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Was the Biafran war inevitable?


A lot has been written in books and newspapers about the Biafran war (1967-70). Despite this huge volume of literature no one has been able to satisfactorily answer the question: was the Biafran war inevitable? The war ended half a century ago and that question still hangs menacingly in the air particularly because the echo of Biafra is still heard today by a new breed of secessionists.

Some analysts believe that the war happened because the patchwork of compromises reached by the three regions, North, West, East on their way to independence did not cohere and that their claim to having independence on a platter of gold was not sustainable. To this group the war of independence had to come and it came in July 1967. To this group everything else – the pogrom in the north, the Aburi accord, the creation of 12 states, – were destined to lead inevitably to the outbreak of hostilities between General Yakubu Gowon’s federal troops and Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s rag-tag army hastily put together to offer resistance to the overwhelming fire power of the Federal forces.

Why didn’t the peace pilgrimage to Aburi, Ghana save the day? Some analysts proclaim that Gowon was hoodwinked into agreeing to a confederation, pulling apart as Ojukwu called it, which on close examination seemed like a brutal bifurcation of Nigeria. Others think Ojukwu had got Gowon where he wanted and was not ready to retreat or to give an inch. That was why the buzzwords at the time were “on Aburi we stand.” Ojukwu, according to those who know him, was a congenital rebel.


At the age of 10 he had slapped an arrogant British teacher at King’s College, Mr. Slee, during a students’ protest. The matter had to be taken to court and he was freed by the court. He had also shown a rebellious streak by defying his father who wanted him to study Law. Instead, he went for Modern History. On graduation his billionaire father wanted him to join his company. He rejected the offer. Instead, he went into the colonial civil service as a District Officer. When he found the job boring and limiting he resigned. He then went into the Army as a recruit with his masters’ degree.

These stories seem to emphasise that Ojukwu was an independent-minded person with a streak of rebellion in him. But he also seemed to be someone who cared fervently for his people, the people of the Eastern Region when he was the Military Governor. The reprisal coup of July 29, 1966 that claimed the lives of many Igbos including that of the Head of State, Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi must have shaken him considerably. However, the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the massacre of many Easterners, especially Igbos, in the north. Ojukwu ordered Easterners to return from the North. There were hundreds of body bags that were brought home to the East too. These atrocities ignited the feeling of not being wanted in other parts of the country. This represents the building blocks of the rebellion that came to be called Biafra. As the efforts towards the declaration of Eastern Nigeria an independent Republic was going on apace, Gowon decided to break the country into 12 states so as to warm his way into the hearts of the minorities who wanted states of their own. That was a political masterstroke and a fly in the secession ointment. It divided the minorities who had hitherto been agitating for states of their own.

It is apparent that Ojukwu knew that to defeat the federal troops would be a tall order. The people of Biafra were fired by the anger that accompanied the pogrom in the north but their anger and their determination was unlikely to bring them victory. At the outbreak of the war there were 14 military installations and institutions in Northern Nigeria, three in Western Nigeria, one in Eastern Nigeria and none in Midwestern Nigeria. So in terms of military strength Biafra was far behind the rest of Nigeria.

The political support for Biafra was restricted to four countries in Africa namely, Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Ivory Coast. Outside Africa only a nondescript Haita offered Biafra its slim shoulder to lean on. In a major contest of that magnitude none of these five countries had the muscle that Biafra needed to confront Nigeria successfully. So their recognition of Biafra was, all things considered, an exercise in futility. Ojukwu, a great master of rhetoric had at a point reached out for hyperbole when he remarked that even the “grass will fight for Biafra.” When the grass failed to fight and Biafra’s territory had shrunk to a couple of towns Ojukwu fled into exile in Ivory Coast and left his second in command General Philip Effiong to pick the pieces. It was Effiong who submitted the instrument of surrender to General Olusegun Obasanjo. That brought the war to an uneventful end. Gowon declared in a statesmanly and conciliatory fashion that there was “no victor and no vanquished.”


That war, like every war, arose from a catalogue of mistakes and assumptions. Chief Obafemi Awolowo had said that if the Eastern Region was allowed to secede, the Western Region would secede too. The Western Region failed to secede. Instead, Chief Awolowo became the Minister of Finance and Chief War Strategist for the Federal Government. Why did the Biafrans extend the war to the Mid-West? When Major Albert Okonkwo, the brilliant medical doctor, declared the Mid-West Region the Republic of Benin there was ample curiosity in the air. Was the idea to expand the circumference of the war or to give Nigeria a fright by giving the impression that they were Lagos-bound? What were the Biafran forces doing at Ore? Were they trying to tell Chief Awolowo that they were ready to take Yorubaland to teach him a lesson in how not to be perfidious? What was the role of the minorities in the Eastern Region after Gowon’s creation of 12 states? Were they faithful to the Biafran cause or were they saboteurs? Why is there a resurgence of the agitation for Biafra through MASSOB and IPOB? Have the wounds of the last 50 years remained unhealed or are there new wounds that have been opened since then? What exactly are these wounds and how can they be healed? Or are they terminal ailments that are not curable? Wars do not decide who is right in a conflict.

They only decide who is left. War, every war, makes human life cheap, very cheap. War makes everything else costly, very costly. It is proper to state that wars occur only because there are people who do not put in extra effort to pull away from the brink. At the end of the day most people who start wars survive them while the wrong people get killed. In 2001 Ohaneze Ndigbo presented a memorandum at the Justice Oputa Tribunal in which they asked for reparation of three trillion naira from the Federal Government. This was supposed to be compensation for the pogrom in the north and the losses incurred by the Easterners during the war. Nothing happened to that request. Since then there has been ceaseless agitation in Igboland for the resurrection of a Biafra Republic on account of what the agitators see as the marginalization of Igbos in the scheme of things.

Agitations for self-determination are not new. What is needed is how to contain these agitations so that they do not snowball, again, into a bloody war. The only ways to stop this are (a) to dialogue with agitators and seek to mollify them where necessary (b) to work on the restructuring of Nigeria into a country that works. At present it is very far from that. That is why there are fissures and feuds all over the place. We must work to make the next war unnecessary.


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