Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War - Part 4
continued from: http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui26.htm
OWERRI, 1969 - PART 4
Cutting off the 16th Bde in order to
The Political and strategic context
Following the fall of Port Harcourt to federal
troops of the 3MCDO on May 19th, there was an urgent need for the
Biafran separatist government to establish another airport through which weapons
could be flown in. Thus, on the main road from Owerri to Ihiala, the long
straight stretch between Mgbidi and Uli was widened to 25 meters and modified
into a 2,600-meter long runway, along with a parallel taxi-way. This airstrip,
capable of handling up to 30 large aircraft every night, code-named “Annabelle”,
but better known as the Uli-Ihiala airport, became operational in August 1968
and would later assume a mythic stature in the story of the Nigerian Civil War
(for details, see future essay on the Uli-Ihiala Airport). Meanwhile, Major
General Emeka Ojukwu was exhorting Biafrans to resort to guerrilla warfare in a
fight to the finish. He was quoted as saying:
“We shall all have to return to our provinces and
villages. We shall turn out and harass the enemy at every turn and chase him
out of our land.”
Indeed the Biafran delegation to the peace talks
in Kampala walked out on May 31st, 1968. In support of Ojukwu’s
position, another unnamed Biafran officer told the British journalist, John de
“If you gave us the choice of 1000 rifles or milk
for 50,000 starving children, we’d take the guns.”
Set against this apparent determination to
continue fighting, it was through the Uli airstrip that the first large
consignment of French weapons to Biafra began arriving in late August,
consisting of 2000 rockets and millions of rounds of ammunition delivered
serially in 20-ton aliquots of ordnance every night. This occurred shortly
after Czechoslovakia, Holland, Italy, France and Belgium banned arms sales to
Nigeria, hoping to force the pugilists to the peace table and prevent further
fratricide. At this time, an average of 10,000 men, women and children were
reportedly dying every day in Biafra, mostly from starvation. The Nordchurchaid
relief airlift operation to Biafra had only just begun even as Robert Goldstein,
Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the USA was resigning. He was
protesting Ojukwu’s rejection of land routes through Federal and Biafran
territory as a means of getting urgent relief shipments to starving civilians.
Ojukwu had laid down a condition that not only would he not accept mercy
land corridors for food aid (supervised by the International Red Cross, World
Council of Churches etc) without a complete ceasefire, but that an airlift
was the only solution to feed the starving. What Ojukwu wanted was a mechanism
by which food aid could be used as a cover for weapons imports (particularly at
night) without the prying eyes of the Federal Government. Hence the preference
for airlifts over road haulage even if it meant blocking emergency shipments of
food already waiting at Nigerian ports.
The situation in Biafra in September 1968 was, therefore, very fluid. On one hand, the French had started making good on promises to supply weapons and ammunition. But international pressure to reach an accommodation with Nigeria to protect starving civilians was continuing. At the OAU meeting that took place in Algiers on September 13th, Nigeria won a diplomatic victory when the continental body passed a pro-Nigerian resolution basically declaring its opposition to secession.
The Biafran delegation to the meeting, consisting
of recognized figures like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Michael Okpara, Kenneth Dike, Francis
Nwokedi and others subsequently conducted a crucial meeting with the French
observer delegation from Foccart’s office. They wanted France to agree to an
unrestrained military commitment to Biafra, in which enough weapons to assure
victory over Nigeria, would be supplied, rather than just enough to defend the
core of Biafra against Nigeria’s “Operation Tall Man”, Gowon’s final offensive
of 1968. The French delegation refused, and stipulated that they would not
increase the current level of commitment unless Biafra was able to
independently attract additional diplomatic recognition from more African
countries. It was a Catch-22 situation.
It was on this basis, therefore, that the Biafran OAU observer delegation in Algiers (except Nwokedi, who dissented) sent a cable back to Emeka Ojukwu in Biafra. They advised that in view of the recent fall of Aba and Owerri, and French ambivalence, Biafra – faced with large numbers of starving people - should negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis by responding to Nigeria’s offer of guarantees and re-integration of Igbos. Ojukwu’s reaction, however, was to accuse them all of treason and order the delegation to return home at once. This was the point at which Ojukwu parted ways with long-standing Igbo politicians like Azikiwe and Okpara. A follow-up letter sent from Paris on September 25th by Nnamdi Azikiwe to persuade Ojukwu to negotiate – in order to save lives - was also rebuffed. A few days later, on September 27th, to outflank the old political warhorse, Ojukwu convened his appointed Biafran Consultative Assembly and got a “mandate” to keep fighting.
A week earlier, on September 24, the International
Military Observer Team in Nigeria (OTN) had started work, invited by Major
General Gowon of Nigeria, to evaluate whether Nigerian troops were indeed
committing genocide. The Team consisted of General Negga Tegegne of Ethiopia,
Major Slimane Hoffman of Algeria, Colonel Alfons Olkiewicz of Poland, along with
Major Generals Arthur Raab, Henry Alexander and W.A. Milroy of Sweden, UK and
Canada, respectively. Brigadier Sir Bernard Fergusson later took General
Alexander’s place. On October 2nd, 1968, a day after Okigwe was
taken by elements of the 1st Division to coincide with Nigeria’s
independence anniversary, the OTN published its first interim report.
The Biafran Army takes the Offensive
Thus armed with a fresh “mandate” to continue
fighting and awash with new weapons from France, the Biafran Army began its
counter-offensive. It is important, however, to note that the apparent large
consignments of french weapons were not without problems. Quite often the wide
variety of ammunition delivered would not match available weapons.
Nevertheless, the successful campaign to retake Oguta and Egbema oil fields, push federal troops back from Inyiogugu to Amafor on the left, and from Egbema to Ebocha bridge on the right flank of Owerri forced the 16th Brigade to deploy widely to protect its flanks. This stretched it out considerably, increasing its vulnerability.
Taking note of the caveat that Biafran ‘Brigades’
had no more than 1000 men each, the following Biafran units were deployed around
the Owerri salient:
According to former Biafran Army Commander, Major General Madiebo,
“The task of surrounding Owerri and gradually destroying the enemy inside it was going to be a gigantic one, and would take a very long time, considering the fact that ammunition supply to the troops was normally small and most irregular. For that reason, the whole operation was divided into three major phases.
The aim of the first phase was to box in the enemy on all sides as much as possible into Owerri town, and sever all his routes to the rear except for the Owerri-Port Harcourt main road. It was necessary to leave that major line of communication open for the enemy, otherwise we would scare him too soon, and compel him to take necessary precautions before we were fully prepared to deal the final blow. For that phase, 52 Brigade was to push enemy back in all its areas of responsibility to within one mile from Owerri. Its special tasks during that phase were to clear Egbu, Orji and Orogwe. 60 Brigade was to clear all areas right of Port Harcourt-Owerri road and then maintain a strong defensive line all along the side of that road from Irete on their left to Umuakpu on their right. In addition, the Brigade was to deny the enemy the use of Elele-Umudiogu-Ubimi road, thereafter. The 68 Battalion of “S” Division had the task of moving through the left flank of 63 Brigade to clear all areas held by the enemy on the left side of Port Harcourt-Owerri road between Naze and Umuakpu. The 63 Brigade was to remain in its defensive positions but prepared to provide reinforcements for places where they were needed for exploring success.
the successful completion of the first phase, we expected to see enemy
concentrate heavily inside Owerri town, and thereafter having as his only link
to the rear the main Port Harcourt road. On our side, we expected to find our
troops who were widely dispersed in defensive locations, better concentrated and
in a position to operate more effectively. If and when that happened, it would
then be the signal for the beginning of the second phase of the operation.
the second phase, the sole aim was to move swiftly in strength with all
that was available and seize the Port Harcourt road between Avu and Umuakpu, and
thus seal off Owerri. During that phase 60 Brigade was to move to take Obinze
and Avu and link up both towns and exploit southwards to Mgbirichi where they
would join up with 68 Battalion elements. The 68 Battalion itself was expected
to seize the thinly defended towns of Umuakpu and Umuagwo and, having linked
them up, was to move northwards to Mgbirichi to make contact with 60 Brigade.
It was clearly obvious that if the second phase was successful the reaction of
the enemy inside Owerri would be very violent indeed. For that reason, the task
of 52 Brigade during that phase was merely to prepare troops to beat back enemy
counterattacks both in 60 Brigade and 68 Battalion areas.
The third and final phase of the operation was to descend on the encircled enemy inside Owerri and destroy him while preventing him from breaking through southwards. For the final phase, the 60 Brigade was to clear the right half of the town up to the clock tower. The 52 Brigade was to tackle the left side of the town while the 68 Battalion was to defend the Port Harcourt-Owerri road and flanks right and left of it.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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