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Nigeria Civil War: Recalling Umuahia’s fall 50 years after

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IT STILL looks like yesterday but it is already 50 years on the date (March 26 – April 27, 1969) when “Biafran army officers and men” finding themselves completely cut off from the remaining part of Biafra in the Okigwe sector had to declare the area still under their control as the ‘Republic’ of Acha because they were encircled by the Nigerian military forces.

What happened in the Acha axis of the Okigwe sector on this date? On this day, the then British Prime Minister (Labour Party), Mr. Harold Wilson came on a state visit to war time Nigeria. His government, right from the crisis of 1966, had supported the Lagos junta of General Yakubu Gowon.

To impress on his host that Biafra was already at her knees, Yakubu Gowon ordered the 1st Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu, under Colonel Mohammed Shuwa to go and capture Umuahia, the last Biafran Capital. While Harold Wilson was landing at the Ikeja Airport, Radio Nigeria, Lagos, was already agog with news of the Nigerian troops over-running Isuikwuato and already at Akara, just 16 miles to Umuahia.

Earlier in February, 1969, the Biafran High Command had known of a major military build-up along the Okigwe-Uturu-Afikpo road by Mohammed Shuwa’s men. Biafra’s 15th Division under Col. Lambert Ohanehi launched a pre-emptive attack on 25th February, 1969. With Captain C.C. Njeze’s 70B Battalion of 64th Brigade under Major Goddy Onyefuru, the Biafrans captured the Uturu Airport, Onuaku earlier captured by the Captain Ibrahim Babangida in September, 1968.

While Radio Biafra was on air celebrating Ojukwu’s message of congratulation for our gallantry, the Nigerian 1st Division launched a counter-attack and within 72 hours retook and destroyed completely what was the Uturu Airport. Thus, what was supposed to be the beginning of Biafra’s version of the Vietnamese 1968 “Tet Offensive” by Biafra came to nothing. Col. Sam Mbakwe, Biafra’s Okigwe Provincial Administrator (with protective rank of colonel by Ojukwu) was in high spirit before the operation.

Another pre-emptive attack launched by the 64th Brigade Mobile Strike Force under Captain Osaro (From Eleme, Rivers State) on March 15, 1969 from the present Abia State University, Uturu, was also a disaster, as Osaro and the best of his officers, Duru and Udoh got missing in action.

Then, the much anticipated happened in the early hours of March 26, when the 1st Division launched the offensive to capture Umuahia. In a four-pronged attack from Ugba Uturu, Ukwunwangwu Uturu, Ndiokoroukwu Ishiagu and Mile II Afikpo road through Ezeukwu–Alayi–Akara, the invaders succeeded in breaking through in all these areas, except at Ndiokoroukwu. Here, the combined soldiers of Captain Njeze’s 70B battalion, the 5th Rangers squadron (guerilla fighters) of Lt. Egwu, a.k.a, “Animal in Jungle”, beat back the Nigerian ‘Vandals’.

Yours sincerely was among the last 36 Rangers with Lt. Nsofor sent to Ndiokoroukwu from Acha to reinforce the 70BBattalion Company that had already lost its first line of defence. Our arrival made the difference, as the Federal troops were beaten back to the Ndiokoroukwu junction with Njeze, Egwu and Nsofor commanding and fighting like spirit possessed men from the outer space.

It was the longest day that never found the night as Njeze was with us up till 5pm in the trenches when the Federal side stopped firing with the evacuation of their dead and wounded. When the Rangers led by Nsofor and Corporal Alaigbo charged forward, lots of abandoned weapons and stores were taken by

the Rangers.

As we marched back to Acha with Njeze that evening, he became an instant hero with songs composed in his honour. Old men and women, teenage boys and girls, young damsels lined both sides of the road hailing our gallantry, and thanking God of Abraham (Chukwu Abiama) for saving Acha.

With free food, hot drinks, cigarettes, palm wine, the Infantry Soldiers and Rangers were entertained to no end that night by an appreciative civilian population of Acha. With Nigerian troops just 16 miles to Umuahia and finding ourselves cut off from the remaining part of Biafra, our officers jokingly proclaimed the Acha enclave as the “Republic of Acha” with Captain Njeze as the ‘Head’ of State.

Being a form III student before the war, I was drafted to the Directorate of Military Intelligence of 70B battalion when we arrived from the Rangers Training Camp, Isiekenesi, Orlu to the 5th Squadron Acha on 15thFebruary, 1969. Lt. Ezeako Nze was the Intelligence Officer.

But when the jungle got ‘matured’ on March 26, all the rangers had to go into infantry duties in defence of the “Republic of Acha”. Like the Jewish Massada defenders of the Holy Temple in 70 AD Jerusalem against General Titus of the Roman Army, we swore never to surrender but fight till the last pint of our blood.

With the artillery, mortar and aerial bombardment going on between Nigerian soldiers and Biafran defenders at Uzuakoli, Radio Biafra was the only link we had with the rest of Biafra. The battle of Uzuakoli in April, 1969 was a re-enactment of the tragedy that befell the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army under Colonel Murtala Rufai Mohammed at Abagana (now headquarters of Njikoka local government council, Anambrar state) on February 20, 1968, where Murtala himself narrowly escaped being killed with thousands of his men decimated.

At Uzuakoli, Biafra’s itinerant Commander and Super-Patriot, Col. Joseph Hannibal Achuzia, Col. Emeka Ananaba’s 4th Commando Brigade and the Ginger Brigade encircled the 1st Division advance troops. The Biafran High command gave Mohammed Shuwa’s division soldiers “48 hours to surrender or face total annihilation” according to Radio Biafra. Captain Ibrahim Babangida reportedly had a bullet wound at the Uzuakoli war front.

He, as Military President while on a state visit to Imo state in December 1987, commissioned a Post and Telecommunications [P&T] mast at the site where he reportedly had this wound in April, 1969 at Uzuakoli. Biafra’s “CORPORAL NWAFOR” armoured car driven by Sasa Kalu from Ohafia (a pre-war form III student) was the “Rock of Gibraltar” at Uzuakoli for almost one month before Umuahia finally fell on Sunday, May 1st, 1969.

To boost the morale of those of us marooned at Acha [‘Republic of Acha’], message had once come from Col. Achuzia that he would come and liberate us, as soon as he halted the advance of the Nigerian troops (now at UbaniIbeku) movement to Umuahia.

Till date, nobody has talked of the fate that befell hundreds of inmates of the famous Uzuakoli leper colony who could not run away and were caught in the cross-fire between Nigerians and Biafran troops. Pioneer Methodist gospel singer and chorister, Harcourt Whyte, was a product of the Uzuakoli leper colony.

The order for Biafran pull-out of Acha came on

April 28, 1969, after a month’s heroic resistance. The pull-out, was perhaps, to avoid a repeat of the Akpanwudele Abakaliki tragedy of 1968 where a whole community was bombarded from every direction by Federal troops to avenge the missing of a Nigerian soldier that strayed into the area.

News of the pull-out hit Acha, Ozara, Otamkpa, Ezere, Umunnekwu Agbo, Amaibo and the rest areas still under Biafra coverage like a thunderbolt. The native civilian population wept uncontrollably and saw it as a sign of the ARMAGEDON. Nobody could predict what life would be like in the hands of Nigerian ‘vandals’ according to Radio Biafra. Many volunteered to pullout with us, rather than surrender.

One of them was Mr. Owanta, a former hotel proprietor in Jos from Ozara who was supplying food to the Biafran S&T in Umuahia. Unfortunately, Mr. Owanta could not make it as he got missing in action during the “operation open corridor” in the early hours of April 30, 1969.

From every track and route to Acha, Njeze and his men pulled out and converged at the Agunta/OgborUdele forest farms, Uturu. At dawn on 30th April 1969, Njeze gave the command for “operation open corridor” from behind the enemy lines opposite the Christian Council of Nigeria Farm Settlement on the then un-tarred ABSU-Ovim-Akara road. With soldiers moving in a single file mixed with civilians, the crossing was tragic for many, especially nursing mothers, many other civilians and soldiers. Many women threw away the babies on their backs just to save their heads first during the crossing.

Yours sincerely could not make it that right. While wondering in the bush, I came across other soldiers and civilians marooned. They include; Dr. Pleen Egbe, a famous educationist from Ovim, and WO II Josephat Osunkwo from Acha and his newly married beautiful young wife. At dusk on 30th April 1969, I ferried across about 15 soldiers and civilians (as a God-sent drizzle sent the Nigerian soldiers to their bunkers and trenches) to the other side of the road controlled by 70A infantry battalion.

On May 1, 1969 from the farm settlement, a Biafran sergeant directed us to move to Umuobiala Isuikwuato where the rest of 70B battalion and 5th Squadron Rangers were directed by Major Goddy Onyefuru to assemble. News of the eventual fall of Umuahia to the 1st Division elicited sorrow among the military and civilian population in Umuobiala.

Some officers shaved their heads as a sign of mourning for the fall of Umuahia.

The fall of Umuahia saw the pioneer Head of the Biafran Directorate of Propaganda, Mr. Nelson Otta (from Item and publisher/editor-in-chief of Drum Magazine in Lagos) cross-over to the Federal Nigerian side through the assistance of Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo. His second-in-command, Comrade Uche Chukwumerijie, rose to the challenge and did the job better to the consternation of Anthony Enahoro, Magnus Bara-Hart, Increase Coker and others on the other-side of the propaganda warfare.

After a week in Umuobiala, the 5th Squadron Rangers were directed to move to Ezinnachi and join the 4th Squadron under Lt. Onyekwere (OC Rangers). In Ezinnachi, we were informed that the Biafran High Command has dissolved the Rangers Movement, one of the guerilla groups of the Biafran Army under Major Nwadiegwu from Obibi Ochasi, Orlu, Imo State.

With the merger of the 4th and 5th Squadrons, we were driven to Amiyi Obilohia, Isuikwuato to form the “D” company of 70A Infantry Battalion with Captain Onyekwere as our company commander.

For being alive today to recall the events of March/April, 1969, (50 years ago), one has to continue to give thanks to the Almighty God for his mercies. It is regrettable that Nigerian politicians like the Bourbon dynasty of France after the Napoleonic wars 1789-1815 came back to power having not learnt and forgotten nothing during the revolution. This is the danger and tragedy of Nigerian politics as the politicians have continued to make the same mistakes that led to the Nigeria-Biafra war, 1967-1970.

Major Goddy Onyefuru was Sandhurst commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the pre-1966 Nigerian Army and married to a white lady while in Britain. He was detained after the war (1970-1974) for being in the company of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu in “Operation Damisa” of January 15, 1966 at the premier’s lodge, Kaduna.

Calistus Chukwuemeka Njeze, PhD 1978, became the 1st African to have a PhD in Estate Management from a British University. He retired as a 2-term Rector of Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, and now the Traditional Ruler of Aboh Community after the 9th Mile Corner of Enugu State.

  HRH Eze Dr. Uwadiegwu C. Ogbonnaya is the traditional ruler of Umuanyi, Uturu in Abia State, a historian, mass communication teacher, veteran journalist and a military officer in the defunct Republic of Biafra.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Prof. Chinyere Egbe

    December 23, 2019 at 4:47 am

    This is an interesting story for me. It’s a major discovery for me, because it helps me corroborate my own story of my father’s (Pliny Egbe) escape during the Operation Open Corridor. I was researching Captain Njeze, who means a lot to me personally when I stumbled on this story. I coordinated with my dad before he escaped in the company of 70B Battalion, though I thought it was 71B Battalion. I was later to join Captain Njeze’s camp as a servant in 1969. Before my dad escaped, he sent me on two reconnaissance assignments and an honor guard was held for him at some village in Ovim. Three days later, the news came that he escaped and the rest is a very long story that I would like to share personally with His Royal Highness.

    I am Prof Chinyere Egbe (Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York), eldest Son of Pliny Egbe that was referred to ad Dr. Pleen Egbe, the famous educationist. Famous educationist, but not Dr. Mr. Pliny Abel Egbe was a biologist and agricultural scientist (University educated) who served all over Nigeria (including at Umudike, Umuahia) and eventually was appointed to the State Schools Board by Asika. A picture that Mr. Egbe took with some famous commanders of the Civil War as their headmaster and scout master in 1946 saved his family from annihilation during the war.

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