Partly with this in mind, in March 1969 General Ojukwu gave Colonel Joe Achuzie the task of going back into his home region, the Midwest, with a force of commandos to raise an insurrectional movement among the Ica-Ibos, who since the Biafrans had left the Midwest in October 1967 had led a precarious existence, mainly hiding out in the dense bush on the western bank of the Niger. Little was heard of Achuzie, apart from rumours in Lagos of mounting guerrilla activity in the Ibo-speaking parts of the Midwest, until 9 May.
On that day, in the half-light before dawn, a unit of Achuzie’s troops stormed into an oil settlement at Kwale and captured it. The Nigerian Army company that was supposed to guard the place ran away, leaving to their fate the twenty-nine whites employed there. Of these, eleven, ten Italians and a Jordanian, were killed in the melee. Eighteen others, fourteen Italians, three Germans and a Lebanese, were taken prisoner and sent back across the Niger.
Some of the prisoners, having allegedly been found in possession of weapons, were tried as mercenaries, found guilty and sentenced to be executed. When the story broke, the European Press nearly went into hysterics. It remains extremely doubtful whether General Ojukwu ever intended anything to happen to these men; the evidence is that he did not. The sentencing, however, caused a furore, shook the oil chiefs to the extremities of their patent leather pumps and caused the heads of the Italian Agip petroleum combine, which employed the men, to enter into dialogue with Ojukwu. It also collected for Biafra some of the worst publicity imaginable.
Despite this, Ojukwu was on balance content with the outcome. He had got what he wanted, which was some direct reaction from the oil chiefs. He had impressed on them all that the Nigerian Army, despite his promises, could not protect their staff, and it was no accident that subsequently all the oil companies made substantial withdrawals of staff from oil installations in Nigerian-occupied Biafra. The remaining question was what to do with the eighteen sentenced oilmen.
In the outcome, Ojukwu yielded to a plea for clemency from the Pope and on 6 June at a ceremony outside Owerri jail, where the men had been held, they were handed over to a delegation of Caritas, the World Council of Churches, and representatives from Gabon and the Ivory Coast. The same night they were flown out to Gabon and thence home to their families.
The only other person to fall into Biafran hands in unusual circumstances was a British nurse, Miss Sally Goatcher, who was working for the Save the Children Fund on the Nigerian side of the firing line and who accidentally motored through the lines south of Uli on 29 May and was captured. She was kept until 16 June, when she was also released and flown out via Libreville, Gabon. Once out, neither she nor the oilmen manifested any grudge against the Biafrans and all agreed they had been well treated during their captivity.
During the autumn reports continued to come from Nigeria that the Federal Army was slowly cranking itself up for yet another ‘final assault’. Despite the gullibility of some reporters who were content to tell their readers that the six-month inactivity of the Nigerian Army from April until October was due to the kindliness of General Gowon in refusing to give the order to advance and crush the remainder of Biafra, those willing or capable of looking beneath the surface of propaganda descried two reasons for the lull in the fighting. One was the rainy season: after two light rainy seasons in 1967 and 1968, the season of April until October 1969 was exceptionally heavy. Not only were bush paths and tracks reduced to a sticky quagmire in which nothing on wheels could safely move, but even large parts of the tarred roads were washed away. The other reason was that the Federal Army’s logistics and supply situation, not very efficient at the best of times, deteriorated during the summer to a state as bad as it had ever been. This again was due partly to the rains making convoys difficult to move long distances, partly to the state of maintenance of the trucks which, after two years almost without maintenance, spent much of their time immobile, and partly to the effect of the increasing guerrilla ambushes, which required the Federal forces to guard their supply convoys with substantial escort parties.
Nevertheless, by mid-October they were at last ready and the attack was launched. It failed more miserably than any of its predecessors.
It had always been usual before any ‘final assault’ for broadcasts of exhortation to the troops to be beamed from Lagos, backed up by further pep talks from divisional and brigade commanders. On this occasion, using the forces’ network, General Gowon repeatedly urged his troops into one last, final onslaught. He was at pains to repeat several times that this would have to be the last assault, that for the troops it was now or never. This he had not done before.
That the attack failed was due in part to the lack of enthusiasm of the men in the front lines, partly to the superior Biafran weaponry and partly to sheer mismanagement. It started with the First Division in the North, now newly under the command of Colonel Bissalla, launching its two finest brigades out of Okigwi on 22 October. This battle raged with great ferocity for ten days. At one juncture the Nigerian forces seemed to have broken through the defensive line and to have opened the road towards Orlu and the all-important Uli airport. The deciding factor, ironically, was the Nigerian Air Force.
According to European eyewitness reports, the East German pilots, now flying the MiGs with great accuracy, mistook the advancing Federal forces for the Biafrans and twice within three days pulverized them so badly that their morale was broken and they pulled back to their own original lines. The other two fresh factors, apart from the higher level of Biafran firepower, included a new mine designed and built by the Biafrans. It was called the ‘flying ogbunigwe’ and took the form of a thirteen-inch rocket some seven feet long, tipped with a massive landmine of the type described earlier. This contraption was thrown by rocket fuel some six hundred yards, to explode in the air fifty feet above the oncoming troops while pointing downwards. It spread death and destruction over a large area, and as usual the First Division, being mostly Hausas and other Northerners, were advancing in solid phalanxes of packed soldiery. An American who examined the scene afterwards estimated that, out of 6,000 men who took part in the attack, nearly 4,000 failed to return.
The other contributory factor in the defeat was the new Biafran Air Force, whose Minicons found the lorries bearing the Nigerians’ supplies neatly lined up in columns along the roads behind the front. These were rocketed and strafed, and in the case of the lorries not destroyed, the drivers fled into the bush and left their vehicles immobile. After ten days of charging repeatedly into heavy machine-gun fire which they did not expect to meet, being subjected to the flying ogbunigwes and finally the attentions of their own air force, the two battered brigades withdrew on 2 November to their former positions.
Had the several attacks from the Nigerian side been launched simultaneously they might have had some effect. But as usual the divisional commanders declined to cooperate with each other. Hardly had the First Division attack failed than the Third Division in the south, now under the command of Colonel Obassi (Adekunle having been relieved of command following the loss of Owerri) went on the warpath. At Ohuba, to the west of the main Owerri–Port Harcourt road, fierce fighting took place in the first week of November. Here the Biafrans not only held the attack, but by the time it had petered out in mid-November they had pushed the Federal forces back out of most of the complex of villages called Ohuba.
Further east along the main tarred road there was more fighting and the Federal forces advanced four miles from Umuakpu village up towards Owerri. However, at the end of these four miles they were still sixteen miles south of the town on this axis.
In mid-November another major push was launched towards Okpuala, and here there was a greater degree of success for the Third Division. They made nine miles, coming to rest at Amala village, some five miles south of the main Aba–Owerri road. Again, the advance cost them dear in men and materials. Simultaneously with the Okpuala axis attack, the Second Division at Onitsha made its single bid. This was the only time the attacks in various sectors were coordinated. From Onitsha eastwards the Second Division again managed to close the gap and link up with Ogidi village. At this point the Biafran divisional commander, Brigadier Amadi, was wounded in the stomach by a grenade splinter. The removal of their commander seemed to rally the Biafran Eleventh Division, for in the last week of November they fought back and regained not only the six-mile stretch of tarmac between the eastern outskirts of Onitsha and Ogidi, but some more as well.
The only crisis point came in the last of the Federal series of assaults. This was at Ikot Ekpene, in Ibibio country far down in the southeast. Ikot Ekpene had been quiet for over a year, but in the last week of November the Federal forces in that sector threw everything they had into a dive northwards to try to link with Umuahia and cut off the Biafran enclave containing the towns of Ohafìa and Arochukwu, and their hold on the banks of the Cross River at Ikot Okpora.
Caught on the hop, General Ojukwu’s forces were driven back six miles up the Umuahia road to Ito-Ndan, the point from which they had started their counter-attacks towards Ikot Ekpene in May 1968. Missionaries working on relief programmes among the starving Ibibios were forced to evacuate Urho-Akpan, northeast of Ikot Ekpene, and the battle was still raging at the end of November. On 29 November General Ojukwu told the author that with a fresh consignment of arms imported the previous evening he expected to be able to hold the attack in this sector by the end of the first week in December. And so it proved.
By mid-December the Nigerian fift
h final assault on the inner perimeter of Biafra had failed to overcome the resistance, and Biafran imports of arms, far from seeming to shrink, gave every indication of continuing at a high level.
By the end of 1969 it had become clear to correspondents working on both sides of the firing line that a decisive outcome in military terms was highly unlikely. Neither side appeared to have the wherewithal to make substantial advances against the other, which threw the whole question of a peace settlement back into the diplomatic sphere. This was where it should have been since the first schism between Lagos and Enugu in 1967. Unfortunately in the intervening thirty months one and a half million people had died.
* To the author, 25 August 1968.
† Quoted in Time magazine, 1 September 1967.
The Role of the Wilson Government
As has been observed, Britain’s traditional interest in Nigeria had nothing to do with the good of the people of that country, and in that respect nothing has changed. The interest that did exist was borne by a small caucus of British politicians, civil servants and businessmen, and it was purely imperialistic. The policy was aimed at the maintenance of law and order, the raising of taxes to pay for the administration of the colony, the stimulation of the production of raw materials for British industry and the establishment of a consumer market to purchase manufactured goods from British industry. With independence the first two functions were handed over to selected and suitably friendly indigenes, while the latter two remained as before in the hands of the British. For those inside Britain who concerned themselves in any way with Nigeria, that country represented, like the others, not a land with a population of real people, but a market. Any tendencies inside Nigeria that might be viewed as harmful to the market were to be discouraged, and Biafra’s desire for partition from the rest of the country fell squarely into that category.
When evaluating British Government policy towards the whole question of the Nigeria-Biafra war, two schools of thought emerge: one claims that the policy is in fact the absence of a policy, the hopeless outcome of a mish-mash of stupidity, apathy, indifference, callousness and ignorance in high places; the other maintains there was a policy from the start, that it was one of total support not for the Nigerian people but for the régime presently in power in Lagos, that it was carefully masked from public view for as long as possible, and that the stupidity of the politicians and the ignorance and apathy of the general public and the men controlling the mass-communication media were used either in the furtherance or the dissimulation of that policy. As an increasing amount of research into the growing pile of documentation available takes place, it is becoming plainer that the evidence supports the latter view.
That British leadership should privately wish to see a single and unified Nigeria so long as this was practically feasible is not blameworthy; but what happened was that in its total determination to see a single economic unit no matter what the cost in suffering to the people of the country, through the grossest interference in the internal politics of that country the British Government chose to ally itself not with the people or their aspirations, but with a small clique of army mutineers. The fact that this clique has shown itself throughout to be largely unrepresentative of Nigerian grassroots opinion, far from changing the ‘support’ policy, has merely hardened it until a point where British Government policy is so inextricably entwined with the survival of the present Nigerian régime as to be publicly committed to total complicity in anything that régime may do.
On the morning after Gowon’s coup of 29 July 1966 it was clear that the British Government’s advisers considered that Gowon’s legitimacy was sufficiently doubtful to require a top-level decision whether or not to recognize his régime at all. This was quite different from the first coup in January 1966, which failed but which led to General Ironsi being asked by the rump of the Cabinet to take control. On 25 January the British Commonwealth Secretary Mr Arthur Bottomley told the Commons that the British Government did not consider a formal recognition of General Ironsi even to be necessary.*
But in July, when no semblance of legality attached to Gowon’s government, when the partially successful mutineers only controlled the capital and two out of four regions, the position was quite different. Just when and by what reasoning it was decided to recognize Gowon has not yet been revealed. But it was not until November 1966 that Gowon’s nominee as Nigerian High Commissioner in London, the fast-moving Brigadier Ogundipe, presented his credentials to the Court of St James. And, oddly, it was not until 20 December that the House of Commons was informed that Britain had decided to give full recognition to Gowon’s regime.* In February 1967 Sir David Hunt took over in Lagos as Britain’s new High Commissioner to Nigeria. Gradually, he escalated a previously decided policy of unalloyed support for Gowon.
There seems little doubt that the motivating force behind the formulation of British policy in Nigeria since July 1966 has come not from the politicians but from the senior civil servants in the High Commission in Lagos and the Commonwealth Office in London who advise them. The then Commonwealth Secretary, Mr Bottomley, although acknowledged by those who knew him to be an agreeable soul, apparently knew little about the situation; his successor Mr Herbert Bowden was unable to make himself remarkable for his grip of the facts of the issue, and his successor, Mr George Thomson, showed publicly and privately that his greatest interest lay in efforts to solve the vastly more publicized Rhodesia issue. None of these three were at any time supported either in the Commons or the Lords by a Junior Minister of notable calibre, and those aware of what went on behind the scenes in Whitehall were not surprised to find that the formulation of policy on Nigeria, the writing of Ministers’ answers to questions in the House, and the very important briefing of the accredited press correspondents, fell entirely to the civil servants. This did not displease the civil servants, many of whom are known to hold that the complexities of any situation more involved than catching a bus are above the intellectual level of professional politicians. Unfortunately the civil servants showed in the course of time that they too could only bring to bear on the issue a mixture of ignorance, misinformation, prejudice, cynicism and on occasion the traditional British upper-class contempt for all Africans and assertive ones in particular. It was out of this potpourri of crassness, which later became tinged with hints of viciousness, that Britain’s support for an African military junta and for the latter’s war policy, and for Britain’s complicity in the bloodiest episode in Commonwealth history, was born.