The Siege Of Abagana And The Battle For Life – 2




As Colonel Achuzia approached the Abagana Junction, mortar bombs and artillery fire pelted everywhere like hailstorm. He alighted from his command vehicle and was greeted with a signal from the Commander-in-Chief, by Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, who did not even wait for him to read the message in the piece of paper before he entered his car and zoomed off.

On arrival, Achuzia had met a number of senior officers that included Colonel Assam Nsudor, Colonel Chude Sokei and Brigadier Nwawo, himself. Soon, all of them were gone and Achuzia was left alone, to his devices, to swim, or sink. At that point, it was only Col. Sokei, of all the senior officers, that was left. Sokei wanted to see how Achuzia’s operation would end and possibly learn one or two things from it.

Shortly afterwards, a convoy of vehicles approached, from the distance. It was Achuzia’s backup battalion, also arriving from Nsukka. He quickly assessed the situation and decided to ascertain the true position of the Federal troops. He got into his command vehicle and headed in the direction of Awka. As he explored further, it became clear that the Federal troops were nowhere near Abagana. They were not even in Awka; the Federals were only using long-range artillery to terrorise areas south of Awka, Abagana and its environs, inclusive…

Please, read on:

BCO: So, your general’s chess game, as it were, clicked for you, right? 

ACHUZIA: That’s right…and with that I decided to ask for permission to take my command (58 Brigade) and push back the forces that Murtala was marching in with, from the Aguleri axis. I pushed them through Omor and from Omor, all the way back towards Nsukka and veering towards Adoru.

I was at Nsukka when the message came. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) at Awka came to see me. It was that same night I discovered where Zik’s [Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s] house was, at Opanda. And it was also in that house I stayed to read Awolowo’s trial, bound in pink ribbon that was on a table, in Zik’s study.

The officer had come in the morning and when I asked him what brought him, he said he had a message from the Commander-in-Chief, Ojukwu. He gave me a written signal. The message summoned me to Abagana Junction, immediately. I asked him what was going on. Then, I further said I thought I had taken the whole brigade, to enable me play the war game, the best way I knew how to? He said no, the situation was very bad and it wouldn’t be alright if I didn’t listen and got cut off from behind. I asked him what was going on and he said the Federal troops were almost at Abagana.

That fast? I asked and he said, yes and I said, okay. I asked, what did the others say? Because, there was always a conflict whenever he sent for me to go take over a command from another senior officer. The man then said that someone had suggested that I might not agree to come. To that, [according to my message bearer] Ojukwu retorted to Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, “If you were him, would you come?” Nwawo was then said to have replied Ojukwu, “Knowing Colonel Achuzia, like I do, once he gets your message, he would come.”

I laughed. Then, I called my GSO 1and gave him instructions that I wanted the forward line to stop where they were and dig in. Then, the reserve should get into their vehicles – because I always kept a reserve of a battalion, whenever I was going into battle. So, I asked the reserve to follow me behind because I suspected that once I got to Abagana, I might get into battle, over there.

We left with the officer and as we approached Abagana Junction, opposite Flora Azikiwe school, mortar bombs and artillery were falling all over the place. I got down from my vehicle and asked, “Where’s His Excellency?” They said he had gone back to Owerri. Those [senior officers] I met on ground there, included Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, Colonel Nsudor and Colonel Chude Sokei. Nwawo said, “I have a signal for you.”  I collected the paper from him, opened it and, as I was about to read it, he got into his car and left. What I read there was that I should take over command from Colonels Ivenso and Conrad Nwawo.  Just as I was asking where Ivenso was, a vehicle drove by, with all of them heading back to Onitsha, leaving me to handle the situation with troops I was not conversant with…

BCO: (cuts in)…Well, there was this controversy in Biafra, possibly originating from your adversaries, wherever…

ACHUZIA: (cuts in) Oh yes, that’s what they were…[my adversaries]…

BCO: …and this was the story that made the rounds in Biafra…that you came, after the battle was fought and just took over everything, that you were, in fact, in the habit of doing that…

ACHUZIA: (excited, hearty laughter…general laughter)…so I saw myself alone, facing an oncoming army, with no backup support. Soldiers were running out and disappearing. So, I stood there. When I looked up, I saw the convoy, coming — my men that were with me at Nsukka…

BCO: (cuts in)…The backup?

ACHUZIA: Yes. So, I stood in the middle of the road, with my hands up [in the air], even though mortar bombs were falling everywhere, left and right and they halted. Then, the officer in-charge, Ihemefula, came out and I said, take over the position, I am going forward…

BCO: (cuts in)…Could this be the origin of this legend about your rumoured possession of some extraordinary powers of witchcraft? It was also a well-circulated story, back those days, in Biafra, that even as Federal Nigerian bullets and rockets fell, like rain, all you did was put your hands up in the air and waved your special white handkerchief with some incantations, whilst reciting the mantra, “not for me, not for my boys” and the bullets and rockets simply flew by, with you and your men, unscathed? Did you have any juju as alleged?

 ACHUZIA: (chuckling)…No…[as I was saying] I entered my command vehicle and headed towards Awka. [Then, lo and behold,] all the way, it was long-range artillery that Nigerians were using. They weren’t even close to Abagana. [I moved on] till I got to Awka and found so many of our soldiers milling around by the schools and churches. These were Ivenso and Nwawo’s men, but nobody was in-charge. They were just milling around and nobody was in-charge. So, I asked them to get into their various formations.

BCO: So, how were you able to do this, did you threaten them, did you shoot them, as often widely claimed, or what?

ACHUZIA: Of course, not…you see, part of, you know…that’s why, many atimes, I don’t even like to talk about the war, because I’ve seen a lot…

BCO: Well, you have to talk to me, now. You need to. That’s why I’m here, so that we can all lay this matter to rest, once and for all because some of those rumours and legends were quite damaging to your personality…

ACHUZIA: These people, they don’t have what you call command and control of men. They have been trained for parade grounds, not for battle. The first person that intimated me about how most of them would react, was Nzeogwu, himself  [Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu]. And it was because of Nzeogwu that I agreed to participate in the war effort because Ojukwu’s colleagues in the Nigerian Army, at first, didn’t feel like he was competent. They felt that he was a quartermaster and not an infantryman.

Nzeogwu knew me in Britain, when he used to come to Waterloo, where we had the artillery section of the British Army Guard. When he got there, I used to take him to the army and navy stores. So, it was Nzeogwu that first told me that once these people heard the sound of gunfire, they would disappear. And that was exactly what was playing out. So when I arrived and started putting the men in their positions, immediately they heard the sound of mortar fire, as it flew across, they would break ranks. I insisted and said nobody must break ranks. You stay there. But you are free to shoot me if anybody here gets killed, or wounded.

BCO: So, how did you survive this rain of mortar fire? 

ACHUZIA: Well, providentially, despite the rain of mortar fire, falling here and there, none fell within range.

BCO: So, it was not as a result of some secret and highly potent talisman, charm, or juju, that you had working for you, as was widely circulated in Biafra, by wild talebearers?

ACHUZIA: (long, hearty laughter)…I’m a Christian, I don’t believe in such things. I fought in Korea, I didn’t use juju, so where did I get the juju from?

Nigerian soldiers had a way of fighting. They went into battle as if it was a civil service activity. They would start from say, any time from about 7 am and continue till the evening. Once it got to 5, or 6 o’clock, instead of staying where they stopped, they would pick up their weapons and start heading back…(general laughter). Having known that, I capitalised on it.

So, that evening, after putting the men in their positions, we assigned the officers that were around – captains and majors – to different locations, so as to block the various exits into our rear. I left for Onitsha, to find out exactly why there was no senior army officer around. I got to St. Charles and met Nwawo and many of them, there.

They asked, “Is there anything wrong?” I said, yes, everything is wrong. How do you expect company commanders to be performing, with no authority behind them? What I heard next was, “We’re all trained officers, we know the battle drills, just as you do, we will be there, if we are needed, the command is in your hands.” I left, went back and slept that night [at Abagana]. By morning, my men had arrived and I positioned them. From there, the battle for Abagana started.

BCO: How exactly did it start?

ACHUZIA: You see, the battle started from near Awka and moved down towards Abagana. Then, at Abagana, it became a war of attrition: they killed one of my men, I killed one of theirs. But it was obvious to me that they had more reinforcement, they reinforced quicker than I could get to reinforcement.

I then called Pius Okigbo, His Excellency’s representative, attached to me. So, I said to him, I intend to play this game in a different way. Then, he retorted, “Colonel, what are you talking about?” I said I intended to let the Federal troops pass through. He said, “What?” I said I had a strategy that when they got through, I would then block them. I needed to do that because I could not afford that war of attrition. He said, “I don’t understand…and if you let them through, they are heading straight to Onitsha and from Onitsha, they are going to Nnewi.” I said, no, I could contain it. He said, “Well, I won’t allow you.” I said, “Well, you better think it over. In the meantime, the attrition continued for another week.

I didn’t know that he had gone to tell Ojukwu what I said. And Ojukwu said to him to go back to me and say, “Do what you think best, I’m relying on you and I don’t expect you would behave like a Nigerian Army-bred officer.” So, he came back and said, “Funny enough, Ojukwu says he is relying on you, you do what you think, best.” With that, we started pulling back at a fast rate.

You see, the strategy that I adopted was [based on the fact] that Nigerian soldiers were heavily armed. In fact, the reason they were always going back to their RVs [after each day’s fight] was to allow for their reinforcement and equipment to arrive and take over the RVs and in the morning, they would advance. With that, instead of making it a short run, [for them] we retreated a long distance from Abagana, towards Nkpo…

BCO: (cuts in)…So, this was all a strategy to draw them out and set them up?

ACHUZIA: Yes. So, the road was clear and they were shooting and advancing at a fast rate. I pulled my men into the sides, in the bush. When they advanced close to Nkpo, the people I left there sent a message that they were now there. We closed in, near Abagana.

BCO: Which meant, in effect, that all the ground you seemed to have lost, you had taken back again?

ACHUZIA: Yes, we had taken everything back again…and even moved into their RV, now. Their people [reinforcements] were then coming in their vehicles, behind them – and don’t forget, these were mostly just drivers, cooks, the medical team, coming with stores, and no infantrymen, it was not a fighting force, at all. With that, we halted them and they retreated back into Abagana town again. The advancing force, meanwhile, tried to come back, but there was no way. So, they had no alternative than to enter Onitsha. They entered Onitsha and I held that front.

The only thing that I missed was that [Col. Chude] Sokei didn’t see the result of that strategy because when I set up my TAC Headquarters near Afor Igwe, Ogidi, two people came to assist – [Col.] Tony Eze and Col. Sokei. But immediately I wanted to give instructions, Tony Eze said he would not stay, that he would [rather] go join Nwawo at Onitsha. Sokei said he would stay because he would like to see how I handled these things.

In fact, the night before that final battle that destroyed the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army, there was a fight. The Federal troops tried to dislodge us at Ogidi and it was myself and Sokei that moved forward. In fact, Sokei really performed. I was very satisfied with both his marksmanship and his courage. When other soldiers were running away, he was the only one that stood with me on the road, to [try to] stop the Federal armoured vehicle coming up the bend, that bend that led to Afor Igwe, where the church was, on the left.

That evening, I decided to set up a 6-inch mortar barrel on the belfry of the church because, from there, you could get a clear view. Around 9/10, the Federal troops started inching their way, up the hill. It was from that belfry that I ordered my mortar fellow, to shoot…

BCO: (cuts in) Was that the fatal shot that did the damage and do you recall the name of this subaltern that fired the mortar bomb?

ACHUZIA: No, I don’t [recall his name]…they [Federal troops] were moving, tail-to-tail, [uphill] with some even trying to overtake the others. So, when the bomb landed and the explosions started to take place, even ourselves had to start taking cover because some of their vehicles were open trucks that carried nothing but ammunition…

BCO: (cuts in)…Was it during this operation that Chude Sokei was killed?

ACHUZIA: No. He had been killed because the operation that killed him was the day before. What happened was that we launched the attack that I told you, pushed them back and in the morning, everybody came from Onitsha. They were [quite] fond of, whenever I was fighting, immediately I had subdued the enemy, they would be the first to go and tell Ojukwu that the place was cleared…

BCO: (cuts in)…What you were being accused of, in fact, was the reverse…

ACHUZIA: (chuckles)…Yes. But what they didn’t know was that since my joining the army, Ojukwu made it [mandatory] that every 10 pm, both of us must communicate on the phone. He had set two people from Nnewi, who were with the P&T [Posts & Telegraphs] and whose job was to make sure that wherever I was going to [pass the night] there was telephone [service there]. He always knew what was going on and so had no need to wait for me to go and brief him. All of this was unknown to the others and this had been the situation all along.

Col Achuzia and Basil Chiji Okafor

Continued next week.

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