Civil War: Nigeria (1967-1970)

Trevor Rubenzer. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Nigerian civil war will be always be remembered as a significant humanitarian tragedy that took place within a state struggling with the political nature of ethnic identity. Though blessed with significant natural resources; Nigerian statehood was plagued by patterns of colonial administration, a federalist system based largely on ethnic identity, local and national corruption, and the uneven distribution of natural resources. Each of these factors resulted in the attempted secession of several territories in the southeast, which collectively referred to themselves as the Republic of Biafra.

Country Background

On October 1, 1960, more than seventy years after the formation of the first British protectorate in what was to become known as Nigeria, the country gained formal independence. Alhough Nigeria enjoyed a brief period of democratic rule from 1960 to 1965, a military coup in January 1966 brought down the First Republic and ultimately resulted in a military dictatorship under the leadership of Major General Aguiyi Ironsi. A countercoup in July of the same year left Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon in power (Falola 1999, 119). As a result, in the period immediately before the civil war, Nigeria was a military dictatorship operating under what was designed as a federal system of government. In the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, the country remained a military dictatorship until a brief period of democratic rule began during the period 1979-1983. After a series of military dictatorships ruled the country from 1983 to 1999, Nigeria made the transition to democracy and at present is a democratic state.

At independence, Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was approximately US $1,000 (constant) (Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002). The discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in the 1950s provided a key source of national income. From that point forward, Nigeria has existed as a rentier state. In the final full year before the civil war, GDP per capita had fallen to approximately US $800 (constant). In 1971, the first full year after the civil war, GDP per capita stabilized at around US $1,200 (constant). Although these figures are not the lowest in Africa, it is important to recognize that poverty has always been a significant obstacle to Nigeria’s political development. Even today, nearly two-thirds of Nigerians live below the poverty line (Van Buren 2002, 829).

Conflict Background

The ethnic and religious heterogeneity that characterizes Nigeria has been one of the primary sources of three civil wars since Nigeria gained independence in 1960. This article primarily treats the civil war that occurred between July 1967 and January 1970. However, smaller-scale intrastate wars took place within Nigeria in both 1980 and 1984 (Sarkees 2000). Other scholars treat the events of 1980 and 1984 as part of a single continuous event (Doyle and Sambanis 2000). Regardless of how one counts the number of civil wars in Nigeria, it is clear that religious tensions are a major and persistent source of instability.

The genesis of the religious conflict that resulted in civil war is the basic religious divide in Nigeria between Islam on the one hand and Christianity and indigenous beliefs on the other. The religious divide is in part a legacy of Nigeria’s colonial administration by the British. In northern Nigeria, the British relied on a system of indirect colonial administration that left Islamic religious practices intact. Christian missionaries were not allowed to operate in the major portion of the Northern Protectorate unless they were granted permission by the local emir (Niven 1971, 22). In the south, where Christian missionaries operated freely, major portions of the population converted from their existing beliefs to Christianity. As a result, approximately 50 percent of Nigerians practice Islam, whereas approximately 40 percent practice Christianity (CIA 2005). Christians who live in the north and Muslims who inhabit the south, as well as citizens who live in areas where religious boundaries overlap, often live in fear of religious violence.

In 1980, followers of Muhammad Marwa, also known as Maitatsine, united in Kano in opposition to the secular government. The Maitatsine movement gained momentum as a result of the government’s poor economic performance and efforts to partially control religious practices in the north (Falola 1999, 169). A series of riots erupted in Kano, and the government dispatched military forces to quell the unrest. Approximately 5,000 deaths occurred during the ensuing clashes between religious extremists and government forces. Ultimately, the Nigerian government reestablished some degree of control over the Kano area. However, religious tension remained high in various portions of northern Nigeria. In 1981 and 1982 the military responded with force to the razing of several government buildings in Kano and other northern cities.

In February 1984, members of the Maitatsine sect launched another offensive in and around the city of Yola (Wunsch 1991). Approximately 1,000 people died as a result of the Maitatsine violence and the government counteroffensive. In addition, approximately 30,000 people became internally displaced as a result of the violence around Kano and Yola. Though government forces were ultimately victorious, religious violence remains a significant problem in Nigeria. The fact that several states in northern Nigeria have adopted Shari’a law alongside Nigerian common law is a continued source of tension between Muslims and Christians.

As devastating as the various religious-based conflicts in Nigeria have been, they pale in comparison to the results of the civil war that took place between 1967 and 1970. The Nigerian civil war (also called the Biafran Secession, the War of Nigerian Unity, and the Biafran War) resulted in more than 100,000 battle deaths (Sarkees 2000). Estimates of the total death toll vary widely, with some estimates as high as 2 million (Doyle and Sambanis 2000). Many of the civilian fatalities were from starvation as a result of the shortages that occurred during the war and the government blockade of insurgent-held areas. Relief agencies did their best to provide aid to those in need (see sidebar, “The Relief Effort: Highs and Lows”). In addition, more than 500,000 civilians became refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the war.

As is the case with the civil wars of the 1980s, Nigeria’s deadliest conflict has its roots in the colonial era. The formally distinct territories, amalgamated under colonial rule, that make up present-day Nigeria are among the most ethnically diverse in the world. Many of these territories possessed an administrative apparatus strong enough to exist as states for hundreds of years before the British arrived in the 1800s. Today, Nigeria is made up of more than 250 distinct ethnic groups, none of which can claim majority status (Badru 1998, 2). The three most populous ethnic groups are the Hausa-Fulani, who constitute approximately 29 percent of the population, the Yoruba, who make up 21 percent of all Nigerians, and the Ibo (also called Igbo) who make up about 18 percent of the Nigerian population (CIA 2005). Each of the three major ethnic groups tends to dominate in one portion of the country. The Ibo tend to dominate the east, the Yoruba the west, and the Hausa-Fulani the north.

In addition to the fact that the British indirectly ruled northern Nigeria and directly ruled southern Nigeria, the politicization of identity under colonial rule helped to create an ongoing rivalry between the three principal ethnic groups. For example, the MacPherson constitution, introduced in 1951, militated against future stability by creating a federation with a Northern Region larger than the Eastern and Western Regions. Even before the various constitutional conferences that took place in Nigeria, attempts by Christian missionaries to identify and cultivate distinct language patterns in Nigeria created more unified ethnic in-groups in areas with formerly distinct languages (Wunsch 2003, 17). In addition, the British arbitrarily assigned population figures to each region in a fashion that once again favored the north (Nwachuku 2004, 14). Intense regionalism, cultivated by the British but also favored by the Hausa-Fulani, ensured that it would be very difficult to unite Nigeria politically in the postcolonial era.

At the onset of the Nigerian civil war in July 1967, the government was able to call on more than 150,000 troops (Niven 1971, 131). By the end of the war, the Nigerian Armed forces consisted of over 250,000 troops. Though the total rebel military strength is more difficult to calculate, it is estimated that the Biafran Army may have reached a maximum strength of around 100,000 troops (Niven 1971, 131). In addition to its numerical superiority, the Nigerian government also possessed superior arms and equipment. For example, the Biafran army relied on but two aircraft, a B-26 and a B-25 (De St. Jorre 1972, 150). Although the government air force was not at the pinnacle of modernity, it did possess a larger number of newer aircraft. Pilots from Egypt, as well as mercenary pilots, tilted the air advantage even more in the government’s favor.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002.
War: Biafran separatists vs. government
Dates: July 3, 1967-January 13, 1970
Casualties: 100,000 (military); more than 1 million (civilian)
Regime type prior to war: -7 (military dictatorship). Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from-10 (authoritarian) to 10 (democracy)
Regime type after war: -7 (military dictatorship). Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from-10 (authoritarian) to 10 (democracy)
GDP per capita year war began: US $820 (constant 1967 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $1,066 (constant 1975 dollars)
Insurgents: Biafran separatists (most from Ibo ethnic group)
Issues: Ethnic identification; regional autonomy; oil revenues
Rebel funding: Internal donations; limited arms support from France, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Israel, Spain, and Portugal
Role of geography: Rebel coastline vulnerable; wet conditions slowed government forces; little topographic shelter from air attack
Role of resources: Oil blockade of Biafra region by government naval forces
Immediate outcome: Government military victory
Outcome after 5 years: Lingering tension, but rebel army and civilian integration
Role of UN: Not applicable
Role of regional organization: Limited reconciliation attempts by the OAU and commonwealth
Refugees: 500,000 total refugees and IDPs
Prospects for peace: Uncertain (two other civil wars based on religion)
Table 1: Civil War in Nigeria

The Insurgents

It is common, in the context of civil war, to think of insurgents as groups of guerrilla warriors fighting an unconventional war while holding little, if any, significant territory. In the case of the Nigerian civil war, however, it is much more accurate to think of the insurgents as regionally based military and political elites. Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who led the Biafran secession, was a regional governor. As a result of his regional base of power, Ojukwu enjoyed significant control over media in the Eastern Region—access to resources and a level of popularity seldom enjoyed by insurgent leaders (Aborisade and Mundt 2002, 17). In this sense, General Ojukwu’s position could be more closely associated with that of General Robert E. Lee in the American Civil War rather than the “classic” African civil war that pitted government troops against guerrilla forces (as in Angola or South Africa, for example).

In addition to Ojukwu, several other key figures played roles in the Biafran secession. Many of these individuals were among Nigeria’s intellectual elite. One of the legacies of direct colonial rule in the east and west is that the Nigerian bureaucracy tended to be dominated by Ibos, who had access to European-style education during the colonial period. For example, Chinua Achebe, an Ibo novelist, was one of the chief architects of the effective Biafran propaganda machine.

The Ibo also attempted to win the support of other ethnic minority groups by appointing regional minorities to Biafran government and important military posts. N. U. Akpan, an Ibo, was appointed chief secretary of the Biafran government (De St. Jorre 1972, 13). Victor Banjo, a Yoruba, led the Biafran military in the midwest. Although the Biafran secession is often thought of as an Ibo secession, it is important to recognize that Biafra was as ethnically diverse as the remainder of Nigeria. For example, the strategic Niger Delta is inhabited primarily by the Kalahari and Ogoni ethnic groups (Niven 1971, 25). Although these groups were part of Biafra when it seceded from Nigeria, the perception, even within Biafra, that the Ibo had the most to gain from the civil war had an adverse impact on the secessionist movement.

Ojukwu’s position as the leader of a regional military government and, later, of a declared independent state provided the Biafran movement with other advantages as well. Because the area controlled by the secessionists included the bulk of Nigerian oil reserves as well as Nigeria’s only oil refinery, Biafran control over millions of dollars in oil revenues was a distinct possibility. Royal Dutch Shell, the petroleum concern with the greatest stake in Biafra, was much more interested in keeping the oil flowing than in taking sides in the conflict (De St. Jorre 1972, 139). The Nigerian government, however, was concerned both with the potential source of revenue to the breakaway region and the legitimacy that the receipt of oil royalty payments would confer on the Biafran secessionist movement. As a result, the government used its limited naval forces to blockade the Biafran coast and launch an attack on the oil city of Bonny.

Despite the blockade, Ibo-dominated Biafra was able to take advantage of its border with Cameroon and the dearth of government naval capability to smuggle goods onto the international market and arms into Biafra. Although estimates of the amount of revenue generated by smuggling are unavailable, it does appear that black market activity generated enough revenue to sustain the secessionists during much of the war (De St. Jorre 1972, 142). In addition, it is important to recognize that the Nigerian civil war cut off the government-controlled areas of the country from their major supply of coal (which was in Biafran territory).

In addition, to the revenue generated from smuggling activities, Biafra received the armaments necessary to fight the war from France, South Africa, Israel, and Portugal (Falola 1999, 122). As the conflict intensified and the effects of the government blockade began to show, Biafra relied on aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other international relief organizations to secure necessary food, medicines, and resources for the general population. In addition, many of these resources were funneled to the military to sustain the secessionist movement.


The Eastern Region of Nigeria, which was proclaimed the Republic of Biafra in 1967, has a diverse geography. The western boundary of Biafra was defined by the Niger River and its delta in the south. The most populous city in the south central portion of the republic was Port Harcourt. To the southeast of Port Harcourt, the city of Bonny on the Gulf of Guinea was the home of Nigeria’s only oil refinery. To the east, Biafra was defined by its border with Cameroon. A government publication from 1967 lists the northern border as roughly corresponding to 7 degrees north latitude (Government of the Republic of Biafra 1967). The total population of the Republic of Biafra at the outbreak of the civil war in 1967 was approximately 13 million (De St. Jorre 1972, 15).

The geography of Biafra played a key role in the Nigerian civil war. Recall that Nigeria’s oil reserves, by far the country’s most lucrative resource, are concentrated in the area around the Niger Delta. Had the Biafran secession been successful, these resources would have been primarily in the hands of the new republic. At the same time, the concentration of oil near Nigeria’s coast made it essential for the winning side to have naval superiority. Since the government was the only participant in the civil war with naval capabilities, it was able to take advantage of Biafran geography by employing a blockade from the sea.

In 1967, the network of roads and railways in Biafra was more developed than in any other part of Nigeria (Niven 1971, 108). This fact had both positive and negative consequences for the Biafran armed forces. On one had, it is easier to conduct resupply missions when there is a well-developed transportation infrastructure. Conversely, it was also easier for government forces to gain ground once they had advanced beyond the initial Biafran defenses. Like many road networks in Africa, however, many of the roads in Biafra were subject to washout during periods of heavy rain.


Conventional tactics dominated the strategies employed by both the government military and the Biafran military during early stages of the Nigerian civil war. Later in the war, as the government forces asserted their conventional dominance, the rebel army adopted guerrilla tactics. The secessionists’ initial preference for conventional tactics is not surprising, given the secessionist nature of the conflict. In addition, military leaders in the east were not convinced that the government army would have the discipline, training, and leadership necessary to win. Preparation for the impending war accelerated rapidly in August 1966 after the government withdrew all noneastern members of the armed forces from the city of Enugu (Atofarati 1992).

Biafran military leaders deployed their armed forces to counter a direct frontal assault by government forces. The main initial goal of the Biafran armed forces was to defend key cities, resources, and transportation infrastructure. The secessionists took up a major position on the rail line that runs from the northern border to the city of Port Harcourt. In addition, the rebels took positions around the cities of Nsukka and Ogoja in the north, Calabar and Oron in the east, and Onitsha on the Niger River in the west. Overall, the Biafrans placed three infantry battalions in the north, one in the central portion of the country, and three more in the south and southwest (Atofarati 1992). Finally, the Biafran army used intelligence gained from various sources to determine the most likely routes that the Nigerian armed forces would use to attack.

The secessionists also attempted to develop the human infrastructure necessary to engage in a conventional war. The rebel military government created departments to maintain the distribution of food and clothing to the military and civilians during the war. They collected donations from the populace to finance food, equipment, and arms purchases (Atofarati 1992). The rebels also trained women as spies to infiltrate government territory and gain critical intelligence. Unfortunately, food shortages during the war led to mass starvation in many areas of rebel-held territory.

The rebel deployment at Onitsha was to lead to one of the major turning points in the war. On August 9, 1967, after more than a month of defensive skirmishes in which the Biafran forces seemed to be giving ground and regrouping deeper in Biafran territory, General Ojukwu ordered a surprise attack across the Niger River at Onitsha and into government territory in the midwest (Niven 1971, 115). By the end of the day, much of what had been the Midwest Territory was under the control of Biafran commanders. It had taken approximately 1,000 soldiers to accomplish the task (De St. Jorre 1972, 154). In addition, the Biafran forces used their limited air-strike capability to bomb Lagos on the same day as the invasion of the midwest. After advancing into the Midwest Territory, the Biafran forces advanced from Benin City to Ore, where they stopped for an unknown reason. This provided the government with enough time to mobilize a counteroffensive. The government sent several battalions from Lagos, which was a little more than 100 miles away. Ultimately, the government forces drove the rebels back into Biafran territory.

The midwest offensive was a wake-up call for the government forces, which had not anticipated the move. From that point forward, the government forces continued to tighten their naval blockade. In addition, the government widened its offensive and was quickly in control of several key cities. Had the Biafran forces succeeded in the midwestern offensive, it may well have changed the dimensions of the entire conflict by endangering the capital city of Lagos (Niven 1971, 118). However, the failure of the Biafran forces to consolidate their gains resulted in renewed fervor on the part of the government forces.

Although military tactics were important to the Biafran secessionist movement, it was clear at the outset that diplomatic tactics would be the key element in a successful rebellion. If the Biafran military could hold out long enough to gain sympathy and recognition, the government might be forced to the negotiating table by international pressure. Ojukwu and other Biafran leaders believed that the oil companies would rapidly pressure their home governments into pushing for a negotiated settlement (Falola 1999, 122). The basic plan was to force private firms operating in Biafra to declare their allegiance to one side or the other in the war. The secessionists were convinced that basic greed would convince the oil companies to support Biafra, especially since the Biafrans were prepared to offer more favorable deals to the oil companies.

Besides the oil companies, the separatists attempted to forge relationships with some of Nigeria’s enemies. Many West African nations feared Nigeria’s size and potential power. The white minority-rule regimes in Southern Africa might be convinced to take steps that would weaken the hegemony of one of the most outspoken critics of apartheid in South Africa and white majority rule in Rhodesia. The fact that the Soviet Union was a major supporter of the government might convince the British and the United States to reconsider or at least soften their position on Nigerian unity. Israel was another target of Biafran attempts to gain diplomatic legitimacy and access to the arms necessary to continue fighting. Biafran leaders hoped the Egyptian involvement on the side of the government would entice Israel to offer recognition and support to Biafra. Finally, Biafra heavily courted French diplomatic recognition and military support. France had been one of the major players in the scramble for Africa and had competed vigorously with Great Britain for colonial holdings. In addition, many of the Francophone states of western and eastern Africa were targets of the Biafran diplomatic machine for the same reason.

Unfortunately for the secessionists, foreign support of the Nigerian government has been cited as a key reason for the failure of the separatist movement in Biafra (Nwachuku 2004, 36). The oil companies, although they may have been able to extract more favorable terms from a successful Biafran government, were concerned above all with maintaining their oil revenues. Since the government forces had an effective blockade of the Biafran coast, it was clear that the only way to keep the oil flowing was to cooperate with the government. The most the Biafran movement received was a stated policy of neutrality from the oil companies.

The secessionists were slightly more successful in gaining some level of diplomatic recognition. Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Haiti all recognized the Biafran declaration of independence from Nigeria (Falola 1999, 123). However, many countries in Africa were concerned about granting recognition to a breakaway republic that was dominated by a single ethnic group. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), which is currently called the African Union (AU), holds as one of its key principles the maintenance of colonial borders. Because Africa is ethnically diverse, many countries view the maintenance of colonial boundaries in the post-independence era as vital to avoid the breakdown of African countries into territorially insignificant states. France was also unwilling to formally recognize Biafra, though it did provide a sort of quasi-recognition through its surrogate, Côte d’Ivoire.

Recall that one of the principal tactics of the rebels was to attempt to force the government to the negotiating table to sue for peace. The Biafrans were able to convince the OAU to take up the issue of Biafra in September 1967. The OAU formed a consultative committee to discuss the conflict. However, only one of the members of the committee, Ghana, had any sympathy for the Biafran cause (De St. Jorre 1972, 191). In May 1968, the two belligerent parties also met at a conference in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. There is evidence that some countries, most noteworthy Zambia, recognized Biafra in advance of the Kampala talks in order to force Nigeria to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict (De St. Jorre 1972, 199). As it turned out, however, Biafra’s diplomatic victories only served to inject false hope into the secessionist movement.

The ability of Biafran diplomats to secure access to international arms transfers was also mixed and limited. France supplied a small number of Panhard armored cars to the rebels (De St. Jorre 1972, 215). Gabon sent light armaments, which were in turn replaced by France. Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) also provided light armaments as well as rockets for the B-26 bomber. The rockets were subsequently used in the air raid of Lagos. Israel provided Soviet guns that it captured during the Six Days’ War (De St. Jorre 1972, 219). Spain and Portugal also provided limited assistance. The secessionists also resorted to building their own armored vehicles out of industrial equipment and farm machinery.

It is widely known that, in addition to arms transfers, mercenaries were a source of potential military strength for the secessionists. In the final analysis, however, mercenaries played a relatively small role in the war. Part of this was because the Biafran forces were suspicious of mercenaries after having fought against many of them as part of the Nigerian military contingent dispatched to fight in the Congo. In addition, many mercenaries were reluctant to come to Biafra because there was a distinct possibility that they would be called on to fight against “brothers in arms” hired by the government (De St. Jorre 1972, 313). Ironically, the main role played by mercenaries during the war may have been the failure of government mercenary pilots to destroy the makeshift Uli Airstrip, which was located about halfway between the cities Onitsha and Oguta (see sidebar, “The Relief Effort: Highs and Lows”).

At the same time, the Nigerian government enjoyed more direct, more tangible success on the diplomatic front. The key Nigerian ally during the conflict was the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been displeased with General Ironsi’s decision to arrest those responsible for the original 1966 coup (Matusevich 2003, 109). General Gowon, who took power in the subsequent countercoup, recognized that Soviet support would be vital if the east ever seceded. As it became increasingly clear to Gowon that the east would revolt, he attempted to solicit Soviet support directly by dispatching diplomats to Moscow to “inspect the embassy” (De St. Jorre 1972, 181). In fact, of course, the Nigerian delegation was there to discuss an arms deal.

The Soviets responded with more support than the Biafrans were to receive from any of their allies. First, the Soviets provided two Czech Delphin L-29 jet fighters. Soon, the Soviets provided six more L-29s, along with more than ten MiG-15 and MiG-17 fighter trainers (Matusevich 2003, 114). Soviet proxies in Eastern Europe also provided technical assistance and additional equipment. Eventually, the Soviets supplied the Nigerian military with a wide variety of armaments, including “MiG-17 fighters, Ilyushin bombers, heavy artillery, vehicles and small arms” (De St. Jorre 1972, 182). Finally, the Soviets provided Egyptian pilots to fly some of the aircraft and technical assistance to improve Nigerian industrial development.

In spite of their successes with the Soviets, the United States and Great Britain were not as directly supportive as the Nigerian government had hoped. The United States almost immediately imposed an arms embargo on both sides, and the British refused to sell arms to the government. It was clear, however, that the British ultimately supported the idea of Nigerian unity. As it turned out, the fact that many states declared official neutrality in the conflict hurt the Biafrans far more than it hurt the government.

Given its diplomatic and military advantage, the government announced its belief that the war would be over within a month. The basic military strategy was to capture first the city of Nsukka and then the cities of Ogoja, Abakaliki, and finally Enugu (Atofarati 1992). These victories would be enough to force the capitulation of secessionist forces. In July 1967, the Nigerian armed forces began their offensive by advancing on the main roads toward the fortified cities of Nsukka and Ogoja. Though the Biafrans had initial success in defending these cities, the government forces used intelligence gathered from local sources to refine their strategy (Atofarati 1992). As a result, government forces quickly overran the cities of Nsukka and Ogoja. When the Nigerian First Infantry Battalion took the city of Enugu in October 1967, the government assumed that the rebellion would collapse. By the end of the same month, government forces had also occupied the key city of Calabar.

As the government army advanced deeper into Biafran territory, the rebels began to draw on more unconventional tactics. They began to use their superior knowledge of the terrain to temporarily cut government supply lines when they became overextended. The rebels also began to use improvised land mines made from scrap metal placed in milk cartons with small amounts of explosives (De St. Jorre 1972, 206). The rebels also booby-trapped oil tanker trucks to explode at the approach of government forces. Each of these measures, while successful in slowing the Nigerian military advance, also created dangerous conditions for Biafran civilians. In May 1968, General Ojukwu formally announced that the rebels would now fight the war using guerrilla tactics rather than conventional ones. In the same month, it a speech commemorating the first anniversary of Biafran independence, Ojukwu declared, “For these values and principles we are willing to endure our present hardship. Let us individually resolve to shape our own lives to accord with these objectives of our nation” (Government of the Republic of Biafra 1993, 235).

Causes of the War

It would be easy enough to argue that the Nigerian civil war was little more than an ethnic conflict between Ibos and non-Ibos (especially the Hausa-Fulani). Although it is true that Nigeria’s ethnic diversity played a role in causing the conflict, it is also apparent that other factors were involved. One need only examine the relatively rapid reintegration of Ibo military personnel and civilians into Nigerian economic, social, and political life to understand that the Biafran secession was much more than an ethnic war. Although there were several key historical events that pushed Nigeria toward civil war, it is argued here that there were three key proximate causes of the conflict. The first of these was the politicization of ethnic identity, first by the British and then by independent Nigeria. The second proximate cause was the militarization of Nigerian politics. The third proximate cause of the war was the unequal distribution of resources, especially oil, within the country.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the British played a key role in the politicization of ethnic identity in Nigeria. The combination of the British protectorates into a single political entity in 1914 resulted in a mix of indirectly ruled and directly ruled territory. The results of direct colonial rule provided ethnic groups in the south, especially the Ibo, with superior education and health care. It is not surprising, in this context, that the Ibo came to dominate the Nigerian civil service in the postindependence era. At the same time, the failure of the British to adjust administrative boundaries after the protectorate merger gave the Hausa-Fulani control over more territory than all the other ethnic groups combined.

Politicization of ethnic identity emerged in the developing Nigerian political party system before independence. The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), formed in 1944, was designed to be a national party aimed at securing independence for Nigeria. However, the Yoruba and Ibo members of the party quickly began to suspect each other of attempting to dominate the NCNC (Amoda 1972, 19). A civil war between the two rival ethnic groups was narrowly averted. The Yoruba responded by forming the Action Group (AG) to coordinate policy in the Western Region. The Hausa-Fulani-dominated Northern Region formed the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). The NCNC remained the key party in the Ibo-dominated Eastern Region.

In 1959, elections were held under British observation to determine the political makeup of government in the postindependence era. The NPC won 134 seats, the AG seventy-three, and the NCNC eighty-nine. Although the NCNC could have formed a coalition with the AG based on the north-south divide, the NCNC instead became the junior partner in coalition with the NPC. The NCNC made this decision in part because Ibo party leaders viewed political payoffs in the south as a zero-sum game between the Yoruba-led AG and NCNC (Falola 1999, 102). The fact that no strong national party ever emerged in prewar Nigeria, coupled with the ethnic character of the three dominant parties, is clear evidence of politicized ethnic identity.

One of the first postindependence manifestations of ethnic politicization was the census crisis of 1962. Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, announced that there would be a new census, designed to update the British figures of 1953. The completed census suggested that the population in the Northern Region had grown by 30 percent, while the Western and Eastern Regions had grown by more than 70 percent (Nwankwo and Ifejika 1970, 47). Had the census results stood, there would have been a major shift in power within Nigeria toward the south. However, the government, which was controlled by the NPC, recalculated the growth rate for the Northern Region at 80 percent, placing the Hausa-Fulani in a position of dominance once again. After the AG and NCNC threatened a parliamentary walkout, all census results were annulled. A subsequent census produced similar results. The census figures ensured both political dominance by the north and a revenue allocation formula that would benefit the north at the expense of the east, west and midwest.

Politicized identities, however, are but one of the causes of the Nigerian civil war. The militarization of Nigerian politics is another critical factor. Beckett and Young (1997) refer to a “permanent transition” to democracy in Nigeria. In the permanent transition, the military reluctantly intervened to rid Nigeria of the problems of corrupt civilian government. However, it is never clear exactly when the military intends to go back to the barracks. Whenever there is actual or perceived instability in the country, the threat of military intervention looms large.

In Nigeria, the politicization of the military began before independence. Because of direct colonial rule in much of the south, well-trained Ibo officers occupied a majority of officer positions. In the postindependence era, the Northern Region worried about Ibo domination of the armed forces. As a result, the government instituted a quota policy designed to redress the inequities in the armed forces. Before the quota, the Eastern Region accounted for approximately 45 percent of all officers, and the Northern Region accounted for roughly 32 percent. After the imposition of the quota, the proportions reversed (Peters 1997, 80). Although the quota created a national military that was more reflective of census figures, it also resulted in a less professional, more politicized armed forces. The perception in the Eastern Region was that the Northern Region was attempting to erode one of the few areas of Ibo breathing space in Nigerian politics.

One of the roots of the Nigerian civil war can be traced to the military intervention in Nigerian politics that occurred in 1966. An earlier crisis in the Western Region had resulted in a split within the AC and, ultimately, the formation of the Midwest Region. The Midwest Region struck a political bargain with the Northern Region and agreed to certify the disputed census figures in exchange for government aid. Irregularities in the 1964 general election and the 1965 regional election in the west created a constitutional crisis (Falola 1999, 106). All these factors weakened the Nigerian state and created conditions that were ripe for a military takeover. In January 1966, a military coup led by junior officers (code-named Operation Leopard) ultimately resulted in the assumption of power by General Ironsi (De St. Jorre. 1972, 30-40). It was this military intervention that started a series of tragic events that led to the Nigerian civil war.

Most military coups, of course, do not lead to civil wars. In the case of Nigeria, however, the politicization of ethnicity combined with the politicization of the military and the subsequent militarization of Nigerian politics to produce deadly results. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the Northern Region saw the January 1966 coup as an attempt to achieve Ibo domination of Nigeria. Ironsi’s decision to declare Nigeria a unitary republic, as well as his decision not to harshly punish the coup instigators, did little to allay this fear. In addition, the political and military officials who were killed in the coup were predominately non-Ibo.

In July 1966, Lieutenant Colonel Gowon launched a successful countercoup. However, the Ibo military, led by Ojukwu, was able to maintain control in the Eastern Region. At the same time, groups of loosely organized northern militia began hunting down and killing Ibo who happened to live in the north. It is estimated that more than 30,000 Ibo were killed during the reprisals, and another 2 million Ibo were permanently displaced (Waugh and Cronjé 1969, 37). Most of those who were displaced fled to the Eastern Region. Political intervention by the Nigerian military, coupled with the politics of ethnic fear and hatred, had left Ojukwu in a position of power in the Eastern Region. Ojukwu could claim, with some accuracy, that he was the only person capable of protecting the east. He could also claim that the only way for the Eastern Region to avoid a repeat of the events of 1966 was to secede.

In addition to the roles played by militarization and politicization of ethnic identity, the uneven distribution of resources in Nigeria was also a major factor in the Eastern Region’s decision to withdraw from Nigeria. As noted earlier, the results of the disputed Nigerian census enabled the Northern Region to justify the redistribution of wealth in ways that would tend to benefit the Hausa-Fulani. The Ibo and Yoruba, of course, were aware of this. Royalties from the Dutch and French oil companies operating in the Niger Delta pumped millions of dollars into the Nigerian economy. Ojukwu clearly believed that control of the oil resources in the southeast could make Biafra a viable independent state.

Oil was not the only economic factor to contribute to the war, however. During the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most attractive career paths for university-educated students was the Nigerian civil service. Since the south tended to be more educated than the north, southerners, especially Ibo, tended to dominate the civil service. After independence, however, the quota system used to achieve balance in the military was also applied to the Nigerian civil service. As a result, there was widespread discontent among young southern intellectuals, who felt as though they were being passed over in favor of less-qualified northerners (Nafziger 1982, 77). This, in turn, forced those who were university educated to seek regional positions. It is no surprise, then, that many of the key figures in the Biafran secession where young, well-educated elites. Given the three major factors highlighted previously, it is evident that the Nigerian civil war was much more than a product of simple ethnic grievances.

In January 1967, Ojukwu and Gowon met in Aburi Ghana in a last attempt to resolve their differences. Ojukwu argued that the existing federal arrangement should be replaced with a loose confederation. Gowon proposed maintaining the existing federal structure. In addition, Gowon proposed the addition of eight new states. Two of these states, located in what was the Eastern Region, in effect would have diluted Ibo power and removed Ibo influence over the oil reserves (De St. Jorre 1972, 142). This was more than Ojukwu would stand for. On July 3, 1967, the Nigerian civil war began.


Conflict Status

Without the groundswell of international recognition and support that the rebels had hoped for, it was clear that the Nigerian government forces would ultimately prevail. In the period from December 1969 through January 1970, government forces began to converge on the last rebel strongholds around the cities of Oguta, Orlu, and Nnewi in the western portion of Biafra. The First Division of the government army converged with the Third Division on the Uli Airstrip (De St. Jorre 1972, 394-95). The key city of Owerri, which had been the fallback capital of Biafra, fell on January 8. Finally, General Ojukwu fled Biafra for Côte d’Ivoire via the Uli Airstrip just before it was seized by government forces. On January 12, 1970, Major General Philip Effiong, acting in place of General Ojukwu, called upon the Biafran rebels to end the fighting. The Nigerian civil war formally ended the following day, when Effiong surrendered to General Gowon. The final result of the war was a complete government victory. Although the war ended with the unconditional surrender of the rebels, the Nigerian government opted for a strategy of reconciliation rather than punishment (De St. Jorre 1972, 407). There were no mass trials of rebel military leaders, and many members of the Biafran military were reintegrated into the Nigerian army.

Refugee repatriation was a more difficult matter. The conflict created more than 500,000 refugees and internally displaced persons. As the government army advanced deeper into rebel-held territory, people living in threatened cities usually withdrew deeper into Biafra with the secessionist army. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 30,000 children were displaced as a result of the conflict (Goetz 2001). By February 1971, those children who had been forced to flee Nigeria were effectively repatriated (Goetz 2001). Many Ibo who lived in Port Harcourt, where Ibo were a minority, left or were forced out during the war and never returned (Nwachuku 2004, 40). However, most IDPs in Ibo-majority areas were able to return to their cities and villages after the war. Soldiers or people simply searching for food, however, had pillaged many of their homes.

Duration Tactics

The Nigerian civil war lasted much longer than the one month originally anticipated by the government. Several factors combined to prolong the war. First, the rebel army, as mentioned above, was well prepared for the initial government advance. Although government forces were successful in their initial military objectives, the rebels simply fell back to established rendezvous points. Nigerian supply lines were also spread thin by the rebel incursion into the Midwest Region. This enabled rebel forces periodically to cut the government’s supply lines by vanishing in the face of direct attack and reappearing behind government lines.

The switch from conventional to guerrilla tactics also probably prolonged the war. The makeshift land mines and booby traps mentioned earlier almost certainly slowed the government advance. The government was prepared to fight a conventional war based on controlling key cities and pieces of territory. The government was not as prepared to fight an enemy that seemed to vanish in front of them after the initial phases of the war. Knowledge of terrain also benefited the rebels in their efforts to slow the government advance.

External Military Intervention

There was no blatant external intervention in the Nigerian civil war by other states. The Soviets chose to aid the Nigerian government indirectly, providing Egyptian pilots to fly Soviet MiGs. No country chose to dispatch troops directly to Biafra. Mercenaries from various states participated in the conflict but without sanction from a specific state. Material support from the Soviets, coupled with a general lack of international support for Biafra, tipped the scales even further in the government’s favor.

Conflict Management Efforts

Conflict management efforts were unsuccessful in limiting or shortening the Nigerian civil war. The OAU eliminated its ability to be an effective mediator by endorsing a status quo policy (De St. Jorre 1972, 192). Although there were several attempts by potential mediators to bring the two parties to the negotiating table, only the talks held in Kampala, Uganda, in May 1968 had any chance of success. The talks were arranged by Arnold Smith, a Canadian diplomat and secretary-general of the commonwealth (De St. Jorre 1972, 193). Almost immediately, it became clear that the two belligerent parties were too far apart to reach a political settlement. The rebels enumerated three basic demands: (1) immediate cessation of all fighting, (2) immediate removal of the economic blockade by the government, and (3) withdrawal of all troops to their prewar positions (Government of the Republic of Biafra 1993, 231). The rebels also proposed an international monitoring force to oversee compliance with their terms.

The government countered with its own twelve-point proposal. The following is a summary of each point, based on Government of the Republic of Biafra (1993, 232-33).

  1. A cease-fire day would be set.
  2. A cease-fire hour would be set.
  3. Before the cease-fire, the rebel army would renounce secession in exchange for the cessation of government hostilities.
  4. Troops would be frozen in their current positions as of the cease-fire hour.
  5. The federal army would accompany observers and Ibo police officers to supervise rebel disarmament.
  6. Within seven days after the cease-fire, the rebels would turn over the administration of the breakaway region to the federal government.
  7. The federal government would appoint a commission to temporarily administer rebel-held territory. The rebels would have input regarding the membership of a minority of commission members.
  8. The police would be responsible for law and order.
  9. The federal government would recruit Ibos and integrate them into the federal army.
  10. An easterner would be appointed to the Federal Executive Council.
  11. The federal government would grant amnesty to rebellion leaders in appropriate cases and general amnesty to other rebellion participants.
  12. Both sides would exchange prisoners of war.

The inclusion in the rebel proposal of an immediate military withdrawal, as well as government insistence on renunciation of the secession, effectively eliminated the possibility of a compromise.


The immediate political result of the Nigerian civil war was a clear victory for the government forces and the maintenance of Nigerian unity. Although it appears unlikely that another state will actually attempt to secede, it would be an overstatement to argue that the Nigerian civil war produced enduring stability in Nigeria. Gowon’s decision to add eight states to the federal system set in motion a process that ultimately led to the creation of thirty-six states in Nigeria. The problem is that most of these states were created in an effort to satisfy the desires for increased autonomy of Nigerian ethnic minorities. This strategy has been successful in that no region has attempted to secede from Nigeria since the civil war. However, the strategy also produces state-level policies that once again are often based on the politicization of ethnic identity (Suberu 2001, 81). Statehood also provides ethnic minority groups in Nigeria with new opportunities to make redistributive demands on the central government. The recent series of oil-related kidnappings around Port Harcourt demonstrate, in part, the pressures that result from state and local redistributive demands.

It is worth noting that the two smaller-scale civil wars that have occurred since the end of the Biafran secession have been based on the politicization of religion. Nigerian federalism is designed in part to defuse national-level religious conflict by allowing states to integrate aspects of religious law into their judicial processes (Suberu 2001, 4). Many northern states have taken advantage of this by establishing Shari’a courts to preside over Muslims. However, both of the smaller civil wars resulted from a combination of religious conflict between fundamentalist Muslims and more moderate Muslims, or between fundamentalist Muslims and non-Muslims. One of the keys to maintaining peace in Nigeria is finding a way to protect the rights of non-Muslims in the north. The majority of Muslims in Nigeria appear to favor the application of Islamic law for Muslims only. There are those, however, who would prefer to eliminate the secular legal system entirely. Nigeria’s size, relative military strength, and natural resource base create a great deal of potential for political and economic development. To this point in history, Nigeria has failed to fulfill its enormous promise. The key to avoiding future conflict will be balancing the power of federalism to dilute conflict with ethnic and religious-based federalism’s tendency to atomize Nigerian politics. One reason for guarded optimism is the fact that Nigeria made the transition from the kleptocracy of Sani Abacha to a fledgling democracy under Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. Obasanjo had the military credentials that may be necessary to keep the military from attempting to dominate the political process. Because the militarization of Nigerian politics was one of the three key causes of the civil war, maintaining civilian leadership is almost certainly in the country’s best interest.