Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War

The secession from Nigeria of the province of the Eastern Region—which renamed itself Biafra—triggered a civil war in which Nigeria eventually reclaimed the province by force. The war both arose from and perpetuated human rights abuses by the Nigerian government against its Ibo citizens.

Summary of Event

On May 30, 1967, the Eastern Region of Nigeria, populated by more than nine million Ibo ethnic Nigerians, declared itself the sovereign state of the Republic of Biafra. Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu charged that continuous violations of Ibo human rights Human rights;Nigeria by other Nigerians, particularly the Hausa ethnic group in the Northern Region, dictated the need for a separate Ibo state. The federal government of Nigeria vowed to prevent the dismantling of the Nigerian state. A civil war ensued that lasted more than two years. Biafran secession (1967)
Civil wars;Nigeria
Nigerian civil war (1967-1970)
[kw]Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War (May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970)[Biafras Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War]
[kw]Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War, Biafra’s (May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970)
[kw]Nigerian Civil War, Biafra’s Secession Triggers (May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970)
[kw]Civil War, Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian (May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970)[Civil War, Biafras Secession Triggers Nigerian]
[kw]War, Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil (May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970)[War, Biafras Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil]
Biafran secession (1967)
Civil wars;Nigeria
Nigerian civil war (1967-1970)
[g]Africa;May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970: Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War[09280]
[g]Nigeria;May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970: Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War[09280]
[c]Government and politics;May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970: Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War[09280]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 30, 1967-Jan. 15, 1970: Biafra’s Secession Triggers Nigerian Civil War[09280]
Gowon, Yakubu
Ojukwu, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu
Obasanjo, Olusegun
Effiong, Philip

In 1960, when Nigeria gained its independence, its major ethnic and religious groups competed for political control of the new state. The dominant and populous northern, Muslim Hausa and the eastern, Christian Ibo formed an uneasy alliance that effectively excluded the western Yoruba from power. The new government, however, was unable to rule without recurring challenges to its legitimacy.

Following widespread allegations that the 1963 census and the elections of 1964 and 1965 were corrupt, Nigerians experienced outbursts of political unrest. Some western political leaders were imprisoned by the federal government, allegedly for initiating a western secession movement. In January, 1966, young Ibo army officers revolted and murdered the minister of finance, the prime minister, and other ranking northerners. The Ibo officers insisted that their revolt was an anticorruption, profederation coup attempt and not an ethnically based action to advance the power of Ibos. Most northern Hausa rejected this claim, however, because no Ibos had been murdered during the coup attempt. Moreover, the murdered prime minister was viewed as one of the federal government’s anticorruption stalwarts.

Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a northern officer from a small Christian ethnic group, organized government troops to respond to the revolt. Major General J. T. U. Aguiyi Ironsi Ironsi, J. T. U. Aguiyi also responded, and a few days after the coup, Ironsi assumed political power as supreme commander and Nigeria’s head of state. Ironsi attempted to replace Nigeria’s federal system with a unitary national government. In protest, many Nigerians rioted and used the opportunity to attack Ibos, who were given no government police or military protection. Many Ibos were beaten and killed in three days of rioting. A few weeks later, in late July, 1966, Ironsi was overthrown and murdered by military officers who, observers say, opposed altering the structures of the federal state of Nigeria. Gowon replaced Ironsi.

Gowon attempted to win support of Nigeria’s disparate ethnic groups by reinstating the federal system while accommodating some of the demands of the west and the east. Gowon freed a popular political prisoner from the west, Chief Obafemi Awolowo Awolowo, Obafemi , and removed northern federal troops from the Eastern Region when Ibo Governor Ojukwu demanded their removal. Ojukwu, however, refused to recognize Gowon as Nigeria’s executive authority, illustrating the Ibo’s discontent with their lot in Nigerian politics.

On September 29, 1966, Nigerians once again attacked Ibos, slaughtering tens of thousands. The Ibo responded in the east by slaughtering Hausa and Fulani. It was estimated at this time that about one million Ibos fled Nigeria or returned to the Eastern Region for safety. Many of these Ibo were forced to live in refugee camps, and in the ensuing civil war many died from malnutrition and other health-related causes.

In March, 1967, Ibo Governor Ojukwu retained all taxes collected in the Eastern Region. Gowon warned Ojukwu not to attempt any secessionist effort. Western Region officials also began to talk of seceding, and Gowon tried to placate them by removing some federal troops from the west. Some observers have suggested that this effort to ease tensions was interpreted as a sign of weakness.

On May 27, 1967, Ojukwu and a number of Ibo chiefs declared the Eastern Region independent of Nigerian authority. In response, Gowon issued a decree to restructure the existing regions into twelve districts, including five in the east, which would allow non-Ibos in the east to exercise some political influence. On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu announced the secession of the east and declared that region the Republic of Biafra.

Gowon initiated an economic boycott of the East and began a military campaign against Ojukwu and his Biafran army. The French assisted Biafra militarily, and the civil war raged. Food in the east was in short supply. International Biafran relief committees formed and demanded the right to send food and health supplies to the isolated Ibo. Nigeria’s federal government opposed relief efforts, arguing that the civil war would end more quickly if the economic boycott were allowed to continue without disruption, forcing the Ibo to surrender. Through the boycott, the federal government hoped to prevent arms, food, and medical supplies from reaching Biafra and to prevent petroleum from being exported by the Biafrans. This would prevent them from earning international foreign currency with which to purchase supplies.

Ojukwu and the Biafrans appealed to the international community for help on the principle of self-determination, argued that the Christian Ibo were victims of religious persecution by northern Muslim zealots, and charged that the Nigerian federal government was pursuing a policy of genocide against the Ibo through military and economic warfare. Biafrans argued that Nigeria’s recent history demonstrated that there was no hope of peaceful coexistence among the contending ethnic and religious groups.

The Biafrans made available to leading Western media officials detailed, well-argued political position papers and photographs of starving Biafrans. Biafran officials claimed that five thousand Ibos a day were dying from malnutrition and that the federal government’s air attacks were killing thousands of civilians. The Nigerian federal government obstructed efforts by international aid organizations, such as the International Red Cross, Humanitarian organizations
Nongovernmental organizations and newly initiated organizations of Western cultural artists seeking to help relieve the famine in Biafra. Reluctantly, Gowon finally agreed to permit a land corridor through which supplies could pass. The Biafrans, however, demanded air relief.

Despite pressures from Western governments for a negotiated settlement, the Nigerian federal government delayed negotiations of a ceasefire, hoping that Biafra would be forced to sue for peace, thus preventing a negotiated compromise that would undermine Nigeria’s central government. The federal government also argued against any foreign assistance to Biafra on the grounds that under the rules of the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU), no foreign power could aid efforts to redraw the boundaries of an African state. Member countries of the OAU, however, were divided in their support of the federal government and the Biafrans. The federal government of Nigeria accused the leaders of the new Biafran state of creating a civil war and a great human tragedy to advance their own careers. Gowon repeatedly pledged to protect the physical security of Biafrans if they would relent in their secessionist efforts.

After two and a half years of fighting, with thousands of federal soldiers who had been killed, millions of Ibos who had suffered and died, and millions more Ibos who were displaced from their homes, the federal government inflicted a major military loss on the Ibo. In January, 1970, with food and ammunition low, the Biafrans were militarily defeated when Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo captured the important town of Owerri. Shortly thereafter, Ojukwu and his family fled to the Ivory Coast. On January 13, 1970, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Effiong, who replaced Ojukwu as the major Biafran authority, surrendered to the federal government. Biafran decision-making bodies were dissolved, and Biafra ceased to exist on January 15, 1970. The Ibo waited anxiously for the next actions of the federal government.


Immediately, the federal government found itself responsible for distributing the much-needed aid that international donors pledged to provide. Nigeria’s government would not allow distribution of food and medicine by any international agency that had aided Biafra during the civil war. While the federal government handled thousands of tons of food a week, it could not meet the needs of the Biafrans immediately after the cease-fire.

The feared massacres and retaliation against Ibos that had provided some of the motivation for support of Biafra never materialized. Gowon enforced a national policy of reconciliation, and observers marveled at the speed and ease with which Ibos were reabsorbed into government and private Nigerian life. Some Ibos who had served in low-level federal government positions and fled to the east seeking safety now returned to their former posts with the federal government. Many leaders of the secessionist movement, however, were not reabsorbed. The ability to reabsorb the Ibo as an ethnic group has been attributed by some observers to the economic boom Nigeria experienced from oil price increases in the early 1970’s. These increases provided expanding revenues from which it was possible to distribute resources to Nigerians of many ethnic backgrounds.

Although economic discrimination did not fuel Nigeria’s ethnic strife in the 1970’s, Nigeria’s civil war had entrenched military rule; a return to democratic civilian government would elude Nigerians for years. The civil rights that accompany democratic civilian government also eluded Nigerians for years. Union strikes were banned, political movements that the government designated as appealing to secessionist impulses were outlawed, journalists worried about censorship, and academics were restrained from criticizing the government freely.

In the years following the Biafran secession, Nigerians have had to cope with many of the problems that plagued other late-industrializing states. There has not been, however, any repeat of the atrocities and ethnic conflict on the scale of the 1960’s. Rather, Nigeria has struggled with issues of democratization and development, not with extraordinary human rights violations motivated by ethnic rivalry. Biafran secession (1967)
Civil wars;Nigeria
Nigerian civil war (1967-1970)

Further Reading

  • Ayittey, George B. N. Africa in Chaos. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. The author provides a scholarly analysis of the social, political and economic troubles that plague the African continent, including Nigeria’s collapse.
  • Draper, Michael I., and Frederick Forsyth. Shadows: Airlift and Airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967-1970. Hikoki, 2001. Account of the challenges facing the Biafran air force during the three-year civil war. Draper was briefly involved in the airlift during 1968.
  • Kirk-Greene, Anthony H. M., and Douglas Rimmer. Nigeria Since 1970. New York: Africana, 1981. Covers the time period from the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war to the election of Nigeria’s first, short-lived, post-civil-war democratic government in 1979. The authors examine the 1970’s as a decade of expanding oil profits for Nigeria and explore the alternative schemes for development and democratization. Separate chapters discuss agriculture, petroleum, industrialization, infrastructure, public finance, external trade, and development planning.
  • Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Scholarly, political history of Nigeria. Illustrated.
  • Stremlau, John. The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Stremlau offers a richly researched study of the foreign policies of the Nigerian federal government, the Biafrans, and other countries and international organizations that became involved in the Nigerian civil war.

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