Biafra: The Mercenaries
Friday, Oct. 25, 1968
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.
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.
Colonel Steiner, 38, has been soldiering for most of his life. In the final days of World War II, he fought as a Hitler Youth in Germany’s last-ditch defense against the advancing U.S. Army. After the German surrender, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He spent seven years in Indo-China, an enfant terrible who was at least twice busted from sergeant to private. At Dienbienphu, he was wounded and lost the use of a lung. After five years of service in Algeria, a spell with the S.A.O. and a suspended sentence, he was living in Paris last year when he heard of Biafra. He set out to serve Ojukwu’s cause, first as a “technical adviser,” then as company commander, finally as boss of the Fourth Commando Brigade.
Red and Green.
He has taken the Legion with him to Africa. Legion marches blare from a transistorized pickup that he carries almost everywhere, and the Fourth Commando standard bears the red and green of the Legion. At inspections, Steiner often gets his troops’ attention by firing off a few rounds from his Browning, then lectures them, his walking stick under one arm. “You are not Legionnaires ” he will rant after a particularly bad showing. “You are not men.” He has demoted at least one captain to private, but has also been known to pick a good man from the ranks and make him an officer.
When he recently elevated a private to 2nd lieutenant, one of his officers complained: “My dear chap, we can’t have someone in the mess eating with his fingers.” Steiner, who speaks French and German, replied that he did not care if the man ate with his feet, as long as he was a good soldier.
Steiner likes beer, Benson & Hedges cigarettes, violence and very little else. Compulsively clean, he throws even slightly dusty plates at his mess waiters, then kicks them to drive the point home. But he also plucked a 21-year-old Ibo boy from the side of his dead parents, adopted him and named him Felix Chukwuemeka (after Ojukwu) Steiner.
The troops do not seem to mind the harshness of the command; they follow Steiner because they believe he is a winner and because he has juju (good luck). Thus Steiner has had no trouble refilling the depleted ranks of the Fourth at this late stage in the conflict. Guerrilla warfare may be the way out, he thinks. “If the towns are taken, we will go into the bush,” he says. “We could do the job. But we must have weapons. We don’t need armor. We need trucks. We don’t need much air. But spotter planes would be useful.”
Steiner’s mercenary officers are a mixed lot, united only by loyalty to their commander, distinguished only by their combat experience and their foibles.
Major Taffy, 34, Welsh and a veteran of the Fifth Commando mercenaries of the Congo, thinks he is bulletproof. By now, so do the federals, who have reported him dead at least five times since last December. Taffy came perilously close to being killed a few weeks ago, when a round smashed into his binoculars. Short-tempered, he curses his black troops constantly, threatening to kill them if they don’t obey orders. “You rotten bastards!” he roars, when things go wrong. “You bloody, treacherous morons!”
Captain Paddy, an Irishman who has spent 22 of his 54 years in Africa, is the unit’s master mechanic. Just before Port Harcourt fell to the federals early last summer, he scrounged up a convoy of trucks and liberated—under fire —the entire workshop of the Shell-B.P. refinery there. When Aba had to be evacuated last month for lack of ammo, Paddy was one of the last men out, a machine gun in one hand, a demijohn of wine in the other.
Captain Armand, a former French paratrooper and veteran of Algeria, sports a Yul Brynner pate and fights on despite bazooka fragments in one hand. Another veteran has just left Steiner.
Captain Alec, a onetime British paratrooper, used to walk around with a Madsen submachine gun, an FN rifle, and a shotgun, “just in case I have to shoot my way out of this bloody place.” He believed in the “little people,” who, he would say in all seriousness, “will jam your machine guns and cause your rockets to misfire.” He was wounded four times in six days before he left Biafra.
The mercenaries’ salaries run from $1,700 a month upward. But payday is at best a sporadic affair in besieged Biafra. In any case, money is probably not the major reason for their presence. It is not the land, either, for they seem to have no eyes for the green rolling infinity of the African bush, the visionary sunsets, the humming, warm, smoky nights. They are lobos, outcasts from society who fight every day in order to taste the excitement that comes in living close to violent death. If they survive Biafra, they will doubtless drift on in search of another war. Until then, their allegiance, temporary though it may be, is to Biafra and to Ojukwu.