The Pincer strategy used to defeat Biafra

What came your way yesterday in this intriguing tale of 3MCDO operations during the war was how Alabi-Isama and Akinrinade parted ways with their commander, Col. Adekunle. The incidents eventually led to Adekunle being relieved of command, and Col. Obasanjo taking over. Obasanjo blundered into his first battle, sustaining heavy casualties, and recoursed to the Pincer strategies earlier canvassed, but which he ignored. READ ON.

The Pincer strategies

My suggested strategy was, first for the Sector HQ to move forward to Ohoba nearer the beleaguered 16 Bde immediately, then to start what I called Operations Pincer 1, 2 or 3, one of which will not only relieve 16 Bde of pressure but end the war at the same time.  the war front, and he was completely frustrated like most of us. However, we had to realize that Uli Ihiala was the most important part of Biafra at that time. So, I invited Akinrinade to my Uyo HQ to discuss the “Pincer Strategy” after which Akinrinade and I went to discuss with Ayo Ariyo in Calabar; but Ariyo was no more interested. He led us into Port Harcourt during the 30-day advance, he held Port Harcourt until Adekunle returned finally to the war front, and he was completely frustrated like most of us.

We were not sure of what was inside the house; maybe it was even bugged. So, we came outside to discuss and to study the map. However, Ayo Ariyo listened to the plans, the strategy and the tactics of Operations Pincer 1, 2 and 3, he made some corrections and adjustments to the plans, and reminded me that all these had been discussed before we left Calabar a year ago, since April 1968, and only needed some adjustments, as the situation had changed. He was right, and he also told us that he had trained another 200 recruits that could be made available; I also had about 250 and Akinrinade another 250 recruits who were trained locally. Our three sectors were solid and had not seen or experienced any Biafran counter-attack since they were routed in our sectors at Aba, Ikot Ekpene and Calabar. We intensified training in all respects; from drivers training to medical, first aid, weapons training, snipers training, artillery and mortar training.

 Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama working out the Pincer strategieson their maps

Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama working out the Pincer strategies on their maps

We sent long range patrols, and had plotted all known Biafran troop positions, defences, their re-supply routes, including obstacles en-route Uli Ihiala which was the “Centre Of Gravity” of Biafra’s war effort at that time. Only Sector 1 had problems which were of their own making; it was just a blunder. Any new reinforcements sent to 1 Sector merely fizzled away into Ohoba/Owerri road, just to die or be wounded. The hospitals were filled up at Port Harcourt with Owerri front casualties. The situation needed a new plan and strategy, not conventional warfare, which was just frontal, brutal and got so many dead, especially in a situation where we could have defeated the Biafrans mentally before they were defeated physically.

Further to Obasanjo’s reorganization, Major S.S Tomoye who was my deputy in Sector 3, was moved to Akinrinade’s 17Bde in Aba. Prior to his redeployment, Tomoye was deputy and Brigade Major at 13 Bde in Uyo. He also knew about Ops Pincer 1, 2 and 3. As a matter of fact, he helped draw all the maps and organize the training related to the final battle for the capture of Biafra’s centre of gravity at Uli Ihiala. We were no longer in the riverine war theatre, so tactics needed to change as we expected heavy casualties, which necessitated more training for the Medical Evacuation Team on how to evacuate casualties under heavy fire. I was transferred to Enugu while Major George Innih was transferred to take over my 13 Bde in Uyo. The plan looked good even if he made it seem as though this latter change was designed to replace the “enemy” that commanded 13 Bde.

It was okay by me as long as the entire Brigade knew about ops Pincer 1,2 and 3, and the troops that fought so hard and well from Calabar to Port Harcourt did not just die like chicken in the hand of an inexperienced commander; but the casualties kept coming in an alarming rate.

Plan of Op Pincer 1, which Obasanjo preferred

Plan of Op Pincer 1, which Obasanjo preferred

However, Obasanjo’s aim in reorganizing the Division as he did was to ensure that as GSO1 Akinrinade would still be able to control his old 17 Bde under the new command of Major Tomoye as well as the 13 Bde. But there was a snag. Of all the Pincer options, the one Obasanjo had preference for was Operation Pincer 1 which was the bloodiest, and the one rejected by the Army HQ as well as 3MCDO under Adekunle. And to canvass support for his choice, he went to 1 Division himself to brief Col. Bisalla on Pincer 1. Bisalla was not in Enugu at the time, so he spoke with Lt. Col. Danjuma who received him warmly but could not take a decision on the issue. Obasanjo also got in touch with 2 Division on the same subject.

However, when Bisalla returned to base in Enugu and looked at the bloody implication of Operation Pincer 1 he rejected the plan. That was how God saved Nigeria and Biafra from what would have been a senseless massacre that would have forever blighted the conduct of the civil war, and the image of Nigeria. To give a picture of the enormity of the possible consequences of Op. Pincer 1, you just have to think of a people trapped and surrounded by 1 and 2 Divisions, of the Nigeria Army, and the 3MCDO; all of them advancing simultaneously with tank, artillery and air support bombardment. Could Nigeria have been able to justify the aftermath? But that was Obasanjo’s preference, which practically every body in the command structure of the entire Nigerian army rejected. Since he had to settle for Pincer 2, innocent refugees, women and children, including the aged and disabled trapped in what was left of Biafra were thus saved from the horror of the devastation that would have been their fate if Obasanjo had had his way.

My modest estimate is that if Operation Pincer 1 had been executed there would have been a total of only slightly over a million Ibos left in Nigeria today. And there would have been no way we could absolve ourselves from heavy responsibility of what could truly have been genocide. In the final analysis, Obasanjo and Bisalla met at a meeting in Lagos where Bisalla had to explain why he could not accept to go along with Operation Pincer 1. In restrospect, he showed same brutal force in Odi, Bayelsa State in November 20, 1999 when he was civilian president.

Gen Hassan Usman Katsina, who became the Chief of Staff (Army) in May 1968, was briefed on Operations Pincer 1, 2 and 3 during his visit to 3MCDO in July 1968 after the capture of Port Harcourt. That was when 3MCDO started going astray with Adekunle’s operation OAU. In particular, after the fall of Owerri and Aba, the disastrous effort to take Umuahia in early October 1968 (secretly approved by Gowon and SHQ) rather than focus on Uli as approved by AHQ, brought things to a head. According to his memoirs, in mid-October 1968 the GSO1 at the AHQ, Col. Oluleye visited 3MCDO HQ in Port Harcourt and subsequently raised the possibility of creating a 4MCDO from the 3MCDO as an option to sending Adekunle on leave or replacing him altogether. But Gowon was not convinced yet. I was told about Oluleye’s visit; I did not know about it.

Bisalla rejects Obasanjo's Pincer 1 operation

Bisalla rejects Obasanjo’s Pincer 1 operation

Col. Obasanjo was finally convinced that OP Pincer 2 was the way to go at last. It was not the only way to do it, as there were other methods of achieving the same result, but definitely not the initial way we had gone about it.
When I saw his confused look which suggested doubt, disbelief, and a lack of comprehension, I explained again, using the same map. All the 3MCDO problems were in Sector 1. Let us stop the blame game and get on with it. I further explained, by going into details as follows using the same map :-

*The remaining 16 Bde should be beefed up to strength, to defend their present position to disallow further Biafran advance across their defence line.

*19 Bde commanded by Maj Aliyu, should also be beefed up to strength to take up defensive positions where they were.

*15 Bde that was still at Omoku, should also be brought up to strength, and, with an extra Battalion, should advance to Uli Ihiala, passing through Ebocha,Mbebe, to Izombe, Mgbidi, with Oguta to the left. The extra Battalion would be left to defend Izombe, to avoid troops at Oguta from interfering with the advance of the main body of 15 Bde advancing to Mgbidi. They would bypass Owerri to the right, as we did not need Owerri. Otamiri River would be on the Battalion’s left flank.

*Then, 12, 14, and 17 Bdes under the command of Akinrinade, should advance from their present Sector HQ at Aba, to Inyiogugu, with Owerri to the left, aiming for Orlu. I also explained that 3MCDO never fought in the towns. We always bypassed them, surprising Biafran troops that expected us to fight inside the towns and villages, on the streets, including perhaps house-to-house fighting, which we avoided by all means. Based on the projections, I predicted that Akinrinade would take Uli-Ihiala in exactly seven days of crossing the start line at “H” hour.(5). We were lucky, I continued, that 1 Division had captured Okigwe in Oct. 1968, followed by Umuahia in April 1969, (which was two months before this briefing). Col. Obasanjo himself arrived in May 1969 three weeks after Umuahia was captured. 13 Bde, which was in my sector was already the largest of all the Brigades, and was well beefed up, ready to go. 13 Bde, therefore, would link up with 1 Division at Umuahia, and thence, advance along both sides of the river to RV right of Akinrinade at Urualla to take Nnewi (Ojukwu’s home town), behind Uli-Ihiala.

*18 Bde, another brigade in Sector 3, would hold its position at Itu and be prepared to enter Arochukwu, should the Biafran troops in Arochukwu move against Pincer troops of 13 Bde. A battalion each was still standing by at Obubra, Ugep, and at Ikot Okpora, under the command of Lt Col Ignatius Obeya, who was the Commander of 18 Bde, should the Biafrans move against Calabar instead.

*The worst scenario was if Biafran troops in Arochukwu moved towards Calabar, which was our own Centre of Gravity. In that case, the battalion at Ikot Okpora would engage them before they cross the river at Ikot Okpora. The role of 18 Bde would not change, they would enter Arochukwu behind the Biafrans. Either way, a dilemma would be created for Biafran troops at Arochukwu if they ever moved. Their best bet was to do nothing. Col. Obasanjo then took a good look at the map and the plan again, while Col. (Fr.) Pedro Martins laughed, and said that he was impressed. When in 2009, Mr. Kayode Williams and I went to see Fr. Martins at his Victoria Island residence in Lagos for his 90th birthday belated greetings, he remembered everything in detail as related to the Operation Pincer 2 briefing in Port Harcourt. It was incredible.

Op Pincer 2 plan, renamed Op Tailwind

Op Pincer 2 plan, renamed Op Tailwind

But Col Obasanjo preferred Op Pincer 1, despite all advice against it.

He then went about contacting the other two Divisions. Fortunately, the Pincer 1 idea was turned down by both Col. Bisalla of 1 Division and Col. Jalo of 2 Division. Col Bisalla’s point was very valid; he said there would be too much blood and that the aim of the war was not to exterminate the Ibo people or permanently change their culture by us occupying Iboland. I was impressed. I took the picture of their meeting. It was then that he had a rethink on Op Pincer 2. It was at this time that Col Obasanjo suddenly transferred me to I Division at Enugu.

The final battle (Final execution of Op Pincer 2)

I will explain here how Op Pincer 2 was finally executed when the officers were tired of line straightening operations which yielded no positive results except more casualties. Since all the units were already in position, and battle ready, the final battle started. As early as 0600 hours on 22 December 1969, 17 Bde under Maj SS Tomoye fired the first shot. He advanced to the right flank in order to be able to link up with 1 Division troops already at Umuahia since April 1969. This was what was expected of 13 Bde, but he did not move because he was not part of the line straightening operation; but since Akinrinade had decided to advance without 13 Bde, he did not bother.

The gap between Owerri and Umuahia was important because the Biafran troops that were dislodged by 1 Division at Umuahia had not settled down to defend their new locations. The Biafran troops also did not expect the move between the gaps. They were expecting that the old conventional, mundane tactics of hitting one’s head in a frontal attack as in Ohoba and thence to Owerri was what would happen. They, therefore, tied down most of their troops defending Owerri, for a show down with 3MCDO. So, they dug-in at Owerri, and in depth. It was expected to be the Mother of all battles at Owerri.

*Briefing in Port Harcourt. From left, Obeya, Gen Katsina (hands on knees), Alabi Isama, and Obasanjo

*Briefing in Port Harcourt. From left, Obeya, Gen Katsina (hands on knees), Alabi Isama, and Obasanjo

16 Bde commanded by Maj Utuk, who was still itching to take revenge on Owerri was not allowed to advance, while 19 Bde commanded by Maj. Aliyu was in defensive position to tie down Biafran troops at Owerri. With devastating 122 mm Artillery bombardment, directed at Owerri and Ohoba, the Biafran troops had no more doubt that 3MCDO was coming again, and they were ready for the mother of all battles.

Then 15 Bde commanded by Maj Iluyomade, who liked to salute like Hitler, moved into the gap between Oguta and Owerri to the left from Omoku, capturing Izombe, with Orashi River to his left which later flows right to his front.

That again further confirmed that 3MCDO would try to go back to Oguta. Therefore, Biafran attention was directed at Oguta and Owerri axes, while 14 Bde commanded by Maj Ola Oni to the left, and 12 Bde commanded by Isemede in the center advanced through the gap between Owerri to the left, and Umuahia to the right.

At this time, 13 Bde commanded by Maj George Innih had moved right from Ikot Ekpene towards Itu to what Obasanjo called passing through operation to capture Arochukwu. George Innih’s route is marked in red on the map. That distance alone is about 100 miles on a very bad road. To use the phrase used by Obasanjo in his book, he was to swing left towards Umuahia. That distance is another 100 miles from Arochukwu, and another 100 miles or more to Uli Ihiala, the Divisional objective.

When Akinrinade did not see him for four days, they continued the advance without him and his 13 Bde. On my birthday, 24th December 1969, Akinrinade and Tomoye linked up with 1 Division at Umuahia. They greeted me for my birthday and told me that it was my birthday present. That was cool, but I was biting my finger, wishing I was on the advance with them. We were running a commentary like a soccer match. On Christmas day 25th December 1969, I sent a message to the COSA in Lagos to say that Obasanjo went to Arochukwu and so did the 13 Bde with about 3,000 men going the wrong way. COSA then sent a signal message to Obasanjo to concentrate on Uli-Ihiala and nowhere else. Obasanjo then wrote in his book that he wondered how COSA knew about his move to Arochukwu. By the time he got the message, Akinrinade had ended the war by capturing Uli Ihiala. At this time, with Inyiogugu to their left, 12,14,and 17 Bdes under Akinrinade’s command (The Coordinator) then had 1 Division at Umuahia look after their right flank, which made the advance faster without having to wait anymore for 13 Bde. Akinrinade did not have air support, because the Count Von Rosen inquiry was still going on in Port Harcourt.

Alabi-Isama explains strategy to Obasanjo: We will divide the enemy into two enclaves to cause panic in their ranks especially the Arochukwu enclave that will not be able to receive supplies and communicate with its Biafran HQ at Uli Ihiala. The gesture of my right hand had said it all.

Alabi-Isama explains strategy to Obasanjo: We will divide the enemy into two enclaves to cause panic in their ranks especially the Arochukwu enclave that will not be able to receive supplies and communicate with its Biafran HQ at Uli Ihiala. The gesture of my right hand had said it all.

By the 5th of January 1969,14 Bde was at Amaraka, 12 Bde was at Umuna, while Tomoye’s 17 Bde passed through to take Umuzoma, and Urualla. From the right flank, the “Dream Team” was threatening Orlu from two flanks, having crossed Imo River, and were to enter Uli Ihiala by night fall.

By Thursday of 8th January 1969, Tomoye described the situation that they were not firing anymore, as there were too many refugees and too many Biafran troops just dropping their weapons and running, while some managed to enter their vehicles and drive fast away from the war front. They told all those that raised their hands up in surrender to just go home. They did not capture any POW. Casualties were light on both sides. Artillery could not be used beyond Owerri because of the enveloping troops from 12, 14 and 17 Bdes that were already behind enemy lines. By morning of Friday 9th January, 1970, Tomoye radioed to say that he thought the war was over as the Biafran troops were not fighting anymore. Beware of stray bullets, I shouted, and I asked after Maj. Innih. Tomoye had heard that his troops were at Owerri. I trusted that Akinrinade would not allow troops to enter the towns, which is why he warned Edet Utuk to remain in defence, and not enter Owerri. With his annoyance over what happened during the seven month siege, Utuk, might have the tendency to kill for revenge.

Very early in the morning of Tuesday 13th January 1970, a Biafran officer called Achuzia, with white handkerchief, crawled towards 17 Bde position, and was captured and taken to Lt. Col Akinrinade. He introduced himself as Col Achuzia, and that he was sent by Gen. Effiong and all the officers of Biafran Army to surrender to the commander of the Federal troops, and to invite the Commander to come and meet the Biafran officers somewhere few yards away, where they had gathered to surrender. The town was called Amichi, and that they were all waiting at a house there.

At first Akinrinade did not want to go but later he agreed and Maj Tomoye accompanied him. Before they left, they left orders with their troops that if in two hours they were not back, or nothing heard from them, the entire place must be leveled to the ground.

So, they left with Achuzia who we had wanted to kill in Port Harcourt if we got him, for killing Chief Halley Day, the owner of The Silver Valley Hotel at Port Harcourt. When we were young officers, before the war, we used to travel to Port Harcourt to stay at the Silver Valley Hotel because we were friends of Chief Halley Day’s children. Akinrinade of course then remembered that we should not kill anyone that looked at us in the face.

Akinrinade then told him that we were looking for him and that the meeting that they were going to should be worth it. Achuzia took Akinrinade and Tomoye to a house nearby, where they met Achuzia’s European wife, and Achuzia broke kola nuts with the usual Ibo traditional welcoming ceremony. Well, so far so good, after which they then went to meet all Biafran officers seated and waiting to surrender to the two officers- Akinrinade and Tomoye. Akinrinade met all of them including some of our classmates like Gbulie and others. It was then that Akinrinade sent word to Obasanjo that Biafran troops had surrendered to him and his men if he would like to come and see. I was still on the RS301 Operation Radio with some officers, listening to our commentary-like discussions with Tomoye’s radio operator.

It was then that Obasanjo, the GOC of 3 MCDO started looking for his officers. It took him four hours to drive from PH to Amichi.



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