Nigerian Civil War: History, Causes & Effects

One of the bloodiest wars in sub-Saharan Africa, the Nigerian Civil war (also known as the Biafran War) claimed over a million lives, mostly women and children. A declaration of independence led to a 30-month brutal war between the Nigerian government and the newly formed Republic of Biafran government based in what was then-Eastern Region of Nigeria. After months of fierce and aggressive fighting, the war ended, leaving years of ethnic distrust and hurt.

Below, World History Edu explores the major causes and effects of the Nigerian Civil War.

The Nigerian Civil War. The war ripped through the West African state for 30 months and ended with Biafra’s surrender on January 15, 1970.

History & Background

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960. One of the first sub-Saharan African countries to achieve this feat, Nigeria, which at the time had over 250 minor ethnic groups and three major ethnic groups (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba), was poised to be a shining example on the continent.

By 1963, Nigeria had become a republic, and power was shared with the Prime Minister from the north, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the President from the south, Dr. Nnamdi “Zik” Azikiwe.

However, with the widespread agitation for a better standard of living in the nation and a desperate cry to tackle corruption and abuse of power, workers became discontented with low wages and constantly threatened strikes. This resulted in a group of Igbo junior army officers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, attempt a coup d’état on January 15, 1966.

Ahmadu Bello, one the most respected leaders in the north, was among the top leaders that were taken out by the 1966 January coup, which was orchestrated by junior army officers of mostly Igbo ethnic group. The people in the north termed the January coup as the “Igbo coup”. Image: Ahmadu Bello – Northern Nigeria’s first and only premier from 1954 until his assassination in 1966

The coup led to the murder of the two major political leaders from the North, Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Sarduna of Sokoto. Also, the Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello and his wife, as well as some Western leaders like Chief Samuel Akintola, were killed.

Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa was one of many leading Northern politicians that were killed in the January 1966 in Nigeria. Image: Sir Tafawa Balewa, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Nigeria

Despite the murders, the coup was not successful and General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a leading Igbo officer in the Nigerian military, was able to suppress the coup and bring some bit of calm. Ironsi took advantage of the coup and assumed full control as the head of state of Nigeria.

Major Causes of the Nigerian Civil War

First and foremost, the Nigerian Civil War traces its roots to the British colonial period. Great Britain formed modern Nigeria by bringing different ethnic groups together as it completely disregarded the differences among them. In the north, it mostly comprises Hausas and Fulanis; the south-west mainly has Yoruba people; and the south-east mainly has the Igbo people. And after the British left, those disparate cultural groups vied for power so they could be at the helm of Nigeria’s development. Had the underlying ethnic issues been resolved, perhaps the civil war might not have occurred.

Secondly, the January 1966 coup created even bigger animosities between the Northerners and Igbos. The Northerners felt the coup was a deliberate attempt by the Igbos to wipe out their prominent leaders in politics and the Nigerian Army.

Further compounding the already tense situation was the perception that the new head of state, General Ironsi, failed to bring to book the coup plotters. Alleged military officials that carried out the executions of those top-ranking Northern officers were allowed to remain in the Nigerian Army despite protest from other officers.

Thirdly, Ironsi’s issuance of the Unification Decree 34 fueled the North’s contempt for Southerners. The decree proposed the elimination of the federal system of governance. And in it’s place, a unitary system of governance was proposed. The north viewed this as the south-east’s attempt to take all the levers of power in the country.

Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (1924-1966) was Nigeria’s first military leader. He was killed in a counter-coup in July 1966. That same month, Ironsi was murdered in cold blood.

On July 29, 1966, a counter-coup, masterminded by a leading Northern military officer Murtala Muhammed, was carried out. The coup, which was in effect a reprisal attack, led to the brutal murder of several high-ranking Igbo military officers as well as the Head of State Aguiyi-Ironsi and Brigadier Adekunle Fajuyi.

A Northern officer by the name of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon was elevated to Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces and he immediately reversed the Unification Decree 34, returning Nigeria to a federal system of government.

The counter-coup reverted power to the North and caused severe and widespread persecution of Southerners, especially the Igbos in the North. It was reported over 50,000 southerners were killed and over 30,000 were maimed. The worst day of this brutal massacre was on September 29 1966, which came to be infamously called “Black Thursday”. On that day, millions of southerners fled the north. There were even some claims of some southerners fleeing the north of the country with decapitated heads of their loved ones.

Following the 1966 counter-coup (led by Murtala Muhammed) that removed military head of state Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi from power, Yakubu Gowon was appointed head of state. Image – L-R – Murtala Muhammad, Yakubu Gowon

These traumatic scenes led to public outcry from leaders of the south, especially from the military governor of the Eastern Region, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who accused Gowon of being complacent about the killing of Igbos in the North.

Ojukwu called on Gowon to immediately reverse Decree 34. When Gowon and his Northern backers refused to do so, relations between the two tough officers became very bad and the stage was set for the country to further descend into mayhem and bloodshed.

To de-escalate situations, a conference was held in Aburi, Ghana. The conference, which later came to be known as the Aburi Conference, allowed for the two sides – Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu and the newly promoted General Gowon – to have face-to-face discussions.

Both parties agreed that a unified Nigeria was the goal and Gowon agreed to Ojukwu’s terms only to renege on some of them. By June, 1967, General Gowon had divided Nigeria into twelve states.

This decision of Gowon was seen by Ojukwu as an attempt to further weaken Eastern Nigeria. Less than a week after the Gowon’s decision, Ojukwu unilaterally declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra. And thus, the Nigerian Civil War was birthed. The ensuing couple of years would see the West African nation ripped to shreds, with several hundreds of thousands of people dying.

Many of the youth in south-eastern Nigeria joined the war effort and fought for the cause of the breakaway Biafra region.

The War

The Federal Republic of Nigeria officially declared war against the newly created state of Biafra in July 1967. The Gowon regime believed that it had to quickly nip the situation in the bud least the secession of one region could encourage other regions to follow suit. What was even more important was the fact that majority (about 60%) of the nation’s oil reserves was housed in this breakaway region. The federal government simply could not afford to lose such massive oil revenues, revenues that were absolutely crucial for a developing nation like Nigeria.

There were some members of the international community that refused to take sides in the war; for example, the United States of America chose to stay neutral, declaring the problem was that of Britain, Nigeria’s former colonizers. Countries like France and Israel, on the other hand, threw their support to the breakaway region of Biafra.

In the first few months, the Biafran troops launched an offensive led by Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Banjo and gained ground. They crossed the Niger bridge and gained the Midwestern parts of Benin and Asaba. However, due to a lack of weaponry and trained soldiers, this was short-lived, and the Nigerian Army soon pushed back the opponents. With the support of Britain, the Soviet Union, and most African countries, the Nigerian troops, led by Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo and Colonel Murtala Mohammed, pushed back the Biafrans and captured Enugu in October 1967.

Surprised by the resilience of the Biafran inexperienced troops, the Nigerian Army decided to impose a blockade on all shipping in and out of Biafra. This soon put Biafra in a disadvantaged position, and very soon the young Republic of Biafra exhausted its food supply and also lost control of the oil-rich Bonny Island of River State.

By early 1968, the Nigerian troops had taken major Biafran towns like Umuahia, Enugu, Onne, Ikot Ekpene, and Arochukwu; however, they still could not defeat the tough and resilient Biafrans.

The Biafrans were faced with a severe humanitarian crisis due to the blockade, civilians suffered from starvation and diseases. Millions of children in the eastern part of the country suffered from malnourishment. Children were plagued by kwashiorkor, a disease which is caused by a deficiency of high-quality protein.

Soon the world was faced with pictures of skeletal-looking children and several volunteer bodies sent relief. Several international journalists criticized the Nigerian government for deliberately attacking civilians who were trying to get relief packages from these charity bodies. The international media campaigns on the plight of Biafrans led to public outcry and protest all across the world.

Pro- Biafran journalists likened the situation to the holocaust of World War II; words like genocide and extermination were used to garner support for the Biafrans.

Did you know: Musician John Lennon, a famed member of the English band The Beatles, returned his Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) honor to the Queen in protest against Britain’s support of the Nigerian government?

End of the War

Backed by Britain, the Nigerian government launched its final offensive in December 1969, dividing Biafran into two with the 3rd Marine Division attacking from the north and the 2nd Infantry Division attacking from the south. Soon after the capture of Owerri, Colonel Ojukwu, faced with pending capture and fear of humiliation, jetted to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Major-General Philip Effiong to surrender to General Gowon on 13 January 1970.

Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu fled Biafra a few weeks before the end of the war in January 1970

General Gowon’s famous “no victor and no vanquished” speech did little or nothing to heal the wounds of the southerners, especially for those who lost loved ones or for the countless millions of Nigerians, on both sides, whose lives were upended by the close to three years’ war.

Why did the breakaway region of Biafra fail?

Red, black and green flag of Biafra with the symbol of a half-rising sun

Many blamed the Nigerian government’s blockade as the main reason why the Biafrans did not win the war but there were a lot of factors. The Republic of Biafra was doomed from the onset because;

Firstly, they had very little international support. The few countries that recognized Biafra as an independent nation did little or nothing to support them financially.

Secondly, there were reports that the minority ethnic groups in Biafra like Ibibio, Efik, Ijaw, Ikwere, and others were poorly treated by the majority Igbos. Those minority ethnic groups did not inspire a lot of trust in the Biafran leaders, as some were even labeled saboteurs, imprisoned, or killed.

Thirdly, the lack of experienced officers was a major factor in the loss of the war. Most of the officers were students or educated civilians drafted into the Biafran Army and given a few days of training and poor military gear. The few trained officers had to deal with constant suspicion from a very paranoid Commander Ojukwu, who believed his officers were plotting against him.

More Biafrans died from hunger and diseases than from military attacks. Image – BBC

Effects of the Nigerian Civil War

After the war, there wasn’t any real reconciliation among the various regions. This led to a severe ethnic distrust that still plagues the country to date. Nigeria was saved from dividing into several countries, but the war’s impact led to an emotional divide.

There have been some Nigerian presidents that have worked very hard to patch up this fracture by extending the olive branch to victims of the war. For example, former Nigeria President Obasanjo commuted the dismissals of the Biafran soldiers to retirement and paid them their entitlement in 2000. And when Colonel Ojukwu died in November 2011, he was draped in the Nigerian flag and given a full military burial.

Regardless, several decades after the war, the Igbos and other minority ethnic groups still feel marginalized by the Northerners. The power structure in Nigeria is perceived by those groups as still in favor of the Northerners. Proponents of this view are quick to mention the fact that the North has produced the greatest number of military heads of state and presidents.

The end of the war did not necessarily mean the end of Biafra, there are still pockets of groups that are calling for secession; most notable among those groups are the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Some of these groups have been involved in violent clashes with the Nigerian Army, which has led to the arrest of the British-Nigerian activist Nnamdi Kanu.

Sadly, the scars of the war are still seen in a lot of areas of the country. Many Southern leaders sometimes express their dissatisfaction over the underdeveloped state of south despite the region holding the majority of the country’s oil reserves; they feel power is not equally shared at the federal level. However, at the end of the day, many Nigerians believe Nigeria is better united than divided. In the words of Harold G. Moore “There is no glory in war, only good men dying terrible deaths”.

It has not been all gloomy since the war, considering the fact that Nigeria has made huge strides in so many areas, becoming Africa’s largest economy in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as of 2022.

Who supported who during the civil war?

During the conflict, the United States chose to stay out, as it only provided tacit approval to the activities of Great Britain. The British government, on the other hand, supported the Nigerian federal government. London had huge investments in the oil-rich Biafra region; hence, it was in its own interest to see Nigeria remain united. The federal government also received support from the USSR and Israel.

Biafra received support mainly from the People’s Republic of China and France. The latter, like Great Britain, had oil companies in the region. Then-president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere provided support to Biafra. Gabon, the Ivory Coast, and the white-minority government of Zimbabwe also supported the secessionists.

The remaining African countries quietly supported the federal government of Nigeria.

Other Notable Facts about the Biafran War (July 1967 to January 1970)

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, claimed the lives of more than a million people in Africa’s most populous country. It was certainly one of the most brutal conflicts to take place on the African continent in the 20th century. The extent of damage, emotionally and physically, caused by the war can only be described as the stuff of nightmares, especially for the Igbo people.

The following are some other notable facts about the war:

  • Following the January 1966 coup, massive reprisal attacks against the Igbo people living in the north caused Nigeria to teeter between the deep abyss and implosion. In 1967, close to a million Igbo people in the north had to flee the chaotic situation in the north.
  • Following the capture of key coastal areas in the south, including Port Harcourt, the Nigerian government imposed an impenetrable blockage on Biafra. This cut vital supplies to the region. The result of the blockade was widespread starvation, disease and famine.
  • The Nigerian Civil War was not the result of tensions between the East and West; i.e. it had nothing to do with the Cold War that was raging on by then. The brutal civil war was the result of nationalists in the various regions grappling for control in military and political apparatus of the nascent country. Those groups (i.e. Northern Region and Eastern Region) failed to strike an amicable political arrangement that promoted economic and political fairness and equality. That was in turn caused by the deplorable and shaky system left behind by the British colonial government. There existed mutual distrust and hatred among the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria.
  • The war had nothing to do with religion. As a matter of fact, the then-head of the Federal Government of Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon, was a Christian. He was neither of Hausa nor Fulani ancestry. His appointment as head of state following the counter-coup in July 1966 was aimed at pacifying the Igbo people a bit.
  • Hunger and diseases were the most leading causes of deaths during the Biafra War. The death toll from those two was far greater than the one caused by military confrontations between Biafra and the Nigerian government.
  • The Nigerian government chose not to exact any harsh forms of punishment on the secessionist as there were fears that it might result in the Igbo people feeling even more resentful. Then-president General Yakubu Gowon hoped to heal the nation by promoting the popular motto “no victor, no vanquished”.

Who was Ojukwu?

At the onset of the war, Biafran leader Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was just 33 years old.

Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu – a military governor of the Eastern Region – is said to have visited many schools and institutions of higher learning in south-eastern Nigeria to solicit support for his secession. Lt Col. Ojukwu, who had been only appointed military governor of his region, unanimously declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra in May 1967.

For 30 months, Ojukwu rallied the support of all in his region to resist what he called the tyranny of the Nigerian government.

Ojukwu’s forces were ill prepared and ill-equipped to fight the Nigerian military. Many of his men were sent off to the frontline with a day’s training or less. Image: Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu – a colonel in the Nigerian army who championed the cause and independent aspirations of the breakaway region of Biafra

Ojukwu’s Biafran forces were poorly equipped and unskilled. At the start of the war, some Biafra soldiers only had simple weapons like machetes, sticks and knives. Those untrained and ill-equipped soldiers were expected to face the mighty Nigerian army that was armed to the teeth with machine guns, superior air power and a larger army. This explains why it took the Nigerian military just a few months to capture Enugu, the capital of Biafra.

The Nigerian army was simply too strong to be resisted, and Ojukwu, who by early January realized Biafra was fighting a losing war, fled the country. The secessionist commander was given asylum in the Ivory Coast. It was not until 1982 that he returned to Nigeria after receiving a pardon from the Nigerian government.

Ojukwu died in November 2011, and his funeral was attended by then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. The former secessionist leader was given a full Nigerian military burial in March 2012.

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