By Emeka Obasi
Fifty years ago, a young man fighting on the side of Biafra during the Civil War entered record books when a Saladine Armoured tank was named after him,post humous. Corporal Nwafor, of B Company, 29 Battalion, 54 Brigade under 11 Division became a dead hero among his people.
It was June 30, 1968. Brothers, Nigeria and Biafra, were at war. Federal troops were advancing to Onitsha from Enugu, shelling and firing from tanks. At Ugwu Nwasike, Ogidi, about 20 kilometres to the commercial town, the overwhelmed Biafrans were almost giving up when Nwafor hit target.
He fired the only anti tank weapon available to the entire brigade, a 73mm bazooka and it hit an advancing saladine. A second tank which tried to engage reverse gear fell into a ditch.
The Biafrans tried to retrieve the tanks in a bloody fight that ensued. In the process, Nwafor, lost his life. Biafra gained the weapons of mass destruction. The saladine was named Corporal Nwafor. Probably the first time an armoured tank would be named in the memory of a Non Commissioned Officer.
That battle earned the GOC of the Biafran 11th division, Col Patrick Chiedu Amadi, promotion to the rank of a One-star general. Col. Conrad Nwawo, of 13th division was also promoted to the rank of Brigadier. Brigade commander, Maj. Linus Ohanehi, was overlooked.
A memorial was held for Nwafor in Umuoji. While service was going on, a Nigeria Air Force bomber appeared in the air. The priest looked up to God and asked everyone not to panic but remain inside. All but one man did. He was the only one hit by a bomb.
Biafran engineers had to work on Corporal Nwafor before it could go back to the battle field. From Umudike, headquarters of Research and Production[RAP] emerged a rebranded war machine.
When the hard vehicle came out, it was given to the 45th armoured battalion, commanded by Maj. Juventus Chijioke Ojukwu whose troops were based at St. Silas School, Umuahia.
One remarkable thing about Corporal Nwafor was that the soldier who manned the Browning machine gun attached to it, was 16-year-old school boy, Sasa Nwoke. His studies at Government Secondary School, Afikpo were halted by the war. The Ohafia lad joined the Biafra Army on January 29, 1968 and was identified as BA 61832.
Nwoke’s family did not know the day he finally made it to the army. It did not have anything to do with the fact that his elder sister was married to Major Emeka Ananaba, of the Biafran commando Division.
Corporal Nwafor, the armoured car, was one of the few the Biafrans had. In the beginning there were Red Devils before they captured a made in France Panhard just as saladines, sarasins and ferrets also came. And the deadly vehicles were given names like Oguta Boy, Uzuakoli Boy and Ndidi.
While Nwoke was firing for Corporal Nwafor, his friend, Sylvester Etta, from Obubra, was the gunner for Oguta Boy. Behind the wheels of Corporal Nwafor was, Daniel Lawrence, an Ikom boy born to an English woman, from Liverpool. His battle name was ‘Pampas of Argentina.’
Nwoke and Lawrence did a lot with Corporal Nwafor. They fought from Uzuakoli to Ikot Ekpene, from Okigwe to Port Harcourt and back to Owerri. The lads saw death, they defied death.
Corporal Nwafor died in battle, or was ‘injured’ and could not continue with the war. That was in July 1969 at Ohuba on the way to recapture Port Harcourt. It fell into a ditch. Col. Olusegun Obasanjo, was GOC of Nigeria’s dreaded Third Marine Commando division which the Biafrans christened ‘come and die.’
According to Lt.Col Alabi Isama, Obasanjo sent Lt. Col. Godwin Ally, an Obubra man, to confront the Biafrans. He lost 1,000 soldiers and was lucky to come out alive. The GOC also survived but there was rumour that he died and some of his loved ones went in search of his body at the University College Hospital[UCH], Ibadan.
Corporal Nwafor, the soldier, represented bravery which is the hall mark of soldiering. There were warriors on both sides who are alive today, 48 years after the war. Officers like Alabi Isama,Alani Akinrinade,Assam Nsudoh, E.A. Utuk, Archibong and August Okpe.
Okpe was Chief Pilot of the Biafra Air Force and was 26 when hostilities ceased in 1970. The story of the Biafra Air Force must be told. They had no single aircraft in July 1967 as the war started.
Okpe, from Ihiagwa, son of a Second World War veteran and now father of an American officer who saw battle in Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm, was one of the 16 pioneer cadets of the Nigeria Air Force in 1963. He trained in Canada and the United States respectively.
It took the lion hearts of Captain Ibi Allwell-Brown, Mark Odu,Sam Inyagha and Onuora Nwanya to hijack a Nigeria Airways F-27 plane, piloted by the duo of P. Singh and Tokunbo Williams on April 23, 1967. The flight originally bound for Lagos from Benin, was diverted to Enugu. That was Biafra’s first aircraft. Willy Achukwu invented Ogbunigwe, served as bomb.
Swedish humanitarian, Count Carl Gustav Von Rosen, later brought many minicons, MFI-9B, better known as Biafran Babies. Biafra, despite the superior air power of Nigeria backed by Egyptian pilots, flying Russian MIG 17s, which could not help them in 1967 war with Israel, stayed airborne till the end.
Capt. Okpe was brilliant in the air and also saw but survived death severally. Somewhere around Ifitte Ukpo in 1969, he was as good as gone. When he defied anti aircraft fire and landed there were holes all over his fighter jet. He received the Military Cross from General Emeka Ojukwu.
Allwell-Brown,was lost on January 7, 1970 around Awka on his way back from a mission to Ughelli. Goddy Njoku survived just like John Chukwu, who later died in Nigeria as a Squadron leader, re- absorbed by General Yakubu Gowon.