Nigerian Civil War: The First Viral War in Africa

Instability is chronic in Nigeria and much of what happened in the past resonates today. Between 1967 and 1970, a civil and secessionist war took place in that country that showed the fragility of the inherited borders in Africa and the poor coexistence between the different ethnic groups, leaving, among several consequences, and according to the different calculations, from 500,000 to two million victims (or more, others indicate, up to three million) in that failed independence. In the case of the territory occupied by the most populous nation on the continent, the British gathered three nations and many other smaller ones, in a land where some 500 languages ​​are spoken, as if to give an idea of ​​their diversity.

Broadly speaking, scholars divide the current country into three areas according to the population predominance of a certain region: that of the west, with the Yoruba as the most representative group; to the North, the Hausa; and the Igbo in the East. It is indicated that the north of the country is more of a Muslim creed, while in the south Christianity is practiced mostly (together with traditional religions). In the Nigerian Southeast, the bloody events that follow are described, in particular, the Biafra region.

‘A rebellious people and a high cost’

To a large extent, a cause of the proclamation of the secession of Biafra (as a Republic) and the subsequent war was the exploitation of oil, in the first African producing country today. What is supposed to be a privilege and a source of income has caused more damage than benefits to the nation. The country is almost completely dependent on black gold, with oil revenues 70% of revenues. 

Despite the potential in this resource, 62% of the Nigerian population lives on less than $ 1.25 a day (1.11 euros), according to the World Bank. The first stunning global images of Africa in the mass media were the product of this war.

What caused the Nigerian Civil War?

Oil was one of the main causes of secession which eventually led to the Nigerian Civil War. After the independence of Nigeria, on October 1, 1960, the problems of the decolonized nation would begin. From the earliest times, the groups showed signs of collision in the competition for taking control of the young Federal State, to the point of costing the life of a prime minister and several of its administrators. To make matters worse, in 1966 the first coup d’etat came and with it great massacres, between comings and goings on the definition of the federal or unitary form of government.

The political bid implied violence against the Igbos in several regions where they were a minority. Discontent with the situation, in general, led the governor of the eastern region, Lieutenant-Colonel Igbo Odumegwu Ojukwu, to withdraw his region from the Nigerian Federation and ignore the federal government. Therefore, the independence of Biafra was proclaimed with jubilation, on May 30, 1967. Thus began a war of more than two years.

The confrontation consisted, after the first Biafran attack, in the siege of the secession region, whose army was smaller and less equipped than the federal one, when the Nigerian force reached 100,000 troops. The peace negotiations repeatedly failed and Ojukwu insisted that he would fight until the extinction of the republic and the Igbos. A year after the war began, the Biafrans had lost half of their territory and the main cities. The siege to which it was subjected caused Biafra to be reduced to an Igbo enclave stalked by thousands of hungry refugees awaiting assistance.

Nigerian Civil War Allies

Humanitarian aid also served the secession Republic as an alibi to obtain weapons, as both elements followed identical routes. The war continued thanks to Ojukwu’s skillful maneuver of presenting himself as a heroic leader of a small and Christian Biafra, threatened by much more powerful and thirsty Islamic of his wealth. The hypothesis of genocide, from the wayward side, was outlined as a warning to the outside. The desired effect was achieved by radio broadcasts recounting the atrocities committed throughout Nigeria against the Igbo.

Biafran allies during the civil war

The enduring conflict would not have been possible without support for the rebel regime. Ojukwu obtained the support of some African nations to fight alongside his newly found Biafran nation. Countries such as South Africa and Rhodesias, and, outside of Africa, France, Spain and Portugal. The point in common was the search for the decline of the power of a very powerful nation in Africa, such as Nigeria, and to counter the Pan-African dreams of a united continent.

France supported the Biafran cause for the sake of the oil because of its oil company, Elf. From its base in Gabon, once a colony, France sent weapons to the rebels. Portugal did the same from its nearby colonial positions.

Nigerian allies during the civil war

The side allied to the federal government was formed by most African countries, respectful of the conservation of inherited borders, and fearful of new secessionist movements, as was the case in the former Belgian Congo a few years ago (Katanga). External to the continent, the support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union was essential. The latter extended its influence on the Muslim world of the Middle East and North Africa. The United Kingdom and the United States reacted to the French meddling in Africa, another chapter of the classic rivalry between powers (known as the Anglo-Saxon plot, from the gala perspective), more when Nigeria was a very important British colony.

“As long as I live, Biafra lives”

The sentence was pronounced by Ojukwu when fleeing to Ivory Coast after the formal surrender of Biafra. In January 1970, the war came to an end and the federal government celebrated a resounding victory. The situation for the people of Biafra, after two and a half years of war, was gloomy, between human cost and demoralization. However, there were no sanctions for the defeated, the Igbos were returned their property in the South-Western part of Nigeria, largely dominated by the Yorubas, one of the three major ethnic groups. It was never the same in present-day South-South areas such as Port Harcourt; Igbo properties were never returned. 

The military and administrative cadres were reinstated to the federal government structure. The general in command of the federal government, Jakubu Gowon, a short time later, readmitted the fugitive Ojukwu to his land and declared the intention of reconciliation and healing the wounds of the Nigerian nation.

Consequences of the Nigerian civil war

The consequences of the civil war in Nigeria were numerous. First, it is estimated that 500,000 to two or three million people died, largely due to hunger. Secondly, this conflict collapsed any possibility that the country was a major player in Africa and, finally, weakened the civil government giving way to the achievement of several military coups, such as two in 1966 and 1975, 1983, 1985, 1993 and 1996.

The secessionist war, among other factors, transformed the country into a  petrostate in which the control of the State to take advantage of the succulent oil rent became a battle to the death. For example, around 18,000 Nigerians lost their lives due to ethnic, religious and political violence between 1999 and 2012 ( not counting the ravages of Boko Haram ), a camouflaged way of hiding the black gold product bid. The above was added to rampant levels of corruption from power to the point that years later money was returned from Swiss bank accounts as amounts illegally drawn during the dictatorship of Sani Abacha (1993-1998).

The impact of the humanitarian crisis on Biafra abroad

Finally, but not least, a fundamental consequence of the war was experienced at the humanitarian level. The impact of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra abroad was quite visible and was reflected in the mass media, motivating a civil aviation operation, for the transport of humanitarian aid, unprecedented since World War II. It was the first time that the media showed images of a corner of Africa, in this case, decimated by famine and death. From there, there were repetitions: Ethiopia on two occasions, in 1973 and in the mid-1980s. The images of this last humanitarian crisis forged in the Western mind the negative and catastrophic stereotype of Africa, displacing or complementing Biafra’s images of some 20 years before.

Biafra after Ojukwu

The possibilities of secession of Biafra did not end in January 1970. They are agitated until now. As if the ‘African elephant’ did not have several battlefronts, two prominent Biafran leaders yearn to achieve what Ojukwu could not do half a century ago – the Republic of Biafra. Following the British model in the European Union, can there be a “Biafrexit”?

Benjamin Onwuka (BZF)

A leading leader is Benjamin Onwuka, founder of the Biafra Zionist Federation (BZF) group, in 2009, who intended to found the Republic of Biafra on March 15 of this year, after being released from prison after three years of confinement under the accusation of promoting sedition through transmissions on the official radio network.

According to Onwuka statements, the secessionist plan would be the result of the understanding of the movement that leads with the United Kingdom and the United States (mainly). Onwuka believes that the failure of his people during the Biafra War was due to the impossibility of relating Ojukwu with Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, there have been many Biafrans who are hopeful that the Trump administration will respond to the claim of self-determination in the region.

Nnamdi Kanu (IPOB)

The other important figure is Nwannekaenyi Nnamdi Kanu, who created the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, in 2014, to then be imprisoned for more than a year and a half on suspicion of conspiracy and belonging to an illegal organization, without trial. 

The leader of IBOP, who considers himself a Jewish Igbo and his descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, among his followers, promoted the initiative to launch a referendum to decide the secession of Biafra.

The arrest made him better known, motivating protests and the formation of a rising movement, which worried the authorities. The State’s response to this mobilization was blunt. An Amnesty International report indicates that at least 150 people were killed by Nigerian security forces between August 2015 and 2016. At the same time, the hashtag #StopBiafraKillings went viral on social networks.

Unlike Benjamin Onwuka and Ojukwu, Nnamdi Kanu’s approach is somewhat aggressive and has been condemned by many. More disturbing is the approach of his sect who are radical and irascible and would resort to violence in place of discourse – ‘Biafra or war’.

After his release, he gained more cult support. His passport had been seized and he was all but confined to his father’s house in Afaraukwu, in Abia state where he later had several public meetings with Igbos of like minds. Unfortunately for him, his stint of glory was short-lived. Mr. Kanu had bragged in September 2017, that he would go to Abuja to severe the head of the sitting president of the country, President Muhammadu Buhari, around the time he formed his ‘Biafran Secret Service’.

Perceiving the growing threat, the Nigerian Army laid siege at his home, a move which led many to believe Kanu had been killed as he was nowhere to be found after the invasion.

Nearly a year later, after ‘he went missing’ Nnamdi Kanu resurfaced in Israel from where he found his way to the United Kingdom where he originally lived before fighting the Biafran cause.

While the angst is still very much around, it remains to be seen whether the first civil war would be forgotten.