Nigerian Civil War
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|Nigerian Civil War|
The independent state of the Republic of Biafra in June 1967.
United Arab Republic (air force only)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Yakubu Gowon
Isaac Adaka Boro †
| Odumegwu Ojukwu
Tim Onwuatuegwu †
Patrick Nzeogwu †
|Casualties and losses|
|40,000 Military casualties||15,000 Military casualties|
|1–3 million civilian casualties|
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, 6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970, was an ethnic and political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions mainly between the Hausas of north and the Igbo of the southeast of Nigeria. Over the two and half years of the war, 1 million civilians died from famine and fighting. The war became notorious for the starvation of some of the besieged regions during the war, and consequent claims of genocide by the largely Igbo people of the region.
As with many other African nations, Nigeria was a structure initiated by former colonial powers which had neglected to consider religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Nigeria, which gained independence from Britain in 1960, had at that time a population of 60 million people consisting of nearly 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups.
More than fifty years earlier, Great Britain had carved an area out of West Africa containing hundreds of different ethnic groups and unified it, calling it Nigeria. Although the area contained many different groups, the three predominant groups were 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; and 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 a feudal, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of 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, 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 mostly in autonomous, democratically organised communities, although there were monarchs in many of these ancient cities such as the Kingdom of Nri. In its zenith the Kingdom controlled most of Igbo land, including influence on the Anioma people, Arochukwu (which controlled slavery in Igbo), and Onitsha land. Unlike the other two regions, decisions among the Igbo were made by a general assembly in which men could participate.
The differing political systems among these three peoples reflected and produced divergent customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through a village head designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be submitted to. As with other highly authoritarian religious and political systems, leadership positions were taken by persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors. A chief function of this political system was to maintain Islamic and conservative values, which caused many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or sacrilegious.
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 social achievement and political participation, the Igbo adapted to and challenged colonial rule in innovative 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 European cultural imperialism, 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 reinforcing their social structure. In this division, 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 adopt Western bureaucratic social norms 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 communities. However, the Igbo people took to Western education actively, and they overwhelmingly came to adopt Christianity. Population pressure in the Igbo homeland combined with aspirations for monetary wages drove thousands of Igbo to other parts of Nigeria in search of work. By the 1960s, Igbo political culture was more unified and the region relatively prosperous, with tradesmen and literate elites active not just in the traditionally Igbo South, but throughout Nigeria.
The British colonial ideology that divided Nigeria into three regions—North, West and East—exacerbated the already well-developed economic, political, and social differences among Nigeria's different ethnic groups. The country was divided in such a way that the North had a slightly higher population than the other two regions combined. On this basis the Northern Region was allocated a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislature established by the colonial authorities. Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, respectively formed political parties that were largely regional and based on ethnic allegiances: the Northern People's Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG); and the National Conference of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the East. These parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up; the disintegration of Nigeria resulted largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe. To simplify matters, we will refer to them here as the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo-based; or Northern, Western and Eastern parties.
During the 1940s and 1950s the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organised into several small states so that the conservative 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 costs, accepted the Northern demands.
On 15 January 1966, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and other junior Army officers (mostly majors and captains) attempted a coup d'état. The two major political leaders of the north, the prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Premier of the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello were executed by Major Nzeogwu. Also murdered was Sir Ahmadu Bello's wife. Meanwhile, the President, Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was on an extended vacation in the West Indies. He did not return until days after the coup. The coup, also referred to as "The Coup of the Five Majors", has been described in some quarters as Nigeria's only revolutionary coup. This was the first coup in the short life of Nigeria's nascent second democracy. Claims of electoral fraud were one of the reasons given by the coup plotters. This coup resulted in General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo and head of the Nigerian Army, taking power as President, becoming the first military head of state in Nigeria.
The coup d'état itself failed, as Ironsi rallied the military against the plotters. But Ironsi did not bring the failed plotters to trial as requested by military law and as advised by most northern and western officers. Ironsi then instituted military rule by subverting the constitutional succession and alleging that the democratic institutions had failed and that, while he was defending them, they clearly needed revision and clean-up before reversion back to democratic rule. The coup, despite its failure, was wrongly perceived as having benefited mostly the Igbo because most of the known coup plotters were Igbo. However Ironsi, himself an Igbo, was thought to have made numerous attempts to please Northerners. The other event that also fuelled the so-called "Igbo conspiracy" was the killing of Northern leaders, and the killing of the Colonel Shodeinde's pregnant wife by the coup executioners. Despite the overwhelming contradictions of the coup being executed by mostly Northern soldiers (such as John Atom Kpera, later military governor of Benue State), the killing of Igbo soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Unegbe by coup executioners, and Ironsi's termination of an Igbo-led coup, the ease by which Ironsi stopped the coup led to suspicion that the Igbo coup plotters planned all along to pave the way for Ironsi to take the reins of power in Nigeria.
In the face of provocation from the southern-dominated media which repeatedly showed humiliating posters and cartoons of the slain northern politicians, on the night of 29 July 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which may very well have been in the planning stages. The counter-coup led to the installation of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, despite the intransigence of Mohammed who wanted the role of Supreme Commander for himself. Gowon was chosen as a compromise candidate. He was a Northerner, a Christian, from a minority tribe, and had a good reputation within the army. Ethnic tensions due to the coup and counter-coup increased and more mass pogroms in July and September 1966 took place. See large-scale massacres of Christian Igbo living in the Muslim 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 the very young nation had a chronic shortage of weapons to go to war, it was determined to defend itself. Although there was much sympathy in Europe and elsewhere, only five countries (Tanzania, Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, Zambia and Haiti) officially recognised the new republic.
Several peace accords, especially the one held at Aburi, Ghana (the Aburi Accord), collapsed and the shooting war soon 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 of Gowon to understand the difference and, that being the case, predicted that it would be reneged upon. When this happened, Ojukwu regarded it as both a failure by Gowon to keep to the spirit of the Aburi agreement, and lack of integrity on the side of the Nigerian Military Government in the negotiations toward a united Nigeria. Gowon's advisers, to the contrary, felt that he had enacted as much as was politically feasible in fulfillment of the spirit of Aburi. The Eastern region was very ill equipped for war, outmanned and outgunned by the Nigerians. Their advantages included fighting in their homeland, support of most Easterners, determination, and use of limited resources. The UK and the Soviet Union supported (especially militarily) the Nigerian government while Canada and France helped the Biafrans. The United States seemed to be neutral but helped the Biafrans through the Red Cross.
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 Colonel Shuwa and the local military units were formed as the 1st Infantry Division. The division was led mostly by northern officers. After facing unexpectedly fierce resistance and high casualties, 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 Igbos). But the Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when, on 9 August, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-Western Nigerian region across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore (in present day Ondo State) 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, a Yoruba, 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-secession arrangement that all soldiers should return to their regions to stop the spate of killings, in which Igbo soldiers had been major victims. The Nigerian soldiers that were supposed to defend the Mid-West state were mostly Mid-West Igbo and while some were in touch with their eastern counterparts, others resisted. General Gowon responded by asking Colonel Murtala Mohammed (who later became head of state in 1975) to form another division (the 2nd Infantry Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Mid-West, as well as defend the West side and attack Biafra from the West as well. As Nigerian forces retook the Mid-West, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin on 19 September, though it ceased to exist the next day. (The present country of Benin, west of Nigeria, was still named Dahomey at that time.)
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 Colonel Benjamin Adekunle (called the Black Scorpion) to form the 3rd Infantry 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, Itshekiri, Urhobo, Edo, Ijaw, and etc. Four battalions of the Nigerian 2nd Infantry Division were needed to drive the Biafrans back and eliminate their territorial gains made during the offensive. The Nigerians were repulsed three times as they attempted to cross the River Niger during October, resulting in the loss of thousands of troops, dozens of tanks and equipment. The first attempt by the 2nd Infantry Division on 12 October to cross the Niger from the town of Asaba to the Biafran city of Onitsha cost the Nigerian Federal Army over 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing. Operation Tiger Claw (October 17–20, 1967) was a military conflict between Nigerian and Biafran military forces. On October 17, 1967 Nigerians invaded Calabar led by the "Black Scorpion", Benjamin Adekunle while the Biafrans were led by Col. Ogbu Ogi, who was responsible for controlling the area between Calabar and Opobo, and Lynn Garrison a foreign mercenary. The Biafrans came under immediate fire from the water and the air. For the next two days Biafran stations and military supplies were bombarded by the Nigerian air force. That same day Lynn Garrison reached Calabar but came under immediate fire by federal troops. By October 20, Garrison's forces withdrew from the battle while Col. Ogi officially surrendered to Gen. Adekunle.
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 due to stiff resistance and major defeats in Abagana, Arochukwu, Oguta, Umuahia (Operation OAU), Onne, Ikot Ekpene, and etc. 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.
Many volunteer bodies organised the Biafran airlift which provided 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.
In response to the Nigerian government using foreigners to lead some advances, the Biafran government also began hiring white mercenaries to extend the war. Only German born Rolf Steiner a Lt. Col. with the 4th Commandos, and Major Taffy Williams, a Welshman would remain for the duration. Nigeria also deployed foreign combatants, in the form of Egyptian pilots for their air force MiG 17 fighters and Il 28 bombers. The Egyptian 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 (Doctors Without Borders) in 1971.
In September 1968, the federal army planned what Gowon described as the "final offensive." Initially the final offensive was neutralised by Biafran troops by the end of the year after several Nigerian troops were routed in Biafran ambushes. In the latter stages, a Southern FMG offensive managed to break through. However in 1969, the Biafrans launched several offensives against the Nigerians in their attempts to keep the Nigerians off-balance starting in March when the 14th Division of the Biafran army recaptured Owerri and moved towards Port Harcourt, but were halted just north of the city. In May 1969, Biafran commandos recaptured oil wells in Kwale. In July 1969, Biafran forces launched a major land offensive 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: von Rosen, Gunnar Haglund and Martin Lang. The other two pilots were Biafrans: Willy Murray-Bruce and Augustus Opke. From 22 May to 8 July 1969 von Rosen's 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 the Biafran offensives of 1969 were a tactical success, the Nigerians soon recovered. 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 Gustav 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 could be 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 died of starvation.
End of the war
With increased British support the Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans once again 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", 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. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by flying by plane to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to General Yakubu Gowon of the federal army on 13 January 1970. The war finally ended a few days later with the Nigerian forces advancing in the remaining Biafran held territories with little opposition.
After the war Gowon said, "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."
Aftermath and legacy
The war cost the Igbos a great deal in terms of lives, money and infrastructure. It has been estimated that up to three million people may have died due to the conflict, most from hunger and disease. Reconstruction, helped by the oil money, was swift; however, the old ethnic and religious tensions remained a constant feature of Nigerian politics. Accusations were made of Nigerian government officials diverting resources meant for reconstruction in the former Biafran areas to their ethnic areas. Military government continued in power in Nigeria for many years, and people in the oil-producing areas claimed they were being denied a fair share of oil revenues. Laws were passed mandating that political parties could not be ethnically or tribally based; however, it has been hard to make this work in practice.
Igbos who ran for their lives during the pogroms and war returned to find their positions had been taken over; and when the war was over the government did not feel any need to re-instate them, preferring to regard them as having resigned. This reasoning was also extended to Igbo-owned properties and houses. People from other regions were quick to take over any house owned by an Igbo, especially in the Port Harcourt area. The Nigerian Government justified this by terming such properties abandoned. This, however, has led to a feeling of an injustice as the Nigerian government policies were seen as further economically disabling the Igbos even long after the war. Further feelings of injustice were caused by Nigeria changing its currency, so that Biafran supplies of pre-war Nigerian currency were no longer honoured. At the end of the war, only N£20 was given to any easterner regardless of the amount of money he or she had had in the bank. This was applied irrespective of their banking in pre-war Nigerian currency or 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 29 May 2000, The Guardian (Nigeria) 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."
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