The Nigerian Civil War: Foreign Intervention, Oil, & Ideology

The Nigerian Civil War drew the attention of the world as global superpowers chose which side to support to further their own interests.

Jan 29, 2023By Sasha Putt, MA History, BA History, NCTJ Diploma in Journalism
nigerian civil war foreign intervention


The Nigerian Civil War erupted following years of political and ethnic tension within the country. The conflict began when Eastern Nigeria, with the Igbo as its ethnic majority, declared it was seceding from the federal government and proclaimed the secessionist Republic of Biafra. The war which followed would kill three million and displace even more, leaving lasting scars that still exist in Nigeria to this day.


After exploring the events of the war, it is time to look at one of the deciding factors in the federal government’s victory. This would be foreign intervention, both materially and diplomatically. The war was set in the background of the Cold War, at a time when independence movements were springing up across Africa. The Nigerian Civil War was one of the few examples where East and West were supporting the same side, less for political but instead for economic reasons. An inquiry into foreign intervention in the war reveals how the decision to intervene in post-colonial conflicts was primarily motivated by controlling access to resources; in Nigeria’s case, oil.


Global Superpowers & the Nigerian Civil War

nigeria heavy artillery aid
Nigerian artillery in Port Harcourt, via CNN


At the start of the Nigerian Civil War, both the Nigerian and Biafran armies were in disarray. Each could soon rally significant manpower to their cause, but they needed weapons to assert their dominance, particularly heavy weaponry. Global superpowers, primarily Great Britain, were ready to supply the Nigerian head of state Yakubu Gowon with the money and supplies needed to give them the edge against Biafran forces.


The Soviet Union also supplied Gowon with a significant number of aircraft, manned by Egyptian pilots. This advantage gave the Nigerian military ownership of the skies, making it easy to encircle and trap Biafran soldiers. The knock-on effect of this Soviet aid was that it made British diplomats nervous, and so they, in turn, pushed their government to intensify the material support from Britain to limit Russian influence in the region.


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One of the few powers to provide substantial aid to Biafra was France. Covertly, the Quai d’Orsay sent weapons, mercenaries, and technical specialists to help halt the advance of the Nigerian Army. China also provided some weapons, but this was more of a diplomatic affront to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split than an actual attempt to turn the tide of the war.


nigerian soldiers port harcourt
Nigerian soldiers enter Port Harcourt, via CNN


The United States declared neutrality but, in secret, supported the Nigerian government, as they had significant investments in the region that could be under threat if Gowon’s leadership was destabilized. Outside of Africa, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Bulgaria were the minor countries supporting the Nigerian government. Conversely, Israel (after 1968), Czechoslovakia, Haiti, Portugal, and Spain helped Biafra in some capacity. However, this material aid was not significant enough to affect the war as a whole. Therefore, the deciding factor was the impact of the major powers due to their greater weapons supplies and aid budgets. While minor players were more likely to be driven by ideology, for the superpowers, control over resources motivated their actions.


This can be seen clearly in Britain’s decision to side with Nigeria. At the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, BP/Shell was the largest exporter of oil from Nigeria. The British government had a 49% stake in the merged company and, therefore, significant interest in its continued dominance. Biafra held 60% of oil within Nigeria, and its leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu had admitted that he wanted more control over oil revenues within Eastern Nigeria, a key reason negotiations broke down in the runup to the war. Previously, he had felt they had been unfairly divided and sold on unfair terms to foreign companies. One of the key promises Ojukwu made to the nascent Biafran state would be to reverse these agreements.


oguta river biafra arms supply
Oguta Lake, a key source of supply to Biafra, via CNN


Instead, Gowon promised to honor the existing agreements, particularly keeping Nigeria’s oil supply regular and favorable to Britain. The British government, therefore, swiftly backed him to protect their investment. When Nigerian forces captured the valuable oil terminal at Bonny in July of 1967, Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed to fully commit to supplying the federal government.


The Soviet Union had similar material concerns influencing their involvement. Following a failed coup in Guinea, a frustrated Politburo wanted more influence over West Africa. The Nigerian Civil War offered this opportunity, as Gowon had promised to continue trading on neo-colonialist terms, which the USSR hoped to take advantage of. Furthermore, the Soviets hoped that supporting a majority Muslim government would bring allies in the Middle East, which in turn could secure future oil supplies.


France’s involvement in the Nigerian Civil War was similarly motivated by economic concerns. The French government feared that a unified Nigeria would grow too strong and dominate their smaller colonies in Western Africa. If Biafra’s attempt at secession was successful, French companies could potentially make their own trading agreements. When war broke out, key oil company SAFRAP was quick to sign deals to secure Biafran oil reserves. Another leading oil producer, Elf Aquitaine, heavily influenced discussions in government, pressuring cabinet members to increase support for Biafra.


jacques foccart french government de gaulle
Jacques Foccart, mastermind of France’s Africa policy, via


The emphasis on economic concerns trumping all others in France’s choice to support Biafra was reflected in how quickly trading resumed with the Nigerian government, not only after but also during the war, exposing the extent of influence the oil lobby had within French politics. Unfortunately for Biafra, the French lack of conviction meant that its support was nowhere near the same as British or Soviet. Therefore, the Nigerian government quickly gained military superiority, particularly over the skies, and would keep it for most of the war.


Nevertheless, the Nigerian Civil War demonstrates how foreign intervention from the three most important powers in the conflict was all primarily motivated by economic benefit and neo-colonialist attitudes. Despite some aid from other nations, Biafra’s hopes of survival then rested on Nigeria’s immediate neighbors and the power of international organizations.


Africa & the Nigerian Civil War

nigerian civil war soldiers taking village
Nigerian federal troops near the town of Ore holding imported weapons, via the New York Times


Within Africa itself, the conflict was much more decisive. Biafra received recognition from Gabon, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and Zambia, including some material aid and passage for its fighters once the war turned fully against Ojukwu. This was motivated partly by sympathy for the struggle of the Biafran people but, more importantly, in the hopes that it would weaken Nigeria as a state and potentially cause further fragmentation of Africa’s most populous country. A fractured Nigeria would then be less aggressive and solidify the rule of its neighbors.


organisation african unity meeting hall
OUA Assembly Room, via Middle East Monitor


Unfortunately for Biafra, this was the extent of support that it received on the African continent throughout the Nigerian Civil War. The majority of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) supported maintaining the status quo in Nigeria, a decision which was then replicated in the United Nations. The move to defend the existing state followed a similar vein to the action the OAU and UN had taken in the Congo Crisis less than a decade previously. Similarly to the Nigerian Civil War and Biafran secession, a series of political assassinations had caused the mineral-rich state of Katanga to declare its independence. The international community had acted swiftly, preventing the state from seceding for many of the same reasons witnessed in Biafra.


A key facet of OUA’s reasoning for its decision was that it was hesitant to criticize the domestic policy of member states. Instead, its primary goal was to preserve external authority, particularly borders. Many states had only recently gained independence and were still struggling to establish their authority over their populations. Due to the lazy division of Africa by colonial powers and their ignorant map-making, a lot of these states had several minority ethnic groups which were themselves calling for independence. The success of Biafra would have only emboldened them, and so states were hesitant to support such moves, even if they quietly agreed.


Conclusion: Foreign Intervention in the Nigerian Civil War

biafra family famine children nigeria
Biafran children during the famine, via CNN


Therefore, without broader international support or significant diplomatic recognition from key organizations, Biafra was almost doomed before the Nigerian Civil War had even begun. Like the Congo Crisis at the start of the decade, Biafra’s struggle showed the importance of natural resources in determining which side foreign intervention would choose to support in a conflict. Weakened by decades of colonialist destruction and extraction, these fledgling African secessionist states needed international help if they were to stand any chance of succeeding. Biafra’s secession lays bare the extent of influence the oil lobby had within the governments of international superpowers.


With a timeline of the Nigerian Civil War and an investigation into its most decisive factor, foreign intervention, lastly remains to look at the consequences of the conflict. In particular, the humanitarian crisis which would envelop Biafra in the last years of the war would see some of the most horrific scenes broadcast from conflict zones, often for the first time for international audiences. The mass starvation in Eastern Nigeria would help spawn the international aid movement, but not before a significant and devastating loss of life.

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By Sasha PuttMA History, BA History, NCTJ Diploma in JournalismSasha is a History graduate with a specialization in 20th-century politics and the development of extreme ideology, writing his major research paper on the radical right in First World War Britain and France. He holds an MA in History from the University of Toronto and a BA in History from Durham University.