The Nigerian Civil War, 1967 – 1970, was an ethnic and political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the South-eastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed republic of Biafra. The war became notorious for the starvation in some of the besieged war-bound regions, and the consequent claims of genocide made by the largely Igbo people of those regions.
Causes of the Conflict
The conflict was the result of serious tensions, both ethnic and religious, between the different peoples of Nigeria. Like most modern African nations, Nigeria was an artificial construct, put together by agreement between European powers, paying little regard to historical African boundaries or population groups. The Nigeria which received independence from Britain in 1960 had a population of 60 million people of nearly 300 differing ethnic and tribal groups.
Of the ethnic groups that made up Nigeria, the largest were the largely Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the half-Christian, half-Muslim south-west, and the Igbo in the predominantly Christian south-east. At independence a conservative political alliance had been made between the leading Hausa and Igbo political parties, which ruled Nigeria from 1960 to 1966. This alliance excluded the western Yoruba people. The well-educated Igbo people were considered by many to be the main beneficiaries of this alliance, taking most of the top jobs and leading business opportunities in the Nigerian federation.
The Yoruba westerners had supported a left-leaning, reformist party, the Action Group, which was antipathic to the conservative northern muslim bloc. A "palace coup" by conservative elements in the west, led to the formation of a more conservative Yoruba party, the NNDP, prepared to go into alliance with the Hausa northerners. This new political alliance excluded the Igbo-dominated East from power, and threatened to roll back the gains of the Igbo elite.
The elections of 1965 saw the Nigerian National Alliance of the Muslim north and the conservative elements in the west, face off against the United Progressive Grand Alliance of the Christian east and the progressive elements among the westerners. The Alliance of North and West won a crushing victory under Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, amid claims of widespread electoral fraud.
The claims of fraud led to a military coup by left-leaning Igbo officers. General Ironsi became head of state. Some months later, a counter coup by northern officers placed General Yakubu Gowon into power. Ethnic tensions increased, with massacres of Christian Igbos living in the Muslim north.
The discovery of large quantities of oil in the south-east of the country had led to the prospect of the south-east becoming self-sufficient and increasingly prosperous. However the exclusion of easterners from power made many fear that the oil revenues would be used to benefit areas in the north and west rather than their own.
All these factors led to a growing pressure in the Igbo east for secession.
The military governor of the Igbo-dominated south-east, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, citing the northern massacres and electoral fraud, proclaimed with southern parliament the secession of the south-eastern region from Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra, an independent nation. Although there was much sympathy in Europe and elsewhere, only four countries recognized the new republic.
The Nigerian government immediately launched a "police action", using the armed forces to retake the secessionist territory.
At first Nigerian progress was slow, and failures of its larger army to invade the territory of the new republic led to a growth in worldwide support for Biafra. Biafran troops crossed the Niger River, entered the mid-western region, and launched attacks close to Lagos, the then Nigerian capital.
However reorganisation of the Nigerian forces, and the effects of a naval, land and air blockade of Biafra led to a change in the balance of forces. Biafran forces were pushed back into their core territory, and the capital of Biafra, the city of Enugu was captured by Nigerian forces. The Biafrans continued to resist in their core Igbo heartlands, which were soon surrounded by Nigerian forces.
The Swedish eccentric, Count Carl Gustav von Rosen also led a miniCOIN brigade in action, his BAF (Biafran Air Force) consisted of three Swedes and two Biafrans.
From 1968 onward, the war fell into a lengthy stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control. The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans led to a humanitarian and propaganda disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas. An overused tactic of the Nigerian forces had been the sabotage of farmland, and this was now beginning to affect the Biafran population. Images of starving Biafran children went around the world. The Biafran government claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world.
Many volunteer bodies organised blockade-breaking relief flights into Biafra, carrying food, medicines, and sometimes (it was claimed) weapons. Nigeria also claimed that the Biafran government was hiring foreign mercenaries to extend and lengthen the war.
Despite the foreign aid, and the political harm done to Nigeria, the area controlled by the Biafran government grew smaller and smaller. A final surrender of Biafran forces took place in 1970 when Ojukwu fled to the republic of Côte d’Ivoire, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender. To the surprise of many in the outside world, the threatened reprisals and massacres did not occur, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation.
The war cost Nigeria a great deal in terms of lives, money and its image in the world. It has been estimated that up to a million people may have died due to the conflict, hunger and disease. Reconstruction, helped by the oil money, was swift; however, the old ethnic and religious tensions often remained. 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. Would these mistakes that cost us so much men and materials be allowed to repeat itself?
Be that as it may, anything that will heighten this tension should be avoided by the immediate and unconditional release of Nnamdi Kanu who has never detonated a single bomb to press home the demand of the generality of the Igbo nation.
Chuba Nweke Okadigbo , a professor in international relations writes from Zurich, Switzerland.
The views expressed in this piece are entirely the author's and do not represent the editorial policy of DailyGlobeWatch