By Basil Chiji Okafor
The city of Port Harcourt had just been overrun by the Federal Nigerian forces and Colonel Joe Achuzia, about completing his task of cutting off supplies from the Nigerian soldiers that had succeeded in entering Onitsha, received a fresh summons, to proceed to Port Harcourt.
His growing reputation as a fighter, among the rank and file of the Biafrans, was beginning to precede him, but it was during the Port Harcourt operations that the man finally acquired the unsubstantiated reputation of a ruthless killer, who thought nothing of wasting his own men and the very legend that swirled around his personality.
Was Colonel Achuzia indeed such a mindless killer? How did a man, known to be a committed and patriotic fighter and defender of his people, acquire such a nasty reputation among the same people for whom he put his life on the line? Please, read on…
BCO: Colonel, in Biafra, all kinds of rumours and legends built up around your person and I want you to be very frank, sir, in addressing this particularly disturbing allegation. It was widely believed in Biafra that you actually shot your own troops, in order to enforce discipline, how true was this?
ACHUZIA: Mm-mm, I never did any such thing. However, [there was] once [an incident] at the early stages of the war, at the 8th Battalion – Ogbugo Kalu was then the commander of that battalion. As you well know, I created the Militia [in Biafra], I didn’t join the Militia. The rate of recruitment in Biafra was such that the war would have ended, if I didn’t create the Militia. I created the Militia as a quick and rapid way [of reinforcement] because I learnt that in Korea.
The way they fought over there, in Southeast Asia, was army and the militia [side-by-side]. You were trained within the militia to do the military work in the rear, while those that were full-fledged, trained, infantrymen, went to the frontline. It was from the militia that they got their replacements. That was why I discussed with Ogbugo Kalu and also discussed with Ojukwu and he agreed. He said, “When you set it up, I will ask Effiong to look after that so that you can go and face [other things].
So, while I was fighting at the Onitsha front, Port Harcourt was falling, at the same time. But I was in constant touch with Ogbugo Kalu. He told me everything he did because I was like a military adviser to him. I was the one who told him when the battle was coming from Ogoni, or about those coming from the Bonny side. He was telling me of the problems he was having on the attack at Bonny that failed. When he told me about it I said, well, there was no sentiment about it, that he should lock up the two majors that brought about the failure.
Having done that, I got a messge whilst still at Onitsha to go to Port Harcourt to assist Ogbugo because the place was being overrun by the Federal troops. Initially, I said I couldn’t because I had already crossed the Niger, back to Asaba in order to cut off supplies for the Federal troops that had already entered Onitsha. But I was told to proceed to Port Harcourt, to go and advice, after which I could return to my command. That was how I left that command and asked Colonel Udeaja to take over the command until I came back. However, within a few days of my leaving the place, Udeaja had the accident on the Onitsha front.
I got to Port Harcourt around four, in the evening, went to see my family, then phoned Ogbugo.. He said, “ah, if you come here, the GOC and everybody that is somebody, is here.” I asked if there were any comments and he said, yes. “They’ve heard that you are coming and somebody is saying, ‘as soon as he gets here, all you’ll be hearing is, ‘out, everybody, out’.”
Well, why I usually said, ‘out, everybody back to your stations’ was because, usually, when a town was falling, instead of coming to help, people came with vehicles and escorts and started looting And these were officers and they went there to loot. So, as soon as I got there I said, ‘most of you are not from here, some are from Aba,everybody off, get back to your stations!’
BCO: But, did you shoot anybody?
ACHUZIA: No, I never fired a gun, or anything like that…
When I left there, I decided to go to the frontline, to see what was happening. As soon as I got to the frontline, at Afam, (where you had the power station) I saw a lot of Biafran soldiers milling around – some were lying down, and so on. The army commander in-charge – a lieutenant-colonel – was with me. So, I asked, ‘what’s all this?’ And he said to me that for a few days, they had been like that, no fighting and nobody moving. [This was before the Azumini incident.].
Next, I asked what really happened at the frontline that brought about this lassitude, in their attitude, because it is only when something catastrophic happens that the soul is taken out of soldiers, like that. They don’t think rationally, all they want is, if it is death, I will die, but I am not going there. Then, I asked who was in-charge of that axis and they said it was a Major Okaro, a militia officer. I asked, ‘what is militia doing in the frontline?’ They were supposed to bring backup at the rear line. The response I got was that they were short of troops so they had to resort to that option and that Okaro was killed two days ago. That was a shock to me because he was among the first gtoup that I trained.
hen, I asked, ‘who is in-charge here?’ One officer got up and said that he was in-charge. I ordered him to get his men to get up because we were moving forward. He looked at me and said, ‘sorry, we are not going anywhere again, we are tired’.So, I said, ‘if you don’t get up, you will remain permanently tired’.I shouted out for everybody to hear that I was going to give him a count of five and added that anybody who had a weapon and felt he could do it better than myself should fire first.
I began the count of five and by the fourth count he was still standing there so I fired. I got him on the leg and he fell. Quickly and dramatically, everybody scampered to their feet. The shock pulled all the others out of the state of mind they were in.
BCO: I see, so this was the origin of this legend about you shooting people? Was that why you were called ‘Air Raid’ and ‘Hannibal’? did you enjoy being called those names?
ACHUZIA: No, I didn’t. First of all, I did not even know I was being called ‘Air Raid’, it took a long time before I found out I was the one being called ‘Air Raid’. ‘Hannibal’, may be because the operation I was on, was ‘Operation Hannibal’.
Back to Afam, you see, I had to shock them. Immediately it happened, that officer turned round and said, ‘now, I know the secret of Colonel Achuzia’.Within 10 to 15 minutes, from different positions and formations, I had assembled more than a battalion of soldiers. I moved them forward, put them in positions and told them, ‘I will be back’ and I headed back to Ogbugo Kalu’s tactical headquarters.When I got back to the TAC Headquarters, most of the officers had left – Tony Eze, everybody – except the GOC, Madiebo.
He said, ‘Joe, the command is now yours.’
I said, ‘What are you talking about?’
He continued, ’You will take over from Ogbugo Kalu, he is going with me now, to Umuahia.’
I said, ‘I beg your pardon? I was to come here and discuss with Ogbugo Kalu, then get back to my unit.’
He said, ‘That is how the cart falls, the command is now yours.’
I said, ‘I will not do it…do you hear me? I will not take over Ogbugo;s command.’
At that point he said, ‘You better wait, let me call His Excellency, because these are his orders.’ He dialed Ojukwu and got him, then handed over the receiver to me.
Ojukwu asked, ‘Is that Joe?’
I answered, ‘Sir.’
‘I can hear that you are refusing my orders?’
I said, ‘No sir.’
He said, ‘Very well, I have requested that Ogbugo Kalu comes back with General Madiebo and the command is now yours.’
I said, ‘I cannot do that sir.’
He said, ‘Why not?’
‘I require briefing, I have to be briefed about the situation on the ground. The officers, I don’t know. I need to be introduced to them.’
He said, ‘That’s true, that’s true, that’s true…mmmh, give the phone back to Madiebo.’
I gave the phone back to Madiebo while Ogbugo and I stood aside, chatting. They talked for a while before Madiebo handed the phone back to me.
Ojukwu said, ‘I will allow Ogbugo to remain for only 24 hours, to brief you. In fact, I don’t think you need 24 hours. He will brief you for six hours, then he will leave there. Is that clear?’
I said, ‘Yes sir.’
That was how I inherited Port Harcourt, falling.
NEXT: How Chukwuma Nzeogwu died, the Midwest Operations and the execution of Victor Banjo, Ifeajuna and others..