Straightening The Records Of Nigeria’s Civil War (1967 – 1970), Niger Bridge Tragedy (general Murtala Not To Be Blamed)


With gratitude to God, I am alive to read on the Daily Trust (Sunday) of 14th February 2016, front page the 40th ANNIVERSARY MEMORIAL LECTURE of LATE GENERAL MURTALA MUHAMMED whom I accompanied throughout the Civil war from Okene (Kogi State) until the much resisted Onitsha, Commercial nerve Centre of the then Eastern Region, was Captured.

Much has been said without flatteries about General Murtala's governance which particularly was down-trodden oriented concern, however, his positive contributions to keep Nigeria one during the Civil war of 1967 – 70, which is a reflection of his short, good, incomparable governance was not satisfactorily mentioned. My concern here is the distorted facts as contained in the Book written by Brigadier Gen. Godwin Alabi Isama titled “TRAGEDY OF VICTORY”; Niger Bridge Tragedy accusing the late Gen. Murtala of the error that caused the death of 1,500 Federal Troops in one day as a result of crossing the Niger Bridge. There is no war ever fought worldwide without losses and pains when taking risks.

President Muhammed Buhari who was a key field, positive, player during the Nigerian Civil war was briefly explicit about Late Murtala's actions during the Civil war in page 2, paragraph 17, of the Sunday Trust of 14th February, 2016 but I add to say that Late Murtala's ideology of 'do what you can today, because you don't own tomorrow' has been part and parcel of the Late General Murtala during the period I covered the civil war in his 2nd Division, Nigeria Army, after which Major Gen. I.B.M Haruna took over from him, after capturing Onitsha in 1968.

I had earlier caused a rejoinder to this falsehood in social media but received no comments from any of the Military Commanders alive to correct this blackmail; hence I reproduce my rejoinder and expect that living officers with whom I interacted with all through the civil war will respond positively to correct the records without self-ego and ethicizing. Those still alive to attest to my rejoinder are, Major Gen. Zamani Lekwot, Major Gen. Oladipo Diya, Major General M.C. Ali, Colonel. A. A. Adeniran, Major Gen. David Jemibewon, Lt. Gen. Alani Akinriade, Brig. D. D. Joradom, Major. Gen I.B.M. Haruna, Major Gen. Ike Sanda Nwachukwu and a list of other officers, still alive by the grace of God, whom I cannot remember for now, were among officers with whom we went for surveillance as shown on the attached photographs on 2nd October, 1967 before embarking on the first crossing of the Niger Bridge on 6th October, 1967. Hereunder was my first rejoinder write up in most of the social media in 2013.

Point of Correction:
I commend the time/painstaking efforts by Brig. Gen. Godwin Alabi Isama on the Memoir of the Nigeria Civil War, 1967 – 70 the TRAGEDY OF VICTORY and rejoinder to his interview of Saturday, Nation Newspaper dated 13th July 2013 pages 20, 21 and 47 and the presentation of the book recently at NIIA, Victoria Island, Lagos State, published in the News Magazine 19, August, pages 52 and 53.

Straightening of historical records should be the concern of patriotic Nigerians and we should learn to appreciate efforts of our leaders at all levels of governance. Our dead leaders should not be castigated, particularly, those who fought for Nigeria to remain one indivisible Country.

The assertion by Brig. Gen. Isama that Murtala's error caused the death of 1,500 Federal troops in a day as a result of crossing the Niger Bridge is not true. The first crossing was a total failure on 6th October, 1967 but no single soldier died on the bridge on the faithful day.

I physically followed the troops on the foot advancement with Late Murtala leading the troops to Onitsha on Niger Bridge. Truly, Brigade Commanders with whom we went on surveillance on 2nd of October, 1967 led by Major Gen. Ike Nwachukwu and other Brigade Commanders under the Bridge on Asaba side of the River Niger ascertained that the bridge had been mined and troops should not cross through the Bridge.

Field Commanders universally, have their own style of executing the war. Those with self-conviction and confidence always ignore intelligence to the peril of the troops but ultimate goals achieved. We should not forget that as human beings, we have our weaknesses and such weaknesses should not be capitalized upon to disregard the positive side of such leaders.

The first crossing through the Niger Bridge was an amazing story of the frightened Biafran soldiers mandated to blow the bridge when Nigerian troops had got to the tail end of the bridge or possibly allow sizeable numbers into Onitsha town.

The Biafran Soldiers seeing the size of the troops matching on both sides of the bridge got frightened and blew the bridge 5 pillars from Onitsha end. The attached photograph is very explicit.

The loss of the assumed 1,500 troops was during the second crossing by Ferry with attached batches on both sides of the ferry. Late Gen. Murtala himself accompanied the troops to Onitsha water side, and hoisted the Nigerian flag after deploying the troops on both flanks of Onitsha water side. He ordered that no single soldier should move an inch from position of deployment until re-enforcement lands and position reinforced before advancing further.

But to the dismay of the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Late Gen. Murtala Muhammed, one Company Commander, of same ilk with Brig. Gen. Alabi Isama disobeyed the order of stay put in your position and ordered that a company strength of the deployed troops should fall in. They went about 15 feet from their position. The mortal bomb shelling from Asaba, combing the Bridge from position, before the Federal troops advances, dropped in their midst killing and badly maiming majority of those on fall in.

On the left flank of the deployment facing Onitsha town proper, Soldiers also disobeyed the order by succumbing to the enticement of the nude female members of Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF), some rushed to the Onitsha Market for looting while some picked up the poisoned beer placed by the roadsides. The Biafran Soldiers set fire on the Onitsha Market when they saw that a sizeable Number of the Nigeria Soldiers have entered the market to loot.

The re-enforcement left Asaba jetty at about 4.50a.m but landed Onitsha side by 6.00am. On arrival at Onitsha side, most of the deployed troops had been overran and the Biafran shot the ship (ferry) captain. The brave ones among Nigerian soldiers brought badly wounded soldiers into the ferry and Late Major T.K Adamu managed the ferry back to Asaba at about 10am.

Some Nigerian Soldiers who were not brave and patient enough jumped into the river while some swam to safety to Asaba side. As it is, how do you blame Late Gen. Murtala alone? But for the disobedience of superior orders, losses would not have been sustained to the magnitude of the assumed 1,500 troops. The other area I disagree with Brig. Gen. Isama is the assertion that the Yoruba's won the war. The war was won by collective efforts of all true Nigerians from the North, Mid-West and Western regions respectively through overt and covert contributions.

Let me ask Brig. Gen. Isama how the Yoruba's won the war? 1st Division of Nigerian Army was led by one of the finest introvert officer, Mag. Gen. Muhammed Shua, aided by co-fine introvert officer, Lt. Gen. T.Y. Danjuma, and host of other officers mainly from Northern Region. The gallant infantry men were from Northern Region especially the Middle Belt – the Bachamas Godogodos and other fierce looking special height natured soldiers.

The 2nd division which was hurriedly set up to check mate the Biafran incursion into the Mid-West was led by Late Gen. Murtala Muhammed, backed at the rear by Gen Olusegun Obasanjo before being re-deployed to 3rd Marine Commando, five weeks before the end of the civil war. There are other officers of various ethnicity that assisted the GOC Colonel Adekunle to win the area of his command in River State/ Escavos.

The most hostile terrain was the Eastern Region which Gen. Muhammed Shua/ T.Y Danjuma commanded successful without heavy causalities as compared to the friendly areas occupied by Biafran Soldiers.

The last straw that contributed to the total wining of the war was when the Nigerian Currency was changed at the advisory instance of late Abdulazeez Attah, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Finance, to his boss late Chief Obefemi Awolowo, Minister, Federal Ministry of Finance. The many positive contributions to national growth by the minority ethnic groups is normally acclaimed by majority ethnic groups; that is why late Abdulazeez Attah was not given due recognition for the advice that brought about Biafran surrender.

Four months after the change of Nigeria Currency, starvation set in affecting the whole area under the command of Biafran Soldiers. As the hungry man is an angry man, high combat orders were fragrantly disobeyed and confusion set in any time ration were sent to each Brigade area of the Biafran Military outfits. The other ranks disobeyed their officers and often, physically assaulted their officers, hence, the Biafran highest command had no option but to advise their acclaimed Commander In Chief, Clolonel Odumegu Ojuckwu, to run away and subsequently, his subordinates arranged a surrender to the Nigeria Authority under the headship of General Yakubu Gowan on 12th January 1970.

Those alive among the combatants when I was covering the civil war front are, Former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Brig. Gen. Zamani Lekwot, Maj. Gen. David Jemibewon, present Emir of Gwandu, Colonel Muhammed Jega, Gen. I.B.M Haruna, Brig. Gen. D.D. Joradam, Maj. Gen. Ike Nwachukwu, Lt. Gen. Akinrinade, Maj. Gen. M.C Ali, Maj. Gen. Oladipo Diya with whom were all in 2nd division, Nigeria Army and host of other officers.

As a war correspondent of an un-propagated quiet note, I had the privilege of covering the first crisis that metamorphosed into political crisis – coup – The Wild Wild West – operation wet (Agbe-Koya). I covered the operation for Nigerian Citizen Newspaper, Kaduna, Flamingo Magazine and freelanced with some foreign media (print/electronics).

After the coup of 15th January, 1966, I covered the 7 days Israel –Arab conflict of July 1967. On arrival home (Okene) on 17/7/67, the Biafrans invaded Okene, I was arrested by the Biafran Soldiers but the sympathy grace of God saved me. Three days after, the Nigeria Troops arrived Okene, I accompanied the troops to the end of the civil war on 12th January, 1970.

But for lack of backing from any quarters, there is no war correspondents that are as rich as I do in pictorial stories from the 3 war fronts. I roved around, gave intelligence/ surveillance and propagated the Federal troops to the best of my ability, reasons for which I was conscripted into the Nigerian Army on the recommendation of Late Gen. Murtala and commissioned as non-regimental Captain. My training at the School of Ideology in Ghana 1963 – 1964, Diploma Certificate in Criminology obtained from Cairo University (through correspondence), my field practical experience of coverage of operation Wild Wild West tagged 'operation Wet 'E' crisis, Western Region 1965, and seven days coverage of Isreal/Arab conflict (July 1967) was among reasons I was considered for the rank of Captain.

Unfortunately, some Nigerians who, in patriotism, served Nigeria ended up unremunerated, unrecognized, forgotten and neglected by subsequent governments. This present total unpatriotic posed the reality of weather most Nigerians are ready to die for Nigeria.

Only few of those who really fought that Nigeria remain one indivisible entity are enjoying. So, please Brig. Gen Godwin Alabi-Isama, let the sleeping dog lie alone, those who truly fought for Nigeria are suffering silently.

However, by the special grace of God and assistance from well-meaning Nigerians and organizations who value records of past that makes corrective present and future, I shall published my own true un-bias Memoir of the civil war inclusive of the facts that brought about the first coup of 15th January 1966 which somersaulted into the civil war.

Written by Ahmed Adoke
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