What led Nigeria to descend into chaos and result into the Nigeria-Biafra war?
Just like all historical conflicts, hindsight is far clearer. The Nigeria-Biafra war was ultimately destined to happen due to massive failures by the British to understand the region.
A timeline of events that would led into the Biafra war
Nigeria is created
Nigeria is created as a unified territory through the amalgamation of Britain’s colonial possessions in the region.
In 1960 Nigeria attains independence
Nigeria attains independence in and is widely considered one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising postcolonial states. The potential for development seemed boundless in the democracy of roughly 45 million people, where large amounts of high-quality oil reserves had been discovered shortly before the end of colonial rule.
Nigeria struggles establishing a post-colonial government
Two British legacies combine to impair the evolution of a stable political system and social relations; colonial rule divides the population along ethnic lines, but incorporates the groups thus defined in a centrally governed federal state.
Errors made by then British when handing over control:
- Established Nigeria as a federal state, postcolonial Nigeria was split into three main regions, each dominated by one or two ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west, and Igbos in the east. Hundreds of other ethnic minorities of different size made up the rest of the population
- Left the territorial and ethnic borders that marked Nigerian colonial society still in place when
A Midwestern state is formed
In 1963 the federation was separated into four states when the multi-ethnic Midwestern State was carved out of parts of the Western Region.
Partly parallel with these political borders, what many perceived as a religious divide cut through the territory:
- The south was predominantly Christian
- The north was widely Islamic dominated
The optimism of decolonization begins to fade
The optimism of decolonization had begun to crumble by the mid-1960s.
The growing participatory options for the population weakened the postcolonial democracy because:
- At the regional level, a system of patronage was created along ethnic lines.
- At the national level, the three ‘mega-tribes’ competed for state resources that had become increasingly lucrative thanks to the revenues from oil and other commodities.
- The Eastern Region, geographically in the country’s southeast, was increasingly isolated in particular. This developed into a deepening rift which eventually severed the north and the southern regions.
- Political mistrust developed and in all regions politicians feared the possible domination of their counterparts from other parts of the country. Federal and national elections developed into fiercely fought battles for power; ballot rigging and other forms of manipulation were omnipresent.
A coup by Igbo army officers leads to military rule which was the catalyst of the Nigeria-Biafra war
In January 1966, an Igbo-dominated putsch by a group of army officers initiated a series of coups and counter-coups that led to the installation of military rule.
- Rebellious officers purge a number of high-ranking officials
- Power is transferred into the hands of the highest-ranking officer, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, general commanding officer of the Nigerian army. The new head of state and most of his advisors were Igbo.
A counter-coup results in then capture and killing of the new head of state
Many in the north considered Ironsi’s government as a continuation of the southern-instigated coup and, in the last days of July 1966, he was captured and killed in a counter-coup by a group of northern officers and soldiers.
The remaining officers selected Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the new head of state. The coup d’état was a success, except in the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region, where military governor general Ojukwu remained in power.
Igbos are massacred in northern towns
Repeated outbursts of violence between June and October 1966 peaked in massacres against Igbos living in the Sabon Gari, the ‘foreigners’ quarters’ of northern Nigerian towns.
- This violence drives a stream of more than a million refugees to the Eastern Region, the ‘homeland’ of the Igbos’ diasporic community.
The Eastern regions begins to call autonomy amid the massacres
The massacres were one of the key events in the unfolding of the civil war. Amidst rampant fears among the Igbos in particular, the Eastern Region began to call for more autonomy. Ever since the end of colonialism had become imaginable; the leaderships of all regions had at times pondered secession.
Biafra declares independence
On 30 May 1967, the east’s political leadership around Ojukwu declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra, named after the Bight of Biafra, a bay on the country’s Atlantic coast.
The Nigeria-Biafra war begins
On 6 July, the Nigeria-Biafra war began with the advance of federal troops into secessionist territory.
Nigeria-Biafra war ends after Biafra surrenders
In early 1970, Ojukwu and some of his followers fled to the Ivory Coast. After two and a half years of fighting, the remaining Biafran regime surrendered on 15 January 1970.
How the international community failed during the Nigeria-Biafra war
1. OAU failed to mediate the conflict with the northern overnment
Foreign governments, in particular most of those organized in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), considered the conflict an internal matter. The regional organization principally responsible for mediation thus ensured that no step was taken that might be interpreted as recognizing the Biafran government. The latter, in turn, soon rejected any OAU intervention.
2. The international community failed to intervene when the northern government implemented a blockade that would lead millions to starve to death
The government in the north did not meet any substantial difficulties in obtaining weapons on international markets to enforce the blockade to Biafra. The international community allowed them to:
- To cut off Biafra’s lines of communication with the outside world by blockading air and sea ports
- To ban foreign currency transactions
- To block incoming mail and telecommunication
- To obstruct international business
- To change the currency overnight in 1968 thereby rendering worthless millions of Nigerian pound notes in the Biafran treasury.
3. The UK and Soviet Union finally begin to support the northern government for economic reasons
As a former colonial power, the UK wavered in its decision about which side to support, leading to the Soviet Union supplying the northern government with arms. When the UK eventually decided who to support, they chose the north for the oil and not for the unfolding humanitarian crisis unfolding in the south.
International help came too late for almost 1 million Biafrans who perished during the Nigeria-Biafra war
The list of countries that eventually ended up supporting Biafra citing humanitarian concerns as the grounds for this decision:
- Ivory Coast
- South African