– Nigeria engaged the secessionist Biafra state in 30 months war between July 1967 to January 1970
– The war led to destruction of lives, properties and over three million people died from the Biafra side
– The Nigeria government, under General Yakubu Gowon, employed hunger and starvation to force the Biafra army led to Odumegwu Ojukwu to surrender on January 15, 1970
For two and a half years, the Nigerian army were engaged in a warfare with their brothers as a way of refusing the secessionist moves of the Biafra state, then declared and led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The war actually began after all dialogues and entreaties failed to yield needed results on July 6, 1967.
The war was the culmination of an uneasy peace and stability that had plagued the nation from independence in 1960. The situation had its genesis in the geography, history, culture and demography of the Nigerian state. The immediate cause of the civil war itself may be identified as the coup and the counter coup of 1966 which altered the political equation and destroyed the fragile trust and unity existing among the major ethnic groups in the country.
In January 1966, a military coup occurred during which 30 political leaders including Nigeria’s prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the Northern premier, Ahmadu Bello, were killed. It was alleged to be an Igbo coup because Nnamdi Azikiwe, the President, of Igbo extraction, and the premier of the southeastern part of the country were not killed.
In July 1966, northern officers and army units staged a counter-coup. Muslim officers named a General from a small ethnic group (the Angas) in central Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon, as the head of the federal military government. The two coups deepened Nigeria’s ethnic tensions, while tribal hatred and acrimony grew. In September 1966, approximately 30,000 Igbos were killed in the north, and some Northerners were killed in reprisal attacks in eastern cities. Bad blood began to generate.
In January 1967, the military leaders and senior police officials of each region met in Aburi, Ghana and agreed on a loose confederation of regions. The Northerners were at odds with the Aburi Accord; Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Western region warned that if the Eastern region seceded, the Western region would also go, a development which made the north not to give way to the east.
As a means of holding the country together in the last resort, PLUSMILA.com learnt that the country was divided into 12 states from the original four regions in May 1967. The former Eastern region under Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu saw the act of the creation of states by decree without consultation as the last straw, and declared the region an independent state of Biafra.
When the federal and eastern governments failed to reconcile, on May 26, 1967, the Eastern region voted to secede from Nigeria. On 30 May, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the South eastern region’s military governor, announced the Republic of Biafra, citing the Easterners killed in the post-coup violence as reasons. In the words of Ojukwu: “Now therefore, I, Lt-Col.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles, recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
At the declaration of Biafra, investigations showed that it was formally recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition, but provided support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Rhodesia, South Africa and the Vatican City which is the smallest independent country in the world. These are state actors from which Biafra received assistance.
Biafra also received aids from non-state actors, including Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland and Caritas International.
The Eastern region, which action precipitated the war, was very ill-equipped for war, out-manned and out-gunned by the military of the remainder of Nigeria. However, the advantage of the region included fighting in their homeland and support of most South easterners. The federal government in Lagos saw the action of Ojukwu as an act of secession and illegal.
Several meetings were held to resolve the issue peacefully without success. To avoid disintegration of the country, the central government was left with only one choice of bringing back the region to the main fold and it must be by force. And so, the war began. On July 6, 1967, the first gun was fired by the federal troops and darkness overshadowed the Biafra land, signaling the beginning of war in earnest. The Nigerian government launched a police action to retake the secessionist territory.
The Nigerian federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra territory. Nigeria’s army offensive was through the north of Biafra led by Col. Shuwa and designated as 1 division. The division was made up of mostly northern officers.
The right-hand Nigerian column advanced into the town of Nsukka which fell on July 14, while the left-hand column made for Garkem, and was captured on July 12 of same year. However, the Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when on July 9, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-western Nigerian region across the Niger River, passing through and conquering Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore just over the state boundary on August 21, 1976, just 130 miles east of the Nigerian capital of Lagos.
They met little resistance and the Mid-west was easily taken over. From 1968 onward, the war fell into a form of stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas under Biafran control.
But another Nigerian offensive from April to June 1968 began to close the ring around the Biafrans with further advances on the two northern fronts and the capture of Port Harcourt on May 19, 1968.
The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans, PLUSMILA.com investigations revealed, led to a humanitarian disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas. The Biafran government claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world.
A Nigerian commission, including British doctors, visited Biafra after the war and concluded that the evidence of deliberate starvation was overplayed, caused by confusion between the symptoms of starvation and various tropical illnesses. While they did not doubt that starvation had occurred, it was less clear to what extent it was a result of the Nigerian blockade or the restriction of food to the civilians.
Many volunteer bodies organized relief flights into Biafra, carrying food, medicines, and sometimes, according to some claims, weapons. More common was the claim that the arms-carrying aircraft would closely shadow aid aircraft, making it more difficult to distinguish between aid aircraft and military supply aircraft.
The Nigerian government also claimed that the Biafran government was hiring foreign mercenaries to extend the war. In June 1969, the Biafrans launched a desperate offensive against the Nigerians in an attempt to keep the Nigerians off-balance. They were supported by foreign mercenary pilots continuing to fly in food, medical supplies and weapons.
Most notable of the mercenaries was Swedish Count Carl Gustav von Rosen who led five Malmö MFI-9 MiniCOIN small piston-engined aircraft, armed with rocket pods and machine guns. His force attacked Nigerian military airfields in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin City and Ughelli, destroying or damaging a number of Nigerian air force jets used to attack relief flights, including a few Mig-17s and three out of Nigeria’s six Ilyushin Il-28 bombers that were used to bomb Biafran villages and farms on a daily basis. Although taken off-guard by the surprise Biafran offensive, the Nigerians soon recovered and held off the Biafrans long enough for the offensive to stall out.
The Biafran air attacks did disrupt the combat operations of the Nigerian air force, but only for a few months. And for 30 months of war, there was hatred, there was hunger and there was blood all over as African children passed through the most painful life and starvation in their lives. The whole land was desecrated with blood. And children died with reckless abandon. Nobody cared for them. Sight of children with protruded tommy for lack of food was common across Biafra land.
They were kwashiorkor-like-children with many dying abandoned to their fate as their parents may have died or their fathers conscripted into the army against their wish and sent to the war front with little or no military training. Male youths were randomly seized to join the Biafra army.
Houses were searched and able bodied male youths were drafted to join the Biafran army. They had no choice but to join. Many were forced to run out of their communities for fear of being forced to join the army. Education and economic activities were brought to all time low. Consequently, food became extremely scarce in Biafra land.
Graphic images of suffering children with no food to eat littered the streets of villages and cities of Biafra land, there was massive starvation especially in the eastern states. Many went bony looking like skeletons while multitude died, majorly out of hunger. In the midst of the horrendous crisis, tears and starvation, the Biafra flag was still flying across the Biafra designated states. Men, women and children waved the flag hoping for victory and the full independence of the Biafra Republic.
A hope born from the very depth of their souls, and the dream of a nation whose sun would one day rise up high to shine forth glory for the whole world to see. Many believe the war resulted because Gowon was not sound minded neither was Ojukwu reasonable. The combination of the ugly actions of these two military personnel led to the over three million deaths recorded by the people of Biafra.
The major weapon employed by the Nigerian government to prosecute the war beside the military was the blockage of food supplies to the Biafran territories. This led to humanitarian crisis of huge proportion.
Anthony Enahoro succinctly captured the essence of food blockage during times of war. He said: “There are various ways of fighting a war. You might starve your enemy into submission, or you might kill him on the battlefield.” Obafemi Awolowo also added: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war and I don’t see why we should feed our enemies in order for them to fight harder.”
By the end of April 1969, after almost two years of bloody and destructive war, the envisioned quick victory had eluded the federal side, the rebel enclave had been drastically reduced in size but the Biafrans were still holding on. More peace conferences were held but none achieved a ceasefire and an end to the war.
The federals embarked on a strategic envelopment of the remaining Biafran enclave. By December of 1969, it was obvious that the end of the civil war was at hand. The Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans on December 23, 1969 with a major thrust by the 3rd Marine Commando Division 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 January 7, 1970 with the 3rd Marine Commando Division attacking and supported by the 1st Infantry division to the north and the 2nd Infantry division to the south.
The Biafran town of Owerri fell on January 9, and Uli fell on January 11. The war finally ended with the final surrender of the Biafran forces in the last Biafra-held town of Amichi on January 13, 1970. Only a few days earlier, the self-acclaimed head of state of Biafra, Ojukwu fled into exile to the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, realizing the hopelessness of the situation. He left his deputy, Philip Effiong, to handle the details of the surrender to Yakubu Gowon of the federal army.
In a surrender announcement by Effiong, he said: “Fellow countrymen, as you know I was asked to be the officer administering the government of this republic on the 10th of January, 1970. Since then I know some of you have been waiting to hear a statement from me. “Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defense where peaceful negotiations have failed. We are no exception. We took up arms because of the sense of insecurity generated in our people by the events of 1966. We have fought in defense of that cause.
“I am now convinced that a stop must be put to the bloodshed which is going on as a result of the war. I am also convinced that the suffering of our people must be brought to an end. Our people are now disillusioned and those elements of the old regime who have made negotiations and reconciliation impossible have voluntarily removed themselves from our midst. I have, therefore, instructed an orderly disengagement of troops.
“I urge Gen. Gowon, in the name of humanity, to order his troops to pause while an armistice is negotiated in order to avoid the mass suffering caused by the movement of population. We have always believed that our differences with Nigeria should be settled by peaceful negotiation. A delegation of our people is therefore ready to meet representatives of Nigerian government anywhere to negotiate a peace settlement on the basis of OAU resolution.”