The Biafran War


Like most African nations, Nigeria consists of many different groups forced to co-exist within artificial boundaries drawn by the European power that had formerly controlled the region.


Nigeria escaped British colonialism by declaring independence from Great Britain on October 1, 1960 and eventually became a republic in 1963. After World War II, weary Britain regarded Nigeria as a costly empire and thus, agreed to granting the colonial governments more political and economic power. Britain devised a new constitution in 1950 which provided for a federal system with powers shared between central authorities and three regional legislatures. Such government reorganization spurred the formation of three major political parties. The National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, dominated the Eastern Region. The Action Group (AG), led by Yoruba Chief Obafemi Awolowo, comprised the political entity in the Western Region. The Nigerian Peoples Congress (NPC), controlled by the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, led the Muslim areas in the Northern Region. The deputy leader of the NPC, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, became prime minister while Azikiwe, after aligning his party with the NPC, assumed the larger role of governor-general. The AG emerged as the opposition party.


Political antagonisms and increasing corruption characterized the first government of independent Nigeria. The establishment of the Midwest Region irritated many Yoruba of the Western Region, including Soyinka. Disagreements between Awolowo of the AG and regional Premier Samuel Akintola paralyzed the Western Region where central authorities assumed control for ten months. Representatives of the federal government charged Awolowo and other Yoruba leaders with treason in 1962 and sentenced them to fifteen years in prison. A crisis occurred in 1964 when electoral boycotts took place during the first general elections. Then in 1965 disorders broke out after the ruling political party rigged elections in the Western (Ibo) region. On January 14, 1966, the federal government proclaimed martial law as a solution to Nigeria's problems. The overthrow of the federal government resulted in the mass violence including the murders of Prime Minister Balewa, Akintola, and the Sardauna of Sokoto as part of a coup led by army officers belonging to the Ibo tribe who overthrew the civil government. A military government led by Maj. Gen. Johnson T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi then ruled Nigeria, until another coup led by the officers of the Hausa tribe of the northern region. The murder of Ibos living in the north led to a mass migration of Ibos to their native eastern region. Hausas were also killed in the Eastern Region.


The four regions attempted to negotiate a return to a civilian government from September to November 1966 but failed to produce an agreement, in part because the representatives of the Eastern Region failed to appear after the first conference. Although more negotiations took place in 1967, the situation quickly deteriorated, and on May 27, Lieut. Col. C. O. Ojukwu, empowered by the Eastern Region's Consultative Assembly, declared the Eastern Region a sovereign and independent republic. The federal government declared a state emergency and divided Nigeria into 12 states.


On May 30, Ojukwu proclaimed the secession of the Eastern Region and the formation of the Republic of Biafra. Soon, fighting broke out between the federal and the Biafran forces. Although the Biafran forces at first did well, by early October the federal forces had captured Enugu, their capital. Despite attempts by the Organization of African Unity to end the civil war, hostilities continued until 1970 at which point the federal forces had starved the Biafran population into submission. Ojukwu fled the country on January 11, and a delegation to Lagos formally surrendered on January 15, 1970, thus ending the existence of the Republic of Biafra.