Wars in Nigeria

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Wars in Nigeria
Government of Nigeria Troops
Biafran Troops
Map of the secessionist state of the Republic of Biafra (1967 – 1970) as in May 1967.
Note: The western boundary may not be accurate due to the low precision of the reference maps used which are also contradictory.


The state of Nigeria was an artificial British imperial creation whose major ethnic groups—the Hausa-Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of the west, and the Ibo of the east—were each larger in population than most individual African states. Great Britain fostered strong regional governments and, moreover, encouraged a sense of regional rivalry, maintaining the balance between the three great regions from the center. There was no historical basis for the unity of these three regions and their different ethnic groups except British imperial convenience. At independence, therefore, the new Nigeria inherited three powerful regions whose interests tended to draw them away from central authority and, once the British had departed, there was intense rivalry as to who should control the center. (However, about two million Ibos from the Eastern Region were dispersed in other parts of Nigeria, many holding jobs in the more conservative Islamic north where they were often resented.) This situation led to increasingly divisive strains once the British had departed and efforts to balance the claims and counterclaims of the three regions failed to satisfy the aspirations of any of them, so that the political structure inherited from the British rapidly broke down over the period 1960–1966.

The 1966 Coup: Military Rule

On 15 January 1966, part of the army, which had been coordinated by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu from Kaduna, attempted to overthrow the federal system. In the north the premier, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, was murdered. The army proclaimed its aims over Kaduna radio—“a free country, devoid of corruption, nepotism, tribalism and regionalism.” In the west another leading politician, Chief Akintola, was killed. In Lagos the federal prime minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the federal finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, were killed. In addition, nine senior army officers were killed. This first coup, which eliminated these major political figures was, nonetheless, aborted when troops loyal to the government under Major-General J. T. Aguiyi-lronsi, General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, restored federal control. The acting president, Dr. Nwafor Orizu (President Azikiwe was then out of the country), announced that the Council of Ministers had decided to hand over power to the military and General Ironsi assumed authority as head of a Federal Military Government (FMG), as well as becoming supreme commander of the Armed Forces. The coup had solved nothing and the regional differences, which threatened Nigerian unity, remained in place. It had, however, brought to an end the first republic and removed a number of leading political figures who were seen to be synonymous with a discredited system. General Ironsi abolished the federal form of government and the regions, unified the top five grades of the civil service, and introduced provincial administrators. He then turned the FMG into a National Military Government (NMG).

The Second Coup

On 29 May 1966, violent anti-Ibo demonstrations took place in the north of Nigeria, many Ibos were attacked and killed and their property destroyed. Two months later, on 29 July, General Ironsi, who was on a tour of reconciliation, and Lt. Col. Fajuyi (the military governor of Western Province) were kidnapped and killed in Ibadan. The death of Ironsi sparked off the second military coup attempt, in which some 200 eastern (Ibo) officers were killed. The north then talked of secession. Following a three-day interregnum Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, chief of staff, became military head of state on 1 August. At this point, the country was on the verge of disintegration. Gowon granted amnesty to a number of prominent figures who had been detained by the army since the previous January; these included Chief Awolowo, Dr. Michael Okpara (a former Eastern Region premier), and others. On 31 August, Gowon restored the regions which Ironsi had abolished, and conferences of reconciliation were held.

But Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the regional commander of the Eastern Region (homeland of the Ibos), would not be reconciled. New anti-Ibo demonstrations took place in the north and between 10,000 and 30,000 Ibos were killed during September, resulting in an exodus of Ibos from the north (where there were one million), the west (400,000), and Lagos (100,000) back to the Eastern Region. The federal government and Ojukwu, who had emerged as the spokesman of the Ibos, failed to find any common ground, and once the Ibos had returned to the Eastern Region from the other parts of Nigeria, demands for secession became much more insistent.

In January 1967, a conference was held under the chairmanship of Ghana’s General Joseph Ankrah at Aburi in Ghana in an attempt to prevent a breakdown, but after the event, neither side could agree on what had been decided. On 26 May 1967, in an effort to break the deadlock, Gowon replaced the old regions by dividing Nigeria into 12 states, although the immediate result was to precipitate the civil war with the Eastern Region. The government in Lagos, with the support of most of Africa, was determined to preserve a single Nigeria. Ojukwu called an emergency meeting of the Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly to consider the new division of Nigeria. On 27 May, Gowon broadcast to confirm the division into 12 states—six in the north, three in the east, one in the west, one in the midwest, and Lagos. He also proclaimed a state of emergency. The Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly rejected the 12 states arrangement and empowered Ojukwu to declare an independent state and, on 30 May 1967, Ojukwu announced the creation of an independent state of Biafra, which covered the Eastern Region; the majority of its people were Ibos. Gowon at once dismissed Ojukwu from the army and as governor of the Eastern Region. The federal government then announced that it would take “clinical police action” to end the secession and the first military move was made on 6 July.

The Civil War

In July 1966, the strength of the Federal army had been a mere 9,000 men but rapid reorganization and recruitment during the succeeding year as the crisis developed (with Ibo troops withdrawing to the Eastern Region) had raised its strength to 40,000 by July 1967. At the beginning of the war the federal government assumed that Biafra would collapse in a matter of weeks. In fact a new Biafran army was created round the nucleus of 2,000 officers and men who had withdrawn from the federal army, and by July 1967 this army was approximately 25,000 strong. When eight battalions of the federal army advanced on Biafra from the north in July, they met stiff resistance from well-prepared Biafran troops. Then, on 9 August 1967, in a provocative challenge to the federal government, the Biafran army mounted an offensive in the west and crossed the Niger to occupy Benin City and the ports of Sapele and Ughelli.

Nigeria’s size and economic potential (the country’s oil wealth was then becoming apparent) ensured a high level of international interest in the war as well as a readiness on the part of outside powers to intervene. Britain, the former colonial power, had substantial investments in Nigeria which it was determined to defend and the two giant oil companies, British Petroleum and Shell, were heavily involved in the exploitation of the country’s oil. At the beginning of the war, Britain tried to sit on the fence but then came down firmly on the side of the federal government and was to be its principal source of light arms throughout the war. France, in pursuit of its own geopolitical interests in the region and the hope of increasing its influence generally in western Africa, supported breakaway Biafra which it aided with arms and other assistance through its proxies Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which was ideologically opposed to the breakup of a federation, supported the Lagos government; Moscow saw providing assistance to Nigeria as a way of obtaining influence in a region in which, up to that time, it had had little impact, and during the course of the war it supplied about 30 percent of the arms imported by the federal side including MiG fighters and Ilyushin bombers. The United States signaled its intention of remaining outside the conflict, although the U.S. secretary of state, Dean Rusk, infuriated the Nigerians by saying at a press conference that “we regard Nigeria as part of Britain’s sphere of influence.” Both Portugal and South Africa, which were facing growing problems justifying white minority rule to an increasingly hostile world, supported breakaway Biafra on the general grounds of prolonging a war (and chaos) in the largest independent black African state, so as to bolster their claims on behalf of white minority rule in the south of the continent.

The westward offensive across the Niger mounted by Biafra on 9 August 1967 threatened the whole structure of Nigeria and signaled the beginning of a full-scale civil war. By 17 August, the Biafran forces had crossed the Ofusu River to reach Ore in the Western Region, from where they could threaten both Lagos and Ibadan. On 29 September the Biafran administrator of the newly overrun midwest, Major Albert Okonkwo, proclaimed an “independent and sovereign Republic of Benin.” In response to this threat, General Gowon announced: “From now on we shall wage total war.” Federal superiority in both numbers and arms soon began to tilt the balance back in favor of the federal government and on 22 September, the federal counter-offensive led to the rapid reoccupation of the midwest. Then, on 4 October 1967, federal forces occupied Enugu, the Biafran capital, and by the end of the year had captured Calabar, Biafra’s second port.

Early in 1968, in quick succession, the federal forces captured Onitsha (a port and commercial center) and then three major towns—Aba, Owerri, and Umuahia. In May 1968 Port Harcourt, Biafra’s principal (and last) port, fell to the federal forces. At this juncture in the war (May 1968), when all the major Biafran towns and ports had been lost and it was hemmed in on three sides (north, west, and south), the possibility of Biafran independence had been lost and the sensible course would have been for Ojukwu to make terms with Lagos. Civil wars do not work in such a fashion, however, and the war continued for another year and a half and produced enormous unnecessary suffering.

The federal strategy was to employ siege tactics, which led to starvation of the Ibos because from this point onward, Biafra could only obtain supplies by air. One year after declaring its independence Biafra had been reduced to a tenth of its original size, and for the rest of the war the civilian population was to suffer from growing starvation. Even so, the Biafran forces mounted a successful counterattack in 1969 to retake Owerri for a short time; their forces also re-crossed the Niger, but they did not have sufficient resources to sustain these successes and slow military strangulation by the federal forces took place. Peace efforts were made during December 1969 as the federal forces harried the Biafran government, which was obliged to move from one place to another.

International Support for Biafra

International assistance for Biafra came from a number of sources and for a variety of reasons. These included humanitarian agencies, a handful of African countries (including Rhodesia, which had then embarked upon its Unilateral Declaration of Independence [UDI] under Ian Smith), and Haiti. There was considerable international sympathy for Biafra as a “small loser” and criticisms of the federal government included the charge that it could have made greater efforts to achieve a peace sooner.

Four African countries recognized Biafra: Tanzania (13 April 1968), Gabon (5 May 1968), Côte d’Ivoire (14 May 1968), and Zambia (20 May 1968). Haiti recognized Biafra on 23 March 1969, though its reasons for doing so were not obvious. France supplied weapons for Biafra, channeling them through Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon; Portugal supplied arms through Guinea-Bissau. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Joint Church Aid, and Caritas provided relief supplies. Biafra obtained a number of old DC-class airplanes from Rhodesia; on the other hand, the federal government, which had no planes, approached the West which, however, refused to supply any on the grounds that to do so would escalate the war. Lagos, therefore, was obliged to turn to the USSR for airplanes, which it then obtained. As early as 6 September 1968, most of the oil-producing areas of Biafra had been taken by federal forces, so that Biafra did not even have oil as a bargaining counter. Even when it was clear that Biafra must lose the war, the Ibos continued to show remarkable faith in Ojukwu. Biafra projected an upbeat propaganda image, both to reassure its own people, and to obtain foreign support. Another aspect of international involvement in the war was the presence of mercenaries on both sides; they contributed an especially unwelcome complication. On the federal side they were used as pilots, on the Biafran side as ground troops and trainers as well as pilots.

The basic strategy of the federal army, which in any case enjoyed huge superiority of numbers and arms, was to blockade the shrinking enclave of Biafra and bring about its surrender by starvation. In the end, Biafra was confined to a small enclave of territory that was served by a single airstrip to which supplies were brought in by mercenaries. During December 1969 and early January 1970, the federal army deployed 120,000 troops for its final assault and Owerri (the last town) and Ulli (the solitary airstrip) fell to the federal army over 9–10 January 1970, and the war was over.

The Aftermath

By the end of the war, the federal army had been increased in size to 200,000 troops. Biafra, despite its handicaps, had demonstrated astonishing resilience, even in its darkest days. Biafra’s propaganda machine had also fostered the idea that surrender meant genocide, a line that served the dual purpose of persuading its people to fight to the end (or near end) and engendering a good deal of international sympathy for its cause. On 10 January 1970, Ojukwu handed over power to Major General Philip Effiong, his chief of staff, and fled (11 January) to Côte d’Ivoire, where he was given political asylum.

In the course of the war, a number of attempts at mediation had been made by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Vatican, and the Commonwealth, though they had little impact. In the case of the OAU, its insistence that any peace had to be in the context of “one Nigeria,” ensured that its efforts were rejected by Biafra. The interests of Africa as a whole, whose leaders were wary of any moves that might signal the breakup of states as they had been at independence, ensured that the OAU took this line. Arms for the combatants came from a variety of sources: the main suppliers for the federal side were Britain and the USSR, and for Biafra, France and Portugal. The United States, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Belgium refused to supply arms to either side.

The war was prolonged unnecessarily by two factors: the Ibo belief, cultivated by its own propaganda, that they were fighting for survival and faced genocide; and because international charities, aided by mercenary airlifts of supplies, provided relief when otherwise Biafra would have been forced to surrender. The war became a cause for various charities whose propaganda “to feed the starving Biafrans,” however well-intentioned, in fact prolonged the war and the suffering.

Estimated casualties were 100,000 military (on both sides) and between 500,000 and two million civilians, mainly the result of starvation, while 4.6 million Biafrans became refugees. In the end, 900 days of war had not destroyed Africa’s largest black state, while Biafra’s bid for secession and independence had failed. In the post-war years, Gowon’s greatest achievement was to preside successfully over the reintegration of the defeated Ibos into the mainstream of Nigerian life.

Nigeria’s recovery after the war was greatly assisted by the OPEC revolution of 1973; the huge increase in the price of oil enabled Nigeria to launch its giant Third Development Plan in 1975. Through the 1970s, and assisted by its new oil wealth, Nigeria was to enjoy a period of major influence in Africa as a whole. On the other hand, the success of the military in the war had given it a taste for permanent rule in peacetime and, regrettably, by 1998 Nigeria had only enjoyed 10 years of civilian rule since independence, as opposed to 28 years of military rule. However, it returned to civilian rule at the end of the century.

Map of Nigeria numerically showing states typically considered part of the Niger Delta region: 1. Abia, 2. Akwa Ibom, 3. Bayelsa, 4. Cross River, 5. Delta, 6. Edo, 7.Imo, 8. Ondo, 9. Rivers


The Niger Delta is Africa’s largest floodplain. It consists of dense rainforest, sand ridges, mangrove forests, and swamps and is criss-crossed by tidal channels, streams, rivers, and creaks. It is rich in resources consisting of timber, coal, palm oil and, above all, natural gas and oil (an estimated 35 billion barrels of oil). It is densely populated and as one of the largest wetlands in the world, it is almost impossible to patrol with any success. Crime and violence in the Delta region are financed by between 30,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil that are stolen every day. The money from this illegally tapped oil is used to purchase arms for the militias or to enrich Nigerian and foreign business people who are only too ready to profit from the chaos in the region, and to finance political ambitions. Despite the huge energy reserves of the Delta, some 70 percent of the 27 million people who live there exist in a state of extreme poverty.

One fifth of U.S. oil imports come from the Delta (2006) and Great Britain expects to obtain 10 percent of its gas requirements from the region in the near future. However, such exports are coming under increasing threats of disruption from the local people who have come to see these exports as the theft of their natural resources. The demand for social justice dates spectacularly from the execution of the Ogoni campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa by the government of President Sani-Abacha in 1995, which was met with universal condemnation. Saro-Wiwa had launched a campaign for social and ecological justice in the Delta in the 1980s. The complications of this war are considerable and include tribalism, gang warfare for control of oil resources, government neglect of the region, corruption, and the activities of the international oil companies. Three ethnic groups compete for control of the region and fight each other: these are the Itshekiri, the Urhobo, and the Ijaw. Warri, a major town in the center of the Delta, is awash with money and attracts people like a frontier town. Described as the “heart and lungs” of Nigeria, Delta oil has provided the Nigerian government with $300 billion income since oil was discovered in 1956. At independence in 1960, each of Nigeria’s three regions was allowed 50 percent of the revenues from minerals found within it, while the balance went to the federal government. Too often, however, the regions have received much less. Agitation for a greater share of its oil wealth has had a long history and in 1966, for example, an Ijaw army officer, Isaac Boro, declared a Federal Republic of Niger Delta, though this only lasted for 12 days.

As the violence has escalated in the early years of the present century, more and more people have moved into the safety of Warri. Foreigners employ armed guards and there has grown up an informal network of armed youths who claim to be fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta. The size of these youth groups and the scope of their activities are hard to gauge. Official estimates suggest that Nigeria loses 100,000 barrels of oil a day through “bunkering”—the term covering the illegal siphoning off of oil—and it is believed that the activity depends upon the complicity of oil company employees and highly placed government officials as well as soldiers and the militias. According to Human Rights Watch, oil bunkering fuels gang-related violence in the Delta that, for example, killed 1,000 people in 2004.

Asari Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), came to prominence when he threatened to blow up all oil facilities in the Delta, a threat that sent the oil price above $50 a barrel. He was arrested in September 2005 and charged with treason at a time when he claimed to have 10,000 followers ready to reclaim control of the Delta’s resources on behalf of its people. He later did a deal with the government—an arms swap for cash—which led a faction of the NDPVF breaking away to form the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). However, MEND subsequently campaigned for the release of Dokubo so it seemed probable that the two factions were working together. A task force created by President Olusegun Obasanjo to cut off the supply of oil, arms, and money to the militias—Joint (Military) Task Force (JTF)—created resentment rather than solving anything and itself became involved in oil bunkering.

During 2006 MEND militants began to seize hostages. In January, they stormed a Shell oil vessel and took four foreigners hostage. They issued three demands: that the government release Asari Dokubo; that the impeached governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alemieyeseigha, who was on trial for money-laundering, should be released; and that $1.5 billion approved by the Senate as compensation to communities affected by oil spills should be paid by Shell. Four days later MEND attacked two houseboats and killed 15 JTF soldiers. Two weeks later it released the hostages it had taken on humanitarian grounds. However, apparently in retaliation, three communities were attacked by a JTF helicopter gunship. By April 2006, MEND had waged a four-month campaign of sabotage and kidnap against the oil producers, forcing the companies to cut production by 550,000 barrels a day.

Poverty and neglect are the root causes of this growing violence. Shell, the largest operator, has been forced to evacuate staff and scale back its operations and, though the federal government has often promised to help the Delta region, little has been done. In April 2006, the government announced plans to construct a $1.8 billion highway through the region and create 20,000 new jobs in the military, police, and state oil companies. However, the sense of neglect continues and since the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) controls all the seats in state and local government so that there is no effective political opposition, this allows the militias to speak on behalf of the aggrieved majority of people in the Delta region. Even if no full scale war develops, the escalating violence could force the oil companies to close down more of their land-based operations and concentrate only on their offshore activities at a time when acute demands for oil are everywhere increasing.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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