Biafra War (1967 – 1970)

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Biafra: The Nigeria-Biafra Civil War

An Igbo soldier during the Biafra war.
An igbo soldier during the Biafra war. HULTON-DEUTSCH / GETTY IMAGES

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 what is called Federal Republic of Nigeria that showed the fragility of the inherited borders in Africa and the terrible coexistence between the different ethnic groups, leaving, among various consequences, and according to different calculations, 500,000 – 2,000,000 victims (or more, others indicate, up to three million people) in that failed independence.

In the case of the territory that occupies the most populous nation in the African continent, the British brought together three nations and many other smaller ones, in a land where about 400 languages ​​are spoken, as if to get an idea of ​​its 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 mostly practiced. The following bloody events took place in South-Eastern Niger, in particular the Biafra region.

A Rebellious People and a High Cost

To a large extent, one cause of the proclamation of the secession of Biafra (as a Republic) and of the subsequent war was the use of oil, in the first African producing country today. What is supposed to be a privilege and a source of income has done more harm than good to the nation. The country is almost entirely dependent on black gold, with oil revenues accounting for 70% of revenues.

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

Oil was one of the main causes of the secession.

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 to gain control of the young Federal State, to the point of costing the lives of a prime minister and several of his administrators.

To make matters worse, in 1966 came the first coup d’état and with it great massacres, between twists and turns on the definition of the federal or unitary form of government.

The political struggle involved violence against the Igbos in various regions where they were a minority. Dissatisfaction with the situation, in general, led the governor of the Eastern region, Igbo Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, to withdraw his region from the Nigerian Federation and ignore the federal government. Thus, the independence of Biafra was proclaimed with joy, on May 30, 1967. Thus began a war lasting more than two years.

The confrontation consisted, after the first Biafra attack, in the siege of the secessioned region, whose army was smaller and less equipped than the federal one, when the Nigerian force reached 100,000 troops. Peace negotiations repeatedly failed and Biafra insisted that it would fight until the extinction of the republic and the Igbos.

Within a year of the war, the Igbos had lost half of their territory and the main cities. The siege to which it was subjected reduced Biafra to an Igbo enclave stalked by thousands of starving refugees awaiting assistance.

Allies and Help During Nigeria Biafra Civil War

Starving children during the Biafra war.
Starving children during the Biafra war. GETTYIMAGES / GERARD KLIJN

Humanitarian aid also served the seceding Republic as an alibi to obtain weapons, since both elements followed identical routes. The war continued thanks to Ojukwu‘s clever maneuver to present himself as the heroic leader of a small, Christian Biafra, threatened by Islamists far more powerful and thirsty for its riches.

The genocide hypothesis was outlined, from the wayward side, as a warning abroad. The desired effect was achieved by radio broadcasts recounting the atrocities committed throughout Nigeria against the Igbo.

The duration of the conflict would not have been possible either without support for the rebel regime. This one obtained the endorsement of some African nations, like South Africa and the Rhodesias, and, outside Africa, France, Spain and Portugal. The common ground was the quest to diminish the power of a very powerful nation in Africa, like Nigeria, and to counter the pan-African dreams of a united continent.

In the case of France, we can add the existence on local soil of the French oil company Elf, which explains the dirty business of Françafrique . From its base in Gabon, a former colony, France sent weapons to the rebels. Portugal did the same from its close colonial positions.

The side allied to the federal government was made up of the majority of African countries, respectful of the preservation 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 expanded its influence over the Muslim world of the Middle East and North Africa. The United Kingdom and the United States reacted to the French interference in Africa, another chapter in the classic rivalry between powers (known as the Anglo-Saxon plot, from the Gallic perspective), especially when Nigeria was a very important British colony.

“As long as I live, Biafra lives”

The sentence was pronounced by Ojukwu when he fled 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 grim, between the human cost and demoralization.

However, there were no sanctions for the defeated, their properties were returned to the Igbos, in general, and the military and administrative cadres were reincorporated into 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 his intention to reconcile and heal the wounds of the Nigerian nation.

The consequences of the civil war in Nigeria were numerous

The consequences of the civil war in Nigeria were numerous. First, it is estimated that between 500,000 to 2-3 Million People died, largely from hunger. Secondly, this conflict collapsed any possibility that the country was a major player in Africa and, finally, it weakened the civilian government, giving way to several military coups, such as two in 1966 and in 1975, 1983, 1985, 1993 and 1996.

The secessionist war, among other factors, transformed the country into a petro-state in which the control of the state to take advantage of the succulent oil income 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.

This was added to rampant levels of corruption from power, to the point that years later money was returned from Swiss bank accounts in amounts illegally drawn during the Sani Abacha dictatorial rule between 1993 – 1998.

The impact of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra abroad was quite visible

Last but not least, a fundamental consequence of the war was experienced on a humanitarian level. The impact of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra abroad was quite visible and was reflected in the mass media, prompting a civil aviation operation to transport humanitarian aid, unprecedented since the Second World War.

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 the mid-1980s. The images of this latest humanitarian crisis forged in the Western mind the negative and catastrophic stereotype of Africa, displacing or complementing the images of Biafra of some 20 years earlier.

Ghosts of the Past

People of Biafra (IPOB) supporters carry the Biafra flag in the Osusu district of Aba this week.
People of Biafra (IPOB) supporters carry the Biafra flag in the Osusu district of Aba this week. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

The possibilities of secession of the rich and oil-rich Biafra did not end in January 1970. They are agitated until the present. As if the ‘African elephant‘ did not have several battle fronts, two prominent Biafran leaders yearn to achieve what Ojukwu could not half a century ago, a Republic of Biafra.

Following the British model in the European Union, can there be a “Biafrexit”?

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

According to statements by Onwuka, 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 inability of Ojukwu to relate to Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

That is what Onwuka is willing to reverse. On the other hand, there are many Biafrans who are hopeful that the Trump administration will address the region’s claim for self-determination.

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

The motivation for the secession wanted by him is the existing corruption in the Nigerian Government and, under religious preaching and under the protection of divine justice, he homologates the eventual creation of a free Biafra with the emergence of the State of Israel, which recently they turned 69 years old.

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

Kanu was released on bail in early May 2016 and his trial will begin in July. The arrest made him better known, prompting protests and the formation of a rising movement, which worried the authorities. The State‘s response to this mobilization was overwhelming.

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 media.

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