Biafra a Nation deprived of its Sovereignty

Kolawole Olaniyan

Agitation for secession among the more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria started almost immediately after the British-engineered amalgamation of 1 January 1914, which joined the Southern and Northern Protectorates to form what is Nigeria.

Vast distances, differences of history and traditions, and ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social, and religious barriers all hampered the creation of a unified state.

Nigeria "became" a federation of three regions based on ethnic groupings upon independence on 1 October 1960, but pressure for secession continued even after that development.

In 1967 Biafra attempted to secede from the Nigerian federation. That effort culminated in a devastating, intense, and prolonged civil war. Scholars differ in their view of its history and consequences, but broad agreement exists on some pertinent issues.

The Nigerian Civil War, spanning a thirty-month period, from May 30, 1967, to January 12, 1970, was precipitated by a combination of factors. Among the many reasons advanced are growing interethnic rivalry and suspicion between the three major ethnic groups (Hausa/Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west, and Igbo in the south); agitations over alleged domination by one ethnic group to the exclusion of the others; a controversial 1963 federal census; disputed post independence elections in 1964 and volatile western regional elections in 1965, inevitably resulting in prolonged political crisis, anarchy, and uncertainty. These events triggered the first military coup on January 15, 1966, by predominantly young Igbo army officers led by Major Chukwuma "Kaduna" Nzeogwu, himself an Igbo from the eastern region.

Although prominent northern politicians such as the prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, and the Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, were killed in the process, there were no casualties in the east, reinforcing the belief in many quarters, especially in the northern region, that the coup was ethnically motivated to achieve domination by the Igbo over other ethnic groups. Nzeogwu's coup failed, but a countercoup, led by another Igbo, Major General Johnson Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, abolished the federal structure and introduced in its stead a unitary system of government.

Although the new government arrested the suspected plotters of the first coup, they were never tried. Consequently, on July 29, 1966, a "revenge coup" by largely northern officers led to the killing of the Nigerian head of state, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi at Ibadan, while he was making an official visit to the western region. During this same period several Igbo officers and civilians were also killed in the north, and their properties looted or destroyed.

By October 1966 over fifty thousand Igbos had lost their lives, several thousands more were maimed, and an estimated two million Igbos fled from other parts of Nigeria back to the east. In response, Lieutenant Colonel Chukumeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Eastern Military Governor stated, "The brutal and planned annihilation of officers of Eastern Nigeria origin had cast serious doubt as to whether they could ever sincerely live together as members of a nation" (Ojiako, 1979, p. 48).

To reduce the political tensions that had engulfed the country, representatives of all concerned parties attended a summit of military leaders at Aburi, Ghana, beginning January 4, 1967, and agreed to a confederal system of government, but the agreement was never implemented. After several unsuccessful efforts to negotiate peace, Ojukwu unilaterally declared Biafra's independence from Nigeria on May 30, 1967, citing the Nigerian government's inability to protect the lives of easterners and suggesting its culpability in genocide. Biafra derived its name from the Bight of Biafra and comprised the East-Central, South-Eastern, and Rivers states of Nigeria. Biafra's independence was recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia. The federal government of Nigeria responded to Biafra's declaration of independence with its own declaration of war.

The Nigerian Civil War, fought almost entirely in the south-eastern portion of that country, resulted in the death of millions of unarmed civilians and massive destruction of property. As the conflict progressed, the living conditions in Biafra deteriorated. The Biafrans, fighting against a numerically and materially superior force, were virtually encircled and isolated.

The Biafran armed forces made sporadic strategic incursions into federal territories, but limited means of support frequently forced a retreat. A combination of military operations—by land, air, and sea—and an economic blockade against Biafra and the destruction of its agricultural life by the Nigerian federal government led to the starvation, mass death, and displacement of Igbos.

The Nigerian government blockaded the region from the sea, thus preventing the shipment of critical items and services to the east. Furthermore, the government recaptured the Rivers state, cutting off the oil revenue with which Biafra had expected to finance the war; suspended telephone, telegraph, and postal services; and cancelled all air flights to the region, except those cleared by Lagos. The enforcement of a comprehensive blockade led to severe shortages of food, medicine, clothing, and housing, precipitating heavy casualties among Biafran civilians. About three million Biafrans are believed to have lost their lives, an estimated one million of them as a result of severe malnutrition. More than three million Igbos became internally displaced persons or refugees. For a variety of reasons, including the national interests of most of its member states, the international community, except for limited humanitarian relief, left Biafrans to their fate.

Biafra alleged genocide, fueling international sympathy. Although a team of observers found considerable evidence of famine and death as a result of the war, it uncovered no proof of genocide or the systematic destruction of property. Furthermore, although claims of starvation and genocide secured military and political support from some members of the international community and international organizations, they also helped to lengthen the war, thereby furthering the suffering in Biafra. In December 1968 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that fourteen thousand people were dying each day in Biafra. Many civilians who had already survived the war reportedly died of starvation because the federal government obstructed direct access to relief agencies and ignored international pressure to allow mass relief operations entry into Biafra, accusing relief agencies of concealing arms shipments with supplies from their humanitarian flights.

It would appear that the implementation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its Protocol II Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, to which Nigeria is a party, was the exception rather than the rule.

According to Additional Protocol II,

[All] persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities, whether or not their liberty has been restricted, are entitled to respect for their person, honour and convictions and religious practices. They shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction.

The fall of Owerri, one of Biafra's strongholds on January 6, 1970, signalled the collapse of the resistance, leading to the flight of its leader, Ojukwu, to the Ivory Coast. On January 12, 1970, the Biafran chief of army staff, Major General Phillip Effiong, surrendered to the federal government. According to Effiong, "We are firm, we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government. We accept the existing administrative and political structure of the federation of Nigeria. The Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist" (Oko, 1998, p. 336).

The Nigerian head of state, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, accepted Biafra's unconditional surrender, declaring that there would be no victor and no vanquished. Although the civil war resulted in mass death, starvation, displacement, and destruction of property, its principal objective was to bring back the eastern state to the federation, not the destruction of the Igbos.

In contrast to the policies of extinction underpinning the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide, those of the Nigerian government did not call for the extermination of the Igbos, but instead sought to address the threat of secession.

Thus, after the war, the government developed a Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation program to resettle those who had been displaced from their homes and places of permanent residence; rehabilitate both troops and civilians alike; reconstruct damaged infrastructure and public institutions; and correct economic and social problems—poverty, preventable diseases, squalor, and ignorance. Furthermore, the federal government promised to provide food, shelter, and medicines for the affected population; hand over power to a civilian government on October 1, 1975; reorganize the armed forces; complete the establishment of the twelve states announced in 1967; conduct a national census; draft a new constitution; and hold elections. Although some of these commitments were fulfilled—new states were created, a new constitution was implemented, the armed forces were scaled down in size, and power was handed over to a civilian government—Nigeria's subsequent history of corruption and military coups has left many of its promises unfulfilled.

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Federation of the Free States of Africa


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Mangovo Ngoyo
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