Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War - Part 8
continue from http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui30.htm
CONSEQUENCES OF THE BIAFRAN RECAPTURE OF OWERRI
The failure to relieve large isolated battle groups in critical theaters of war often portends devastating military and political consequences. Classical examples previously noted include Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu. Owerri was no different. The Biafran recapture of Owerri following the breakout and fighting withdrawal of the 16th Brigade resulted in very significant consequences on both sides.
Zdenek Cervenka identified five
consequences to Biafra of the recapture of Owerri. They are:
1. It sent a signal to Nigeria and the world that despite all the reverses of the war to date, Biafra was still capable of significant resistance.
2. It destroyed the myth surrounding the federal 3rd Marine Commando Division and its well known commander, Colonel B.A.M. Adekunle, a.k.a. “Black Scorpion”.
3. It enhanced road and telecommunications links within the residue of Biafra.
It relieved the threat to the strategic Uli-Ihiala airstrip.
5. It created a hinge point for subsequent aggressive Biafran probes towards Port Harcourt.
Former Nigerian and Biafran soldiers who
bore direct witness to the event have amplified all of these consequences and
more. According to Madiebo:
“The Owerri victory revived the dying Biafra. All Biafrans who a few days before wanted nothing but an end to the war, now pressed for a continuation of the struggle to the end. The Umuahia disaster was soon forgotten and the only quarrel civilian military tacticians had against the Army was that they allowed the enemy to escape from Owerri. The enemy left a considerably large amount of ammunition of different calibres, but he managed to take away almost his entire heavy equipment including armoured vehicles and artillery pieces. The town was completely ravaged and not a single building was habitable without major repairs. All vehicles not taken away by the enemy were overturned and burnt by him.”
In addition, Madiebo claims that:
“Mass graves were discovered all over the town and the victims
appeared to be civilians and prisoners of war.”
It is more likely, however, that those graves were predominantly graves of the thousands of soldiers of the 16th brigade that died between September 1968 when they first arrived and April 1969 when survivors broke out of the siege. No official casualty count has ever been rendered, but if Major General Shuwa’s estimate is correct, then it can be surmised that of the approximately 3000 soldiers that confidently thundered into the town in September 1968, about 300 made it back alive in April 1969. Assuming they were all recovered and buried, the graves of over 2000 Nigerian soldiers killed in action were thus among those the besieging Biafrans “discovered” after retaking the town. In any case several independent international sources confirm that what was left of the 16th Brigade brought along a large number of civilians and prisoners of war out of the Owerri pocket.
That said, favorable and unfavorable reactions within and outside
the Biafran military to the victory at Owerri were not without high drama and
recrimination. For example, Madiebo, who had held the rank of Major General
since September 1967 when he relieved Brigadier Hilary Njoku as Commander of the
Biafran Army, observed in his memoirs that:
“The Head of State put out a long list of promotions to
commemorate the recapture of Owerri. He himself became a General while
Okwechime, Eze and Kalu were all promoted to Brigadiers. Various others were
promoted except Onwuatuegwu, the darling of the people, who was left out of
General Ojukwu’s list. That omission became a national political issue. “Jet
77,” the government sponsored propaganda company of Onwuatuegwu’s “S” Division
accused the Army Headquarters of not promoting Onwuatuegwu because it hated
him. The “Jet 77” produced hand-outs for the public in which they revealed that
the “S” Division under Onwuatuegwu had cleared the Ugba junction and Owerri and,
on each occasion, the gallant Onwuatuegwu got nothing in return but humiliation
from the GOC of the Army.”
“I was not worried by this propaganda which I knew was just one
of those false rumours deliberately released against various individuals from
time to time in order to control their popularity with the masses. I often
disagreed with Onwuatuegwu in the same way I disagreed occasionally with all
other commanders under me. To talk of an Army Commander in war loving or hating
officers under his command is being childish in the extreme. In such a game
involving human lives, a commander’s aim is to end it successfully as soon as
possible. Onwuatuegwu, as an individual being the godfather of my first son and
the officer closest to my family, knew I was putting the welfare of the people
before family ties and friendship.”
Incidentally, newly promoted Brigadier Michael Okwechime, the first indigenous Commander of Nigerian Army Corps of Engineers, was the Adjutant General of the Biafran army at that time. His last “Nigerian” posting was as the officer in charge of Engineering and Communications in the 4th Area Command HQ in Benin City. Like Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, he too was based in the Midwest at the time of the Biafran invasion in August 1967, but folded into the Biafran rearguard as it retreated to Biafra. Brigadier Anthony Eze, on the other hand, was then Commander of the Biafran 12 Division in the Aba sector. He had served in the Nigerian Army as the first indigenous commander of the Corps of Signals. His last “Nigerian” appointment was as the Commanding Officer of the Lagos Garrison before the July 29, 1966 coup.
“After the fall of Umuahia and the recapture of Owerri,
General Ojukwu in May, 1969, took two significant decisions for reasons best
known to him. Thereafter I was allowed to see the Head of State on military
matters at any time of the day or night without booking for an appointment in
advance----a privilege I had not enjoyed before then. Again the Head of State
decided to set up a Joint Planning Committee chairmanned by himself, with the
Chief of Staff, General Effiong, and the Commanders of Army, Navy and Air Force
as members. In addition, I was given the privilege of controlling for the first
time, a small fraction of the national ammunition holding, but the bulk of it
still remained under the control of the Head of State.”
These tepid changes reflected an effort on the part of Ojukwu to signal
sensitivity to criticisms of his leadership style that dated back to the
beginning of the conflict. Civilians were often played off against soldiers. He
created special units that reported to him and no one else, and regularly
subsumed the authority and responsibilities of his military commanders. As US
Marine Major Stafford observed in his Staff College analysis of the war, Ojukwu
“established directorates to control the logistical aspects of the war efforts,
thus creating a rivalry not only with the military but also with the existing
civil service.” Stafford concluded “the cumulative effect of these special
units and extra-organizational control groups divided the direction of the war
effort. They took authority away from those most responsible for fighting the
war--the military--and institutionalized Ojukwu's actions to mitigate any
potential political opposition by producing a fragmented power structure that
answered only to him. “
Indeed, long after the war, in an interview a few years ago with the Nigerian
Army Civil War Historical Investigative Team, Ojukwu himself said (among other
“……I sat in my office as Military Governor, Head of State,
whatever it was, Army Commander, I was them all…(Italics mine)…”
“…..Believe you me, nobody went into battle on my side with more
than 10 rounds in his rifle. Nobody! I will go further. As Head of State, I
was the one to allocate mortar shells to various companies. (Italics mine)
Whenever, during the war, you heard of a serious bombardment from the Biafran
side, that should be taken as a sign that I personally commanded that front…..I
was in personal command so I could call for certain extra ammunition…...”
“All those privileges and changes were in effect an eye wash,
designed to satisfy civilian and military pressures, which had existed since the
beginning of the war, in favour of the establishment of a war council.
Civilians now had the impression that not only did we do joint planning, but
also that the Army Commander controlled all ammunition. The Joint Planning
Committee met once a week from May 1969 to the end of the war but not one of the
14 operational plans, which it produced, was ever carried out. The committee
planned all the time without knowing what was available; and invariably at the
end of each plan it discovered that there were no resources for such a plan
which would then be discarded and a new plan produced. The Planning Committee
under Brigadier Okwechime worked like that until the end of the war. However,
we looked forward to JPC meetings because they were held in the State House, one
of the very few places in Biafra where one could get a glass of cold beer.”
On the federal Nigerian
side, according to Major General Oluleye (rtd),
“With the loss of Owerri, Benjy’s [ie Colonel Benjamin Adekunle’s] image was both militarily and politically dented. Army Headquarters pressed fanatically that Benjy had to be relieved to save further loss of lives. The C-in-C did not agree until the rebels came close to Igritta and civilians in Port Harcourt started fleeing back to Lagos. I think the C-in-C was more concerned with political stability in the rear. Had there been no set backs, relieving Benjy could have been impossible. Benjy had become spent months before.
It was at this stage that
the C-in-C directed me to implement an earlier recommendation of splitting the
Division into two. But I told him I had no resources and went further to state
that there was no alternative to the removal of the Black Scorpion. It was on
this occasion that the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral [Commodore] JEA Wey
described me as the ‘Ifa Oracle of the Army’ adding that I gave indication of a
major disaster occurring sometime in the southern sector but that I could not
predict the exact time. On this note, the C-in-C gave up the idea of retaining
Benjy in the front. He then directed that I should head a panel to recommend
the necessary changes. The panel recommended the reliefs of all the Field
Commanders so that tribal meanings might not be read into the changes. (Italics
that time, the famous 3rd Marine Commando had been crippled and it
required rebuilding through reinforcements of all forms. The Black Scorpion had
become completely worn out. He had become [so] unpopular among the rank and file
of his division that he could not safely visit the front again for fear of dear
In fact AHQ received many
petitions against Adekunle from some of his own Brigade Commanders and Staff
officers. Others simply abandoned the Division in protest against him, without
authority. Oluleye’s assessment is consistent with that of General Olusegun
Obasanjo (rtd). In his opinion,
“The Federal victory in capturing Umuahia, the next rebel
administrative headquarters after Enugu, was almost immediately effectively
nullified by the loss of Owerri to the rebels. The rebels, strengthened and
emboldened by their recapture of Owerri, swiftly advanced southwards to threaten
Igritta, a distance of fifteen miles north of Port Harcourt on the Owerri road.
The federal finger-tip hold on Aba was considerable weakened. The morale of the
soldiers at least of 3 Marine Commando Division was at its lowest ebb. Desertion
and absence from duty without leave was rife in the Division. The despondence
and general lack of will to fight in the soldiers was glaringly manifest in the
large number of cases of self-inflicted injuries throughout the formation. Some
officers tacitly encouraged these malpractices and unsoldierly conduct by
condoning such acts or withdrawing their own kith or kin or fellow tribesmen to
do guard duties in the rear and in the officers' own houses. Distrust and lack
of confidence plagued the ranks of the officer corps. Operations were
unhealthily competitive in an unmilitary fashion and officers openly rejoiced at
each other's misfortunes. With the restrictions imposed by the Federal Military
Government on many items of imported goods and the country in the grip of
inflation, the civilian population began to show signs of impatience with a war,
which appeared, to them unending. In fact, some highly placed Nigerians started
to suggest that the Federal Government should sue for peace at all cost to
prevent the disaster that would befall it and its supporters if rebel victory
The Biafran high command sensed all of this. Preparations were, therefore, made for an ambitious “hot pursuit” – which eventually began in mid-July. With the 14 Division (under Brigadier Ogbugo Kalu) thrusting toward Port Harcourt from Owerri, the 12 Division (under Brigadier Eze) planned to seize Aba and then drive southwards to link up with Kalu in Port Harcourt followed by seizure of Bonny. From there they would swing eastwards, in collaboration with other Biafran units, with the objective of recapturing Ikot-Ekpene and Calabar, thus evicting the federal army from the Biafran seaboard.
Nevertheless, in the weeks immediately following the Biafran
recapture of Owerri, airwaves were preoccupied with news reports of the 3MCDO
recapture of Okpuala, Olakwo, Obokwe, Eziama, Umukani and Umuagu. These reports
were punctuated by the subsequent kidnap of Italian oilmen at Kwale in the
Midwest by Biafran commandos on May 9, 1969. On that same day, quietly, behind
the scenes, an Army HQ operational order was issued, changing all the federal
divisional commanders. Following an article by British Major General HT
Alexander in the Sunday Telegraph of May 11 criticizing the Nigerian military,
it was publicly announced on May 12, 1969 that Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo had
replaced Colonel Benjamin Adekunle as GOC 3 Marine Commando. On May 16, 1969,
Obasanjo physically took over the Division in the field. Simultaneously – to
avoid ethnic interpretation - Lt. Col. G.S. Jalo relieved Col. Ibrahim Haruna of
the 2nd Infantry Division while Col. I. D. Bissala was billed to take
Colonel Shuwa’s place at 1st Infantry Divisional HQ. The actual
change of command in the relatively well-organized and managed 1st
Division, however, was delayed until the end of September.
Not until Adekunle destroyed his own name and mythical reputation, therefore, even among Yorubas, was Gowon finally comfortable enough – in the face of overwhelming military justification - to fire him. Even then, mindful of his services to the nation, he refused to probe serious allegations made against him. Instead he promoted him substantive Colonel and gave him a desk job as Director of Training and Planning at AHQ. He was also careful not to tinker with the “Northern-Western” alliance against the “East” and expose himself to charges of tribalism by replacing ALL divisional commanders simultaneously – irrespective of military effectiveness. To refine this further, he made sure another Yoruba officer – then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo - replaced Adekunle at the now famous (some say notorious), albeit battered 3MCDO.
When men of the 16th Brigade finally linked up with the rest of the 3MCDO at Ohoba, they looked scrawny, bearded, and frazzled – little better than their prisoners of war. But they had broken out of Owerri with their rifles, trucks, field guns and armoured vehicles, and now stood, in uniform, with ranks, behind their surviving non-commissioned and commissioned officers, with Lt. Col. EA Etuk in front and the lifeless body of the late Major Hamman in tow. Battered though they appeared, they still projected the image of an organized fighting unit – one that had earned the eternal respect of their adversaries in combat. As Field Marshall the Viscount Slim recalled about the men of the Burma Corps at Imphal in 1942, “they might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too.”
In time to come, the 16th Brigade was reinforced, refitted and refurbished, and returned to combat duty near the Ohaji palm plantation and along the Umu Nelu-Umuakpu-Owerri road.
On January 9, 1970, Owerri was captured once again – for the last time, this
time in an all out assault by the 12 Brigade under Captain Isemede, 17 Brigade
under Major Tomoye and 13 Brigade under Major Innih - and the war brought to an
It is to the memory of all that perished – on both sides - during the siege of
Owerri that this article was dedicated.
Throughout this essay I have referred to this fine officer as “Etuk.” In some publications he is referred to as “Utuk” but I have used “Etuk” because that is what was used in the most recent official Army publication on the Civil War. Colonel EA Etuk (rtd) [N415] was admitted to the “Boys Company” (Nigerian Military School) in 1954 at age 14. In 1958, he graduated from NMS and was a soldier at the officer preparatory school at Apapa in Lagos. He was selected for further officer cadet training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, followed by six months of cavalry and armored training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, both in the United States – as part of the USAAF Officer Leadership Training program of that era. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant in June 1963, underwent further training and was welcomed home in 1964 by then Defence Minister, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu.
Etuk served as a subaltern in the 4th Battalion at Ibadan under the late Lt. Col. Abogo Largema. As a Captain he was deployed to the 2nd Brigade at Apapa under the late Brigadier Zakaria Maimalari. During the count down to the war he rejected an invitation by Colonel Effiong to return to the eastern region to fight under Ojukwu. He was subsequently a staff officer (operations), charged with weapons acquisition under Lt. Col. Iliya Bissala at AHQ and went on arms purchasing missions abroad for Nigeria at the onset of the civil war. In October 1967, Lt. Col. Bissala prevented then Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed from drafting Etuk to the 2nd Division for the disastrous Onitsha assault river crossing. However, he was later literally “hijacked” by Lt. Col. B.A.M. Adekunle and deployed to the 3rd Division as the Officer Commanding the 8 Battalion in Calabar. After battalion operations in the Calabar-Itu-Ikot-Ekpene axis he was redeployed to Port Harcourt as Commander, 16 Brigade. As a Field Major, he took part in the successful 3MCDO campaign for Port Harcourt along with officers like Lt. Col. Filemon Shande, Lt. Col. Pius Eromobor, Major George Innih, and (initially) Adaka Boro, among others.
After the fall of Port Harcourt, Etuk was tasked (as a Field Lt. Col.) with the
capture of Owerri as part of “Operation OAU”.
“….. the enemy force at Owerri which was the  Brigade under a
young Calabar officer called Utuk [Etuk], was easily the best fighting unit
fielded by Nigeria throughout the war. Right from Port Harcourt, and
particularly at Afam, it had become obvious that the Brigade was a force well
led. Inside Owerri, they fought with extraordinary courage, flexibility and
determination. The withdrawal of the Brigade from Owerri was tactically tidy
and well planned and executed. Without doubt no other Nigerian Brigade could
have withstood for more than a month the punishment the enemy  Brigade
absorbed with patience for over four months. Only that Brigade could have got
out of Owerri under the circumstances.”
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