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Wednesday 8 February 2017

An Explorative Study of the Nigeria-Biafra War

"The Influence of Multi-Ethnic composition of Nigeria on Peace:

An Explorative Study of the Nigeria-Biafra War

By Olariche Anozie
For Family Writers


Nigeria is the most populous black nation on earth, and used to be the largest exporter of crude oil and the biggest economy in Africa; nonetheless, it is bedeviled by conflicts. The conflicts are tied to ethnocentrism and neo-colonialism. Nigeria as a country is composed of multi-ethnic groups with varied cultures and traditions, the unification of these multi-ethnic groups to become an entity called Nigeria was unitarily carried out by the British colonial enterprise (British mercenaries/soldiers, missionaries and traders); without any consultation whatsoever. There are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria; though with three major ethnic groups, namely the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa/Fulani. The imports of ethnic affiliation were not considered when these different ethnic groups were amalgamated together by the British Empire but rather their selfish interests. Forsyth (1969) captured in a nutshell the raison d’être of the British, when he argued that Nigeria had never been more than an amalgam of peoples welded together in the interests and for the benefit of a European power.

This paper will explore the features found among the ethnic nationalities, an overview of the civil war, the implications of the war and finally the enduring mechanisms for sustainable peace among the nations that make up what is today known as Nigeria. The Nigeria-Biafra war is a good instance of ethnocentrism and highlights the divide amongst ethnic groups. This conflict had ethnic undertones and for a proper grasp of the concept; Chandra (2006) asserted that ethnicity is an umbrella concept that easily embraces groups, differentiated by color, language, and religion; it covers tribes, races, nationalities, castes. Furthermore, Kegley & Blanton (2011) stated that ethnocentrism often underlies genocidal policies.

As a result, we can see with unvarnished clarity why there remains no peaceful co-existence in Nigeria as a result of the multifarious ethnic compositions, and because there are no platforms to eliminate these inherent differences but rather avenues to breed conflict. During the civil war, the Republic of Biafra was comprised of mostly the Igbo, Anang, Ibibio, Ijaw, Efik peoples and others, who waged war against the federal troops who were mostly Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and others.
What are the enduring mechanisms for sustainable peace among the nations that make up what is today known as Nigeria?''

Countries with heterogeneous populations should practice con-federal system of government or at least a federal system of governance in order for their multicultural citizens to have a sustainable decision making and conflict management platforms.

The Nigeria-Biafra War; An outcome of ethnic conflict

On January 1, 1914, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick John Dealtry Lugard -a well-known British soldier, mercenary, and colonial administrator in what is today known as Nigeria and India - on behalf of the British Empire joined together the Northern and Southern Protectorate of the British Empire, to create Nigeria. The Northern Protectorates was comprised of the ethnic groups of Fulani, Hausa, Nupe, Kanuri, Gwari, Tiv etc. They were predominantly Muslims who preferred Arabic education. These ethnic groups belong to Chadic language family which is spoken across the Sahara desert. The Southern Protectorate was comprised of ethnic groups of (Yoruba, Igbo, Benin, Ijaw, Kalabari, Efik, Ijaw, Ibibio tribes) tribes etc., who were adherents of traditional religion (with a mostly Christians orientation) and as such western education was prevalent in the South. These nations/ethnic groups belong to the same language family, Bantu (a language family of people who live across in the Sub-Saharan Africa - west to south).

Whereas Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba practiced monarchy, the Igbo had no direct rulers. The Biafran (the Igbo, Anang, Ibibio, Ijaw, Efik peoples) people practiced something similar to gerontocracy- where age confers leadership rights and status. As gerontocracy (rule by elders) was practised in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta, so also, according to Nwachukwu (1993), was a system somewhat similar to it was practised in indigenous Igbo setting; where every adult male has a part in ‘the task of decision-making’. Mahanta and Maut (2014) depicted clearly what Afigbo (1972) tried to describe as 'Democratic Village Republic' with their assertion that "the Igbos evolved a humanistic civilization. Each village had a legislative assembly which called open-air meetings at which everyone was free to give their opinions. This democratic process allowed the highest honours open to every free man" (p.262). This does not depart far from what Elizabeth Isichei (1976) (cited by Ezenwoko & Osagie 2014, p.137) called "(...) village democracy - a system of government that gave everyone – old and young – certain roles to play in the society". Uchendu (1965) argues that the orientation to achieve high status in the Igbo world “(...) fosters a socio-political system which is conciliar and democratic” (p.20). Similarly, Uchendu’s study of 1965 (cited in Harneit-Sievers, 1998) “described the prototypical Igbo traditional local political organization as ‘an exercise in direct democracy’ on the village level, with a ‘representative assembly’ on the level of the village group”(Harneit-Sievers 1998, p.59).

According to Acholonu (2008) every Igbo man (Biafran) feels in his marrow that he is a king and the Igbo happen to be the only tribe in the world whose ‘kinglessness’ is part of their identity, genealogy, cosmology and philosophy. This difference among these major ethnic groups is one of the causes of misunderstanding and apathy because the Hausa/Fulani do not understand ‘’why an Igbo can never grovel and roll on the ground before a fellow human being, no matter how highly placed’’. (Acholonu 2008:p49). Shaw (1997) (wife of Lugard) gave a veiled narrative of how subservient the Hausa/Fulani can be to either an Emir or the British, unlike the Igbos who are associated with self-deification or self-worship, when she posited that the superior races are in the northern and the inferior races reside in the southern portions of ‘the fertile belt’. As a result, the Hausa/Fulani were the darlings of the British colonialists and who at the same time practiced similar monarchical style of leadership like the British unlike the Igbos and others in the South who practiced ‘village democracy’.

These ethnic groups were also endowed with different natural resources. The Biafrans (Igbo, Ibibio, Efik, Ijaw, Urhobo and others had crude oil and palm oil, the Yoruba had coconut and cocoa; while the Hausa/Fulani and others had peanuts and yam etc.. As a result of the different climatic conditions, these groups had varied clothing and architectural styles; though that of the Biafrans and the Yoruba people did not differ much. The crude oil located in the Biafra land became the bone of contention before, during and after the civil war. At independence on October 1, 1960, the bulk of the educated Nigerians were mostly those from the Southern part of Nigeria (Biafrans & Yoruba) and as such occupied prominent positions both in the civil and military service. At this time also, the three dominant political parties emerged along ethnic lines and not long the political crisis erupted. Campbell J. (2013) a former US ambassador  stated that Igbos are probably the best educated; who are predominantly Christians; and  the most “westernized” of all other ethnic groups in Nigeria; and are often the focus of jealousy and resentment.

On January 15, 1966, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état citing corruption, nepotism etc. as their reasons, and toppled the federal government of Nigeria. Forsyth (1969) in his words contends that though the coup was plotted by a small group of junior officers, led mainly though not exclusively by men of Biafran (Igbo) origin. ‘’One of the props for the idea that the coup of 15 January was an all-Ibo affair aimed at bringing about the Ibo domination of Nigeria has always been that there was no coup in Enugu. The evidence does not support this theory’’ (Forsyth 1969: 29). On 29th July 1966, Hausa/Fulani and Tiv soldiers carried out a revenge coup, bloody (slaughtering Igbos like goats) and divisive in nature under the code name Araba (secession). These soldiers wanted the North to secede. The then British Ambassador to Nigeria advised otherwise and the rest is history. ''Cumming-Bruce (British High Commissioner) was able to persuade the Emirs that secession would have been an economic disaster'' (with oil in mind) (Gould 2012:43). Gould (2012) further argued that Cumming-Bruce was only extending the British policy of keeping power in the safe hands of the Northern Emirs.

The coup of July was a success and a Northern Soldier emerged as the military leader, but the Governor of the Eastern (Igbo) Region refused to recognize his government, citing seniority in rank and the unabated killing of Igbos in the North as reasons. A peace-accord was called in Ghana, though the two leaders reached an agreement; the Nigerian delegation refused to comply. On 30th May 1967 the Republic of Biafra was declared. Non-state actors played vital roles that saved lives in Biafra like CANAIRELIEF, the Pope etc. Unlike the AU and UN that did nothing to stop the war. Notably, ''Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in Biafra. This civil war was among the only time during the cold war that parties on both sides of the iron curtain concerted on a joint project of mutual benefit. ‘’ at first Biafra was successful and this alarmed Britain, the former colonial power, anxious for its big oil holdings. It also interested the Soviet Union, which saw a chance to increase its influence in West Africa. Both sent arms to boost the federal military government, under General Gowon’’ (Achebe 2013:100). Also, Achebe (2013) stated that Tanzania was the first country to recognize Biafra, followed by Gabon, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Haiti and France.

The blockaded Biafra existed for almost 2 years and 8 months -during the period in which the Biafrans had their own currency; manufactured all sorts of military hardware etc.- till when the federal forces overran its territory with the help of British, Russian and Arab support; leaving in its wake the loss of about 500 federal soldiers and over 2 million Igbo people (mostly from starvation and disease). It was about the ‘’in-group’’ aggression at the ‘‘out-group’’ for the interests of one’s ethnic group; on one hand was the preservation of the Igbo people and actualization self-rule; and on the other hand, the preservation of Nigeria or maybe Northern Nigeria’s and British interests. So was it out of genuine interests to keep Nigeria together or for selfish aims of the British imperialists and Northern people?

If countries with heterogeneous populations of different ethnic and religious backgrounds wish to live peacefully; they should have a con-federal system of government or at least a federal system, in order for their multicultural citizens to have a sustainable decision making and conflict management platform. Nigeria before the war had a federal system of government; the conflict did not arise because of the failure of the political system but rather ethnocentrism and British imperial manipulations. If Nigeria had implemented the con-federal system which was agreed between both parties to the war in Aburi, Ghana on 5th January 1967; the war would have been averted.


The Nigeria-Biafra civil war was the combustion of the influences of ethnocentrism, imperial interests and the quest for resource control, resulting in the rewriting of the history of Nigeria and that of the Biafran people. These influences are visible today, as seen in the Boko-Haram’s quest to Islamize Nigeria; the veiled attempts to procure grazing land in Biafra land and its environs for the Fulani herdsmen; the selfish claim of the oil in the Biafra land by those living in the desert towns of Northern Nigeria; the perpetuation of British neo-colonial interests and the protection of the interests of the Fulani oligarchy. The only remedy as it stands now is the creation of autonomous countries along ethnic nationalities – Baifra Republic, Oduduwa Republic, The Islamic Republic of Arewa etc. Any ethnic nationality which wishes to secede will be allowed to do so; forced unification must be abhorred.  If these new countries are created, the enduring mechanisms for sustainable peace for them should be the weakening of the centre (federal government) and empowerment of State and Local governments to have more control over their resources.

Today, the three tiers of government in Nigeria depends on resources from oil in 10 states (all in the Southern Nigeria- Biafra included), it means over 21 states are economically unviable. There cannot be peace and progress under this system – the status quo.


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