History of The Nigerian Civil War: The Full Story

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian – Biafran Civil War, or the Biafran War was fought between the Federal Reublic of Nigeria and the secessionist State of Biafra from July 6th, 1967 – January 15th, 1970. This was a dark period in the history of the country.

History of The Nigerian Civil War

The war was fought to re-absorb and unify the Republic of Biafra back into Nigeria as its territory, under the rule of the then Federal Military Government of the country, headed by Colonel Yakubu Gowon, with Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu being the military governor of the Eastern Region and the first President of Biafra after it seceded.

The Nigerian Civil war was a product of the various corrupt practices by goverment officials of the first republic, how the military stepped in to rid the political system of corruption, only to be enmeshed in the dirty game that they sought to utterly destroy.

This resulted in coups and counter-coups that divided the Nigerian military, the pogroms in the north of the country and the outright break out of the war in 1967 which lasted for 30 months. Ethnic, cultural and religious issues were prominent reasons that also led to the war.

On January 15, 1966, Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and four other army majors, carried out the first military coup in Nigeria.

In this coup d’etat, they assassinated the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Akintola, the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and other prominent Nigerians.

The coup failed as it was foiled by the top hierarchy in the army, led by General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi.

The coup, though it failed, was carried out by mostly Igbo soldiers and this produced Igbo leaders, with Ironsi emerging as the first military head of state of Nigeria.

That coup also resulted in the death of top northern civilian leaders, which led to the division of the Nigerian army along ethnic borders.

The coup d’etat did not go down well with certain officers of the Nigerian army, especially those of northern descent, so the plan to stage a counter coup was set in motion.

Thus on July 28, 1966, a counter coup was staged by a group of Northern soldiers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Murtala Muhammed and they termed this the July rematch, seeing it as a response to the coup of January 1966.

This counter coup led to the assassination of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lieutenant-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi who was at that time hosting Ironsi in Ibadan, and it produced Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Head of State.

Reasons for the counter coup being that top powerful northern civilian leaders were assassinated by Igbo officers in the first military coup.

Other reasons for the counter coup were that officers involved in the first military coup had not been tried for treason and were being paid while in detention.

Also, that the first coup was a purely Igbo coup to assassinate soldiers of northern descent, many Igbo Majors were being promoted in the army to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonels, and Ironsi’s perceived ethnic bias toward Igbos.

The last reason being that there were plans to swap the 1st and 4th battalions and redeploy the military governors of the different regions to other regions.

These actions in the military, the mutiny, the unrest, the killings of Igbos in the north as a response to the first military coup in the country, their bodies being sent to the east en masse sparked violent reactions in the south east, thus setting the stage for Ojukwu to warn the north of impending actions towards defending the people he governed.

He called the attention of the head of state of the country to the violence being meted against his people and threatened to break the Eastern Region away from Nigeria to form a new country called Biafra.

Opinions have been divided on the reasons why the coup d’etat of 1966 happened. Some say it was mainly about the corruption among the political ruling class while some others claim that control of crude oil in the Niger Delta region of the country was the bone of contention.

Ojukwu and Gowon by this time were not seeing eye to eye and the killings in the country continued. One major attempt to restore peace to the country was the meeting of Ojukwu and Gowon in Aburi, Ghana, on the request of the Ghanaian head of state, Lt. Gen. Joe Ankrah.

The Aburi conference was where the Aburi peace accord was agreed upon by both Ojukwu and Gowon for lasting peace in the country. They even embraced each other and returned to Nigeria to find lasting peace to the unrest in the country.

On getting to Nigeria, peace was the last thing that happened as the violence in the country escalated. Many people from the eastern region were massacred in the North and sent back to their home lands in body bags.

This caused Ojukwu on May 30, 1967, to take the eastern region out of Nigeria, seceding from the rest of the country and declaring the region a sovereign state which he called the Republic of Biafra.

His actions led the head of state of Nigeria, Gowon on July 6, 1967 to declare war on Biafra and and attack it.

The war lasted for thirty months (two years and six months) from July 1967 – January 15, 1970. Ojukwu was supported by some foreign nations which recognized the young nation’s sovereignty.

The Federal Military Government of Gowon surrounded Biafra and captured the oil-rich coastal areas in the region as its first acts of war.

Biafra fought back despite having lesser military might and fire power than the Nigerians. They resisted Nigeria throughout the duration of the war till the collapse of the young republic in 1979.

Part of what led to the collapse of Biafra was the food blockade imposed during the war which caused severe famine in the land.

Many see this as a deliberate attempt systematically adopted by the federal military government of Nigeria to cower the republic of Biafra into submission.

To this day, many even see the war as genocide against the Igbo race. Overall, there were about 100,000 military casualties, while nearly two million civilians were killed in the eastern region through starvation, with Great Britain and the former Soviet Union backing Nigeria.

One of the lowest points of the Nigerian Civil War was the Asaba massacre which took place in Asaba, Delta State, where all the civilian men and young boys were killed by the advancing Nigerian military, leaving their women and children utterly devastated.

The war ended when Biafra fell to the Nigerian military led by Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, who advanced into it and took the towns of Owerri and Uli.

Ojukwu had fled to Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy, Philip Effiong with the task of surrendering.

On the 14th of January, 1970, the documents of the surrender were signed and Gowon stated that the war had no victor, no vanquished.

Biafra was fully integrated into the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the country sought to turn a new page in its history afterwards.

The Author

Maduawuchi Obialo

Maduawuchi Obialo is the founder of Nigerian Guide and an Editor at Nigerian Infopedia. He is a professional Web Content Developer and a Biochemist.

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