Nigeria Civil War (1967 – 70) – Causes & Effects

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The Nigeria Civil War (1967 – 70) – Causes & Consequences of the Biafra War

The mid 1960s was a watershed in the political history of Nigeria as the country had to contend with several grave political crises. One of those political crises that almost led to the disintegration of the country was the civil war which began on 6th July, 1967 and formally ended on 15th January, 1970.

Nigeria Civil War (1967 – 70) – Causes & Effects

Nigeria Civil War (1967 – 70) – Causes & Consequences

This section explains the remote and immediate causes of the war, the attempts made to prevent or resolve it, the principal actors in the war and its consequences for the political system.

Remote Causes of the Nigeria Biafra Civil War

The remote causes of the civil war included the following:

  • The struggle between the Igbo and Hausa/Fulani factions of the ruling class to dominate the Nigerian nation. The controversial census of 1962/63, the federal elections of 1964, the military coup of January 1966 organized mainly by Igbo soldiers and the Hausa/Fulani counter coup of July 1966 were all part of the struggle which culminated in the civil war.
  • The promulgation of Decree No. 34 of 1966 which turned Nigeria into a unitary state and abolished the four regions concentrated powers in the central government and, raised fears of a possible domination of northeners by southerners, especially Igbo.
  • The counter-coup of July 29, 1966 which led to the killing of the Head of State General Aguiyi-Ironsi and, the unguarded statement by the new Head of State, Colonel Yakubu Gowon (as he then was) that the north should take consolation from the fact that “another northerner has come to power” and that there was “no basis for Nigerian unity.
  • The personality clash between Gowon and Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of Eastern Nigeria. Ojukwu did not accept the authority of the new military Head of State. He once pointed out that “seniority in the military should have been a determining factor in the choice of a new head of state.”
  • Gowon was obviously not the most senior military officer at the time of the coup especially with officers like Brigadier Ogundipe still in the service. Nevertheless, Gowon was the Chief of Army Staff under Aguiyi-Ironsi and, this was a key military posting. Moreover, courage and level of participation in a military coup are more relevant in who gets what after a military coup than mere seniority.
  • The killing of several southerners in the north after the July 29, 1966 military coup and on September 29 of the same year. In September 1966 there was a news on Radio Cotonou that northerners in the Eastern Region had been attacked and some of them killed. Radio Kaduna relayed it and northerners fled the east and brought stories of atrocities they had suffered there.
  • Igbos were again attacked in cities in the north and many were killed. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu later refused to attend meetings of the Supreme Military Council.
  • The struggle to control the oil wealth of the minority areas in Eastern Nigeria.
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Immediate Causes of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War

The following factors were immediately responsible for the outbreak of the civil war.

  • The promulgation of Decree No. 8 of January 1967 which gave the Head of State power to declare a state of emergency in any region irrespective of the wishes of the governor of that region.

The law strengthened the wishes of the governor of that region. The law strengthened the federal system of government rather than the confederation earlier on agreed to at Aburi in Ghana.

  • The enactment of three edicts by Ojukwu in retaliation for Decree No. 8 promulgated by the Nigerian government. The edicts were the Registration of Company’s Edict, the Revenue Collection Edict and the Court of Appeal Edict.

As a punishment for this action, which threatened the economic interest of Nigeria, the federal government imposed economic sanctions on the Eastern Region.

  • The declaration of Eastern Region as the State of Biafra by Emeka Ojukwu on 30th May, 1967. There had been inassive popular support for the secessionist attempt in the region.
  • The creation of 12 states on 27th May, 1967 and the declaration of a state of emergency in the country.
  • Declaration of war on Nigeria by the Eastern Region on 30th June, 1967.

Attempts Made to Prevent the Nigeria Civil War

Several attempts were made to prevent or settle the conflict and the following were the most significant efforts made to resolve the crisis peacefully.

  • Colonel Gowon convened an Ad Hoc Constitutiqnal Conference for Lagos on September 9, 1966 to discuss the political problems confronting the country and to make proposals for a constitutional arrangement that would unite the country. The conference was disbanded at the end of that month for not making any appreciable progress.
  • The Ghana Government of General Joseph Ankrah brought the two warring parties together at the Aburi Conference held at Aburi, near Accra on 4th January, 1967 to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the country. At the end, of the two day conference, several important decisions were reached.
  • Several representations were made by prominent Nigerians such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Brigadier Adeyinka Adebayo, and Western Nigerian Kings (Obas) to persuade Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to reverse some of the drastic measures which he had taken and which were against the continued existence of the country.
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These acts included the confiscation of Federal Government properties in the Eastern Region, payment of Federal Government revenue to his treasury and impounding of Northern Nigerian produce which were destined for Port Harcourt.

  • Many conferences were held in London, Addis Ababa, Niamey, Kampala and Monrovia to resolve the conflict.

Principal Actors In The Conflict of the Nigeria Civil War

The principal actors in the conflict were Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian Head of State and Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Finance Minister and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who defected to the federal side in 1968 and, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, General Officer Commanding, Third Marine Commando who received the instrument of formal hand-over from the secessionist, on 13th January, 1970 also played prominent roles in the crisis.

Consequences of the Nigeria Civil War

There were several consequences of the war including the following:

  • More than one million lives were lost on both sides in the war. Important Nigerians such as Adaka Boro, Christopher Okigbo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Nzeogwu were among those who perished in the war.
  • The war, which lasted for about thirty months, cost the Federal Military Government about $160,000 per day
  • Several towns and villages were destroyed in the course of the war. The reconstruction of the region after the war cost the federal government about $1,200 million.
  • It retarded the growth and development of Nigeria (a country which was at the same level of development with the AsianTigers’ (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc) in the mid 1960s. The country still bears the scars of the war even today. She is constantly ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world today.
  • The defeat of the breakaway region in the war shows that it is futile or self destructive for any state or region in Nigeria to attempt to secede from the federation today.
  • The programme of reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation embarked upon by the federal government after the war demonstrated that Nigerian leaders could be magnanimous even in victory.
  • The war has taught Nigerians that the system (nation) is bigger than its parts (States, regions or individuals) which constitute the system.
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Several African countries only pay lip service to African unity and are quite envious of Nigeria’s leadership position in the continent. The recognition of Biafra by Ivory Coast, Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia and the indifference of many others to the plight of the country during the war buttressed this assertion.


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