Nigeria's Coming Civil War

Nigeria's Coming Civil War
Guardian, Sunday, 3 June, 1967

Having broken apart, Nigeria is now preparing for civil war. Major-General Gowon, who was promoted from Colonel yesterday, is apparently ready to follow up his blockade of the breakaway east - now called Biafra - with a full-scale invasion. In this he presumably expects the support of Nigeria's partners in the Commonwealth and her fellow members of the UN and the OAU - at least the tacit support of respecting the blockade and not recognising Biafra.

It will be a futile war. It is unlikely to unseat the embattled government of Colonel Ojukwu, and even if it does, it will not achieve the declared aim of restoring a workable federation. For most of the Ibo, who predominate in the east, last year's massacres in the north - and their implied end to the free movement of Nigerians within their country - meant the effective end of the federation. To follow this up by an invasion would merely be to drive a nail in the coffin. Biafia's non-Ibo minority is admittedly divided: some supporting Ojukwu's regime and others opposing it. Also, the presence of more than a million refugees - and the possibility of another million now arriving - has stored up a host of social and perhaps political problems for the self-proclaimed republic. But while the threat from Lagos lasts, support for Ojukwu will remain overwhelming. Invasion can only reinforce it further.

In reality it would not be a federal war as much as a northern one. The Yoruba of the western region are divided. Chief Awolowo, hitherto their most popular leader, has said - and apparently confirmed it after Biafra's secession - that the west would not wish to remain in a truncated federation. This section of the Yoruba, at any rate, would hardly support an invasion of Biafra. Similar reservations have been openly expressed in the midwest region.

In so far as it would be a northerners' war, one of its main objects would be revenge against the easterners for having dared to challenge federal, which is primarily northern, authority. One party in the north, at any rate, appears to want to teach the Ibo a lesson without any corresponding desire to keep them as federal partners. But the easterners are not the first to contemplate secession. The north openly threatened it in 1960 unless it was guaranteed half the seats in the federal parliament. It threatened it again last year unless General Ironsi repealed his "unitary decree". It proposed it once more in July and indeed, secession appeared to be Colonel Gowon's original intention when he assumed office. Now it is the easterners who have departed.

A deeper northern motive would be to secure the landlocked region's outlet to the sea. One of the two routes, through the east, is already blocked and the other, through the west, would be threatened if the west were to break away also. But could it be kept open in a federation maintained by force? The violent disorders in the west in 1965, in protest against the northern-backed regime of Chief Akintola, suggest that it could not. If Nigeria does break up, nothing could ensure the evacuation of northern produce more effectively than a Common Services organisation. This is perhaps the best solution to the Nigerian crisis. It is the kind of arrangement the north itself proposed in July last year - and the east has been proposing since then. Now, no region would benefit more from it than the north. By insisting on war the northerners would risk destroying their own vital interests.

Inevitably, outsiders have been drawn, into the conflict. The big shipping and trading companies, who have larger interests in the north and the west than in the east, are observing the blockade. The oil companies, whose exports all originate in the east, are in a different position and may be anxious for Biafra to be recognised. Britain could hardly do this until Colonel Ojukwu's breakaway regime has proved itself firmly in control. But we should immediately make it clear to General Gowon that our only interest is in a stable solution and that war will bring this no nearer.



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