It’s 50 years since the start of the Biafran war, one of Africa’s bloodiest post-independence conflicts. What was the Nigerian conflict about and why does its legacy still matter today?
Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a state in West Africa that existed from May 1967 to January 1970. It was made up of the states in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. Biafra’s declaration of independence from Nigeria resulted in civil war between Biafra and Nigeria. Biafra was formally recognised by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia. Its inhabitants were mostly Igbo, who led the independence movement due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. Other ethnic groups included the Efik, Ibibio, Annang, Ejagham, Eket, Ibeno and the Ijaw.
After two-and-a-half years of war, during which almost two million Biafran civilians (3/4 of them small children) died from starvation caused by the total blockade of the region by the Nigerian government, Biafran forces under Nigeria’s motto of “No-victor, No-vanquished” surrendered to the Nigerian Federal Military Government (FMG). The surrender was facilitated by the Biafran Vice President and Chief of General Staff, Major General Philip Effiong, who assumed leadership of the Republic of Biafra after the original President, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, fled to Ivory Coast.
After the surrender of Biafra, some Igbos who had fled the conflict returned to their properties but were unable to claim them back from new occupants. It was purported that at the start of the civil war, Igbos withdrew their funds from Nigerian banks and converted it to the Biafran currency. After the war, bank accounts owned by Biafrans were seized and a Nigerian panel resolved to give every Igbo person with an account only 20 pounds.
Federal projects in Biafra were also greatly reduced compared to other parts of Nigeria. A cultural sub-region of Biafra in what is now southern Nigeria. In 1960, Nigeria became independent of the United Kingdom. As with many other new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic, cultural, religious, or political boundaries. Thus, the northern region of the country has a Muslim majority, being primarily made up of territory of the indigenous Sokoto Caliphate.
The southern population is predominantly Christian, being primarily made up of territory of the indigenous Yoruba and Biafra kingdoms in the West and East respectively. Following independence, Nigeria was demarcated primarily along ethnic lines: Hausa and Fulani majority in the north, Yoruba majority in the West and Igbo majority in the East.
The Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War and the Nigerian-Biafran War) was a civil war in Nigeria fought between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra from 6 July 1967 to 15 January 1970. Biafra represented nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the Northern-dominated federal government. Immediate causes of the war in 1966 included ethno-religious riots in Northern Nigeria, a military coup, a counter-coup and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria.
Control over the lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta also played a vital strategic role. Within a year, the Federal Government troops surrounded Biafra, capturing coastal oil facilities and the city of Port Harcourt. The blockade imposed during the ensuing stalemate led to mass starvation. During the two and half years of the war, there were about 100,000 overall military casualties, while between 500,000 and 3 million Biafran civilians died of starvation. In mid-1968, images of malnourished and starving Biafran children saturated the mass media of Western countries. The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were the main supporters of the Nigerian government, while France, Israel and some other countries supported Biafra. Chukwuemeka “Emeka” Odumegwu-Ojukwu (4 November 1933 – 26 November 2011) was a Nigerian military officer and politician who served as the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria in 1966 and the leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970.
In January 1967, the Nigerian military leadership went to Aburi, Ghana, for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. The implementation of the agreements reached Aburi fell apart upon the leaderships return to Nigeria and on 30 May 1967, as a result of this, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as Biafra. Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.