Col. Lambert Ogbonna Ihenacho, psc+ FSS, mni
(Nigerian Army) 1965-1967; 1972-1990
Lt. Col. Lambert Ihenacho (Biafran Army) 1967-1970
Col. Lambert Ogbonna Ihenacho, one of Biafra’s most successful military commanders, passed away Wednesday July 8, 2020 from natural causes. He was born on December 24, 1944 in Upe, in Ngor Okpala LGA of Imo State. He has since been buried in Owerri. He retired from the Nigerian Army as a colonel on September 3, 1990, At the time, he had recently served as the Principal Staff Officer (Colonel General Staff) for the Second Division of the Nigerian Army based in Ibadan, then commanded by Major General Joshua Dogonyaro. He retired as the Director, Faculty of Joint Studies at the Command and Staff College, Jaji.
During the battles for his native Owerri/Ngor Okpala in 1968/1969, Ihenacho, then a 25-year-old Biafran lieutenant colonel, and commander of the 63rd Brigade under the 14th Division commanded by Brigadier Ogbugo Kalu, was featured in TIME magazine, the American newsweekly.
A white veteran war correspondent by the name of James Wilde appeared one day at the 63d Brigade Hq. at Umuohiagu, the site of today’s Owerri Airport, a stone throw from the criminal Nigerian Air Force bombing of the central market. As Ihenacho writes:
“James Wilde looked me in the eye and asked most incredulously as he looked: “Are you the Colonel?” I wanted to know from him “which Colonel” he was referring to. He replied: “The Brigade Commander!” I answered in the affirmative. Then he observed: “But you look very young from what I have heard about you, but how old are you?” I told him that I was twenty-five-years-old. He nodded and amazement lit his countenance.”
The white reporter tagged along as Ihenacho and his men went into battle, refusing all of Ihenacho’s entreaties to at least wear a helmet as the battle for Umuneke raged. James Wilde’s report appeared in the April 4, 1969 issue of TIME.
On the 22nd of April 1969, Lt. Col. Ihenacho led the assault to recapture the strategic city of Owerri after a six-month siege and fierce fighting. His 63rd Brigade had been engaging the Nigerian 14th Brigade commanded by Lt. Col. Agbazika Innih. Their theatre of battle ranged from the Owerri-Umuahia Road at Enyiogugu to Emii and from Naze to Agbala and along the stretch of the Owerri-Aba Road and encompassing all of Ngor Okpala, which Innih’s brigade had overrun in September 1968. The Biafran Special (“S”) Division meanwhile was laying the siege around Owerri, where the Nigerian 16th Division commanded by Lt. Col. Eddie Etuk had been bottled up since October 1968, barely one month after it captured Owerri on September 16. Laying the siege from the south was the Biafran 60th and 68th Brigades under the “S” Division commanded by Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu.
In December 1968, Commander-in-Chief General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu had tasked Lt. Col. Joe Achuzie to take over the 14th Division led by Brigadier Ogbugo Kalu and liberate Owerri town as a “New Year gift” to Biafra. Well, Achuzie, who was also called “Hannibal” and “Air Raid,” got his Task Force together, with Major Theodore Atumaka as the leader of the assault. But immediately it became known that Achuzie was in command a great number of the Task Force soldiers deserted, afraid that any mistake they made, Achuzie would shoot them. With this unforeseen development, Major Atumaka advised Achuzie that since more than half of the soldiers meant for the operation had deserted, the operation should be delayed to get in reinforcements and weapons. However, Achuzie insisted that the assault should go on regardless. The 14th Division task force fought all the way to Emmanuel College, and then ran out of ammunition, amid withering enemy fire. To make matters worse, Major Atumaka was shot in the head at Emmanuel College. Some of his men carried his lifeless body and came stumbling out of the front to the rear, only for Achuzie to shoot them thinking they were stragglers! It was a total disaster and Ojukwu wasted no time reinstating Brigadier Ogbugo Kalu.
With Umuahia, the new Biafran capital after Enugu, about to fall in April 1969, it was urgent that the six-month siege of Owerri be brought to a quick conclusion so that Biafra could move its capital once again. Aba was out of the question being under enemy control. Ojukwu had transferred Col. Onwuatuegwu from the “S” Division to come and help with the fighting at Umuahia, leaving the division in the hands of former militia leader Lt. Col. Joe Achuzie and Lt. Col. Azum Asoya. The 60th and the 68th Brigades had been tightening the noose around Owerri, and coming from Egbema had captured Omanelu, Umuapu, Umuagwo, and Obinze, but were bogged down in a stalemate. But the Biafran high command was desperate, and looked around for a new solution and a new commander. One not named Achuzie.
In mid-April 1969, Brigadier Kalu, commander of the 14th Division, sent out summons for Lt. Col. Ihenacho, commander of his 63rd Brigade, to appear at the Division Headquarters at Atta, Ikeduru. It was a time of emergency because the Nigerian Army was about to capture Umuahia, and if they controlled Owerri as well, where would the Biafran government go? Biafra had shrunk considerably, and the loss of Umuahia would mean that all the main Biafran cities were in enemy hands. Brigadier Kalu was seated in his office in the company of his staff officers when Ihenacho arrived. Then this encounter:
“Look Lambert, I have a serious assignment for you,” said Kalu, to which Ihenacho replied, “OK, sir.” Then Kalu continued: “It has become necessary and really expedient to clear the enemy from Owerri. I know your brigade is still fighting a formidable enemy but I will bring you out briefly to lead the assault on Owerri. I will provide the logistics needed to carry out this job but I will allow you to use one of your battalions for the assault. Major Anyiam (the late famous footballer) is to head your logistics team. All units in contact with the enemy in Owerri will be under your command throughout the operation. Because of the emergency we have in our hands, I will give you only seven days from now to accomplish this task. I know you can do it but please do not disappoint us. Let me know the day you will go in and your H-hour. Any questions?
Iheancho took his Vengeance (“V”) Battalion commanded by Major Cyril Anuforo, nicknamed “Kawawa.” Then he planned an operation which would split the federal troops in Owerri into pockets to destroy their cohesiveness and make command and control very difficult for them. The eventual course of the battle showed that Ihenacho’s men would have wrecked more havoc than they did on the Nigerians had the Biafrans had any heavy weapons. Even the promised full complement of explosives were not sent and hampered the objective to destroy the bridge on the Nworie River between Ama JK and the Assumpta Cathedral/Orlu Road Junction on Port Harcourt Road. At any rate, almost 90% of the Federal troops commanded by the very resourceful Nigerian commander Lt. Col. Etuk was wiped out. At the fighting around Ama JK, the Biafrans killed a Nigerian major, the Brigade Major Ted Hamman, in close fighting. According to Ihenacho:
“Having captured the initial objectives, the company at the bridgehead [on Port Harcourt Road] was now ready to ransack Shell Camp area where we were told they held Briafran war prisoners. I held them back because the enemy was attacking furiously to recapture the bridge and the Catering Rest House Complex including Ama JK. In the fighting around Ama JK, a federal army major was killed at very close range. My CO asked me if he was to recover the body of the major and I told him to do so if that would not cost us unnecessary casualties. He made attempts to recover it but the federal fire power was overwhelming in that enterprise.”
The Biafran 60th Brigade and the Biafran Special (“S”) Division which had been laying the siege on Owerri for many months without success held their defensive positions while the V Battalion of Ihenacho’s 63rd Brigade commanded by Major Cyril (Kawawa) Anuforo carried out the assault. Under the cover of darkness at the end of the first day of fighting, the “clever” Lt. Col. Etuk, the commander of the Nigerian 16th Brigade, brought together their heavy weapons, armoured personnel carriers, and tanks and 300 Nigerian soldiers, the only remnants of the 3,000 Nigerian soldiers who had been surrounded in Owerri for months, and blasted their way out of Owerri through the Umuguma Road. But they left behind vehicles, machine guns, artillery and untold quantities of rifles and ammunition.
Ihenacho was a lieutenant in the Nigerian Army in 1967 and narrowly escaped death a year earlier in Kano, at the Fifth Battalion, which had until recently been commanded by Lt. Col. C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Igbo officers, NCOs and soldiers were rounded up right after the July 29 coup, and taken to the Wudil Prison in town. The Battalion’s adjutant, one Lt. Gora,would appear every morning to call out a name, and then he and his colleagues would take the individual out and execute him. Gora started with Major Ihedigbo, the second-in-command of the battalion, which was now commanded by Lt. Col. Mohammed Shuwa. Without showing any sign of respect to his superior officer, he called: “Ihedigbo come out.” As their numbers reduced with each passing day, it was getting to Ihenacho’s turn. The two had had a previous encounter whereby Gora reported Ihenacho to Lt. Col. Ojukwu, who resolved the matter without making either of them lose face. Ihenacho kept being threatened by Gora, who often came into the cell to point his pistol at Ihenacho. But Gora never called his name, because Gora and Oparaji were friends and had been trained together as officer cadets in Pakistan, and it appeared Gora owed some kind of debt to Oparaji which Oparaji never revealed to Ihenacho. Eventually the killings stopped after the direct intervention of the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, who declared that he had always been a friend to the Igbos and strongly deplored what was going on. Oparaji rose to become a colonel in Biafra, and also later became a colonel in the Nigerian Army. At the 5th Battalion, Kano, was a certain Lt. Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu who had been sprung from the barracks by his maternal uncle Lt. Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, the military governor of Northern Nigeria, and taken to a “safe place.”
Lt. William Archibong and Ihenacho, former schoolmates at the Nigerian Military School (before they went to officer cadet school), had become fast friends, and were together in the prison. Lt. Col. Willy Archibong was one of Biafra’s most fearless officers. He was a daredevil fighter and his reputation, just like Ihenacho’s, became legendary, and even more so. He would send his officers to begin the battle, then take a handful of soldiers and “sneak” behind enemy lines as the battle raged, intending to kill the enemy officers stationed at the rear. He died in one such battle at the Ikot Ekpene sector, and his brigade lost five officers and other men trying to recover his body which was carried away by federal troops. His loss was felt very badly by the entire Biafran Army. He had started out in the Ogoja sector, while Ihenacho had fought at Nsukka, Enugu-Ezike, Zik Farms and Zik Flats and later at Nsude/9th Mile Corner, Enugu. Ihenacho was promoted to major very quickly in Nsukka; he was made the commander of the new 6th Battalion and he developed tactics to impede the movement of Nigerian armoured cars and tanks and slow down the Nigerian advance to Enugu.
.The nominal commander of the S [Special] Division at the Owerri sector was Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, but at the time in April 1969, he was on temporary posting to the Umuahia sector and his division was being led by Lt. Col. Joe Achuzia, along with Lt. Col. Azum Asoya. Although a lot of noise has been made of Joe Achuzie in the war, most trained Biafran Army officers had little regard for him. Without naming him, Ihenacho wrote about how trained and committed Biafran Army officers, battalion commanders, brigade commanders stayed unusually very close to the fighting. For instance, as a brigade commander fighting to dislodge the Nigerian 14th Brigade under Lt. Col. Agbazika Innih at Enyiogugu and the Eke Isu Market, Ihenacho was stationed only two miles from the trenches directing the attacks and counter-attacks. And due to his thorough knowledge of the area and his creative battle plans he eventually succeeded in controlling the strategic Eke Isu market square and blunted the Nigerian Army’s march to Umuahia.
However, somebody like Achuzie usually stayed well behind the fighting, up to ten miles away, “just catching stragglers.” Ihenacho said that although Achuzie had little knowledge of military tactics and strategy, he acknowledged that Achuzie was passionate about Biafra. He was however deeply resentful of the fact that Achuzie was reckless with people’s lives. He cited the cases of soldiers and the commanding officers withdrawing from a battle because they had run out of bullets, and then Achuzie would show up and shoot them to death. Ihenacho said he gave an order that if anyone of his soldiers saw Achuzie in his sector they should shoot him. He added that if Biafra had won the war, they would have made sure that Achuzie was court-martialed. However, the Nigerian government kept Achuzie in detention for over ten years citing the crimes he committed against his supposed comrades in Biafra. When he was finally released, he lamented that his white wife had left him during the course of his long detention. When they met years after the war, Ihenacho said that the diminutive Achuzie had changed to become a quiet, pleasant man.
“I was not alone in declaring Col. Achuzie an unwanted person in my area of operation. Maj. William Archibong (later Lt. Col. Archibong) and many other field commanders thought the same of Col. Achuzie and some even went further than I did. There was a serious gun duel between Achuzie and Archibong. Achuzie was just lucky to have escaped alive. He nearly paid for the atrocities he committed against ignorant, half-baked soldiers. Soldiers who literally faced the enemy with bare hands having fired the last round of their bolt-action rifles without bayonets and who should have been helped and encouraged to continue to endure were brutally handled. Many were shot dead and abandoned like animals.”
Col. Ihenacho’s sector included the Owerri-Aba Road, from Agbala all the way to Ulakwo to Owerrinta and the Imo River. As well as the territory on both sides of the highway. As such the territory included the whole of Ngor Okpala all the way to Umuekwune, Obokwe/Orisheze, Alulu, Elelem, Nguru, Umuowa, Umuneke, Obiangwu, Logara, Mbutu Okohia, and Eziama. Ihenacho’s 63rd Brigade had recaptured this whole area up to the Imo River and had reduced Agbazika Innih’s Nigerian 14th Brigade to an ineffective force by March 1969. Then came intelligence reports that the Nigerian 14th Brigade was massing weapons and armament to recapture lost areas. Once finished with Owerri, Ihenacho returned to his sector to confront the regrouping Nigerians. To add to his battalions, Brigadier Kalu got for him the “Strike Force” Battalion, a unit on loan from the 60th Brigade. It was then that Col. Ihenacho first met one Captain Achike Udenwa, one of the company commanders. Ihenacho wrote: “I noticed that Captain Udenwa was the quiet type. He looked calm but was very intelligent and effective in his command. He soon melted into his battalion and I did not see him again until much later after the war when he was elected as the Governor of the Imo State in 1999.”
On January 8, 1970, as the Biafran resistance finally collapsed and the Nigerian 3 Marine Commandos Division coming from Aba and Elele were once again inside Owerri, Brigadier Kalu ordered Ihenacho to take over control and gather some of the Biafran troops many of whom had joined the civilians surging towards the Njaba Bridge on their way to Orlu. Brigadier Kalu charged him to mount a counterattack, explaining that he was hurrying to join General Effiong to broadcast Biafra’s surrender and prevent a massacre. The counterattack was not meant to recapture lost ground, but to give a little time for the brave Biafran leader Gen. Phillip Effiong, who didn’t turn tail and run away, to get to the Biafran Radio shortwave transmitter hidden in the bush, to announce the unilateral ceasefire by Biafran forces, and acceptance of Nigerian sovereignty. After a brief moderated firefight, the whole venture ended, and Ihenacho observed that the victorious Nigerian troops did not fire on the fleeing Biafran civilians they passed once the broadcast was finally made at about 4:30 PM. Thereafter, like other Biafran soldiers, he pulled out his insignia and ranks, and melted into the crowds of Biafran refugees, as he walked to Ogborji, near Ekwulobia, where his wife was with her parents. Col. Onwuatuegwu was not so lucky. He was killed at a Nigerian military checkpoint as he was trying to escape into Cameroun.
After the war Ihenacho, like some other Biafran military officers, who were previously in the Nigerian Army, were ordered to report to Owerri. Full of trepidation about what would be their fate, he did report. And that was after his mother-in-law, Mrs. Comfort Amaogechukwu Nwuba (née Okoli, the younger sister of Dr. Mrs. Christy Achebe, the wife of the famous writer Prof. Chinua Achebe) had walked the 41 miles to Owerri accompanied by Ihenacho’s former military batman Corporal Arthur Ndukauba to scout Owerri to be sure that Ihenacho would be safe. At Owerri, he reunited with several of his erstwhile Biafran colleagues.
The ex-Biafran officers underwent documentation that went on for days on end, all the while snickered at by their conquerors. However, not long afterwards they were transported to Port Harcourt, to face a panel. But this time the exercise was led by Brigadier Adeyinka Adebayo, the military governor of Western Nigeria (after Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi), who brought a big salutary change. He said Brigadier Adebayo treated them very humanely, with sympathy. He was very unhappy seeing their malnourished, dejected and badly clad appearance. Adebayo quickly ordered that they should each be given a bag of rice, beans, and salt and monthly allowance. Ihenacho wrote:
“Most of his colleagues and juniors were obviously hostile on that account. General Adebayo as a properly commissioned officer did not give a damn about raw and dirty feelings. He insisted that commissioned officers were entitled to a level of respect. And he enforced it.”
Eventually they were transported to Lagos. After almost a two-year period when they just waited, the “lucky ones” were informed they would be reabsorbed but at the ranks they held before the war and would receive no promotion for four years (although this turned out to be three years).
Ihenacho was posted to the 186 Battalion of the Nigerian Army at Mokola Barracks, Ibadan, under the Second Mechanized Division commanded by Major General James Oluleye. And who turned out to be his battalion commander? Col. Eddie Etuk, the commander of the 16th Brigade of the 3rd Marine Commandos he had narrowly missed capturing in Owerri on April 23rd 1969. The man he said he had wanted to capture with his bare hands and demystify. As you can imagine, when he went to Etuk’s office to officially report for duty, Etuk was cold to him. However, after he retired from the Army, Etuk sent him a warm letter.
As a Nigerian lieutenant colonel and commander of the 69 Battalion in Sirti, near the Cameroonian border, Ihenacho was in 1980 posted along with his battalion to the UN peace-keeping known as UNIFIL at the Israeli-Lebanese border. His unit was the 7th Nigerian contingent at UNIFIL, and it was called NIBATT VII.
With the rank of Colonel he was a director of the Command and Staff College, Jaji, when a junior officer who had served with him in the 2nd Division, Major Gideon Orkar, along with Lt. Col. Anthony “Tony” Nyiam, both “Directing Staff” and working under him at Jaji, joined with Major Saliba Mukoro, PhD, to lead a coup d’etat against the military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida on April 22, 1990. That coup failed, and when the investigation into the coup uncovered a document in which the coup plotters made known their intention to appoint Col. Lambert Ihenacho the new Chief of Army Staff, Babangida’s Directorate of Military Intelligence arrested him at Jaji and flew him to Lagos, and onwards to their headquarters at Yaba where they interrogated him. However, the detained suspects vigorously said Ihenacho did not know anything about the coup attempt. The Army therefore sent him back to his duty post at Jaji. But come September 3, 1990, he was retired as a colonel, just when he was about to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier. There was also a purge of the ex-Biafran officers.
Colonel had never in the past lobbied for a political appointment. Indeed Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe had once told him that the High Command was aware of his abilities but had said that some of the “good soldiers” should be left in the Army to maintain its effectiveness. While Ihenacho was serving as the Colonel GS at the 2nd Division, the governor of Imo State, Brigadier-General Ike Nwachukwu, who had served with him as second-lieutenants in 5th Battalion, Kano, under Lt. Col. C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, had requested the Army to allow him to come and serve part-time on the Board of the Nigerian Cement Co., Nkalagu, which he handled with great acclaim as Chairman. Later, Governor Udenwa appointed him Chairman of the Imo Transport Corporation, which again he handled with great integrity and success. He was the running mate for Engr. Charles Ugwu under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the truncated governorship race in Imo State in 2007.
Colonel Lambert Ihenacho came from Upe, two villages away from mine, and was practically an “honorary member” of my family; my father was in many respects his big brother. The Igbo people have lost a great son. He will be sorely missed, and will be forever remembered. He leaves behind his loving wife Dr. (Mrs) Eucharia “UK” Ihenacho (native of Umudioka, Awka), his three sons: Hon. Lambert Ihenacho, Jr.; Captain Kemakolam Ihenacho (Nigerian Navy); Engr. Ikechukwu Ihenacho; and his daughter Dr. (Mrs.) Almaz Ngozi Brown.
(His autobiography published in 2014 is titled A GUIDED LIFE.)