The Nigerian Civil War also known as the Biafran War was a war fought between the Nigerian government and the secessionist Eastern Nigerian government who declared their independence from Nigeria as Biafran Republic.
The Nigerian Civil War started after the Igbo people of the eastern region considered their existence in the Nigerian federation as a staying under the domination of others specifically the Hausa people who dominated the federal government. With that consideration, the military governor of the Igbo dominated eastern region Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the Region as an independent Republic of Biafra.
The Nigerian Civil War lasted for almost three years from 6 July, 1967, to 12 January, 1970.
Before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, there were occurrences of two military coup d’etat carried out in January and July of 1966 and were all done along tribal lines.
The first coup known as the January 15 Coup was carried out mostly by Igbo young soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. In the Coup, most of those who lost their lives were Northern top political leaders, top Army officers especially from Hausa ethnic that included Nigerian Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Premier of the Northern Region Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the Western Region Chief Samuel Akintola, and the most respected Northern Army officer then Brigadier Zakariyya Maimalari.
The second coup known as the Counter Coup which aimed at taking revenge on Southerners specifically the Igbos over the killings of Northern Leaders in the January 15 Coup, was carried out in July 1966. The Coup was led by mostly Northern Army officers against the Nigerian Military Ruler General Aguiyi-Ironsi and some Igbo Army officers whom the Northerners considered as those behind the January 15 Coup. Those killed during this Coup were like the Nigerian Military Head of State General Aguiyi-Ironsi, the Military Governor of the Western Region Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, and others.
The Counter Coup of July 1966 have resulted in bringing in a Christian Northern Army Officer Lt. Colonel. Yakubu Gowon as the new Nigerian Military Head of State.
Nationwide Tribal crises
After General Yakubu Gowon came to power, the Nigerian situation remained unstable whereby tribal violence started to become rampant especially in some Northern cities. In September 1966, there were some attacks on Igbo people in some Northern cities. The genuine reason behind the discrimination of Igbos in the North was the fact that the Northerners still blamed the Igbos over the killings of top Northern Leaders in the January 15 Coup, therefore revenge was considered necessary on every Igbo. In retaliation, the Igbos also attacked Northerners living in the Eastern Region cities such as Enugu and Port Harcourt.
As the crises increased, the Government of the Eastern Region called upon all Igbos living in the North to returned back home for their own safety. The call was heard, and about 1 million Igbos returned back to the Eastern Region.
On the other hand, the Nigerian Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon considered the tribal strife as a threat to the Nigerian stance as united country. Therefore, all Regional Military Governors and top Army Officers were invited and met in Lagos to discuss the issues of national security at large. However, the meeting ended without reaching a certain resolution especially on the tribal problems.
The People of the Eastern Region specifically the Igbos continued agitating about the maltreatment of their people in the North to the extent that they started threatening for a secession. The Military Government of the Eastern Region under Lt. General Odumegwu Ojukwu warned Nigerian Government on taking good measures that would guaranteed the safety of every Igbo person.
In January 1967, the Ghanian President intervened and invited the Nigerian Military President General Yakubu Gowon and the Military Governor of the Nigerian Eastern Region for a peace accord. The Leaders with the intervention of the Ghanian Military President J.A. Ankrah met at a Ghanian town of Aburi in which three major resolutions were reached as follows :
- The meeting agreed that the executive and legislative mandate should remained in the Supreme Military Council. And any decision aimed at the whole of the country were to be referred to the Regional Military Governors for consultation.
- Any appointments to the senior ranks in the mili and police, or in the Federal civil service were required to be ex approved by the Supreme Military Council.
- Lastly, the Regional delegates during the Aburi Peace Accord demanded that for a mutual confidence in Nigeria, any military decrees passed since the inception of the military rule in January 1966 that reduced the powers of the Regional Governments should be revoked, that would gave Regions more powers.
After returning to Nigeria, the Military Governor of the Eastern Region Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu expected the immediate implementation of the resolutions more especially in giving back due powers to the Regional Governments. However, General Yakubu Gowon refused to do what was expected from him, rather, he began planning of abolishing the Nigerian 4 Regions and divided the country into states.
On 27 May, 1967, Nigerian Military Head of State General Yakubu Gowon issued a Military Decree No. 14 that created 12 states and providing a Governor for each state replacing 4 Regions and their Governors. The states created were as follows :
- Lagos State
- Southwestern State
- Bendel State
- Rivers State
- East Central State
- Cross River State
- Benue-Plateau State
- Kwara State
- Northwestern State
- Northeastern State
- Kaduna State
- Kano State
In response to the Nigerian division into 12 States, on 30 May, 1967, the Eastern Region Military Governor Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the secession of the Region from Nigeria and named their new country as Republic of Biafra. In the secession speech, Ojukwu reasoned that their secession was necessary due to the situation in the country whereby the Nigerian Government failed to guaranteed safety for the Igbos living in other parts of Nigeria, and also failed fulfilled its promises.
Outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War
With the proclamation of the Eastern Region as an Independent Republic of Biafra, it became obvious and certain that the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War was possible.
On 6 July, 1967, the Nigerian Civil War started when Nigerian Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon mobilized a large army of about 10,000 soldiers under the command of Colonel Muhammad Shuwa and sent them into the proclaimed Biafran Republic. The Nigerian troops pushed from the north while the Biafran troops who were on defense refused to allowed the Nigerian troops into their territory.
On 9 July, 1967, the Biafran troops under the command of Colonel Banjo made a successful offensive into the Mid-West Region of Nigeria where they captured strategic places including the Benin City.
The Nigerian Military Government considered the Biafran presence in the Mid-West as a threat, and therefore General Yakubu Gowon ordered the formation of Nigerian Second Infantry Division under Colonel Murtala Muhammad. On 20 September, 1967, the Nigerian Second Division under Colonel Murtala Muhammad faced the Biafran troops in the Mid-West in which two days exchange of fire occurred until on 22 September when the Nigerian troops were able to recapture the Mid-West Capital city of Benin, and by the end of 1967, the Biafrans were driven out of the Mid-West. The Nigerian Second Division troops went ahead until they secured the whole of the Delta Region which confirmed the Biafran territory being surrounded by the all sides, hence cutt off from the direct access to the Sea. Therefore, the Nigerian Government used the opportunity by blocking all the routes through which either arms or food could be transported into the Biafran Republic. The blockade action have weakened the Biafrans in many aspect especially as the blockade started to caused starvation due to the lack of food.
On 4 October, 1967, the Nigerian troops captured Enugu the capital of Biafra. This success have became a wonderful result which clearly showed that the Nigerian troops would certainly overcome the Biafran resistance.
On 17 October, 1967, the Nigerian 3rd Army Division under Colonel Benjamin Adekunle known as the “Black Scorpion” entered into the city of Calabar where a battle was fought between them and the Biafran troops under the command of Colonel Ogbu Ogi. Eventually, the Nigerian troops overcame the Biafrans which forced their surrender.
From the start of 1968 until May of the year, the Nigerian Civil War was in a state of stalemate, whereby the Biafran army have actively resisted the Nigerian troops advances into their territory. However, in May 1968, the Nigerian troops captured Port Harcourt. Again in September 1968, the Nigerian troops captured an important Biafran town of Owerri, even though the Biafran troops recaptured the city later. With these two achievements, the Nigerian Military Government tightened and increased its blockade measure aimed at forcing the Biafran to surrender. But instead of surrendering, the Biafran Leader Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu used the blockade which caused starvation to the Biafrans as a means of propaganda to the extent that he attracted the attention of many countries and international organizations in aiding the Biafrans with food and even arms.
End of the Nigerian Civil War
By 1969, after facing increasing defeat and problems in the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafran Leader Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu made anappeal to the United Nations to intervene for a peace negotiations with the Nigerian Government. However, the Nigerian Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon insisted on Biafrans unconditional surrender which the Biafran Leader refused to agree.
The battles in the Nigerian Civil War continued to go in favor of the Nigerian troops. In December 1969, the Nigerian troops under the command of Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo made a decisive incursion into the Biafran interior where they divided Biafran territory into two. Later, after a strong resistance from the Biafran troops, the remaining important Biafran city of Owerri was captured again on 6 January, 1970. With the falling of Owerri, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu became hopeless and therefore fled to Ivory Coast leaving the Biafran leadership to his Deputy Colonel Philip Effiong.
On 12 January, 1970, Colonel Philip Effiong called for an unconditional ceasefire, and later surrendered by submission to the Nigerian Military Government in Lagos under General Yakubu Gowon.
International Involvement during the Nigerian Civil War
During the years of the Nigerian Civil War, different countries have been involved in the War directly or indirectly by either supplying arms, war vehicles, or even food to the two sides. The following countries were those involved :
- United Kingdom
- Soviet Union
- United States
- Sierra Leone
- Saudi Arabia
- West Germany
- Holy See (Vatican)
- South Africa
- Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
- Ivory Coast