The Biafran war was a vicious nightmare that brought both death and misery to millions, many being innocent children and civilians now dealt the cruelest of hands by fate. While there are myriad of amazing stories to come out of this horrible conflict celebrating both human perseverance and the good of man, even in the madness of war, none is more heart-tugging than the defiance and will to survive of a place called Uli, and an airport called Annabelle.
Not only did it encapsulate the fighting spirit of the Biafrans bent on seceding from Nigeria, but it also was the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands. The Biafrans called it the busiest airport in Africa and while we can’t substantiate this independently, we know it was the most dangerous. Ironically, as critical as it was to the outcome of the war, Uli Airport is one of the more poorly documented events of the war and The Awareness hopes to change that with this article.
Preamble: The War
On 30 May 1967, Biafra declared independence and on 7 July the FMG began operations to defeat it. It lasted until January 1970 as an extremely well-equipped Nigerian federal army of over 85,000 men supplied by Britain, the Soviet Union and few others, took on a volunteer Biafran army, much of whose equipment initially came from captured Nigerian supplies and which only later was able to procure relatively small quantities of arms from outside.
By 1968, a year after the start of the Nigerian Civil War, large numbers of children were reportedly starving to death due to a blockade imposed by the Federal Military Government (FMG) and military. By 1969 it was reported that over 1,000 children per day were starving to death but International reactions to this plight was diverse.
Biafran feeding centre in Owerri
The United Nations and most national governments, expressing reluctance to become involved in what was officially considered an internal Nigerian affair, remained silent on the escalating humanitarian crisis. Even Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, refused to support the airlift. The position of the Organization of African Unity was to not intervene in conflicts its members’ deemed internal and to support the nation-state boundaries instituted during the colonial era.
The ruling Labour Party of the United Kingdom, which together with the USSR was supplying arms to the Nigerian military, dismissed reports of famine as “enemy propaganda”. This is despite an FMG representative openly declaring, “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it.” With the advent of global television reporting, for the first time, famine, starvation, and the humanitarian response were seen by millions around the world, demanding that both the government and private sector join efforts to save as many as possible from starving to death.
The Biafran Airlift was born propelling Uli into instant fame.
It was an international humanitarian relief effort that transported food and medicine to Biafra between 1967 and 1970. It was the largest civilian airlift, and after the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, the largest non-combatant airlift of any kind ever carried out. The airlift was largely a series of joint efforts by Protestant and Catholic church groups, and other non-governmental organizations (NGO)s, operating civilian and military aircraft with mostly volunteer civilian crews and support personnel. Several national governments also supported the effort, mostly behind the scenes. This sustained joint effort, which lasted one and a half times as long as its Berlin predecessor, is estimated to have saved more than a million lives by bringing in at its peak 500 tons of supplies in daily
Annabelle – the Airport at Uli
The Uli Airstrip was the most important link between Biafra and the outside world during the Nigerian civil war. Most of the major airfields in Biafra were captured by government forces early in the war. There is no doubt that, had the Nigerian government destroyed the Uli Airstrip, the war would have ended very quickly. However the airport became a thorn in the Federal side throughout the war, and their inability to knock it out from above despite total control of the skies became a major embarrassment for them throughout the conflict.
As we know Uli is a town of historic importance situated at the extreme southeast corner of the Ihiala local government area of Anambra state in Nigeria. It is located between Onitsha and Oguta and has always been a progressive town. For instance, the heir of their fabled Igwe Okolie Akwara, Daniel Okolie bucked tradition, rejected the crown and throne for Christianity and went off to fight for the crown during WW II in Europe. Ironically it would be these same English, who as backers of the FG, would now be trying to destroy his homeland.
Talk about insult and injury.
Uli is also known for having very straight sections of roads and it was for this reason that the Biafran Engineers known for their frugal but effective brilliance turned a major highway into a maze of airstrips capable of handling large aircraft. It was an amazing work of creativity that would operate as a landing strip at night and be promptly camouflaged into a thriving jungle during the day. That Biafran tricksters even painted giant potholes on the runway to mimic eroded ravines and confuse the Nigeria Air Force spotters to wit’s end.
Now despite the fact they failed to render Uli non-functional, this is not to say the NAF did not try. Their MIG’s and Ilyushin aircraft flew first out of Lagos and then they created a special Squadron appropriately named Genocide that was based in Benin. They dropped almost everything on Uli aiming to knock it out, and by everything we really mean everything.
Enter one Juan Correa or better known as Johnnie Ocha or “White Johnny” who was one of the only two Americans to officially fight on the side of the Biafrans. (The other was August Martin, the first African American commercial airline pilot and a former Tuskeegee Airman, who was killed when his plane crashed during the airlift).
This Korean war veteran and ex paratroopers was initially used by the secessionists to reclaim un-exploded Nigerian ordinance and retool them for reuse. These consisted mainly of bombs, rockets, mines and whatever the Nigerian Air force and Army threw at them. Eventually, Ojukwu moved him to Uli to make sure the runways were kept up to par. In an interview from 1970 in the NY Times he shared:
“The Nigerian weapons were extremely crude. They were being sold stuff that dated back to 1940, and many of those bombs would never go off,
“At Uli, they would drop 1,000‐pound bombs, rigged with a small but often faulty rocket detonator and many of the bombs just wouldn’t go off and we would make mines out of them.
” The Nigerians often dropped fire extinguishers filled with dynamite. Once, they even dropped a small white refrigerator filled with dynamite. The pins were set wrong, so none of them thankfully blew up,” he said.
However many of the bombs did work and Uli took a pounding from above. Mr Correa was wounded twice in strafing by Nigerian jet fighters and now has only nine fingers. He also lost countless men in the ceaseless bombardment from above. In one particular attack in July of 1969, Mr Correa said, 15 of his men were killed and 25 wounded. But neither his will nor that of his engineers was ever broken. They continued with their patch-patch work during the day to make sure the planes would continue landing during the night.“They’d bomb about seven, and by nine we’d have all the holes fixed,” he was quoted as saying.
Towards the end of the war, the FMG turned up the screws. They had been pressing Britain to supply several jet aircraft, specifically to attack the runway. Prime Minister Wilson openly said that Britain could not supply these directly, but he secretly informed the FMG that there were such aircraft in South Yemen and Sudan previously supplied by Britain. The Nigerians, he said, should procure the aircraft from them which ‘would not directly involve the British government’. The company to deal with in those two countries was Airwork Limited, which was later to be again used by the British government to conceal its involvement in its covert dirty war in Yemen.
The British government also agreed to put the Nigerians in touch with ‘suitable pilots’.
All of this yielded the desired results and the shellacking of Uli from the skies reached a full crescendo. The Nigerians even tried evening bombing by deploying flares with parachutes to illuminate where they suspected the runways were and raking the ground with gunfire when they saw lights or anything that moved. That Biafrans responded by lighting oil barrels in other parts of the bush forcing the attackers to waste their ammunition on useless targets. The Nigerians soon got wise and returned to nightime bombing.
However, they also tried something else. They invaded Oguta by land and sea and tried to swing down and take the airport by land. Their attack was meticulously planned and enough forces assembled. The Federal troops were so confident of their victory that they brought their wives, girlfriends and hundreds of cows en tow.
In the subsequent two confrontations that formed that entire battle which lasted for three days, in which Ojukwu led the Biafran forces himself for the first and only time, the Biafrans fought their socks off and the Federals would be routed both on land and sea. The battle ranks as one of their worst defeats of the war and again Uli would remain the elusive dangling carrot with the Nigerian Marines landing as close as 20 Kilometers to it at Oguta II, only to be beaten back.
Uli would go on saving lives.
Till today it is responsible for propagating Igbo culture around the world only behind slavery and voluntary migration. The huge Igbo imprint in places like Gabon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, the Ivory Coast, the Caribbean and Scandinavia all more than likely started at Uli. I say this with tears in my eyes today because it is on a plane like the one shown below that this humble author was airlifted to his maternal home in Germany late in 1968.
Annabelle would eventually fall as a result of the FGM’s Operation Tail Wind in 1970 that succeeded in fragmenting the remaining parcel of Biafra. While many of us are familiar with the photo of the grinning Federal troops running down a liberated Uli airstrip, many may not know the one posted below of the Nigerian General who had to see for himself if the fabled Annabelle had truly fallen meaning that the war would soon be over. He would later become President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Finally. Federal Troops with the Ultimate prize
As for me, I am forever grateful to this little patch of land in Anambra State and whenever I drive through it I silently pay solace to its existence and remain convinced that if there ever was a place that needs a statue to commemorate the role it played in saving Igbo lives – it is Uli Airport. We would also be immortalizing the 29 pilots and crew from the relief agencies who were all killed either by accidents or shot down by Nigerian forces in 10 separate incidents during the war. 25 were from JCA, 4 from Canairelief, and 3 from ICRC.
Let us do the right thing and not forget them or Annabelle.