From May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970, it was a secessionist state in southeastern Nigeria. Born out of extreme tensions including ethnic, cultural and economic, it was a creation that was recognized by Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia and Haiti. But plenty of countries gave it no recognition at all.
From the get go, The Republic of Biafra had little chance of ever surviving, due to the fact that the Nigerian state wanted full control of the rich oil reserves of the land where it was located. Though Biafra ceases to exist today, its story is an important one as it reveals a significant era in the tumultuous history of Nigeria as well as makes for a powerful cautionary tale.
During the important year of 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Like many other newly formed African states, its borders were drawn with little regard for previously held borders.
The boundaries put the Hausa and Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of southwest and the Ibo of the southeast, all together. Over many centuries, the Ibo had developed a strong sense of identity and now felt that their position as an ethnic group in Nigeria was disadvantaged. Ethnic lines were drawn when a series of clashes between the Muslim northerners and the Ibo broke out in the early months of 1967. Many Ibo were slaughtered, further pushing them to extreme tensions. In May of the same year, the Ibo’s military leader, Colonel Ojukwu, made the declaration that the Ibo people were now independent and forming their secessionist state – the Republic of Biafra. The new country was named after the Bight of Biafra, the Atlantic bay to its south.
This powerful action and statement by the Ibo, among other reasons, would lead to the Nigerian Civil War; also know as the Nigerian-Biafran War.
The Nigerian-Biafran War
The Nigerian-Biafran War, instigated by Nigeria upon Biafra’s declaration of independence, was fought almost entirely in the southeastern area of the country.
From the onset of the war, Biafran forces were totally outnumbered and lacked the necessary weaponry to effectively engage in battle. The Nigerian forces attacked them by land, air and sea, encircling them and isolating them. They implemented an economic blockade against Biafra, resulting in the destruction of their agricultural industry and leading to mass starvation; some argue genocide. In 1968, the Red Cross determined that 14,000 people were dying each day in Biafra. They tried to send in help, but the Nigerian government obstructed their access to relief agencies. To add insult to injury, powerful foreign governments – those that had no significant conflict with Biafra – were using the war as a testing ground for their soldiers and weapons. Both the Soviets and the United Arab Republic used Biafra for their own inhumane purposes. The Russians in particular were flying missions over the country using their latest MIG fighter jets. This was not unlike Fascist forces, before World War II, using the Spanish Civil War for military testing purposes. But likely most damaging of all to Biafra’s efforts was when Nigeria recaptured the Rivers state. This was an area that enabled them to cut off Biafra’s oil revenue – their direct source for financing the war. Furthermore, Nigeria cut of all food supplies, telephone lines, postal services and flights to the Biafra region, fully crippling the Ibo people. It was a truly sinister move with devastating consequences.
On January 6, 1970, the Biafran army lost a battle at Owerri, one of their significant strongholds. This would be an important signal that the state’s collapse was imminent.
A Chief Surrenders
It came as little surprise that on January 12, 1970, the chief of the Biafran army, Major General Phillip Effiong, surrendered to the federal government of Nigeria.
In a message to the Nigerian government, he said, “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.” The head of the Nigerian state accepted the surrender and declared the entire war a “victorless war.” Even though the results of the war were devastating with mass casualties and displacement, the Nigerian government maintained that they never meant any harm against the Ibo people; they only wanted to restore the secessionist state back to the federation of Nigeria. For many their claims were extremely difficult to believe.
In total, about 3 million Ibo people, including many unarmed civilians, died. Many lost their lives from severe malnutrition. Millions of Ibo became displaced and homeless. The sabotage of farmland during the war proved to be continually devastating. Images of malnourished children traveled around the world. Though the international community offered sympathy to the plight of the Ibo people, for the most part, they only offered limited humanitarian relief due to their own interests in the oil rich region. The Ibo people alleged that they had been the victims of genocide, though a team of observers found no evidence of systematic killing or destruction of property. At one point Nigeria alleged that Biafra was hiring foreign mercenaries to continue the conflict and extend the duration of the war.
The tensions between the two parties continued to remain high and it was clear that any remaining conflicts would take a long time to resolve.
The aftermath of the war had the Nigerian government developing a Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation program. Some of the goals of this program were to help those who had been displaced by the war by providing food, shelter and medicine; repair damaged infrastructure; and repair tensions between ethnic groups. Furthermore, there were plans to conduct a national census, develop a new constitution and hold elections.
Although many of these promises were fulfilled, it is very clear that many were not. One only needs to look at the reign of dictators and the history of corruption in the country over the last few decades to know plenty of important promises have been broken. Today, Nigeria falls into the lower third of the global development index, a method for tracking the long-term social, political, economic and environmental development of countries throughout the world. Harsh governmental policies have given way to a new wave of social and cyber criminals desperate to make ends meat. The Nigerian people cling onto the hope that they will one day have a strong and caring government that is able to effectively address their needs.