JOE ACHUZIA AND BIAFRAN REGULARS By Jeff Unaegbu

The only man who was not a soldier before 1967, but carried out some of the most daring operations during the Nigerian Biafran War, was Colonel Joe Oseloka Governor “Hannibal” Achuzia. He was undoubtedly the most popular and bravest volunteer militia officer-turned-soldier during the Biafran war, if all factors are considered. For this bravery and other reasons, Colonel Achuzia was dreaded by some of the seasoned regular Biafran officers who had been in the Nigerian army before the war.

To Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gbulie, Achuzia was “a former militia officer, slow-speaking, with a kind of killer instinct, he hailed from Asaba in the ROB. With a penchant for publicity, he was reputed for claiming ghost victories. He was also a feared martinet” (Gbulie, 1989:189).

In fact, the General Officer Commanding the entire Biafran Army, Aexander Madiebo gave some accounts, which indirectly showed the undiluted passion which the great fighter had for Biafra. To Madiebo, when Colonel Joe Achuzia was the officer responsible for the prevention of illegal refining of fuel in Biafra, he “ambushed and seized most of the crude on its way from Egbema to Army Headquarters. He may not have been told about the relaxation of the rules [which allowed the army to refine its own fuel], but he continued this practice even after he had been reported to the Head of State [Ojukwu] several times” (Madiebo, 1980: 116).

It was said that Colonel Joe Achuzia and his men ambushed the Nigerian Second Division at Abagana on March 31, 1968, and destroyed over 90 vehicles, killed many Nigerian soldiers and burnt much of the amoury. General Madiebo stated that it was specifically Major Jonathan Uchendu who led the men who won the victory. Madiebo also spoke of another victory at Ogidi led by Colonel Udeaja (now the Chief Executive of Modern Living Product Furniture Company at Onitsha). Some of the remnant of the vehicles that had escaped being destroyed at Abagana were ambushed and routed at Ogidi by Colonel Udeaja. Madiebo was then amused that Achuzia took journalists to the scene of the battle and explained to them how he won the victory. I tend to believe that Achuzia must have masterminded the battle at Abagana and was explaining this to journalists. According to Osuji, Achuzia was the commanding officer of Uchendu`s division and strategically planned the operation, while Uchendu led the actual ambush (Osuji, 2012). It is rather curious then that Madiebo would be amused rather than divulge this technical information in his account. It showed that he may not be privy to it (an unlikely situation) or if he was, he thought it not as important as to have warranted Achuzia to grant the interview where Uchendu was supposed to take the credit. It is important to note also that, in Madiebo’s account, after Achuzia’s interview with the journalists, “they christened him ‘Hannibal’ on the spot. In a matter of days, he ensured that his name was on the lips of every Biafran.” (Madiebo, 1980:228). To Madiebo, therefore, Achuzia, “loved publicity”. Colonel Joe Achuzia also took orders from the Head of State, Ojukwu himself, independent of Army Headquarters, as Madiebo found out. A foreboding dread of Achuzia is evident in a conversation that the GOC reportedly had with Ben Gbulie. He confided in Gbulie that Achuzia was “gunning for all of us”, and that he, GOC, was reliably informed that “he has been blaming our continued military reverses on those of us ex-Nigerian Army Officers…. He is said to be of the opinion that we are the ones aiding the enemy to destroy Biafra, and I imagine he is planning to deal ruthlessly with each and every one of us”(Gbulie, 1989:189). Ben Gbulie did not quite see it that way. He was wary of some of the ex-Nigerian officers himself, seeing them as pro-Ironsi reactionaries who did not care “two hoots if our breakway Republic survived or perished; they had seen the whole militant struggle as no more than Ojukwu’s war, with the result that only a handful of them ever went anywhere near our forward locations” (Gbulie, 1989:190). So, were Achuzia’s supposed convictions about the ex-Nigerian officers justified? The impression that he planned to deal with them must have stemmed from his disciplinary disposition. Madiebo even admitted that he “can no longer visit the fronts without the risk of running into an ambush mounted by” Achuzia’s boys (Gbulie, 1989:191).

Despite these impressions, Madiebo praised the Biafran troops led by Colonel Achuzia for not killing 18 Italian and Lebanese oil men who opened fire at them within Kwale oil field. Despite the provocation, Colonel Achuzia brought these oilmen as unharmed prisoners to his then Headquarters at Oraifite just as he was instructed to do by the Army Commander, Major General Madiebo (Madiebo, 1980:328).

Indeed, Madiebo’s accounts about Achuzia could be very thought-provoking at some point. In early September 1969, during the three-day very bloody “Operation Do or Die” in which hundreds of lives were lost at Onitsha on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides, a horrible fact influenced by the use of napalm by three Russian jets fighting for Nigeria and the use of flying Ogbunigwe and anti-tank guns by Biafran soldiers, Major General Madiebo ordered Colonel Achuzia to oust federal positions at Dumez Quarters during the Operation. Colonel Achuzia was not at home with that instruction, he preferred to clear Onitsha Textile Mills, the bridge head and the Fegge Quarters. But Madiebo prevailed upon him and he reluctantly took his men to Dumez. Well, many of Achuzia’s men died trying to clear Dumez. This enraged Achuzia who felt that if he had been allowed to face the federal troops at the aforementioned points which he had preferred, such high casualties would not have resulted and the Operation might still have been a success. In his account, Madiebo would say that Achuzia’s battle at Dumez “achieved absolutely nothing except high casualties amongst his men”, but despite this, “the operation was a success as it opened a direct route to the food-producing area of Otuocha” (Madiebo, 1980:348). Upon closer analysis, the operation cannot be said to be a success while Achuzia’s painful efforts would be said to be an “absolute” rigmarole in futility. This is because Achuzia’s efforts must have contributed one way or another, no matter how infinitesimal, to the overall success of Operation Do or Die.

Almost exactly two years earlier, Achuzia had routed Nigerian soldiers at Dennis Memorial Grammar School, pursuing them off the coast of Onitsha, until many of them drowned at the Niger River trying to escape. It was a sad sight. And this was Achuzia’s first battle. At first from October 4, 1967, the Nigerian 2nd Division shelled Onitsha for eight days from Asaba before a 10 boat armada crossed the Niger River into the city. The federal troops did not go after the retreating Biafran soldiers but, mistakenly wasted time looting and burning the Onitsha market. This gave Achuzia the advantage which crushed the Nigerian soldiers.

Achuzia was readily commissioned into the Biafran army not long afterwards as a Major. This was made possible after Madiebo approved the recommendation by then Brigadier Nwawo for Achuzia to become a soldier. As soon as he was commissioned, he attacked federal positions at Nsukka. News of his exploits quickly spread to all Biafra. Curiously, Madiebo saw his approval of Achuzia as “the greatest mistake of my military career” (Madiebo, 1980:204). Again, he saw him as someone who craved the admiration and respect of the masses through publicity and playing to the gallery. In other words, he did and said what the people wanted to see or hear, “whether those things impeded the war efforts or no” (Madiebo, 1980:204). This political tactic made civilians love Achuzia to high heavens. This love paid off three months later.

Yes, indeed, three months after coming into the army, Achuzia was appointed the 11 Division Operations Officer! He was by this, the effective Division Commander! Madiebo believed that Achuzia campaigned for it, “quoting as his qualifications, his Nsukka exploits and his participation in the Korean war” (Madiebo, 1980:220). Achuzia replaced the very person who brought him into the army, Brigadier Nwawo as Commander of the Division! In fact, Nwawo became his administrative officer! According to Madiebo, all these were possible because a high-powered civilian, an economist, who loved Achuzia like many civilians loved him, was dishing out the appointments. Before accepting this command, Achuzia gave the condition that both Nwawo and Madiebo (Army Headquarters) were not to interfere with his operations. These conditions were approved!

As commander, Madiebo admitted that Achuzia was “an officer of extraordinary personal courage who was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve his objective. His method of fighting was unorthodox to the extreme.” (Madiebo, 1980:221).

When militiamen under Achuzia’s command won a battle at Nonwa Kebara in mid 1968, Colonel Ojukwu promoted him to a Lieutenant Colonel.

On September 12, 1968, Colonel Achuzia fought gallantly at Oguta, along with Anuku and Nwajei, from 1700 hours. By 1845hours, they won the victory at Oguta. Some Nigerian soldiers were said to have jumped into the Oguta Lake rather than be captured. Much equipment and clothing were salvaged from the fleeing troops (Madiebo, 1980:276).

Also, Achuzia and his men fought gallantly and, to use the words of Madiebo, “extremely well” in an attempt to clear Obilagu airstrip so that federal troops would not gain entry into Okigwe town. But the advancing troops were very large. Thus, on September 30, the federal troops bulldozed their way into Okigwe (Madiebo, 1980:285). Achuzia took full command of 13 Division and summoned his commanders for another attack on Okigwe. Out of fear of what Achuzia might do to them if they lose the battle, many field commanders deserted their positions. Whenever soldiers saw any approaching vehicle which they think was conveying Achuzia around, they jumped into the bush out of fear of being shot for not agreeing to commence the planned attack on Okigwe. Because of this, Achuzia was to acquire another nickname, “air raid” (Madiebo, 1980:287). By November 25, 1968, Colonel Achuzia was in command of the 15 Division.

In March 1969, in a bid to clear Owerri, Colonel Achuzia got permission from Ojukwu to take over command of part of the “S” Division which was groomed by Onwuatuegwu. The latter reluctantly gave Achuzia his “S” Brigade under Major Atumaka. In less than 24 hours, Achuzia and these men broke through and cleared Egbu town and got to within a mile of Owerri town center. But this victory was at the cost of heavy casualties of the “S” Brigade. Because of these casualties, Onwuatuegwu was enraged when Achuzia came again to demand the rest of the “S” Division so that he could continue the offensive. The two brave men drew pistols at each other, and would have caused harm to each other but for the intervention of Madiebo. The case was later settled by Ojukwu who gave Achuzia the “go-ahead” to take over the rest of “S” Division. Onwuatuegwu was asked to take a rest. Sadly, many more casualties were recorded as Achuzia carried out the offensive. Major Atumaka was also among them. Ojukwu had to call off the operation after one week and restored Onwuatuegwu to his command (Madiebo, 1980:310).

On March 29, 1969, the battle to defend Umuahia was launched. Achuzia came down from Midwestern Nigeria to clear Uzuakoli as part of the defense of Umuahia. The overall defense battle, which had other commanders such as Onwuatuegwu also, was so bloody that it checked federal advance into Umuahia for weeks until the 22nd of April 1969 when Umuahia fell.

By early September 1969, during the aforementioned Operation Do or Die, Achuzia was the commander of the ROB Brigade.

During the last days of the war starting from January 1, 1970, Madiebo began to send complaints about Colonel Achuzia to the then Chief of General Staff, General Philip Efiong. The first complaint was that Achuzia “was indoctrinating and training troops against former officers of the Nigerian army (now of Biafran army)”. Achuzia denied this (Efiong, 2012:284). The second complaint from Madiebo to Efiong was that Achuzia had taken charge of the Camp 2 Training Depot at Ugiri. Upon investigation by Efiong, it turned out that Achuzia did not take charge of the Depot but only went there to get reinforcements. This showed that to some slippery extent, Madiebo regarded Achuzia with a critical eye. Efiong got off with the impression that there was a “perpetual state of feud going on” between Achuzia and Madiebo (Efiong, 2012:284).

At 1640 hours, on January 12, 1970, Major General Efiong, who was then the new C-in-C after Ojukwu had left Biafra “in search of peace” three days earlier, made the surrender broadcast which officially put a stop to the war. The next day, on January 13, 1970, Colonel Achuzia ran into an ambush of Nigerian soldiers. By the use of quick thinking, he informed them that he had been sent to establish contact with them by Major General Efiong. When he was allowed to go, he came to Efiong and requested that he “put on a Brigadier’s rank” so that he could be more effective and command more respect in his interactions with the Nigerian soldiers. Efiong agreed but did not make the rank official (Efiong, 2012:296).

While wearing this brigadier’s rank, Achuzia, who, in the words of Gbulie, “with an unwholesome larger-than-life image for sadistic behavior…, put a veto on all further flights into as well as out of our war-ravaged enclave.” It appeared that Achuzia had ordered his men to shoot down any relief-carrying aircraft trying to take off or land on the Uga airfield. Achuzia was trying to prevent Biafran officers from escaping into self-exile. He knew many of them were ex-Nigerian soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gbulie had good reasons to go into self-exile. He was sure that if he was seen by the Nigerian soldiers, he may face firing squad in the long run, being that he was one of those who was involved in the first Nigerian coup. It was this same realization that had led Colonel Tim Onwuatuegwu to flee towards the Cameroon border. Unfortunately, Onwuatuegwu was killed by some Nigerian soldiers during this attempt at self-exile. Achuzia’s embargo on flights so frustrated Ben Gbulie that both men had to face each other. To Gbulie, Achuzia welded “an authority he anything but possessed…”. According to Gbulie, Achuzia asserted that “he had, as a matter of fact, taken control of our army, navy as well as air force…. It seemed to me that he had probably taken leave of his senses: that there might be a loose screw somewhere in his head” (Gbulie, 1989:237)!

In that instant, Ben Gbulie remembered the first clash he had with him in which Achuzia literally ordered Gbulie, a corps commander, to appear before him in his office at Umuna-Okigwe, when he, Achuzia was appointed Commander, pro tempore, of the 15 Division! Gbulie fired back a signal to him, strongly asking him to watch his language and that he was not under his command. Gbulie sent certified true copies of the signal to both the Army and Defence Headquarters. Consequently, the situation was saved by the then Chief of General Staff, Major General Philip Efiong, who ordered Achuzia to immediately apologize to Lieutenant Colonel Gbulie. Achuzia paid Gbulie a visit afterwards, but rather than apologize (in the perspective of Gbulie), he asked Gbulie to return his visit. Gbulie spared no words in making him understand that he had no intention of letting himself “rise to the bait of falling, unprepared, into one of his rumoured ambushes” (Gbulie, 1989:239). Nevertheless, Gbulie sorted out on his own terms the problems on account of which Achuzia had dared to step on his toes in the first place.

Now that Achuzia was blocking Gbulie from going into self-exile, he reported the matter to the new C-in-C, Major General Efiong. Achuzia was sent for at once. Even before the supreme officer himself, Colonel Achuzia did not budge (Gbulie, 1989:240). Achuzia might have had the impression that the Nigerian armed forces would absorb the surviving personnel of the Biafran army.

Achuzia was among the entourage that went with Efiong to meet the then GOC, 3MCDO, Colonel Obasanjo at Owerri on January 14, 1970.

On November 10, 1971, the Nigerian Board of Inquiry released a report on the decisions of the Supreme Military Council of Nigeria on the future of Biafran officers. Many officers were detained for one reason or the other. Colonel Joe Achuzia was detained for “sadistic Behaviour”. He remained in detention for about five long years. After he was released from prison, he moved to his home town, Asaba. He lived there until 6am, Monday, February 26, 2018 when he died at age 91 at the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba.

References:

Efiong, P.(2012). Nigeria and Biafra: My Story. Ibiono Ibom: Ibiono Ibiom Welfare and Development Union (IWADU).

Gbulie, B. (1989). The Fall of Biafra. Enugu: Benlie Publishers.

Madiebo, A.A. (1980). The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers.

Osuji, Steve (2012). “There was a country’: Ogbunigwe, Abagana ambush; Achebe, Okigbo and Ifeajuna”. The Nation Online, October 23.

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