By - Victoria Akindele
The Nigerian civil war also known as the Biafran War or the Nigerian-Biafran War broke out on July 6, 1967 and lasted until Jan. 15, 1970, was the zenith of uneasy peace and instability that had beleaguered the country from independence in 1960.
The civil war was fought to reconcile and reunify the country. It was a result of the Nigerian government’s effort to counter the struggle by the Igbo people of the Eastern region to break away from Nigeria under a new republic called ‘The Republic of Biafra’ led by a military officer and politician, late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
The Republic of Biafra was mainly made up of the former Eastern region of Nigeria and was inhabited primarily by the Igbo ethnic group. Biafra is commonly divided into four main “tribes” which include: the Igbos, the Ibibio-Efiks, the Ijaws and the Ogojas. The modern-day states that make up Biafra from the eastern region and Midwest are Abia, Anambra, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, Delta, Rivers and Cross River, Igbanke in Edo state and southern part of Benue.
The flag of the Republic of Biafra was created by the Biafran Government and raised on May 30, 1967. It consists of a horizontal tricolour of red, black, and green, charged with a golden rising sun over a golden bar. Red represents the blood of those massacred in northern Nigeria and in the consequent Nigeria-Biafra war. Black is for mourning them and in remembrance. Green is for prosperity and the half of a yellow/golden sun stands for a glorious future. The sun has 11 rays, representing the 11 provinces of Biafra.
The Republic of Biafra had a different currency from that of Nigeria – the Biafran pound which went public on Jan. 28, 1968. The Biafran government created the Bank of Biafra, accomplished under “Decree No. 3 of 1967”. The bank was administered by a governor and four directors; the first governor, who signed on bank notes, was Sylvester Ugoh.
The currency of Biafra had been the Nigerian pound until the Bank of Biafra started printing out its own notes, the Biafran pound. It is estimated that a total of £115 to 140 million Biafran pounds were in circulation by the end of the war.
From June through October 1966, pogroms in the North killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Igbo, half of them children, and caused more than 1 to 2 million of them to flee to the Eastern Region. Sept. 29, 1966, was considered the worst day because of massacres and was called ‘Black Thursday’.
Charles Keil, an Ethnomusicologist who was visiting Nigeria in 1966, recounted:
‘’The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Igbo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowon could be heard over the radio issuing ‘guarantees of safety’ to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologised for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Igbos.’’
The Federal Military Government (FGM) also laid the groundwork for the economic blockade of the Eastern Region which went into full effect in 1967. It is said that the war became inevitable since the Igbos could no longer co-exist with the northerners in the country.
Prior to the major war, there was a military coup in 1966 (carried out by Major Nzeogwu which led to the death of Tafawa balewa, among others) and a counter coup (led by Gowon, which led to the brutal murder of Aguiyi Ironsi, Fajuyi, among others) so also the persecution of the Igbo people living in the Northern Nigeria, forcing them to return home and some lost their lives even as they fled.
There have been divided opinions on the 1966 coup as some argue that corruption among the civilian ruling class pushed the military to organise the coup, while others are of the opinion that the control of oil production in the Niger Delta was also a major factor.
On May 27, 1967, Gowon proclaimed the division of Nigeria into twelve (12) states. This decree carved the Eastern Region in three parts: South Eastern State, Rivers State, and East Central State. Now the Igbos, who were concentrated in the East Central State, would lose control over most of the petroleum, located in the other two areas hence, they saw the act of creation of states by decree without deliberation and consultation as the last straw and then led Col. Ojukwu to declare the region an independent state of ‘’Biafra’’ on May 30, 1967.
Accordingly, the FMG saw this act of secession as illegal. Several meetings were held to resolve the issue peacefully but to no avail.
The war began on the early hours of July 6, 1967 when Nigerian Federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra at the order of the FMG. Division 1, led by Col. Mohammed Shuwa operated through the north of Biafra, while the second division advanced on Nsukka which later fell on July 14.
The Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when on August 9, the Biafran forces moved to the Westside and into the Mid-Western of Nigerian region which is across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore in (Ondo State) just over the state boundary on August 21, just 130 miles east of the Nigerian capital of Lagos. The Biafran attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, with the Biafran rank of brigadier. The attack met little resistance and the Midwest was easily taken over.
General Gowon responded by asking Col. Murtala Mohammed (who later became head of state in 1975) to form another division (the second Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Midwest, as well as to defend the Westside and attack Biafra from the West as well. As Nigerian forces retook the Midwest, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin (Dahomey at that time) on September 19.
Although Benin City was retaken by the Nigerians on September 22, the Biafrans succeeded in their primary objective by tying down as many Nigerian Federal troops as they could. War in Enugu began on Sept. 12, 1967 and by Oct. 4, 1967 the Nigerian Army had captured Enugu. Nigerian soldiers under Murtala Mohammed carried out a mass killing of 700 civilians when they captured Asaba on the River Niger. The Nigerians were repulsed three times as they attempted to cross the River Niger during October, resulting in the loss of thousands of troops, dozens of tanks and equipment. The first attempt by the second division on October 12 to cross the Niger from the town of Asaba to the Biafran city of Onitsha cost the Nigerian Federal Army over 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing.
Operation Tiger Claw (Oct. 17 to 20, 1967) was a military conflict between Nigerian and Biafran military forces. On Oct. 17, 1967 Nigerians invaded Calabar led by the “Black Scorpion”, Benjamin Adekunle, while the Biafrans were led by Col. Ogbu Ogi, who was responsible for controlling the area between Calabar and Opobo, and Lynn Garrison, a foreign mercenary. The Biafrans came under immediate fire from the water and the air. For a couple of days, Biafran stations and military supplies were bombarded by the Nigerian air force. That same day Lynn Garrison reached Calabar but came under immediate fire by federal troops. On October 20, Garrison’s forces withdrew from the battle while Col. Ogi officially surrendered to Gen. Adekunle. On May 19, 1968 Portharcourt was captured. With the capture of Enugu, Bonny, Calabar and Portharcourt, the outside world was left in no doubt to the Federal supremacy in the war.
As soon as the war began, the Federal Military Government of Nigeria led by Gen. Yakubu Gowon surrounded the Biafra territory and captured the oil –rich coastal areas. The blockade imposed during the war led to severe famine such that within the two and a half years (30 months) the war lasted, there were over 100,000 overall military casualties, while nearly 2 million civilians died from starvation, which was a deliberate policy adopted by Nigeria to bring the people on the Biafra side to their knees.
Western influences were also involved in the war, with Britain and the then Soviet Union backing Nigeria, while France, Israel and a few other countries supported Biafra.
Within a year, the FMG captured the city of Port Harcourt and many other coastal oil facilities and blocked all the routes for transporting food into the Republic of Biafra which led to severe starvation. They saw this as a war strategy and a way to keep Nigeria united, while many people around the world saw this as nothing but a genocide.
With increased British support, the Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans once again on Dec. 23, 1969, with a major thrust by the third Marine Commando Division. The division was commanded by Col. Olusegun Obasanjo (who later became president twice), which succeeded in splitting the Biafran enclave into two by the end of the year. The final Nigerian offensive, named “Operation Tail-Wind”, was launched on Jan. 7, 1970 with the third Marine Commando Division attacking, and supported by the first division to the north and the second division to the south. The Biafran towns of Owerri fell on January 9, and Uli on January 11. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by plane to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to General Yakubu Gowon of the Federal Army on Jan. 13, 1970. The surrender paper was signed on Jan. 14, 1970 in Lagos and thus, came the end of the civil war and renunciation of secession. Fighting ended a few days later, with the Nigerian forces advancing into the remaining Biafran-held territories, which was met with little resistance.
After the war, Gowon said, “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.”
Up until today, there is a notion that the civil war was a genocide for which no perpetrators have been held accountable.
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