The Abagana Ambush which happened on March 31, 1968 was an ambush by Biafran guerrilla troops that wiped out the Nigerian 2 Division. Of the 6,000 Nigerian troops ambushed, only a very small number survived, including the 2nd Division’s commander, General Murtala Muhammed.
The Nigerian Civil War also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War or the Biafran war was a civil war fought between the government of Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state which had declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967.
Nigeria was led by General Yakubu Gowon, while Biafra was led by Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu. Biafra represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo ethnic group, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the federal government dominated by the interests of the Muslim Hausa-Fulanis of northern Nigeria.
The war which began on the early hours of 6 July 1967 when Nigerian Federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra’ lasted for 3 years and 6 months.
While the Nigerian army had more ammo, manpower and the support of the international community, the Biafran army had only guts, hope and used mostly guerrilla warfare like ambushes, hit-and-run tactics to fight the Nigerian army.
One of such guerrilla ambush employed by the Biafran troops was the Abagana Ambush of march 31st, 1968. The ambush ended up wiping out the entire Nigerian 2 Division. Of the 6,000 Nigerian troops ambushed, only a very small number survived, including the 2nd Division’s commander, General Murtala Muhammed.
The Abagana Ambush
On 31 March 1968, a convoy consisting of 106 vehicles belonging to the Nigerian 2nd Division transporting 6,000 soldiers, as well as armour from the captured city of Onitsha to Enugu was ambushed and decimated in the town of Abagana by a small unit of just 700 Biafran soldiers led by Major Jonathan Uchendu.
Homemade Ogbunigwe rocket missiles were launched by the Biafrans at a tanker truck carrying gasoline which caused an enormous explosion destroying many of the convoy’s armoured vehicles and killing a large number of Nigerian troops. 350 tons of Nigerian Army equipment were destroyed or captured by the Biafran troops. After the rocket attack the Biafran soldiers opened fire on the convoy killing many more Nigerian soldiers. It was during this ambush that the Nigerian army suffered the heaviest single loss in the civil war.
In his own words, Major Jonathan Uchendu said the sight of the convoy almost paralyzed his troops. His boys were so anxious to start firing, more out of panic than anything else. He asked them to remain calm until he gave the command. He allowed much of the Nigerian 2 Division convoy to pass through. His boys were shocked why he would allow them go through into the Biafran held zone. They were nervous and suspicious, yet they trusted his military gallantry and so awaited to know his strategy. He said they concluded that the war was over, but as brave soldiers, they must fight to the last!
The Biafran army allowed the Nigerian army to march right into their midst before raining bullets on them. A locally made rocket called Ogbunigwe was crucially used during the Ambush. One of the Ogbunigwe rockets was launched directly at a fuel tanker in the Nigerian army convoy leading to chains of explosions which created a 450-metre great fire that incinerated men and metals within seconds. 350 tons of Nigerian Army equipment were destroyed or captured by the Biafran troops.
After the rocket attack the Biafran soldiers opened fire on the convoy who had already crossed over into the Biafran line, killing many more Nigerian soldiers.
As the attack was ongoing, Major Uchendu learned that Muritala Muhammed was with his convoy somewhere in Nawfia, he set off hurriedly to capture him but was late as Muritala fled with an helicopter.
The successful ambush at Abagana gave both Biafran soldiers and civilians hope in the war as well as temporarily halting the Nigerian advance into Biafran territory. General Murtala Muhammed was relieved of his command and never commanded a division again