The Nigerian Civil War: The Conflict that Captivated the World

Within ten years of its independence, the Nigerian Civil War erupted into a violent conflict built upon ethnic tension, which resulted in the death of nearly 3 million people.

Jan 30, 2023By Sasha Putt, MA History, BA History, NCTJ Diploma in Journalism
nigerian civil war that captivated the world
Igbo civilians


Few conflicts have impacted the world like the Nigerian Civil War. The scale of the war and its legacy would shape postcolonial conflicts in Africa for decades to come and set a precedent for international diplomacy and emerging independence movements. The three-year struggle would fix the gaze of the international community and spawn some of the most emotive writing of the 20th century. Over those three years, up to three million people were killed, with another three million displaced, a demographic shift still visible in Nigeria today. But what caused war to break out, and how did it escalate so significantly?


Background to the Nigerian Civil War

map nigeria east west independence
Map of Nigeria, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


When Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960, the country was divided into three distinct ethnic groups. The Igbo dominated south-eastern Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani dominated the North, and the West was more heavily populated by the Yoruba. Colonial administration under a united Nigerian region had meant that these groups had intermingled, but each ethnic group maintained dominance in each of their regions.


Like much of the world, independence left Nigeria in disarray. Having crippled the country’s administration throughout the colonial period, Britain withdrew from the country without any proper planning, leaving an underfunded and undertrained government and military. The colonial administration had also exacerbated ethnic tensions throughout Nigeria, which were key for the war’s outbreak. Using the same theories on race that were developed in the British Raj, the Hausa-Fulani were favored for recruits into the army, and the Igbo and Yoruba were seen as “lesser.” This resulted in most non-white administration coming from the north, as the military was the only real avenue for (albeit limited) promotion.


nigeria independence parade britain
Nigerian independence, by Getty Images, via the Economist


When independence was achieved, these tensions were quick to arise. A lack of leadership in government and industry triggered a series of strikes, culminating in a general strike in 1964. The first serious step toward war came in 1966. Suspecting a corrupt government under Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was stealing oil revenues (a critical theme that would rear its head multiple times in the coming years), a group of Igbo officers assassinated him and a number of Northern politicians. After the coup plotters surrendered, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a leading Igbo politician, was declared head of state.

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Although he had been instrumental in preventing further escalations and had arrested the officers responsible for the assassinations, Ironsi was seen as the figurehead of an Igbo seizure of power. When the plotters received no serious repercussions, most were suspended with pay, this only confirmed those suspicions. A quick countercoup led by northern garrisons killed Ironsi and replaced him with Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Northerner from a minority Christian tribe, seen as a compromise candidate by many in the North and West. From this stage, the Nigerian Civil War was not inevitable, but the groundwork had been laid for further escalations.


Violence Mounts

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Biafran soldiers attack Nigerian soldiers in 1968, via the Independent


The removal of Ironsi from power resulted in an explosion of violence toward the Igbo. Pogroms in primarily Northern areas targeted Igbo wherever they could find them, including a large number of children. Up to two million civilians fled to Eastern Nigeria for greater protection as large mobs slowly engulfed cities in the North and West, rooting out any Igbo who chose to remain.


Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who had become governor of Eastern Nigeria after Ironsi’s rise to power, looked to negotiate with Gowon for a fairer distribution of Nigeria’s resources among each province. In particular were concerns over control of oil revenues, which Ojukwu had felt unfairly favored the central government and North, despite Nigeria’s most lucrative oilfields lying in the south of the country.


Ojukwu and Gowon soon reached an agreement to create a looser federal state, and an end to the violence was in sight. However, Gowon soon went back on this deal, proposing a new system that stripped Eastern Nigeria, particularly the Igbo-dominated areas, of controlling any of their resources. Sensing that a real compromise would never be reached, Ojukwu declared independence from the Nigerian state, establishing the Republic of Biafra on the 30th of May 1967. With the federal government unwilling to lose such a valuable province, the battle lines for the Nigerian Civil War had been drawn.


The Nigerian Civil War Begins

ojukwu biafra leader governor east
Odumegwu Ojukwu, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


The new Biafran republic was met with a litany of problems at the outset of the war. The vast influx of refugees had crippled an already underdeveloped infrastructure. A speedy blockade of Biafran trade, which soon was extended to include even oil, furthered the chaos and challenges facing Ojukwu. A shortage of weapons and trained officers, as well as a lack of international recognition, support, or aid, meant the military needed a rapid reorganization if it were to be in any way effective. Fortunately for Biafra, the Nigerian Army was equally underprepared. The string of coups had removed almost all of its trained officers, and its primary use as a police force meant Gowon was reliant on the imports of heavy weaponry from abroad.


The Nigerian Civil War began as most civil wars do, with bitter and disorganized sporadic fighting while battle lines were drawn up. Initial incursions by the Nigerian Army were met with fierce resistance and heavy casualties, as Biafran militias scrapped to cling on to every inch of territory they could. However, Ojukwu’s hastily assembled guerrilla squads couldn’t withstand the superior firepower of the Nigerian army, who eventually managed to make small inroads past initial Biafran defenses.


Ojukwu was not a commander to sit still and soon ordered an expedition into the western region. At the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, an agreement had been made that, to stop the spread of violence, soldiers were ordered to return to their original garrisons. With many who defended the Western region Igbo themselves, large numbers sided with Biafra, although many did fight back. As a result, the offensive quickly seized parts of the Western region, including the capital of Benin City.


ojukwu declares biafra independence
Ojukwu declares Biafran independence, May 1967, via the Guardian


Despite this initial success, the incursion quickly stalled out. Ojukwu’s paranoia had led to purges of the officer corps, rendering a sustained campaign increasingly ineffective as the war dragged on. Nigerian forces were able to slowly push Biafran soldiers out of the West before being held at the original Biafran border.


While the war in the West was ongoing, both sides underwent significant recruitment campaigns. The Nigerian army jumped from 7,000 at the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War to over 200,000 by 1969. Similarly, Biafra went from fewer than 300 organized fighters to nearly 90,000. With this renewed army and a new influx of heavy weaponry from abroad, Gowon’s forces were able to slowly erode Biafran territory, Ojukwu’s divisions unable to withstand superior firepower. The seizure of the capital Enugu and oil production center Port Harcourt ended Biafran hopes for viability as a state as it had lost its administrative and commercial centers. What remained to be seen was how decisive Gowon’s victory would be.


Gowon Tightens the Net

yakubu gowon leader nigeria civil war
Yakubu Gowon, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


After the seizure of key cities, the Nigerian Civil War fell into a stalemate, and federal forces were unable to make further progress. Sporadic Biafran offensives and fierce resistance meant that a year of the conflict went by without significant progress. Attempts in 1968 to close the Biafran enclave, which had now formed, were stymied by counterattacks that only managed to temporarily delay the Nigerian army.


The deciding blow came with the capture of valuable oilfields in Kwale by Biafran commandos. Finding a number of foreign workers, the occupying soldiers became suspicious, accusing them of collaborating with the central government. A summary trial led to their quick execution before the oilfields were retaken. The incident caused international outrage and eliminated any remaining foreign support the secessionists could have hoped for, including a denunciation by the pope.


A rejuvenated Nigerian army and Gowon pressed their final offensive in December 1969, splitting Biafra in two. The last remaining major town of Owerri was taken on January 9th, and Ojukwu fled the country soon after. With the loss of their leader, Biafran deputies were unable to rally their remaining troops. On the 15th of January 1970, a surrender was signed in Lagos, and the last Biafran territory capitulated soon after. The Nigerian Civil War had ended.


Legacy of the Nigerian Civil War

biafra protestor lost leg new violence
Amarachi Onyemaechi, a protestor who lost his leg in 2015 Biafran protests, via Independent


In the aftermath of the war, Gowon quickly attempted to brush over the conflict, pushing for reconciliation and ignoring the conduct of his own officers. However, the scars of the Nigerian Civil War would remain throughout the 20th century. Displaced Igbo were given almost no compensation, losing their jobs, homes, and money, all of which were taken either by the federal government (who implemented a new currency to make Biafran reserves worthless) or their own neighbors. Future generations of Eastern Nigerians would see oil revenues and development favor the North and West. There was no justice for those who had committed crimes throughout the war, Gowon and his successors preferring instead to sweep them under the rug to avoid international scrutiny.


Although defeated, the spirit of Biafra continued to live on in Eastern Nigeria, with many books and pieces of art popularized in the following decades. In 2012, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was established, looking to hold the government accountable for its conduct in the war and achieve greater independence for the region. Protests organized by the IPOB have often escalated into violence, with renewed guerrilla movements still active in the country.


This timeline of the Nigerian Civil War only scratches the surface of the conflict. Two key areas remain to be explored, firstly, the impact of foreign intervention, which was decisive in determining the victor. More importantly, how the war precipitated one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century and triggered the birth of the international NGO movement.

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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.