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How Obasanjo ‘tackled’ General Yakubu Gowon during Nigerian civil war

Obasanjo lamented the lack of understanding and general lack of seriousness in the approach to Nigeria's problems.

By QueenEsther Iroanusi


While the Nigerian civil war raged, then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo wrote daring letters to the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, questioning the approach of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to the conflict.

This was revealed in a new book, “The Letterman: Inside the ‘secret’ Letters of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo” written by the Editor-in-Chief of PREMIUM TIMES, Musikilu Mojeed.

The book examines the private and public letters of Mr Obasanjo, written over a period of almost 50 years to different people, including his superiors and subordinates in the army during the civil war, and to local and international leaders when and after he served as military head of state and elected president.

The book was presented to the public in Abuja on 1 December.

The civil war was fought between 6 July 1967 and 12 January 1970 following the declaration of the then Eastern region as an independent state of the Republic of Biafra by its military governor, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.

Mr Obasanjo, who later became the Head of State (1976 to 1979) and civilian president (1999 to 2007), commanded the Third Marine Commando of the Nigerian Army in the last eight months of the war.

Tired and unmotivated troops

By 1969, the war had dragged into its second year and there still was no end in sight. On May 9, 1969, the Nigerian Army Headquarters in Lagos issued new operational instructions to energise the troops. Three days later, the authorities announced a change of commanders in the three Divisions of the Army. Colonel Iliya Bisalla took charge of Second Division from Colonel Ibrahim Haruna, Colonel Gibson Jalo assumed command of First Division from Colonel Mohammed Shuwa while Colonel Obasanjo succeeded Colonel Benjamin Adekunle (aka Black Scorpion) as General Officer Commanding (GOC) Third Marine Commando.

Mr Obasanjo, then 30 and a colonel, arrived in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, on 16 May to assume his new duties at the frontline of the conflict.

“From his encounters with officers and men on the battlefront, Obasanjo got the impression that the troops were tired, unmotivated and poorly equipped,” the book narrates. “Some soldiers had even taken to self-mutilation so they could be evacuated from the war front for treatment and rest.”

He knew he had to check the despondency among soldiers and the infighting among officers, he later recalled in his book, My Command.

According to the The Letterman, three weeks after he arrived in Port Harcourt, Mr Obasanjo, sent a six-page letter of June 10, 1969 to the Head of State.

“Within the past three weeks, I have visited all my areas of operation and I have seen as much as possible of the ground. The situation is generally bad but not hopeless and can be retrieved if immediate and effective actions are taken. I have since my arrival too, tried in my two conferences to recount the deteriorating and strained relationship among officers of 3MCDO. It is pertinent here also to mention that in this direction, there is hope for a better future. I can categorically state that in spite of other shortcomings and …… which will be outlined below, the fighting spirit of the Division is unshaken and the morale is generally on the ascent. Success, no matter how small, will sustain and maintain the rising morale.”

He then appealed to the commander-in-chief to urgently direct Army Headquarters to provide the necessary personnel and equipment “as ways of hastening the end of the war before Armed Forces personnel and civilians become demoralised, frustrated and discontented.”

Specifically, Obasanjo asked General Gowon to approve:

  • General mobilisation of men of certain age groups and certain professions, especially medical and technical professions, for six months within which the war should be over. “War of attrition, which pays the rebels, will be fatal to us. We cannot afford it,” he said.

  • An all-out effort to get adequate small arms and sophisticated weapons and communication equipment of all types for formations in the field. Delay here may be disastrous. “I hope field commanders will not be left high and dry and at the mercy of the rebels or to fend for themselves for the lives of those men under their care,” the GOC said.

  • Massive procurement of arms, ammunition and other equipment. “There is greater economic danger in stringent expenditures on war materials hoping that such will ruin the economy while the war lingers on,” he said. “The end cumulative effect is that we would have spent more money than if we had made bulk purchases of war items. Let us go for massive purchases.”

He then told Mr Gowon, “In conclusion, it is pertinent to categorically assure you that all officers and men of this Division are very devoted, loyal and obedient and are willing to see the war ended as quickly as possible. Our only cry is for adequate and immediate logistics backing. When this is done, we will say thank you and we will tell you when the task is completed. You cannot but be proud of the boys in the field. They are fine boys. They will not disappoint their country if given the tools.”

But what he got from Army Headquarters was a far cry from what his assessment had said was required. As a result, says the book: “Casualties mounted rapidly and ammunition decreased at a breakneck speed. The GOC was forced to ask for more supplies but Lagos was slow to respond. An irritated Obasanjo again sent a strongly worded letter to General Gowon. He copied the Chief of Army Staff, Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina.”

Strongly-worded letter

He wrote in the letter:

“After thorough appreciation and consideration of almost all factors affecting the present civil war, it is apparent to me that if we continue at the present rate, the war will linger on indefinitely and may be disastrous.

Before disaster gush at us, I will make the following suggestions for immediate consideration: –

  1. Complete and total sealing off of the rebels from the air to ensure no trickle of supplies gets to them. This may not be possible with the present resources of NAF (Nigerian Air Force).

  2. Massive build-up of men, materials and military hardware for the NA (Nigerian Army) to make a determined, and final push through the rebel-held areas. From my short experience of our soldiers and officers in the field, I hereby attach at Annexure C a list of weapons, ammunition and men which I consider adequate for the sort of push I envisage. At the rate at which boys turn up for recruiting now, nothing short of conscription, limited if necessary, will solve our manpower problem. As for weapons and ammunition, let us get them wherever we can provided it will not cost us our sovereignty. Three months from the time a decision is taken along this line, there is no reason why half of the men required should not have been trained and fully equipped, the remaining half coming in as reinforcement and replacement. I will make bold to predict the end of the war three months after.

  3. In the event of not being able to implement either or both of the above suggestions for one reason or the other, a hard and serious thinking must be embarked upon to see how else the war should be successfully fought to achieve our objective.

“I would like to hint that the present high morale of both officers and men in the field is only being maintained and can only be sustained by the expectation of a dramatic move to end the war soonest.

“For the final push which should be once and for all from now, we need a massive build up and please sir, let us go for it. We will save more lives and limbs that way. The alternative is unthinkable.

“The last stage of any war where there must be defeat or victory cannot be anything but bloody. We do not have to delve far into history before we learn this lesson. To avoid a bloody end is to court disaster and we might as well not have fought the war.”

Apparently shaken by the letter, Mr Gowon summoned Mr Obasanjo to Lagos for a detailed discussion of his suggestions and the regime’s plan for ending the war. It is not clear whether Obasanjo was reprimanded about the letter but he returned from Lagos angry, as indicated by his subsequent exchanges with Army headquarters and the Head of State.

On July 28, 1969, Mr Obasanjo sent another letter to Mr Gowon in which he complained of an “apparent lack of understanding and the general lack of seriousness” in the regime’s approach to the war and the country’s problems in general.

He wrote:

Dear General,

After my last week’s visit to you and the COS (Army) and discussion of my letter GOC/3MCDO/1 of 17th July 1969, I feel I must communicate my impression to you.

It is rather disheartening that all of us in uniform seem not to be able to understand the implications and ramifications of the present civil war.

I wrote to you in all seriousness and conscious of my duties and loyalty to you and to the country. I was stunned at the apparent lack of understanding and the general lack of seriousness in our approach to our problems.

It will be an unpardonable sin against humanity and the greatest disservice to this country if we fail to achieve our objectives in this war because of our inaction or lack of understanding or both.

To say that we have no money to buy military hardware to prosecute this war to a successful end is, to say the least, unthinkable. No harm in borrowing money to save this country thereby leaving a worthy legacy for posterity. The French and the British are yet to finish paying for the first and second world wars respectively. In each case, they incurred debt and achieved victory.

We have not yet mortgaged any of our natural resources or products for money. Within the country alone, I am sure enough money can be raised to buy the necessary military hardware to finish the war. We have not yet explored the possibility of getting loans from organisations and bodies with a commercial and industrial interest in Nigeria. All the talk that we have not borrowed a penny yet to finance the war will not impress anybody if we fail to achieve our objective. It will be disastrous to save the economy and lose the war.

I am convinced that with the right dynamic direction and money made available, we should be able to get any military hardware we require directly or indirectly from the country of origin.

So far, we have been able to tilt world opinion slightly in our favour because of our successes in the field. A long lull or a reverse will definitely work to our detriment. We can take advantage of the present apparent favourable (at least better than at the beginning of the year) world opinion to get what we require. The mood of the general public in Nigeria too may change with a long protracted civil war.

As to human resources, these are there and they only need to be tapped.

Once again, judging by the situation in my own area of operation, it is not a very happy one. Neither am I convinced that the other two divisions are faring much better. Our luck has held for so long and there is a limit to how long we should depend on luck without positive action. If anything, God has a purpose for this country, that is why He, in His infinite mercy, has helped us thus far.

We seemed to be confused in our mission and our aim. We give the impression of groping in the dark and wandering about aimlessly and purposelessly. I am sure we can do it with a sense of mission and a sense of direction. The country needs to be woken up from her slumber and apparent complacency.

Without boring you, I will reiterate that I need men and materials to perform the task I have been given. I will like to live up to the confidence and trust you have reposed in me. Neither will I like to disappoint the boys under my command or make them unnecessary sacrificial lambs.

I have written to you out of my genuine concern for this country and out of my greatest esteem and regard for your person and office and based on my experience both in the rear areas and in the field.

Yours ever

O. Obasanjo

According to the book: “It is not exactly clear how General Gowon and Army Headquarters perceived the content of the letter but it does appear that it gingered them into action. “Obasanjo’s division was soon flooded with men, arms and ammunition, so much so that one month after Obasanjo’s second letter to Gowon, the Third Marine Commando could boast of a reserve of men and material. The Division then began a plan to launch a final onslaught on Biafra,” The Letterman revealed.

“After a special counter operation by the Division’s 15th Brigade from its Ahoada (Rivers State) location, Obasanjo travelled to Lagos to discuss his “bloody” plan to pound Biafra to submission and end the war. Staff officers rejected his proposal because the plan differed from Army Headquarters’ operational instruction issued in May 1969.

“But a stubborn Obasanjo dismissed their concerns, saying his own plan was dictated by the situation on the ground at the war front. ‘I had ensured sufficient stock of arms, ammunition and other materials to be able to see the link-up successfully through; and since the operation had been unsupported by Army Headquarters, I had to reduce the element of risk due to non-availability of logistics to the absolute minimum.’

“Obasanjo wrote of that episode in his book, My Command. ‘Army Headquarters had in fact called a conference of all Divisional Commanders on 9 December to dissuade me from my plan and to re-emphasize their original directive. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that conference but Lt.Col. Abisoye, my rear Commander, stood in for me.’

“On December 22, 1969, Obasanjo, convinced that his war plan was superior to Army Headquarters’, launched Operation TailWind, the final offensive against Biafra. Within 21 days, Third Marine Commando’s troops swept through one Biafra stronghold after another. Troops of 12 Brigade and 17 Brigade captured the Aba-Umuahia corridor on December 25, 1969, meeting up with troops of the 13 Brigade who ransacked the Ikot Ekpene-Umuahia region on December 26. The 13 Brigade also seized the Ikot Ekpene-Bende axis on December 31 before proceeding to capture Arochukwu/Ututu on January 7, 1970. Owerri was recaptured on January 9 while Uli/Ihiala fell shortly afterwards.

“By January 12, 1970, the war was over and Biafra Leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, had fled the country. Biafra officials, led by Lt. Col. Phillip Effiong, surrendered to Obasanjo who then arranged a passage to Lagos for them to sign the peace treaty that ended the war formally.

“Obasanjo’s letters to Gowon were not all about men, arms and ammunition, he also delved into the Head of State’s other strategic decisions about the war.

“In another letter dated June 21, 1969, Obasanjo condemned the Head of State and Army Headquarters’ plan to allow food shipment to the secessionist republic. Biafra mounted a successful global campaign accusing the Nigerian military government of genocide from the early days of the war but especially after air delivery of wartime aid were blocked following allegations that arms were being smuggled to the rebels by relief agencies. Acute food shortage hit Biafra, with thousands of children, women and men dying of starvation.

“The world rose in condemnation of the food blockade and, feeling pressure from the United States and Britain especially, the Gowon administration drew up a plan to open the sea and river corridor to aid shipment by humanitarian organisations to Biafra. The plan was still in its formative stage when information about it reached Obasanjo at the war front.

“The GOC’s reaction was swift and fierce. He sent a scathing letter to his Commander-in-Chief and the Chief of Army Staff vowing not to allow any river corridor in his area of operation and warning the government “to imagine the outcome of failure to heed this advice”.

The letter read:

21 June, 1969

River Corridor for Relief Supplies

I have heard over the radio and read in the newspapers that a sort of sea and river corridor for relief supplies to the rebels through the Cross River to Ikot Okpora is being contemplated by some humanitarian organisations. I am only writing on this matter because the corridor being suggested or contemplated is through my areas of operations.

Since I have gotten neither instructions nor orders from AHQ on this proposal, I assume such orders will not be issued. However, I feel I should still acquaint you with the practical problems and difficulties of such a proposal as a man on the ground.

I will hasten to mention that I am all for relief supplies to the rebels and I will do all that is operationally and humanly possible to encourage and assist such supplies.

The contemplated corridor is not feasible at the moment for the full reasons:

A. I cannot guarantee the safety and security of such a ship or craft beyond ITU and that only with my troops on board the ship to ITU or closely escorted in another craft since piracy and sabotage by the rebels and their agents cannot be completely ruled out over our dominated lower course of the Cross River. You know I am thin on the ground and I have no troops for such escort duties right now.

B. Pilots with good knowledge of the course of the river will be required to pilot the craft beyond ITU. I have no such men and if I have, it will be madness as they will just be captured by the rebels without efforts on troops for such rebels.

C. You must have been reading my situation reports that the rebels have been firing on my men at Ikot Okpora from across the river. If taking advantage of the presence of the relief craft the rebels attack my men while the relief craft is docked opposite Ikot Okpora, I will have no choice but to counter-attack which will definitely affect the humanitarian craft and the humanitarian crews.

D. If even the craft sails safely through our areas of operations, the rebels may attack it, murder the crews and accuse my men of attacking the craft and its crews. This will not do the Nigerian Army and the Federal Military Government any good.

E. You know what operation situations are generally like in my sector and for this I cannot take any chance no matter how small.

F. In the light of the above exposition, I will hope you will advise both the Federal Military Government and the humanitarian organisations with the crafts to give up at least for now the idea of a River Corridor through my areas of operations. I hope in the interest of all concerned this advice will be heeded. I will loathe imagining the outcome of failure to heed this advice.

G. As before, I am anxious and willing to help in alleviating the suffering of our brothers and sisters, no matter on which side of the fighting line they may be, but my operational situation has to be seriously taken into consideration and for now, the situation does not permit such a corridor as proposed.

H. Please convey my regards and heartfelt thanks and that of all officers and men of this Division to the humanitarian organisations for their love and concern for humanity and for this country.”

.Premium Times Nigeria

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