The Biafra Story - Page 17

Without a new vehicle for a yea

r and a half, the Biafrans have kept going on repaired, patched and cannibalized transport and latterly home-refined petrol. Spare parts have been either taken from wrecked vehicles or machine-tooled.

As regards foreign assistance, despite all that has been said of hundreds of mercenaries, the score over the first eighteen months has been: forty Frenchmen in November 1967 who left in a hurry after six weeks, when they decided it was too hot for them; another group of sixteen in September 1968 who stayed four weeks before coming to the same conclusion. Those who have actually fought with the Biafran forces have been a small handful comprising a German, Scot, South African, Italian, Englishman, Rhodesian, American (one each), two Flemings and two Frenchmen. Another half-dozen individual soldiers of fortune have drifted in for varying periods of one day to three weeks. With rare exceptions the difficulty of the combat conditions, the enormous odds against, and a rooted conviction that there must be easier ways of earning a living have kept most visits down to short duration. The only two men who ever completed their six-month contracts were the German, Rolf Steiner, who suffered a nervous breakdown in his tenth month and had to be repatriated, and the South African, Taffy Williams, who completed two contracts and went on leave in the first few days of 1969.

Ironically the Biafran war story, far from consolidating the position of the mercenary in Africa, has completely exploded the myth of the Congo’s ‘White Giants’. In the final analysis the contribution of the white man to the war on the Biafran side must be reckoned with as well under one per cent.

Most have been revealed as little more than thugs in uniform, and the riff-raff of the Congo did not even bother to volunteer to come out to Biafra at all. Those who did fight at all, fought with slightly greater technical know-how but no more courage or ferocity than the Biafran officers. The lack of contrast between the two is underlined by Major Williams, the one man who stuck by the Biafrans for twelve months of combat, and the only one who emerges as a figure really worth employing. ‘I’ve seen a lot of Africans at war,’ he said once.* ‘But there’s nobody to touch these people. Give me 10,000 Biafrans for six months, and we’ll build an army that would be invincible on this continent. I’ve seen men die in this war who would have won the Victoria Cross in another context. My God, some of them were good scrappers.’ His assessment of most of the mercenaries, and notably the French, is unprintable.

The war began in a spirit of confidence on both sides. General Gowon told his people and the world he had undertaken ‘a short, surgical police action’.† Victory was forecast in days rather than weeks. In the North Colonel Katsina sneered at the Biafran ‘army of pen-pushers’ and forecast a swift victory as the largely Northern Nigerian Federal infantry marched in. The Biafrans, confident of their greater speed, ingenuity and resourcefulness, felt if they could resist for a few months the Nigerians would realize the folly of the war and go home, or negotiate. Neither proved to be correct.

Fighting starting on 6 July 1967, with an artillery barrage against Ogoja, a town near the border with the Northern Region in the northeast corner of Biafra. Here two Federal battalions faced the Biafrans in what Colonel Ojukwu realized was a diversionary attack. The real attack came further west opposite Nsukka, the prosperous market town recently endowed with the handsome University of Nsukka, renamed University of Biafra.

Here the remaining six battalions of the Nigerians were massed on the main axis, and they marched in on 8 July. They advanced four miles and then stuck. The Biafrans, with about 3,000 men in arms in that sector against the Nigerians’ 6,000, fought back tenaciously with Eastern Nigeria Police .303 rifles, an assortment of Italian, Czech and German machine pistols, and a fair sprinkling of shotguns, which in close bush country are not as harmless as they sound. The Nigerians captured the town of Nsukka which they then destroyed, university and all, but could advance no further. In Ogoja province they took Nyonya and Gakem, brought Ogoja into range of their artillery and forced the Biafrans to cede the township and draw up a line of defence along a river south of the town. Here too the fighting bogged down, and the situation looked, and might have remained, stationary.

After two weeks, discomfited by this immobility of their redoubtable infantry, Lagos began to broadcast the fall of numerous Biafran towns to the Federal forces. To those living in Enugu, which included the whole population, expatriates included, it appeared someone in Lagos was sticking pins at random in a map. At the Hotel Presidential it was tea on the terrace as usual, water-polo with the British Council staff, and jackets for dinner.

After three weeks the Nigerians got into trouble when two of their battalions, cut off from the rest, were surrounded and broken up to the east of Nsukka between the main road and the railway line. Two more scratch battalions composed of training staff and trainees were hastily armed and thrown into the Nsukka sector from the Nigerian side.

In the air, activity was confined to the exploits of a lone Biafran B-26 American-built Second World War bomber piloted by a taciturn Pole who rejoiced in the name of Kamikaze Brown, and to six French-built Alouette helicopters piloted by Biafrans from which they rained hand-grenades and home-made bombs on the Nigerians.

On 25 July the Nigerians staged an unexpected sea-borne attack on the island of Bonny, the last piece of land before the open sea far to the south of Port Harcourt. In prestige terms it was a spectacular coup in an increasingly newsless war, due to the fact that Bonny was the oil-loading terminal for the Shell-BP pipeline from Port Harcourt.

But militarily it was unexploitable, for, once warned, the Biafrans relentlessly patrolled the waters north of Bonny and subsequent Nigerian attempts to launch further water-borne attacks northwards on to the mainland round Port Harcourt were beaten back.

On 9 August the Biafrans struck in earnest with a coup that shook observers both in Biafra and Lagos. Starting at dawn, a mobile brigade of 3,000 men they had carefully prepared in secret swept across the Onitsha Bridge into the Midwest. In ten hours of daylight the Region fell, and the towns of Warri, Sapele, the oil centre at Ughelli, Agbor, Uromic, Ubiaja, and Benin City were occupied. Of the small army of the Midwest nothing was heard; nine out of eleven senior officers of that army were Ica-Ibos, first cousins to the Ibos of Biafra, and rather than fight they welcomed the Biafran forces.

The capture of the Midwest changed the balance of the war, putting the whole of Nigeria’s oil resources under Biafran control. Although she had lost about 500 square miles of her own territory in three small sectors at the perimeter, she had captured 20,000 square miles of Nigeria. More important, the whole of the Nigerian infantry was miles away opposite Nsukka, with the broad Niger separating them from the road back to the capital and helpless to intervene. For the Biafrans the road to Lagos was open and undefended.

Colonel Ojukwu was at pains to placate the non-Ibo majority of the Midwest and to assure them that he bore them no harm. For a week delegations of tribal chiefs, bankers, traders, Chamber of Commerce stalwarts, army officers and church dignitaries filed into Enugu on invitation to see the Biafran leader and be reassured. Colonel Ojukwu hoped that an alliance of two of the three Southern regions would swing the West into agreement and force the Federal Government to negotiate.

After a week it appeared this was not going to happen and Colonel Ojukwu gave the order for a further advance westwards. On 16 August the Biafrans reached the Ofusu River bridge which marks the border with the Western region. Here there was a brief scrap with Nigerian troops, who then withdrew. Inspecting the Nigerian dead, the Biafrans were elated; the Nigerian soldiers were from the Federal Guard, Gowon’s own bodyguard of 500 Tivs, normally garrisoned in Lagos. If he had had recourse to using these, it was reckoned, there must be nothing else available.

On 20 August the Biafrans stormed into Ore, a town on a crossroads thirty-five miles into the West, 130 miles from Lagos and 230 miles from Enugu. This time the Tivs facing them took a worse beating and disconsolately pulled back in disorder. To observers at the time it appeared that barely ten weeks after the Arab-Israeli war another military phenomenon was to be witnessed, with tiny Biafra toppling the government of the enormous Nigeria. A sudden motorized push at that time along any one of three major roads available would have put Biafran forces deep into the Yoruba heartland and at the gates of Lagos. Such was the order Colonel Ojukwu gave.

It was later learned from sources inside the American Embassy that on 20 August the Westerners were teetering on the verge of going over to a policy of appeasing the Biafrans to save their skins; that Gowon had ordered his private plane to be made ready, the engines warmed and a flight plan prepared for Zaria in the North; and that the British High Commissioner Sir David Hunt and the American Ambassador Mr James Matthews had had a long and serious talk with Gowon in Dodan Barracks, as a result of which the nervous Nigerian Supreme Commander agreed to carry on.

News of this intervention, if intervention it was (and it was reliably reported as such), reached Colonel Ojukwu within a week and caused anger among British and American citizens in Biafra, who felt their ambassadors were playing fast and loose with their safety, for if the news had got out to the Biafran public their reaction could have been violent.

The decision of Gowon to stay on saved his government from collapse and ensured the continuation of the war. Had he fled, there seems little doubt the West would have swung over, and Nigeria would have developed into a confederation of three states. Biafran suspicions since that day have been that the carrot that tempted Gowon and his fellow minority men to stay in power was the pledge of British and American aid. Certainly the aid followed hard and fast from that date.

The taking of the Midwest had one other by-product. It opened Nigeria’s eyes to the fact that they were fighting a war. From the first they had underestimated Biafra and the latter, in taking advantage of this once-for-all opportunity, had got the war in her grasp. It was allowed to slip. In fact Ore was as far as the Biafran forces got, for in the meantime another remarkable aboutturn had taken place. Unknown to all, the commander of the Biafran forces in the Midwest had turned traitor.

Victor Banjo was a Yoruba and had been a Major in the Nigerian Army, imprisoned by General Ironsi for allegedly plotting against him. His prison had been in the East, and it was from here, released by Colonel Ojukwu at the outbreak of war and offered a commission in the Biafran Army, that he came to join Biafra rath

er than go home to the West and face the possible danger of revenge from the Northerners ruling there. Why Colonel Ojukwu chose the one senior Yoruba in the Biafran Army to command the forces destined to march into Western Nigeria he has never revealed, but the two men were known to have been close friends, and Colonel Ojukwu had implicit trust in him. With the rank of Brigadier, Banjo commanded ‘S’ Brigade when it moved into the Midwest.

According to his own confession when he was later unmasked, he decided soon after 9 August he wished to enter into talks with the leaders in the West, notably Chief Awolowo. He discovered the hideaway in Benin City of the Midwest Governor Colonel Ejoor, though he did not report this to Ojukwu, who wished to talk to Ejoor. Instead he asked Ejoor to act as intermediary between himself and Awolowo, but Ejoor declined to take the risk.

Banjo said later he relayed messages using the sideband radio of the British Deputy High Commission in Benin. A British official communicated the messages in German to another official in the High Commission in Lagos. The message was passed on to Chief Awolowo. The plot Banjo later revealed was typically Yoruba in its complexity. In conjunction with two other senior Biafran officers with political ambitions he was to cause the ruin of Biafra by withdrawing the troops from the Midwest on a variety of pretexts, arrest and assassinate Ojukwu, and proclaim the ‘revolt’ at an end. As a Nigerian hero he would then re-enter his home Western Region with all his past forgiven and forgotten.

He added that the second part of the plot, which was to come later, was that he and Awolowo were to rally the newly-recruited Yoruba Army to his standard, and depose Gowon, leaving the Presidency of Nigeria for himself and permitting Awolowo his long-desired premiership. It seems unlikely that the Gowon government was informed of this postscript.

Banjo managed to recruit into his scheme Colonel Ifeajuana, also released from prison, a Moscow-trained Communist officer called Major Philip Alale, a Biafran Foreign Service official called Sam Agbam, who did some of the negotiating between the two sides while out of Biafra, and several other junior officers and functionaries.

By mid-September he was ready to move. In Enugu Colonel Ojukwu, although frustrated by the lack of action in the west, continued to trust Banjo and to accept his assurances of administrative difficulties, man-power shortage, lack of enough guns and ammunition, and so forth. It was true the Nigerians had grown stronger in the intervening three weeks. With a crash recruiting programme putting into uniform after a brisk one-week training course such diverse elements as college students and prison inmates, the Nigerians had formed first one fresh brigade and then another. These forces, named the Second Division and commanded by Colonel Murtela Mohammed, had been fighting back from the Western Region. The use of fast, motorized columns could still have put the Biafrans in a dominating position in the West as late as the first week in September, but on 12 September Banjo gave orders without authority to evacuate Benin City without firing a shot. Mohammed did not enter Benin until 21 September.

Banjo followed up with orders to withdraw from Warri, Sapele, Auchi, Igueben and other important positions without fighting. Baffled and bewildered Biafran junior officers did as they were told. Simultaneously the Biafran defences south of Nsukka collapsed and the Federal forces pushed several miles down the road to Enugu, lying forty-five miles from Nsukka.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
Source: Copyright 2016 - 2023