Nigerian Troops firing artillery gun in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, during the Nigerian Civil War. Col Benjamin Adekunle is seen here with left hand on the artillery gun.
During the colonial period, the British ruled the large and populous territory of Nigeria as three separate regions. Although Nigeria has a vast number of ethnicities, each region was associated with a major ethnic group: the Igbo in the east, the Yoruba in the west, and the Hausa-Fulani in the north. The two coastal southern regions, east and west, became relatively more prosperous and predominantly Christian, with a significant western- educated elite. Comparatively poor and marginalized, the predominantly Muslim north was controlled by conservative local elites.
In Nigeria the decolonization process of the 1950s was characterized by negotiation between the outgoing British and emerging political leaders from the three regions over what form the postcolonial state would take. Nigeria became independent in 1960 as a federation with three regions, and since northerners constituted a majority, they dominated the federal government. The development of an oil industry in the Niger Delta during the 1960s encouraged northern leaders to drop ideas of separating from Nigeria and created resentment among easterners that the wealth of their region was being stolen. In January 1966, a group of mostly Igbo army officers led by Major Kaduna Nzeugwu staged a coup that ousted civilian politicians from the north, who were accused of electoral fraud, and eventually brought General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, another Igbo, to power. Yoruba and Hausa leaders were killed, including Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who was from the North, and the Sardauna of Sokoto, who was a northern traditional leader, and it appeared that Igbo officers were being promoted within the army. This led to a counter-coup by northern officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed that installed Lieutenant Colonel Yakuba Gowon, a northern Christian, as military ruler. Many southern army officers, including Ironsi, were killed and in September the massacre of over 10,000 Igbo living in the north resulted in 1.5 million refugees flooding into the eastern region. Given the federal government’s failure to stop the killings, the administration of the east, under military governor Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, refused to recognize Gowon as head of state. At the Aburi Conference in Ghana in January 1967, both sides agreed to a non-violent solution to the crisis. Regions would gain “confederal” status without a change to boundaries, all members of a supreme military council would have veto power, all regions would have to agree on major decisions, salaries would be paid to displaced people, and the federal head of state would be recognized as commander of the armed forces. However, by mid-March both Gowon and Ojukwu had reneged on aspects of the agreement.
On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu, authorized by the Eastern Region Consultative Assembly and Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders, declared the secession of the eastern region as the independent Republic of Biafra (named for the geographic Bight of Biafra) with its capital at Enugu. Around the same time, Gowon declared emergency powers including press censorship and a ban on political activity, and broke up large regions by reorganizing the country into 12 smaller states. Once Biafra declared independence, the federal government began mass military mobilization and acquisition of weapons. On July 6, 1967, the federal government launched a military campaign to suppress Biafra’s secession. Conducting what was initially called a police action, federal units in the north formed the First Infantry Division and advanced south into Biafra in two columns. The left column (on the east side) captured Garkem-Ogoja on July 12 and the right column (on the west side) took Nsukka on July 14. Biafran forces had put up stiff resistance at Nsukka but were hampered by lack of ammunition. During July and August, Biafra responded by invading the mid-western region west of the Niger River with the aim of distracting Nigerian forces from the north by threatening the federal capital of Lagos. Three Biafran battalions advanced through Benin City and eventually halted at Ore, 100 miles east of Lagos, on August 21, with just one federal battalion of recruits in their way.
The Biafrans had believed that the mixed Yoruba and Igbo population of the mid-west would support them, but this backfired as the invasion and subsequent looting seemed to discredit Biafra’s claim to be acting in self-defense. Brigadier Victor Banjo, commander of the invasion force, whose Yoruba ethnicity, it was hoped, would appeal to mid-westerners, was discovered to be plotting against Ojukwu and was executed. Under instructions from Gowon, General Murtala Mohammed assembled and took command of the new Second Infantry Division, advanced eastward through the mid-west, and on September 22 drove Biafran forces out of Benin City and ultimately to the east bank of the Niger River. Between October and December, the Second Infantry Division made three unsuccessful attempts to cross the river and capture the Biafran city of Onitsha, suffering heavy losses in personnel and equipment. Murtala launched these disastrous amphibious attacks against the advice of other senior officers and army headquarters. Each assault was announced by bugle calls, which he thought would inflict fear on the enemy, and he reputedly used a soothsayer to determine the timing of the operations. Around the same time, federal troops from the Lagos garrison – called the Third Infantry Division, but later renamed Third Marine Commando Division – were landed on the coast of the Niger Delta, capturing the cities of Bonny and Okrika on July 26 and Calabar on October 13. Bonny was an important oil industry terminal and its capture blocked supply ships from access to Biafranoccupied Port Harcourt. Since Biafra had no significant navy, the Nigerian navy controlled the coastal waters, which left Port Harcourt airport as Biafra’s only link to the outside world. On October 4, the First Infantry Division, pushing down from the north, captured the Biafran capital of Enugu. Biafran forces were now surrounded and confined to the Igbo heartland, which was packed with refugees.
The need for oil trumped Cold War rivalries as the federal government received military support from both Britain and the Soviet Union. Although the United States prohibited the sale of arms to either side, pro-Biafran journalists, humanitarian organizations, and missionaries used television and print media to gain support from the American public. No country provided official military support to Biafra. French President Charles de Gaulle openly expressed sympathy for Biafra and France sought to take over British oil interests. In turn, France covertly sent military supplies to Biafra through its former colonies of Cote d’Ivoire and Gabon. The humanitarian services of French doctors in Biafra, including Bernard Kouchner, and their criticism of Nigerian army violence against Biafran civilians, led to the creation of Médecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). Fighting African nationalist insurgents and desperate for friends on the continent, Portugal and Rhodesia also provided clandestine support to Biafra. Only four African countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Zambia, and Tanzania – formally recognized Biafra. Apartheid South Africa also supported Biafra and late in the war sent a small special forces team to train Biafran partisans for operations behind federal lines.
From the beginning of 1968, the war became a stalemate, with the gradually shrinking and overcrowded Biafra under blockade by federal forces. The federal army was expanded to 70,000 men equipped with British small arms and armored vehicles. In addition, the federal air force received Ilyushin-28 bombers and MiG-17 fighters from the Soviet Union. The Biafrans built air strips on straight roads and tried to import supplies. In early 1968, Murtala finally abandoned his plan to cross the Niger River and took Onitsha by having his Second Division move around via the Enugu- Onitsha road. However, with Biafran forces harassing its supply lines and its demoralized soldiers abusing civilians and looting, the division never recovered as a fighting force and Murtala was replaced. A Nigerian offensive from April to June 1968 further reduced Biafran territory. The Third Marine Division under Colonel Benjamin Adekunle had considerable success. At the end of April, the division, supported by artillery, initiated a large crossing of the Cross River from Calabar to Port Harcourt, which was captured on May 19. Fighting through the area’s swamps, Adekunle’s division advanced northeast, taking Aba in August and Owerri in September. To the north, the federal First Division advanced cautiously, seizing Abakaliki and Afikpo. The arrival of French weapons enabled the Biafrans to regroup at the end of 1968 and they stubbornly held the Uli airfield, surrounded federal units at Owerri, and threatened Aba.
The federal military then concentrated on maintaining the blockade to starve Biafra into submission. Biafran leaders and western humanitarian organizations accused the Gowon regime of genocide against the Igbo by preventing delivery of food. Nigerian authorities responded that airlifts of food aid were also being used to deliver weapons and ammunition. Desperate Biafran forces began to employ foreign mercenaries like German Rolf Steiner and Swedish pilot Carl Gustav von Rosen. Although the Nigerian government criticized Biafra’s use of mercenaries, many of its Soviet-supplied airplanes were flown by Egyptian and other foreign pilots. In April and May 1969, the First Division launched an offensive that captured the new Biafran capital of Umuahia. In June, Biafra launched a desperate offensive meant to knock federal forces off balance. Owerri was recaptured and civilian aircraft fitted with rockets for ground attack damaged oil and ammunition storage facilities and raided federal air fields, destroying Soviet-supplied warplanes. However, Biafra did not have the resources to exploit success and Nigerian forces quickly recovered. In December 1969, federal commanders initiated a final offensive that would end the war. In January 1970, the Third Marine Commando Division, now under Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo (future military ruler and civilian president of Nigeria), who has been described as the most capable officer to emerge from the conflict, pushed up from the coast with armored vehicles penetrating Biafran lines. On January 9, federal troops once again took Owerri and, on January 13, captured the last Biafran-held town, Amichi. Ojukwu flew to exile in Cote d’Ivoire leaving Phillip Effiong, Biafra’s army commander, to effect the formal capitulation.
Biafra simply did not have enough resources or international support to challenge the large and well-supplied Nigerian forces. The federal military had expanded from around 8,000 personnel just before the war to 120,000 in 1968 and 250,000 in 1970. Biafra began the war with 3,000 troops and ended with 30,000. Biafra was easily besieged as it had extremely limited air combat, air defense, and naval capabilities.
Although estimates of civilian fatalities vary from half a million to three million, it is clear that the vast majority were from the eastern region and perished from starvation or disease. Estimates of total combat casualties vary from 90,000 to 120,000. By famously declaring that there was “no victor and no vanquished,” Gowon embarked on a policy of national reconciliation, began a reconstruction program in the east, and banned ethnically based political parties. However, resentments lingered as during the war many Igbo had lost their property in other parts of the country, many did not get back previous government jobs, minimal compensation was offered for useless Biafran currency, and the easterners still maintained that they were not receiving their rightful share of oil revenues squandered by subsequent military regimes.
Further Reading Akpan, N. U. (1976) The Struggle for Secession 1966-70: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War. London: Frank Cass. De St. Jorre, J. (1972) The Nigerian Civil War. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Forsyth, F. (1969) The Biafra Story. London: Penguin. Obasanjo, O. (1980) My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War 1967-70. Ibadan: Heinemann. Siollun, M. (2009) Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture, 1966-76. New York: Algora Publishing.