On May 30, 1967, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu made the official declaration of secession for the Eastern Region from Nigeria, proclaiming the birth of the Republic of Biafra. Later in July 1967, Nigerian military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, ordered the Nigerian Army high command to regain control of the Eastern Region.
As tensions between the Nigerian government and the secessionist state of Biafra escalated, Nsukka, strategically located in the northern border of Biafra, found itself at the crossroads of a battle that would later cost the lives of countless soldiers and civilians.
The battle of Nsukka was part of Operation Unicord, an offensive launched by the Nigerian Army at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War, that involved the capture of six major Biafran towns near their northern border.
The Launching of Operation Unicord
On July 2, 1967, the Nigerian Army began its offensive operations from the Northern part of Biafra. The First Area Command NA was organized into two brigades. Under the leadership of Maj. Sule Apollo, the 1st brigade advanced along the Ogugu-Ogunga-Nsukka road, while the 2nd brigade, led by Maj. Martin Adamu, moved down the Gakem-Obudu-Ogoja road.
In response, Biafran troops commanded by Brig. H.M. Njoku, defended their territory and initially repelled the Nigerian Army’s attack. However, the Nigerian Army adapted by recruiting local guides and informants to gather vital intelligence about Biafran forces, enabling them to adjust their strategy.
Over the course of 10 days, the Nigerian Army advanced southward, successfully capturing strategic Biafran towns including Nsukka, Ogugu, Ogunga, Ogoja, Gakem, and Obudu. This operation forced Biafran troops into disarray, marking a significant shift in the battle’s momentum.
Sixteen days later, following the Biafran retreat, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu attempted to regain control of Nsukka but was unsuccessful. The Nigerian Army had secured Nsukka but had to slow its advance towards Enugu due to the invasion of the Mid-Western region.
Nsukka served as the initial battleground in the Igbo heartland during the Civil War, a time that brought immense hardship to its people. What made their suffering even more agonizing was the unjust label of “saboteurs” and “cowards” thrust upon them by fellow Biafrans as they sought refuge in other parts of Igboland.
Regrettably, Nsukka residents were falsely accused of collaborating with federal forces, a charge that led to them being denied assistance, shelter, and empathy in the other Igbo towns they fled to. It was reported that some refugees from Nsukka were forced to disembark at the 9th Mile Corner in Ngwo, Udi Division, where adult males among them faced humiliation and allegations of betrayal towards Biafra.
The treatment of refugees by local vigilantes within the Igbo community significantly contributed to the tragic loss of many Igbo individuals who were trying to evade the advancing Nigerian forces.
- Omipidan, T. (2023, November 2). The Nigerian Civil War: why and how it happened (1967-1970). OldNaija. https://oldnaija.com/2020/07/26/the-nigerian-civil-war/
- Obi-Ani, N. A., & Ojiakor, N. E. (n.d.). THE NIGERIA-BIAFRA WAR AND THE OCCUPATION OF NSUKKA AND ENUGU AREAS OF BIAFRA:1967-1979 [PDF]. Nnamdi Azikiwe University.
- Teslim Omipidan. (2023, November 2). Ojukwu’s Letter to Victor Banjo Commanding Him to Invade Western Region. OldNaija. https://oldnaija.com/2017/03/27/letter-from-lt-col-ojukwu-to-lt-col-victor-banjo-commanding-him-to-liberate-western-nigeria/