The Nigerian Civil War: the Tragic Fate of Biafra

Man carrying Nigerian flag main

The nation of Nigeria was created by the combination of regions made of very different ethnic and religious groups. Ethnic conflict between the groups, including against the Igbo people, was an unsurprising consequence of this artificial nation-building. Military coups worsened the situation, resulting in attacks on Igbo civilians. Soon afterward, southeastern Nigeria declared itself the independent nation of Biafra. A civil war resulted (1967-1970). After much suffering, Biafra’s independence failed.  

Nigeria Becomes A Nation 

Nigeria is a country in West Africa.  It is the sixth-largest country in the world and the most populous African nation with over two hundred million people. The country is growing so fast that finding out exactly how many people live there is complicated.  

Nigeria has a long history going back to at least 700 BCE.  British control began in 1914 under Lord Frederick Lugard. The British combined many groups with diverse religions (Islam, Muslim, animism) and ethnic groups (including the Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba) into one colony. 

The result was a troubled constructed community. European colonial powers used these divisions to maintain dominance, using the “divide and conquer” principle. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote about the results of European colonialism in his classic novel Things Fall Apart.   

Road To Civil War 

Asked why he joined the fight for the secession of Biafra from Nigeria between 1967 to 1970, the elder statesman said, “No, we fought for survival. Biafra never fought or did not attempt to break away from the Lugardian setup known as Nigeria. No! We, from the south east fought to prevent us from being exterminated in an effort to push us out of the federation. 

Joseph Achuzie, Biafran Army Leader

Nigeria became an independent nation in 1960. The country adopted a British-style parliamentary democracy. The transition to independence did not end ethnic divisions, including a Hausa and Fulani majority (Muslim) in the north, a Yoruba majority (animist) in the West, and an Igbo majority (Christian) in the East.  

Religious and cultural differences greatly divided the nation. The ethnic-based violence that periodically flared up before independence continued. Northern-based representatives dominated the new government.

Many believed they were corrupt and denied the rights of the rest of the country. There was not a strong belief in the legitimacy of the central government. 

In the 20th Century, worldwide, the military often stepped in as a means of addressing government corruption and civilian unrest. Military rule often was a path to violence and authoritarian rule.

The first years of independence are often dangerous as a new government settles in and deals with the rocky first years of self-rule.  

A military coup, led mostly by young Igbo officers, was brought against the civilian government in early 1966. The officers argued the civilian government was corrupt and threatened the country’s safety and well-being.

A counter-coup in mid-1966 was led by Northerners, resulting in a military regime led by a Hausa officer, General Yakubu Gowon.  

The counterattack included a pogrom, an attack on innocent civilians, against Igbo people living in the North. Thousands of Igbo were killed. Many more fled to safety. In 1967, Gowon declared the creation of twelve new states, including the division of the East into three parts.  

Biafra Independence 

Chukwuemeka “Emeka” Odumegwu Ojukwu was assigned as governor of Eastern Nigeria after the first coup.  He now became an opposition leader.  

In May 1967, the region declared itself as the independent nation of Biafra (Igbo for “come live”).  Biafra is also the name colonial Europeans gave to a part of the western African coast between the Niger River and Cape Lopez. 

The Igbo people declared their right to self-rule and the injustices of the murders of their people. They dreamed of a chance for peace and equality.

Biafra was the “land of the rising sun.”  The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel that takes place during this time is entitled Half of a Yellow Sun, after the half sun on the Biafran flag. 

Biafra received limited foreign support from a few African nations, France, and foreign mercenary fighters. Many others around the world sympathized with Biafra. They saw Biafra as a people fighting for their freedom. Also, the world worried about the suffering of its people.

Nonetheless, most world governments supported the Nigerian central government. One concern was that the independent movement threatened access to Nigerian oil.  

Nigerian Civil War 

The Nigerian central government soon moved to suppress the independence attempt.  

The first move was to place an embargo, a blockage, on all shipping to and from Biafra. This blockage soon applied to oil shipments, putting Biafra at a disadvantage. It had limited weapons or economic means to survive an extended civil war.  

The military situation eventually reached a stalemate. Nonetheless, the blockade had its effect, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.  Frederick Forsyth, later best known for his political thrillers, was a British journalist covering the war.

He reported the outbreak of kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency. The blockade prevented Biafra from receiving food and medicine.  

The Nigerian forces, helped by British support, eventually overwhelmed the rebels.  The final Nigerian offensive, named “Operation Tail-Wind,” led to a final defeat in January 1970.

The Aftermath  

Ojukwu went into exile, returning to Nigeria years later. He received amnesty.  

General Gowon announced a “no victory, no vanquished” policy of peaceful reconciliation:

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 civil war, however, had its toll, including over one million dead, mostly from hunger and disease. The bombing of civilians and other war crimes led to additional suffering.  

Gowan was ousted a few years later by one of multiple military coups that would occur over the years. The passion for Biafran independence continues to this day.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.