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The Nigerian Civil War - The Early Days

Last Updated: 9/10/2006 9:16:48 PM

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The Nigerian Civil War, a political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed republic of Biafra led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.....

Starving Child Suffering From Kwashiorkor
Starving Child Suffering From Kwashiorkor

The Independence wave of the sixties was a period full of expectation and hope, the dawn of a new era for Africa, one in which African nations would finally take their place as equals in the family of nations.

However the reality was a lot less assured, once the elation of nationhood had evaporated, what was left were Nations struggling to come to terms with diverse and volatile blocs of citizenry who had seemingly different aims and aspirations. One by one the young progressive democrats who fought for Independence found themselves either changing into political despots as they became corrupted by their new found political power, swept away by increasingly commonplace military coups, or struggling to hold together nations on the brink of anarchy.

Some of the greatest hopes for African nationhood were invested in Nigeria, a country that was to pay one of greatest prices to maintain its newly won status as a nation-state. On October 1st, 1960 before a plethora of dignitaries from across the world, the British handed over power to a democratically elected government headed by the new Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Also in attendance was the man who would later become Nigeria's first President (albeit ceremonial) Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and the leader of the Opposition in the Federal parliament, Obafemi Awolowo. These three men were symbols of the ethnic power blocs of Nigeria, which in turn fuelled the tragedy that was to befall the country.

The sensitivities of Nigerian politics had created three ethnically centred political blocs locked in a perpetual jostle for supremacy - The Hausa-Fulani of which Tafawa Balewa was a member, the Igbos (Azikiwe) and the Yorubas (Awolowo). An increasingly precarious relationship between these three blocs piloted Nigeria through the first few years of independence.

The first post-independence elections however, were to set in motion a train of events that would lead to one of Africa's most brutal wars. These elections held in 1964 saw an alliance between the dominant parties in the Yoruba and Igbo areas, the Action Group (AG) and the National Council for Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), formed in a bid to overthrow the increasingly powerful party of the Prime Minster, the Northern People's Congress (NPC).

However allegations of vote rigging, voter intimidations and other electoral malpractices lead the alliance to boycott most of the elections and the NPC and its allies to win most seats contested by default. The resultant uncertainty provoked a national constitutional crisis and extreme political violence in the Yoruba areas, which ultimately lead to a declaration of a state of emergency.

The political situation however continued to deteriorate and on January 15, 1966 the inevitable occurred, the military seized power. The coup was not without casualties and amongst the dead were the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa and a number of senior government officials most of whom were Hausa-Fulani. The subsequent appointment of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo as the new President of Nigeria fuelled the belief in Northern Nigeria (the Hausa-Fulani dominated region) that the coup was really an excuse for the Igbo to seize political power in Nigeria by Force.

The coup had thus failed in its intention to reduce the ethnic tensions in Nigeria as this malaise continued to engulf the Nation. More worryingly, the military long viewed as the last bastion of true national sentiment appeared to have been contaminated by the same virulent ethnic jingoism sweeping the nation. The ethnic problem in the Army came to the fore when on 29th of July a group of Northern officers executed the President, Ironsi, and seized political power.

This coup was soon followed by an orgy of violence in the Northern parts of Nigeria that left over 60,000 Igbo people dead and millions of refugees fleeing back to the Igbo areas in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. The failure of either the Federal or Northern Regional government to protect the lives of the Igbos, and in some cases tactically aiding violence against the Igbos, lead to an increasing feeling amongst Igbos that there was no longer a future for them in Nigeria.

As the unity of the nation appeared under threat the Governors of the Nigerian regions and the Federal Government agreed to meet in Aburi, Ghana to try and agree on an acceptable way forward for the nation.

After intense negotiations all parties came to an agreement and returned to Nigeria with a view to implementing these. Amongst the Agreements were those that granted the regions greater economic and political authority, however the Federal Government led by Major General Yakubu Gowon reneged on the deal, and the governor of the Eastern Region Colonel Emeka Ojukwu felt compelled to announce the secession of the Eastern Region from the Federal Republic of Nigeria as the newly independent state of Biafra. He did so at meeting with representatives from across the Eastern Region held in Enugu, the regional capital, on the 30th of May 1967.

The Federal Government believed the military superiority it enjoyed in terms of numbers and materials meant it could crush the secession within days, and proceeded to launch what it termed a "police action". The 10,000 strong Federal Army advanced into the Eastern Region but was easily beaten back by the Biafran Forces. The Biafran Forces buoyed by this initial success launched an invasion of the Midwestern Region and very rapidly found themselves within striking distance of the Nigerian capital, Lagos.

The Federal Government troops were able to re-group and launch a counter-offensive, which by the end of 1967 had recaptured the Midwestern Region. They also enjoyed success in the non-Igbo areas of the Biafra, particularly in the Niger Delta areas. However, the Igbo heartland proved an almost insurmountable obstacle, the superior leadership, tactics and morale of the Biafran Army meant they were able to pin down the Nigerian army through to the latter part of 1968.

Support for the Nigerian Army provided by Britain, Russia, Egypt and Ian Smith's Rhodesia soon enabled the Nigerian Army to make the break through they needed and in September, 1968 they captured the strategic Southern Biafran town of Owerri. The Federal Army now swollen to 250,000 opened the war on three fronts attacking the Biafran capital Enugu from the North, the strategic commercial city of Onitsha from the west and Port Harcourt in the Oil rich Niger Delta from the South.

Although the Biafran Army continued to prove their mettle by recapturing Owerri and pinning down the Federal Forces in Onitsha, the Nigerian government unleashed a new weapon, which was to have devastating effect on Biafra and haunt the memories of observers of the war for years to come. The Nigeria Government recognised that adequate food supply was Biafra's achilles heel and decided on a policy to starve Biafra into submission by sealing off all food supplies including those from organisations such as the Red Cross, the then Federal Finance minister Obafemi Awolowo was quoted as stating that "starvation was a legitimate weapon of war".

1969 saw famine-stricken Biafra beginning to crumble as one by one key cities were seized by the Federal Army. The next year saw Biafra reduced to about 2500 square kilometres of territory into which crammed millions of refugees and by this time the Biafrans had no option but to surrender. The Biafran leader Colonel Emeka Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast and it was left to his deputy Lt Colonel Phillip Effiong to surrender to Federal forces.

The total dead on the Biafran side is estimated to be between 1-3 million dead with hundreds of thousands injured and millions more refugees. While the Nigeria "oil boom" of the 1970's went some way to ameliorating the pains brought about by the war, the ethnic tensions that caused the war still haunt Nigerian politics till today.


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