a vicious dialogue of attack and counter-attack with Etuk, all the while hoping that the 16th Brigade would eventually run out of ammunition.  On January 16th, the 16th Brigade retook Afaha-Ise.  But a week later on January 23rd, Otoro fell to Biafran units.  The next day, on January 24th, a new federal offensive – including air strikes - was launched by the AHQ.  But by January 29th, having sifted through the maze of Biafran propaganda on one hand, and the serious internal problem of false reporting by federal officers on the other, it became apparent to senior federal commanders in Lagos that Owerri was indeed encircled, except for small breaches here and there.  

On February 7th, federal L-29 Delphin armed jet trainers, Mig-17 fighters and IL-28 Ilyushin Bombers destroyed Umohiagu village near Owerri – prompting yet another round of international press accusations that Nigerian (and Egyptian) pilots were indiscriminately bombing civilian targets while supposedly mounting military operations to relieve Owerri and take Umuahia.  Outside the immediate War Theater, Nnamdi Azikiwe published a 14-point peace plan during a speech at Oxford on February 10th.  A few days later a US Congressional delegation visited Biafra just as Maurice Foley, UK undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was openly accusing Nigeria in the House of Commons in London of indiscriminate bombing.  After Umohiagu, for example, federal jets went further to level the village of Ozu Abam.  

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Chief of Staff (Army), then Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina called an urgent “coordination and unity” meeting in Lagos of all federal divisional commanders.   As of that time rivalries between the various Divisions had become very bad.  Each division was procuring its own weapons independently from Europe and sending “patrols” to mount surveillance at the Lagos Port for incoming Arms Shipments.   They even laid siege on the Shell depot at Apapa in order to corner fuel supplies for themselves.  Weapons and fuel meant for other divisions were often hijacked.

After this “peace meeting”, Major General Gowon finally paid his long awaited first official visit to the warfront in late February, during which he encouraged Lt. Col. Etuk to hang in there.  Determined efforts were being made to relieve the beleaguered 16th Bde, just as Russian warships visiting Lagos were feting the public.  Interestingly, bothered by international accusations the NAF HQ issued instructions to NAF units on March 5th, ordering them to avoid bombing civilians.  Nevertheless, bombing continued. 

In an article published by the UK Guardian on March 13, 1969, for example, Harvard Professor Mayer wrote, among other things:

“Hospitals, schools, refugee camps and markets have been and are being systematically attacked by the Nigerian Air Force.  We witnessed such attacks and saw hundreds of casualties from previous attacks.  The red crosses are now camouflaged on the roofs of the hospitals (and on the roofs of the headquarters of the International Red Cross) because they obviously attract bombing and strafing, even when (if not particularly when) the hospital buildings are isolated and far from any town, cross road or any installation even remotely of military significance.  Refugees – most of them children and many of them elderly, all of them famished – who number at least four million – have to be fed at night because during the day feeding lines were systematically strafed by MIG 17s of the Nigerian Air Force or bombed by its Ilyushins.”

But by March 14th in spite of strong efforts to reopen the Omanelu-Umuakpu and Elele-Ubimini-Awarra roads the Biafran encirclement of Owerri was total.   Without airdrops, the 16th Brigade was completely cut off.   Gradually but surely it was being cut to pieces.

Yet another among many Biafran efforts to wipe out the 16th Brigade began on March 15th, when two additional battalions of the “S” Division were transferred from the Aba sector to Owerri.  Ojukwu overruled Madiebo’s proposal to concentrate all the battalions of the “S” Division - under Colonel Onwuatuegwu - move through 68 Brigade area and attack Etuk from the rear.  He reportedly preferred a direct frontal assault from Emekuku in the northeast.  After heavy casualties, this unwise attempt stalled against fierce federal resistance, combined with some command and staff problems with Onwuatuegwu’s outfit.  Thus, Onwuatuegwu was asked by Ojukwu to cede command of part of the “S” Division to Colonel Joe “Hannibal” Achuzia. Using the “S” Brigade under Major Atumaka, Achuzia broke through federal lines at Egbu and reportedly got within a mile of Owerri City Center after heavy casualties.  At this point Achuzia wanted complete control of the entire “S” Division in order to sustain his momentum. However, Onwuatuegwu refused, and both men almost shot one another, drawing their handguns.  Ojukwu then ordered Onwuatuegwu to cede complete divisional control to Achuzia for one week.   But all subsequent bloody attempts by Achuzia to take Owerri failed.  The “S” Brigade Commander, Major Atumaka died in the process along with many other Biafran soldiers.   At this point Ojukwu ordered all frontal assaults by Achuzia to stop, restored Onwuatuegwu to his command of the “S” Division, and asked Madiebo to revisit the old plan of hitting Etuk from the rear.  

Meanwhile, on March 24th, Haiti recognized Biafra.  On March 29th 1969, Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Britain paid a visit to Nigeria during which the issue of indiscriminate bombing was again discussed with the federal government - leading to the eventual replacement of many Egyptian pilots.  Allegedly, in the absence of stand-off precision-guided munitions, most of those involved were neither good shots nor were they willing to risk their lives attacking well defended military targets in another man’s war.  So they “offloaded” on civilian targets and then returned to base to file false bomb damage assessments.  However, it cannot escape suspicion that some bombing raids were calculatingly deliberate, aimed at the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF), an irregular-fighting outfit that had thoroughly infiltrated civilian areas, as well as Relief Organizations suspected of providing cover for weapons shipments.  

On March 31st, 1969, referring no doubt to Achuzia’s breakthrough at Egbu, Ojukwu made an entry into his Diary saying that “70%” of Owerri Town was now in Biafran hands following an assault by the 14 and “Thunder” Divisions. (“Thunder” Division was how Ojukwu sometimes referred to what many others called the “S” Division, perhaps to distinguish it from an earlier secret military formation also called the “S” Division, a special personal security unit dedicated to his protection.) 

Biafran Engineers constantly monitored desperate Nigerian radio transmissions by wireless intercept.  Citing additional “reconnaissance reports”, Madiebo claims that “the enemy was so short of food that he was compelled to kill most of his Biafran prisoners of war and civilian detainees inside Owerri because there was not sufficient food with which to feed them.“  There is no independent confirmation of this assertion.




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