Biafra War: The struggle lives on!

biafra war

It’s still on 50 years after the end of the Biafra War

On January 15, 1970, the Biafra War ended, one of the cruelest wars of the 20th century. The Biafran freedom fighters still remember!

  • People running away
  • Taking cover from the air raids
  • Hiding from soldiers
  • Lack of food and rampant kwashiorkor, severe malnutrition
  • A blockage for food
  • A lot of sick people

The initial fight for the freedom of the oil-rich region of Biafra resulted in a two and a half year war of secession (July 1967 – January 1970).

50 years later, it’s still on!

The Biafra War Genesis

On May 30, 1967, the head of the former Eastern Region in Nigeria, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, with the authorization of a consultative assembly, declared the Eastern region an independent republic under the name of Biafra.

Prevailing ethnic tensions, coupled with the Igbo people’s sense of marginalization, contributed to the plunge for secession. The federal authorities’ refusal to accept a breakaway subsequently paved way for a military confrontation commencing in July 1967.

After some initial success, the Biafran troops surrendered to the federal government in January 1970. The Biafran war led to a major humanitarian disaster comprising starvation and disease, and ultimately, the end of Biafra.

biafra war
Biafra Freedom March

The road to civil war

In the 60s the elites were interested in maintaining the system, but in some cases they pursued their own interests, so that Nigeria’s unstable political system within the regions and coalitions quickly began to break up after the declaration of independence. At the regional level, the clientele system was promoted and at the national level a competition was created in which the ethnic disputes merely exacerbated the political conflicts.

The fragile political balance between the three regions and their elites, which already had extensive autonomy after independence, threatened to result in an “escalating series of political crises” collapse.

On January 15, 1966, young officers carried out a military coup, which was the culmination of the violent clashes.

Leading politicians from the northern and western regions were killed in this coup. The intentions of the putschists, the majority of whom were Igbos, were initially social revolutionary and they opposed corruption, abuse of office and called for a departure from tribalism. The majority of the putschists came from southern Nigeria, a fact that increased interethnic distrust.

After a counter coup in July 1966, the military from the north took over the federal government under the leadership of Yakubu Gowon . At the same time, pogroms began against the Igbo living there in the northern region. Around 30,000 were murdered, and an estimated one million Igbo streamed into their original homeland in the oil-rich southeast of the country in a mass exodus.

The legacy of the Biafra War

The Biafra war was to have a lasting impact on the post-war generation’s image of Africa in Europe and the rest of the world.

It was not only part of the iconography of Africa as a continent of hunger and crises (keyword “Biafra child”), but also shed light on Europe. 

“Biafra” stands for more than one ethnically fueled civil war with up to one million dead from fighting and an estimated three million starvation deaths as a result of a blockade of the breakaway region by the central government in Lagos.

The Biafra war and the disappointed hopes of a marginalized people 

Biafra stands for the disappointed hopes of the young decolonized African states. Nigeria, Britain’s richest and most promising colony, had gained independence in October 1960. 

The country was a parliamentary democracy with three states (in the north the Hausas / Fulani, in the southwest the Yoruba and in the southeast the Igbo). Shortly before, petroleum had been discovered in the southeast, the heartland of the Igbos ethnic group. But the positive expectations for the future would not be fulfilled. 

A military coup in January 1966 led by Igbo officers was followed by a counter-coup in July 1966. The result was the murder of thousands of Igbos living in the north of the country and a mass exodus of Igbos to their region of origin in the southeast. And the promises of the oil discoveries were also turned into their opposite.

Biafra War and eventual failure of international mediation 

Propaganda played an essential role in the Biafra War. 

From 1968 pictures of the famine in the enclosed country reached the whole world. They released a huge echo; the sympathy and willingness to donate in the civilian population was enormous. 

Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders or the Society for Threatened Peoples grew out of support for Biafra.

The Biafra war also stands for the difficulty of taking sides in a “foreign” conflict with roots that extend far into the colonial era and complex causes. Colonization had led to unequal development in the north and south of the country and left behind a gigantic, ethnically divided state that was hardly integrated.

The European supporters of Biafrans perceived the war as a religious war between Christians and Muslims and as genocide.

Biafra is also an example of how the western world – even with the best of intentions – is acting in Africa without deep understanding. Above all, it sees in its neighboring continent what it wants to see for itself.

Biafra War Explained

Biafra War: A protracted war that failed to achieve its objective

When Biafra declared independence, the Biafra government hired PR agencies in Switzerland and North America. 

Although the initial reception to the plight of Biafra was lukewarm, the human cost of the food embargo changed minds across the world. In the summer of 1968 when the first reports of famine appeared in the enclosed Biafra, it resulted in a flood of reports in the press, radio and television. 

“The starving children of Biafra” screamed newspaper headlines across the world. The wide-open eyes of the child on the title page seemed to beg the viewer for help. The “Biafra child” became the epitome of hunger and misery in Africa.

The cry for help was met with heartwarming response. Priests, doctors and activists from many countries in Europe set off. 

The possible collapse of Africa’s most auspicious land touched many interests. African statesmen wondered whether the example of Biafra would inspire secessionist forces in their newly independent and fragile states. 

Great Britain had its economic interests in the oil reserves in mind, but initially did not intervene. Only when the federal troops gained control of the oil regions and the Soviet Union sided with the central government and supplied them with weapons did the British support the regime in the capital Lagos.

The US stayed out of the matter, despite Moscow’s commitment. They came to the – undoubtedly correct – assessment that the Nigerian president had no tendencies to turn to communism. The UN also decided against intervention, to the disappointment of many.

France, in turn, openly supported an independent Biafra by helping to recruit mercenaries. They organized arms deliveries even after the official embargo in 1968 and thus contributed to prolonging the war. Behind this was the concern that a united and economically successful Nigeria could outstrip the fragmented and often economically weak Francophone states and thus change the balance of power in West Africa to the disadvantage of the French. Paris also had a vital interest in the oil reserves in Biafra.

The complete military defeat of Biafra did not lead, as many observers had feared, to a campaign of revenge against the Igbo, nor did they lead to their continuous marginalization. Under the motto “No winners, no losers”, the federal government focused on reconciliation and reintegration. War was soon no longer an issue in international diplomacy.

Half a century and many wars and famines later, the struggle for freedom in Biafra is still on.

It’s a turning point in the postcolonial era. The question of the peoples’ right to self-determination and the guarantee of human rights became more explosive after the bloodshed in Biafra. 

Biafra: A cry for freedom at all costs

Nigeria today is characterized by corruption and kleptocracy, the inability of the government to guarantee at least basic supplies for the population, and the Islamist terror of Boko Haram, which is largely based on this. 

Now is the time for Biafra. This is a call to political arms for the indenginous people of Biafra in Nigeria and in diaspora. This time let’s make it right! Our time has come!

Biafra War Frequently Asked Questions

What was the cause of the Biafra war?

The Biafra War was a confluence of a lot of causes. The immediate causes of the war in 1966 included:

  • Ethno-religious riots in Northern Nigeria
  • A military coup
  • A counter-coup and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria
  • Control over the lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta which played a vital strategic role

When did the Biafra war take place?

The Biafra War took place between July 6, 1967 and January 15, 1970 when it ended.

Where is the Bight of Biafra?

Bight of Biafra also known as the Bight of Bonny starts from the bay of the Atlantic Ocean on the western coast of Africa and extends east, then south, for 370 miles (600 km) from the Nun outlet of the Niger River (Nigeria) to Cape Lopez (Gabon).

About Dr. Fredrick Onyeali 16 Articles
Dr. Fredrick Onyeali is an Elder Statesman of the IPOB. In 2012 he was inspired by Nnamdi Kanu and together with other elder statesmen; they formed what is now known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) organization. Up until recently he was the National Coordinator of the IPOB in Germany and is presently an Elder Statesman of the IPOB. He continues to contribute to the Biafra struggle for independence in words and deed.