Tuesday 12 March 2024

The Untold Story of Joseph "Hannibal" Achuzia: Hero and Villain of the Nigerian Civil War

Colonel Joseph Achuzia (left) during the Nigerian Civil War (Credit: Walter Partington/Camera Press London). On the right 20-year-old Achuzia (centre) alongside two other stowaways in Plymouth, England after their arrival on a Dutch ship in March 1950 (Source: The Western Evening News, Saturday, March 25th, 1950).

Joseph Oseloka Achuzia was one of the standout military commanders to emerge during the Nigerian Civil War. Known by the monikers ‘Joe Air Raid’ and ‘Hannibal,’ Achuzia achieved folk hero status among his kinsmen who sought to secede from Nigeria and create the nation-state of Biafra. Reports at the time credited him as the significant actor who inflicted humiliating defeats on Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammad during the initial attempts of the Commander of the Federal 2nd Division to land troops across the River Niger in the quest of taking the prized city of Onitsha, and of masterminding the spectacular ambush of troops of the same division at Abagana. Achuzia was also credited with retaking the town of Uzuakoli from Federal forces, albeit temporarily. These were stunning achievements for a man who had risen from the ranks of Biafran volunteer militiamen. When the war ended in January 1970, some in the international press described him as a “legend in Africa” and “perhaps the greatest guerrilla leader of them all''. But over the course of time doubts began to emerge over the successes attributed to Achuzia. The memoirs of former Biafran military officers such as Alexander Madiebo and Ben Gbulie served to re-cast Achuzia’s exploits as exaggerated and in some cases fictional. Furthermore, Achuzia’s claim to have been tutored in the art of war as a British National Service conscript during the Korean war has been subjected to scrutiny and found to be lacking a basis in fact. As this article will reveal, Achuzia was a cunning and resourceful man with a chequered past that included at least two periods of imprisonment during his sojourn in England. He had arrived there as a stowaway on a Dutch vessel and after a spell as a postman, he tried his hand as a club manager and later as the proprietor of a car-hire business. He was for a time a pimp. Accepting that he had reached a dead end in England, he headed back to Nigeria where he set up an electronics supply firm. His biggest achievement was in re-inventing himself as an army field officer and to many diehard supporters of the failed Biafran project, he remains the embodiment of resistance to the ‘Nigerian invader.’ This examination of previously undisclosed aspects of his early life, as well as of his military career reveal a man prone to deviousness and of possessing a talent for self-promotion, traits which enabled him to feed off a predisposition to living dangerously. He was feared by many on his own side. He killed foot soldiers who attempted to flee from battle and more than once, he drew his handgun while threatening to shoot fellow officers. Indeed, some Biafran officers lived in apprehension of being ambushed by “Achuzia’s men.” His transformation from a self-admittedly “disinterested” observer of Nigeria’s crisis into a radicalised warrior for Biafra was a remarkable one as indeed was his evolution from shady entrepreneur to that of distinguished elder of Ndigbo, but studies of Achuzia have often veered from hagiography to vilification. The objective of this paper is to provide a detached exploration of this formidable yet flawed character.

There is little information available about the early life of Joseph Achuzia. Both his parents came from communities which are sub-groups of the Igbo. His father hailed from Asaba, a town dominated by the Anioma people, while his mother was an Ezza, a people situated to the northeast of the Igbo heartland.1 His precise date of birth is uncertain. Most sources give it as 1929, although brochures and banners pertaining to his funeral in 2018 provide it as 1928.2 A British newspaper reported him as being a “19-year-old Ibo student from Nigeria”.3 And while court records in Britain record Achuzia’s claim that he was of royal lineage in Asaba (the younger brother of the chief), this was not the case. The level and extent of his formal education while in Nigeria is also in doubt. When he arrived in Britain as a stowaway, Achuzia told the authorities that he had studied “the classics and mathematics at a university in Lagos.”4 But Lagos did not have a university until 1962.5 He would also claim that he had embarked to England to pursue studies in “law and economics” under the auspices of the “Asaba tribe” which provided an annual fund of £750. The source of the tribe’s income, Achuzia would say, came from the operation of “plantations.”6 Again, there is no evidence of any of this. But what is certain is that by the time he was in his late teenage years, he had become an articulate individual, as well as an ambitious one who felt the urge to leave Nigeria for Britain.

In 1950 Achuzia, whose age may have been anything from 20 to 23, decided that it was time to leave for what was then described as the ‘Mother Country’. The British Nationality Act of 1948 had provided citizenship to all colonial subjects, and in the post-war era the labour shortage provided an incentive to such subjects to travel there to find work.7 However, travel costs were prohibitive to the average colonial. Moreover, travel was predicated on the subject having arranged for employment or for study at an educational institution. Achuzia did not fulfil either criterion, but he remained undeterred. He was aware that a colonial subject could stowaway on a vessel destined for a British port, and although risking a maximum jail sentence of 28 days, would be guaranteed an indefinite period of stay so long as they had documents on them which proved that they were a British subject.8

In March 1950, Achuzia surreptitiously boarded the Amstelkerk, a Dutch passenger and cargo vessel which plied its trade on the coast of West Africa.9 This was likely executed while the crew were occupied with the task of loading cargo.10 He made his way over the ship’s coal bunkers and found a rope store where he concealed himself. The steamer was destined for the port of Amsterdam, and he knew that if he remained undetected until the ship departed Dakar, Senegal, the last port of call before heading to Plymouth, he would accomplish his mission. There Captain R. DeWyn ordered a complete search of the ship and later received an “all clear” report.11 He survived the security sweep, by which time he was down to a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, for the remaining nine-day journey.12 Dressed only in a cotton shirt and a pair of trousers, the nights became colder once the ship crossed the Tropical Atlantic realm into the Temperate Northern Atlantic realm. Achuzia would later insist that it “was so cold that I was not hungry.”13

In the eight days which followed the ship’s departure from Dakar, four stowaways, one of them Achuzia, emerged at intervals before the ship docked at Plymouth, the port city situated in Devon, southwest England. It was Saturday, March 25th.14 He had been unaware of the others, one of whom did not have the requisite paper of identification. Achuzia, along with two Gambian stowaways Kalifa Drameh and Samuel Maden, was allowed to disembark.15 Having no baggage, all three bare-footed men proceeded through the gates before forty-one fare-paying passengers came ashore. The three were taken to the Ministry of Labour office in Treville street to sign-on and receive the benefits to which other British subjects were entitled. After completing the registration process, Achuzia was taken by a Ministry of Labour welfare officer to the offices of the Council of Social Services where along with the other two, he was provided with “footwear and suitable clothing before arrangements were made to secure them a meal and suitable accommodation.”16 He later conducted an interview with the local newspaper, the Western Evening Herald, which reported that Achuzia intended to go to London “as soon as possible.”17

The unorthodox arrival of Joseph Achuzia was one of many episodes involving West African stowaways which was causing resentment among sections of the British public. In an article published earlier that month on Sunday, March 12th, the Sunday Sun reported that “Coloured men from British colonies who are getting into Britain by stowing away on ships are creating an ever-growing problem”.18 It quoted an official of the National Assistance Board in the northeast of England as saying that “almost without exception, they were living on public funds in preference to working for a living.”19 The threat of prison offered no deterrence because the presentation of relevant documents offered protection from repatriation and a guarantee to the entitlements offered by the welfare system created after the war by the Labour government headed by Clement Atlee.20 It was the lure of the “social services in Britain” which trumped the eagerness to find work given the assessment by an immigration official that “the majority of stowaways leave home where living conditions are 20 times worse than in the worst slums of (Britain)”.21

After reading the article on Achuzia’s arrival, one S.B. Philpott, a master mariner, felt compelled to write to the editor of Western Evening Herald about his amazement at the “solicitude” with which Achuzia and the two other stowaways had been treated on arrival at Plymouth.22 He asserted that a stowaway is “a common thief,” adding that he “has stolen a passage and it seems utterly immoral to condone the offence. He is as much a criminal as a burglar or a pickpocket, and it is a pity that an aura of glamour is allowed to surround him.”23

The letter came to the attention of Achuzia who responded as follows:


Could you permit us space in your paper to answer the comment of Mr. S.B. Philpott, master mariner.

Stowing away is a tradition adopted from the Western civilisation. In the hot countries there is nothing of such nature, but after the English people showed us what stowing away means and its benefits, we also adopted it 

Being British subjects we are entitled to a place on British soil.


Achuzia made his way to London where he found lodgings on Randolph Avenue in Maida Vale. He found work as a temporary postman, a job for which he received £4 and 18 shillings a week.25 It was while working in this role that he experienced his first brush with the law. In the early hours of the morning on March 11th, 1951, Achuzia was passing the Noah’s Ark public house on Oxford Street in West London when he noticed that the pub had a broken window. He helped himself to a bottle of brandy and continued walking until he was stopped and searched by a police officer identified as Detective Sergeant Hoskin who proceeded to apprehend him. Hoskin, who had noticed the broken window before Achuzia had passed by, had taken the precaution of counting the bottles of spirits on a shelf behind the hole in the window. There were 18 of them. He kept a lookout and after Achuzia had passed by, he recounted them and found 17 left. He proceeded to overtake Achuzia who claimed that he had found the bottle “on the pavement.”26 His explanation was rejected by the justices of the peace at Marlborough Magistrates Court who had heard the pub’s licensee, Frank Ernest Woodward identify the bottle of brandy as one item of £30 worth of stock which had been stolen from his premises. Achuzia was convicted of theft and fined £3.27 It was not the most auspicious start to life in Britain.

At this point, the recorded history of Achuzia goes blank. Although he would make repeated references to his having come to Britain to study law and economics while being sponsored by his community in Nigeria, there is no evidence that Achuzia pursued any studies in these disciplines at any level. There is also no evidence that he received training as an aeronautical engineer or as an electrical engineer.

The early part of the 1950s saw the eruption of the war in the Korean Peninsula between the communist-backed north and the south which was composed of a United States-led coalition fighting under the auspices of a United Nations mandate.28 Achuzia would claim that he served as a conscript of the British Army during this war while using the name “George Taylor” and that he was captured by northern forces and held as a prisoner of war before he was released.29 He also told Peter Worthington, a reporter for the Toronto Telegram News Service that he had been “a lieutenant with the Australians in the Korean War and later with Britain’s Kent Fusiliers in the abortive Suez invasion of 1956”.30

None of these assertions are true.

The only result of searches conducted for a person serving Commonwealth forces in Korea while bearing the name “George Taylor” is that of Brigadier George Taylor, the Commander of the 28th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.31 Achuzia never gave a reason as to why he would have needed to change his name. He modified his name on occasions to include middle names such as “Christopher,” “Brown” and “Wilson.” He also went by the name of “Joseph Patterson” but never “George Taylor.”32 The criteria for being subject to peacetime conscription under the National Service system was that the person be an able-bodied male age between 17 and 21, and a British subject.33 While Achuzia fulfilled each criterion -he was officially reported to be still 20 years old at the time of his conviction for theft in April 1951- the unofficial policy of the authorities was not to conscript the vast majority of Black and Asian British male subjects. Indeed, only a few hundred Black and Asian soldiers served in the ranks throughout the years of National Service and Achuzia was not one of them.34

Two important developments in Achuzia’s life during this period were his marriage to an English woman named Audrey Holt and his relocation to the city of Manchester in northwest England. It was not a happy union. In March 1954, the Manchester Evening News reported that 24-year-old Audrey Achuzia had been jailed for three months “for keeping a brothel in Arnott street in Hulme, Manchester, and allowing her four-year-old child to live there.”35 The paper quoted her as telling the court that she and her two children had been “left in desperate circumstances by her husband.”36 They would have a total of four children but by the late 1950s they had separated, and all children were put into the care of Manchester Corporation.37

Achuzia himself lived on the edge and continued to fall foul of the law. In May 1955, he was charged on separate counts of fraud under the Larceny Act for “converting to his own use household goods obtained on hire-purchase”.38 Although he was described in court as having become the proprietor of a Manchester private hire car service, he was impecunious, and he informed the presiding stipendiary magistrate F. Bancroft Turner that he could not afford to pay for a defence lawyer.39 As had been the case when he had previously stood before a criminal court, Achuzia brought up the story that he had been funded by the “Asaba tribe” in order to pursue his studies in “law and economics.”40 Whereas he had told the court in 1951 that he was receiving an allowance of £6 and 15 shillings, on this occasion he said that he had been provided a £750 annual fund for his study expenses.41 Achuzia told the court that his tribe financed him through income received from their ownership of plantations. His application for legal aid was accepted, with Turner wryly noting that he was not sure if the plantations in Africa are not castles in Spain. Achuzia pled guilty and was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment on both counts with each of the sentences running concurrently.42

The next year Achuzia was in the news again, this time in connection with the discovery of the battered body of a woman who had been murdered on a property of which he had been identified as the non-resident owner.43 On the morning of August 30th, 1956, Achuzia, whose living address was given as at Crumpsall Road, Manchester, went to the house in Bramwell Street, Ardwick, Manchester and knocked on the door. He had expected Anita Marjorie Butcher to answer and on getting no response entered the sparsely furnished house through the wide-opened back door. Then he climbed up the stairs and entered a bedroom where he found Butcher lying across a bed. She had suffered various stab wounds to the chest and abdomen, and part of her body had been burned. A wooden chair, which had been used to inflict head injuries on Butcher, was positioned on top of the bed. Fragments of the chair were embedded in her face, a testament to the savagery of the attack to which she had been subjected to by the killer John William Speight.44

On September 18th, Achuzia told Salford Magistrates Court, which was holding committal proceedings, that he had initially thought that Butcher was sleeping, “but then I saw the blood all over the place and I ran for the police.”45 Speight was subsequently committed for trial at Manchester Crown Court for the murder not only of the 25-year-old Butcher, but also that of Mary Pearson, a 45-year-old married woman, whom he had killed in Salford the day before he had subjected Butcher to the same fate.46

While he had played no part in the homicide of Butcher, the case exposed Achuzia as a man who lived off the immoral earnings of prostitutes. The court had been informed that he had given the keys of the property at Bramwell Street to two women, one of whom had been Butcher. The newspapers noted that the prosecutor made clear that both women “were using the premises for the purpose of prostitution.”47

That Achuzia had become entrenched in entrepreneurial activities which traversed the criminal law was made clear in another case brought before F. Bancroft Turner, the stipendiary magistrate who had convicted him of fraud in 1955. The Manchester Evening News of December 2nd, 1958 reported that the premises on which a club named The Students’ Social Centre and Silvery Moon Club located in Upper Brook Street, Manchester had been raided on three occasions by police.48 The club had been selling drinks to customers into the early hours in contravention of licensing laws. Achuzia admitted that he was the owner of the premises but denied the claim by the police that he operated the club. He was fined a total of £78 with the alternative of three months jail. The club was also struck off the register.49

The club may also have been used by Achuzia as an alternative avenue to earn money through prostitution. One of the plain clothes police officers who conducted the raid claimed that a prostitute had approached him.50 Achuzia had become a well-known figure to Manchester police as the 1950s was drawing to a close. At his trial for attempting to obtain a car logbook by false pretences, a police officer told the court that Achuzia was a “former law student, son and heir of a chief of a Nigerian tribe and now the owner of drinking clubs in Manchester.”51 Using the pseudonym of “Joseph Patterson,” Achuzia had given cheques worth £100 to a Manchester dealer to begin buying a car on hire purchase. The cheques were dishonoured. He had not been given the logbook and applied for one in Middlesex where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.52

He appears to have kept out of trouble until May of 1964 when he was charged with obtaining £300 by false pretences with intent to defraud.53 Achuzia had made out a cheque of £300 to cover the insurance for an order of 100,000 cycle registration plates he had made with Charles Whitaker, a manufacturer of plastics. Later, he told Whitaker that he did not have funds in his bank to meet the amount on the cheque and showed Whitaker a cheque stub to support his statement. Whitaker had then handed him a cheque for that amount. Liverpool County Sessions accepted Achuzia’s argument that Whitaker had lent him the money as a private loan which “had nothing to do with any business arrangement between them.”54

Achuzia had by the beginning of the early 1960s begun adjusting his personal and business life. He divorced Audrey and in 1962 married Josephine Ethel Hayes who had given birth to their son Simon in 1960.55 Although his transaction with Charles Whitaker had gone awry, he had been engaged in a legitimate form of enterprise connected to Nigeria. This pointed to the future. He had begun to tire of Britain and burdened no doubt by his criminal record and tainted reputation, he made the decision to return to Nigeria with the intention of establishing a business which would specialise in the manufacture of electrical components and their installation in domestic and industrial settings.56

With the backing of several British acquaintances he formed Electrical Power Engineering Limited which he located in the seaport city of Port Harcourt and served as its managing director.57 Expansion was rapid according to Achuzia who wrote in his civil war memoir that at the time Nigeria’s troubles broke out in 1966, the company had branches “in every major town in the Eastern Region and the Mid-Western Region.”58 In fact, he claimed that after the Electric Company of Nigeria (ECN), his company was the largest single employer within those two regions of qualified electrical operatives from various Nigerian institutes of technology.59 Life was good and as Ethel recalled to the author Michael Gould in an interview in 2007, the family “lived in style”.60 But this would all begin to change as Nigeria descended into chaotic uncertainty.

A concatenation of politically motivated violence which had made the Western region ungovernable, and which had brought insecurity to the Tiv areas of the Middle Belt reached new levels in 1966. On January 15th, a group of middle-ranking officers staged a coup which toppled the civilian government that had ruled the country since it was granted independence by Britain in October 1960. The prime minister, minister of finance, premiers of the Western and Northern regions, as well as several senior army officers were assassinated.61 While the mutiny was crushed, the officer who emerged as Nigeria's first military Head of State, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, was unable to stabilise the situation as grievances mounted owing to the perception that the mutiny had been orchestrated by mainly officers of Eastern region origin while the victims had been from the Northern and Western regions.62

The subsequent decisions of Ironsi, an Igbo from the Eastern region, did little to dampen the sense of unease and on July 29th, he was overthrown in a violent uprising staged by mainly Northern-origin military personnel.63 Over 300 officers and men, mainly of Igbo origin, were assassinated.64 This ‘revenge coup’ followed anti-Igbo pogroms staged in the Northern region in May, and preceded further pogroms directed at Igbos in September and October of 1966.65 The fracture of Nigeria appeared to be imminent when the military governor of the Eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Ojukwu refused to accept the authority of Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the Christian officer who hailed from a minority group in the Northern Region, as the legitimate successor of Ironsi.66

Looking on from his base in Port Harcourt, Achuzia admitted to having the attitude of a “disinterested observer watching a tragic drama of life and death unfold before me.”67 But this would change dramatically, and he would credit a meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Ogbugo Kalu, one of many Igbo military officers forced to flee from the Northern region and other parts of the federation to the Eastern region, with playing a major part in stimulating his “involvement and commitment to Biafra.”68 One of his early contributions to the cause was to accompany a delegation of Eastern region officials on a clandestine mission to purchase weapons and ammunition in Europe in October 1966.69

Thus, months before the failure of the meeting of Gowon, Ojukwu and other members of the Supreme Military Council in the Ghanaian town of Aburi in January 1967, the Eastern region was gearing up for secession which would be declared by Ojukwu on May 30th, 1967.70 In order to do this, the region would need to harness all the manpower and components of industry it could manage to make a future independent state viable. Achuzia’s company would have a part to play in achieving this by repurposing much of its production capacity to servicing the military needs of the yet to be declared nation-state. In this connection, Lieutenant Colonel Kalu took him to Enugu, the capital of the Eastern region to introduce him to Colonel Ejike Aghanya, a trained engineer whom Ojukwu had tasked with bringing together scientists, engineers and others with specialist skills.71 Aghanya became the head of the Biafran Agency for Research and Production (RAP). The objective of RAP, which was officially recorded as being founded in April 1967, would be to produce indigenously made armaments for the soon-to-be mobilised secessionist army.72

Achuzia’s meeting with both Aghanya and Dr. Mark Chijioke, Nigeria’s first engineering professor, who would head one of the units within RAP, led to Biafra’s first stanza of attack: a campaign of terror and sabotage in Lagos and its environs. Ojukwu had directed that RAP create timed bombs and Achuzia’s factory was used to manufacture them.73 On Sunday July 2nd, 1967, four days before the shooting war began, a Biafran saboteur drove a car packed with explosives to the entrance of Police Headquarters at Lion Building on Lagos Island but was turned back when he could not prove his identity. He then reversed the vehicle into a petrol filling station across the road and fled just before it exploded. An adjacent house was destroyed, and four of its occupants including two children were killed. The explosion also wrecked the filling station and ripped windows out of the five-storey police building. Two hours later, a second explosion ripped through a garage in Yaba, a suburb of Lagos, and injured three.74

A third bomb blast occurred on Wednesday, July 19th when a Biafran terrorist was driving an empty petrol tanker carrying a large bomb which prematurely exploded on a crowded street in front of the Casino Cinema in Yaba. Twenty people including the saboteur were killed.75 Achuzia noted in his memoir that he “regretted that the driver chose to drive it to the cinema…instead of the target it was designed for.”76 What target it was designed for he did not reveal. He also recalled that a plan to send a boat loaded with time bombs which would be detonated at Lagos harbour was abandoned.77 Here Achuzia may have been referring to the planting of a crude time-bomb at the Total and Mobil depot at the Apapa port complex which was disarmed by an officer attached to the army’s electrical and engineering corps.78 However, the attacks achieved little ends and only succeeded in increasing anti-Igbo sentiment which threatened to imperil the safety of thousands of Igbos who had continued to live in Lagos.

The “police action” which the newly promoted Major General Gowon had announced would crush the rebellion by the Eastern region quickly showed results. The university town of Nsukka in the northern sector of Biafra fell in mid-July, and on July 25th, the Nigerian Navy successfully landed troops of the 3rd Infantry Division at Bonny, a continuum of the plan to encircle Biafra which had begun by the institution of a sea blockade.79 In order to relieve the pressure on the northern sector, Ojukwu made the decision to order the invasion of the Mid-West, the region from which Achuzia hailed. He had been an elected delegate representing the Mid-West at the consultative meeting at which the vote was taken to secede.80

Achuzia had by now joined the Biafran militia which his friend Lieutenant Colonel Kalu had helped to create in Port Harcourt.81 Although not formally a part of the Biafran military, the militias would play an increasingly pivotal role in defending Igbo communities and assisting in military operations conducted by the army whether geared towards offensive manoeuvres or withdrawal. Achuzia became intimately involved with designing the methods by which the men and women of the militia were trained in both infantry and intelligence sections of the organisation.82 The first batch of 5,000 volunteers completed their training at the end of June 1967. A company was dispatched down the Bonny river to defend the oil terminal island of Bonny, while others were assigned to parts of Port Harcourt and “various riverine hamlets” where they were to await instructions on how to aid the Biafran army.83 The Biafran military presence in Bonny had been quickly overwhelmed by forces of the Federal 3rd Division, so the next engagement for Achuzia’s militia would be as part of the aforementioned invasion of the Mid-West.

Under the military governorship of Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) David Ejoor, the region, which was reconstituted as one of the 12 states created by Gowon on the eve of the Eastern region’s secession, had since the Aburi accord sought to maintain a neutrality in a crisis prompted by what many acknowledged to have been a rivalry between the Northern and Eastern regions.84 A key reason for this was that it was home to the most diverse concentrations of ethnic groups in the federation. Along with Igbo sub-groups such as Achuzia’s Anioma kinsmen were the Ijaw, Edo, Uhrobo and Itshekiri. Most of Ejoor’s military staff were officers of Igbo extraction who staged a coup as a Biafran force of 3,000 crossed the River Niger and made its way to Benin, the capital city.85 Seeing his position as being helpless in the light of what he and the Federal Military Government viewed as the treachery of his Igbo staff officers, Ejoor went into hiding.86

On August 17th, the Biafran leadership proceeded to appoint Major Albert Okonkwo as the military administrator of the occupied state.87 But the occupation was to be short and tumultuous. During the invasion, some Biafran soldiers had paused to kill people of Northern region origin who lived in the Ogbe Awusa, or Hausa Quarter of Asaba, Achuzia’s hometown.88 This was in revenge for the anti-Igbo massacres which had taken place the previous year in the North. The conduct of Biafran soldiers and the policies pursued by the Biafran administration generated a great deal of antipathy from the non-Igbo population. Many in the new administration had taken the Mid-West stance of neutrality and its failure to support secession as essentially anti-Igbo stances.89

Soldiers of the self-styled army of liberation often conducted themselves in an undisciplined manner, particularly in urban areas such as Benin, Sapele and Warri. In Warri, the men of the Biafran 18th Battalion went on looting sprees while searching for anything they could convert to cash, while in other parts of the Mid-West, non-Igbos were subjected to torture, imprisonment and death on suspicion of having sympathy for the Federal cause. Rape, extortion and seizure of property were common occurrences.90

The Federal counterattack in late September and the rapid loss of ground only served to increase the Biafran perception of the non-Igbo communities as saboteurs acting in support of the Federal side. Biafran soldiers acted violently against the local populace as they retreated. In Abudu, over 300 bodies were found in the Ossiomo River and on September 20, many non-Igbos were slaughtered at Boji-Boji Agbor. In Asaba, Ibusa and Agbor non-Igbos were taken into custody by Biafran soldiers and transported in two lorries to a rubber plantation along the Uromi-Agbor Road where they were executed.91

It is no surprise therefore that terrible reprisals were directed against Igbos as the Federal army advanced. For instance, an estimated 200 Igbos lost their lives when the Federal takeover of Benin City began on September 21st. Later, mobs in places such as Warri and Sapele would turn on the Igbos. The slaughter culminated in the Asaba Massacre which was conducted by federal troops between October 5th and 7th. Between 500 and 700 townspeople were murdered, most having been lined up and executed in the town square of Ogbeosowa village.92

Achuzia had been an active participant in the invasion which had been led by Brigadier Victor Banjo, a Yoruba officer who was later accused of treason prior to his summary trial and execution in late September of 1967.93 Achuzia was tasked with arresting several other Biafran officers whose loyalty was considered suspect. These included Lieutenant Colonel Adewale Ademoyega, the Yoruba Chief of Staff of the Biafran 101 Division.

In his memoir, Ademoyega recalled Achuzia and an officer of the Biafran army bursting into his home as he breakfasted in his dining room. Pointing their guns at him while bellowing “You are now under arrest. Hands up, or we shall (open) fire.”94 Angered by the threat, Ademoyega claimed that he bolted from his seat to retrieve a submachine gun from his bedroom, cocked it and promised to “finish” both men off if they attempted to shoot him. Achuzia’s demeanour changed. He then informed Ademoyega that he had not come to arrest Ademoyega but to summon him to see “His Excellency,” that is, Ojukwu. Ademoyega finished his meal and handed over his duties to Humphrey Chukwuka, an officer who like him had been involved in the January 1966 coup.95

It would not be the last time that Achuzia would pull a gun on another officer and threaten to shoot them. Rolf Steiner, Timothy Onwuatuegwu and Matthias Morah would be subjected to the treatment during the course of the war.

During the occupation of the Mid-West, Achuzia, although still formally a militiaman, inherited command of a portion of the troops used by Banjo who formed the “Republic of Benin Division.”96 He would remain attached to them despite his many later deployments at the behest of Ojukwu.

In early October, as Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammed’s 2nd Infantry Division continued to advance, the Biafrans retreated to Ukwute-Ugbor, a town a few kilometres from Asaba. Achuzia, who was serving as a commander of troops, was also forced to withdraw from the village of Umunede. Seeing that it would only be a matter of time before federal forces reached Asaba, he felt compelled to journey to Enugu to lobby Ojukwu to appoint him as the divisional commander of Biafran forces of what remained of the Mid-West theatre. The commander Brigadier Conrad Nwawo had been unable to resume his duties and Achuzia felt it important that an Anioma native be given the responsibility of making this last stand.97 

After convincing Ojukwu of this, Achuzia returned to Asaba to set up his operational headquarters. He and the brigade-sized troops that remained would be all that stood against the Federal army moving across the River Niger into Onitsha via the River Niger bridge. The 2nd Division entered Asaba at Okpanam in the city’s north end and confronted Achuzia’s force at St. Patrick’s College where the defenders were dug in. It was a furious but futile battle and on the evening of October 4th, Achuzia ordered his men to retreat to Onitsha. The bridge was blown up the following day.98

With the withdrawal completed, Achuzia was given a role in defending Onitsha from the expected attempt by the Federal 2nd Division to cross the River Niger.

Murtala Muhammed had two options. He could stage a risk-laden amphibious crossing. Or he could lead his troops 160 km northwards to the town of Idah where the crossing would present less danger and then proceed southwards to Onitsha. He chose to disregard the advice of army headquarters in Lagos and opted for the former. The 2nd Division pounded Biafran positions for just over a week before sending 5,000 troops in 10 boats across the River Niger. They landed on the other side of the bank at which point the Biafran soldiers of the 11th Division withdrew from the centre of the city. But instead of pressing the advantage by pursuing the retreating Biafrans, the Federal soldiers proceeded to loot and burn down Onitsha Market.99

The pause enabled the Biafrans time to regroup. From a vantage point at the timber yard of the Ministry of works, Achuzia, who was commanding the 11th Battalion of the 11th Division of the Biafran army, had watched the soldiers land and disembark with their armoured cars before proceeding to destroy the abandoned market.100 He was tasked with defending the area between Atani and Ndoni and was part of a two-pronged counterattack. Achuzia’s 11th Battalion made its approach through the New Market road while Colonel Asam Nsudo’s 18th Battalion’s route of attack was through the Old Market road. They proceeded to surround the Nigerian soldiers, many of whom were either killed or taken prisoner.101 Undeterred, Muhammed selected a fresh batch of 5,000 men to make a second crossing. But many of them were cut down in a hail of bullets fired from gun nests and artillery rounds lobbed from the east bank of the River.102 Muhammed stubbornly continued to ignore advice not to make a direct crossing and the third attempt predictably ended in calamity.

The battle to defend Onitsha was a personal triumph for Achuzia. Impressed by his efforts, Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, the divisional commander, made a recommendation to Brigadier Alexander Madiebo, the Biafran Army Chief of Staff, that Achuzia be commissioned into the Biafran army. Achuzia subsequently received a commission at the rank of major. It was a decision which Madiebo would later reflect on as “the greatest mistake of my military career.”103

Madiebo’s reminiscence reflected the sometimes extreme animus held by many Biafran army officers towards Achuzia, a state of affairs that stood in stark contrast to his popularity among the Biafran populace during the civil war. Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gbulie remembered Achuzia as “a former militia officer, slow speaking, with a kind of killer instinct … With a penchant for publicity, he was reputed for claiming ghost victories. He was also a feared martinet.”104

Madiebo on his part felt Achuzia to be a publicity hound whose reputation for competence and achievement was vastly overrated:

Achuzia realised as soon as he got into the Army that the two vital requirements needed by an officer to win the admiration and respect of the people of Biafra were publicity and playing to the gallery. He, in short, saw the vital need for doing and saying what the people wanted to see or hear whether those things impeded the war effort or not. Like a few others, he discovered the magic of speeches of glorious intentions among the Biafran public, even if these were not followed up by action.105

Yet, these scathing appraisals of Achuzia invite the obvious question: why did Ojukwu appear to favour him? The Biafran Head of State deployed Achuzia to virtually all the sectors of Biafra’s war effort as though he were a kind of deus-ex machina. Long after the war, Ojukwu continued to hold Achuzia in high esteem, perceiving him as a dependable commander who could motivate troops and get the job done.

Much has been written about Ojukwu’s method of governance as having an undertone of encouraging organisational conflict as a means of preserving his power and authority. And while there may be some truth to that, it is clear that to Ojukwu, Achuzia, a man who never wrote an operational order, represented the composite of his idea of the essential qualities required for a warrior in the service of the cause of the survival of Biafra. In other words, Achuzia had the necessary levels of ideological indoctrination which Ojukwu clearly believed many in the professional soldier class lacked. He said as much when he was once asked about whether he subscribed to any theory of war:

I wasn’t trained at Sandhurst … I found that the classic mode of that war was wrong, and, in fact, I had a lot of problems with my commanders. One of the first problems I had was this insistence that an officer has to be a gentleman.  Yes, in peacetime you have to be; in warfare he has to be a beast … What I want from my officer is victory in battle. If they ate with their feet, I didn’t care but let them go (to) war and win battles … So there was a dichotomy in the Biafran Army symbolised by the ex-Nigerian military men and people like Achuzia who had joined them.106

Thus, for Ojukwu ardour, even fanaticism, trumped professional ability.

Just how much faith Ojukwu had in Achuzia was demonstrated by his decision in January 1968 to appoint Achuzia as the Division Operations Officer for the Biafran 11th Division. One effect of the appointment was to effectively subordinate Brigadier Nwawo to him. In a complete reversal of fortune, Nwawo became Achuzia’s chief of staff. Another was that it enabled Achuzia to report directly to Ojukwu, thus bypassing Nwawo within the division and Madiebo at army headquarters.107

The Federal 2nd Division seized the town of Awka in the same month of Achuzia’s elevation. Udi also fell in the early part of February. This development created a direct route to Onitsha and the city might have been for the taking if Muhammad’s troops had pressed on. Instead, as had happened during the temporary landing at Onitsha, they spent three days destroying the town which according to Frederick Forsyth, the pro-Biafran ex-Reuters journalist, gave time for Achuzia to organise the 29th Battalion to mount an attack against Nsukka, the university town which Federal forces had taken only ten days after the formal start of the war.108

Several Biafran army officers would later accuse Achuzia of consistently losing interest in operations which he had started and occupying himself elsewhere only to return when the situation was better.109 The defence of Onitsha is given as one example where officers such as Brigadier Nwawo and Colonel Aghanya maintained a presence as did Colonel Louis Chude-Sokei, the Commander of the Biafran Air Force, who lost his life in Onitsha in early March of 1968.110 But Achuzia’s rationale for going over 150 km from Onitsha had been to disrupt attempts by the Nigerian 2nd and 1st Divisions from linking up. On Wednesday, February 7th, a small Biafran contingent commenced the operation by attacking the main supply artery south of Nsukka to Enugu and this was followed the next day by reinforced units mortar shelling the southwest corner of Nsukka.111

Forsyth, who played a major part in shaping the legend of Achuzia, recounted Achuzia as approaching Nsukka from the north, after having first taken the town of Adoru. Before making a thrust into Nsukka, Achuzia is supposed to have gone into the enemy-held town alone while posing as an “elderly farmer anxious to cooperate with the Nigerians” and was “even greeted in passing by the Nigerian Commander in Nsukka.”112 Satisfied with his reconnoitring adventure, Achuzia returned to his battalion and donned his uniform before he and the 29th “swept in on the undefended side”.113 He is then claimed to have linked up with Colonel Michael Ivenso at Ukehe, a midway point between Nsukka and Enugu, the latter which Achuzia also wanted retaken.114

But the veracity of this sequence of events is unclear. The Federal side declared that they had foiled an attempt by the Biafrans to take the town. But even if a portion of Nsukka had been retaken, both Achuzia and Ivenso were ordered by Ojukwu to redeploy southwards so that they could join in the heavy confrontation with Muhammed’s 2nd Division between Awka and Abagana. While Muhammed’s main force continued inching its way south towards Onitsha, he made a detour to the town of Ogidi, 13 KM from Onitsha. The taking of Ogidi was a continuum of the conquests of Awka and Udi because Muhammed was turning the flank of Biafran forces in Onitsha.115

Meanwhile the 2nd Division, spearheaded by the 102nd and 105th battalions, which were in the overall command of Major Shehu Yar’Adua, finally broke through Onitsha’s defences on March 21st and the centre of the town was taken four days later. Achuzia’s thinking was to get behind the Nigerian formations and follow them closely enough so that his force would spring at both Federal battalions before they had a chance to dig in and take up defensive positions around Onitsha. But this plan was foiled when another Biafran battalion came across Achuzia’s force and mistook them for a Federal force. When the misunderstanding was clarified, Achuzia continued to Onitsha where Nigerian troops were ‘mopping up’ the suburbs and the outskirts of the city.116

It was on the city outskirts that Achuzia’s force came across the corpses of 300 members of the congregation of Apostolic Church who were slaughtered by troops of the 2nd Division. While most civilians were fleeing as Onitsha fell, they had stayed behind to pray for deliverance. Forsyth recounted how the hands of the victims had been tied behind their backs and their bodies found stacked on top of each other “piled as high as a man’s shoulder like logs stacked on the roadside.”117 Achuzia’s troops reportedly refused to move any further until the bodies were moved. The 18-hour delay meant that the battalions of the 2nd Division were well dug-in by the time the Biafran 29th Battalion had them in their sights.

Achuzia, by now a Lieutenant Colonel, surmised that he had two options. One was to storm their positions in Onitsha, while the other would be to head northwards to intercept a Federal force heading towards Abagana. A row supposedly broke out between Achuzia and other Biafran commanders. Achuzia discounted the first option, fearing that ammunition supplies were too low or, at least, less than optimum to stage an offensive. Instead, Achuzia favoured the idea of staging an ambush of a further batch of troops of the 2nd Division while they were passing through Abagana.118

Here the passage of time has not provided clarity on whether the genesis of the ambush plan was predicated on specific intelligence obtained by the Biafran side, or whether it was a hunch of Achuzia’s. The disputant commanders are said to have believed that there was no larger force following the Nigerian battalions which had entered Onitsha and those which had swung eastwards towards Ogidi. There was no immediate assault on Nigerian lines at Onitsha, but there was an ambush which turned into one of the greatest military successes of the Biafran army during the war.

Major Jonathan Uchendu, the head of “39 Strike Force”, a unit carved out of Colonel Nsodor’s 18th Battalion of the 11th Division, was tasked with a force of around 500 men to take positions around the main road going through Abagana. Armed with mortars, rocket propelled projectiles and the RAP-made Ogbunigwe bomb, Uchendu lay in wait at the part of the road situated on the outskirts of Abagana. Eventually, on March 31st a 102-vehicle convoy of the 2nd Division materialised. Uchendu acted in correct military tradition by insisting that his men were to patiently lay in wait until he gave the signal to commence firing. Soon after he had given the signal, a direct hit on an 8,000-gallon tanker by a mortar succeeded in creating a 400-metre conflagration that spread backwards and incinerated men and 350-tons of equipment within a short period of time. Most of those who survived the inferno were cut down in a hail of gunfire. Around 600 Federal troops died in the attack.119

The spectacular success for the ambush came to be attributed to Achuzia whom officers such as Madiebo begrudged for taking credit for a raid at which he was not physically present. But the preponderance of evidence points to Achuzia as having conceived of the operation, which was carried out by Major Uchendu, who of course came under his divisional control. It was around this time in the aftermath of the Abagana ambush that Achuzia earned the moniker ‘Hannibal,’ due by large measure, Madiebo felt, to the efforts of Achuzia in selling his version of events to the Biafran press who Madiebo recalled “christened him Hannibal on the spot. In a matter of days, he ensured that his name was on the lips of every Biafran.”120

After the fall of Onitsha, the 11th Division retreated from the city’s approaches to Nnewi. Elsewhere in the south where the 3rd Infantry Division led by Colonel Benjamin Adekunle had expanded its base after the landing at Bonny, the situation was looking dire for the Biafrans. Afam, Bori and Okrika had fallen by the midpoint of May.121 Ojukwu relieved Achuzia of its command and on May 19th, he was appointed as the commander of the 52 Brigade in the Port Harcourt sector. He arrived while Port Harcourt and its environs was being subjected to heavy artillery bombardment. The sector had been softened up in the preceding weeks by Ilyushin bombers. Achuzia’s effort to counteract the advancing Nigerians was severely hampered by the mass of human traffic making its way out of the city in a north-eastward direction to the city of Aba.122 The Biafrans gave a good account of themselves. Adekunle admitted to the press that his soldiers were meeting “fierce resistance,” so much so that he dubbed one district as “Hate Sector.”123 Yet, with far less resources at their disposal than that of the Federal side, there was little that Achuzia could do to stem the tide of Adekunle’s forces, and the city fell within a week of his appointment.

The capture of Port Harcourt was described by Daily Telegraph correspondent Norman Kirkham as “the most important strategic victory of the civil war.”124 The capture of the airport, Kirkham reminded, meant that the secessionist republic would be unable to receive supplies via the Super Constellations that flew in from the Portuguese-controlled island of Sao Tome.125

Achuzia’s failure to prevent Port Harcourt’s fall did not dim his rising star. Nor did it dim his appetite for a fight. In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1968, Achuzia, described as “Ojukwu’s best commander in the field”, stated that “this (war) is a contest in pain. We have suffered too much to go back.”126 Ethel, who went back to England with their son Simon in September, echoed this when telling the Daily Mirror that “My husband is determined to fight to the end, and if necessary to die there.”127 She was photographed at Gatwick Airport with three Igbo orphans who had arrived with her and sixty other refugees from the war. She revealed that Achuzia had insisted that she and Simon be evacuated, and although she had begged him to stay, her pleading and her tears were to no avail. He feared for their safety. She told the Daily Mirror:

I begged him to let me stay. But he was final. I had to leave. The Nigerian fighter bombers were swooping and strafing children in their schools, the hospitals and in their homes. Their troops, drunk on root gin, and drugged on Indian hemp, were ravaging the villages around us. I knew when I kissed him that it might be the last time. But for the sake of the children, it had to be. There was only death and danger to face them.128

The 3rd Division had in the meantime been taking the fight to the secessionist army in the Igbo heartland. Colonel Adekunle had launched ‘Operation OAU,’ an ambitious attempt to end the war by taking the key cities of Owerri, Aba and Umuahia. Achuzia was in the midst of the defence of the city of Aba which had fallen on September 4th, 1968, after Adekunle’s forces had successfully executed a flanking manoeuvre. Forsyth recounted that Achuzia had “nearly had a head-on collision with a Nigerian Saladin as he swept around a corner.”129

He was next involved in a struggle for control of the newly created Biafran 14th Division with Navy Captain Wilfred Anuku. But Achuzia lost out when Ojukwu ordered Anuku to accompany him to peace talks scheduled to be held in Addis Ababa, and Colonel Ben Nwajei was given the command. Although a loss in his continuing contest of wills with Madiebo, Achuzia was part of the successful effort of the division in retaking the town of Oguta from Nigerian forces on September 12th.130

An initial assault was beaten back by soldiers of the 3rd Division. It was so disastrous that Ojukwu, who was near the theatre of war, left for Umuahia sent a signal to Madiebo which stated that efforts to take Oguta were “fruitless.” Part of his message read: “There is no basis for Achuzia’s optimism. Nwajei only hopes while Anuku is hopeless.”131 However, the second attack later that day by Achuzia and his cohorts Nwajei and Anuku succeeded in expelling the Federal soldiers.132

Later that month, while at the head of 54 Commando Brigade, he was tasked with the responsibility of defending the Obilagu airstrip from the Federal side which was led by Major Abdullahi Shelleng of the “Jet” 22 battalion of the Federal 1st Infantry Division.133 The airstrip was one of the last vital conduits for the receipt by the Biafrans of food and medical aid via the International Red Cross, as well as for the clandestine supply of arms and ammunition.134

Achuzia’s brigade prepared to meet the Federal onslaught by establishing machine gun defence posts at various intervals between the front and the town’s outskirts. His men were armed with Czech-made Taku sub-machine guns which cackled in the direction of Nigerian positions as the Nigerians fired shells from 105-mm howitzers and 81-mm mortars.135 But they were forced to retreat as the Nigerian artillery began to find the range. Achuzia ordered what was described as a “last suicidal” counterattack by a company-sized group of commandos, but it was to no avail. This last gasp left 50 of his men dead, while the Federal side lost 10 soldiers and sustained 90 wounded.136 His men retreated in great haste on the evening of September 27th, as a Red Cross aeroplane circled helplessly above before heading elsewhere. One of the last Biafran soldiers left a scribbled-down note containing an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Out, out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow.137

When Biafra had been declared it held a population of 14 million people within a territory of approximately 29,000 square miles. This had shrunk to 6 million inhabitants living within a radius of 60 miles.138 The Federal Military Government believed that the capture of Obilagu airstrip was a portent of the imminent demise of the secessionists. Lagos claimed that the war would be over in three weeks, and many awaited the departure of Ojukwu who would seek refuge with the French embassy in Libreville, Gabon, which it was felt would handle his transit along with an expected group who would form a government-in-exile.139

This may have seemed a distinct possibility as Federal troops were mounting a two-pronged attack on Okigwe, which if taken, would leave the road clear for an assault on the Biafran’s provisional capital at Umuahia. But those who were aware of the level of resistance knew all too well that thoughts of a quick ending to the war were being overly optimistic.

Soon after Okigwe was lost to the Federal side at the beginning of October after a lightning attack, Ojukwu appointed Achuzia to take over command of the 13th Division which had been commanded by Brigadier Nwawo. His first act on assuming command was to change the name of the division to the 15th Division on account of the superstitious belief in the ill-luck of the number 13.140 However, Achuzia’s skills as a commander could not surmount the constant issue of lack of materiel faced by the Biafran army. The Nigerians had a good amount of armoured vehicles such as the British-made Saladins and Ferrets which accompanied by artillery shelling often led to advances which the Biafrans could not contain. They were also dogged by shortages in ammunition. The average federal soldier went into battle equipped with weapons such as the FN FAL battle rifle and the AK-47 and Gewehr 3 assault rifles. In contrast, the Biafrans from the outset had to rely on old bolt action rifles. Even the infusion of French supplied weapons did not improve the quality of weaponry as France sent World War 2-era guns captured from German and Italian forces. Often, they would have to go into battle with no more than 10 rounds of ammunition per man. And each gun would be shared by two soldiers so that if one was killed, the survivor took control of the weapon.141

The Battle of Okigwe followed a peculiar pattern of Biafrans winning and then losing territory. Federal soldiers would make irresistible advances during which they took territory. Next would come a Biafran counterattack that would drive out the Nigerian side only for the Biafrans to succumb and surrender to the Nigerians after they ran out of ammunition.142 A common saying among the underequipped Biafran soldiers was that the Federal army functioned as their quartermaster. In other words, they had to overcome the opposition in order to acquire a good deal of their weapons and uniforms. The typical Biafran soldier was barefooted and dressed in ragged uniforms. And this included Achuzia’s men who had managed to relieve the Federal side of weapons and one Saladin.143

Although he was fielding 4,000 troops against anything from 12,000 to 14,000 Federal soldiers, Achuzia, typically dressed in camouflage fatigues while imperiously swinging his silver-knobbed swagger stick, exuded confidence and optimism when holding court with international journalists at the front lines. He had reason to be given that he had driven the Federal army out of most of the town five days after it had been captured.144 This had been achieved despite the ferocity of the mortars and shells being hurled at his troops. When interviewed by a journalist of the Chicago Daily News on Sunday, October 5th, his men had captured three of the four hills surrounding Okigwe. “This is only a beginning,” he said, as his men dug trenches and set up firing positions around the town. “Give us another month and we will alter the whole picture.”145

His confidence was also based on his feeling that while Nigerian firepower was capable of driving the Biafran army out of urban areas, the expanse of the bush meant that the Federal side was not in control of as much territory as they touted. To Hugh A. Mulligan of the Associated Press he said:

Why do you newspapermen write about how small Biafra’s remaining territory is? The bush is vast and unconquerable. We could hold out there easily for years. Cities are only recently a development. The people know well how to get along in the bush.146

He hoped to break the pattern of regaining and losing territory because he felt that his troops had enough food and ammunition to hold onto Okigwe. But it was not to be. Part of the problem lay with Achuzia’s harsh methods of enforcing discipline on the battlefield. He was aware that most of the foot soldiers who formed the basis of the Biafran army did not have years of experience of being trained in a manner which instilled the level of discipline required to withstand the physical and psychological pressures of actual combat. Recruits had only about 2 to 4 weeks of training before being sent to the front. They also received an average of 15 minutes practice of firing a rifle.147

Many were prone to lose composure particularly when facing counterattacks so much so that they would run away from the field. This Achuzia found intolerable. He does not seem to have developed units of blocking detachments and so took it upon himself to personally enforce battlefield discipline by threatening to shoot - or actually shoot soldiers who retreated or who refused to advance. When he had been asked by a New York Times correspondent in May 1968 whether he had “fired on any Biafrans who had ran from their position during battle”, he replied:

Yes, I have shot at several on the spot. There must be military discipline. If a man must be killed so that others will fight, we have to do it.148

His methods, which did provide necessary ‘motivation,’ were also debilitating. The fear which he instilled among the men serving under him and others further afield was palpable. It led to his other moniker “Air Raid” which materialised at the end of the struggle to control Okigwe. The story was that on the day of the commencement of the operation, a Biafran administrator was driving towards the frontline in a car which resembled Achuzia’s staff car. Thinking that the car approaching was that of their commanding officer, some soldiers hastily scrambled out of their trenches and foxholes in literal terror at the prospect that Achuzia would unleash his brutal form of discipline. Observing the soldiers, the administrator had thought that the men were responding to an air raid announcement. The subsequent sobriquet stuck.149

It was in such a state of panic that the final counterattack on Okigwe ended. When Nigerian resistance appeared to be unwavering and Biafran losses continued to mount, several of Achuzia’s field commanders, fearful at his wrath, proceeded to desert their positions. The troops under their command followed suit.150

Achuzia appears to have taken something of a hiatus from being a frontline commander after the fall of Okigwe, although as with the period between the operation at Abagana and his deployment to Obilagu strip, he was involved in some warfare, as well as personality clashes with Biafran officers including Brigadier Patrick Amadi.151 Achuzia was also involved in a contest of wills with Rolf Steiner which led to a chain of events that ended with Steiner’s expulsion from Biafra in December 1968. The drama with Steiner, the source of which is solely from Achuzia’s memoir, was played out between Achuzia’s frontline assignments at Okigwe in October 1968 and Owerri in March 1969. He became embroiled with Steiner, the Commander of the Biafran 4th Commando Brigade, during the German’s steering of “Operation Hiroshima”, an ill-conceived attempt to retake Onitsha from the Federal 2nd Division.

A former sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, Steiner was an arrogant, imperious figure who was loath to take orders from Biafran officers. According to Lieutenant Fola Oyewole, one of a few Yoruba officers who ended up on the Biafran side, Biafran officers “loathed Steiner for his pompous attitude and his lack of manners.”152 In his memoir Oyewole recalled an incident in which Steiner pointedly told a Biafran colonel: “You general in Biafra, in France a corporal!”153 A meeting between the German and the Aniomaman, both stubborn and adept at ignoring the standard chain of command by insisting on only taking orders from Ojukwu, was not one which was likely to be cordial. As he noted in his memoir, Steiner became a “thorn in the flesh.”154

Prior to “Operation Hiroshima,” Steiner had recorded successful operations with his troops at Amansee, Uku and Amieni.155 He was instructed to work closely with Achuzia whose tactical headquarters was at Obosi. Achuzia had gained intelligence revealing that the Federal troops in Onitsha were “not more than two to three battalion strong with no administrative support.”156 He informed the economist Pius Okigbo that the bulk of the Federal 2nd Division were still at Abagana and that he would “work out and devise a means of destroying them.”157 But Steiner was given the task and Achuzia’s role was reduced to facilitating the operation. Steiner’s men were given access to Achuzia’s training camp at Nnewi and close to the commencement of the operation, he recalled spending a whole day getting Steiner and his commandos to their battle location at the Atani road on Onitsha’s southern outskirts from where they would set up an attack at the Onitsha Textile Mills near the bridge-head.158 The operation which commenced on November 15th, 1968, would be an unmitigated disaster.

The first situation reports Achuzia received were not at all promising and together with his principal staff officer, one Major Nbosa, and an intelligence officer who was a captain, he drove to a spot close to Steiner’s front near the Textile Mills and then walked towards the frontline. He related the following in his memoir:

As I came near the bridge on the road towards the Textile Mills, I saw Major Steiner and two of his expatriate lieutenants taking cover from Federal mortar shells falling all over the place under the bridge. I stood on top of the bridge above them and surveyed the battlefield while mindful of the falling mortar bombs. What I saw and observed filled me with so much anger that I shouted for Major Steiner to come out from under the bridge, for the soldiers who were no more than in their teens were being cut to ribbons by falling mortar bombs which were raining down on them. There were no trenches where they could hide. The area was a complete flat surface devoid of trees except for a few mango trees scattered in places and the grasses could scarcely reach one’s knees. The Federal troops(ensconced) in trenches were cutting our troops down …. Each time they made an attempt to reach their positions, and each time our troops tried to retreat, they were decimated with a rain of mortar bombs.159

Steiner eventually came to join Achuzia on the bridge.

He said, ‘Ahh mon pere colonel, I see you come.’ I said, ‘yes, what’s the meaning of this?’ Call off the battle immediately.’ He looked at me. I drew my gun from my holster and shouted, ‘call off the battle!’ He gave orders to his two lieutenants who picked up their walkie-talkies and pulled out the aerials and started giving orders through the walkie-talkies.160

After the withdrawal began, Achuzia wrote that he turned to Steiner and flared at him with “smouldering hate” in his eyes, turned and then left to return to his headquarters.161 He related what he had seen to Dr. Pius Okigbo, the prominent economist, informing Okigbo that he intended to ask Steiner to discontinue the operation because the military hospital at Ozubulu was “overflowing” with casualties from the battle. Okigbo responded by saying that he would bring up the matter with Ojukwu.162

Achuzia next sent a signal to Steiner “requesting” that Steiner journey to meet with him at his Obosi headquarters at 9AM the following day. At 8AM, Achuzia received word that Steiner’s Commando Brigade had been engaged in battle at the Textile Mill. The clock struck 9 and then 10. Steiner failed to arrive. Once again, he ordered Nbosa and his intelligence officer to accompany him to see Steiner. When they arrived at Steiner’s caravan on the Atani Road, Achuzia encountered a French woman and man drinking beer while music played in the background. Both were reporters and the woman, he understood, was Steiner’s fiancée. They informed him that Steiner had gone to the front. Fuming, Achuzia claimed that he ordered their deportation from Biafra “on the spot.” He ordered Nbosa to send a signal to both the Air Force Commander, Colonel Godwin Ezeilo, and Colonel Ogbugo Kalu to effect the deportation of both reporters at the “next available flight leaving Biafra.”163

Achuzia next sought out Colonel Emmanuel Udeaja with whom he conferred with at 4PM, telling Udeaja that “regardless of His Excellency’s orders”, meaning Ojukwu, the Command of the Onitsha sector would revert to him. Steiner's soldiers, he asserted, were Biafran troops who were subject to his command, and that his ownership of them was reinforced by the fact that Steiner had used some of his troops from his training camp at Nnewi to reinforce his rapidly depleting force.164

Accompanied by Udeaja, Achuzia once again went to Steiner’s caravan at Atani Road. After brushing off Steiner’s query regarding the fate of his fiancée, Achuzia told Steiner to hand over his troops and leave with his lieutenants and any equipment he brought with him. He told the German that it was now his operational zone and that he could go back to Ojukwu to inform him of the change. Achuzia claimed that Steiner accepted his intervention and only requested that he and Udeaja have a drink with him before they left.” Cheers, I’m glad you’ve seen things my way,” he responded.165

Achuzia left Udeaja and headed back to his headquarters to make arrangements for the officers who would take over from Steiner and his lieutenants. He decided to move his headquarters a few kilometres south from Obosi to Oba where he conferred with Okigbo and Francis Nwokedi, like Okigbo, a senior advisor to Ojukwu. During their discourse Achuzia recalled that a soldier came in to report to him that Colonel Udeaja had been shot by Major Steiner and had been rushed to Ihiala Hospital. Achuzia was shocked and immediately went to a table to retrieve his gun-belt and buckled it on.166

Steiner and his lieutenants had been on their way to Oba and as they entered the building, Achuzia moved towards them. But Dr. Okigbo gestured at him to calm down, saying “Let’s hear him” as Steiner sat down.167

“Mon Colonel,” Steiner began, “there has been an accident. When I was shooting in the air to call my troops, by accident a bullet hit Colonel Udeaja. I’m sorry, it was an accident.”168 Achuzia was incandescent with rage. He stepped forward hurling curses at Steiner before saying, “Accident? Draw out your gun and let’s shoot it out if you consider yourself a man.”169 Achuzia’s anger was fuelled by his gut feeling that Steiner had deliberately shot Udeaja because he had thought that he was shooting at Achuzia. This was because while still in Steiner’s presence, Achuzia had instructed Udeaja to make the arrangements to collect the officers who would take over from Steiner and his men. However, Udeaja had advised Achuzia that the task would be completed more quickly if he made the arrangements himself. Achuzia told Steiner all of this, ending his rant by saying, “Well, here I am … go on and draw because I am going to kill you.”170

Achuzia wrote that he cocked his gun and aimed it between Steiner’s eyes before Okigbo finally intervened.171

Operation Hiroshima was officially called off on November 29th and Steiner, who managed to get into an altercation with Ojukwu’s guards and Ojukwu himself, was placed in handcuffs and along with four other mercenaries was deported from Biafra.172

In February 1969, Achuzia again successfully lobbied for a command position and got one as the commander of a portion of the ‘S’ Division, a unit which had been built up from scratch by Colonel Timothy Onwuatuegwu.173 The mission was to reclaim Owerri which the Federal 3rd Division had taken eight months earlier. By now the Biafrans were besieging the town within which the 5,000-man 16th Brigade of the 3rd Division, led by Lieutenant Colonel Edet Utuk, was trapped. The Biafran army completed its encirclement of Owerri on February 28th after it had cut off the last supply route into the city.174

The thinking on the part of the Biafran High Command as it contemplated how to dislodge the surrounded Nigerians, was that the ‘S’ Division would act as the hammer, while the Biafran 14th Division, on the western flank of Owerri, would serve as the anvil.175 Yet, the imbalance in weaponry did not make this an easy task for the Biafrans. Utuk and his men had armoured vehicles: Ferrets, Saracens and Saladins, the last of which possessed 90mm guns. They also had mortars and heavy machine guns. In contrast, the rag-tag Biafran army lacked projectiles for its bazookas and advancing infantrymen were provided with limited cover by a few mortar bombs. As in other theatres, some of Achuzia’s men went into battle without rifles until a colleague was felled in battle.176

Achuzia’s methods of commanding men remained unchanged after the debacle at Okigwe. He remained convinced that the firm hand of a vigilant officer was always required to ensure that the instinct to choose ‘fight’ prevailed over that of ‘flight.’ Peter Worthington of the Toronto Telegram News Service captured him in his element:

Colonel Achuzia was a one-man army himself … He stormed into the front of the attack, cursed, scolded the troops into moving. He threatened to shoot those seeking to find safety at the rear. He tongue-lashed cautious officers, and on several occasions struck officers and men … Troops were far more afraid to meet Colonel Achuzia in the rear than they were to face the Nigerians at the front.177

Worthington noted that while the Federal side preferred to fight during daylight hours, Achuzia favoured launching attacks during the night and described one such advance as follows:

Perhaps upwards of 100 to 150 fell in the fight and Col. Achuzia wasn’t happy at the way things went. At dawn I went forward with him where the Biafrans were trying to dig in and hold two road junctions. When the Nigerians counter-attacked his troops on the left panicked and began to run. They were met by a charging Colonel Achuzia, pistol brandished, and they faltered, reconsidered, then reluctantly turned and faced the enemy again - and drove the ‘vandals’ back. Then on the right the panic was on - a Nigerian counterattack had momentarily routed the holding force which was running into the bush. Achuzia cut them off, again screaming and threatening to shoot them all and ordering them to return. They regrouped, wavered, then plunged back towards the Nigerians and won back the road junction. When one considers the firepower against them, it was quite a feat.178

Worthington’s despatch claimed that after the battle he found no empty shell casings while inspecting the captured forward Nigerian bunkers which indicated to him that the frontline federal soldiers had either “bolted or withdrawn rather than fight.”179

Achuzia succeeded in penetrating Owerri through the town of Egbu on its northern approaches. But the advance -which came within a mile of the centre of Owerri- was costly in terms of casualties. Onwuatuegwu reacted in fury, believing that Achuzia’s methods had caused the large loss of men. He confronted Achuzia in the presence of Madiebo and demanded the return of the rest of his division. The argument between both men became so heated that each man drew his pistol and threatened to shoot the other. Madiebo intervened and the matter was referred to Ojukwu who ruled in favour of Achuzia who took control of the whole division.180 However, his follow up offensive ended disastrously with the division sustaining even greater casualties before Ojukwu stepped in to abort it and restore the ‘rested’ Onwuatuegwu to his command.

Achuzia was no longer in the Owerri sector by the time the city was reclaimed following the successful breakout of the 16th Brigade. In early April he was in command of a force tasked with taking Uzuakoli, a rail junction town 8 miles north of Umuahia, as a first step toward the overall objective of protecting the provisional capital which was being threatened by the Federal launch of “Operation Leopard”.181 Achuzia succeeded in retaking the town on Sunday, April 6th, and was quick to inform the international press that he had “smashed” an entire Federal brigade after a five-day battle.182 The Nigerians, he claimed, had been driven back to Ovim and his men had captured large quantities of equipment. But he spoke in haste. Achuzia was unable to consolidate his hold on the town and the Nigerians soon retook Uzuakoli en route to Umuahia which fell on April 22nd.183

The Federal side was winning the war. But even as Biafran-held territory continued to contract, Major General Gowon was under continued pressure to bring an end to the conflict. For all its advantages in men and materials, the Federal armies had not struck the sort of decisive blows which made Biafran collapse inevitable. The 1st Division remained inert for months on end, while the 2nd Division appeared to be a spent and demoralised force after the exhaustively prolonged effort at taking Onitsha. Both divisions were cut off from each other by a road link and embroiled in what Alfred Friendly of the New York Times described as “nearly static trench warfare.”184 The 3rd Division’s relentless progress up the mangrove swamps and dense tropical forests of the Atlantic sector appeared to be stymied after the failure to hold onto Owerri. Had Owerri being held onto, a push further north to Oguta and from there to Uli-Ihiala, the site of Biafra’s last operational airfield, would, the thinking went, have broken the secessionist resolve to fight on. Instead, the division was kept unbalanced along a disjointed front running from Ito to Aba and then to Owerri by sporadic Biafran counterattacks fuelled by an injection of arms supplies from France.185

Gowon defended the state of affairs by repeatedly stating that he was managing an internal conflict and not prosecuting an external war, implying that a greater degree of care was required when seeking the overall objective of post-war national unity.186 But he himself had played the greatest part in creating the pressure to end the war quickly. In a speech at the beginning of 1968, he had urged his countrymen to “put our shoulders to the wheel and finish this by March 31st”.187 The New Year’s speech of 1969 had a different tone when he suggested that an “all-out struggle” lay ahead and that more “sacrifices” would need to be made.188 On May 9th, 1969, in a bid to spark his forces back to life, Gowon reshuffled the divisional commanders. Colonel Gibson Jalo took over from Colonel Ibrahim Haruna at the 2nd Division, Colonel Illiya Bisalla replaced Colonel Mohammed Shuwa at the 1st Division and Colonel Benjamin Adekunle of the 3rd Division was jettisoned in favour of Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo.189

Achuzia in the meantime was based in Oraifite, a town close to Nnewi where he was in command of a force nicknamed the “Republic of Benin Division.”190 His aim was to use his men to wage guerrilla warfare behind Nigerian lines in his home region of the Mid-West. The Biafrans became aware that the Federal side was enabling the prospecting of oil and its extraction by foreign oil companies, one of which, an oil prospecting camp, was located in Okpai near the town of Kwale.191 This discovery was to lead Achuzia into mounting a military operation, the effect of which would reverberate around the world and change the perceptions of many countries and agencies about the conduct of Biafran secession.

At around 6 AM on the morning of May 9th, with the go-ahead given by army headquarters, a group of his commandos crossed the River Niger and stormed the camp in Okpai. Eleven men, ten of whom were Italian and another Jordanian, were killed. They had been working for the Italian-owned AGIP company. A raid on a nearby camp led to the capture of another eighteen workers, fourteen Italians, three West Germans and a Lebanese, who were employees of the Italian State oil concern ENI. They were taken back to secessionist territory where they were put on trial for “fighting with Federal forces.”192

The Raid on Kwale was judged a success by the Biafrans. Madiebo would later write that the “tremendous success of the operation, which was meant to be a limited raid, came as a surprise to both Colonel Achuzia at his Headquarters at Oraifite … and to me at Army Headquarters, Isu.”193 They believed that Biafra had inflicted a blow against Nigeria, as well as to those whom they accused of aiding the enemy. The use of force was also justified because the Biafran authorities claimed that the oil men had been armed and were thus combatants in a war zone.194 The rest of the world however viewed things differently.

A painstaking reconstruction of the raid organised by AGIP claimed that most of the oilmen were “probably asleep when the Biafran soldiers surged into the camp.”195 They tried to hide but were cut down by machine gunfire. The examination found that the victim’s quarters were fired at from the outside although there was evidence that shooting happened inside. For instance, one Italian was found to have tried to hide inside a wardrobe but was shot dead, bloodstains having been found both inside and outside of the wardrobe. Nine were shot inside the camp and another outside.196 A Nigerian survivor told the AGIP investigator that he had seen a white man handing over the keys of a car to Biafran soldiers who were questioning him. The man was later gunned down. The witness, himself an ethnic Igbo, watched from underneath a trailer as Achuzia’s men breached the compound and fired bullets at the camp from automatic weapons as they shouted “kwemu, kwemu” (support, support). He had tried to alert his employers of the approach of the commandos who fired off rounds as they neared the compound, but they replied that they were Federal soldiers.197 The Biafrans returned back to the camp on three occasions to cart away property they looted.198

Biafran soldiers remained on the west side of the Niger in pockets of forested territory, and they initially repelled attempts by Federal soldiers to reach the camp until a unit led by Major Sani Abacha captured it on May 29th.199 Abacha’s unit was accompanied by a team from AGIP and on June 1st, they found the eleven oilmen buried under three inches of earth in a ditch located on the side of the camp. The corpses of two Nigerian camp workers were also discovered.200

The day after the discovery, the special tribunal convicted each of the 18 kidnapped workers and they were sentenced to die by firing squad.201 The world reacted with horror and revulsion. Pleas for mercy came from the Pope, the Italian government and statesmen such as Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger of West Germany and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Aid agencies such as the Red Cross and Oxfam also added their voices. Pressure was also applied behind the scenes and with threats of agencies cutting aid, as well as the denial of access to weapons supplies, the Biafran government relented.202

But the damage had been done. The reputation of the Biafran leadership, which had projected its case for secession on the moral premise of that of a wronged people, was sullied now that it had employed tactics which many equated with state gangsterism. There were rumours that the Biafrans had conditioned the release of the men on the recognition of their polity as a state, as well as on the payment of a hefty ransom fee.203

Achuzia said little about the episode in later years and when he addressed it, he played it down. While it was assumed that the oil men were treated harshly during their time in detention, Achuzia would tell Michael Gould that he had “entertained them in his officer’s mess and accorded them every facility, including making arrangements for them to attend mass at a nearby Roman Catholic church.”204

To the casual observer, the Raid on Kwale may have seemed to have been a one-off excursion by the Biafran military from its decreasing borders into territory from which it had been expelled in the latter part of 1967. Yet, the fact that a Biafran force could prevent the Federal army from reaching the two camps for almost two weeks after radio contact had been broken with the oil men suggested that they were not “infiltrators” temporarily operating west of the River Niger. Achuzia was in fact at the helm of a network of Biafran troops who continued to operate inside what he had referred to as the “vast and unconquerable” bush.205

By no means as complicated as the deep penetration missions conducted by Orde Wingate’s Chindits in Burma during World War 2, the objectives of these Biafran irregulars dotted around the eastern frontier of the Mid-West may have been two-fold. First, they could be used to ambush Nigerian troops and supplies en route to and from the warfront, and secondly, they could be used to gather intelligence on the Federal army. But coordinating such forces would have been a difficult task. It appears that some went off the rails as exemplified by a story related by Macaulay Nzefili, one of the first generation of Nigerian military officers and a lieutenant colonel at the time of the military infighting in 1966.206

A short while after the Kwale raid, a Biafran army captain who commanded a company operating behind enemy lines along the Aboh-Kwale axis west of the River Niger, journeyed to meet Achuzia at Oraifite to complain about a company sergeant major who had been subverting his authority. The CSM and his underlings ruled over a small community near Aboh where they seized property, raped wives and took females of their choice -including under-aged girls- to serve as their concubines. In short, the CSM had morphed into a potentate figure who had imposed a form of tyranny on the people while neglecting his military assignment.207

Achuzia knew that he had to confront the insubordinate CSM in order to restore discipline. He gathered a platoon size of men and asked Nzefili to accompany him to Aboh. Nzefili recounted the following dramatic happenings:

On arrival at Aboh, we were almost ambushed by the CSM and his men. He took aim at Joe Achuzia, but Joe was faster and gunned him down. In a very swift movement, the other mutineers were rounded up by the platoon we came with, tried in the open, and sentenced to death by firing squad. At the point of execution, one of them shouted, “I am a Ghanaian, I am a Ghanaian.”  But (the) Aboh people pointed at another one who was looking bemused and dumbfounded and told Colonel Achuzia that the man was not one of the notorious men. He was accordingly released and the remaining six executed publicly by firing squad.208

Justice dispensed and discipline restored, Achuzia decided to expand his mission to include a search for miniature pumps used by AGIP to extract crude oil from shallow wells. This meant trekking deeper into enemy-held territory in the direction of Kwale through the town of Abalagada. Nzefili recalled that they passed near the camp where the oilmen had been murdered and that he “smelt the odour of decomposed and decomposing bodies.”209 They also came “dangerously close” to Nigerian lines so much so that he discovered later that the Nigerian side were able to listen into his conversations with Achuzia and even discern that two Biafran colonels were nearby, a discovery which made the Nigerians cautious to react as they assumed that they were close to a much larger force. Achuzia, who was furious at the captain’s lack of knowledge of the terrain, decided to withdraw in haste.210

The incident with the renegade CSM underlined Achuzia’s zeal for maintaining discipline and order within the Biafra army. And in doing so he did not shirk from employing whatever methods he conceived as necessary in achieving his aim. This applied in equal measure to men in the ranks, non-commissioned officers, as well as those of the officer class. He struck soldiers and officers when enforcing discipline during attacks and at one point Nzefilli recalled, slapped the aforementioned captain during the excursion to retrieve miniature pumps when the captain was unable to provide him with intelligence that he deemed essential to accomplishing that objective.211 He was prepared to shoot officers dead as had transpired in two earlier incidents involving Lieutenant Colonel Matthias Morah, his paymaster and Rolf Steiner.

Back in September 1967, Morah had incensed Achuzia by absconding with a large amount of money which had been part of a total of £12 million that had been appropriated from the vaults of a Federal bank in Benin City by the retreating Biafran army. Around £2 million was diverted to a bank in Asaba, while the balance of £10 million was expected to be transferred to the central bank of Biafra. Little of the money ended up at the central bank which was initially located in Enugu. Morah played his part in this debacle by taking approximately £33,000 which he apparently intended to use to start a new life in the United States.212 The incident caused embarrassment to Achuzia who had intended to use part of the money to pay the wages of men under his command. Morah was arrested while trying to escape into neighbouring Cameroon and brought back to Achuzia who threatened to shoot him for his “despicable” behaviour.213 However, before a summary trial could be convened, Achuzia was ordered by Ojukwu to return Morah to Biafran Army Headquarters where he was promoted to a new post.214

As 1969 proceeded, the civil war had developed a noticeable pattern. While the Federal forces fought for and largely confined themselves to the roads and towns of the former eastern region, the secessionist side controlled large tracts of surrounding bush terrain.215 This meant that while the Nigerian army controlled the roads leading to towns and cities such as Umuahia which they occupied, the Biafrans contrived opportune guerrilla-style raids into such urban areas to harass the Federal side and to disrupt supply routes. Sometimes, the modus operandi was to temporarily cut the roads and follow this with a withdrawal. In others, the Biafrans managed to hold on to their gains. An example of the latter occurred at the beginning of August when a Biafran brigade of around 800 to 1,000 men which had been stranded 5 kilometres east of Onitsha managed to cut through the two-laned Onitsha to Enugu road and link up with its main force.216

This put further pressure on the embattled Federal garrison in Onitsha which had repeatedly failed to break out to the town of Nnewi, 19 kilometres to its southeast. Nnewi, the hometown of Ojukwu, was the last defence point prior to Biafra’s last functioning airstrip at Uli.217 In mid-August, Achuzia participated in the Biafran attempt to re-take Onitsha when what was described as a “heavy wave” of Biafran soldiers came within half a kilometre of the city centre before they were all pushed back in different directions of between 5 to 8 kilometres by “overwhelming Federal firepower.”218 On Saturday, August 23rd, 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Wushishi, the garrison Commander informed a visiting team of international observers that his men had killed not less than a thousand Biafran soldiers and took 20 prisoners over a two-week period.219

This heavy loss of life may have been what Madiebo referred to in his memoir when recalling what was dubbed “Operation Do or Die.” The operation, which Madiebo recorded as occurring in the early part of September, was a secessionist effort that had the objective of supporting the Biafran 57th Brigade at Otuocha, a vital food-producing area.220 Achuzia withdrew a brigade of his “Republic of Benin Division” to assist the 57th Brigade which had been cut off from other Biafran forces by units of the Federal 1st Division which sought to bring the vital Onitsha-Enugu road firmly under Federal control in order to establish a direct route between Abagana and Onitsha.221

Biafran army headquarters decided that the endeavour would involve attacking Federal positions in Onitsha, and Major General Madiebo assigned Achuzia the task of engaging the enemy at the Dumaz Quarters of the city. Achuzia had preferred to attack from the south of the city, starting at the Textile Mills, then moving to the bridgehead and then dislodging the Federal side from Fegge Quarters which was just below the city centre. With great reluctance, Achuzia attacked the Dumez Quarters. The battle cost Achuzia a great many troops, Madiebo adding that he “achieved absolutely nothing except high casualties amongst his men.”222

As 1969 began to draw to a close, the prevailing view was that Biafra, long encircled and blockaded, was on the verge of collapse. Despite Ojukwu’s rousing speech at Akokwa in early November, during which Ojukwu exhorted the youth of Biafra to “fight on” and “destroy the invader,” many in the secessionist enclave had long given up on the idea of a fight to the finish.223 The fissures which had bedevilled the secession from its onset, as well as those which developed as Biafra fought to survive came to a head. As Raph Uwechue, N.U. Akpan and Madiebo confirmed in their memoirs various layers of the society became pitted against each other. These included the Igbos against minority groups, the civil servant against the intellectual and the soldier against the mercenary.224

Still full of resolve, Achuzia was nonetheless aware of the equivocal attitudes within sectors of the population, some of which amounted to defeatism. He was undoubtedly aware of the “Ahia Attack,” or “Attack Markets,” dotted around the River Niger at which cross border trading in goods and services occurred between Nigerians and Biafrans. Often, both sets of troops would cease fighting at dusk to enable the markets and then resume fighting at the first light of dawn.225 Achuzia himself recalled the following:

It was a fairly open secret that civil servants from both sides met throughout the war at Ukei, in the Mid-West. Trading went on at these meetings as well as intelligence swapping. I felt that this created doubts in our people’s minds that we could ever win the war.226

But Achuzia earnestly felt that the Biafrans could continue resisting even if it meant transforming its military capabilities into a guerrilla-style campaign. As he had told Hugh Mulligan in 1968, “the bush was vast and unconquerable”. Several months before Biafra’s collapse, he claimed that Ojukwu had instructed him that the army would be divided into three sections. One would be a defensive army commanded by Colonel Ogbugo Kalu and another under Achuzia would operate offensively. The third component would be rotated for training and support for the two other armies.227

Ojukwu, like Achuzia, had wanted to continue to fight until international recognition materialised, but other senior figures within the Biafran establishment such as Sir Louis Mbanefo wanted the war to end.228 Widespread starvation, waning morale and the final offensive launched by the Federal 3rd Division on December 23rd, 1969, all pointed to imminent doom. This was certainly the feeling of Achuzia’s wife Ethel, who wrote to her parents in Cheadle one week before Christmas Day: “God help us now. Things are getting worse. I desperately need peace, and so do so many of us.”229

The matter was settled at a cabinet meeting held in Ogwa on January 8th, 1970, when Ojukwu agreed to leave Biafran territory in “search of peace”. His deputy, Efiong, took over the reins of leadership and over the airwaves on January 12th, sued for peace.230

In the midst of this Achuzia sought to get his family out of Biafra. Ojukwu had departed from Biafran territory from Uli airstrip on January 9th, and the following day, a Saturday evening, Achuzia was at the airstrip. Rifle in hand, he stood at the bottom of the steel ladder of a French-owned DC1 plane, one of two which had come from Libreville, Gabon, to ferry destitute children to safety. Instead Biafran officials took over the planes and together with their wives and friends availed themselves the opportunity to escape from the crumbling republic. Achuzia was checking off the names of passengers as they got on. An Associated Press writer waiting to board the plane noted that “Colonel Achuzia started looking for his wife to get her on board, but he couldn’t pick her out in the dark and he began calling for her, then left his post.” Moments later, the journalist went up the ladder and shortly after one member of the plane’s crew closed the door. “The colonel and his wife never got on.”231

Meanwhile, the Western press reported that Achuzia had been declared to be the “most wanted man in Nigeria” by the Federal side. Yet, a dispatch by the London Express claimed that as “Biafra dies … one man continues fighting.”232 The report claimed that Achuzia “has vowed he will never stop fighting, that he will take his army into the forests, regroup and strike in the rear.”233 It was in all likelihood hyperbole by a journalist who was relying on a previous interview with Achuzia. Instead of fighting, Achuzia would become a central figure in ensuring the disengagement of Biafran soldiers. It was to him, he claimed, that the faction in favour of ending the war came to. Most of the Biafran army, they reasoned, would refuse to lay down their weapons without the knowledge that Achuzia was doing the same. Thus, Achuzia read out a statement broadcast over the airwaves informing Biafran troops that “we had sent emissaries to various Nigerian military formations to inform them that we had decided to end the war.”234

The day after Efiong’s radio broadcast Achuzia was waylaid by Nigerian troops. Quick-wittedly, he told them that he had been sent by the Biafran leadership to establish contact between senior Nigerian officers and Efiong.235 He was released and when he met with Efiong, requested that Efiong consent to him wearing a uniform with a brigadier’s rank to provide him with more authority when negotiating with the Federal side. This paved the way for the meeting between Efiong and Colonel Obasanjo in Owerri to finalise the arrangements for disengagement and surrender to Federal forces. Achuzia was part of the Biafran entourage which met Obasanjo in Owerri.236

Behind the scenes, Achuzia wielded power. He ordered men under his command to shoot down any relief-carrying aircraft attempting to take off or land at Uga airfield, an order interpreted by Ben Gbulie to have been directed at Biafran officers who had served in the federal army and especially those such as Gbulie who had participated in the coup of 1966 and thus had good grounds for seeking an exit route to exile.237 Gbulie at the time feared that he would be summarily executed if apprehended by federal soldiers, a fate believed to have befallen Timothy Onwuatuegwu.238 He reported Achuzia to Efiong who summoned Achuzia and instructed him to rescind his order. Achuzia refused.239

In the weeks that followed Biafra’s capitulation all surviving Biafran military officers including Achuzia were apprehended. They would eventually appear before a constituted Board of Inquiry. In the spirit of Gowon’s “No victor, no vanquished” policy, there were no court martials and executions. The purpose of the board was to determine those who would be reabsorbed into the Federal armed forces, as well as those who would be alternately discharged or dismissed. Additionally, a number were going to be detained because of their role in the January 1966 coup, in prosecuting the war in senior positions, or in the plunder of the Mid-West treasury in 1967.240

Achuzia, although not a former Nigerian officer, was in 1971 among those who were subjected to indefinite detention. In Achuzia’s case the reason given was what was described as his “sadistic behaviour” during the war.241 The seriousness of the designation was apparent when in 1974 most of the officers were released. These included Conrad Nwawo, Adewale Ademoyega, Ben Gbulie, Emmanuel Udeaja and Fola Oyewole. Achuzia would remain incarcerated at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison until 1980.242

On release, he moved to Asaba where he penned his civil war memoir Requiem Biafra which was published in 1986. Between 2004 and 2007, he served as the Secretary-General of the Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, under which auspices Achuzia spoke up for the interests of the Igbos who while largely reassimilated into Nigeria have persistently complained of marginalisation. He continued to revel in the folk hero status as Biafra’s most spirited and formidable army commander. When he died at the announced age of 91 on February 26th, 2018, at the Asaba Federal Medical Centre, many of the tributes which poured forth were uniformly laudatory and predictably uncritical veneration.

While the oratorically gifted Ojukwu remains the political figurehead of the disintegrated Biafran project, Achuzia is arguably his martial counterpart, the one person who encapsulated the presumed never-say-die fighting qualities of the Biafran soldier. Madiebo, one of his sternest critics admitted that he was “an officer of extraordinary personal courage who was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve his objective.”243 It is an image he embraced to his dying breath. Yet, there were moments when he elucidated on his legacy with greater nuance, this reflecting the discordance between the generality of the Igbo populace and many Igbo officers who prosecuted the war.

Achuzia asserted in his memoir that he more than any other figure had ensured that Biafra had survived for as long as it did. His response to a query as to why he was not given the credit pointed to one of several crucial points of internal division which played a part in Biafra’s eventual disintegration: “Very simple,” Achuzia said, “Those that denied me or wanted to deny me the credit are my professional colleagues. They never saw me as part and parcel of Biafra. I am a Midwesterner. It was by the same token that Brigadier Nwawo was equally denied his rightful place. That I performed was because they had no alternative.”244

© Adeyinka Makinde (2024).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


1. Nweje, Chukwudi. Civil war veteran Achuzia is dead”, The Nigerian Sun, February 27th, 2018. “Asaba” is a British colonial corruption of the correct spelling “Ahaba”.

2. “Photos: ADF, Ohaneze, others pay respect to Achuzia in Asaba day of tributes”, Jungle Journalist dot WordPress dot com, April 15th, 2018.

3. “3 stowaways land at Plymouth: Nigerian lived nine days on one loaf and bottle of water”, Western Evening News, March 25th, 1950.

4. Ibid.

5. According to the institution’s website, “the University of Lagos was established on 22nd October 1962 on the authority of the University of Lagos Act of 1962”. 

6. “Tribal man who came to study,” Manchester Evening News, May 3rd, 1955.

7. British Nationality Act (1948) section 1, sub-section 1 provided: “Every person who under this Act is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies or who under any enactment for the time being in force in any country mentioned in subsection (3) of this section is a citizen of that country shall by virtue of that citizenship have the status of a British subject.”

8. “Stowaways to Britain know all the ropes: Willing to take punishment and then draw ‘benefits’,” Sunday Sun, March 12th, 1950.

9. “Stowaway lived for nine days on loaf”, Leicester Mercury, March 25th, 1950.

10. “Stowaways to Britain know all the ropes: Willing to take punishment and then draw ‘benefits’,” Sunday Sun, March 12th, 1950.

11. “3 stowaways land at Plymouth: Nigerian lived nine days on one loaf and bottle of water.”, Western Evening News, March 25th, 1950.

12. “9 days-One loaf: West African’s trip”, Daily Mail, Saturday, March 25th, 1950.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. “Stowaways to Britain know all the ropes: Willing to take punishment and then draw ‘benefits’,” Sunday Sun, March 12th, 1950.

19. Ibid.

20. “Attlee's Britain 1945-1951”, The National Archives.

21. “Stowaways to Britain know all the ropes: Willing to take punishment and then draw ‘benefits’,” Sunday Sun, March 12th, 1950.

22. Letter from S.B. Philpott. “Stowing away…,” Western Evening News, March 31st, 1950.

23. Ibid.

24. Letter from Achuzia, Joseph and Unoma, M. Western Evening News, April 3rd, 1950.

25. “Policeman counted twice”, Paddington Mercury, April 6th, 1951.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Hastings, Max. The Korean War. Michael Joseph, 1987.

29. Gould, Michael. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria: The Biafran War 1967-1970. I.B. Tauris, 2012.

30. Worthington, Peter. “Insight: At the scene of a soldier’s and children’s war,” The Gazette, March 1st, 1969.

31. “Brigadier George Taylor (Obituary)”, The Independent, August 9th, 1994.

32. “Christopher,” (1951), “Brown” (1955 and 1956) and “Wilson” (1964). He also went by the name of “Joseph Patterson” (1959).

33. National Army Museum. “What was National Service?”

34. Ibid.

35. “Mother of two is goaled for 3 months”, Manchester Evening News, March 15th, 1954.

36. Ibid.

37. “Tribal heir jailed for car claim”, Manchester Evening News, February 19th, 1959.

38. “Tribal man ‘who came to study’”, Manchester Evening News, May 3rd, 1955.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. “Lift to Nottingham’ after alleged double murder,” Nottingham Evening News, September 18th, 1956.

44. Ibid. Also covered in “Anita hissed at me: I hit her with a table”, Manchester Evening News, September 18th, 1956.

45 “Man accused of two ‘burn’ murders”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, September 18th, 1956.

46. Ibid.

47. “Lift to Nottingham’ after alleged double murder,” Nottingham Evening News, September 18th, 1956.

48. “Police watch at the Silvery Moon,” Manchester Evening News, December 2nd, 1958.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. “Tribal heir jailed for car claim”, Manchester Evening News, February 19th, 1959.

52. Ibid.

53. “Pretences charge”, Manchester Evening News, May 27th, 1964.

54. “Not guilty of fraud”, Manchester Evening News, July 9th, 1964.

55. Achuzia, Joseph O. and Hayes, Josephine E. (1962). Manchester Vol. 10(e), p.231.

56. Achuzia, Joseph. Requiem Biafra. Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, 1986.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid. p.7

59. Ibid.

60. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. P.62

61. De St. Jorre, John. The Nigerian Civil War. Hodder and Stoughton, 1972.

62. “Big questions after the bloodshed in Nigeria”, Daily Mirror, January 19th, 1966. See also Schwarz, Walter. “Gen. Ironsi’s trust in his friends leads Nigeria back to tribal strife”, The Guardian. June 25th, 1966.

63. De St. Jorre. The Nigerian Civil War.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Achuzia, Joseph. Requiem Biafra. Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, 1986. p.7.

68. Ibid. p.7.

69. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. p.185.

70. De St. Jorre. The Nigerian Civil War.

71. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Makinde, Adeyinka, “Lagos Bomb Attack: Biafran Saboteur Kills 4 including 2 Children | July 1967”, YouTube.

75. “Time bomb blast in Lagos Nigeria”, Guam Daily News, July 21st, 1967.

76. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

77. Ibid.

78. Adekunle, Benjamin. The Nigeria-Biafra War Letters: A Soldier’s Story. Phoenix Publishing Group, 2004.

79. De St. Jorre. The Nigerian Civil War.

80. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. p.231.

81. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. Orobator, Stanley Eke. Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in International Relations: The Soviet Union and the Nigerian Crisis, Volume 76. Uniben Press, 1997. p.109.

85. “Midwest region of Nigeria joins Biafra in rebellion”, The Record, August 10th, 1967.

86. Ejoor, David. Reminiscences. Malthouse Press Limited, 1989. p.137.

87. On Friday, August 18th, 1967, Major Okonkwo announced that his region would be independent of both Nigeria and Biafra.

88. Bird, S. Elizabeth and Ottanelli, Fraser M.The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War. Cambridge University Press, 2017p.13.

89. Orobator, Stanley Eke. “The Biafran Crisis and the Midwest”, African Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 344, July 1987. p.379.

90. Ibid.

91. Ibid.

92. Bird and Ottanelli.The Asaba Massacre.

93. “Ojukwu blames ‘plotters’”, The Guardian, September 23rd, 1967.

94. Ademoyega, Adewale. Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup, Evans Brothers, 1981. p.238. 

95. Ibid.

96. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

97. Ibid.

98. Ibid.

99. Forsyth, Frederick. The Biafra Story: The Making of a Legend. Pens & Sword Books, 2001.

100. Ibid.

101. Ibid.

102. Ibid.

103. Madiebo, Alexander. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, 1980.

104. Gbulie, Ben. The Fall of Biafra. Enugu, Benlie Publishers, 1989.

105. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

106. Omoigwu, Nowa. “Federal Nigerian Army blinders of the Nigerian Civil War – Part 10”, Segun Dawodu dot com.

107. Ibid.

108. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

109. Omoigwu, Nowa. “Federal Nigerian Army blunders of the Nigerian Civil War – Part 10”, Segun Dawodu dot com.

110. Colonel Chude-Sokei died on March 5th 1968 after sustaining fatal chest injuries during an air raid conducted by the Nigerian Air Force, but contemporary newspaper reports, relying on information contrived by the Biafran Ministry of Information & Propaganda, stated that he had died from injuries suffered from a car crash while he was travelling to the besieged city of Onitsha. 

111. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

112. Ibid.

113. Ibid.

114. Ibid.

115. Ibid.

116. Ibid.

117. Makinde, Adeyinka, “Frederick Forsyth ITN Interview | Allegations of Federal Massacres of Biafran Civilians | May 1968”, YouTube. See also Forsyth, Frederick. “This killing must stop now”, The Leicester Mercury, May 23rd, 1968.

118. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

119. Ibid.

120. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

121. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

122. Kirkham, Norman. “Port Harcourt under Lagos control: Civil War end in sight,” Daily Telegraph, May 20th, 1968.

123. Ibid.

124. Ibid.

125. Ibid.

126. Monks, T.S. “Is it liberty or death for the Ibos of Biafra?: A nation faces massacre”, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 23rd, 1968.

127. Williams, Sidney and Jenour, Kenelm. “The colonel’s wife flees with 63 refugees from the hell of a battle-ravaged Biafra: War orphans fly in to find a new home”, The Daily Mirror, September 21st, 1968.

128. Ibid.

129. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

130. Osakwe, Chukwuma and Udeagbala, Lawrence. “Owerri in the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970”, Historical Research Letter, Vol.9, 2014.

131. Ibid.

132. Ibid.

133. Partington, Walter. “Battered, bleeding but not beaten – the Biafrans fight on”, Toronto Daily Star, September 28th, 1968.

134. Ibid.

135. Ibid.

136. Ibid.

137. Ibid.

138. Ibid.

139. Ibid.

140. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

141. Mulligan, Hugh. “Biafran troops confident of attempt to recapture key city from Nigerians”, Meriden Journal, October 7th, 1968.

142. Chicago Daily News Service. “Biafra hitting back, says tide is turning”, The Ottawa Citizen, October 10th, 1968.

143. Ibid.

144. Ibid.

145. Ibid.

146. Ibid.

147. New York Times News Service. “Civil War: Boys for a man’s job”, The Courier Journal, May 12th, 1968.

148. Ibid.

149. Omoigwu. “Federal Nigerian Army Blunders.”

150. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

151. Ibid.

152. Oyewole, Fola. The Reluctant Rebel, Rex Collins, 1975.

153. Ibid.

154. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

155. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

156. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

157. Ibid.

158. Ibid.

159. Ibid.

160. Ibid.

161. Ibid.

162. Ibid.

163. Ibid.

164. Ibid.

165. Ibid.

166. Ibid.

167. Ibid.

168. Ibid.

169. Ibid.

170. Ibid.

171. Ibid.

172. New York Times Service. “Mercenary leaders expelled by Biafra,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 19th, 1968.

173. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

174. Forsyth. The Biafra Story.

175. Worthington, Peter. “Insight: At the scene of a soldier’s and children’s war,” The Gazette, March 1st, 1969.

176. Ibid.

177. Ibid.

178. Ibid.

179. Ibid.

180. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

181. Associated Press. “Biafra claims victory over Nigerian brigade,” Winston-Salem Journal, April 6th, 1969.

182. Ibid.

183. Associated Press. “’Talk peace or die’ speech wins promotion for Biafran,” The Morning Call, May 5th, 1969.

184. Friendly, Alfred. “Civil War draining Nigeria of confidence”, The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 6th, 1969.

185. Ibid.

186. Ibid.

187. Ibid.

188. Ibid.

189. Allan, James. “Black Scorpion loses frontline job,” Daily Telegraph, May 10th, 1969.

190. Achuzia. Requiem Biafra.

191. Ibid.

192. Associated Press. “Europeans shot, says Nigeria: oilmen ‘died in attack’”, The Age, May 28th, 1969.

193. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

194. The claim that the oilmen were armed and that they were providing intelligence to the federal side was false.

195. Reuters and Associated Press. “Red Cross bid to save Biafran oilmen”, Liverpool Daily Post, June 4th, 1969.

196. Associated Press. “Biafra says oilmen to die”, Edmonton Journal, June 2nd, 1969.

197. Ibid.

198. Ibid.

199. Reuter. “Biafrans foil rescue attempt,” The Birmingham Post, May 15th, 1969.

200. Ibid.

201. Reuters and Associated Press. “Red Cross bid to save Biafran oilmen”, Liverpool Daily Post, June 4th, 1969.

202.Monks, T.S. “Biafra agrees to free condemned oilmen”, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 6th, 1969.

203. Interviews conducted over the years, as well as the release of previously classified documents point to the Italian government and AGIP as having paid a ransom fee of (US) $3 Million to secure the men's release. See for instance, Doron, Roy. "Biafra and the Agip Oil Workers: Ransoming and the Modern Nation State in Perspective", African Economic History, Vol. 42 (2014), University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 137-156.

204. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. p.81.

205. His words to Hugh Mulligan at the time of the Battle of Okigwe.

206. Omoigui, Nowa. “Witnesses to History: Lt. Col. M.O. Nzefili (rtd) - Part 3”, Dawodu dot Com.

207. Ibid.

208. Ibid.

209. Ibid.

210. Ibid.

211. Ibid.

212. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria.

213. Ibid.

214. Ibid.

215. Associated Press. “Analysis of Biafran War: Each side fighting a different war”, Berkeley Daily Gazette, August 4th, 1969.

216. Ibid.

217. Associated Press. “Battle in city: The Nigerian firepower beats back a heavy onslaught,” The Kansas City Star Sun, August 24th, 1969.

218. Ibid.

219. Ibid. Wushishi became the Nigerian Army Chief of Staff later in his career.

220. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.

221. Ibid.

222. Ibid.

223. Makinde, Adeyinka, “Odumegwu Ojukwu Speech in Akokwa, Biafra | November 1969”, YouTube.

224. Akpan, N.U. The Struggle for Secession, 1966-1970: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War, Routledge, 1972.

225. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. p.84.

226. Ibid. p.109.

227. Ibid. p.109.

228. “Biafra Chief was pushed by aides”, The San Francisco Examiner, January 17th, 1970.

229. “Peace wish in Biafra letter,” The Daily Telegraph, January 14th, 1970.

230. De St. Jorre. The Nigerian Civil War.

231. Vinocur, John. “The last plane out of Biafra,” The Standard Star, January 15th, 1970.

232. London Daily Express. “Guerrilla Chief continues war”, San Francisco Examiner, January 13th, 1970.

233. Ibid.

234. Udeze, Edozie. “Biafra did not surrender – Achuzia”, The Nation, August 11th, 2013.

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

236. Ibid.

237. Gbulie. The Fall of Biafra.

238. Ibid.

239. Ibid.

240. Agence France Presse. “Nigeria is keeping military prisoners,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 20th, 1973.

241. Ibid.

242. Gould. The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. p.204

243. Madiebo. The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. P.221.

244. Omoigwu. “Federal Nigerian Army Blunders.”

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