Secret American diplomatic dispatches, spread over 21,000 pages, provide previously unknown information about the Nigerian Civil War.
In a lengthy trial in 1962, Awolowo, Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Sasore, Nwaobiala, Umoren, Ebietoma, and some other members of the only party in Opposition were sentenced to ten years imprisonment on the grounds of accusations which obviously applied to Nnamdi Azikiwe of NCNC and Ahmadu Bello of NPC – leaders of the coalition of the parties in power. Chief S.L. Akintola, AG’s No2, who succeeded Awolowo as the Western Premier was said to have disagreed with Awolowo’s decision to exclude AG from the ruling federal coalition because a lot of important posts in civil service, vice-chancellors of UI and UNILAG, Ports Authority, Railway Corporation, the military, industries, were going to the Igbos and northerners to the exclusion of Yoruba. Not only that, they were bringing their people to fill the roles down the ranks. Akintola began to show open dissent to Awolowo in other matters as well. And so he was eventually removed after the party members passed vote of no confidence in him on the Western House of assembly in Ibadan.
Conflagrations erupted. And the federal coalition government used the opportunity to zoom in, reduce the influence of Awolowo’s popular AG and extend the reach of Igbo-dominated NCNC and Hausa-Fulani-dominated NPC in the West. The coalition government even created another Region, the Midwest, to cut the West down to size.
They knew in a fair fight they could not win elections in this AG’s stronghold so they flipped the results around like dodo and akara that were being fried so that Akintola who had then formed an alliance with the North could continue in power. The streets of West that had known nothing but flames and blood more than any region in the country re-erupted once more. It was the people’s mandate which was stolen that Wole Soyinka wanted to redress that he had to hold up the western TV station at gunpoint and asked that his own tape should be broadcast instead of the pre-recorded tape of Akintola that had been publicised during the day would be broadcast during primetime in the night. Soyinka in the tape asked “people of the western region, stand up for your rights… Chief Akintola and his crew of renegades to quit the country.”
Victor Banjo and Ojukwu were impressed. They were following all these events and were mooting a coup. Gowon said he told them once a coup started, it won’t stop and they should count him out of any coup plans. Ojukwu approached David Ejoor too he too refused. However, less than a year later, he came back from studies in the UK on 13th January 1966 and there was a coup on the 15th at the level of Majors. After the murder of the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa rather than approve the appointment of Zanna Bukar Dipcharima, a Borno politician that the surviving NPC-NNDP politicians in the state house had agreed on as the acting Prime Minister, Dr Nwafor Orizu the acting President in the place of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who was away, handed over to Aguyi-Ironsi. The New York Times headline called it “a coup within a coup.” Furthermore, some Igbo officers loyal to hours-old head of state went and arrested Victor Banjo who rigorously denied having anything to do with the coup. Ojukwu was in Kano then as the garrison commander of the 5th battalion advising Ironsi on what to do. Gowon said as the Adjutant-General, he ordered Banjo freed though “he had reservations that an officer of his calibre with so much interest in politics could be ignorant about it yet he couldn’t help recalling the episode of 1964[sic:1965].”
Two days after, Banjo turned up armed to the police headquarters to kill the Aguyi-Ironsi, Gowon said. Ironsi had set up his command headquarters in the place because the police had just recently installed a new communications system and it became the only source of receiving of transmitting information to all the necessary army units. Gowon, the next head of state was there too, so were George Kurubo, the next chief of staff(Air force) and Patrick Anwunah, the next General Staff Officer (1) for Intelligence at Army HQ. Banjo was subsequently disarmed and carted away to the East with other mutineers before he, Gowon, could properly speak to him.
Seven months later, Gowon, as the new Head of state said he was interested in the facts. He began making efforts to free Banjo from Enugu prison. “I was told he preferred where he was.” That was Ojukwu who repeatedly said he didn’t recognise the “illegal regime” of Gowon. However, Gowon said further that Banjo wrote him a later on 15th of July 1967 which later received on 12 August after he had invaded the Midwest. In the letter Gowon said “he complained against his arrest [the previous year] and said it was due to Ibo machinations. He also stated that as an officer of the Nigerian army both the federal government and Ojukwu had refused to give him a role to play in the country’s affairs.” Gowon said Banjo “asked me to send his passport to him to enable him to leave the country… I find it hard to explain the behaviour of the man I knew. It may be that he is undertaking his assignment under pressure, or he is doing it to spite the federal military government…on the other hand, he may be thinking that what he was doing is playing a part in the affairs of the country.” Gowon described Banjo whom Obasanjo took over from as the Army Chief of Engineers as a well-qualified engineer and an intelligent extremist who thought that “the masses do not know what is good for them. There is an elite that knows what he masses really want. The elites must take over.” This, Gowon said, suited “Ojukwu’s inordinate ambition.” Ojukwu, Gowon stated flatly, joined the army because of power.
According to a broadcast to the German people on Bayerischer Rundfunk Muchen(Bavarian Broadcasting, Munich) on 11 September 1967, The German west African correspondent of the service for many years, Klaus W. Stephan said Ojukwu “had determined to alter the political constellation of power in Nigeria by means of the army one day. He sympathised with the January 1966 plot-makers but was careful enough to avoid any overplayed attachment to them. Ojukwu told me later that it had being him who had requested General Ironsi to crush the coup, and that he had stopped the General from being arrested.” On 8 April 1967 in Enugu, Ojukwu told Suzanne Cronje, the author of The World and Nigeria: The Diplomatic History of the Biafran War, 1967-1970 : ‘On January 15, I was the one who advised Ironsi to stand as the Head of the Army, call for support and then organize the various units that would immediately support, so that the rebels who were bound to be few and already committed would suddenly find that the whole thing was phasing away.” “Obviously on the grounds of thankful feelings, the General made him Military Governor of the Eastern provinces,” Stephan continues on air in Germany. “I know Ojukwu as a man of more than average intelligence, extraordinary versatility, high eloquence and remarkable personal charm. But there are two characteristics in that man that are not realised by many people for a long time: his greed for power and his ability to charm and enchant the masses: a demagogue.”
“He suffers from Hitler-like megalomania,” Richard Akinjide said of Ojukwu to the American consul, Mr Strong in Ibadan in the document of September 11, 1969. Akinjide explained that as a child he was rejected because his father strongly denied the allegation that the pregnancy that led to him was solely of his doing alone; other mysterious force or forces may have been at work too. His mother was a mistress his multimillionaire business magnate father Sir Louis Ojukwu acquired on one of his business trips to the North. Being a devout catholic, Sir Louis refused to accept boy into his house in Lagos. So he sent him back to the north here he was born and where his mother made a living as a trader. Ojukwu like Nnamdi Azikiwe, was born in Zungeru, in the present Niger State. As the boy grew up, friends of the business mogul prevailed on him to recognise the boy as his own son. He then agreed to do so but the boy was something of an embarrassment so he sent him off to school in England where the boy eventually made it into Oxford University.
Akinjide, a former NNDP politician said “he knew Ojukwu well” when he was a federal minister under Tafawa Balewa. He continued: “When Ojukwu returned back to Nigeria he tried to get a job with the Nigerian Tobacco Company (NTC) but was turned down. Akinjide speculated on how Nigerian history might have been different if NTC had given Ojukwu a job. “Instead he drifted into civil service and was given a post as Assistant District Officer at a bush post in the East. He was unhappy in this position,” Akinjide said because he felt his talents were not recognised. Seeking a better road to power and influence he joined the Nigerian army and because of his good educational background, he was soon sent to the elite Royal Academy Sandhurst in the UK.
Akinjide believed Ojukwu’s career and personality can be explained as an endless effort to gain the recognition he was early denied and to show his father and the society that rejected him how wrong they were. In fact, Akinjide put it in more dramatic terms: “Ojukwu was subconsciously seeking revenge for his early rejection.” Akinjide concludes that “a man so driven is not subject to rational dissuasion from the course on which he has set himself.”
In separate document, titled Psyching out Ojukwu (19/09/1969), Mr Strong wrote about the story Nnamdi Azikiwe told him and the Western Military Governor, Adeyinka Adebayo over lunch in Ibadan. Azikiwe said that the reason why Ojukwu hated him was because “at one point he had settled a dispute between Ojukwu and his father which had already reached the proportion where Ojukwu had threatened to shoot his father.” Azikiwe told the private gathering that Ojukwu’s father was a very good friend of his and he prevailed on Ojukwu not to carry out his threat. Since then, Azikiwe said, Ojukwu had been very unfriendly towards him. According to Chief N.U. Akpan who was Ojukwu’s secretary before and during the civil war, one the first orders Ojukwu gave as he arrived Enugu as the military governor on the 19th January 1966 was to “remove Azikiwe as the Chancellor of University of Nsukka, cut off all incomes accruing to him from his properties in Nsukka and order African Continental Bank to recover forthwith all overdraft or loans outstanding against Azikiwe or any companies and business establishment with which he might have been associated.” Azikiwe told the American consul: “Perhaps I offended him by preventing him from shooting his father.”
Awolowo too knew early enough that he was dealing with a dangerous man. Reviewing his own efforts undertaken at considerably personal risk to find an accommodation with Ojukwu before he declared the secession in May 1967, Awolowo told Ambassador Mathews, on 24 August 1967 in Lagos, he was convinced it was impossible to negotiate with Ojukwu who was seeking to bring all southern Nigeria under his sway. He was committed to conquest not secession. According to the periodic Intelligence Note complied on the Nigerian situation on by Thomas L. Hughes, the Director of Intelligence and Research submitted to US secretary of State, Dean Rusk , the “chief target” of the Ojukwu’s “seizure of Midwest” was the Yoruba. “Should this large tribe, numbering 8 million or more, choose to join Ojukwu in a move to oust Northerners from southern Nigeria, the rump Nigerian federation would come apart…The Yorubas, riven by past divisions and in no mood to pull Ojukwu’s chestnuts out of the fire [rescue Ojukwu], are undecided. They have tended to side with the Gowon government ever since their principal spokesman, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, agreed to join it last June. At the same time the fear northern domination remains strong…Awolowo rallied towards the Federation when Gowon, himself a Northerner, showed he meant to break up the once monolithic North by decreeing several new states there,” the US intelligence estimate stated.
On 12th of September Radio Biafra broadcast attacks on Awolowo and Anthony Enahoro for being in “the rebel government of Gowon.” The Radio referred to the recent arrest and detention of “Wole Soyinka that patriotic Yoruba son” and the arrest and interrogation of Tai Solarin the well-known Yoruba educator and writer. The Radio thought it “significant” that these “Yoruba freedom fighters” should be threatened by a government of which “Chief Awolowo himself a Yoruba is a deputy head.” It reminded its listeners that “Awolowo and Enahoro have not only succumbed to northern pressure but have also teamed up with Gowon to supress [Solarin and Soyinka] whose ebullient enthusiasm for Yoruba freedom is threat to their security but they have substituted private interest for commonweal.” The radio, confirming the findings of the US intelligence estimate, then recommended that “all Yorubas should waste no time in responding to call by one of their own sons, Brigadier Victor Banjo, commander of liberation forces. It is such young men as Brigadier Banjo, Wole Soyinka and Tai Solarin that will provide effective but selfless leadership that Yorubas badly need at this moment.” Noting the risk of involved in the Biafrans sounding more Yoruba than the Yoruba themselves, the American ambassador noted in a confidential document of 15th September 1967: “In fact, the Eastern effort to tell Yorubas who their leader should be, as well as not to follow Awolowo could cause opposite reaction among majority of people in Yorubaland.” It did.
With troops blazing with Biafran agenda already at West’s door at Ore, it became clearer to Awolowo that Ojukwu was not interested in secession only but actually in conquest. Awolowo proceeded to rally the Yoruba that had hitherto being lukewarm to Gowon’s government with a powerful “I am absolutely and irrevocably committed to the side of Nigeria” press release on 12 August 1967. It was Awolowo’s first statement defending the Federal Government since the Civil War began on 6th July. Unlike many of Awolowo’s speeches and public statements, this one derived its forceful elocution from the use of adverbs and intensifiers. There were no “could,” “might” and other hedge-betting modal verbs. It was all ‘must,’ ‘will’ and other commanding auxiliary verbs. Hear Awolowo: “It is imperative that the unity of Nigeria must be preserved and the best judge of what to do now is the Federal government which Yorubas must continue to support.” He said further: “The Yorubas have never set out to dominate others, but have always resisted, with all the energy in them any attempt however slight or disguised, by others to dominate them.… Indeed it is for these reasons that they must now be ready to resist any attempt by the rebel forces from the East and the Mid-West to violate their territory and subjugate them.… To these ends, therefore, all Yoruba people, particularly those in the Western and Lagos States which now face the threats of invasion must not only be as vigilant as ever, but must also lose no time and spare no efforts in giving every conceivable support to the Federal troops in defence of their homeland, and of the Fatherland.”
Awolowo was not only rallying the Yoruba people, he was sending a powerful message to the Biafran High command in Enugu. Victor Banjo on 11th August had sent a secret note to Governor Adebayo the man which according to Biafran High Command was slated for assassination by Banjo’s gun. In the letter, amongst other things, Banjo asked for “clarification of the Western position.” Adebayo promptly passed the letter to Awolowo in Lagos. S.G. Ikoku, an Awolowo loyalist in the East and AG’s secretary general, who was in exile in Ghana, said Major Ifeajuna told him when he escaped to Ghana, their plan in January 1966 coup was to free Awolowo from Calabar prison and install him as Prime Minister. In reality, there was no army unit heading to Calabar to spring Awolowo out of jail. However, with so many killings of people’s idols, would Awolowo allow himself to govern the country from a seat of blood? Would the unconstitutional Prime Minister Awolowo have the authority to bring the coup plotters who gave him the highest office in the land to justice for the blood shed? Would he had demotivated the three NPC politicians who pleaded the excuse of the assassination of their party idols and Ironsi’s reluctance to do bring them to justice as the reason they organised and financed the October 1966 massacres of Igbos in the North? What would soldiers like Lt Col Mohammed Shuwa, or those loyal to the assassinated Zakariya Maimalari or Abogo Largema do when Awolowo visited the North as an Ifeajuna-selected Prime Minister of Nigeria? Here again was Victor Banjo, 21 months later, offering Awolowo another seat of blood.
Receiving the secret note, Awolowo promptly and publicly pledged his allegiance to the federation and called upon special adverbs, forceful intensifiers and commanding modal verbs to elicit and consolidate the patriotism of his fellow Westerners. The statement split AG and the West down the middle. They had not forgotten the monstrosity of northern hegemony; they had not forgotten how the North colluded with Igbos to foment trouble in the West. They have not forgotten how this North-East coalition had excluded Yoruba from key posts and grassroot recruitment policies. The American consul in Ibadan wrote on 7/8/67 that: “An old line supporters including more mature intellectuals like Prof Hezekiah Oluwasanmi[the Ife University Vice Chancellor] and S.O. Ighodaro[lecturer Lagos University] support the statement. They said: “Awolowo has always been a minorities man, and the Eastern takeover of Midwest and continued occupation of Eastern minority areas is an indication of continued Ibo desire to dominate southern Nigeria.” Mr Strong continued on the other hand: “AG activists and man in the street are convinced Awolowo made the statement under duress…They say Awolowo’s true position was indicated in the Leaders of Thought resolution in May which said if any region seceded or forced out, the West would automatically become independent. The activists feel that Awolowo missed the opportunity to bring the present conflict to close by coming to Ibadan and make a Western Declaration of Independence speech supported by Victor Banjo and his National Liberation Army.”
Mr Strong provided another dimension. “Since ‘there are no secrets in Yorubaland,’ it is very likely Awolowo was aware of coup talk here and issued the statement to forestall Western coup attempt and try and keep the tenuous peace in the West.” On the night of 11th August, Mr Smallwood the British Deputy High Commissioner came to inform his American counterpart that “decision has been taken by a group of AG activists to support efforts to stage a Midwest type coup here in the West. Timing uncertain but could happen anytime from 12th. Planners supposedly do not include top members of AG hierarchy but certain young activists who hope present AG leaders with fait accompli consistent with their own sympathies.”
Mr Strong was sceptical of its success of the coup not because of Awolowo’s rallying call, but as he wrote: “In the West, several ingredients for successful coup are lacking. There is, for example, no real counterpart of Ibo officers here.” And yet, that was the coup for which Victor Banjo confident of its success received Ojukwu’s bullets with his head raised high and his chest pumped out at the firing squad in Enugu. (Odumosu, the secretary to the Western government was to later tell the consul in a secret document of 11 October 1967 that Bola Ige and Bisi Onabanjo both commissioners were suspected to be involved in the plot to make Banjo replace Adebayo once he invaded the West). Strong also noted that Alhaji Busari Obisesan, the former NNDP speaker of the Western House of Assembly had been heavily involved in the plot to assassinate the pro-AG, pro-Awolowo Governor Adeyinka Adebayo since November of the previous year, they had not succeeded. The NNDP were traditional allies of North’s will to dominate. The consul noted: “their plans in the past traditionally involve use of Northern troops for NNPD ends.” That was the 4th battalion. This north-based battalion was moved over to Ibadan in 1957, it was said, to quell the political restiveness engulfing the streets of Ibadan. Soon they became a repressive machine made available by Ahmadu Bello to Akintola to use against his plentiful opponents and critics. The self-loading rifle Akintola used on the night he was murdered by Captain Nwobosi and his men was given to him by the 4th battalion commander, Lt Col Abogo Largema. He personally supervised Akintola’s target practice in his barracks. It was some members of this notorious battalion that Major Danjuma also used to capture and murder Ironsi and the Western Governor then Adekunle Fajuyi. As part of Gowon’s effort to secure the support of the West, he pulled this this notorious battalion back from Ibadan stationing them in Jebba. As Captain Hamza, Ahmadu Bello’s chief body guard said to an expatriate friend who then informed the British Deputy High Commission which in turn informed the American consulate, Busari Obisesan have gone up North to see Hassan Katsina on 10th August for help. NNPD was “plotting their own measures to counter the AG threat of takeover” in the light of a pro-AG governor.
Meanwhile on the streets of Ibadan there was bay for blood. On the morning of 15th August 1967 Governor Adebayo told the American Consul that “the trouble in Ibadan in the last three days were caused by some Hausas including some Hausa soldiers hunting out and beating up Ibos. They wanted to kill them. This started sporadically but when situation got worse yesterday. He decided firm action was necessary to bring it under control. He ordered soldiers back to barracks and later announced curfew.” The Western state Police Commissioner Emmanuel Olufunwa addressed the Hausa community in Sabo and “warned them against engaging in any unruly acts.” The leader of the Hausa community replied and warned his fellow Hausas against doing anything [that would] damage their reputation.” It wasn’t clear whether he was being ironic or sincere because at 8:15pm that same day, Lt Colonel Obasanjo as the head of Ibadan Garrison command and his deputy Major Olu Bajowa were there with around 60 troops with bayonets drawn to seal of the Hausa quarter.
In Lagos, the atmosphere of deep mistrust of Igbos left behind and those who recently made their way back from Biafra thickened. There was fear, there was panic. It had come to light that some of the Igbo minority of the Midwest were used to sweep away Ejoor, and put an Okonkwo in power. It will happen too in Lagos they reckoned. Banjo’s troops were reported to be in Ore heading for Lagos. Was it going to be Chiedu? Or Emeka? Or Silvanus? Or would it be Calixtus? The atmosphere of suspicions thickened. Rubbles of the damaged Inland Revenue office, the British Library, the telephone exchange and cinema house near Rowe Park in Yaba from the explosions of bombs conveyed in a petrol tanker on 19 July 1967 were there. Four people died and 56 injured. On the night of 9th August another Biafran plane flew in from the East and dropped bombs on non-military area. ‘Warning bombs,’ Ojukwu called then in a lengthy midnight address on radio Biafra on 10 August 1967. The plane also dropped leaflets in Ikeja and Palmgrove areas “calling on people to overthrow Gowon’s government and the Hausa imperialists.” The American ambassador noted that the leaflets were similar to the ones being distributed by Biafran soldiers to gain their support in the Midwest. Around quarter past 4 on 16th August 1967 another Biafran plane flew in and dropped two bombs on Apapa. The more these bombs exploded, the more Lagos Igbos were put in trouble.
Ambassador Mathews cabled Washington: “We have a number of reports that Ibos are being taken from their homes and offices, in many cases not, repeat, not gently. We have no info on what is being done with those detained.” In an earlier document Mathews wrote that: “Soldiers in lorries mounted house-to-house searches along Ikorodu road in densely populated quarter of Lagos, and took Ibos from their houses to the army barracks.” Governor Mobolaji Johnson’s went on radio to address Lagosians in a way sharply different from the conciliatory tone he adopted the previous month when Biafran explosions began to rock Lagos. No he said: “Ibos openly rejoiced at the events in the Midwest and that some openly boast Ojukwu will soon take over Lagos or bomb Lagos to ashes.” The Governor continues: “all these acts of treachery, sabotage and uncharitable-ness are an abuse of kindness and hospitality of people of Lagos state.”
According to official police estimates around 50,000 Igbos live in Lagos then, around 32,000 are believed to live in “Lagos suburbs of Ikeja” where the airport and army base are located. As of August 1967 only 17, 000 were left of the total. In Ibadan there were an estimated 6000 Igbos left. “Recent conversations with Alhaji Adegbenro(Awolowo’s lieutenant), Dele Ige(Bola Ige’s younger brother) and other prominent Yorubas have indicated great fear on their part that Ibos were planning to sabotage federal institutions located in Ibadan in particular University of Ibadan and University College Hospital,” Mr Strong wrote in a confidential cable. In an effort to understand this fear, “he questioned E.M. Ajala, the local head of Nigerian Tobacco Company, whose employees had been implicated in the discovery of ten cases of gelignite near University of Ibadan. According to Ajala, the leader of the group was an Ibo graduate of University of Nigeria…the purpose is to teach the Yorubas a lesson having displaced their countrymen after the mass exodus of Ibo doctors and professors from both institutions since last October .” The American diplomat then noted that UI and UCH were under guard and that “Premier Hotel now searches all entering guests.”
Though later rescinded by Awolowo when he heard of it overnight, 5pm on 16th August 1967, the British Area Manager of Electricity Corporation of Nigeria(ECN) received an executive order from Governor Adebayo that he had 48 hours to round up ‘his Igbos’ and send them to the designated collection points. All Igbos in Ibadan were to be rounded up and send to designated collection points as a matter of state policy. The collection point for ECN Igbos was ironically Liberty stadium. Olunloyo College of Education and Government College were the collection points for the estimated 400 Igbos of UCH and 900 Igbos of UI. All 6000 to be rounded up would then be transported via train to Apapa for onward shipment back to the East. According to the American consular, Prof Ade Ajayi, the acting Vice-Chancellor of UI after Prof Kenneth Dike fled, had gathered his remaining Igbo staff and offered to repatriate them with three months’ salary paid in advance.
At two o’ clock that same day, Governor Adebayo played host to the Leaders of Thought gathered in Parliament Buildings Ibadan to discuss Victor Banjo and the developments in the Midwest. Adebayo told the gathering: “He stands firmly by oath to join with colleagues in the federal government to do everything in our power… to work for reconciliation amongst various peoples of the Federation.” Yet on that same day he signed a secret executive order for Igbos to be rounded up and deported from Ibadan. Awolowo told the gathering: “I hold this view quite firmly that the best interests of the Ibos, Yorubas, Hausas, and other national groups will be best served in a reconstituted and reconstructed united Nigeria in which it is impossible for any ethnic group ever again to lord it over any other ethnic group.” So what was the government of the West trying to do about the collection points plan? By the following morning Peter Odumosu secretary to the western government went to those he had served the 48hours to rescind it. He informed Mr Smallwood, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Ibadan who in turn informed the American consular.
In Kano airport, soldiers seized an Igbo steward from her plane when it touched down airport from London. She was never heard of again. Radio Kaduna informed its listeners that all branch of African continental Bank (ACB) have been closed and were being searched by mobile police after “intelligence reports” revealed “all ACB branches” were harbouring explosives. ACB, the radio informed its listeners, was owned by “the former Eastern Nigerian Government and the banned Ibo Union.”
Meanwhile on 10th August 1967, at 9:25pm NNS Lokoja, (Nigeria’s only landing craft) left Lagos again with supplies to reinforce the activities of Adekunle’s 3Marine Commandos(3MCDS). Two weeks before, she had taken two battalions – the first consignment of the 35,000 men strong Division to Bonny. The Biafran Navy comprised speedboats, tug boats, barges commandeered from the oil companies and canoes and rafts of fishermen. NNS Ibadan a Second World War British navy Seaward Defence Boat with a 40/60mm Bofors anti-aircraft forehead that could hardly fire three rounds without jamming was the command ship of this Navy. She was proudly rechristened BNS Biafra. Commander Winifred Anuku, head of the Biafran Navy had mapped out a plan to arm an old dilapidated dredging ship with hidden artilleries and several companies in its well and deck fittings. Seeing it was old and non-military, one of the NNS enforcing the blockade would be confident to approach her and interrogate her, they reckoned. Then they would quickly open fire on the upper deck of the Nigerian ship, over power her and walk her to their Naval Dockyard in Port Harcourt as the new Biafran sea jewel. Three days in sea, no NNS approached. Lt Cdr P.J. Odu the commander of this planned piracy reported back to Anuku: “no enemy ship sighted 20miles offshore.” He then dismissed the naval blockade as “propaganda to convince friendly countries from sending shipments of arms.” When James Parker, the UK Deputy High Commissioner stationed in Enugu and Bob Barnard, his American counterpart met Ojukwu and asked him about the rumoured invasion from the sea, Ojukwu simply spread his teeth surrounded by his bushy beard. “He laughed at the thought that the Nigerian Navy could enforce a blockade of Biafran ports or mount amphibious on Biafran coasts with its winding creeks and primordial mangrove swamp running twenty miles inland,” Barnard wrote. “He said he doesn’t know where the Nigerian naval vessels go when they depart Lagos but they are not, repeat, not patrolling off the coast of Biafra.”
Unknown to the Biafrans, NNS Penelope the command ship of the Nigerian Navy had been summoned with all her sisters including the five taking turns to enforce the blockade to the Naval Dockyard in Apapa. By 1800hrs on 18th July 1967, they were all there. Also assembled were three merchant vessels from the Nigerian National Shipping Line, King Jaja, Oranyan, Bode Thomas and later Oduduwa and Warigi from Farrell Lines. They were there to rehearse a joint Army and Navy amphibious operation which was later variously described as “masterpiece in the history of warfare in Africa, ”“the first of its kind by any 3rd world country,” “the African version of Omaha Beach landings that turned the tide of the Second World War.”
By the 25th July, the invasion to stamp Federal boots on the Niger Delta and close in on Biafra from the south was launched. The three Seaward Defence Boats(SDBs) NNS Ogoja, Benin,Enugu, proceeded into Bonny river channel while NNS Nigeria, a frigate, stood on the high seas guarding NNS Lokoja with its human cargo. Because of her longer range 4 inch battery, Nigeriawas still able to provide support for the operational objectives of the three SDBs ahead. NNS Ogoja the largest of the SDB spotted BNS Biafra heading downstream. She quickly sheared away from the convoy to engaged her. Once Biafra came within her range, Ogoja volleyed thunderous shots in rapid successions and Biafra replied feebly and its Bofors guns kept on jamming after three shots. Akin Aduwo commanding Ogoja and P.J. Odu commanding Biafrawere colleagues and very good friends for years and the war had made them reached a point where one must destroy the other for the greater glory of his country.
While the engineers were fixing this jam, Biafra was trying to quickly manoeuvre round in a tight circle so that it won’t be in a broadsides range with Ogoja hence becoming a turkey shoot. Then she got stuck in the shallow end of the river. Adunwo depressed his guns, fired low at the stern to jam the engines and propellers. That ensured Biafra was going nowhere again. His friend and his crew quickly deserted the ship and escaped into the swamps. The tow tug boat Abdul Malikilater came to tow BNS Biafra back to Naval Dockyard in Lagos where it was rechristened NNS Ibadan. Ogoja returned to join Benin and Enugu never realising that the fight between friends, the desertion of Biafra, its rechristening in Lagos would be the metaphor for the 30 months civil war.
The heavy fire from Enugu, Benin and Ogoja so thoroughly subdued the Biafran defensive positions on Bonny Island that resistance to the NNS Lokoja’s troop landings were too scattered to make an impact. Not only was this D Company under the Biafran 8th Battalion of Port Harcourt too small to defend Bonny, they went on offensive when the ships were not within range, hence easily giving away their stations. Hence Federal SDBs didn’t have to recourse to indiscriminate shelling to subdue the island which may have affected the oil installations and refinery jetties. US Defence Attaché’s noted in his secret report of 27th July 1967, Gowon, was “overjoyed” when Adekunle reported that Bonny had been taken with “no damage to the oil installations.” All the 16 storage tanks with their 3.9 million crude oil were intact. Quickly, they consolidated their positions on both sides of the river channel and by mid-morning 5th August, Dawes Island which controls river channels leading to Okrika were in Adekunle’s hands.
On the 10th of August, Adekunle received report from Supreme Headquarters that a whole Biafran Brigade had crossed the Niger Bridge and they had split in Agbor. Some battalions were heading northwards towards Auchi and Agenebode, some were heading westwards to Benin and more pertinently to him, some were heading southwards to Warri and Sapele. So the 3MCDs made immediate plans to respond to this Biafran surprise. First Adekunle knew that this Biafran invasion may be a tactical objective whose overall mission imperative was the recapture of Bonny. Biafran Navy Headquarters in Port Harcourt cannot feel safe knowing that a Nigerian brigade was stationed 35km away at Bonny. What Adekunle did was to quickly redeploy the 7thand 32nd battalions to the Forcados and Escravos creeks 166 nautical miles away to contain any advance of Biafran troops to the creeks. The 8th battalion proceeded to hold a defensive alignment with Port Harcourt. Major Abubakar’s 9th Battalion left to hold Bonny Island and perform rear operations. The NNS that were bringing in supplies, equipment, personnel were re-routed 166 nautical miles back to Forcados and Escravos. The Nigerian national line cargo vessel, Oranyan which on the 8th of August had departed from Lagos and arrived in Bonny with supplies, equipment and some personnel was ordered unload at the village of Sobolo-Obotobo which is northwest of Forcados. At 6:30am on the 11th of August, NNS Enugu had left Bonny River and was on recce in Escravos River in case there were militarised speedboats, tugs or barges lurking somewhere. None. At 9am, NNS Lokoja disgorged two additional rifle companies at Escravos and they quickly established defensive positions there. On the 13th of August, MV Bode Thomas added more supplies, equipment and personnel reinforcements. The build-up continued.
To the annoyance of Adekunle who arguably was the most successful war commanders in Nigeria’s military history, a new Division was created and called 2nd Division headed by Lt Col Murtala Muhammad while his own formation despite the success of his mission so far was not upgraded to a Divisional strength. With the addition of 31st and 33rd Battalion, he was upgraded to 3rd Marine Commando Division. Muhammad’s 2nd comprised three brigades 4th, 5th, 6thBrigades commanded by Lt Cols Godwin Ally, Francis Aisida, Alani Akinrinade. Their mission imperative was to rout the Biafran forces from the Midwest by invading from the West, Northwest and North.
Ally’s 4th Brigade (which was to be later commanded by Major Ibrahim Taiwo CO of the 10thBattalion because a sniper fire hit Ally in the chest in Asaba and almost killed him) was on the Ore, Ofosu, Okitipupa sector holding a defensive alignment against Banjo’s advance. Akinrinade’s 6th Brigade was tasked with Owo-Akure sector and Aisida’s 5th was the command Brigade in Okene with Auchi, Ubiaja being their strategic objectives and Benin, Agbor, and Asaba being their operational objectives. All the brigade commanders were waiting for a sign. In his report of 24th August 1967, Standish Brooks, US defence Attaché wrote: “Murtala Muhammad does not want to fight a piecemeal campaign without a series of logical and successive objectives being assigned and without reasonable capabilities to achieve the objectives at hand.” Bisalla, the Chief of Staff(Army) said of Murtala, I know him “when he starts he wants to go all the way to the River[Niger] before he even thinks of stopping.” But he needed the sign first and his brigade commanders were waiting too. Tick-tock.
Besides the military communication units, the army headquarters in Lagos, at times used the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation to transmit information to all the divisional headquarters and brigade commanders. It could be done during radio programmes, news bulletins or radio jingles. They public heard these secret codes but they thought they were part of the show. But on the 20th of September 1967, at 8 o’clock in the morning NBC broadcast the sign the field commanders had been waiting for. “The frogs are swimming; the frogs are swimming.” The CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)monitored and recorded key signals, statements and speech about the war from every radio station in Nigeria, Biafra and neighbouring countries. And they shared them with American Diplomatic/Consular units, CICSTRIKE (Commander In Chief STRIKE – Swift Tactical Response In Every Known Environment), ACSI (Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence), CINCMEAFSA(Commander in Chief Middle East/South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara) and DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency). Standish Brooks, their Attaché posted to Nigeria analysed The frogs are swimming intelligence thus: “this informed the 2nd Division and the guerrilla bands operating in various areas of the Midwest that elements of Adekunle’s 3rdDivision are already ashore from the Escravos/Forcados creeks.”
Hastily marshalled Midwestern militias had been dealing fires to the Biafran occupiers. It was reported that Urhobo, Ijaw and Itsekiri swimmers were diving underwater and organising surprising attacks on Biafran units and formations along the Ethiope River. In Benin too they reminded themselves they were the city of Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and these Biafran forces were the latest version of the British expedition forces of the 19th century. And so rapidly, young men were organising themselves as into deadly underground resistance groups, old people who could not fight were contributing money and their dane guns; young women like Moremi were reported to be offering their bodies to get close to these Biafran forces and poison their food. The Midwest must be made inhospitable for Biafran agenda.
The frogs are swimming. Adekunle and his 3MCDOs left their Escravos base at 3am and they were blazing towards their objectives on speedboats. The boats held a platoon of 26 troops and the ones that carried a Land Rover each could only take 12 soldiers. With NNS Enugu providing the operational support, seven hours later, they had secured the ports of Koko and Sapele. They forked into two columns: One headed towards Warri and by 22nd of September, they had captured the Warri port and the ECN power station in Ughelli.
The frogs are swimming.
The other column headed northeast to Agbor on Sapele/Agbor Road. And a northern column from the 6th Brigade of the 2nd Division was heading south east to Agbor too via Ehor-Agbor Road. The following day, 26th of September 1967, Agbor fell. To keep up the momentum, Lagos send in 5000 German G3 7.62 rifles to be issued to marine commandoes. The riverine operation of the 3MCDs was billed to be defining in its ruthless efficiency because the federal government wanted to use it especially to send a message to the oil companies suspending royalty payments who their boss was: Nigeria or Biafra. The American secret cable of 3rd July stated that Shell-BP was convinced that “Biafra was here to stay and that Ojukwu would be kind to the company.”
The 2nd Division too had been moving rapidly on its objectives. The frogs are swimming. After the fall of Ubiaja, Muhammad divided the new 8th Brigade reassigned from the 5th Brigade into two columns. As of the night of 21st September 1967, a column was at the village of Ekpon 20km away from Agbor on Uromi-Agbor Road. The other column was at that time was in the village of Ebu blazing towards Asaba which was 40km away. Elements of the 6th brigade were at Okeze village heading towards Agbor after capturing Benin. In seven days, Ore, Benin, Agbor, Asaba, Kwale, Warri, Sapele fell; Ojukwu fled.
The 3MCDs were asked to pull back from Agbor and Kwale and the Ethiope River was made into the interdivisional boundary with the 2nd Division. On 29th September at 1550hrs, CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service recorded Adekunle on Benin Radio warning Midwesterners: “not to take advantage of the presence of federal troops to engage in looting, murder, and other criminalities.” Addressing the people of Warri, western Ishekiri, Agbor, he warned against using soldiers to achieve “personal vendettas.” Adekunle reminded his listeners that “he has powers to impose martial law in coastal areas but does not wish to do so.” He then signed himself off as General Officer Commanding Nigerian Coastal Sector.” It wasn’t only Adekunle made Colonel after the successful Bonny Island landing that promoted himself again without the approval of Lagos. On 21st of September, Murtala Mohammed went on the same Benin Radio, as monitored by the CIA, to “officially confirm the complete liberation of the Midwestern state except Agbor and Asaba” as the GOC of the second division when he was only a lieutenant Colonel. He then announced “on behalf of the head of the Federal military government” the appointment of “Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia as the temporary administrator.” Gowon and the federal executive council were reported to have been “shocked” but they “regularised the appointment since Ogbemudia was the most appropriate for the job.” Another document titled Military Campaign in the Midwest recorded “Ogbemudia’s father is of mixed Benin-Ika extraction, as his home village near Agbor is inhabited by a tribally mixed people. Ogbemudia’s mother is ‘pure Ibo’ from the East.”
Later in the evening, Ogbemudia came to radio to address the people. The CIA was listening too. He asked all workers to resume work on the morning of September 22 and voided all the appointments and promotions made by the Biafran regime. He asked the people not to “pay back Ibos in their own coin” and announced the the lifting of the curfew imposed by the Biafran regime. However, he advised people to keep indoors after 10:00pm “to allow the federal troops to complete the operation of mopping few relining stragglers.” But why after 10pm in the night?
On Wednesday 20 September 1967, federal troops opened a barrage of fire on a Catholic Convent in Benin City. There was only one nun there and she managed to escape with a few injuries. The soldiers subsequently said they were told by the local people that some Igbos were hiding behind the convent and so the opened fire on anything that moved. Furthermore, while Bishop Patrick Kelly was giving spiritual comfort to one Igbo civilian who was badly wounded, some soldiers approached him, enquired whether he was yet dead. When the Bishop said he was still alive, they promptly killed him. The bishop made a report to the Irish ambassador who subsequently gave Gowon and the American ambassador too.
The cold-blooded massacres in Midwest were not monopolised by the federal troops only. In a confidential report of 15 October 1967 recorded that, “as the Biafrans retreated from Benin to Agbor, they killed all the men, women and children they could find who were not Igbos. The town of Abudu, one of the larger places between Agbor and Benin lost virtually of its population with the exception of a small proportion that fled into the bush.” The British expatriate teacher, Anthony Charles Stephens was killed there when he refused to surrender his car to the retreating Biafran forces. Father Coleman an Irish SSMA priest said before Biafran troops left Agbor “without a fight” they killed off most of “non-Ibo men, women and children.”
In general, the American confidential report stated, non-Igbo Midwesterners were very anti-Biafran throughout the occupation. Many of them hid Northerners in their houses for weeks away from the Biafran troops who set out to kill them. The document continued: “Nearly all rejoiced when federal troops came in. The only town that was an exception was Ehor where even after the federal troops arrived, the local populace was protecting the Igbo soldiers and tried to confuse the federal troops.” However in Benin, there was no intention to confuse at all; “the civilians were busy pointing out the Ibos.” So the federal troops set up “two big camps to serve as safe havens in a school for the Ibos. The women and children were taken there,” the report said. But the men? Sam Idah, the director of the Benin Cemetery on Ifon Road told the American diplomats that day (21/09/67), 24 hours after the federal troops arrived 1,258 bodies have been buried there. “Trucks from the ministry of work and transport and from Benin development council were used to haul the corpses to the open pits.” Rev Rooney a Catholic Missionary with Benin Public Service said “a total of 989 civilians had been killed that day in the city.”
Ambassador Elbert Mathews noted that “with the capture of the Midwest and the fall of the Biafran capital within days, the Federal Government senses eventual military victories and was in no mood for outside criticisms.” And so the massacres went on unchecked. Their report in the international media encouraged some diplomatic recognition for Biafra and arms shipments which prolonged the war for another 27 months.
By Damola Awoyokun