Book Serial: 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 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
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
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
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.