The Biafran War of Independence and the Nigerian-Biafran War are armed conflicts sparked by inter-ethnic tensions and an attempt to secede the country”s eastern provinces, which proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. As a result of hostilities that lasted from July 1967 to January 1970, the federal government of Nigeria was able to regain control of the rebel territories. The Nigerian Civil War, along with the Vietnam War, is considered the bloodiest conflict of the 1960s. Various sources say that between 700,000 and 3,000,000 people died in this civil war, mostly residents of the Biafra territories, victims of war crimes, starvation, and disease.
The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. Like most other African states, Nigeria was an artificial structure created by Great Britain that did not take into account religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. At the time of independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria”s population was 60 million and consisted of nearly 300 different ethnic and cultural groups, three of which were predominant:
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by an oppressive, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of some thirty-odd emirs, who, in turn, were subordinate to the sultan. The sultan was the source of all political and religious power. The Yoruba political system in the southwest also consisted of local chiefs. However, the Yoruba political and social system was less patriarchal than in the North. The Igbo in the East, unlike the other two groups, lived in about six hundred autonomous, democratically organized villages. Although villages were ruled by chiefs (either hereditary or elected), in most they ruled nominally. Unlike the other two areas, decisions among the Igbo were made collegially.
The extremely centralized and authoritarian Hausa-Fulani political system had to uphold Islamic and conservative values, which led many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or blasphemous.
Unlike the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo often participated directly in decisions that affected their lives. They had a lively understanding of the political system and regarded it as a tool to achieve their own personal goals. These traditional differences among the peoples of Nigeria were perpetuated by the British system of colonial rule in Nigeria.
In the North, the British relied on the local feudal elite without changing the local system. Christian missionaries were not allowed into the North, and the region thus remained virtually closed to Western education and influence, unlike the Igbo, whose wealthy members sent their children to British universities.
Western Nigeria, inhabited by Yoruba, had a much higher level of literacy, and Western forms of education were introduced. The Yoruba began to form an apparatus of civil servants, and many became doctors, lawyers, and technicians. In the Igbo regions missionaries were introduced later because of problems in establishing sustainable control over autonomous Igbo villages. However, the Igbo also embraced Western education and for the most part embraced Christianity. Overcrowding in Igbo territories drove thousands of Igbos to other parts of Nigeria in search of work. By the 1960s the Igbos had become politically unified and economically prosperous, with traders and literate elites active not only in southern Nigeria but throughout Nigeria.
During the colonial period, the British political ideology of dividing Nigeria into North, West and East was reinforced by economic, political and social rivalries among Nigeria”s various ethnic groups. In 1947, the Richards (Governor of Nigeria) constitution was introduced, dividing Nigeria into 3 administrative regions governed by local governments:
The principle of regionalization was enshrined in the subsequent constitutional reforms of 1951 by McPherson (Governor of Nigeria) and 1954 by Littleton (British Colonial Minister). McPherson”s constitution provided for the formation of regional governments from representatives of the majority party.
The North had a larger population than the other oblasts combined. On this basis, the Northern Regions were assigned the majority of seats in the federal Legislature. Within each of these three regions, the dominant Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups formed political parties that were largely regional and tribal:
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Igbo and Yoruba were at the center of the struggle for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria made up of several smaller states so that the conservative North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by more Western-oriented 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 majority North. The Igbo and Yoruba, seeking an independent country, accepted the North”s demands.
The first government of independent Nigeria was based on a coalition of the CNRP and SNC parties, with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of the CNRP as prime minister. After Nigeria was declared a republic in 1963, Nnamdi Azikiwe (a representative of the NSNG) became president. The opposition was represented by the Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo. The regional governments were led by: in the North by the leader of the NCK, Ahmadu Bello; in the West by S. Akintola of the Action Group; and in the East by M. Okpara of the NSNG.
In 1963, a fourth region, the Midwestern Region, was formed in the eastern part of western Nigeria. In the 1964 elections in this region the NSNG won.
After independence in 1960, Nigeria developed its reputation as a showcase for democracy and economic stability on the continent. This stability was short-lived. Attempts by the North to secure control of the country in the face of increasingly vocal opposition from the West and the East led to widespread violence and internal strife in Nigeria.
In 1962, the federal government provoked a split in the Action Group, with one of its factions, led by S. Akintola, creating the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which, allied with the NSNG, came to power in the Western Region in January 1963.
In 1964 the Action Group leader Obafemi Awolowo was accused of organizing a military coup, arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. By 1964 there was a rift in the NSDP-NSNG coalition over the 1963 census estimates, which demographers and the NSNG leadership viewed as fraudulent. They believed that the population of the North had been deliberately inflated by 10 million to guarantee a majority in Parliament for that region.
Somewhat later, the final split occurred, and on the eve of the December 1964 elections a new balance of power emerged: the SNC formed a coalition with the newly formed PNDP, as opposed to the alliance between the NSNG and the Action Group. The SNC-PNDP bloc won the elections, with many irregularities, which led to a constitutional crisis and an intensified struggle for power.
In January 1965, a new federal government was formed, comprising representatives of the SNC, the PNDP and the NSNP, while Balewa retained the post of prime minister. A new political crisis erupted in October 1965, when the PNDP returned to power as a result of fraudulent elections in the Western Province, triggering a wave of unrest in that part of the country.
On January 15, 1966, Igbo junior officers, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, simultaneously assassinated all major political leaders – Balewa in Lagos, Akintola in Ibadan and Bello in Kaduna – as well as prominent northern officers. The putsch was disrupted because some of the military refused to support the rebels. The leader of the mutiny, C. Nzeogwa was arrested. The commander of the army, Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi (ethnic Igbo), brought order and became the head of the interim leadership; he appointed military governors in the provinces with broad powers and officers to ministerial positions; political parties were banned and the constitution was suspended.
However, the fact that the Igbo officers were not punished for killing the northerners, and all the qualifying elements of the coup in general (among other things, only one Igbo was killed and the northerners were numerous, and Ironsi”s favoritism toward the Igbo) led to a strong negative reaction from the northerners, who saw the coup not as a path to unity but as an Igbo plot in the hope of dominating the country.
The situation of southerners in the North was very precarious. On May 24, 1966, the Ironsi military government issued a decree abolishing the federal structure of Nigeria. The decree provoked a sharp negative reaction in Northern Nigeria. On May 29, 1966, thousands of Orientals living in the North were killed in pogroms initiated with the knowledge of the local authorities. The Ironsi government announced the creation of a tribunal to investigate the causes of the massacres and lootings in the North and to compensate the victims of the pogroms. The Northern Emirs announced their intention to separate Northern Nigeria from the federation.
On July 29, four days before the tribunal began, the northerners staged a counter-coup, in which Ironsi, as well as the military governor of Western Nigeria, Major Adekunle Fajuyi, were assassinated in the city of Ibadan. Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon became the new head of the military regime. The core of the infantry was composed of northerners, and infighting broke out in the troops, with “easterners” being massacred all over the barracks. The rebels then massacred every Igbo officer in the Nigerian general staff. In all, some 400 Igbo officials were killed. Gowon immediately restored Nigeria”s federal structure to conform to the demands of the northern political elite.
On September 29, 1966, the pogrom of Orientals was renewed. Thirty thousand eastern Nigerians living in the North, in the West, in Lagos were killed. In all, 40-50,000 Igbo were killed in the 1966 pogroms and about 2 million fled to the East after their property and homes were destroyed. By 1966, approximately 1 million 300,000 Igbo lived in the North and another 500,000 in the West. A mass exodus of northerners from the East began.
The discovery of vast oil reserves in the Niger Delta in the south of the country allowed southeastern Nigeria to become economically self-sufficient. However, the expulsion of Igbo representatives from power raised fears that oil revenues would be used unfairly, to the detriment of the Igbo. Before the discovery of oil, Nigeria”s wealth consisted of agricultural products from the South and minerals from the North. In the North, up until 1965, there was sentiment in favor of separating from Nigeria and keeping the region”s wealth for the people of the North. These demands ceased when it became clear that oil in the southeast would become the main source of income.
After the Igbo pogrom of September 1966, secessionist sentiments began to grow in the North in Eastern Nigeria. Igbo leaders called for the return of all Igbos to their historical homeland in eastern Nigeria.
Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu (Igbo by nationality), military governor of the Eastern Region (since January 1966), insisted on a confederative arrangement for Nigeria (the federal government should be reduced to a secretariat to maintain economic relations between almost entirely separate states).
On August 9, 1966, a meeting of military governors in Lagos decided that it was necessary to repatriate all troops to their area of origin in order to restore peace and conduct constitutional negotiations. This decision was not fully implemented.
On September 12, the Special Constitutional Conference, composed of delegates representing all regions of Nigeria, began its work in Lagos to devise a form of preserving Nigeria”s unity. Representatives of Eastern Nigeria boycotted the conference (Ojukwu”s main condition for attending was the withdrawal of all Northern troops from Lagos and an end to the Igbo pogroms in the North).
On January 4 and 5, 1967, a summit of Nigeria”s military leaders was held in Aburi, Ghana, at which various political forces in Nigeria agreed on the concept of decentralization and regional autonomy for Nigeria. Gowon attended the summit and even agreed to sign the final version of the decentralization memorandum. However, when he returned to Nigeria, he disavowed his words.
By early 1967, Ojukwu decided to secede from the Nigerian federation and form its own independent state. In March 1967, the Eastern Province government announced that all revenues collected on behalf of the federal government would be left for the Eastern Province. The federal government refused to pay the salaries of civil servants who fled their areas of employment. In addition, the federal government refused to pay the East its statutory share of revenues. The East began to seize federal property. In response, the Gowon government imposed a naval blockade on the region.
In May 1967 a final attempt at a peace settlement was made. Я. Gowon offered to lift economic sanctions against the East and to organize a meeting of regional military governors on condition that British troops guarantee the security of the meeting. Ojukwu rejected the proposal.
The formal occasion for the declaration of independence was a federal government decree of May 27, 1967, which abolished the division of the country into four provinces and replaced them with 12 states (the Northern Region was divided into six states, the Eastern Region into three, and the Western Region into two). The new states coincided with the natural ethnic formations. The East was divided so that oil reserves were located in states without most Igbos. Accordingly, the positions of governors were also abolished.
Ojukwu”s reaction was immediate. On May 30, Oriental Province was declared a sovereign Republic of Biafra (after the Bay of Biafra). The majority of the province”s population, terrified by the wave of pogroms, welcomed the decision. Thus began Africa”s longest and bloodiest civil war of the 1960s. According to the constitution of Nigeria, the Eastern Province had the right to secede from the federation, but the head of the military regime, Y. Gowon, not wanting to lose the rich oil fields, declared that the issue would be resolved by force.
On June 6, Gowon ordered the suppression of the rebellion and announced mobilization in the northern and western Muslim states. In Biafra covert mobilization began even before the declaration of independence. Troops from both sides began pulling up to the Niger River, which had become a line of armed confrontation. At the beginning of June, the federals began to blockade the rebellious territory.
On July 6, Operation Unicorn began, planned as a short police action. The commander of the government army, Colonel (later Brigadier General) Hassan Katsine optimistically declared that the insurgency would be over “within 48 hours. However, he underestimated the strength of the rebels. The attackers immediately ran into fierce defenses and the fighting became protracted, sustained. The Federal Army entered Biafra territory from the north in two columns. The 1st column entered along the Ogugu – Ogunga – Nsukka axis, the 2nd along the Gakem – Obudu – Ogoja axis. On July 12, Ogoya and Gakem towns were captured, on July 14, Nsukka town.
On July 26, a Nigerian landing force seized oil fields on Bonny Island, 30 kilometers from Port Harcourt. As a result, Biafra lost its main source of foreign exchange earnings. The Biafrians tried to recapture Bonny, but to no avail. Port Harcourt was blockaded by federal forces. On July 10, the Biafrians bombed Makurdi airfield; on July 26, the frigate Nigeria blockaded Port Harcourt from the sea; on August 12, the Biafra Air Force raided government positions along the Niger.
In an effort to relieve pressure from the north, the 3,000-strong Biafra Army Mobile Brigade, supported by artillery and armored vehicles, crossed to the west bank of the Niger on August 9, embarking on what became known as the “northwest march.”
At first the offensive was successful. The Biafrians entered Midwestern territory with little or no organized resistance, since the federal troops stationed there consisted largely of Igbo tribesmen. Some units simply dispersed or joined the rebels. The state capital, Benin City, surrendered without a fight after only ten hours of the operation. The towns of Warri, Sapele, the oil center of Uguela, Agbor, Uromi, and Ubiadja were also taken. The rebels advanced as far west as the town of Ore, 200 kilometers from the Nigerian capital, Lagos. The capture of the Midwest changed the balance of power in the war, as all of Nigeria”s oil resources came under Biafra”s control. On August 20, the Biafrians stormed Ore. At the height of the military successes, Radio Biafra announced intentions to enter Nigeria”s capital, Lagos. Ojukwu”s intention to invade the West alarmed the Yoruba political elite (led by O. Awolowo, who had been released from prison) and caused the Yoruba, along with minorities in all areas, to turn against the Igbo. On August 21, the victorious march of the Biafrians was halted.
By carrying out a general mobilization in the densely populated metropolitan region, Nigeria”s military leadership gained a significant numerical advantage over the enemy. By early September, two divisions of government troops were already operating on the western front against one brigade and several individual rebel battalions. Having gained an enormous advantage in manpower and weaponry (helped here by the USSR and Great Britain), the Nigerian army launched a counteroffensive and drove the enemy back to Benin City.
Under the circumstances, a conspiracy against Ojukwu, led by Brigadier General Victor Banjo (Yoruba) commander of the Biafra troops destined to march into Western Nigeria and Colonel Emmanuel Ifeajuana, emerged in the Biafra army. On September 12 Banjo arbitrarily ordered the abandonment of Benin City without firing a single shot. Banjo then ordered the abandonment of Warri, Sapele, Aushi, Iguében and other important positions without a fight. At the same time, the Biafrians” defensive lines south of Nsukka fell, and federal troops advanced toward Enug. On September 18 the conspirators were arrested and shot. The Banjo conspiracy contributed to the demoralization of the Biafra army.
On September 19, Albert Okonkwo, the military administrator, proclaimed the independence of the “Republic of Benin. On September 22 the city was taken by storm by the Nigerian army, after which the Biafrians hastily retreated to the east bank of the Niger. The “Northwest Campaign” ended at the same point where it began.
At the end of September 1967, much of the Midwest region was cleared of separatists. In an attempt to tip the scales in their favor, the rebels began regular air raids on the Nigerian capital in September.
Counterattack by federal forces
On September 12, the Nigerian army began advancing toward the capital Enugu from Nsukka and it fell on October 4. Ojukwu was forced to move his capital to the city of Umuahia in the center of the country. The October 12 attempt to cross the Niger from the town of Asaba and capture the town of Onitsha cost the Nigerian Federal Army more than 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing.
On October 18, after an intense artillery barrage from warships, six battalions of Marines landed in Calabar port, which was defended by one rebel battalion and poorly armed civilian militia units. At the same time the 8th Battalion of Government infantry approached the city from the north. The resistance of the Biafrians, caught between two fires, was broken, and the largest seaport in southern Nigeria was taken over by government forces. The feds occupied other non-Igbo-inhabited territories, and by early 1968 the war had entered a positional phase.
In January 1968, government troops launched an offensive from Calabar toward Port Harcourt. For nearly four months the rebels managed to hold back the onslaught, but on May 19 the city fell. Biafra lost its last seaport and a major airfield. The siege of Biafra began. The feds slaughtered entire villages and provoked mass starvation. In the summer of 1968, a powerful campaign to expose the genocide of Igbo Christians swept across the continents. European television news began with reports of the horrors of war.
Lagos, meanwhile, was gradually taking over. In September 1968 the Nigerian army seized the town of Aba in central Biafra. From then on, contact with the outside world was limited to an irregular air bridge with Equatorial Guinea.
In the spring of 1969 the Biafrians attempted to turn the tide. In March they counterattacked and encircled a brigade of the Nigerian army in the newly occupied city of Owerri in Operation Leopard. In April, Owerri reverted to Biafra control. However, on April 22, 1969, the capital of Biafra, Umuahia, fell to the Federales. On June 16, August, the country”s main airport, fell. The Biafrians were left with only one paved runway, suitable for taking off and landing heavy planes. The Uli – Ihalia section of the federal highway, also known as “Annabelle Airport,” has become a symbol of Biafra”s independence and at the same time the main target for government troops.
In May 1969, the Biafra commandos attacked an oil field in Kwala, killing 11 Italian oil workers. Fourteen more Italians, three German citizens and one Lebanese were captured. They were tried on charges of aiding and abetting Nigerian troops and sentenced to death. This aroused outrage in the West. Authorities in Italy, Great Britain, and the United States pressured Ojukwa. After receiving a personal message from Pope Paul VI, Ojukwu pardoned the foreigners and they were expelled from Biafra.
In June 1969, Biafra launched a desperate offensive against the Federals. The Biafrians were supported by foreign mercenary pilots who continued to deliver food, medicine and weapons. The most famous of the mercenaries was the Swedish Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, who conducted air attacks with five small piston planes armed with rockets and machine guns. From May to July his small force attacked Nigerian military airfields at Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin City and Ughelli, destroying or damaging many Nigerian planes.
The Biafra air attacks did disrupt the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force, but only for a few months. In the summer of 1969 the Biafra Army attempted to seize the Onitsha airfield, but to no avail. The civil war was coming to its logical conclusion.
On June 30, 1969, the Nigerian government banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra, severely limiting food supplies. In October 1969, Ojukwu appealed to the United Nations for an armistice. The federal government rejected the proposal and called for the surrender of Biafra. By that time, Biafra was a tiny oval-shaped enclave of 2,000 km², where some 5 million people were trapped.
The blockade of the territory of Biafra by the Nigerian forces caused a shortage of food for the civilian population inside the non-recognized republic, which gradually turned into a real famine.
During the famine, the deaths of children were frequent. From which several publishing groups used this as evidence to confirm the Biafra famine and the deliberate genocide of several ethnic groups, causing a scandal in the international community.
Estimates vary widely as to how many people died during the famine, but figures range from 1 to 2 million in addition to those who died of disease.
Although there were opinions that the Biafra government itself had a hand in this.
The fall of Biafra was preceded by a large-scale offensive by the government army under General Obasanjo (the future President). The operation began on December 22, 1969. The objective was to split the rebel-held territory in two counterstrikes from the north and south. A total of 180,000 troops with heavy artillery, aviation and armored vehicles were involved in the operation.
The unrecognized republic had neither the strength nor the means to parry the blow. The Biafra army numbered about 70,000 men by then. On the first day the federals broke through the front, and on December 25, the northern and southern groups joined together. The rebel territory was cut in two.
The final Nigerian offensive, called “The Windfall,” was launched on January 7, 1970. On January 9, 1970, Owerri fell, Annabelle airstrip was captured on January 10, and Ully fell on January 11. On January 13, 1970, the final surrender of the Biafra forces took place in Amici
General Ojukwu relinquished command of the remnants of the troops to his deputy, Philip Efiong, and fled the country on the night of January 10-11 with his family and several members of the Biafra government. On January 15, General Efiong signed the act of unconditional surrender of his republic. The civil war was over. The population of Biafra was reduced by 2 million, most of whom starved to death (most of the victims were children). The region, considered one of the most developed in Africa before the war, was devastated.
At the end of 1982, he was amnestied and returned to Nigeria by Odumegwu Ojukwu. Subsequently, he participated in political life in Nigeria. He passed away in 2011 in Great Britain.
Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Arab countries stood up for Nigeria”s unity, while France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, China, and Israel stood up for Igbo. Ojukwu built up enough oil production to buy weapons and set up a network of mercenary recruiting offices. The balance of power was not in favor of the Igbo. The UN refused to recognize Biafra. In September 1968, the Organization of African Unity urged Biafra to abandon the idea of independence.
The idea of Biafra”s independence has now been revived. Since August 1999, protests for the secession of Biafra from Nigeria began in cities in southeastern Nigeria. Although peaceful, protesters were regularly attacked by the Nigerian police and army, with dozens reportedly killed. Many others have been injured and arrested. In southeastern Nigeria, there are several political groups advocating the restoration of the Republic of Biafra. The main ones are: “Indigenous Peoples of Biafra” (leader Nnamdi Kanu) and “Movement for the Restoration of the Sovereign State of Biafra” (leader Ralph Uwazuruike). “The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Ijo ethnic group) is in solidarity with groups advocating the secession of Biafra. The goal of the IPOB group is to hold a referendum in southeastern Nigeria on the creation of an independent state of Biafra. IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu heads Radio Biafra, a London-based radio station. From October 14, 2015 to April 28, 2017, he was arrested in a Nigerian prison on charges of treason. After his release on bail, Nnamdi Kanu renewed his campaign for Biafra independence. Following an attack by the Nigerian military on his home in southeastern Abia state in September 2017, the IPOB leader disappeared without a trace. In October 2018, Nnamdi Kanu announced on Radio Biafra that he was in Israel. On December 12, 2020, Nnamdi Kanu announced the creation of the Eastern Security Network (acronym ESN) as a regional force to protect southeastern Nigeria from banditry and attacks.