Biafran War: An Integral Part of Nigeria’s History

By Nura Abdul-Rahman; Justina Etteh; Phoebe Priscilla Amoako; Kwaku Osei Ameyaw; Omar Khadi

Biafra’s beginning

The Biafra war was fought to reintegrate and reunify Nigeria. Nigeria was not a federation of state like it is today. The British kept Nigeria as two states for administrative purposes: Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria. It was amalgamated in 1914. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there was an unhealthy rivalry among tribes. The Biafra war broke out on the 6th of July 1967, when Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the South Eastern Nigeria as an independent state. The Government of Nigeria led by General Yakubu Gowon saw this as an act of illegal secession. As a result the Government of Nigeria used force to avoid the disintegration of the country. The war ended on the 15th of January 1970, when the Biafrans were defeated and  compelled to surrender.

Who was involved

Before Nigeria’s independence, Great Britain decided to keep Nigeria as one country (not dividing them like before resulting in Northern and Southern Nigeria) to effectively manage Nigeria’s vital resources for their economic interests. The federal government held campaigns to dissuade the USA and USSR and the Great Britain from recognizing the Biafran State as a country. Great Britain offered assistance to the federal government especially through the supply of ammunition.  The Biafrans also received assistance from West Germany, France and Spain and bought ammunitions from Sierra Leone. The United Nations and Organisation of African Union also played a role in the settling of the dispute, not exactly taking sides as the other independent western states had.

Timeline

The Biafra war began with the secession of the southeastern region of the nation on May 30, 1967 when it declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. This declaration was done by the head of the Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Odumegwu Ojukwu with the authorization of a consultative assembly.  By 1968, Biafra had lost its seaports and became landlocked.  Starvation and disease followed leading to a mortality range from 500,000 to several million.

In September 1968, Owerri was captured by federal troops advancing from the south, and in early 1969 the federal army expanded to nearly 250,000 men, opening three fronts in what Gowon touted as the “final offensive”.

In October 1969, Ojukwu appealed for United Nations (UN) mediation for a cease-fire as a prelude to peace negotiations. But the federal government insisted on Biafra’s surrender and rebel leaders made it clear that the Biafra war was a fight that needed no concession.

In December 1969, federal forces opened a four-pronged offensive, involving 120,000 troops that sliced Biafra in half. When Owerri fell on January 6, 1970, Biafra resistance collapsed. Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, leaving his chief of staff, Philip Effiong, behind as “officer administering the government”. This war ended shortly after these incidents.

What was done [in attempt] to resolve the war

A peace accord was held in Aburi, Ghana in the early stages of the conflict. Next, the United Nations also held talks with the two parties which proved futile. The Organization of African Union intervened with the main interest of halting secession in Nigeria which was not successful.

The war could not be resolved. Why?

  • Foreign Influence

During the course of the Nigerian civil war there was heavy foreign influence by certain world super powers as well as underdogs. Reasons for engaging in the conflict ranged from interest in natural resources to diplomatic allegiance. Great Britain, the former colonial master of Nigeria, was the foreign country which was most directly involved in the war. They were against the secession being sought after by the Biafrans led by Lt. Col. Ojukwu. They aided the federal state led by Maj. Gen. Yakubu Gowon by providing weapons and ammunition to quell the activities of the secessionists under the command of Lt. Col. Ojukwu. The United States of America, another super power which initially decided to sit on the fence, ended up supplying the federal state with equipment and ammunition. When war broke out the Biafrans were able to secure some aid from Spain, France and Portugal in the form of arms and ammunition. There was also double dealing by countries like West Germany, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, and Republic of Dahomey, Sierra Leone etc. who fuelled the hostility and made it difficult for the conflict to be resolved.

  • Ethnic Lines

Another factor which made it difficult for the conflict to be managed was the fact that the war brewed along ethnic lines; the Biafrans were maily Igbos who were in opposition to the Yorubas and Hausas. Most of the secessionists were from the east and they felt they were not being treated fairly. This brought about complications in resolving the conflict because any attempts at peace were seen as an effort to cheat them owing to tribal differences.

  • Extreme Demands

The last factor which prolonged the crisis was the fact that both parties had extreme demands. While the Biafrans wanted an independent state, the federal state did not want any form of a breakaway. There was no defined grey area where each party’s demands could be satisfied partially. It was an all or nothing situation which eventually resulted in a lot of bloodshed.

Chimamanda Ngozi’s Half A Yellow Sun is a perfect description of how the Biafran war affected the lives of the Nigerians at the time. It also highlights to an extent the interference of colonial powers by taking sides with the federal government.

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One thought on “Biafran War: An Integral Part of Nigeria’s History”

  1. The West always think they are helping us with their intervention when they are rather making the situation worse. I think Africa will appreciate it if these interventions of the West will be to help warring parties to negotiate and amicably settle their dispute instead of providing them with weapons to kill and destroy.

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