February 4, 2019
By Basil Chiji Okafor
He was the most maligned, most vilified, military officer in Biafra. Yet, it seemed like without him, nothing got done on the battlefronts. He was everywhere and nowhere, in particular, all at once.
When Lt.-Col. Murtala Mohammed’s 2nd Division armada rolled towards Onitsha and officers and men ran helter-skelter, it was to Colonel Joe Achuzia that Ojukwu finally entrusted the task of stopping Murtala’s advancing forces. And if indeed that force had made Onitsha, the story of Biafra may have turned out tragically, differently.
When the wiry, wily colonel received the signal at his Nsukka sector of the war, he drew a battalion of his men and headsd for Abagana, for a showdown of the century. Although the story of the epic Battle of Abagana is rather willfully and maliciously mired in controversy, perhaps, to spite Achuzia and deny him his due credit for a battle well planned and executed, all the independent sources, foreign and local, within Biafra, at the time, verified by this reporter, including Frederick Forsythe and Ojukwu, himself, confirmed that Colonel Achuzia, indeed, planned that operation.
Said Ojukwu, when I confronted him with the controversies surrounding Achuzia’s many successes, among other allegations leveled against the colonel: “I don’t care if he ate with his feet, but he won battles…”
As his exploits boosted his fame, so did his enemies swell in numbers, particularly from the top echelons of the officer corps of the Biafran Army. Unlike them, Achuzia was not even in the Nigerian Army, not even as an other rank, let alone in the officer corps. So, how could this man they considered an interloper, come to teach them, Sandhurst-trained officers (very senior officers of the Nigerian Army, for that matter) what to do in the battlefield? To make matters worse, Joe Achuzia, was the rough and ready type, slight of frame, almost scruffy-looking, unassuming and cutting an image, more of a factotum, than of a top-brass army officer
However, unknown to this group, Achuzia, the British-trained engineer and Ojukwu’s schoolmate, back at the prestigious King’s College, Lagos, had seen action as a serving colonial British soldier in Korea and, also, during the British occupation of Palestine. He and Ojukwu were also, secretly, in constant touch throughout the war, every step of the way, also unknown to the others.
Chukwuma Nzeogwu, his kinsman from neighbouring Okpanam, whom he had also met in the United Kingdom, it was, who first warned him about this group. Nzeogwu had served with them during the Congo campaign and knew them well.
When Achuzia saw that given the rather slow pace of recruitment and reinforcements, Biafra was likely to collapse very quickly, if nothing was done about it, fast, he created the Militia, to do the work that soldiers were supposed to do in the rear and also to serve as quick reinforcements, since they would already have received some military training: “I learnt that in Korea,” he quipped
But rather than credit, for the brilliant war strategist, that became another tag, to denigrate him – he was not a soldier, after all. In fact, this nest of blackmailers went quite far. Each time conditions became very critical in any particular sector of the war, it was to such a sector that Achuzia was quickly moved. And so, from Nsukka, to Abagana, Onitsha, down to Owerri, Azumini, Afam and Port Harourt, Achuzia had fought in practically every sector of the war.
Thus, the tale quickly spread around, that he was indeed a saboteur and collaborated with the enemy, which was why everywhere he went, he spoilt things. But the opposite was. in fact, the case. In trying to enforce discipline and boost morale, an incident that occurred early in the war, at Afam, during the fall of Port Harcourt, soon added to his woes.
As a result of that incident, he soon became widely known as the bloodthirsty, rabid killer, who wasted his own men. Thus, the man whom the Biafrans should have deified for being their God-sent war hero, widely became known as a villain, a murderer and saboteur, unloved and deserving of death! Soon, he was framed for trying to commit treason.
Said he, “It was only Ojukwu who knew what was going on and he stood up for me.”
It was no wonder then that as Biafra collapsed and Ojukwu prepared to go into exile, it was only to two people that he could entrust the fate of what was left of Biafra – the amiable and highly respected General Philip Effiong, as the interim head-of-state and, of course, the legendary Colonel (now Brigadier) Joe Achuzia, as head of the army.
Achuzia wasn’t going to be anybody’s fool. He, of course, knew that the end of a war wasn’t going to be a tea party. So, he prepared his own bargaining chip (just in case of any unforeseen circumstances) well ahead of time, by capturing and putting under lock and key, “an entire brigade of Nigerian soldiers and their officers”! Then, he dressed up in his new brigadier-general’s full regalia and waited for General Gowon’s emissaries.
Colonel Joe Achuzia spent seven years in detention after the shooting war ended and was the last Biafran Army officer to be released from detention, not because of any grudges the Federal Government of Nigeria held against him, personally, but because of the muck his own fellow Biafran colleagues had heaped on him.
At first, he was taken to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons, for one year. Then, he was first ferried to Katsina Prisons, for another five years, before being finally taken to the Kaduna Prisons, from where General Olusegun Obasanjo ordered his release, in 1977, after he became head of state.
Of his prison experiences, he spoke, thus: “Five years in Katsina, I told the then Emir, Usman Nagogo, (father of late General Hassan Usman Katsina) that I wanted to study the Koran. He was taken aback, but happy to give me one of his finest mullahs and a reputable scholar, to work me through the Koran and the Hadith.
“So, you see, I also read things like the history of Carthage in Arabic, having read them earlier, in English.”
Why was it so necessary for him to study the Hadith? He took one long, lingering look into space and began, “You see, if you have an adversary, it is very important for you to know how his mind works…”
And so, Colonel Joseph Achuzia, popularly known in Biafra, as ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Air Raid’ and dreaded both by Biafrans and Nigerians, alike, the cat with nine lives that continually dared death, lived to the ripe, old age of 89, before finally throwing in the towel, in his Asaba hometown, on February 26, 2018, just one year shy of 90.
Please, read on:
THE COUP AGAINST OJUKWU AND HOW IT WAS ABORTED
BCO: Let us go back to the story you were telling, earlier, about the West…
ACHUZIA: You see, what people didn’t know earlier, was the grand conspiracy. It started the minute the war ended. None of the senior officers knew the war was going to end. I was in-charge of the front at Owerri, fighting near Emmanuel College when Ojukwu sent a message that I should wait for him in front of the State House. He didn’t arrive until nearly seven, in the evening.
Both of us went in, sat in the darkness. This was on the 7th of January . We sat in the darkness, discussing the whole war, all over, to the extent that he wanted to know my views about the execution of Ifeajuna and the others and I told him that I already knew why they were executed. I told him that it was Madiebo, who was the Brigade Commander of 53 Brigade, at Nsukka, that gathered all of them together because he never accepted Ojukwu as his head of state.
The meetings they were holding leaked out and Paskajay, the lawyer, was at State House, at the police station, when Ojukwu was staying at the police station because he was afraid that some people were trying to assassinate him and he took cover at police headquarters. It was [while] there that Paskajay heard when Ojukwu gave instructions, for C. C. Mojekwu and His Lordship, Sir Louis Mbanefo, to go and verify whether it was true, because the information he got was that the meeting was going on. Paskajay phoned Madiebo and he left the meeting without telling the others and headed for Enugu.
Just around Opi Junction, he met [Sir Louis and C. C. Muojekwu] on their way [to the venue of the meeting]. He pretended he was just going into Enugu and was coming back to meet them. He had [thus] cleared himself. He went straight to Enugu and told Ojukwu that he had just found out that there was a plan for a coup against him.
BCO: So, you’re saying that he betrayed the others?
ACHUZIA: He betrayed them.
BCO: Let’s pause here again…
THE MAN, CHUKWUMA NZEOGWU, HOW HE DIED
BCO: Now, let us talk about Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who was another legend of your class, in Biafra, a fighter, very well regarded. Two questions: one, who was Chukwuma Nzeogwu [as you knew him]; two, how did he die?
ACHUZIA: Chukwuma Nzeogwu was an intelligence officer in the [Nigerian] army, one of the best Nigeria ever produced. His background was such that when they came back from [the] Congo, (he saw situations very clearly) he was able to assess his [colleagues] from their performances in [the] Congo. That was why he was able to tell me that [when they hear] the sound of firing or mortar explosions, they would take to their heels. And he [also] told me that Madiebo could not stand the sound of artillery [fire], yet he was an artillery officer and I also observed it. So, you can see the kind of man he was.
I have heard so many stories about how he died and so on. The day he died, I and Ogbugo Kalu were in State House in Enugu, with Ojukwu. Why I was there was because the Midwest Operation was prepared by Nzeogwu, himself. He was to lead that operation so he had sent for me. He told Ojukwu to send for me to come and participate in that operation. That was why Ogbugo Kalu and myself were at the State House, that day. It was while we were there that the message came about Nzeogwu’s death. So, Ojukwu [asked], ‘where’s the body?’ They said they hadn’t recovered the body and he said, ‘and you come here to report that an officer of that calibre was gunned down in the battlefield and you left him there to…you must go and bring back the body’. That was how come some of our men went back, [which] brought about the so-called story that his [own] men shot him. No. It was the Federal troops that killed him. What we were not sure of was whether the bullet that pulled him down, killed him, or because when the troops ran and he couldn’t move, [they got him]. Because I believe if he was only wounded and evacuated, maybe he would have been saved.
That day, Ojukwu said, ‘I think you will have to go and carry out that operation’. For that reason, myself and Ogbugo Kalu slept in Enugu, that night. But by morning, Ojukwu had changed his mind. He called us and said, ‘you can go back [Colonel] Banjo said that he was privy to the planning of the Midwest operation, that he participated in [its] planning and could therefore carry [it] out.
COLONEL VICTOR BANJO AND THE MIDWEST OPERATION
BCO: What was the purpose of the Midwest operation, if I may ask?
ACHUZIA: The purpose of the Midwest operation was to get the Midwest integrated with us. It was [indeed] Nzeogwu who, since his release [from detention] had been going across, [to the Midwest] talking to [Colonel Conrad] Nwawo and the rest (Nwawo was the officer in-charge of the Midwest Command of the Nigerian Army, in Benin and out of the lot, 11 of the most senior officers were all Midwest Igbo, so the command was really Midwest Igbo).
BCO: Was there any plan to launch out from there, to Lagos or elsewhere, for any purpose?
ACHUZIA: No. The plan was, get hold of Midwest and create another state – the Republic of Benin.
BCO: So, Banjo took over that command…
ACHUZIA: (cuts in)…Banjo took over the command and exceeded [his brief] and continued but we didn’t know that his movement was to reach the Western officers, the Yoruba officers.
BCO: Was it in order for him to cross over and talk to his people, go back home, or what?
ACHUZIA: We were not quite sure whether it was to cross over, or not. But the mere fact that while battle was going on, he was meeting with Yoruba officers at Ehor (on the road to Auchi) was treasonable. We didn’t know, so somebody was sent. Those amongst them [like] Abam [who was also among those executed with Ifeajuna and Banjo and others] were the ones who said so, because Banjo was reaching them and telling them his movements so, they were the first to confess and Banjo was asked to return but he wouldn’t. That was why I was sent to the Midwest.
THE MERCENARY GROUPS
BCO: Let us talk a bit about the mercenary groups and their activities, as the story of Biafra cannot be considered complete without them. Specifically, why did Colonel Rolf Steiner suddenly disappear?
ACHUZIA: Yes, there was a task Ojukwu asked me to carry out, which was to get Steiner and his mercenary group out of the country. If they could not defend Azumini, then they were of no more use to us. So, I left for Azumini, put Steiner under arrest, bundled him to the airport and stayed there with him, until he left…
BCO: (cuts in)…You were the only one who could have arrested Steiner…
ACHUZIA: (continues…) You see, Rolf Steiner, I had met his type when I was sent on a mission with the South African Rye Force, in Rhodesia [today’s Zimbabwe]. He was part of the Free French Army boys who were going about, from place to place – you know, guns, for sale. That was why, immediately I saw him, I opposed him right from the beginning and I told Ojukwu the same thing, that those were not the type of people we wanted.
Taffy Williams was a polished British soldier, [a native South African] hence he fought according to the rukes of engagement.
[In summary], it never really pays for any country in dire need, to face the sort of situation that we faced, using foreign troops. Reasons are, quite simple: a foreigner has no commitment, all he’s interested in, is earning his keep. And beyond earning his keep, he cannot afford for the struggle to end, because his livelihood depends on it.
THE END OF THE WAR
BCO: In the final days of Biafra, you displayed what could only be described as strange behaviour and this was captured by Bernard Odogwu, [Biafra’s Chief of Military Intelligence] in his memoirs. As the war ended, while almost every Biafran officer and even the other ranks, were disappearing, there you were, decked out in your full Brigadier-General’s regalia, to which you had recently been promoted, getting set to meet the advancing Nigerian troops. What informed this rather bizarre, but extraordinary act of courage and bravery?
ACHUZIA: I was the one who stopped that war and I was the one who spoke with Tumoye’s officers and they sent for him. And it was Tumoye’s officers that gave me their communication set, to reach out to Obasanjo’s headquarters. Obasanjo promised to send General Akinrinade, (then Lt.-Col. Akinrinade) to come and meet me, to negotiate the release of the officers I had under lockup. I had already finished my activities for ending the war by capturing a whole brigade, with all their officers under my lock and key.
I had told [General] Effiong, ‘you were there at Ogwa when Ojukwu said, “Brigadier Achuzia, you take over the army; Effiong, you will represent me as head of state”.’
‘Then, I asked, sir, what happens to the GOC?’
When he tried to wave that off I said, ‘you must take him out with you, if I must play my role, so that there would be no casualties’. That was why he [Ojukwu] took [General] Madiebo away with him.
So that day, [as the war ended] I was waiting and Effiong said, ‘ah, you’re wearing…’[a brigadier’s uniform] and I said, yes. ‘I’m going back to the war front and I don’t know who I am going to meet so I must be at my best’. Almost immediately, I looked at my watch and left. I got to Orlu and on my way towards Owerri, I saw Akirinade and his convoy of military police and so on, coming.
We pulled over and he came down, saluted and he said, ‘I was coming to meet you, sorry sir, that I was very late’. I said it didn’t matter, that we should proceed. So, we got back to my house and from there, I took him to see Effiong, at Igbo-Ukwu. After seeing Effiong, we got back to my house, to eat. Then, he got in touch with Obasanjo.
Obasanjo said no, that he couldn’t come. So, I said, ‘Tell him that if he doesn’t come, he should forget that you people ever existed.’ That message was relayed across to him and he said, alright, he was on his way, that he was coming to meet me at my house, at Uga. That was the end of the war.