Biafra: A Quick Overview of the first African Civil War

Nigeria exists today as the most populous, the most vibrant but also one of the most corrupt and unpredictable nations in Africa. Like many colonies within the European imperial spectrum , it began its modern existence as an asset of a chartered company, in this case the Royal Niger Company.

The territory more or less conformed to two regional blocs, the north and the south. The north comprised the Islamised Hausa/Fulani language group which fell under the leadership of traditional emirs who maintained a conservative adherence to ancient codes and systems of education that were extremely resistant to modern influence.

The South, very broadly speaking, was home to the Christian/Animist Yoruba and Igbo blocs, closer to the coast, more accessible to European missionary influence and tending on the whole to be more adaptable in regard to assimilating Christianity and the associated access to western education and literacy.

In 1914 Nigeria was adopted formally as a British Protectorate, with three separate administrative areas: The Northern and Southern Protectorates, and the Lagos Colony, which was effectively an adjunct of the South. In Nigeria British colonial officials experimented with a system of indirect rule, maintaining and governing through traditional leadership structures with British superintendence. In the north this was relatively easy thanks to a cohesive and long established tradition of leadership, but in the south it was less so because of the fractured and dispersed style of traditional leadership in that region.

After WWII, Britain began to groom her African colonies for independence, and in some respects Nigeria was held up as a template on how effective decolonization could be achieved. The principal difficulty lay in the fact that the conservative north, it’s cultural and politica dominance having been maintained by the leveling influence of British overlordship. Here there was a feeling, not unjustified, that the better educated and generally more dynamic south, in particular the Igbo of the east, would rise to dominate any unitary state left behind by the British.

This was not by any means an idle fear. By the end of the 1950s, as the date of independence neared, the Igbo of the eastern region had indeed come to dominate the administrative branches of the civil service, the military, police and emerging private sector. In order, somewhat, to accommodate northern fears, a federation was designed that would separate the future Nigeria in three states, the north, the west and the east, with Lagos again enjoying a separate status.

On 1 October 1963, Nigeria achieved independence under the leadership of an educated northern Prime Minister by the name of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. There was considerable optimism that Nigeria would succeed, and stand as an example of British moderation and successful decolonization, but unfortunately regionalism and ethnic incompatibility began very quickly to undermine the foundations of the federation, exacerbated by staggering levels of both political and economic corruption, and a realization of the fears harbored by the north of an social and economic eclipsing by the south, in particular the south east, or the Igbo.

Indeed large pockets of Igbo had become established in the north dominating the private and public sectors, and in particular the military.

In January 1966 the first in a long tradition of Nigerian military coups ousted the civilian government, replacing it with the first military government under the leadership of the army commander Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. This was seen by the north as a southern conspiracy to gain overall control of the federation, exacerbated by moves towards the creation of a unitary state. A certain amount of anti-Igbo bloodletting took place in the aftermath, but mainly in the north.

The first military government lasted a mere six months, and in July 1966 the military rose again, unleashing a major bout of ethnic cleansing in the north and west aimed at the Igbo minority, both civilian and military. So severe was this that it created a sense within the eastern region that the Igbo would never be able to coexist in an ethnically diverse federation that was united only in an apparent determination to eradicate the Igbo.

In May of 1967 the eastern region seceded, creating the rebel republic of Biafra. The result was a police action on the part of the military government of Nigeria to return Biafra to the federation. The police action devolved into a full scale civil war when the capture of the Biafran capital of Enugu did not facilitate a collapse of the breakaway state, but instead appeared to energize resistance and entrench Biafra into a siege mentality.

Thereafter, from 1967 through to early 1970, Biafra was increasingly constricted as federal forces progressively surrounded the territory, and in a campaign that was characterized by extraordinary levels of military incompetence on both sides, Biafra was gradually constricted until it inevitably collapsed in January 1970.

Biafra succeeded in attracting recognition from only a handful of regional and international nations, remaining substantively isolated and unrecognized, with most of the world, and in particular western countries, maintaining support for Nigeria in the interests largely of maintaining the sovereignty of the federation and bringing a rapid end to the war.

A key federal strategy was the coastal and land blockades, and the subsequent legitimization of starvation as a weapon of war. Hundreds of thousands of Biafrans were affected, with the iconic newsreel imagery of kwashiorkor stricken children dying in astronomical numbers being the first images of their kind to emerge from independent Africa.

This prompted an international relief effort that was established largely under the aegis of a number of independent churches who organized relief flights from the Portuguese islands of São Tomé and Fernando Po, landing nightly on a small airstrip improvised from a length of tarmac road located in central Biafra. This operation began midway through 1968 and continued more or less until the collapse of Biafra in January 1970.

The re-establishment of the Nigerian Federation was accompanied by the breakup of the existing structure into first twelve states, in order to fragment the obvious ethnic anomalies of the original structure, with this process containing until the current establishment of 36 states.

Nigeria remains a nation of seething ethnic tension, with the same basic fault line of north and south proving to be the source of ongoing antagonism. Nonetheless, there has been no repeat of the events of the Biafran conflict, or the Nigerian Civil War as it is also known, although repeated military coups and corrupt military governments continued a tradition started in 1966 until a return to civilian government came finally in 1999.