The Biafra War In Nigeria: Causes, Development, And Aftermath

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An overview into the causes, development, and aftermath of the tragic conflict of the Biafra War in Nigeria in the late 1960s.

Causes Of The War - Like many other African nations, Nigeria was an artificial structure created by colonial powers in the nineteenth century.  Ethnically, Nigeria was divided into three main regions, although there were over 300 different ethnicities in the country.  These three regions were composed of three distinct peoples: the Igbo (Ibo) of south-eastern Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani of northern Nigeria, and the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria.  As different ethnicities, these groups had different customs and values, and so historically remained fairly separated from one another.

    These different customs and values produced radically divergent political systems.  The Hausa-Fulani of the north were traditionally ruled by a strict, Islamic hierarchy.  Leaders were to be obeyed without question.  A chief function of the system was to uphold conservative Islamic values, which made many Hausa-Fulani regard innovation as sacrilege.  The Yoruba of the south-west were ruled by a series of monarchs that were less autocratic than those of the north. 

   The social, and hence political, system of the Yoruba provided for greater upward mobility.  The Ibo of the south-east, in stark contrast to the other two groups, lived in autonomous, democratically organized communities.  Although there were a few monarchs in some cities, decisions were mainly made by assemblies in which every man could participate.  This system provided for even greater social and political mobility than the Yoruba, with status being obtained through personal ability and through acquiring wealth.  As such, the Ibo placed much emphasis on personal achievement, free will, and on democratic principles.

    The British colonial authorities in Nigeria found it convenient to rule indirectly through the already established tribal political systems.  In the north, the British ruled through the monarch-like Emirs.  To maintain this rigid social and political institution, Christian missionaries were excluded from the north, and thus the area remained closed to education and social progression. 

   This was in direct contrast to the south, where Western education was rapidly and effectively introduced by the missionaries.  As a result, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to modernize and produce the first African civil servants, lawyers, medical professionals, and technicians.  Similarly, the Ibo, in accordance with their societal values, took to Western education zealously and came to adopt Christianity.  The richest of the Ibo sent many of their sons to esteemed British universities.

    As a result of these changes and progressions, by the time of Nigeria's independence in 1960, the north had remained highly under-developed, with a literacy of 2%.  In contrast, the Ibo had become politically and economically prosperous, with educated men dominating many fields throughout Nigeria, and not just in the traditional Ibo south.

     During the colonial period, the British division of Nigeria into three regions intensified competition between the three main ethnic groups. These three ethnic groups formed political parties that were largely regional and tribal.  That is not to say, however, that the country was evenly divided.  In actuality, the country was so divided so as to apportion the north a slightly larger population than the other two regions combined; the Federal Legislature created by colonial authorities thus granted the Hausa-Fulani of the north majority seats.

Part of a celebration of Nigeria's independence in 1960 - Image Source

     During the fight for independence, the Ibo and Yoruba were the main supporters of it.  However, once Nigeria was independent, they wanted to split the country into smaller regions, so that the north could not politically dominate the new government as well.  The north, fearful of loss of power to the more educated south, preferred the continuation of British rule.  To convince the north to accept independence, the Ibo and Yoruba accepted the status quo of tri--partite state division.  This would lead to future problems of state that would throw the country into a violent and bloody civil war.

Development Of The War

     On 15th of January, 1966, in response to claims of electoral fraud, Lt. Kaduna Nzeogwu and other junior Army officers, mainly of Ibo descent, launched a coup d'etat against the federal government.  This coup resulted in the seizure of power by General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was an Ibo and head of the Nigerian army.  The coup d'etat itself failed, as Ironsi rallied the military against the plotters and quickly set-up military rule.  Overall, the coup was perceived as an "Ibo conspiracy", in that the ease with which Ironsi put a stop to the coup led to the suspicion that the Ibo had planned all along for Ironsi to take power.

     On 29th of July, 1966, the northerners executed a counter-coup, which was led by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and placed Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon into power.  Gowon was chosen as the suitable candidate because he was a northern Christian and was respected in the Army.

     Ethnic tensions due to the coup and counter-coup increased among the rivaling ethnic groups, and mass pogroms were committed in May of 1966, followed by those in July and September.  Large-scale massacres and horrific atrocities aimed at Christian Ibo living in the Muslim North, and the murder of soldiers and officers in the north became a frequent occurrence.  It was estimated that 30,000 out of the 13 million people of Ibo origin lost their lives, leading to a mass exodus of 1.8 million refugees to the Ibo south-east.

Citizens fleeing to the Ibo south-east - Image Source

     The discovery of oil in south-east Nigeria led to plans by the federal government to establish greater control over the region.  Because of the domination of the north and south-west in the government, the Ibo feared that the oil would be used to benefit areas other than their own.

    On 30th of May, 1967, the military governor of the Ibo dominated south-east, Odumegwu Ojukwu, citing electoral fraud and the inability of the north to protect its citizens, proclaimed the secession of the south-west from Nigeria as the independent Republic of Biafra.  The new nation received much sympathy in Europe and abroad, although only five countries legally recognized it.

The flag of the independent Republic of Biafra - Image Source

     The renegement by the Nigerian Federal Government of peace accords held in Ghana led to the breakout of war on July 6, 1967.  The Republic of Biafra was ill-equipped for war, but had the advantage of fighting on their own soil, the support of many easterners, high morale, and efficient logistical planning.  Support of the Nigerian government by Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union played a major role in the war.

     On the 6th of July, two columns of Nigerian troops advanced into Biafra.  The two columns were led by Colonel Shuwa and mostly northern officers.  After running into unexpected resistance and facing many casualties, the right Nigerian column advanced to Nsukka, which was captured on the 14th of July.  The left column advanced to Garkem, which was captured on the 12th of July.  It is important to note that at this stage of the war, the war was fought mainly between the north, which was predominantly Hausa-Fulani, and the south-east, which was predominantly Ibo.  The western region remained mostly uninvolved.

Benjamin Adekunle (aka the "Black Scorpion"), a prominent Federal Nigerian commander, on patrol - Image Source

     On the 9th of August, the Biafrans responded with their own offensive, rapidly moving across the Niger River into the mid-western region.  The attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, and captured Benin City, being stopped just 130 miles from Lagos, the Nigerian capital.  The Nigerian soldiers that were supposed to defend the mid-west were mostly Ibo, and so did not put up much resistance.  Benin City was retaken by Nigerian forces on the 22nd of September, but a large group of Nigerian soldiers remained pinned down around the area.  In October, the Nigerians began to push from the west and south into Biafran territory, but were repulsed three times as they tried to cross the Niger River, losing thousands of troops and equipment.  At this point in the war, the north began to recruit among the Yoruba, Urhobo, Ijaw, Itshekiri, and Edo ethnic groups.

     From 1968 onward, the war fell into a stalemate, with neither side being able to make any significant gains.  The Nigerians suffered major defeats in Abagana, Oguta, Arochukwu, Umuahia, Ikote Ekpene, and Onne.  Another offensive in April 1968, however, began to close a ring around Biafra.  The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans led to a humanitarian disaster with widespread civilian hunger and starvation.  Many volunteer organizations ran blockades with aircraft, carrying food and medicine.  Arms-carrying aircraft would shadow these flights, and bring weapons and equipment to the Biafrans.

     Both sides used foreign mercenaries.  The Nigerians employed Egyptian pilots for their air force, which frequently bombed civilian, rather than military targets.  Only two mercenaries remained with Biafra for the duration of the war: the German Lt. Col. Rolf Steiner, who served without pay, and the Welsh Major Taffy Williams.  The white mercenaries were deported from Africa after the war, having their passports stamped with "Not Valid in Africa."  Bernard Kouchner, along with fellow doctors, organized Doctors Without Borders to prioritize the welfare of victims, regardless of what side in the conflict that they belonged to.

Death of the Biafran mercenary Marc Goosens in an attack on Onitsha, which was dramatically captured on film - Image Source

      In September 1968, the Nigerians launched "a final offensive", which was quickly neutralized by Biafran forces.  The Biafrans responded in turn with several offensives, which proved successful.  In March 1969, the Biafran army captured Owerri and moved toward Port Harcourt.  In May 1969, commandos of the Biafran army captured oil wells in Kwale.  In July 1969, Biafra launched an air offensive using foreign mercenary pilots, the most notable of which was the Swedish Count Gustav von Rosen, using modified jet trainers.  His six-man force damaged a number of Nigerian military installations and destroyed several aircraft.

A Biafran aircraft being prepared for an operation - Image Source

     However, with increased British support, the Nigerians launched another offensive in December of 1969, which split Biafra in half.  On 7th of January 1970, the Nigerian offensive pushed onwards, capturing Owerri and Uli a few days later on the 9th and 11th, respectively.  A few days later, Ojukwu flew into exile into Cote d'Ivoire, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the surrender to the Nigerian forces.  The war officially ended on January 15th.

The capitulation of Biafra's government - Image Source

Aftermath Of The War

    The war cost Nigeria approximately 13 million lives, mostly from starvation and disease.  The country lost a considerable amount of money and world prestige as well.  Reconstruction after the war was swift, although military governance continued until 1999.  Laws were passed to ensure that political parties would not be ethnically based, although this has been hard to control.

     The Ibos felt that they had been displaced from job positions, as after the war, their post were replaced by other Nigerians.  Feelings of injustice were also caused by a change of currency by Nigeria, so that pre-war supplies in Biafra were worth much less than their real value.  This was seen as a policy to hold back Ibos from their pre-war prosperous positions and influence.

   Nigeria was once again "at the dawn of national reconciliation".  We can only hope that in the future, such conflicts would be intervened upon in the final stages, before much harm had been done.  But for now, we can only wonder on what could have been and what will be.

© 2010 Gregory Markov

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References and Resources


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