Eze: Exit of a Biafran war hero

By Aham Njoku

Recently,  Anthony Okoro Eze who retired from the Nigerian Army as a Colonel passed on at the age of 80 years.  He was born on  December 23, 1935.  He attended Government College Umuahia from 1949 to 1955 and was in Nile and Simpson houses respectively.  Though he was much older than me, as a fellow Old Boy of Government College Umuahia, I knew him fairly well and interacted very closely with him in 2007 when he was to be honoured by the Lagos Branch of the Association at its Annual Dinner of which I was the chairman of the Dinner Committee under the presidency of C.N.C. Nweke.
In February 1956, he joined the Officer Cadet Training at R.O.S.T.S., Teshie, Accra, Ghana till September 1956.   He was one of the few Nigerian Military Officers of his time like Yakubu Gowon (who later became Head of State) and Alexander Madiebo (who later became the General Officer Commanding (G.O.C.) of the Biafran Army) to attend the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom.  This he did from January 1957 to December 1958 when he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Nigerian Army.  He was then posted to Signal Corps of the Nigerian Army.  From 1960 to 1961 he was at the Royal Signals Training School Catterick Camp, Yorkshire, United Kingdom.  Thereafter he was posted to Congo from February 1961 to August 1961 and was Commander of Nigerian Army Signal from 1964 to 1966.  He married Mrs. Joan Angelina Eze from Grenada, West Indies in 1960.  They have three children, Andrew, Yvette and Chukwuma who are all married with children.
By far, Eze would be remembered in history for his heroic war efforts in Biafra.  As a well-trained and experienced military officer in Nigeria, it was only natural that being an officer later in the Biafran Army, he had to play a key role in the war.  As he told me himself in 2007, “If a true and complete account of the civil war on the Biafran side is to be rendered, I (Eze) Madiebo and Ojukwu are the three people who can sit down together and jointly write such a book”. Needless to say that never happened. By way of background information, let me add that Government College, Umuahia by 1966 had produced thirteen mid-level and Senior Officers in the Nigerian Armed Forces.  At the start of the war, they also became officers in Biafra.  These include but are not limited to Madiebo, Eze and Captain August Okpe, the only one of them in the Biafran Airforce (BAF) who in 2010 published a major book on the air-war between Nigeria and Biafra titled, “Biafra: The Last Flight”. There were other new entrants in Biafra like Lieutenant Achike Udenwa (who later became governor of Imo state). Their number led to speculations both in the Nigerian Armed Forces and Biafran Armed Forces about the existence of the “Umuahian Mafia”. We can get glimpses of Eze’s activities shortly before the war and then in Biafra from the book, “The Nigerian Revolution And The Biafran War”, written by Madiebo (one of the 3 persons Eze had referred to earlier) in 1980 and published by Fourth Dimension Publishing Co. Ltd. It was Eze that received Madiebo from Kaduna at the Ikeja Airport, Lagos at 1500 hours on the 19th of June, 1966 and drove him in his private car to see the Head of State, Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi – Ironsi wherein Madiebo in the presence of Mobolaji Johnson (then Governor of Lagos State) warned Ironsi of an impending coup against him.  The coup eventually took place in July, 1966.
In Biafra from March 1967, before the start of war hostilities, Eze and Madiebo in order to improve the intelligence gathering of Biafra, acting on their own initiative, visited various parts of Northern Nigerian boarder almost every night in an attempt to get information from friendly natives.  They undertook this dangerous task without carrying weapons. (Recall that it was in a similar operation that Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu died in controversial circumstances).  Initially, Eze was Commander of 52 Brigade of Biafran Army with its headquarters in Calabar and responsible for the defence of the 75 miles of coastline between Ikang on the Cameroun boarder and Opobo on the Imo river basin.
However, he had gone to help out at the Nsukka Sector when war broke out at Calabar. With the Nigerians forces gaining the upper hand in Calabar, Nsukka and later Onitsha sectors where he operated at different, times, he was branded a saboteur by the civilian populace, just like some senior officers in Biafra.  Although sabotage cannot be totally ruled out in a war situation, the political authorities could not admit that despite the gallant and brave efforts of Biafran troops in many battles, the simple truth was that the balance of ammunition tilted heavily in favour of the Nigerians with strong backing from Britain.  So, the propaganda of sabotage was sustained against Eze and others in order not to demoralize the civilian populace.  Subsequently, the Biafran Commander-in-Chief posted him to Army Headquarters as Chief of Operations under Madiebo, away from field operations.
To underscore the disparity between how equipped the Nigerian Forces were during the war compared to Biafran Forces, herein is reproduced an emergency signal sent to the Biafran General Officer Commanding by Colonel Akagha of the 56 Brigade.  “From: 56 Brigade. To: Tactical Army Headquarters.  Info: Defence Headquarters, Commander-in-Chief.  Commander for GOC. Situation in this sector is definitely out of hand if not hopeless.  Not a single round of ammunition held while enemy pressure continues ceaselessly for the past 48 hours.  We intend to stay on and make the supreme sacrifice.  Please help before it is too late.  We who are about to die, salute you”. See Madiebo page 195. Eze was recalled to field operations when the situation in the war front was becoming hopeless and propaganda alone could not win the war.  He plotted the successful offensive to clear Ikot Ekpene of Nigerian Forces.  First, his troops carried out series of diversionary, “confidence” operations to capture ammunition from Nigerian forces and draw its troops out of Ikot Ekpene for a final onslaught.
The first operation under a gallant Biafran Officer, Nweke, had troops crossing into Umuabayi from Akwete. “Soon afterwards, the Biafran battalion captured Umuabayi, together with the enemy ammunition and food dump located there.  Not everything captured could be brought across the river but that which was brought back included 100,000 rounds of ammunition, 50 bicycles, 3 battery charging machines, 4 wireless sets, 2 typewriters, 300 rounds of 105mm shells, 2 anti-aircraft guns and ammunition, a few weapons and fairly large quantities of food and clothing.  During an enemy counter attack at Umuabayi, our troops destroyed a Saladine and an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC)”.  See Madiebo pages 260 to 261. Madiebo reports that the second diversionary offensive planned by Eze was equally successful.  It was carried out by the 61 Brigade under Major Okeke.  The operation was aimed at pushing the enemy at Nkwok as far back towards Opobo as possible and also threaten or take Opobo if possible.    Thereafter this is how Madiebo (page 263) reports Eze’s main objective and final offensive to clear Ikot Ekpene, “The operation started well and progressed very fast.  Almost from all angles, the enemy was on the run after a short-lived resistance.  Soon the Biafran first Battalion of 58 Brigade was astride Uyo road and the second Battalion had swept through Ibibio Estate College into Ikot Ekpene town.  In the uncontrollable excitement of the chase, the Battalion cleared the entire town instead of clearing only the left side of it as was ordered.  This was because troops of 62 Brigade who were to clear the right half of the town, were yet to arrive.
This exceptionally good Biafran Battalion was under the command of Major Archibong, one of the bravest officers I ever met.  We completely cleared Ikot Ekpene and up to a minimum radius of six miles.”. Eze was soon promoted to the rank of a Brigadier by the Commander-in-Chief, Ojukwu though he continued to have brushes with the political authorities till the end of the war.
In conclusion, it is people like Eze that provided the sterling leadership for Biafran troops to perform extra-ordinary human feats that made the French Deputy, Ambassador Raymond Offroy to declare on a visit to Biafra, “Before I came to Biafra, I was told that Biafrans fought like heroes.  But now I know that heroes fight like Biafrans”. May Eze’s soul rest in peace.

Njoku, a lawyer is a connoisseur of Biafran War Literature.

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