When the road was again clear Achuzie moved on, but with an eighteen-hour delay. He found the Nigerians well dug-in already. He had two choices, to try to force the Nigerians out of their positions, or to turn back towards Abagana. The first would have exhausted his own men and their ammunition supplies, leaving them unable to cope with the larger force he was sure was following down the road. An argument developed between Achuzie and the other Biafran commanders, who maintained there was no larger force. Achuzie got his way and set up an enormous ambush outside Abagana. Into it the next morning rolled the main force, a 102-lorry convoy with 6,000 men on board and 350 tons of equipment.
The Abagana ambush was the biggest ever. A chance mortar bomb hit the 8,000-gallon petrol tanker and the vehicle exploded backwards, shooting a tongue of blazing fuel 400 yards down the road and covering 60 vehicles behind, which were soon burnt out. The surviving soldiers panicked, jumped down and ran. The waiting Biafran infantry got them. Very few got out alive.
Mohammed had made Onitsha, but out of 20,000 men he had brought 2,000 into Onitsha and lost most of the rest on the way. Lagos was not pleased when Mohammed crossed the Niger in a small boat, motored to Lagos and reported. He has not commanded a Division since. The 102nd and 105th in Onitsha were relieved and fresh troops sent across the river from Asaba. Soon there
were 5,000 more Nigerians in Onitsha and, despite repeated efforts to retake the city, they remained in control of it, boosting the garrison by November 1968 to 8,000 men.
April 1968 was a disastrous month for Biafra. The previous February a large number of technical assistants, believed by the Biafrans with some corroborating evidence from sources in London to be British NCOs ‘on attachment for training purposes’, had arrived in Nigeria, and the effect was felt in April. Nigerian radio communications became infinitely better and the Biafran monitors heard clipped English voices issuing instructions across the ether. Complex coordinated manoeuvres previously beyond the scope of the Nigerians became the order of the day. Vehicle maintenance on the Nigerian side increased at the same time and their shortage of transport of a few weeks previously was solved. More important, by April they were constructing Bailey bridges to cross rivers which had previously baffled them for months. The Engineering Corps of the Nigerian Army had previously been almost entirely composed of Easterners and the Biafrans were aware that building Bailey bridges at that speed was beyond the capabilities of the Nigerians alone.
East of Enugu the Nigerians crossed a steep and narrow gorge at Ezulu and their armoured cars raced the last twelve miles to capture Abakaliki. This cut off the Biafrans east of Abakaliki facing the Nigerians across the Anyim, and they withdrew to a new line south of Abakaliki. Within days the Nigerians in Ogoja province had crossed the Antim on another Bailey bridge and linked up with Abakaliki. For the first time the two wings of the First Nigerian Division had made contact and possessed an east-west strip running along the north of Biafra.
Adekunle’s Third Division, using two battalions of black mercenaries from Chad, called Gwodo-Gwodo, had pushed up the valley of the Cross River on the eastern bank to Obubra, the last major town in Ekoi country. They had been held along the river line for twelve weeks by the redoubtable presence on the far bank of Major Williams, a hundred of his personally trained Commandos, and seven thousand fmnc-tireur volunteers of the Ibo clan with whose chief Williams had established a personal friendship. These bush warriors of the Cross River, fiercely pro-Biafran, armed with blunderbusses and machetes, held seventy miles of river bank under constant surveillance.
But Williams’ withdrawal in early April for training purposes gave the Chads across the water the chance they needed. In late April they crossed at two places and captured Afikpo, the main town in that area on the western side.
It was further south that Adekunle got his big break. In the last days of March, with the assistance of a handful of British amphibious experts, he staged two landings across the Cross River at its broadest point, almost a mile of water. Capturing Oron and Itu within a few days, his fast-moving mercenary-led columns swept through the land of the Ibibios within a week, taking Uyo, Ikot Ekpene, Abak, Eket and Opobo in quick succession. Their task was made easier by the provision of guides who knew the bush tracks, the hardness of the ground after the winter sun, and a certain degree of collaboration on the part of some of the local chiefs. Later, after several weeks and finally months of occupation by Adekunle’s men, these chiefs were to send pathetic appeals to Colonel Ojukwu. Eventually no people in Biafra suffered greater brutalization under Nigerian occupation than the Ibibios and Annangs.
At the northern fringe of Ibibio territory, where Ibo-land begins, about thirty miles from Umuahia, the Nigerians were halted. In any case Adekunle’s main target was not northwards but west – the glittering prize of Port Harcourt.
From April onwards the First and Second Divisions quietened down and attention was switched increasingly to Adekunle in the south. The Second Division made repeated attempts to link up from Onitsha and Abagana, while the First Division fortified the series of towns along the main Enugu-Onitsha road. They could motor as far as Abagana but could not make the link-up to Onitsha. This failure inhibited any more major moves south, though the First Division attacked southwards in June and took Awgu, to the south of this main road, on 15 June.
But Adekunle throughout the summer of 1968 became the most important of the Nigerian commanders and was favoured with the majority of the arms and ammunition from Lagos. While the strength of the First Division remained stable at about 15,000 men and that of the Second Division at about 13,000, Adekunle’s Third Division, responsible for the whole of the south, grew to over 25,000 by the end of 1968.
Relying again largely on foreign amphibious experts for his water-borne operations, Adekunle’s advance units crossed the Imo River, the last barrier to Port Harcourt, in the second fortnight of April. He had forty miles to go to the biggest city in Biafra.
At the point of Adekunle’s twin crossings the Imo flows south from Umu Abayi to its estuary at Opobo. Upstream of Umu Abayi the river flows in a west-to-east direction forty miles from Awaza. This oblong of land, forty miles long and thirty miles from north to south, is completed in the west by the Bonny River on which Port Harcourt stands and in the south by the creeks, a myriad of swamp and tangled mangrove which in turns give way to the open sea. Inside this block of land, apart from Port Harcourt, lie the natural-gas-driven generation station at Afam, lighting the whole of the south of Biafra, the petroleum town of Bori, the £10,000,000 Shell-BP refinery at Okrika, and numerous oil wells. Although Port Harcourt itself was largely an Ibo city, the surrounding land is that of the Ogonis, Ikwerres and Okrikans, with the Rivers folk living down in the creeks and along to the west on the other side of the Bonny River.
At this time Biafra was already sheltering some four million refugees from other occupied areas, about one and a half million Ibos and two and a half million minorities. Port Harcourt and its food-rich surrounding countryside was a favourite shelter, and the pre-war population of half a million had swollen to close to a million.
After a swift build-up on the western bank of the Imo, beating off counter-attacks aimed at dislodging the beach-heads, the Third Division launched itself at Port Harcourt in the last days of April. The Biafran forces took the onslaught of the usual spearhead of armoured cars, a drenching in shells and mortars, and then the Nigerian infantry. In a lone last stand with an empty magazine, the Italian fighting for the Biafrans, Major Georgio Norbiatto, was lost, missing presumed killed.
By the middle of May Afam, Bori and Okrika had fallen. The Biafran defence was hindered by thousands of refugees, while the Nigerian advance was assisted by small groups of local levies, volunteers and guides. Some of these had been imported from Lagos, including the former insurgent student, Isaac Boro, who appeared this time as a Major in the Federal Army. He was killed outside Bori.
With a fast right hook the Nigerians cut the road northward out of Port Harcourt towards Aba, and on 18 May advance units occupied the eastern outskirts of the city. A fierce shelling bombardment had been going on for days and the road northwestwards from the town towards Owerri was choked with nearly a million refugees pouring out for safety. This human tide immobilized Colonel Achuzie, the newly appointed commander to the sector, and by the time it was cleared the Nigerians had ensconced themselves in the town and occupied one side of the airport, with the Biafrans at the other. Here both sides paused for a month to take breath.
Early in April Major Steiner, the German ex-Foreign Legion sergeant, who ranked senior among the four mercenaries (the fourth was an Englishman who like Williams had operated along the Cross River, but had left) was ordered by Colonel Ojukwu to train and bring into being a brigade of shock troops along the lines of the small, tough bands the four Europeans had been separately leading up to that time. Steiner, who had had his own band of guerrillas operating around Enugu airport to the great discomfiture of the Nigerians, set up camp and ordered Williams to join him. The two began to put together the Biafran Fourth Commando Brigade, a controversial unit which was nevertheless to play a widely publicized part in Biafran operations against the Federal Army.
Williams wanted to remain on the Cross River, but was overruled. A fortnight after he left the Gwodo-Gwodo crossed over, which Will
iams thought they could not have done if he had stayed. With his contract expiring, and desolated by the overrunning of his beloved Ibos, Williams returned to London in early May, but a week later he was asking to come back. He returned for his second contract on 7 July. By this time Steiner had trained up 3,000 men divided into six small battalions or strike-forces, and was ready for action. When offered a sector he chose the Enugu to Onitsha road, and went back to the North, where Williams joined him on his return.
Throughout July the Commandos raided the positions of the Second Division along that road with some success. Later, when asked why he had not joined with the First and Third Divisions in the ‘final assault on Iboland’, Colonel Haruna, commanding the Second, admitted that all his preparations had been stultified by these Commando raids which forced him to keep switching large units from place to place wherever the raiders struck. The activities of the Commandos at Amansee, Uku and Amieni proved the validity of Steiner’s noncomformist theories of small fast-moving bands of men being more effective in African terrain than solid phalanxes of infantry, but although Colonel Ojukwu agreed with the principle, circumstances later forced him to bring the Commandos back to an infantry role.
During June Adekunle in the south launched out of Port Harcourt with orders to capture the remains of Gowon’s Rivers State lying west of the Bonny. At this point Colonel Ojukwu asked the tribal chiefs of the two southern Provinces, Yenagoa and Degema, to come and see him. He told them the nature of the terrain they lived in was so unsuitable for defence that he could not offer great hopes of the Biafran Army being able to prevent the Nigerians from overruning them. Therefore he offered the chiefs the chance that, if they wished to opt for Nigeria and save themselves from eventual reprisals, he would draw up his defensive line north of the two provinces and cede the remainder of the Rivers area to Nigeria.
The chiefs wished to reply at once, but Ojukwu told them to go back home and talk it over in council. The next day a messenger arrived with the Rivers people’s answer. They wanted to stay with Biafra; they hoped for every defence possible and would help all they could; they realized this would bring reprisals and were ready for them.
Adekunle later made the Rivers pay a stiff price for their loyalty to Biafra. As Ojukwu had predicted, the territory was impossible to defend against a force equipped with scores of boats and ships. Defending units had to be split into penny-packets to watch every spit of land and island. The Nigerians could pick their spot and move in off the sea. By the middle of July landings had been made at Degema, Yenagoa, Brass and a score of other places. On the mainland Nigerian infantry forces moved through Igritta, Elele and Ahoada, to capture the rest of the ‘Rivers State’.
So far Colonel Adekunle had never operated outside the minorities areas. He had never set foot in Ibo-land, while the other two Nigerian Divisions had never operated outside Ibo-land except for the First Division’s campaign to capture Ogoja Province. In some ways therefore, despite his enormous weapons advantage, Adekunle had had it easy.
This is not to say that fighting was any less severe in the minorities areas than in Ibo-land, nor that most of the chiefs of the minority groups did not remain loyal to Biafra. But in the minorities areas it was easier to find dissidents prepared to collaborate either through genuine conviction or desire for advantage, and these Nigerian agents had done enormous work guiding the Nigerian forces and revealing to them hidden byways which only the local people could know.
It had also been easier to introduce into the minorities areas some weeks before an attack scores of agents imported from the Eastern minority communities in Lagos. Some of these agents nevertheless defected once they got among their own people again, and told of large sums of money being seeded around the minority areas to buy over the local chiefs, of agents provocateurs preaching hatred of the Ibos, and of threats of violent reprisal in the event of the local people remaining loyal to Biafra when the forthcoming attack took place.
The techniques were not unsuccessful in some parts, though few of the original promises made were ever fulfilled and the behaviour of the Nigerian soldiery usually brought swift disillusionment. Violence habitually came in two waves. The Federal combat troops moved through first, shooting everything on sight regardless of tribe, destroying and looting property regardless of ownership. The violence of the soldiery was usually in proportion to the casualties they had had to take in order to capture a position. Thus where a town fell easily without a shot being fired, and the population swung rapidly into a pro-Nigerian attitude commensurate with the brisk change in the power balance, there sometimes occurred periods of amity between the infantry and the local population. This never happened in Ibo-land, but no one in Ibo-land had very many doubts that their fate was in any case sealed.
After the infantry moved on, the second-rate garrison troops moved in. Within weeks the local indigenes had learned that ‘One Nigeria’ was a fine slogan but an unattractive reality when it involved a seemingly limitless occupation by soldiers who had not been discouraged from thinking anything in occupied Biafra was theirs for the taking. That was why by the end of 1968 some of the most fertile breeding grounds in the whole country for the budding Biafran guerrilla movement were those minority areas that had been longest under Nigerian occupation.