Colonial Legacy, Elite Dissension and the Making of Genocide: The Story of Biafra

By Sam Amadi

Published on: Jan 10, 2007

Printable Version“The Nigeria civil war broke out on 6 July 1967. The war was the culmination of an uneasy peace and stability that had plagued the nation since independence in 1960. This situation had its genesis in the geography, culture and demography of Nigeria.”
– Major Abubakar A Atofarati1


Between 1964 and 1970, the Ibos of eastern Nigeria were victims of mass violence. The violence occurred in two phases, first as a result of planned murderous assault by the Nigerian ruling elites, mainly of Hausa-Fulani ethnic origin in peacetime, and later in a full-blown civil war between Nigeria and Biafra. Biafra was an enclave that the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, carved out and declared a sovereign state at the height of the genocidal attack against the Igbo. Ibos were the overwhelming majority in the new Biafran state. They shared the state with minority ethnic groups in Eastern Nigeria. Ojukwu declared Biafra as Governor of Eastern Nigeria, not necessarily as the representative of the Eastern minorities.

The “genocide” in Nigeria raises a number of questions. Did the government intend to wipe out the Ibos as suggested by the statements of some of the war generals, or to politically confine the Ibos to a position of inferiority and subordination as later events indicate? If the intention was to wipe out the Ibos, why did the Nigerian army stop short of accomplishing the goal immediately after the secessionists surrendered, when it had the upper hand? As I argue later, the plausible interpretation of these complex and conflicting data is that the political elites intended to politically subjugate the Igbo and the genocidal dimension arises from the psychological orientation of the politics of Igbo-phobia.2

Patterns of Violence

Violence against Ibos occurred in phases. Significant “group-targeted” violence began as early as 1945, but the major and sustained phases began in 1966. About 30,000 Ibos, mostly civilians, were killed in three waves of genocidal attacks between May 29 and September 29, 1966. The killings were indiscriminate except that victims were Ibos, and they were killed for being Ibos. The killings were not outcomes of mob actions or riots. Evidence from survivors, victims and observers of the genocides prove that the various acts of violence against the Igbos were deliberated and coordinated by highly placed northern politicians with the connivance of some officers of the federal government.

The instigation for violence against Ibos in 1966 derived from various incitements by government functionaries who complained bitterly about Ibo dominance of commerce in the north. This complaint was extended to mean the existence of an Igbo conspiracy to become the new rulers of independent Nigeria.

The pattern of violence during the pogroms (May 29, July 29 and September 29, 1966) was similar to the attack against the Ibos during the civil war that would last for more than 3 years, between July 1967 and January 1970. Although official hostilities were declared between the federal and Biafran side, the conduct of the war by the federal troops in some instances offended the laws of war and invoked images of the pre-war violence against the Ibo. Even when Biafran strongholds were overrun by the federal side and there were no effective resistances, the genocidal dimensions of the war continued to manifest. Several foreign and local journalists reported cruel attacks on Ibos who were neither belligerents or in the way of battle.

There are many documented testimonies of victims and observers about the gross cruelty and barbarism of the Nigerian soldiers meted on Igbos civilians even after the surrender of Biafran rebel soldiers, acts that raised the question of a genocidal motivation. At least that was the conclusion of the Investigators of the International Commission of Jurists led by Dr. Mensah of Ghana. According to Dr. Mensah he received evidence from two witnesses about mass graves where dead, sick and wounded Biafrans were buried alive with some sucklings and “the cries and wailing of the sick, the wounded and the babies could be heard from a long distance away.” In this testimony, it was also mentioned that, when these mass graves had been covered, the Federal soldiers danced native war dances over them. Dr Mensa concluded that “I am of the opinion that in many of these cases cited to me hatred of the Biafrans (mainly Igbos) and a wish to exterminate them was a foremost motivational factor.” 3

There is no doubt from the evidence of international and local observers of the pogroms of 1966 and the three year civil war that Biafran civilians, especially Ibos, were victims of gross cruelty reminiscent of the Jewish genocide. There is sufficient evidence that the masterminds of these attacks were motivated, as Dr. Mensah put it in the ICJ Report, by a “wish to exterminate” the Ibos. But how does this motivation square up with the policy and politics of the war? Is it really the fact that other ethnic groups, especially the Hausa-Fulani in northern Nigeria, wanted the Ibos completely wiped out or driven out of Nigeria?

The difficulty in understanding the genocidal behavior derives mainly from the nature of the civil war: how to reconcile the genocidal intent with the determination to keep Biafrans in Nigeria? It will appear that rather than other Nigerian ethnic groups wanting the Igbo outside the federation, they wanted them inside. Given that genocide usually involves determination to drive the victimized ethnic or religious group out of the territorial space, how do we understand the sort of genocide that wants the victims inside rather than outside?

The Political Economy of Escalation: History, Institutions, and Leadership
“Northerners” and “Southerners”

The ordinary fact of colonialism, as heinous and ruinous as it was, does not adequately explain the tragic direction Nigerian politics took after independence. But the colonial legacy, in which colonialists conceived and birthed the idea of Nigeria to serve largely imperial interests, cannot be overstressed. The Nigerian erudite political thinker and one of the foremost nationalists, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, has described the idea of Nigeria as a “geographical expression.” The various ethnic nations bounded together into the Niger-area by her majesty servants existed as a nation only in name.

The basic characteristic of British colonialism was that it assumed a “single model of customary authority in precolonial Africa…authority was considered an attribute of a personal despotism.”4 Unlike French colonialists who strived to create French citizens out of Africans, the British retained Nigerians in their ethnic constitutions. But the worst is that British administrative policies created the binaries of citizens and subject and of native and settler.

This bifurcation of citizenship manifested physically in the ghettoization of Nigerians in places outside their so-called states of origin. In the case of northern Nigeria, there developed many “Sabon Gari” (strangers’ quarters) in such major cities as Kano and Jos. The incessant incidences of ethnic attacks, often directed against the Ibos, could be explained by this ghettoization and the subsequent complex of “a stranger in his country.” The British colonial system relied on manpower and resources from the south to run the north. This opened the way for immigration to northern Nigeria. But the problem remained: how to maintain northern cultural exceptionalism as well as allow for needed economic interdependence? The result of the tension was a nation that was administratively interdependent but culturally and politically differentiated. The colonial governor’s wide-ranging powers were applied to demographically segregate Nigerians who managed to migrate to northern Nigeria in spite of dissuasion. Major cities in the north were organized around three categories: the walled city reserved for indigenous population; Tudun Wada housing non-indigenous northerners; and Sabon Gari for southerners.5

The politics of “northerners” and “southerners” beclouds the realities of deeper ethnic and cultural diversities and, similarly, deep interrelatedness.6 The politics of indigene and stranger breeds a psychology of envy and resentment. The Ibos were special butts of resentment and envy. Because of economic considerations, Ibos were the most eager to leave their native land in search of “white man” jobs in northern Nigeria. Many of them became successful merchants living in “Sabon Garis.” These pressures created an unhealthy competition in these cities between generally “northerners” and “southerners,” and in most cases, specifically between the Ibos and the indigenous ethnic groups.

Failure of the Rule of Law Institutions

As a result of minority disquiet, the colonial government commissioned a study of minority questions preparatory to independence, “The Willink Commission.” It toured Nigeria and elicited ideas on the constitutional fundamentals of post-colonial Nigeria that could guarantee peace among the many ethnic groups. The commission rejected the demand for creation of more regions for the minorities, and instead recommended the entrenchment of fundamental human rights in the independent constitution as a protection for minorities.7 Thus began Nigeria’s constitutional democracy. In 1960, a bill of rights was entrenched in the independence constitution, and has remained a permanent fixture in Nigeria’s many truncated, voided and breached constitutions.

The bill of rights guaranteed equality under the law and prohibited discriminatory treatment based on gender, membership or other affiliations with a religious or ethnic group. The problem was that whereas the constitution proclaimed citizenship rights for every Nigerian the colonial laws that regionalized and ethnicized access to privileges and rights remained effective. More importantly, political leaders did not take seriously the responsibility to protect those rights when they were breached in respect of any Nigerian. In May 1966, after the gruesome attack against Ibos, the Aguiyi Ironsi regime did nothing to ensure that those who fomented the crisis and directed violence against Ibos were prosecuted. Little wonder that the same genocidal attack was launched against the Ibos again on July 29, 1966.

The idea of common citizenship is the resource which keeps multiethnic states together. Where this idea is abandoned in practice, the empty platitudes of human rights or the institutions of the rule of law are incapable of protecting citizens from being victims. Hannah Arendt was right to have insisted on civil rights above human rights. For where the guarantees of citizenship are feeble or absent, as in Nigeria, common humanity means nothing; and the worst can be done against fellow citizens.8

The Failure of Leadership: Elite Dissension

Individual leadership flaws contributed both to the dynamics of conflict in Nigeria and the actual outbreak of violence. The personality conflict between Ojukwu and Gowon undermined efforts to peacefully settle the crisis that snow-balled into a war. Negotiations for the settlement of the secession crisis and the regaining of Ibo confidence in the idea of one nation fell through because neither Ojukwu nor Gowon could abandon hard positions.

General Gowon and his cabinet focused more on breaking the political power of the Ibos of Eastern Nigeria instead of reassuring and compensating them for the grievous wrong suffered in a year-long massacre. In the face of the threats of chaos and disintegration, these leaders could not rise to the requirements of forthrightness and selflessness. However, based on official statements, we can give the benefit of doubt to Gowon and conclude that in spite of brutality and violence against civilians, acts that contravened the Geneva Conventions, the policy for taking arms against Biafra was to crush Ojukwu’s rebellion and maintain the federation. But this conclusion has to explain such egregious violence against ordinary Ibos and statements by Nigeria war commanders like Benjamin Adekunle, a.k.a. “Black Scorpion,” that “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the center of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move…”9 Is such statement part of the conduct of a dirty war or does it evince a “motivation” to genocide? At a minimum, we can argue that there was strong hatred and demonization of the Ibos, which made such cruelty and gory killing of civilians conceivable and tolerable, even in the context of a civil war.

General Odumegwu Ojukwu has been faulted, notably by Ken Saro-Wiwa and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, for rejecting peace overtures from the federal government. Both Saro-Wiwa and Azikiwe believe that Ojukwu stage-managed the Eastern Region Constituent Assembly to authorize him to declare secession. The decision to declare Biafra was a product not of deliberative reasoning in the face of odds but of cajolery, bribery, coercion and sophistry tinged with elements of repression of dissent.

The feuding generals had an opportunity to reverse the momentum to war when the Ghanaian Head of State, Gen Ankra, hosted a peace meeting in Aburi, Ghana. An accord was reached at Aburi whose exact terms became a matter of renewed aggression between the federal government and the Biafran government. Ojukwu’s account of the agreement differed from the federal government interpretation on the extent of power and responsibility of the federal executive council vis-à-vis the regions. Ojukwu absented himself from a meeting called to implement the accord. In his absence the meeting approved Decree No.8 enacted by the federal government to implement the agreement. Ojukwu did not accept the decree because it compromised his position by not granting the regions complete authority in dealing with certain issues that concern their sovereignty.10 Azikiwe faults Ojukwu’s rejection of the decree as in service of greed for power and an attempt to “continue a calculated gambit which has led to the civil war.”11

Even as secession was declared the damage could still have been controlled but for the peculiar interplay of arrogance, ambition and naiveté. Ojukwu had boasted about the Biafran capability to face-down federal soldiers; that he had long planned for the crucial moment and that he knew that by starting the war he was “carving his name in History”; and that he had built the largest army in black Africa.12 The propaganda machines on both sides of the war were merciless in their prevarication and embellishment. They overrated their little successes in battle and diminished the scale of human tragedy in Biafra. Ojukwu and his war generals reluctantly admitted the huge loss the young republic was suffering for fear of demoralizing the people who were volunteering and being conscripted for battle. Propaganda helped to blind the people to the fact that the war could and ought to be avoided. It has been alleged that many deaths occurred because of policies by both the federal government and rebels to block food or medical supplies or to prioritize arms delivery above humanitarian aid. By certain perverse incentives the Biafran army was alleged to be compounding the human suffering in Biafra as a ploy to whip up sentiment against Nigeria and in favor of the Biafran republic.13

De-Escalation: What Factors Delayed and Led to the End of Violence
One characteristic of the Ibo massacres between 1967 and 1970 that made them come short of genocide, that is, to be near-genocides, is that they were brought to a halt by the aggressors themselves. Neither the United Nations nor the Organization of African Unity sent troops to stop the killings and keep the peace. The Ibo (Eastern Nigeria) secessionists did not win on the battlefield. As gallant as they were in the battle they were out-gunned by the more formidable Nigerian army equipped and helped by foreign powers. By the late 1969, when the Nigerian army had overrun the Ibo heartland, the civilian population was at the mercy of the Nigerian troops. Although trigger-happy and genocidal federal soldiers shot and killed civilians in conditions of surrender, on the whole the Head of State, General Gowon, was able to accept the surrender of the Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) and graciously proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished.” Although this policy was implemented more in default, it helped to avert open predation of Ibos when they returned back to the federation.

Gowon as a Factor of De-escalation

The Nigeria civil war is the best example of a civil war that ended without open post-war recrimination. Evidence of how quickly the Ibos reentered the Nigerian federation they had exited with belligerence is that in the 1979 general elections, nine years after the civil war, an Ibo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was on the Presidential ballot on the ticket of a predominantly Ibo party.14 The Ibos grew influential, although still marginalized and repressed, largely due to the permissible environment of the policy of “no victor no vanquished.” Their dynamism and resilience contributed immensely to their quick re-integration. But, if they had been made easy game for predators they would not have thrived. One man who can rightly take credit for conducting a largely decent war, promoting reconciliation and staving off post-war recriminations, is General Gowon.

Gowon’s background as an ethnic and religious minority in northern Nigeria probably influenced his disposition to be less vengeful and spiteful against Ibos. He was a Christian in a predominantly Muslim north and also a Tiv, a minority tribe in northern Nigeria that suffered grave repression both at the hands of the colonialists and Hausa-Fulani feudalists. In spite of Nigeria’s overwhelming military advantage over Biafra, especially when more Ibo cities fell to the control of the federal soldiers, Gowon’s lack of murderous spite against the Ibos ensured that the war did not end as a war of extermination as some of his war generals like Benjamin Adekunle, who vowed to shoot every moveable or immovable thing in Biafran, wanted. Throughout the conflict Gowon allowed the possibility of pull-backs by creating incentives for negotiations. Although these opportunities were not well used because of his moral weakness and Ojukwu’s hawkish nature, the opportunities made it possible for leaders on both sides to intervene.

Gowon’s overall congeniality helped to smooth surrender and the reintegration of the Ibos, as can be seen from his speech accepting the terms of surrender from the rebel second-in-command, Major General Philip Effiong. After gladly accepting the surrender he painted the psychology of the war thus: “On our side we fought the war with great caution, not in anger or hatred, but always in the hope that common sense would prevail. Many times we sought a negotiated settlement, not out of wickedness, but in order to minimize the problems of reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. We know that however the war ended, in the battlefield or in the conference room, our brothers fighting under other colors must rejoin us and that we must together build the nation anew.” Most likely Gowon believed what he said, even as some of his commanders believed it was a war of extermination.

The role of charismatic and ideological leaders in fomenting and perpetuating conflict is well noted in the literature of conflict.15 It follows that well meaning and reconciliatory leaders equally help to end violent conflict earlier than predicted. In the case of the Nigerian civil war, Gowon’s lack of manifest residual hatred for the Ibos acted as incentive for Ojukwu’s lieutenants to turn to reconciliation when the tide turned against them.

The Role of Civil Society Leaders

What did important elites who were directly engaged in the secession crisis and the governance questions that triggered the later violence against the Easterners do to stop the violence and settle the conflict? Pretty little. In the context of Nigeria of the 1960s it is difficult to define who constituted civil society. There were no organized human rights or civil society groups apart from many tribal and cultural-cum-intellectual organizations. Even at that, these latter groups were not directly involved in political governance. Actually, it was ethno-religious organizations that played influential roles in governance. This started with colonial government who favored traditional rulers and traditional institutions against the newly emerging intellectual and academic class. The reason the colonialists disfavored the latter class was because they were prone to nationalistic fervor and agitation. Soldiers were made to perceive themselves as disciplined, while the chattering academics were unruly. So, the dynamism was set in motion for the impoverishment of civil advocacy.

But, nevertheless, one or two individuals played important roles in raising a different consciousness about the violence and the war and helped to stimulate non-partisan concerns about the horrors of the war. Notably among individuals outside the government who played key roles is Professor Wole Soyinka. Soyinka’s intervention in the violence dated from his engagement with the political crisis in Western Nigeria. He shocked the nation when as a young lecturer he stormed the Western Region Broadcasting Corporation to denounce the electoral fraud and the political manipulation in the region. It became known as the “Mystery Gun-man” saga.

Soyinka’s major contribution to de-escalation is in focusing attention on the stupidity and inhumanity of the war and increasing public scrutiny of the political process for the formation of the war. In the midst of war rhetoric and preparations, Soyinka opened up contact with the rebel leader to better appreciate the concerns of the government of Eastern Nigeria. He opted for a third way which neither supported the federal or eastern side of the conflict, but rather advocated for the rule of law and social justice for the Ibos and other persecuted people as the foundation for peace.

The impact Soyinka’s activism had on the crisis could be said to be minimal. The Gowon government perceived him to be a radical who was sympathetic to the rebel Biafra and imprisoned him. But, the moral stance he took against the regime and its war machine contributed to more transparent engagement with the process of decision making about the political crisis and helped to whip up more interventions for peace. One means of continuing mass violence is to enshroud the human misery in cloaks of dogmatism. Soyinka’s sharp wit demystified the ideology of war and brought home the human misery caused by elite contention for power.

Another major and influential intervention to defuse the war took place in May 1967 by a group of eminent Nigerians from different walks of life called the National Reconciliation Committee. This was a group of largely self-appointed interveners who desired to break the diplomatic impasse between the federal and rebel sides. Members of the committee included Chief Obafemi Awolowo (the leader of the Action Group who later became Minister of Finance), Professor Aluko (an economist famous for intellectual critique of government policies), Chief Rotimi William (Nigeria’s most eminent lawyer), Sir Kashim Ibrahim (a federal minister from the north) and many other notable politicians and academics. The group met with Ojukwu in Enugu, the Eastern Region capital, and canvassed a negotiated end to the stalemate between Ojukwu and Gowon.

The committee largely failed in its peace mission because Ojukwu objected both to its constitution and its terms of reference. The issue of representation was an albatross that drowned the committee’s peace efforts. Ojukwu had objected to certain members of the committee from the north on the grounds that their impartiality was compromised since the north was a party to the dispute. He also objected to the Eastern representative who was not his own appointee. As much as it tried, the committee could not convince Ojukwu to overlook the credibility of some of the members and the grievances of the past to give it a chance to break the impasse between him and Gowon. But the committee succeeded in convincing Gowon to relax (even if momentarily) the federal blockage of Eastern Nigeria that was already resulting in grave sufferings.

Apart from this, the success of the committee was merely symbolic. But, this symbolism is important for de-frosting the relationship between the East and the rest of the federation and making it possible for members of the rebel government dissatisfied with the war to reach out to their compatriots outside the rebel territory. This bridge assisted in putting pressure on Gowon to negotiate and ultimate accept the fall of Biafra on good terms.16

Another Nigerian whose clear minded opposition to the war contributed to nudging the international community to see the war from the lens of human tragedy rather than of internal sovereignty is Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Governor-General of Nigeria and the first President of the republican government toppled by the January 1966 coup. Zik, as he is fondly called, had a love-hate relationship with General Ojukwu, a fellow Ibo. The rivalry between them dates from the removal of Azikiwe as the Chancellor of University of Nigeria when Ojukwu was Military Governor of Eastern Region. Whether from resentment or not, Zik mounted a very spirited campaign to expose the foolishness of the war. He implored Ojukwu and Gowon to “listen to the voice of humanity and stop this senseless war… (they) together with those who counsel them, should now have second thoughts and suspend hostilities. They should proceed to the conference table to negotiate a rapprochement which would safeguard the lives and liberties of innocent citizens.”17

Zik did not restrict his advocacy for peace within Nigeria. He internationalized the campaign for peace. Zik was the first to locate the possibility of settlement of the crisis on a direct and decisive intervention of the United Nations through the Security Council. In an address delivered at Rhodes House, Oxford on February 16, 1969, Zik appealed to the UN to intervene because it is “the forum of last resort” when every other effort has failed. He proposed for a UN committee of nineteen to ensure “total arms embargo; armistice embracing cessation of hostilities on land, sea and air; revocation of blockages including economic and administrative sanctions; establishment of an international peace force, to act for and on behalf of the Security Council to assume administration of the war zones, to demobilize troops engaged in war zones,… to conduct a plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the inhabitants of the war zones whether they want one Nigeria or a divided Nigeria.”18 These proposals were pretty revolutionary in cold war international relations of non-interference. If it was in the post-cold war period, they would have been possible action plans.

The OAU and International Community

Whether the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nation played an important role in de-escalating the conflict is arguable. What is unarguable is that both organizations did not act as decisively as they could and when they ought. Of course, the political climate of international relations when the Biafran-Nigerian conflict occurred is important to understanding the organizations’ dilly-dalliance. Particularly for the OAU, the conflict occurred when the fundamental policy of the organization was the maintenance of the sanctity of the borders of post-colonial states. The leaders of Africa, as part of a policy of fighting neo-colonial interference after grim battles against European colonialialism, affirmed to each other respect for internal sovereignty. There is a rich, and still growing, literature on this ill-fated policy and how it induced the collapse of African states under the twin strike forces of arbitrary rule and weak civil society.19

The OAU made efforts to resolve the crisis before it degenerated into war. But these efforts were sometimes half-hearted, and every time paralyzed by the politics of internal sovereignty. Once military hostilities were declared between Eastern Nigeria and the federal government, Gowon let it be known that any country that recognized Biafra as an independent sovereign state would be viewed by his government as interfering in the internal affairs of the Nigeria. This reduced the organization’s intervention to mere exhortation to peace.

On July 8, 1968, the Presidents of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia made joint appeal to both sides to cease hostilities. The Head of State of Lesotho brought a motion in the OAU for members to consider ways and means of ending the conflict. In a September 1967 session in Kinshasa, African Heads of States succeeded in persuading Nigeria to agree that the issue be discussed at the floor of the General Assembly on condition that they would not interfere with its internal affairs. They formed a committee to go to the Head of State of Nigeria “to assure him of the Assembly’s desire for territorial integrity, unity and peace of Nigeria.” In its resolution the Assembly affirmed its adherence to the “principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, condemns secession” and the right of the Nigerian government to determine the nature of OAU’s involvement.20

In several other meetings and peace conferences the organization was crippled by lack of moral authority and the weakness of its voice on behalf of the suffering Ibo civilians. It almost demanded that the Biafrans call off military resistance before the federal government stopped aggression. A few Presidents felt the need for a more proactive engagement with peace and justice in the Biafran question, but the organization was too bogged down in its neo-colonial nightmares to act decisively as required by the conflict. In the midst of this misstep a few countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Ivory Coast recognized the right of Biafra and further depleted the leadership resources of the organization. President Nyerere of Tanzania was so incensed by the religious commitment to internal sovereignty to the detriment of human life that he accused African Heads of State of “callously watching the massacre of tens of thousands of people for the sake of upholding territorial integrity of Nigeria.”21

The record of the United Nation in de-escalating the conflict is even more dismal. The United Nation as a body failed to intervene in any significant manner. It deferred leadership and responsibility to the Organization of African Unity, and supported the latter’s affirmation of the supremacy of internal sovereignty and the principle of non-interference. Like the leaders of the OAU, the then Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant, expressed concern at the worsening fate of the people of Eastern Nigeria but hoped that the Kinshasa peace initiative of the OAU would lead to quick resolution of the crisis. The deference to regional initiative may seem very sensible and well meaning in the geo-politics of that period. But, in the face of the huge human tragedy and the precedent of the Vietnam case, the Secretary General could have done more to move the United Nations to intervene to pressure the Nigerian government to reconsider its position and accept better terms of peace.

The Secretary-General laid the responsibility on important members of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly to table the issue for international action. However, most of the western countries that had both the diplomatic resources and stakes to effectively intervene were entangled in the conflict and could not find a neutral voice. Britain, being the former colonial ruler of Nigeria, had sufficient standing to intervene in the peace process. But she was already intervening in supplying arms and technical support to the federal side. The Russians were also supplying firearms to Nigeria. Not to be beaten, France allegedly granted Biafra a loan of 8 million pounds in return for a concession to French oil companies. The war was sustained by the involvement of western countries as arm suppliers and oil importers.

Equally, the war played into the cold war calculations of the world powers. It was obvious that these powers suspected the implication of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Nigeria and preferred to remain committed to the original Nigeria. They did nothing serious to end the war. On January 8, 1969, Radio Prague commented that “the great power rivalry is thus transferring the old West-East dispute into a particular hot part of Africa, and neither Nigeria nor Biafra can possibly benefit from it. For the matter now is no longer Nigeria or Biafra alone; the really big fight is over great power influence and over establishing new spheres of influence, and that is the biggest tragedy of the present Nigerian crisis.”22 With the possible exception of the United States, most western powers had economic interests to protect and hedged in making commitment or denouncing the massacres of the Ibos.

The British government notoriously declined to take a resolute stand in favor of ending the misery of millions of Easterners. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, expressed doubts that arm supplies to the warring parties could cease. In his words, “I know of no mediation that will be successful in ending this tragic fighting. I think the general recognition is that it need take an African solution.” Michael Stewart, the Labour Foreign Minister justified British continuous supply of arms to Nigeria in similar terms: “It would have been quite easy for me to say: this is going to be difficult – let’s cut off all connection with the Nigerian government. If I’d done that I should have known that I was encouraging in Africa the principle of tribal secession – with all the misery that could bring to Africa in the future.” The British diplomatic machine refused to grind into action, in spite of the remonstration of humanists like Lord Bertrand Russell, who argued that the doctrine of non-interference in situations like the Biafran civil war leads to much evil.23

The Role of Humanitarian Organizations and Famous Stars

When the United Nations foot-dragged and the OAU was belabored by its burden of history, some well-meaning individuals and organizations set out to reduce human suffering in the war. The Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), formed as a result of the human suffering of the dead and wounded, and did much to help humanitarian relief, as did the Red Cross. These groups, in addition to helping the wounded and the hungry, also lent their voices for calls to end the war. The reports on the suffering of Biafran civilians, especially the genocidal attack on sleepy villages and fleeing women and children, helped to thaw the ice of the politics of “internal conflict” and present the picture of a genocidal attack. These insights drove global revulsion against the war and helped to put pressure on the Nigerian government to conduct the war with fewer violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Their effort was dramatized and glamorized by famous actors and musicians who signed to the “Biafran” cause and raised money for the suffering in Biafra. In 1968, American folk singer Joan Baez and rock singer Jimi Hendrix performed in a Biafran Relief Benefit in Manhattan to raise money for the refugees of the Biafra-Nigeria war. Several such fund-raisers were organized across western societies by Ibos in Diaspora and by charitable persons and institutions. The allegation was that these charitable funds helped Ojukwu prolong the resistance instead of helping to end the war.24 This perverse incentive was unavoidable in the context of the war. In the end these interventions helped to limit the degree of human tragedy in Eastern Nigeria. The infamous starvation policy adopted by the Nigerian government as part of its war strategy contributed to the death of more Ibos than actual military hostility. But for the interventions of these organizations and individuals, extermination would have been a possibility in the war.

Defeat: The End of all Things

Ultimately, Biafra lost the war. That was the saving grace for the Ibos and Nigerians in general. On 14th of January, 1970 Biafra formally surrendered and Gowon pronounced the end of the war. By the end of 1969 Biafra has lost all its strongholds. General Ojukwu jetted out of the republic in search of peace and handed power to General Philip Efiong, his deputy. As defeat stared him in the eyes, Effiong consulted with the strategy committee and surrendered. Chinua Achebe captured the battle fatigue in a Biafran camp in a story of a palm wine tapper who was asked to come down from his palm wine tree and join the army. The man after thanking the soldiers for their heroism, begged them to tell Ojukwu that he had acted like a man, he should now throw in the towel.25 Better late than never. The war ended and reconstruction began.

Genocide usually ends by either of two ways – the victims are completely exterminated or their attackers are restrained or overcome. In the Biafran conflict none of this happened. Nigerian soldiers were not restrained by Biafran soldiers. No external forces aided the victims against the aggressors. When the aggressors overran the victims, they drew back the sword – meaning, “We did not intend genocide.” For me this is the best evidence that what happened, at least between 1967 and 1970, was a misconceived war – a war waged on the ticket of egregious persecution of Ibos and senseless brinkmanship of arrogant and insensitive leaders. Although there were moments of genocidal madness among war generals and strategists, the war policy was, as Gowon, says, to keep Nigeria together; albeit, without addressing the structural injustice that led to the pogroms. The massacres of the Ibos in 1966 seem to carry the signature of ethnic cleaning of the mild type. It was promoted in order to weaken the political and administrative advantages enjoyed by Ibos, and it was conducted on the diabolical mobilization of northerners to believe that the Ibos wanted to enslave the rest of Nigerians.

After The Violence: Old Problems, New Manifestations

The war ended and Gowon graciously proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished” and then came the tasks of reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. The scorecard is dismally poor on all three. The Ibos still feel marginalized, although some reintegration has occurred in the polity. The conflict between citizenship as a bundle of equal rights and indigeneity as a bundle of exclusive privileges is unresolved. Decades of military dictatorship – with its unaccountable use of power – have compounded the problem of ethnicity in politics. Added to the old problem of ethnic chauvinism is now religious fundamentalism. The result is that Nigeria suffers an average of three major ethno-religious and inter-communal violent events every year. Since 1999 more than 5,000 persons have been killed in these violent attacks.

The Ibos are still restless, but nothing near the disenchantment of 1966-1967 that drove them to the cold hands of death in a mismatched war. The Ohaneze Nd’Igbo, the Ibo umbrella cultural and social organization, in its petition to the Human Rights Violations Investigation Committee, alleged systematic marginalization of Ibos in the civil service and military agencies of the constitution. With the aid of statistics it has argued quite persuasively that a glass ceiling exists to stop the Ibos from occupying important and sensitive offices. Besides, it has alleged systematic and deliberate under-provision of social goods and infrastructure in Ibo states. With the notorious bad leadership in Nigeria it is difficult to know which proportion of this under-provision is ethnically constructed. But, the relief is that the Ibos are acting to regain their economic and political power through legitimate political activities.

There remains a significant proportion of Ibos, especially those in diaspora, who agitate for the resumption of the struggle for the Biafran Republic. An organization, the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), is championing this agenda. It has greatly scared the government by its open organizing of resentment against it. The movement has set up chapters in Europe and America and runs a mock embassy in Washington. It mock-heroism is paying off as disenchanted and unemployed and economically displaced Ibos are signing on to the dream of an Ibo state able to provide justice and prosperity. MASSOB’s activities are in sync with other ethnic organizations eating away the nationalism from the distressed Nigerian state.

How these forces play out is uncharted. In November, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a champion of the rights of minorities in Nigeria, was executed after a ruthless persecution of oil-rich Ogoni. Interestingly, Saro-Wiwa fought Biafra as administrator of Bonny for the federal government in the war period. Saro-Wiwa defended the economic rights of the Ogoni and alerted the world to what he termed genocide against Ogoni by the Nigerian Federal Military Government and Shell. In 1999 another oil community – Odi – was sacked by rampaging federal soldiers. It was called genocide. In 2004, Hausa (Muslim) and Indigenous (Christian) communities clashed in Plateau State in northern Nigeria leaving many dead and wounded. President Obasanjo, who led the conquering federal troops against Biafra in 1969, declared a state of emergency to save lives and property. The cause of the violence is conflict over rights to resources by those who claim to be natives and those they call settlers.

The war ended but the battle continues. When will the legacy of colonialism be overcome and transformed? Will elites overcome their brinkmanship? When will human rights provisions in the constitution be experienced as national rights alive in state institutions? Until then the Ibos of Nigeria will keep their festering wounds.


1 Major Abubakar A. Atofarati “The Nigerian Civil War: Causes, Strategies, and Lessons,” Report, US Marine Command & Staff College (Academic Year 1991/92).

2 Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe attributes similar intention to the shadowy conspiratory group – “The Kaduna Mafia,” whom he claims was behind the killings. The group intended by the killings to (a) expel Ibos in the civil service from their posts and Ibo industrialists and business from their enterprises, (b) destroy Ibo political influences, (c) achieve the secession of the “north” from Nigeria. See Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, The Biafran War: Nigeria and the Aftermath (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990) page 64.

3 Dr. Mensah, Report of the International Commission of Jurists, 1969.

4 Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), page 39.

5 Okwudibia Nnoli, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria (Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1978), pages 115-116

6 Nigeria is a nation-state of over two hundred and fifty ethnic nationalities who are different either in culture or language but also share many similarities arising from different degrees of interaction before and after the advent of colonialism. For general readings on the cultures of the peoples of Nigeria, see C.K. Meek, The Northern Tribes of Nigeria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925); P.A. Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria (London: Oxford University Press, 1926); Michael Crowther, The History of Nigeria; Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Trade and Politics in Niger Delta, 1830-1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (Clarendon Press, 1956).

7 The Minority Commission Report, 1958

8 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951). Arendt argues “Not only did loss of national rights in all instances entail loss of human rights; the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only through the restoration or establishment of national rights,” page 299.

9 Quoted by Dr. Philip Emeagwali, “After the Biafran War Was Over”. See pages 15-6.

10 Decree No.8 of 1967 vests in the Supreme Military Council the legislative and executive powers which are exercised with the concurrence of the regional military governors on issues like trade, industry, Armed Forces, the police, and the territorial integrity of the regions. The London-based West Africa magazine of March 28, 1967 described the decree as entrenching a “pseudo- confederacy.” See Nnamdi Azikiwe, Origins of the Nigerian Civil War (Apapa: Nigerian National Press, 1969), pages 8-9.

11 Azikiwe, page 8

12 Saro-Wiwa, On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (London: Saros International Publishers, 1989), page 83.

13 “The issues in this war were relegated to the background and the human and humanitarian aspects came to the fore. Most of them were genuine in their contributions were used to purchase arms and ammunition which prolonged the war and thereby increased and heightened the sufferings of those who were dying.” Abubakar Atofarati

14 Apart from Azikiwe, another Ibo was the Vice-President of the two other major parties and one of them, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, became the Vice-President from 1979 to 1983 under the ticket of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

15 For a recent book dealing with ethnic violence and treating the role of charismatic leaders and elite manipulation in exhorting to violence see Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

16 A full transcript of the meeting of the committee with Ojukwu can be found in Awolowo, Awo on Nigerian Civil War (Lagos: John West Publication, 1981).

17 Peace Proposals for Ending the Nigerian Civil War (London: Colusco Limited, 1969), page 22.

18 Published as Peace Proposals for Ending the Nigerian Civil War, 1969 supra.

19 For samplers, see Francis Deng, et al., Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa (Washington D.C.: Brookings, 1996); Obiora Okafor, “After Martyrdom: International Law, Sub-state Groups and the Construction of Legitimate Statehood in Africa,” Harvard International Law Journal Vol. 41 No.2 Spring 2000; Deng & Lyon “Promoting Responsible Sovereignty in Africa” in Deng and Lyon (eds.), African Reckoning: A Quest for Good Governance (Washington D.C.: Brookings, 1998).

20 See C. O. C. Amate, Inside the OAU: Pan-Africanism in Practice (London: Macmillan, 1986) for a detailed study of the record of the OAU in settling disputes internal disputes and conflicts in African countries.

21 Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Peace Proposasl for Ending the Nigerian Civil War (London: Colusco Limited, 1969), pages 6-7.

22 Cited in Azikiwe, Peace Proposals for Ending the Nigerian Civil War page 4

23 Azikiwe, page 8

24 Atofarati comments that the great publicity given to the war and the images of Biafran starving children and ruined villages by Markpress elicited strong humanitarian feelings which drove the humanitarian intervention on behalf of Biafra. See Atofarati, page 31

25 Chinua Achebe, Girls at War and Other Story (London: Heinemann, 1971)


Anonymous said…
And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher's arguments against the peace process ( )?


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