|Nigerian Civil War|
The independent state of the Republic of Biafra in June 1967
|Commanders and leaders|
| Yakubu Gowon
Shehu Musa Yar'Adua
Ipoola Alani Akinrinade
Ibrahim Babangida (WIA)
Isaac Adaka Boro †
| Odumegwu Ojukwu
Timothy Onwuatuegwu †
Ogbo Oji (WIA)
|120,000 (1970)||30,000 (1970)|
|Casualties and losses|
|35,000 - 50,000 Military casualties||10,000 - 25,000 Military casualties|
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, (6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970), was a war fought to counter the secession of Biafra from Nigeria. Biafra represented nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the Northern-dominated federal government. The conflict resulted from political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions which preceded Britain's formal decolonisation of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. Immediate causes of the war in 1966 included a military coup, a counter-coup, and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria. Control over oil production in the Niger Delta played a vital strategic role.
Within a year, the Federal Military Government surrounded Biafra, capturing coastal oil facilities and the city of Port Harcourt. The blockade imposed during the ensuing stalemate led to severe famine—accomplished deliberately as a war strategy. Over the two and half years of the war, about two million civilians died from starvation and diseases.
This famine entered world awareness in mid-1968, when images of malnourished and starving children suddenly saturated the mass media of Western countries. The plight of the starving Biafrans became a cause célèbre in foreign countries, enabling a significant rise in the funding and prominence of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Britain and the Soviet Union were the main backers of the Federal Military Government in Lagos, while France and some independent elements supported Biafra. France and Israel provided weapons to both combatants.
Like most other African countries, British Nigeria grouped people together for governance without respect for their religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Nigeria, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, had at that time a population of 60 million people consisting of nearly 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups.
More than fifty years earlier, the United Kingdom had carved an area out of West Africa containing hundreds of different ethnic groups and unified it, calling it Nigeria. Although the area contained many different groups, the three predominant groups were the Igbo, which formed between 60–70% of the population in the southeast; the Hausa-Fulani, which formed about 65% of the peoples in the northern part of the territory; and the Yoruba, which formed about 75% of the population in the southwestern part. Although these groups have their own homelands, by the 1960s they were dispersed across Nigeria, with all three ethnic groups represented substantially in major cities. When the war broke out in 1967 there were still 5,000 Igbos in Lagos.
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by a feudal, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of Emirs who, in turn, owed their allegiance to a supreme Sultan. This Sultan was regarded as the source of all political power and religious authority.
The Yoruba political system in the southwest, like that of the Hausa-Fulani, also consisted of a series of monarchs, the Oba. The Yoruba monarchs, however, were less autocratic than those in the North, and the political and social system of the Yoruba accordingly allowed for greater upward mobility based on acquired rather than inherited wealth and title.
The Igbo in the southeast, in contrast to the two other groups, lived mostly in autonomous, democratically organised communities, although there were monarchs in many of these ancient cities such as the Kingdom of Nri. In its zenith the Kingdom controlled most of Igbo land, including influence on the Anioma people, Arochukwu (which controlled slavery in Igbo), and Onitsha land. Unlike the other two regions, decisions among the Igbo were made by a general assembly in which men could participate.
The differing political systems among these three peoples reflected and produced divergent customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through a village head designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be submitted to. As with other highly authoritarian religious and political systems, leadership positions were taken by persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors. A chief function of this political system was to maintain Islamic and conservative values, which caused many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or sacrilegious.
In contrast to the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo often participated directly in the decisions which affected their lives. They had a lively awareness of the political system and regarded it as an instrument for achieving their own personal goals. Status was acquired through the ability to arbitrate disputes that might arise in the village, and through acquiring rather than inheriting wealth. Igbos were substantially victimised in the Atlantic slave trade; in the year 1790 it was reported that of 20,000 people sold each year from Bonny, 16,000 were Igbo. With their emphasis upon social achievement and political participation, the Igbo adapted to and challenged colonial rule in innovative ways.
These tradition-derived differences were perpetuated and perhaps even enhanced by the British system of colonial rule in Nigeria. In the North, the British found it convenient to rule indirectly through the Emirs, thus perpetuating rather than changing the indigenous authoritarian political system. As a concomitant of this system, Christian missionaries were excluded from the North, and the area thus remained virtually closed to European cultural imperialism, in contrast to the Igbo, the richest of whom sent many of their sons to British universities. During the ensuing years, the Northern Emirs thus were able to maintain traditional political and religious institutions, while reinforcing their social structure. In this division, the North, at the time of independence in 1960, was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria, with an English literacy rate of 2% as compared to 19.2% in the East (literacy in Ajami (local languages in Arabic script), learned in connection with religious education, was much higher). The West enjoyed a much higher literacy level, being the first part of the country to have contact with western education in addition to the free primary education program of the pre-independence Western Regional Government.
In the South, the missionaries rapidly introduced Western forms of education. Consequently, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to adopt Western bureaucratic social norms and they provided the first African civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and other technicians and professionals.
In Igbo areas, missionaries were introduced at a later date because of British difficulty in establishing firm control over the highly autonomous Igbo communities. However, the Igbo people took to Western education actively, and they overwhelmingly came to adopt Christianity. Population pressure in the Igbo homeland combined with aspirations for monetary wages drove thousands of Igbo to other parts of Nigeria in search of work. By the 1960s, Igbo political culture was more unified and the region relatively prosperous, with tradesmen and literate elites active not just in the traditionally Igbo South, but throughout Nigeria. Therefore, by 1966, the ethnic and religious differences between Northerners and Igbos had combined with additional stratification of education and class.
The British colonial ideology that divided Nigeria into three regions—North, West and East—exacerbated the already well-developed economic, political, and social differences among Nigeria's different ethnic groups. The country was divided in such a way that the North had a slightly higher population than the other two regions combined. On this basis the Northern Region was allocated a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislature established by the colonial authorities. Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, respectively formed political parties that were largely regional and based on ethnic allegiances: the Northern People's Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG); and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the East. These parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up; the disintegration of Nigeria resulted largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe. To simplify matters, we will refer to them here as the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo-based; or Northern, Western and Eastern parties.
The basis of modern Nigeria formed in 1914, when Britain amalgamated the Northern and Southern protectorates. Beginning with the Northern Protectorate, the British implemented a system of indirect rule according to which they exerted influence through alliances with local forces. This system worked so well, colonial governor Frederick Lugard successfully lobbied to extend it to the Southern Protectorate through amalgamation. In this way, a foreign and hierarchical system of governance was imposed on the Igbos (along with many other smaller groups in the South.) Intellectuals began to agitate for greater rights and independence. The size of this intellectual class increased significantly in the 1950s, with the massive expansion of the national education program. During the 1940s and 1950s the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organised into several small states so that the conservative North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernised elites in the South, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. As a condition for accepting independence, they demanded that the country continue to be divided into three regions with the North having a clear majority. Igbo and Yoruba leaders, anxious to obtain an independent country at all costs, accepted the Northern demands.
However it would be wrong to state that the two Southern regions were politically or philosophically aligned and there were already discordance between the two Southern political parties. Firstly, the AG favoured a loose confederacy of regions in the emergent Nigerian nation whereby each region would be in total control of its own distinct territory. The status of Lagos was a sore point for the AG which did not want Lagos, a Yoruba town which was at that time the Federal Capital and seat of national government to be designated as the Capital of Nigeria if it meant loss of Yoruba Suzerainty. The AG insisted that Lagos, a Yoruba city which was situated in Western Nigeria must be completely recognised as a Yoruba town without any loss of identity, control or autonomy by the Yoruba. Contrary to this position, the NCNC was anxious to declare Lagos, by virtue of it being the "Federal Capital Territory" as "no man's land" - a declaration which as could be expected angered the AG which offered to help fund the development of other territory in Nigeria as "Federal Capital Territory" and then threatened secession from Nigeria if it didn't get its way. The threat of secession by the AG was tabled , documented and recorded in numerous constitutional conferences, including the constitutional conference held in London in 1954 with the demand that a right of secession be enshrined in the constitution of the emerging Nigerian nation to allow any part of the emergent nation to opt out of Nigeria, should the need arise.(Author(s): Tekena N. TamunoSource: The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec., 1970), pp. 563-584  ) This proposal for inclusion of right of secession by the regions in independent Nigeria by the AG was rejected and resisted by NCNC which vehemently argued for a tightly bound united/unitary structured nation because it viewed the provision of a secession clause as detrimental to the formation of a Unitary Nigerian state. In the face of sustained opposition by the NCNC delegates, later joined by the NPC and backed by threats to view maintenance of the inclusion of secession by the AG as treasonable by the British, the AG was forced to renounce its position of inclusion of the right of secession a part of the Nigerian constitution. It should be noted that , had such a provision been made in the Nigerian constitution, later events which led to the Nigerian/Biafran civil war would have been avoided. The pre-independence alliance between the NCNC and the NPC against the aspirations of the AG would later set the tone for political governance of independent Nigeria by the NCNC/NPC and lead to disaster in later years in Nigeria.
 Northern–Southern tension manifested on 1 May 1953, as fighting in the Northern city of Kano. The political parties tended to focus on building power in their own regions, resulting in an incoherent and disunified dynamic in the federal government.
In 1946, the British divided the Southern Region into the Western Region and the Eastern Region. Each government was entitled to collect royalties from resources extracted within its area. This changed in 1956 when Shell-BP found large petroleum deposits in the Eastern region. A Commission led by Jeremy Raisman and Ronald Tress determined that resource royalties would now enter a "Distributable Pools Account" with the money split between different parts of government (50% to region of origin, 20% to federal government, 30% to other regions). To ensure continuing influence, the British promoted unity in the Northern bloc and discord among and within the two Southern regions, as well as the creation of a new Mid-Western Region in an area with oil potential. The new constitution of 1946 also proclaimed that "The entire property in and control of all mineral oils, in, under, or upon any lands, in Nigeria, and of all rivers, streams, and water courses throughout Nigeria, is and shall be vested in, the Crown." Britain profited significantly from a fivefold rise in Nigerian exports amidst the postwar economic boom.
Nigeria's First Republic came into being on 1 October 1960. The first prime minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was a northerner and co-founder of the Northern People's Congress. He formed an alliance with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party, and its popular nationalist leader Nnamdi "Zik" Azikiwe, who became Governor General and then President. The Yoruba-aligned Action Group, the third major party, played the opposition role.
Workers became increasingly aggrieved by low wages and bad conditions, especially when they compared their lot to the lifestyles of politicians in Lagos. Most wage earners lived in the Lagos area, and many lived in overcrowded dangerous housing. Labor activity including strikes intensified in 1963, culminating in a nationwide general strike in June 1964. Strikers disobeyed an ultimatum to return to work and at one point were dispersed by riot police. Eventually, they did win wage increases. The strike included people from all ethnic groups. Retired Brigadier General H. M. Njoku later wrote that the general strike heavily exacerbated tensions between the Army and ordinary civilians, and put pressure on the Army to take action against a government which was widely perceived as corrupt.
The 1964 elections, which involved heavy campaigning all year, brought ethnic and regional divisions into focus. Resentment of politicians ran high and many campaigners feared for their safety while touring the country. The Army repeatedly deployed to Tiv Division, killing hundreds and arresting thousands of Tiv people agitating for self determination.
Widespread reports of fraud tarnished the election's legitimacy. Westerners especially resented the political domination of the Northern People's Congress, many of whose candidates ran unopposed in the election. Violence spread throughout the country and some began to flee the North and West, some to Dahomey. The apparent domination of the political system by the North, and the chaos breaking out across the country, motivated elements within the military to consider decisive action.
Britain maintained its economic hold on the country, through continued alliance and reinforcement of the Northern bloc. In addition to Shell-BP, the British reaped profits from mining and commerce. The British-owned United Africa Company alone controlled 41.3% of all Nigeria's foreign trade. At 516,000 barrels per day, Nigeria had become the tenth biggest oil exporter in the world.
On 15 January 1966, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and other junior Army officers (mostly majors and captains) attempted a coup d'état. The two major political leaders of the north, the prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Premier of the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello were executed by Major Nzeogwu. Also murdered was Sir Ahmadu Bello's wife and officers of Northern extraction. Meanwhile, the President, Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was on an extended vacation in the West Indies. He did not return until days after the coup. There was widespread suspicion that the Igbo coup plotters had tipped him and other Igbo leaders off regarding the impending coup. In addition to the killings of the Northern political leaders, the Premier of the Western region, Ladoke Akintola and Yoruba senior military officers were also killed. The coup, also referred to as "The Coup of the Five Majors", has been described in some quarters as Nigeria's only revolutionary coup. This was the first coup in the short life of Nigeria's nascent second democracy. Claims of electoral fraud were one of the reasons given by the coup plotters.
This coup was however seen not as a revolutionary coup by other sections of Nigerians , especially in the Northern and Western sections and latter revisioninsts of Nigerian coups, mostly from Eastern part of Nigeria have belatedly maintained to widespread disbelief amongst Western and Southern Nigerians that the majors sought to spring Action Group leader Obafemi Awolowo out of jail and make him head of the new government. From there, they would dismantle the Northern-dominated power structure. However, their efforts to take power were thwarted by Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo and loyalist head of the Nigerian Army, who suppressed coup operations in the South. The majors surrendered, and Aguiyi-Ironsi was declared head of state on 16 January.
Aguyi-Ironsi suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. He then abolished the regional confederated form of government and pursued unitary like policies heithero favoured by the NCNC, having apparently been influenced by some NCNC political philosophy. He however appointed Colonel Hassan Katsina, son of Katsina emir Usman Nagogo, to govern the Northern Region, indicating some willingness to maintain cooperation with this bloc. He also preferentially released northern politicians from jail (enabling them to plan his forthcoming overthrow). Aguyi-Ironsi rejected a British offer of military support but promised to protect British interests; however … Britain participated in overthrow?
Ironsi fatally did not bring the failed plotters to trial as required by then-military law and as advised by most northern and western officers,rather, coup plotters were maintained in the military on full pay and some were even promoted while apparently awaiting trial. The coup, despite its failure and since no repercussion was meted out to coup plotters and since no significant Igbo political leaders were affected was widely perceived as having benefited mostly the Igbo. Most of the known coup plotters were Igbo and the military and political leadership of Westerrn and Northern regions had been largely bloodily eliminated while Eastern military/political leadership was largely untouched. However Ironsi, himself an Igbo, was thought to have made numerous attempts to please Northerners. The other event that also fuelled the so-called "Igbo conspiracy" was the killing of Northern leaders, and the killing of the Colonel Shodeinde's pregnant wife by the coup executioners. Despite the overwhelming contradictions of the coup being executed by mostly Northern soldiers (such as John Atom Kpera, later military governor of Benue State), the killing of Igbo soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Unegbe by coup executioners, and Ironsi's termination of an Igbo-led coup, the ease by which Ironsi stopped the coup led to suspicion that the Igbo coup plotters planned all along to pave the way for Ironsi to take the reins of power in Nigeria.
Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu became military governor of the Eastern Region at this time. On 24 May 1966, the military government issued Unification Decree #34, which would have replaced the federation with a more centralised system. The Northern bloc found this decree intolerable.
In the face of provocation from the Eastern media which repeatedly showed humiliating posters and cartoons of the slain northern politicians, on the night of 29 July 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which have already been in the planning stages. The counter-coup led to the installation of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Gowon was chosen as a compromise candidate. He was a Northerner, a Christian, from a minority tribe, and had a good reputation within the army.
It seems that Gowon immediately faced not only a potential standoff with the East, but secession threats from the Northern and even the Western region. The counter-coup plotters had considered using the opportunity to withdraw from the federation themselves. Ambassadors from Britain and the United States, however, urged Gowon to maintain control over the whole country. Gowon followed this plan, repealing the Unification Decree, announcing a return to the federal system.
Ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, who was visiting Nigeria in 1966, recounted:
The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Ibo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowon could be heard over the radio issuing 'guarantees of safety' to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologised for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Ibos.
The Federal Military Government also laid the groundwork for the blockade of the Eastern Region which would go into full effect in 1967.
On 27 May 1967, Gowon proclaimed the division of Nigeria into twelve states. This decree carved the Eastern Region in three parts: South Eastern State, Rivers State, and East Central State. Now the Igbos, concentrated in the East Central State, would lose control over most of the petroleum, located in the other two areas.
On 30 May 1967, Ojukwu declared independence of the Republic of Biafra.
The Federal Military Government immediately placed an embargo on all shipping to and from Biafra—but not on oil tankers. Biafra quickly moved to collect oil royalties from oil companies doing business within its borders. When Shell-BP acquiesced to this request at the end of June, the Federal Government extended its blockade to include oil. The blockade, which most foreign actors accepted, played a decisive role in putting Biafra at a disadvantage from the beginning of the war.
Although the very young nation had a chronic shortage of weapons to go to war, it was determined to defend itself. Although there was much sympathy in Europe and elsewhere, only five countries (Tanzania, Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, Zambia and Haiti) officially recognised the new republic. Britain supplied amounts of heavy weapons and ammunition to the Nigerian side because of its desire to preserve the country it created. The Biafra side on the other hand found it difficult to purchase arms as the countries who supported it did not provide arms and ammunition. The heavy supply of weapons by Britain was the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the war.
Several peace accords, especially the one held at Aburi, Ghana (the Aburi Accord), collapsed and the shooting war soon followed. Ojukwu managed at Aburi to get agreement to a confederation for Nigeria, rather than a federation. He was warned by his advisers that this reflected a failure of Gowon to understand the difference and, that being the case, predicted that it would be reneged upon. When this happened, Ojukwu regarded it as both a failure by Gowon to keep to the spirit of the Aburi agreement, and lack of integrity on the side of the Nigerian Military Government in the negotiations toward a united Nigeria. Gowon's advisers, to the contrary, felt that he had enacted as much as was politically feasible in fulfillment of the spirit of Aburi. The Eastern Region was very ill equipped for war, outmanned and outgunned by the Nigerians. Their advantages included fighting in their homeland, support of most Easterners, determination, and use of limited resources.
The UK-which still maintained the highest level of influence over Nigeria's highly valued oil industry through Shell-BP- and the Soviet Union supported (especially militarily) the Nigerian government.
Shortly after extending its blockade to include oil, the Nigerian government launched a "police action" to retake the secessionist territory. The war began on 6 July 1967 when Nigerian Federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra. The Nigerian Army offensive was through the north of Biafra led by Colonel Mohammed Shuwa and the local military units were formed as the 1st Infantry Division. The division was led mostly by northern officers. After facing unexpectedly fierce resistance and high casualties, the right-hand Nigerian column advanced on the town of Nsukka which fell on 14 July, while the left-hand column made for Garkem, which was captured on 12 July.
The Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when, on 9 August, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-Western Nigerian region across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore (in present day Ondo State) just over the state boundary on 21 August, just 130 miles east of the Nigerian capital of Lagos. The Biafran attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, with the Biafran rank of brigadier. The attack met little resistance and the Mid-West was easily taken over.
This was due to the pre-secession arrangement that all soldiers should return to their regions to stop the spate of killings, in which Igbo soldiers had been major victims. The Nigerian soldiers that were supposed to defend the Mid-West state were mostly Mid-West Igbo and while some were in touch with their eastern counterparts, others resisted. General Gowon responded by asking Colonel Murtala Mohammed (who later became head of state in 1975) to form another division (the 2nd Infantry Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Mid-West, as well as defend the West side and attack Biafra from the West as well. As Nigerian forces retook the Mid-West, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin on 19 September, though it ceased to exist the next day. (The present country of Benin, west of Nigeria, was still named Dahomey at that time.)
Although Benin City was retaken by the Nigerians on 22 September, the Biafrans succeeded in their primary objective by tying down as many Nigerian Federal troops as they could. Gen. Gowon also launched an offensive into Biafra south from the Niger Delta to the riverine area using the bulk of the Lagos Garrison command under Colonel Benjamin Adekunle (called the Black Scorpion) to form the 3rd Infantry Division (which was later renamed as the 3rd Marine Commando). As the war continued, the Nigerian Army recruited amongst a wider area, including the Yoruba, Itshekiri, Urhobo, Edo, Ijaw, etc.
Four battalions of the Nigerian 2nd Infantry Division were needed to drive the Biafrans back and eliminate their territorial gains made during the offensive. Nigerian soldiers under Murtala Mohammed carried out a mass killing of 700 civilians when they captured Asaba on the River Niger. The Nigerians were repulsed three times as they attempted to cross the River Niger during October, resulting in the loss of thousands of troops, dozens of tanks and equipment. The first attempt by the 2nd Infantry Division on 12 October to cross the Niger from the town of Asaba to the Biafran city of Onitsha cost the Nigerian Federal Army over 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing. Operation Tiger Claw (17–20 October 1967) was a military conflict between Nigerian and Biafran military forces. On 17 October 1967 Nigerians invaded Calabar led by the "Black Scorpion", Benjamin Adekunle while the Biafrans were led by Col. Ogbu Ogi, who was responsible for controlling the area between Calabar and Opobo, and Lynn Garrison a foreign mercenary. The Biafrans came under immediate fire from the water and the air. For the next two days Biafran stations and military supplies were bombarded by the Nigerian air force. That same day Lynn Garrison reached Calabar but came under immediate fire by federal troops. By 20 October, Garrison's forces withdrew from the battle while Col. Ogi officially surrendered to Gen. Adekunle.
Towards the end of July 1967, Nigerian federal troops and marines captured Bonny Island in the Niger Delta, thereby taking control of vital Shell-BP facilities. Operations began again in May 1968, when Nigeria captured Port Harcourt. Its facilities had been damaged and needed repair. Oil production and export continued, but at a lower level. The completion in 1969 of a new terminal at Forçados brought production up from 142,000 barrels/day in 1958 to 540,000 barrels/day in 1969. In 1970, this figure doubled to 1,080,000 barrels/day. The royalties enabled Nigeria to buy more weapons, hire mercenaries, etc. Biafra proved unable to compete on this economic level.
The British planned to maintain and expand their supply of cheap high-quality oil from Nigeria. Therefore they placed a high priority on maintenance of oil extraction and refining operations. They backed the Federal Government, but when the war broke out cautioned them not to damage British oil installations in the East. These oilworks, under the control of Shell-BP Petroleum Development Company (jointly owned by Shell and British Petroleum), controlled 84% of Nigeria's 580,000 barrels per day. Two-thirds of this oil came from the Eastern region, and another third from the newly created Mid-West region. Two-fifths of all Nigerian oil ended up in Britain.
Shell-BP therefore considered carefully a request by the Federal Government that it not pay the royalties demanded by Biafra. Its lawyers advised that payment to Biafra would be appropriate if this government did in fact maintain law and order in the region in question. The British government advised that paying Biafra could undermine the goodwill of the Federal Government. However, the payment was made, resulting in a blockade on oil. Forced to choose a side, Shell-BP and the British government threw in their lot with the Federal Government in Lagos, apparently calculating that this side would be more likely to win the war. As the British High Commissioner in Lagos wrote to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs on 27 July 1967:
Ojukwu, even victorious, will not be in a strong position. He will require all the international help and recognition he can get. The Federal Government would be much better placed both internationally and internally. They would have a cast iron case for the severest treatment of a company which has subsidised a rebel, and I feel fairly convinced they would press their case to the lengths of cancelling the Company's concessions and nationalising their installations. I conclude, therefore, if the company does change its mind and asks the British Government for advice, the best that could be given is for it to clamber hastily back on the Lagos side of the fence with cheque book at the ready."
During the war, Britain covertly supplied Nigeria with weapons and military intelligence and may have also helped it to hire mercenaries. After the decision was made to back Nigeria, the BBC oriented its reporting to favor this side. Supplies provided to the Federal Military Government included two vessels and 60 vehicles.
In Britain, the humanitarian campaign around Biafra began on 12 June 1968, with media coverage on ITV and in The Sun. The charities Oxfam and Save the Children Fund were soon deployed, with large sums of money at their disposal.
France provided weapons, mercenary fighters, and other assistance to Biafra and promoted its cause internationally, describing the situation as a genocide. Charles de Gaulle referred to "Biafra's just and noble cause". However, France did not recognise Biafra diplomatically. Through Pierre Laureys, France had apparently provided two B-26s, Alouette helicopters, and pilots. France supplied Biafra with captured German and Italian weapons from World War II, sans serial numbers, delivered as part of regular shipments to Côte d'Ivoire. France also sold Panhard armored vehicles to the Nigerian federal government.
French involvement in the war can be viewed in the context of its geopolitical strategy (Françafrique) and competition with the English in West Africa. Nigeria represented a base of British influence in the predominantly French-aligned area. France and Portugal used nearby countries in their sphere of influence, especially Côte d'Ivoire under President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, as waystations for shipments to Biafra. To some extent, also, France repeated its earlier policy from the Congo Crisis, when it supported the secession of the southern mining province Katanga.
Economically, France was significantly incentivised by oil drilling contracts for the Société Anonyme Française de Recherches et d'Exploitation de Pétrolières (SAFRAP), apparently arranged with Eastern Nigeria in advance of its secession from the Nigerian Federation. SAFRAP laid claim to 7% of the Nigerian petroleum supply. In the assessment of a CIA analyst in 1970, France's "support was actually given to a handful of Biafran bourgeoisie in return for the oil." Biafra, for its part, openly appreciated its relationship with France. Ojukwu suggested on 10 August 1967, that Biafra introduce compulsory French classes in secondary, technical and teacher training schools, in order to "benefit from the rich culture of the French-speaking world".
France led the way, internationally, for political support of Biafra. Portugal also sent weapons. These transactions were arranged through the "Biafran Historical Research Centre" in Paris. French-aligned Gabon and Côte d'Ivoire recognised Biafra in May 1968. On 8 May 1968, De Gaulle personally contributed 30,000 francs to medicine purchases for the French Red Cross mission. Fairly widespread student-worker unrest diverted the government's attention only temporarily. The government declared an arms embargo but maintained arms shipments to Biafra under cover of humanitarian aid. In July the government redoubled its efforts to involve the public in a humanitarian approach to the conflict. Images of starving children and accusations of genocide filled French newspapers and television programs. Amidst this press blitz, on 31 July 1968, De Gaulle made an official statement in support of Biafra. Maurice Robert, head of Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE, the French foreign intelligence service) African operations, wrote in 2004 that his agency supplied the press with details about the war and told them to use the word "genocide" in their reporting.
France declared "Biafra Week" on 11–17 March 1969, centred on a 2-franc raffle held by the French Red Cross. Soon after, de Gaulle terminated arms shipments, then resigned on 27 April 1969. Interim president Alain Poher fired General Jacques Foccart, the lead coordinator of France's Africa policy. Georges Pompidou re-hired Foccart and resumed support for Biafra, including cooperation with the South African secret service to import more weapons.
The United States officially declared neutrality, with US Secretary of State Dean Rusk stating that "America is not in a position to take action as Nigeria is an area under British influence", but nevertheless provided military assistance to the Nigeria government. Formally, the United States was neutral in the civil war. Strategically, its interests aligned with the Federal Military Government. The US also saw value in its alliance with Lagos, and sought to protect $800 million (in the assessment of the State Department) worth of private investment.
This had not been publicised, while Senator Ted Kennedy led a movement for relief to the millions dying.
On 9 September 1968, United States presidential candidate Richard Nixon stated:
Until now, efforts to relieve the Biafra people have been thwarted by the desire of central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Ibo people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But genocide is what is taking place right now – and starvation is the grim reaper.
Gulf Oil Nigeria, the third major player in Nigerian oil, was producing 9% of the oil coming out of Nigeria before the war began. Its operations were all located offshore of the federally controlled Mid-Western territory; therefore it continued to pay royalties to the federal government and its operations were mostly undisrupted.
The Soviet Union strongly backed the Nigerian government, emphasising the similarity with the Congo situation. It consistently supplied Nigeria with weapons, with the diplomatic disclaimer that these were "strictly for cash on a commercial basis". In 1968, the USSR agreed to finance the Kainji Dam on the Niger (somewhat upriver from the Delta). Soviet media outlets initially accused the imperialist British of cynically supporting the Biafran secession, then had to adjust these claims later when it turned out that Britain was supporting the Federal Government.
One explanation for Soviet sympathy with the Federal Military Government was a shared opposition to internal secessionist movements. Before the war, the Soviets had seemed sympathetic to the Igbos. But Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin stated to their chagrin in October 1967 that "the Soviet people fully understand" Nigeria's motives and its need "to prevent the country from being dismembered."
Reportedly, the war substantially improved Soviet-Nigerian diplomatic and trade relations, and Moskvitch cars began to make appearances around Lagos. The USSR became a competitive importer of Nigerian cacao.
From early on, Israel perceived that Nigeria would be an important player in West African politics, and saw good relations with Lagos as an important foreign policy objective. Nigeria and Israel established a linkage in 1957. In 1960 Britain allowed the creation of an Israeli diplomatic mission in Lagos, and Israel made a $10 million loan to the Nigerian government. Israel also developed a cultural relation with the Igbos based on possible shared traditions. These moves represented a significant diplomatic success given the Muslim orientation of the northern-dominated government. Some northern leaders disapproved of contact with Israel and banned Israelis from Maiduguri and Sokoto.
Israel did not begin arms sales to Nigeria until after Aguyi-Ironsi came to power in January 1966. This was considered an opportune time to develop this relationship with the federal government, because Aguyi-Ironsi was Igbo. Ram Nirgad became Israeli ambassador to Nigeria in January. Thirty tons of mortar rounds were delivered in April.
The Eastern Region began seeking assistance from Israel in September 1966. Israel apparently turned down their requests repeatedly, although they may have put the Biafran representatives in contact with another arms dealer. In 1968, Israel began supplying the Federal Military Government with arms—about $500,000 worth, according to the US State Department. Meanwhile, as elsewhere, the situation in Biafra became publicised as a genocide. The Knesset publicly debated this issue on 17 and 22 July 1968, winning applause from the press for its sensitivity. Right-wing and left-wing political groups, and student activists, spoke for Biafra. In August 1968, the Israeli air force overtly sent twelve tons of food aid to a nearby site outside of Nigerian (Biafran) air space. Covertly, Mossad provided Biafra with $100,000 (through Zurich) and attempted an arms shipment. Soon after, Israel arranged to make clandestine weapons shipments to Biafra using Côte d'Ivoire transport planes.
Biafra appealed unsuccessfully for support from the Organisation of African Unity, whose member states generally did not want to support internal secessionist movements. Although they received the support of African countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Nigeria received support from Egypt, which provided pilots to fly the aircraft procured by the Soviet Union.
From 1968 onward, the war fell into a form of stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control due to stiff resistance and major defeats in Abagana, Arochukwu, Oguta, Umuahia (Operation OAU), Onne, Ikot Ekpene, etc. But another Nigerian offensive from April to June 1968 began to close the ring around the Biafrans with further advances on the two northern fronts and the capture of Port Harcourt on 19 May 1968. The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans led to a humanitarian disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas.
The Biafran government reported that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world. Private groups in the US, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, responded. No one was ever held responsible for these killings.
In September 1968, the federal army planned what Gowon described as the "final offensive." Initially the final offensive was neutralised by Biafran troops by the end of the year after several Nigerian troops were routed in Biafran ambushes. In the latter stages, a Southern FMG offensive managed to break through. However in 1969, the Biafrans launched several offensives against the Nigerians in their attempts to keep the Nigerians off-balance starting in March when the 14th Division of the Biafran army recaptured Owerri and moved towards Port Harcourt, but were halted just north of the city. In May 1969, Biafran commandos recaptured oil wells in Kwale. In July 1969, Biafran forces launched a major land offensive supported by foreign mercenary pilots continuing to fly in food, medical supplies and weapons. Most notable of the mercenaries was Swedish Count Carl Gustav von Rosen who led air attacks with five Malmö MFI-9 MiniCOIN small piston-engined aircraft, armed with rocket pods and machine guns. His Biafran Air Force consisted of three Swedes: von Rosen, Gunnar Haglund and Martin Lang. The other two pilots were Biafrans: Willy Murray-Bruce and Augustus Opke. From 22 May to 8 July 1969 von Rosen's small force attacked Nigerian military airfields in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin City and Ughelli, destroying or damaging a number of Nigerian Air Force jets used to attack relief flights, including a few Mig-17's and three of Nigeria's six Ilyushin Il-28 bombers that were used to bomb Biafran villages and farms on a daily basis. Although the Biafran offensives of 1969 were a tactical success, the Nigerians soon recovered. The Biafran air attacks did disrupt the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force, but only for a few months.
In response to the Nigerian government using foreigners to lead some advances, the Biafran government also began hiring foreign mercenaries to extend the war. Only German born Rolf Steiner a Lt. Col. with the 4th Commandos, and Major Taffy Williams, a Welshman would remain for the duration. Nigeria also deployed foreign combatants, in the form of Egyptian pilots for their air force MiG 17 fighters and Il 28 bombers. The Egyptian conscripts frequently attacked civilian rather than military targets, bombing numerous Red Cross shelters.
Awareness of a mounting crisis rose in 1968. Information spread especially through religious networks, beginning with alerts from missionaries. It did not escape the notice of worldwide Christian organisations that the Biafrans were Christian and the northern Nigerians controlling the federal government were Muslim.
Many volunteer bodies organised the Biafran airlift which provided blockade-breaking relief flights into Biafra, carrying food, medicines, and sometimes (according to some claims) weapons. More common was the claim that the arms-carrying aircraft would closely shadow aid aircraft, making it more difficult to distinguish between aid aircraft and military supply aircraft.
One of the interesting characters assisting Count Carl Gustav von Rosen was Lynn Garrison, an ex-RCAF fighter pilot. He introduced the Count to a Canadian method of dropping bagged supplies to remote areas in Canada without losing the contents. He showed how one sack of food could be placed inside a larger sack before the supply drop. When the package hit the ground the inner sack would rupture while the outer one kept the contents intact. With this method many tons of food were dropped to many Biafrans who would otherwise have died of starvation.
Bernard Kouchner was one of a number of French doctors who volunteered with the French Red Cross to work in hospitals and feeding centres in besieged Biafra. The Red Cross required volunteers to sign an agreement, which was seen by some (like Kouchner and his supporters) as being similar to a gag order, that was designed to maintain the organisation's neutrality, whatever the circumstances. Kouchner and the other French doctors signed this agreement.
After entering the country, the volunteers, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the Nigerian army, and witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. Kouchner also witnessed these events, particularly the huge number of starving children, and when he returned to France, he publicly criticised the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behaviour. With the help of other French doctors, Kouchner put Biafra in the media spotlight and called for an international response to the situation. These doctors, led by Kouchner, concluded that a new aid organisation was needed that would ignore political/religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of victims. They formed le Comité de Lutte contre le Génocide au Biafra which in 1971 became Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
Media and public relations played a central role in the war, due to their influence on morale at home and the dynamics of international involvement. Both sides relied heavily on external support.
Media campaigns focused on the plight of the Biafrans intensified internationally in the summer of 1968. By the Biafran leadership and then around the world, the pogroms and famine were classified as genocide and compared to the Holocaust; hypothetical Judaic origins of the Igbos were used to bolster comparisons with Jews in Germany. In the international press, Igbo refugee camps were compared to Nazi extermination camps.
Humanitarian appeals differed somewhat from place to place. In Britain, humanitarian aid used familiar discourses of imperial responsibility; in Ireland, advertisements appealed to shared Catholicism and experiences of civil war. Both of these appeals channeled older cultural values into support for the new model of international NGOs. In Israel, the Holocaust comparison was promoted, as was the theme of threat from hostile Muslim neighbors.
The Biafran war bombarded Western culture with the trope of the starving African child. The Biafran famine took media coverage of disaster to a new level, enabled by the proliferation of television sets. The televised disaster and the rising NGOs mutually enhanced each other; NGOs maintained their own communications networks and played a significant role in shaping news coverage.
Biafran elites studied Western propaganda techniques and released carefully constructed public communications in an intentional fashion. Biafran propagandists had the dual task of appealing to international public opinion, and maintaining morale and nationalist spirit domestically. Political cartoons were a preferred medium for publicising simple interpretations of the war. Biafra also used push polling to insinuate messages about Nigeria's inherent bloodthirstiness. Novelist Chinua Achebe became a committed propagandist for Biafra, and one of its leading international advocates.
On 29 May 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a student at Columbia University, set himself ablaze at the premises of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, to protest the genocide against the nation and people of Biafra. He died of his injuries the following day.
In May 1969 a company of Biafrian commandos raided an oil field in Kwale and killed 11 Saipem workers and Agip technicians. They captured three Europeans unhurt and then at a nearby Okpai Field Development Biafrian commandos surrounded and captured 15 more expatriate personnel. The captives included 14 Italians, 3 West Germans and one Lebanese. It was claimed that the foreigners were captured fighting alongside Nigerians against Biafrian troops and that they assisted Nigerians in constructing roads to aid them in their operations against Biafra. They were tried by a Biafrian court and sentenced to death.
This incident caused an international uproar. In the month that followed Pope Paul VI, the governments of Italy, UK and USA mounted concerted pressure on Biafra. On June 4, 1969, after receiving a personal direct mail from the Pope, Ojukwu pardorned the foreigners. They were released to the special envoys sent by the governments of Ivory Coast and Gabon and left Biafra.
With increased British support the Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans once again on 23 December 1969 with a major thrust by the 3rd Marine Commando Division the division was commanded by Col. Olusegun Obasanjo (who later became president twice) which succeeded in splitting the Biafran enclave into two by the end of the year. The final Nigerian offensive, named "Operation Tail-Wind", launched on 7 January 1970 with the 3rd Marine Commando Division attacking, and supported by the 1st Infantry division to the north and the 2nd Infantry division to the south. The Biafran town of Owerri fell on 9 January, and Uli fell on 11 January. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by flying by plane to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to General Yakubu Gowon of the federal army on 13 January 1970. The war finally ended a few days later with the Nigerian forces advancing in the remaining Biafran held territories with little opposition.
After the war Gowon said, "The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry."
The war cost the Igbos a great deal in terms of lives, money and infrastructure. It has been estimated that up to three million people may have died due to the conflict, most from hunger and disease caused by Nigerian forces. More than two million people died from the famine imposed deliberately through blockade throughout the war. Lack of medicine also contributed. Thousands of people starved to death every day as the war progressed. (The International Committee of the Red Cross in September 1968 estimated 8,000–10,000 deaths from starvation each day.) The leader of a Nigerian peace conference delegation said in 1968 that "starvation is a legitimate weapon of war and we have every intention of using it against the rebels". This stance is generally considered to reflect the policy of the Nigerian government. The federal Nigerian army is accused of further atrocities including deliberate bombing of civilians, mass slaughter with machine guns, and rape.
Some scholars including Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe continue to argue that the Biafran war was a genocide, for which no perpetrators have been held accountable. Critics of this position suggest that Igbo leaders had some responsibility, but acknowledge that starvation policies were pursued deliberately and that accountability has not been sought for the 1966 pogroms. Arguments that this war did not strictly constitute "genocide" focus on political aspects of the war which differ from prototypical genocide, such as the objective to keep Igboland within the Nigerian Federation, and improved conditions for Igbos after the Federal Military Government achieved its political objectives. Despite the high death toll and widespread application of the label "genocide" while the war was taking place, the Nigeria–Biafra war is frequently omitted from lists of genocides. In 1969, Biafra made a formal complaint of genocide against Igbos to the International Committee on the Investigation of Crimes of Genocide, which concluded that British colonial administrators were complicit in the process of fomenting ethnic hatred and violence, dating back to the Kano riots of 1953. With special reference to the Asaba Massacre, Emma Okocha described the killings as "the first black-on-black genocide". Ekwe-Ekwe places significant blame on the British.
Reconstruction, helped by the oil money, was swift; however, the old ethnic and religious tensions remained a constant feature of Nigerian politics. Accusations were made of Nigerian government officials diverting resources meant for reconstruction in the former Biafran areas to their ethnic areas. Military government continued in power in Nigeria for many years, and people in the oil-producing areas claimed they were being denied a fair share of oil revenues. Laws were passed mandating that political parties could not be ethnically or tribally based; however, it has been hard to make this work in practice.
Igbos who ran for their lives during the pogroms and war returned to find their positions had been taken over; and when the war was over the government did not feel any need to re-instate them, preferring to regard them as having resigned. This reasoning was also extended to Igbo-owned properties and houses. People from other regions were quick to take over any house owned by an Igbo, especially in the Port Harcourt area. The Nigerian Government justified this by terming such properties abandoned. This, however, has led to a feeling of an injustice as the Nigerian government policies were seen as further economically disabling the Igbos even long after the war. Further feelings of injustice were caused by Nigeria changing its currency, so that Biafran supplies of pre-war Nigerian currency were no longer honoured. At the end of the war, only N£20 was given to any easterner regardless of the amount of money he or she had had in the bank. This was applied irrespective of their banking in pre-war Nigerian currency or Biafran currency. This was seen as a deliberate policy to hold back the Igbo middle class, leaving them with little wealth to expand their business interests.
On 29 May 2000, The Guardian reported that President Olusegun Obasanjo commuted to retirement the dismissal of all military persons who fought for the breakaway state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. In a national broadcast, he said that the decision was based on the principle that "justice must at all times be tempered with mercy."
Biafra was more or less wiped off the map until its resurrection by the contemporary Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra. Chinua Achebe's last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, has also rekindled discussion of the war.
Ethnic split: At independence, Nigeria had a federal constitution comprising three regions defined by the principal ethnic groups in the country – the Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, and Ibo in the south-east. Crowd The fighting led to famine and chaos but as the military took over in the mid-1960s, and the economic situation worsened, ethnic tensions broke out. Up to 30,000 Ibos were killed in fighting with Hausas, and around 1million refugees fled to their Ibo homeland in the east