Col Joe Achuzia, Biafra’s Unlikely Hero

I was only a toddler during the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War. But I knew there was a war. In fact, I remember saying goodbye to my father as he left with one of my uncles for the war. Among the things he took with him was a bunch of unripe plantains which he carried in one hand and with the other, carried his bag. I stood inside the compound and watched them leave. Luckily, they both survived the war, though they are both no more today. My knowledge of that war at the time, however depended on what my family said about it. The only characters I knew were Gen Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria and General Odumegwu Ojukwu of Biafra. We made songs about the two men, with Ojukwu being praised and Gowon, lampooned. I also remember the day three Biafran soldiers stormed our compound and demanded for livestock to which we said we had none. When pressed further, we showed them a hen and her brood of chicks but the soldiers must have either decided it wouldn’t provide enough of their meat requirements or that it was brutal to snuff the life out of an innocent mother hen. They left our compound for one of our neighbour’s and very shortly we heard shouts from there as the soldiers made away with their sheep. That was the only time I encountered soldiers during that conflict.
But if my knowledge of the civil war was centred on those isolated memories, it is not so for many people, especially those who fought in that war, and those old enough to witness the accompanying horrors.To these people, the name, Achuzia, was synonymous with uncommon courage, sheer bravery and iron cast determination. These three qualities of Achuzia actually represented the spirit of Biafra in those days. Yes, those were extremely difficult and trying times for the then people of Eastern Nigeria. They were forced into the trenches unprepared after the holocaust called the pogroms of 1966 in which their people were slaughtered in parts of Northern Nigeria. Those who survived, ran home for safety only to realize that they had their backs against the wall. It was a kill-or-be-killed situation. War, thus, became inevitable. But it was a one-sided war; in fact, one of the most one-sided in the history of modern warfare. That was why it was originally described by the Gowon-led Federal Government as a police action, meaning that the ”rebels” would be rounded up in a matter of weeks and normalcy restored. But we know better today. That police action snowballed into a full-blown war that took the better part of 30 months. That it lasted that long was because of the never-say-die spirit of our people or Biafrans. They defied the bullets and mortar bombs of the enemy, as well as the enemy’s starvation policy. Even as their children died of Kwashiorkor, they buried them and fought on, whether in the battle field or outside. One of the heroes of this heroic stance was none other than a certain Colonel Joe Achuzia, alias ”Air Raid”. No one would have thought that this non-professional soldier would have made such a name for himself.Known as Hannibal,he was not even a commissioneofficer before the war started. An Igbo man from Asaba, he came back from London, UK,where he lived, to join the war. He became a Major in the Biafran Army. According to reportsJoe made sure that the Nigerian side lost more soldiers than the Biafrans. One report described him thus, ‘Joe was so deadly he killed nearly 300,000 Nigerian soldiers (though Nigeria has classified this information). Joe was loyal to Biafra till the end.
‘He never rejoined the Nigerian Army like many others did. Joe was so devastating to the Nigerian Army that he was nicknamed THE HANNIBAL. Hannibal Was a Carthaginian general who killed many Roman soldiers (sometimes eating their flesh) during the 2nd Punic war in the 3rd Century BC.’
From available reports, Achuzia saw action in the war in the following:
Biafran 11th Battalion
Biafran S Division
First Invasion of Onitsha
Second Invasion of Onitsha
Invasion of Port Harcourt
Operation OAU
Siege of Owerri
Operation Tail-Wind
Achuzia was loved and feared at the same time by his troops. He was a no-nonsense officer who was reputed to show no mercy to weaklings. Legend even has it that he would not hesitate to shoot deserters. But despite that, he was an inspiration to his officers and men and whenever any situation became too tough and hot, the name on every lip to save that situation would almost always be Achuzia. No wonder he was close to the Biafran leader, OdumegwuOjukwu’s heart. Achuzia never baulked at any assignment and often succeeded in many of those assignments.
He also loved publicity and would go to great lengths to get it. Even after the war, Achuzia had remained a true Biafran, serving as an official of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, OhanezeNdigbo; and as the secretary general of a pro-Biafra group, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB. What perhaps exemplify his unrelenting stance on Biafra were an interview he granted to Vanguard on 22 May, 2016 and the book he wrote on Biafra. In the interview, he had declared that Biafra never surrendered. He had stated thus, ‘We didn’t surrender. If there was a surrender, there must be a surrender terms of agreement. There must be a paper to that effect. Let them publish the terms of surrender, so that the country will know.’ The book he wrote was titled, ”Requiem Biafra”.He may have gone but his memory will not be lost on those who fought side by side with him in many sectors of the war. Students of History will also not forget his roles in that war and the fierce spirit he brought along that helped in no small measure. Achuzia was one of many other valiant men who staked their all, for their fatherland but whose memories are all but fading. I will not forget the colourful Timothy Onwuatuegwu, a carbon copy of Achuzia. Onwuatuegwu equally hugged the headlines for his acts of bravado. He took to publicity as a toad takes to water and often appeared to clash with Achuzia as they struggled for the klieglights. Sorry if I have digressed from the major theme.
But being a great fan of Biafran war heroes, it was difficult for me to talk about Achuzia without talking about Onwuatuegwu. I will want to however dedicate this week’s piece to all the Achuzia-like Biafran soldiers who staked their lives that we might live. They did that in the most hazardous conditions. They might have been defeated but they earned the respect of the enemy, even if grudgingly. It was no mean feat fighting with almost bare fists against a well-equipped enemy who enjoyed the backing of the pretentious British. Today, that war is history but we can do well to remember those heroes and give them the respect they thoroughly deserved; for without their sacrifices, I may not be writing this now and you will not be reading it either. But rather than call for another physical Biafra, I would rather want a Biafra of the mind where the ideals for which our fathers, brothers and sons fought and died, would be upheld. War, even if justified, is not something anyone would wish for. It sets people back more than anything imaginable. And with it always comes life changing situations – physically, emotionally and mentally.
As the people’s colonel joins his Biafran ancestors, I pray that the good lord accepts him in his heavenly kingdom where marginalisation and injustice are non-existent.
Adieu, Air Raid.