On the 31st of March, 1968, dark clouds hovered over what was left of a tiny, besieged Biafran territory. The Biafran troops, aware of the impending doom that stared them in the face, looked on in gloom and confusion, but in one last, desperate act of bravery and patriotism, still held their ground. Unable to stand the intimidating spectacle of the approaching war machine of the Nigerian Army some, however, turned tail.
Earlier, on the 4th of October, 1967, the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army, under the command of Lt.-Col. Murtala Mohammed, after repeated, failed attempts to take Onitsha, resorted to bombarding the city from the Asaba end of the Niger Bridge for eight long days before a 10-boat flotilla finally crossed the river and entered Onitsha.
Having once gained entry into the city, nevertheless, rather than pursue the retreating Biafran forces, the Nigerian troops resorted to looting the famous Onitsha Main Market, finally burning the edifice to the ground. That break gave the Biafrans the time they needed to regroup. The 11th and 18th Battalions, under the commands of then, Major Joe Achuzia and Colonel Assam Nsudoh, respectively, quickly mobilised a two-pronged attack on Onitsha and, in a pincer operation, either captured, or killed off most of the occupying Nigerian forces.
Fast-forward, five months to Abagana! A huge armada of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army: six thousand men, under arms; 106 vehicles, including tanks and other armoured vehicles; assorted trucks and jeeps; fuel tankers and stores, all under the command of the same Lt.-Col. Murtala Mohammed, snaked its way up the hill, in the direction of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Abagana. It was indeed an intimidating sight.
Meanwhile, Colonel Achuzia, having served in the Onitsha sector of the war and thus, fully aware of the 2nd Division’s repeated failures at Onitsha, only anticipated Murtala Mohammed’s next move. He was already a veteran of several successful battles in various sectors of the war and thus, enjoyed the Commander-in-Chief’s confidence:
“I don’t care if he ate with his feet, but he won battles,” said Ojukwu, when confronted with the many accusations leveled against Achuzia, by his detractors.
At the point of the Abagana siege, Achuzia had become something of a roving commander and was one of the very few who had the privilege of a direct, secret telephone communication with the leader, wherever he was. A signal from the Commander-in-Chief, had reached him at the Nsukka sector of the war, where he had since been moved, to proceed to Abagana, immediately. At Abagana, itself, most of the senior officers had all but disappeared and, from their ranks, remained only Colonel Chude Sokei.
The senior officers disagreed totally with what they considered Achuzia’s unorthodox planning of that operation, but Chude Sokei remained behind. How could a man who was not even in the Nigerian Army with them, dictate to Sandhurst-trained officers like themselves, what to do, in the heat of battle? But unknown to them, Achuzia, a British-trained engineer, was a veteran of the Korean War and had also seen action with the British forces during the occupation of Palestine.
Said Achuzia, of the day of the Abagana Ambush: “Chude Sokei said he wanted to stay behind to see how my strategy was going to succeed. My only regret was that he did not live to see the success and the end of that battle.”
As the convoy lumbered up the snaky route, uphill, Col. Achuzia took one of his mortar men and went up the belfry of the church. The nervous subaltern crouched with him up in the tower that served as their sentry point, as they watched the Nigerian convoy approach and began to roll by. Suddenly, Achuzia ordered him to fire. His strategy in letting the troops pass, first, lay in the fact that he knew their stores were coming right behind them. And troops in battle, without their stores and reinforcements, were virtually as good as a no force, at all.
Rather fortuitously, for the Biafrans, the rocket landed, smack, on a tanker, laden with petrol! The stupendous explosions that followed could be heard as far afield, as Nnewi and its environs. And so, did the resultant towering inferno, last for days, on end. Of the 6,000 men on that mission, estimates, even by independent international sources and journalists in Biafra, such as Frederick Forsyth, put the casualty figures at between 5,800 and 5,900 men.
In addition, 350 tons of the Nigerian Army equipment were either captured, or destroyed and Murtala, himself, one of the very few survivors of that battle, escaped by the skin of his teeth, having been coptered out of the scene of the carnage. On his return to the rear, he was promptly relieved of his command by Gowon and he never again commanded a division.
Although credit for who actually gave the command for the firing of that fatal rocket, has gone from some quarters to Major Jonathan Uchendu, every source universally agrees that Colonel Achuzia, in his capacity as the Commanding Officer of Uchendu’s unit, actually, meticulously planned the Abagana ambush. However, it is not unlikely that the envy his repeated successes in the various battlefields drew from his fellow officers, coupled with his closeness to Ojukwu, conspired to give the proverbial dog a bad name, in order to hang it. Indeed, this was a huge part of what fueled the Achuzia legend, in which many claimed he needlessly wasted troops during what they termed his “bouts of madness”.
However, whatever was the case, the following is a war diary of Colonel Joseph Achuzia, meticulously extracted from the lips of the eccentric and more often than not, taciturn military tactician and Biafran War hero. The colonel very recently passed away, just before he turned 90 and was interred just weeks back. This is the story of Achuzia, by the legend, himself:
BCO: Colonel, sir, rather ironically, it seemed like you were intensely disliked, if not altogether, hated, by not a few people in the Biafra, that you fought so hard for. Yet, despite this general attitude, you were endorsed by Ojukwu, himself, as one of his best commanders and a man who won battles. What was the magic, what was your secret for winning battles, during the Biafra War?
ACHUZIA: Well, I would consider what you call the magic of winning battles as the ability to command the respect of your troops and infuse in them, the sense of capability. Now, when you talk about battles, you mean, in other words, soldiering, right?
BCO: Yes, sir…
ACHUZIA: Soldiering, the military, like every other discipline, is a profession and an art. Just like you go to school to learn to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer, or whatever profession, so also must you learn soldiering, to become a soldier.
BCO: You were like a soldier’s soldier, so what was the difference between you and the others?
ACHUZIA: The difference, again, if you join an army, you are trained. But if you haven’t had the experience of combat activities, in open battle [in war] then, you haven’t really started soldiering. Once you have participated in actual combat, the difference would always show, when situations that require actual combat experience, occur. I have the experience. I experienced battle in Korea, I also experienced battle in Palestine, during the occupation of the British forces and I would say that most of my training was in the battlefield.
BCO: But there was always this conflict: you came into the Biafran Army through the militia and the other senior officers who often let it be known that they were Sandhurst graduates, saw you as something of a misfit and a usurper…
ACHUZIA: Yes, I was aware of it and Ojukwu was also aware of it. Indeed, most of those officers that were left after the pogrom were officers that came over from the Nigerian Army. I was not from the Nigerian Army. I was in the British Army, with the Lancashire fusiliers, where I was recruited immediately after I finished my education…
BCO: (Cuts in) I understand you’re an engineer by profession…
ACHUZIA: That’s right.
BCO: How did you connect with the military?
ACHUZIA: You see, I was born in Lagos at a time, Lagos was a British colony and everybody from the British colony, was a British subject. Arriving in Britain, once you were a British subject and 18 years of age – and this was immediately after the end of World War II – you had to do National Service.
BCO: Now, back to our own war, how would you describe Ojukwu, the man and your relationship with him?
ACHUZIA: Like I said in my tribute to him, he was an icon, a legendary figure and friend that was like a brother. We first met in Kings College, Lagos, in the early 1940s and took to each other. I played football, but he was somebody who participated in virtually every sporting activity. When we left Kings College, we both arrived England almost at the same time. He went to Eton and I went to South-East London Technical College. Our ways parted when I was in Salford University, in Manchester and he was already heading for Oxford. By the time I was in Korea, he had finished and later headed back to Nigeria.
BCO: What kind of personality was he?
ACHUZIA: He was a very charismatic individual, who had a personality that commanded respect, all the time…
BCO: (cuts in)…And he was like that even back in Kings College?
ACHUZIA: Oh yes! He always carried himself in such a way that you couldn’t help but like him.
BCO: What of during the war, how did you perceive him, what manner of leader, or commander, was he?
ACHUZIA: During the war, notwithstanding the level of training the West African soldiers had – because when you got to Mons, or Sandhurst, you found that in the textbooks that were given to the foreign, colonial students for their training, anything that bothered on security, or insurgency warfare, was blacked out – he was still an outstanding soldier, a bold and fearless man and a brilliant commander and war strategist.
BCO: (cuts in)…Why did they black out those portions?
ACHUZIA: Because no country exports security.
BCO: Now, talking about insurgency and warfare and all that, there was Biafra, at the outbreak of the civil war, with just about 120 rifles in its entire armoury, taking on a country with Nigeria’s military might, literally with bare hands, how was Biafra able to take on the gargantuan, Nigerian war machine? Mark you, also, that this was during the so-called Cold War era, yet there was this rather strange kind of alliance between the Soviet Union and Britain, with even the Arabs and so on, joining in, all against a tiny Biafra?
ACHUZIA: You see, when the shooting war began, the few rifles that were available, were augmented with other weapons – double-barrels and single-shot bolt action rifles – that were sourced from private individuals. All those were pooled together and sent to the various army barracks. It got to a point, during those early stages, that we applied a strategy whereby you went after the enemy in such a way that he lost his weapon.
BCO: In other words, what you are saying was that Biafra relied more on strategy, than on weaponry?
ACHUZIA: That’s right.
THE AMBUSH IN ABAGANA:
BCO: Could you kindly recall one of such strategies, specifically during the epic b attle of Abagana that virtually wiped out Murtala Mohammed’s 2nd Division? What was your role there, what happened?
ACHUZIA: Before the Abagana incident, I had already told Ojukwu that we could not continue to fight defensive battles, only waiting to be attacked, then we repulsed. I had seen Murtala Mohammed’s move coming, when he, rather foolishly, tried to cross the Niger from Asaba, into Onitsha, three consecutive times, each attempt, even more disastrous than the previous one.
So I figured, if I were in his position, what would I have done? Of course, it was quite clear, what I would have done from the beginning, knowing that the Niger Bridge was impassable and attempting it by water was rather suicidal as the Biafran troops were already in position.
So, the best thing was to go through Auchi, cross [the Niger] and go through Idah, down to Nsukka, on a two-pronged attack; one group from Adoru, Nsukka and down towards Aguleri. On the other axis, you move a pincer group that would go through Adaba and head towards Awka. And once you got towards Awka, you linked up with the First Division and start heading towards Onitsha. By and by, it turned out that somewhere along the line, Murtala decided to make that move.
- NEXT EDITION: THE ABAGANA SHOWDOWN. KEEP A DATE!