The Biafra war (1967-1970) was a bloody civil war in Nigeria. The battle is also known as the Nigerian Civil War. In 1968 this war led to the first images of starving Africans with ‘Biafra bellies’ on television: a large-scale famine broke out in Biafra.
The war lasted from 6 July 1967 to 13 January 1970. Ethnic violence, genocide, and a massive famine in Biafra led to the death of an estimated 1 to 3 million civilians.
Causes of the Biafra war
The Biafra war had mainly an ethnic-religious cause. The warring parties consisted of Christian Igbo tribes on the one hand and Islamic Nigerians who belonged to the Hausa tribe and the Fulani tribe on the other. How did this happen? In October 1960, Nigeria had become independent from Great Britain. The country was a relatively young and diverse nation (created as a territorial amalgam by the British in 1914), with various ethnic groups. These included Islamic Hausas and Fulani’s (in the north – 29% of the population), the Yoruba’s (west – 21%), the Christian Igbo’s, or Ibo’s (south – 18%) and the Ijaw or Ijo (south – 10%).
Various elections took place in the country in the years 1959-1965, always surrounded by an odor of corruption. In 1965 the Igbos were sidelined during the state elections, and ethnic violence took place. The Igbos committed a coup d’état on January 14, 1966. This coup, led by Igbo General Chukwuma Nzeogwu, failed within a few days. On July 29, 1966, the Hausas and Fulanis committed a counter-coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon. Violence broke out, killing around 10,000 to 30,000 Igbos in the north. Hundreds of thousands of Igbos fled from all over Nigeria to the south of the country.
An economic position difference also played a role. The Igbos who worked in northern Nigeria were Christian and well-educated. That was because they had been taught at Christian British mission schools during the colonial era. In the impoverished Islamic north of Nigeria, their level of education provided them with the best jobs, such as official or political positions. This led to envy among Muslim Nigerians.
Declaration of the Republic of Biafra and civil war
Igbo Governor Chukwuemeka Ojukwu asked the central government for protection of the Igbo’s but found the reaction insufficient. An administrative-political redistribution in Nigeria also frustrated him and Igbo’s. That is why Ojukwu unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the ‘Republic of Biafra’ on 30 May 1967. At that time, the country had 13 million inhabitants. Nigeria’s central military government reacted ruthlessly to the separation of Biafra. A civil war broke out on 6 July 1967.
The sad balance of the Biafra war
During the war, Biafra’s territory shrunk to one-tenth of its original territory, and an estimated 1 to 3 million Biafrans died from famine, mainly, but also violence. Of the 13 million Biafranians, an estimated two million died. After the capital of Biafra, Enugu fell, many Biafranians fled into the fields and forests. The country was surrounded. The big problem was that Nigeria only allowed the Red Cross to bring medicine to Biafra and no food. As a result, a famine broke out, which many critics attributed to the Red Cross.
The Nigerian army – which deliberately bombarded markets, hospitals, and other civilian targets – and the famine proved far too strong for the Igbos. On January 13, 1970, Biafra had to surrender and the Republic of Biafra came to an end.
Separatism among Igbos remained in southern Nigeria. For example, a report from Amnesty International shows that the Nigerian army killed at least 150 Biafra activists in May 2016. However, the Nigerian government denies these allegations.