The tragedy of the Biafran War

Submitted by Matthew on 7 August, 2013 - 5:14

The Biafran war began in July 1967 and ended with the surrender of Biafra in January 1970.

The Biafrans, in south east Nigeria, were fighting for independence; the Nigerian army was fighting to keep the state intact. Perhaps two million people died as a result of the war, the majority from malnutrition or disease. Mark Osborn looks at the events.


I was born in 1961. And, like me, many people my age have two sets of black and white TV images in their heads. The first is of the US moon landing: “One small step for a man,” and Buzz Aldrin bouncing about. That was intensely exciting and impressive; I sat on the carpet in my pyjamas, eyes wide. The Americans are on the moon!

The second is of black children with stick-thin legs and arms and swollen tummies. I had seen black children before — a black family had just moved into a house on my road in north Leeds. But the Biafran kids on the BBC news just did not look right, sat in the dirt, motionless, exaggerated skulls almost hairless. It was impossible not to stare, shocked.

In 1968 I bundled up clothes for the Blue Peter appeal, to help buy a hospital truck for Nigeria-Biafra. Mum posted the brown paper parcel; so did a million other mums and dads.

Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton told us: “We’re not going to say who is right or wrong [Nigeria or Biafra]. All we can say is that war is always wrong.”

I know now what Val Singleton must have known then, but was unable to say: Nigeria was wrong. And more than that, the people who had created the conditions for that war were the British — by the way they had constituted Nigeria, the way they had run Nigeria and the way they had left Nigeria independent in 1960.

By 1968, the British Labour government’s pro-Nigeria policy, explicitly designed to serve big oil, was directly leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of children as they aided and armed the incompetent and corrupt Nigerian military.

The story of Biafra is a scandal. But why study it? Partly because without this history it is impossible to understand why modern Nigeria is like it is — why much of the north lives under Sharia law; why the Nigerian military is so corrupt; why Nigerian politics is set up so that gangs of politicians elbow each other aside in order to rob the people.

The state of Nigeria was drawn together in stages by British imperialism to maintain profitable conditions for trade and exploitation by British capital, and to fend off other powers, especially France.

The British had been systematically intimidating, bullying, and, if necessary, overthrowing local rulers. In 1892, for example, the Maxim gun, capable of firing 2,000 rounds in three minutes, destroyed the Ijebu army at Yemoja River.

As Hilaire Belloc wrote: “Whatever happens we have got /the Maxim Gun and they have not.”

In the three decades after 1885, a series of complicated administrative and governmental reorganisations took place. Modern Nigeria was founded in 1914 under Governor Frederick Lugard by formally bringing together the very different Northern and Southern Protectorates, although the British maintained the regional differences.

Nigeria brought together hundreds of different ethnic groups, with very different histories and traditions, with a Muslim/Christian, north/south divide.

Lugard had adopted the model of British Indian policy for the Muslim north of Nigeria, where he interfered as little as possible with the social structures and ruled indirectly through the local emirs.

As a concession he allowed Sharia law to co-exist alongside British law; he agreed with the Caliph that Christian missionaries would be kept out.

The British ruled Nigeria through the most reactionary local ruling class, in the most backward area of the country, by accommodating to its backwardness.

In the south, however, Christian teachers brought education as well as religion. As literacy in the north stood at 2%, many southerners filled administrative roles in the north. Special areas in northern town such as Kano and Zaria (called Sabon Gari) were reserved for non-Muslims, and especially the Igbo from the south east.

By independence, in October 1960, official politics was largely divided up by regional parties resting on ethnic bases. Nigeria had a federal constitution with three regions each dominated by one of the three largest of Nigeria’s ethnic components (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo). The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) dominated in the Hausa-Fulani areas and initially ruled with the National Council of Nigerians and Cameroons (NCNC), with a base in the south east. In the south west, with a Yoruba majority, the Action Group party split (the leader of its “radical” wing was jailed), allowing a section of its old leadership to link up with the NPC.

Eskor Toyo, a leftist and trade unionist, commented that the split in the Action Group was caused by the different strategies of “Yoruba feudal and capitalist leaders”. One section “wanted the Action Group to join the Federal government in order that the Yoruba Chiefs and businessmen might join the Federal ‘chop-chop’”, while the other “wanted to expand to other regions and … grab the whole Federal ‘chop’.”

The ethnic polarisation got worse as the various elites scrambled among themselves for power and the ability to enrich themselves by access to the central state. The census (on which regional vote allocation depended) was rigged; regional elections in the west were also fixed to favour those politicians now in the Federal government in alliance with northerners. In the last six months of 1965 two thousand people died in political violence in the west.

By 1966, Nigeria’s post-independence political structure had reached breaking point. In that year there were two coups. The first, in January, a “radical coup”, was led by Majors and junior officers — mainly Igbos from the south east.

They stated: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high places that seek bribes and demand ten percent.”

The prime minister, Tawafa Balewa, a northerner, was killed, as were a number of other prominent politicians and northern military figures. Although the coup failed, and the leaders surrendered in return for immunity, power fell into the hands of the army. A government was formed by an Igbo army leader, Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi.

Increasingly the northern elites came to see the January coup as aimed at them, organised by the Igbos of the south east and endangering their privileges. Ironsi attempted to centralise the state, provoking anti-Igbo riots in the north.

On 28 July 1966, a military rebellion broke out in the north, and became a northern counter-coup. Ironsi was killed. The original aim of this coup’s leaders appears to have been northern secession from Nigeria.

They were dissuaded by, among others, the British High Commissioner, Sir Francis Cummings-Bruce, who later claimed he had stopped the break-up by using his personal links with the northern emirs, explaining: “We all shared a love of polo, and so of course we all met socially.” He later added, “I sometimes wonder whether I did the right thing, keeping Nigeria together.”

Anti-Igbo pogroms swept the north and thousands of Igbos were killed. A million Igbos fled to the south east.

The new military government, led by northerner Yakubu Gowon, was not able or willing to end the murders.

The weak central military government then attempted to stabilise the political situation. An agreement was apparently reached among the military for a very loose confederation, where the Nigerian regions would have a great deal of power, with a weak central state. But Gowon pulled later back from this agreement.

On May 30 1967 the military head of the eastern region, Oxford-educated Odumegwu Ojukwu, with the authorisation of a consultative assembly, announced that the region had left Nigeria and declared the formation of the Republic of Biafra.

The new state had a population of 14 million (65% Igbo) across an area the size of Scotland. Biafra contained much of Nigeria’s vast oil reserves.

The Biafran flag was Marcus Garvey-inspired red, black, and green stripes with a rising sun in the centre. Their anthem was set to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia (apparently chosen because of the Finns’ history of resistance to foreign domination). The first verse went:

“Land of the rising sun, we love and cherish, beloved homeland of our brave heroes; we must defend our lives or we shall perish,

“We shall protect our hearth from all our foes; but if the price is death for all we hold dear,

“Then let us die without a shed of fear.”

The war began as Gowan’s forces moved into Biafra on 6 July, expecting an easy victory. Gowan described his military’s move as a “police action”.

However the war lasted for 30 months, with the Biafrans showing great tenacity against great odds. Biafra took guns from the Eastern Bloc until the USSR sensed a political advantage to backing Nigeria. Then the Biafrans were armed by France, through Gabon. They also stole weapons from those they were fighting against, and manufactured their own, including a formidable forerunner of the improvised explosive device now common in guerrilla warfare. They improvised an airforce, and landed planes in hidden jungle airstrips.

Biafra was formally recognised by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia. It was backed by France and Israel. The US remained neutral. By 1968, aid agencies were air-lifting large amounts of food to starving people in Biafra.

The Nigerian state had been constituted so that the northern population had a majority over the west and east combined. The north took the majority of seats in the parliament.

In the 1940s and 50s, the main centres of anti-colonial agitation were in the south, among Igbo and Yoruba peoples, other minorities, and by their parties. One of their demands was that Nigeria be broken up into a larger number of regions so as to break up the northern bloc.

The northern political elite opposed an end to colonial rule, and when the issue was forced on them they demanded the three-region status quo continue. The British were happy that their friends in the north would continue to rule; the south accepted continued northern domination in order to be rid of the British.

When the fighting started in 1967 the British Foreign Office was clear: “We have a great deal at stake in Nigeria. Shell BP has sunk £250m in Nigeria. Other investments are worth £150-175m and we have an export trade worth £90m a year… The whole of our investments in Nigeria… will be at risk if we change our policy of support for the Federal government. The French would be glad to pick up our oil concessions if they could.” The British policy was to back the people they thought would win: the Nigerian army.

But the Labour government found itself under increasing pressure. The Biafrans made a great deal of very effective propaganda during the war, and by 1968 the British press was carrying front-page horror stories and pictures of starving children. A major killer of children was kwashiorkor — a protein deficiency which gave the starving Biafran children swollen bellies.

However, Wilson’s concern was the Nigerian state’s blockade, which included preventing Shell BP oil exports. Labour Minister George Thomas was sent to Lagos to negotiate: “If Gowon is helpful on oil, Mr. Thomas will offer a sale of anti-aircraft guns.” In fact, Gowon refused to lift the blockade, but got the guns anyway. He also got British armoured cars and military advisors. (The Russians gave Ilyushin bombers, MIGs, and heavy artillery.)

In 1969, with an election looming in the UK, Labour decided a quick victory for the Federal state was the least embarrassing option and increased arms supplies five-fold.

In November 1969, John Lennon returned his OBE. Writing to Harold Wilson he explained he was opposed to British support for the US in Vietnam and for the Nigerian state against Biafra.

By 1968 the Biafrans had lost their ports and were landlocked, but still they fought.

The Nigerian army had been greatly expanded, from 10,000 in 1966 to 250,000 in 1969. (The Biafran forces had also grown from 3,000 in 1967 to 30,000 at the end of the war.) At the end of 1969 the Nigerian state launched a massive offensive which cut Biafra in half. Ojukwu fled, and the Biafrans surrendered on 13 January 1970.

Although Gowon promised a just peace, the reality was different. Political parties based on ethnic groups were banned. Igbos returning to pre-war homes often found others in their property; the government felt no need to give Igbos who had fled for their lives their government jobs back.

In a deliberate blow aimed at the Igbo leadership and middle class, pre-war Nigerian currency held by Igbos was not recognised. Igbos were “compensated” with N£20, no matter how much was in their bank account.

The legacy of the Biafra war continues to haunt Nigeria, where the war is still not clearly, openly discussed. Nigeria remains a badly constituted state that has suffered staggeringly corrupt military governments from 1966-79 and 1983-98. The legacy of British rule is widespread Islamist violence in the north, and vast poverty in an oil-rich country.

Nigeria 2013

• Nigeria has a population of 175 million. 50% are Muslim; 40% Christian.

• 63% are under 24 years of age; 112 million (70%) are living in poverty; official unemployment is about 24%.

• Life expectancy is 52. 39% of the population are illiterate.

• There are 250 ethnic groups (the largest are: Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21% and Igbo 18%); 500 languages are spoken.

• Nigeria is ranked by Transparency International at 139th (of 176 countries) for corruption. Since 1960 it is estimated that $300 to $400 billion has been stolen by corrupt government officials.

• According to the World Bank, most of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth is siphoned off by the richest 1% of the population.

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