The Invasion Of Owerri

I was at 14 Division Headquarters at Obinze near Owerri on the morning of the 13th of September to congratulate Nwajei again and celebrate with him the recapture of Oguta. We had not even had a round of laughter yet, not to talk of drinks, when Mr. Ohanu, a Police Commissioner, came in to report that the enemy was attacking our troops in strength at Awarra. According to Ohanu, the Company of soldiers we deployed there was already being pushed back quite rapidly by an enemy force estimated at brigade strength and supported generously by armour, artillery and heavy mortars. A liaison officer was immediately despatched to the scene and on his return, he not only confirmed the police information, but added that the enemy had already occupied the town of Asa.

There was not much anyone could do immediately to strengthen our resistance, as we had practically exhausted our human and material resources in pushing the enemy out of Oguta the previous day. Before long, the enemy was in Ohoba town and was still advancing from there towards Avu and Obinze on the outskirts of Owerri. With resources available to it, which were mainly local science products, the 14 Division managed to delay entry into Owerri of the enemy until the 18th of September.

Colonel Nwajei moved his Headquarters to Atta and there a delegation came to see him to find out why he had lost Owerri. Nwajei told them rather in anger, that he lost the town because he had no ammunition to fight with. He told members of that delegation that unless something was done to rectify the deplorable ammunition situation in Biafra, there could be many more losses similar to Owerri in the near future. Some members of that delegation later went to Umuahia to see Colonel Ojukwu, and there they told him that Nwajei was demoralizing the civilian population. The Head of State promptly removed Nwajei from command of 14 Division and indeed from all military duties. The officer was later attached to the civilian Fuel Directorate while Colonel Kalu of Port Harcourt was brought in to command the 14 Division.

Kalu took over command of the 14 Division at a time when the enemy's brigade move on Chokocho-Okehi-Okpuala road was being intensified. Shortly after Kalu took over, Okpuala junction fell into the hands of the enemy, thus exposing the whole of Mbaise to the enemy. We still had no answer to enemy moves because he soon linked up Aba and Owerri and began a two-pronged advance into Mbaise. He moved on both the Olakwo-Obiagwu road and the Okpuala-Uvoro road with a view to converging on the main Owerri-Umuahia road at Inyiogugu, 17 miles east of Owerri

In the absence of ammunition and reinforcements, and with little or no prospects of getting them in the immediate future, the situation was very grave and almost too hopeless to be described properly. If the enemy got to Inyiogugu, not only would the bulk of 14 Division around Owerri town be rendered useless and disorganised, there would not have been a single soldier available to stop him from moving from Inyiogugu to Umuahia, the then capital of Biafra.

The 63 Brigade which was now facing the enemy had already fought for almost six weeks without a break, and was therefore both tired and very much depleted. What was left of the 63 Brigade was completely reorganised, and that included the removal of its brave but tired commander, Major Okilo, and his replacement with Major Ihenacho, who was before then in exceptionally good Battalion Commander with the 53 Brigade at Inyi near Enugu. Ihenacho, being from Mbaise, had an additional advantage of knowing the ground pretty well. A battalion of "S" Division was ordered to move from Aba to reinforce the 63 Brigade, but by the time the battalion was in position the enemy had pushed to within a mile of Inyiogugu main junction. Alarmed at the situation, Colonel Ojukwu sent the following signal message to Kalu and sent me a copy:

Your role in the Port Harcourt disaster is still fresh in the minds of the people. You cannot, repeat cannot therefore afford to disappoint the nation a second time. You will clear the enemy completely from Mbaise within 24 hours or submit to me your resignation from the Biafran Army.

Obviously, Kalu could not beat the deadline and when he wanted to forward his resignation to Ojukwu, I advised him against it; he remained in the Army until the end of the war.

In the meantime we had started a determined counterattack against the enemy using 63 Brigade on one axis and the "S" Division battalion on the other. For six days we had sufficient ammunition to maintain our position, in addition to launching a total of four unsuccessful attacks to dislodge the enemy. On the 7th day of the battle for Inyiogugu, the enemy grew so desperate that on two occasions that day, he almost succeeded in pushing us out of our defences. On the first occasion, most of our defences had fallen when the few remaining Biafran soldiers exploded an "ogbunigwe" on the surging enemy infantry. About a company of them lay dead or wounded and the rest of them withdrew. After two hours of what appeared to be retributive shelling of our locations, the enemy re-grouped and again attacked. This second time, the last "ogbunigwe" held in the Brigade, broke up the assault and inflicted almost as many casualties as in the first assault. The enemy again withdrew, this time into dead silence.     

One hour later, we began to advance again on two axes and were surprised to find the enemy running back in a disorderly fashion. Thereafter, the enemy never again resisted our advance effectively, and the rate of our advance depended entirely on how much ammunition we had. Before long, we were soon back on the main Aba-Owerri road at Olakwo and Okpuala, and shortly after, we regained full control of that road between Olakwo and Owerrinta bridge, near Ugba junction.

WE continued to push the enemy southwards slowly but quite steadily. From Olakwo, we soon regained control of all towns and villages in Ngor complex right down to Elelem.  Similarly, from Okpuala junction we had pushed right down to Amala again. We could easily have exploited our success in this sector right down to Chokocho if we had sufficient ammunition. Even the little ammunition available was then more urgently required in other areas of the 14 Division. The enemy inside Owerri was trying to push out of town in all directions. On the Owerri-Okigwe road he had already exploited up to Orji bridge, four miles from Owerri. From there he launched a major attack in the direction of Mbieri and Orodo with the aim of getting to Orlu and Nkwerre. WE succeeded series of counterattacks lasting several days, he was pushed back to Orji bridge. On the Ihiala road, he soon got as far as Ogbaku from where he spread northwards towards Oguta again. In that move, all towns and villages on the left of Owerri-Ihiala road to as far north as Izombe, fell to the enemy. Both Oguta and Uli Airport were once more threatened. As soon as 60 Brigade was able to stabilise the situation by pushing the enemy slightly back from Izombe to Obudi, we had no choice but to leave Owerri sector as it was in order to face a new but very serious threat which was developing in the North against the town of Okigwe.

Excerpts from The Nigeria Revolution and the Biafra War by Alexandra A. Madiebo

Published by:
Chibuike John Nebeokike
For: Biafra State Media

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