The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, 6 July 1967 – 13 January 1970, was a political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra.
The causes of the Nigerian civil war were exceedingly complex. More than fifty years ago, Great Britain carved an area out of West Africa containing hundreds of different groups and unified it, calling it Nigeria. Although the area contained many different groups, three were predominant: 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; the Yoruba, which formed about 75% of the population in the southwestern part.
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by an autocratic, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of some thirty-odd 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 being 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 in some six hundred autonomous, democratically-organized villages. Although there were monarchs in these villages (whether hereditary or elected), they were largely little more than figureheads. Unlike the other two regions, decisions among the Igbo were made by a general assembly in which every man could participate.
The different political systems among these three peoples produced highly divergent sets of customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through their village head who was designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be obeyed without question. This highly centralized and authoritarian political system elevated to positions of leadership persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors, the same virtues required by Islam for eternal salvation. One of the chief functions of the traditional political system was to maintain the Islamic religion. Hostility to economic and social innovation was therefore deeply rooted.
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. With their emphasis upon achievement, individual choice, and democratic decision-making, the challenges of modernization for the Igbo entailed responding to new opportunities in traditional 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 Western education and influence, 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 limiting social change. As a result, the North, at the time of independence in 1960, was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria with a literacy rate of 2% as compared to 19.2% in the East(literacy in Arabic script, learned in connection with religious education, was 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 become significantly modernized 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 villages. (Audrey Chapman, “Civil War in Nigeria,” Midstream, Feb 1968). However, the Igbo people took to Western education zealously. Furthermore, most Igbo eventually adopted the religion of the Christian colonialists. By the 1940’s they had transformed themselves into one of the most educated, wealthiest, and politically unified groups in Nigeria and presented a serious challenge to Yoruba predominance in the civil service and the professions. Moreover, severe population pressure in the Igbo homeland combined with an intense desire for economic improvement drove thousands of Igbo to other parts of Nigeria in search of work.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organized into several small states so that the conservative and backward North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, however, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernized 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 cost accepted the Northern demands.
The discovery of vast oil reserves in the Niger River delta, a sprawling network of rivers and swamps at the southernmost tip of the country, had tempted the southeast to annex the region in order to become economically self-sufficient. 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. Prior to the discovery of oil Nigeria's wealth derived from agricultural products from the south, and minerals from the north. The north, up until around 1965, had had low-level demands to secede from Nigeria and retain its wealth for northerners. These demands seemed to cease when it became clear that oil in the south east would become a major revenue source. This further fuelled Igbo fears that the northerners had plans to strip eastern oil to benefit the North.
The military governor of the Igbo-dominated southeast, 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 on 30 May 1967. Although there was much sympathy in Europe and elsewhere, only four countries recognized the new republic.
Several peace accords especially the one held at Aburi, Ghana (the Aburi Accord) collapsed and the shooting war 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 to understand the difference on the side of Gowon, and that it would be revoked. When it was he regarded this as a failure of Gowon and the Military Government to honour their agreements, and that he was acting in accord with the agreement. His advisers, meanwhile, felt that Gowon had enacted as much of Aburi as was politically feasible and that Gowon had acted in the spirit of Aburi.
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 Col. Shuwa and designated as 1 Division. The division was led mostly by northern officers. 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. At this stage of the war, the other regions of Nigeria (the West and Mid-West) still considered the war as a confrontation between the north (mainly Hausas) against the east (mainly Ibos). But the Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when, on 9 July, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-Western Nigerian region across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, till they were stopped at Ore 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 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-cession arrangement that all soldiers should return to their regions to stop the spate of killings, in which Igbo soldiers had been major victims. The soldiers that were supposed to defend the Mid-West state were mostly Mid-West Igbo and were in touch with their eastern counterpart. General Gowon responded by asking Colonel [Muritala Mohammed] to form another division (2 Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Mid-West, defend the West side and attack Biafra from the West as well. Colonel Muritala later became military head of state. As Nigerian forces retook the Mid-West, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin on 19 September.
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 Col. Adekunle (called the Black Scorpion) to form 3 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 and Edo. Four battalions of the Nigerian 2nd Infantry Division were needed to drive the Biafrans back and eliminate their territorial gains made during the offensive. But the Nigerians were repulsed three times and lost thousands of troops and dozens of tanks and equipment as they tried to cross the Niger during October. The first attempt by the 2nd Infantry Division on 12 October to cross the Niger from the town of Asab to the Biafran city of Onitsha cost the Nigerian Federal Army over 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing.
However reorganization of the Nigerian forces, the reluctance of the Biafran army to attack again, and the effects of a naval, land and air blockade of Biafra led to a change in the balance of forces.
The Nigerians then settled down to a period of a siege by blockading Biafra. Amphibious landings by the Nigerian marines led by Major Isaac Adaka Boro captured the Niger Delta cities of Bonny, Okrika and Port Harcourt on 26 July, and the port of Calabar on 18 October by elements of the Nigerian 3rd Marine Commando Division. In the north, Biafran forces were pushed back into their core Igbo territory, and the capital of Biafra, the city of Enugu, was captured by Nigerian forces belonging to the 1st Infantry Division on 4 October. The Biafrans continued to resist in their core Igbo heartlands, which were soon surrounded by Nigerian forces.
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. 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 claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world. A Nigerian commission, including British doctors from the Liverpool University School of Tropical Medicine, visited Biafra after the war and concluded that the evidence of deliberate starvation was overplayed, caused by confusion between the symptoms of starvation and various tropical illnesses. While they did not doubt that starvation had occurred, it was less clear to what extent it was a result of the Nigerian blockade or the restriction of food to the civilians (to make it available to the military) by the Biafran government
Many volunteer bodies organised 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. It has been argued that by prolonging the war the Biafran relief effort (characterized by Canadian development consultant Ian Smillie as "an act of unfortunate and profound folly"), contributed to the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians.
The Nigerian government also claimed that the Biafran government was hiring foreign mercenaries to extend the war. Nigeria also used 'mercenaries', in the form of Egyptian pilots for their air force MiG 17 fighters and Il 28 bombers. The Egyptians conscripts frequently attacked civilian rather than military targets, bombing numerous Red Cross shelters.
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 created Médecins Sans Frontières in 1971 (Doctors Without Borders).
In June 1969, the Biafrans launched a desperate offensive against the Nigerians in their attempts to keep the Nigerians off-balance. They were 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 BAF (Biafran Air Force) consisted of three Swedes,two Biafrans and an ex-RCAF pilot. From May to July, his 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 out of Nigeria's six Ilyushin Il-28 bombers that were used to bomb Biafran villages and farms on a daily basis. Although taken off-guard by the surprise Biafran offensive, the Nigerians soon recovered and held off the Biafrans long enough for the offensive to stall out. The Biafran air attacks did disrupt the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force, but only for a few months.
One of the interesting characters, assisting Count Carl Gustaf 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 was 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 expired from starvation.
The Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans on 23 December 1969 with a major thrust by the 3rd Marine Commando Division (the division was commanded by Col. 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", was 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. The war finally ended with the final surrender of the Biafran forces in the last Biafra-held town of Amichi on 13 January 1970. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by flying by plane to the republic of Côte d'Ivoire, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to Yakubu Gowon of the federal army.
The Igbos felt that they had been deliberately displaced from government positions, because their pre-war posts were now occupied by other Nigerians (mostly Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani). When Igbo civil servants left to join similar posts in Biafra, their positions had been replaced; and when the war was over the government did not feel that it should sack their replacements, preferring to regard the previous incumbents as having resigned. This, however, has led to a feeling of an injustice. Further feelings of injustice were caused by Nigeria, during the war, changing its currency so that Biafran supplies of pre-war Nigerian currency were no longer honoured and then, at the end of the war, offering only N£20 to easterners on exchange of their 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 Monday 29 May 2000, The Guardian of Lagos 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."