PROBABLY more than in any other period during the Nigerian civil war, the year 1968 witnessed the fiercest
and deadliest military engagements between the Federal Army and the secessionist forces. It was also a year of intense diplomatic
efforts to end the conflict.
And probably no single group caused so much devastation as did the Egyptian
pilots in their indiscriminate bombings of civilian centres in Biafra when they went on bombing missions on behalf of the
federal forces. As William Norris, a British journalist who covered the war, reported in his eyewitness account in the Sunday Times of London, 28 April 1968:
“I have seen things in Biafra this week which no man should have to see. Sights to scorch the mind
and sicken the conscience. I have seen children roasted alive, young girls torn in two by shrapnel, pregnant women eviscerated,
and old men blown to fragments. I have seen these things and I have seen their cause: high-flying Russian Ilyushin jets operated
by Federal Nigeria, dropping their bombs on civilian centres throughout Biafra.”
All the main towns in the secessionist region were bombed by Egyptian pilots flying Nigerian war planes.
They included Aba, Abakaliki, Afikpo, Arochuku, Awgu, Bonny, Brass, Degema, Ikot Ekpene, Itu, Okigwi, Onitsha, Opobo, Oron,
Owerri, Port Harcourt, Umuahia, and Uyo. Schools and hospitals and other places where civilians sought refuge were also bombed.
So were numerous villages across Biafra.
President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was said to have asked President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to withdraw
his pilots in order to stop the bombing of Biafra:
“The Biafrans hoped that President Nyerere's close friendship with
President Nasser - whom he had visited in March (1968) - would influence him to withdraw Egyptian pilots flying MIGS. According
to a Biafran radio anouncement, such a request was in fact made by the Tanzanian Government.” - (Africa Contemporary Record, p. 220. See also the Biafran paper, The
Mirror, April-May 1968).
A few months earlier when federal troops took back Benin from the Biafrains, the secessionist forces did
not entirely lose out. It is true that with the loss of Benin, Ojukwu failed in a major strategic gamble to outmanoeuvre the
federal army. But he was able to seize and carry away a substantial amount of money from the Mid-West when Biafran troops
accupied the region from September to October 1967. The Biafrans took at least £2 million (2 million pounds) from the Benin
branch of the Federal Central Bank.
The money, together with an even bigger amount of £37 million which had been seized from branches of the
same bank at Enugu and Port Harcourt, gave the Biafran government substantial foreign exchange resources which they used to
help finance their war effort and put up stiff resistance against the federal forces although the Biafran troops were confined
to a very small area with millions of people. And Ojukwu himself kept the spirits high among his besieged brethren:
“With the crucial assistance of a mobile transmitting station still
using the signal of Radio Enugu, Biafra's charismatic leader welded the 8 million Ibos into a defiant and unyielding people
of immense fortitude, sagacity nd resourcefulness.” - (Africa
Contemporary Record, p. 553).