The Recapture Of Owerri By Biafran Forces
By the 14th of April, it had become obvious judging from the situation on the ground, that Umuahia was going to be lost. It was also clear that such an event would destroy completely the will of the Biafran people to continue the war. It was then that Colonel Ojukwu told me of the need to revive the Owerri operation on the off-chance that we might score a victory there to counter-balance the loss of Umuahia. The idea was to share the few resources available into two to try and clear what was left of Owerri before it was too late. The whole idea was a calculated risk worth taking if the Head of State who alone knew what ammunition the nation had, thought so.
On the 18th of April, therefore, the Owerri operations were reopened. As I was still at Umuahia. I did not know exactly what was available for the offensive. However, the plan of the operation which was sent to me for approval, showed that the 60 Brigade was again to clear the right side of the town up to the Clock Tower and including the Holy Ghose College, the Catholic Cathedral and the Progress Hotel. The 52 Brigade, now under Major Igweze, was to have another go at Orji and the northern part of the town, down to the Public Works Department and the Government Secondary School. Elements of “S” Division under command of 14 Division in the absence of Onwuatuegwu, who was still at Umuahia, had the task of advancing through Egbu and Nekede into Owerri, as far as to the motor park.
Right from the very start of this operation, it was clear the enemy was beginning to feel the bite of his over four months of isolation inside Owerri town. Everywhere his resistance was stiff but short-lived and mainly sustained with armoured vehicles. From the four corners of Owerri, our troops gradually closed in, and even began to set up roads block in parts of Owerri. Yet in the part of the town the enemy occupied, it was still impossible to break through the armour barrier. That was the situation when I returned to Owerri front in the evening of the 23rd of April, 1969, following the fall of Umuahia the previous day. The first report I got on my arrival was that the enemy at Owerri had lined up all his vehicles facing southwards, in a manner suggesting a withdrawal. After a very lengthy discussion of the situation with the Division Commander, I decided it would be better to allow the enemy to leave the town and then attack him somewhere out of Owerri, at a point where we still stood a chance of destroying him. I thought that for us to put in everything we had against the enemy inside the town could result in our exhausting our limited resources without success, and then run a risk of losing a large part of the town which we already controlled. For that reason, a battalion of 60 Brigade was despatched to Umuguma to wait for the enemy. To encourage the enemy to start the move we began to shell his convoy at a very slow rate with the little quantity of bombs we had. During the month of March, the enemy had on two occasions similarly lined up his vehicles to withdraw from Owerri. On each of those occasions, we had attacked him and it had resulted in his redeploying to defend himself and successfully too. This time we were not going to attack him and therefore hoped that he would not change his mind.
During the night of the 24th of April, the enemy began to move out of Owerri to the uncontrollable joy of all. Once out of town, a Biafran company was put on their trail to harass them and hasten the withdrawal. At Umuguma, the major battle began on the morning of the 25th and the enemy suffered very heavy casualties indeed. Many vehicles carrying women, children and enemy casualties were allowed to proceed on their journey southwards unmolested. After 24 hours of heavy fighting the enemy shifted further down to Avu, only to face another Biafran force waiting for them there. After barely four hours encounter at Avu, the enemy moved again further south to Ohoba and there linked up with his counterparts advancing from the south. Thereafter all attempts to move him again failed, in the same way as did all his attempts to move back from there into Owerri.
The Owerri victory revived the dying Biafra. All Biafrans who a few days before wanted nothing but an end to the war, now pressed for a continuation of the struggle to the end. The Umuahia disaster was soon forgotten and the only quarrel civilian military tacticians had against the Army was that they allowed the enemy to escape from Owerri instead of destroying him there completely. Inside Owerri the enemy left a considerably large amount of ammunition of different calibres, but he managed to take away almost his entire heavy equipment including armoured vehicles and artillery pieces. The town was completely ravaged and not a single building was habitable without major repairs. All vehicles not taken away by the enemy were overturned and burnt by him. Mass graves were discovered all over the town and the victims appeared to be civilians and prisoners of war. All the same, the enemy force at Owerri which was 14 Brigade under a young Calabar officer called Utuk, was easily the best fighting unit fielded by Nigeria throughout the war. Right from Port Harcourt, and particularly at Afam, it had become obvious that the Brigade was a force well led. Inside Owerri, they fought with extraordinary courage, flexibility and determination. The withdrawal of the Brigade from Owerri was tactically tidy and well planned and executed. Without doubt no other Nigerian Brigade could have withstood for more than a month the punishment the enemy 14 Brigade absorbed with patience for over four months. Only that Brigade could have got out of Owerri under the circumstances.
The Head of State put out a long list of promotions to commemorate the recapture of Owerri. He himself became a General while Okwechime, Eze and Kalu were all promoted to Brigadiers. Various others were promoted except Onwuatuegwu, the darling of the people, who has left out of General Ojukwu’s list. That omission became a national political issue. “Jet 77,” the government sponsored propaganda company of Onwuatuegwu’s “S” Division, accused the Army Headquarters of not promoting Onwuatuegwu because it hated him. The “Jet 77” produced hand-outs for the public in which they revealed that the “S” Division under Onwuatuegwu had cleared the Ugba junction and Owerri and, no each occasion, the gallant Onwuatuegwu got nothing in return but humiliation from the GOC of the Army.
I was not worried by this propaganda which I knew was just one of those false rumours deliberately released against various individuals from time to time in order to control their popularity with the masses. I often disagreed with Onwuatuegwu in the same way I disagreed occasionally with all other commanders under me. To talk of an Army Commander in war loving or hating officers under his command is being childish in the extreme. In such a game involving human lives, a commander’s aim is to end it successfully as soon as possible. Onwuatuegwu, as an individual, being the godfather of my first son and the officer closest to my family, knew I was putting the welfare of the people before family ties and friendship.
After the fall of Umuahia and the recapture of Owerri, General Ojukwu in May, 1969, took two significant decisions for reasons best known to him. Thereafter I was allowed to see the Head of State on military matters at any time of the day or night without booking for appointment in advance – a privilege I had not enjoyed before then. Again, the Head of State decided to set up a Joint Planning Committee chairmanned by himself, with the Chief of Staff, General Efiong, and the Commanders of Army, Navy and Air Force as members. In addition, I was given the privilege of controlling for the first time, a small fraction of the national ammunition holding, but the bulk of it still remained under the control of the Head of State.
All those privileges and changes were in effect an eye wash, designed to satisfy civilian and military pressures, which had existed since the beginning of the war, in favour of the establishment of a war council. Civilians now had the impression that not only did we do joint planning, but also that the Army Commander controlled all ammunition. The Joint Planning Committee met once a week from May, 1969 to the end of the war but not one of the 14 operational plans which it produced was ever carried out. The committee planned all the time without knowing what was available; and invariably at the end of each plan it discovered that there were no resources for such a plan which would then be discarded and a new plan produced. The Planning Committee under Brigadier Okwechime worked like that until the end of the war. However, we looked forward to JPC meetings because they were held in the State House, one of the very few places in Biafra where one could get a glass of cold beer.
Excerpts from The Nigeria Revolution and the Biafra War by Alexandra A. Madiebo
Chibuike John Nebeokike