Biafra: The Mercenaries

  • Share
  • Read Later

From the outset, the war between Nigeria and secessionist Biafra loomed as an unequal contest. It was not surprising that, as in the earlier Congo conflicts, foreign mercenaries were drawn to Biafra to practice their trade: fighting. Nor was it surprising that the beleaguered Biafrans accepted their services—despite the fact that mercenaries can be narrow, violent men who often harbor a deep contempt for Africans. In the midst of the idealism with which Biafra pleaded its cause for independence, the mercenaries have operated—sometimes ugly, certainly anomalous, but perhaps necessary to Biafra's continued survival.

In 16 months of often brutal fighting, Nigerian federal troops have whittled Biafra down to one-tenth of its original area. They are now closing in on Umuahia, the secessionist state's last major town and the current seat of Lieut. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu's movable government. Umuahia would have long since fallen had it not been for the exploits of the best unit in Ojukwu's small army, Biafra's Fourth Commando Brigade. Commanded by nine white mercenaries, the Fourth spent the first three months of the year operating behind Nigerian lines. Later, it held sectors on the Western front but, outgunned and outmanned by the federals, was forced to retreat. By early September, after a doomed attempt to defend Aba with supplies equal to only a daily average of five rounds of ammunition per man, the Fourth was down to barely 1,000 effectives. Of the 7,000-odd men with whom it had started the campaign, more than 300 had been killed and 2,200 had been wounded. The rest were missing in action.

Record Supplies. Last week the Fourth Commandos were once more rebuilding under the command of a German-born ex-Foreign Legion sergeant who became a sector commander for the S.A.O. (Secret Army Organization) in Algeria and then a colonel for Ojukwu in Biafra. He is Rolf Steiner, and he considers the war to be far from lost, contemptuously dismissing the territorial gains of the heavily armed Nigerians. "If any corporal serving under me in the Legion had taken more than a week to conquer West Africa with their kind of equipment," he snorts, "I'd have him shot for dereliction of duty." Ojukwu, for whom Steiner has immense admiration, has authorized the Fourth to be expanded to two brigades, or 20 strike forces of 360 men each. The new men are being armed with weapons apparently bought with private European credits and flowing into Biafra from neighboring Gabon and the Portuguese island of São Tomé. Up to as much as 40 tons are said to be arriving every night—more than ever before in the war.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3