As in any war situation, desperation yields innovation, and this was the case during the destructive Biafran War in Nigeria which lasted from July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970. It was a deadly, brutally bloody war in which the Biafran fighters were not fully equipped with military equipment that could rival that of the Nigerian federal government. It was a war in which the Biafran fighters needed to go an extra mile and produce military weapons themselves to stem the tide of the Nigerian government soldiers who were more organized than the Biafran fighters.
The Biafran War in Nigeria came because of the attempt by the southeastern provinces of Nigeria to secede from the country. These provinces were mostly inhabited by the Igbo people. One of the lasting legacies of colonialism was Nigeria being carved into a political entity comprising of the north, mainly dominated by Muslims, and the south, which was mainly Christian and animist. The coup in 1966 saw General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, taking over as the President. However, a northern-led countercoup a few months later saw Aguiyi-Ironsi being killed and there were widespread retaliations against the Igbo.
Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military governor of Nigeria's then-Eastern Region accused the Nigerian federal government of marginalizing and killing thousands of ethnic Igbos living in the north. Fearing that the Igbo people would be harmed if they remained a part of Nigeria, Colonel Ojukwu declared the former Eastern Region a sovereign and independent republic under the name of Biafra on March 30, 1967. It was a unilateral move he made, and it was rejected by the federal authorities. That is when war between Nigeria and Biafra broke out in July 1967.
When the war started in July 1967, the Biafran armed forces lacked enough ammunition. Something had to be done – and it had to be done locally. The Biafran secessionists were determined to fight Nigerian aggression and defend their Eastern territory under their supreme leader Chukwuemeka "Emeka" Odumegwu-Ojukwu but they were simply short of arms and ammunition. They had to be self-sufficient. They had to rely on their innovation from the only university in Biafra then, the University of Nigeria Nsukka (then University of Biafra). Biafran scientists from the institution pooled their thoughts together to address the military imbalance that existed between Biafra and Nigeria. The development of an indigenous arms industry, spearheaded by the Research and Production (RAP) Organization of Biafra formed at the University of Biafra, birthed the production of ammunition, grenades, and armoured cars.
[[Image link=https://d7nm3c5ruslmy.cloudfront.net/africanexponent-com-client/images/44fc40b0-5196-47a6-aec2-1c7acac67d9e-bombedier_aspR_1.475_w503_h341_e400.JPG caption= A Biafran B-29 Bomber – African Military Blog]]
The most prominent product that came as a result of this innovation was the Ogbunigwe, which was a series of weapons systems amalgamating command detonation mines, improvised explosive devices, and rocket propelled missiles. Apart from the destruction that the war brought, there were some technological advancements from the side of Biafra that could have been built furthermore upon the reintegration of Biafra into Nigeria. The potential of these Biafran scientists was not tapped into by the Federal Government. Initially, the term Ogbunigwe referred to non-guided rocket propelled surface-to-air missiles, but they were later morphed into surface-to-surface missiles.
As Enugu, the then capital of Biafra was falling, the Biafra fighters were compelled to use the Ogbunigwe in warding off the incessant Nigerian attacks. Nigerian troops captured Enugu in October 1967 – and this was where the weapons were being manufactured. A retreating group of Biafran soldiers was fighting rearguard action against a battalion of heavily armed Nigerian troops at the Ugwuoba bridge along the old Enugu-Awka road – but they were running out of ammunition.
Their commander, as a measure of last resort, ordered the use of the Ogbunigwe surface to air missile they were equipped with, by launching them horizontally at the enemy instead of vertically as designed for anti-aircraft action. The results were swift, effective, and devastating. This incident led to the Biafra forces converting missiles so that they could be used as surface-to-surface missiles for the rest of the war. The flat trajectory method proved to be extremely useful. The Nigerian troops quickly retreated, leaving their dead behind.
In Igbo language, Ogbunigwe means “mass killer”. The Ogbunigwe was again effective during the Second Invasion of Onitsha, being used as surface-to-ship missile. Onitsha was a strategic point for both Biafra and Nigeria, and thus the tussle for it was always intense and bloody. When home-made OGBUNIGWE rocket artillery weapons were employed against the Nigerian troops on March 31, 1968, a total of 6000 Nigerian soldiers lost their lives with 106 vehicles in the convoy destroyed.
When the Biafran resistance was coming to an end, the Biafra Supreme Leader Colonel Ojukwu reflected on the technological gains that Biafra had made during the war. “In three years of war, necessity gave birth to invention… we built bombs, rockets, and we designed and built our own refinery, and our own delivery systems and guided them far. For three years, blockaded without hope of import, we maintained all our vehicles.”
“The state extracted and refined petrol, individuals refined petrol in their back gardens. We built and maintained our airports, we maintained them under heavy bombardment… we spoke to the world through a telecommunications system engineered by local ingenuity…In three years, we had broken the technological barrier, became the most advanced black people on earth.”
[[Image link=https://d7nm3c5ruslmy.cloudfront.net/africanexponent-com-client/images/38e136cb-32b5-49e8-be40-500657f0fba5-surface-rocket_aspR_1.841_w521_h283_e400.JPG caption= OGBUNIGWE surface to surface rocket tube in Umuahia War Museum – African Military Blog]]
In the words of Chinua Achebe and Vincent Chukwumeka, “Ogbunigwe bombs struck great terror in the hearts of many a Nigerian soldier and were used to great effect by the Biafran Army throughout the conflict...when the history of this war comes to be written, the Ogbunigwe and the shore batteries will receive special mention as Biafra’s greatest saviours. We have been able to wipe out more Nigerians with Ogbunigwe than with any imported weapon.”
The weapon system could have led to more development for Nigeria as a whole and Africa in terms of technological advancement. The technology systems developed by Biafra were a sufficient ground to turn Nigeria into a technology powerhouse that could even rival those of the world’s superpowers.