Nzeogwu died in the final week of July 1967. While there is consensus that he died, exactly how he died and at the hands of whom has remained in dispute. In conspiracy rife Nigeria, all manner of rumours and apocryphal stories have alleged that Nzeogwu was murdered in a Machiavellian plot engineered by Ojukwu to eliminate him or perhaps that he was killed while trying to defect to join the federal army. As always, the truth is much more mundane.
Nzeogwu in Prison
For his role in Nigeria’s first military coup, Nzeogwu was imprisoned by the military regime of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi at the notorious Kiri-Kiri maximum security prison in Lagos. His co-conspirators were also initially detained there but many of them were later moved to prisons in the Eastern Region: including Majors Ifeajuna (Uyo prison), Ademoyega, Onwuatuegwu (Enugu prison), Captain Gbulie (Abakaliki prison), Major Chukwuka, Captain Nwobosi (both Owerri prison). Nzeogwu was the only officer among the plotters that was moved to Aba prison. After Ironsi was overthrown in July 1966, Nzeogwu remained in prison until he was released in March 1967 by the Eastern Region’s Military Governor Lt-Colonel Ojukwu.
Nzeogwu’s Rift With Ojukwu
However after his release his activities were curtailed. He and Ojukwu did not see eye to eye. Nzeogwu was never enthusiastic about secession. As late as 1967 he articulated in an interview with Dennis Ejindu his view that: “secession will be ill-advised, indeed impossible. Even if the East fights a war of secession and wins, it still cannot secede. Personally, I don’t like secession and if this country disintegrates, I shall pack up my things and go. In the present circumstances, confederation is the best answer as a temporary measure. In time, we shall have complete unity.”
The interview did not go down well with Ojukwu and Nzeogwu’s words to Ejindu were the last official statements attributed to him before his death. Relations between Ojukwu and Nzeogwu deteriorated further as Nzeogwu made no secret of his desire for a united Nigeria. Even though war between Nigeria and Biafra was imminent, in April 1967 Nzeogwu was suspended from all military activities by Ojukwu. The immediate pretext was Nzeogwu’s involvement in a battle simulation military training exercise in Abakaliki and other towns in the Eastern Region. Recalling that Nzeogwu had turned the night time training “Exercise Damissa” into a full blown coup the previous year, Ojukwu banned all such further exercises. Relations between Ojukwu and Nzeogwu got bad enough for Ojukwu to consider putting Nzeogwu back in prison.
In a June 17, 1967 letter to his friend Olusegun Obasanjo, Nzeogwu confessed: “You have no doubt heard a lot of rumours about my relations with Ojukwu. We obviously see things quite differently after what he did to my supporters in January 1966. He is also worried about my popularity among his own people. I was to be put back in prison, but he was afraid of repercussions. Right now I am not allowed contact with troops nor am I permitted to operate on the staff. One gentleman’s agreement we have is that I can carry on with what ever pleases me.”
Amazingly even at this late stage, Nzeogwu was still entertaining fantasies of Nigerian unity and reintegrating the Nigerian army:
“I will create a new Nigerian army inside Biafra!! With Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and all other ethnic groups.”
Nzeogwu inspired and frightened with equal measure. A personality cult bordering on hero worship grew up around him in the Eastern Region and he was being feted as an immortal indestructible warrior. Although Ojukwu gave Nzeogwu the Biafran rank of Brigadier, he was not given any formal command in the Biafran army.
Despite not officially being part of the Biafran army command, Nzeogwu was not the type of character that could remain idle. His impulsive nature and rebelliousness towards superior officers has been documented. Lt-Col Patrick Anwunah went so far as to describe Nzeogwu as:
“a radical and an inwardly insubordinate young officer…..(who was) full of his own ideas and probably thought he had the answers to all problems. His statements and comments at that time gave me the impression that he could become insubordinate as he had no regard for senior officers.”
Frustrated at his exclusion from military duties, Nzeogwu took to informal ad hoc guerilla raids against the federal army. He would impulsively conscript other soldiers to join him during these raids. It is not certain that these raids and conscriptions were authorised by Ojukwu.
Nzeogwu was admired and feared in equal measure. He was admired for his intelligence, warmth and charm. He was feared because of his suicidal courage. Junior Biafran foot soldiers were reluctant to be conscripted by Nzeogwu. Conscription by Nzeogwu meant being taken to the front line and faced with grave danger. Nzeogwu was brave enough to cross behind enemy lines, carry out reconnaissance and engage the federal army in close quarter combat. In late July 1967, his courage took him a step too far.
The Death of Nzeogwu
Nzeogwu had gone out on a reconnaissance mission in the Nsukka sector. He was travelling in an improvised armoured vehicle (known as a “Biafran Red Devil”) that had been converted by the ingenious Biafran engineers from a Bedford truck. The vehicle was cumbersome despite its impressive ingenuity. The vehicle became immobilised and was surrounded by federal troops of the 21st battalion at a roadblock near the University of Nigeria Nsukka campus. The troops were led by Captain Abubakar Gora, and they opened fired on it. The vehicle’s improvised armour withstood their bullets until it was attacked with the fearsome 106mm recoilless rifle which pierced its body. Ironically, the 106mm recoilless rifle was the same anti-tank weapon that Nzeogwu and other soldiers used in January 1966 to attack and destroy the official lodge of the Sardauna of Sokoto.
At this point, the accounts diverge. Olu Mamdap (former military driver to General Domkat Bali) witnessed the incident and claims that Nzeogwu and the other “two or three” occupants in the vehicle were killed while still inside the vehicle. Mamdap claims that it was not known that Nzeogwu was inside until the corpses were dragged out.
However Major-Generals Mohammed Shuwa and Abdullahi Shelleng (who were not present when Nzeogwu was killed but saw his corpse) claimed that while being fired on, Nzeogwu jumped out from the vehicle, shouted in Hausa and identified himself as Major Nzeogwu but was shot dead anyway. Ojukwu’s mixed race half brother Tom Biggar was also killed along with Nzeogwu. Biggar was the child of Ojukwu’s mother after she divorced Sir Louis Odumegwu and married a European named Biggar.
Nzeogwu’s corpse was identified by Lieutenant Abdullahi Shelleng who ordered that it should be stored firstly in the University of Nigeria campus at Nsukka. However, by the time Shelleng arrived, Nzeogwu’s eyes had been plucked out in what appears to have been a ritual mutilation. According to Shelleng the soldier who shot Nzeogwu was ironically Nzeogwu’s former batman. The corpse was later sent to 1 division headquarters in Makurdi where the 1 division commander Colonel Mohammed Shuwa informed the head of state Major-General Gowon. Despite the fact that Nzeogwu was now technically an enemy soldier killed in combat against the Nigerian army, Gowon ordered that Nzeogwu’s body should be flown to Kaduna and buried with full military honours – even as the war raged on in the Eastern Region.
Even in death, Nzeogwu was still respected by federal and northern troops. Domkat Bali referred to him as:
“a nice, charismatic and disciplined officer, highly admired and respected by his colleagues. At least he was not in the habit of being found in the company of women all the time messing about with them in the officers mess, a pastime of many young officers then….we believed that he was a genuinely patriotic officer who organised the 1966 coup with the best of intentions who was let down by his collaborators….If we had captured him alive, he would not have been killed. I believe he probably would have been tried for his role in the January 15 coup, jailed and probably freed after some time. His death was regrettable.”