A short history of the Biafran War

A picture of malnourished Biafran children. Images such as this circulated around the world (used with permission)

The history of Nigeria is never complete without mentioning the Nigerian civil war, often also referred to as the Biafran war, a devastating conflict which lasted from 1967 to 1970. When Nigeria assumed control of its territories from Britain in October of 1960, a number of observers thought the situation of the country was fragile enough to cause internal strife among the different major tribes in the country jostling for power. Only a very few could have thought this strife would extend as far as a war. The genesis of the Nigerian civil war was the persistent warring and distrust among the many tribes in pre-independent Nigeria which at that time numbered at least 200. Its immediate cause however was the unwarranted violence perpetrated against the Ibos following the spate of bloody military coups in 1966 perceived by many to be Ibo-led. The relatively big sizes and near self-sufficiency of the respective Northern, Eastern and Western regions, almost country-like at that time, also provided grounds for any of them wanting out of the weak federacy.

The civil war started in the early hours of 6 July 1967, about a year after the counter-coup of July 1966 which installed Gowon as the new country’s head of government. In the previous months, talks had gone on between the government of the Eastern region and the federal government, including in Aburi, Ghana, regarding terms for a new federal relationship which sought to affirm the autonomy of the regions. Apparently dialogue failed and the result was a 2 year, 6 month war, which took about 100,000 military casualties and probably 10 times more civilian casualties. Odumegwu Ojukwu led the war on the side of the secessionist Biafran state, while Yakubu Gowon rallied his generals for war on the Nigerian side.

Though Biafran forces recorded some successes, getting as far as Ore, only some hundred miles from the Nigerian capital of Lagos, in the early stages of the war and putting immense pressure on the Nigerian soldiers, the tide of the war turned pretty soon in the face of federal might buoyed by British support. By the following year in 1968, nearly all key cities in the new Biafra was under Nigerian control having being captured in intense military operations where civilians were often killed with reckless abandon. It remained for Nigeria to institute a blockade of the remainder cities in Biafra, instigating a humanitarian crisis of unequaled proportions at that time in history. This was probably the most notable part of the war as gory pictures of underfed Biafran kids filtered out into world through both the local and international media and via all kinds of media such as radio, print and the fast developing television of that decade. CBS and ITV, for instance, made a documentary. It was ready media food made into servings for the public and generating the expected reaction of repulse in some quarters and involvement in others, including aids and airlifts for the isolated Biafran population. For Nigeria, this was just another option in the arsenal it deployed for the war and in this, the government strangely got justification.

Towards the end of 1969 the noose was tightening around the rogue state as the blockade intensified, famine gripped Biafra and its army gradually lost the wherewithal to sustain a fight. On 14 January 1970 the state surrendered to Nigeria and surrender papers were signed. Ojukwu had fled to Ivory coast days earlier unwilling to let himself fall into the hands of his adversary.

The Biafran war left an indelible mark on the history of Nigeria, not only in part because of the incredible loss of civilian lives, mostly Ibo lives, but also because it highlighted how far the differences inherent in tribal distribution could go in creating room for discord. Questions have followed since the end of the war and many have raised the slant towards genocide in the killing of the Ibos before and during the war. Opinions are divided in this, but are often still divided along ethnic or religious lines so that today, more than 46 years after the war, its mention provides room for arguments, counter-arguments and intense disagreements. Nigeria is on a long road to recovery, but it does seem this will take longer than anticipated.

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3 Comments

  1. joe

    February 23, 2017 at 11:24 pm

    I think this is the shortest yet realest story of the war that i’ve read.

  2. Sauer

    February 24, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks joe for your comment. Please come back for more 🙂

  3. Rajendra Das Ji

    August 22, 2017 at 3:01 pm

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