THE BIAFRAN CIVIL WAR: THE POLITICS OF HUNGER AND STARVATION
Joseph E. Holloway Ph.D
The Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The people were mostly the Igbo people, who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The artificial creation of the new country by the British Colonial Government was among the causes of the Nigerian-Biafran War.
Land of the Rising Sun was chosen for Biafra’s national anthem, and the state was formally recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition, but which did provide support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa and the Vatican City. Biafra also received aid from non-state actors, including Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International, Mark Press and U.S. Catholic Relief Services.
In 1960, Nigeria became independent of the United Kingdom. As with many other new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic boundaries. Thus the northern desert region of the country contained semi-autonomous feudal Muslim states, while the southern population was predominantly Christian and Animist. Furthermore, Nigeria’s oil, its primary source of income, was located in the south of the country and the real source of the conflict.
Following independence, Nigeria was divided primarily along ethnic lines with Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, Ijaws in the south-south and Igbo in the south-east. In January 1966, a group of primarily eastern Igbo led a military coup during which 30 political leaders including Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello were killed.
In July 1966 northern officers and army units staged a counter-coup. Muslim officers named a Christian from a small ethnic group (the Anga) in central Nigeria, General Yakubu “Jack” Gowon, as the head of the Federal Military Government (FMG). The two coups deepened Nigeria’s ethnic tensions. In September 1966, approximately 30,000 Igbo were killed in the north, and some Northerners were killed in backlashes in eastern cities.
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, which persuaded the northerners..
After the federal and eastern governments failed to reconcile, on 26 May the Eastern region voted to secede from Nigeria. On 30 May, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Eastern Region’s military governor, announced the Republic of Biafra, citing the Easterners killed in the post-coup violence. The large amount of oil in the region created conflict, as oil was a major component of the Nigerian economy. The Eastern region was very ill equipped for war, out-manned, and out-gunned by the military of the remainder of Nigeria. Their advantages included fighting in their homeland, support of most Easterners, determination, and use of limited resources. The British, Soviet, and U.S. support of the Nigerian government was essentially military aid played a major role in the outcome of the war.
The Biafran diplomatic strategy during the Nigerian Civil War was a policy of prolongation of the war effort in the hope that outside foreign intervention by African countries and the “super-powers” would result in an outcome favorable to their cause. The Nigerian government had, from the start, a relatively strong position of diplomatic support from most of the African countries (through the Organization of African Unity) and from the major European powers such as Great Britain and Russia. Still, in the event of foreign intervention on the behalf of Biafra, the federal government had much to lose. The Biafran “underdogs” had everything to gain by creating an international issue out of a domestic civil conflict. The Biafran war policy of prolonging the conflict had three major objectives: first, to gain diplomatic recognition from African and European countries; second, to acquire military hardware from them; and third, to involve the foreign powers and internationalize the war by appealing to the sympathy of humanitarians all over the world, claiming that “genocide” was being practiced against them. In short, these were the essential points of the Biafran diplomatic strategy for achieving independence from the Nigerian federation.
For General Ojukwu, the leader of Biafra, diplomatic recognition by African and European countries was the key to Biafra’s survival and sovereignty. Therefore, the diplomatic aspects of the Nigerian civil war were the most crucial because their interaction changed the entire nature of the war by creating an international conflict out of an internal problem.
A similar paradox can be found in the Congo, where the foreign powers entered the crises on the request of Patrice Lumumba, but took the opportunity to continue the Cold War between the East and the West. In this respect the situation in Nigeria was dissimilar, because for the first time in Africa, the East and West were aligned on the same side, but for different reasons as I shall show later. In this respect foreign involvement in Nigeria was similar to the Congo. In Nigeria, like the Congo, foreign participation played a decisive role in the course of the war, and contributed greatly to the final outcome. Therefore it is important for us to assess the nature of their involvement and the impact it had during the war.