Remembering Biafra 47 years later.

Thirty years ago today, the Republic of Biafra - a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria - was formed by Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Eastern Region’s military governor. Lasting only from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, Biafra was established as a way for predominantly Igbo region to redefine themselves in a postcolonial sense. Nigeria had recently become indepent from Britain but the borders set up by the British did not reflect the cultural and ethnic identities of those contained within it.

Prior to the secession, a military coup, led mostly Igbos, erupted in the country in January of 1966 that claimed the lives of 30 political leaders including Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the President, who was Igbo, and the premier of the southeastern part of the country were not killed. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo official, was the appointed head of the Nigerian government by the ministers that survived the coup.

Later that year, in July, deepning the country’s ethnic and religious tensions, northern officers and army units staged a counter-coup. Muslim officers named General Yakubu “Jack” Gowon, a Christian who was Anga (small ethnic group in central Nigeria) as the head of the Federal Military Government. The violence continued a few months later when in September 1966 approximately 30,000 Igbo were killed in the north and some Northerners were killed in backlashes in eastern cities. Out of fear, there was a massive Igbo flight of over 1 million people from the north to the eastern part of Nigeria.

The following year, in January 1967, military leaders and senior police officials of each region met in Aburi, Ghana under the protection and mediation of the Ghana’s military government. They agreed on a loose confederation of regions. The Northerners did not take kindly to the Aburi Accord; nor did it sit well with civil servants from the mostly Yoruba western region of the country. Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Western Region warned that if the East seceded, the West would follow, further deterring the northerners from adopting this agreement. 

Awolowo, the leader of the western region demanded the removal of all northern troops in the west, and threatened to leave the federation if the east did so first. The Federal Military Government hastily removed northern troops from the west and issued a decree resurrecting the idea of a confederation discussed at Aburi.” Ojukwu and the other eastern leaders rejected it, by voting in May to secede from Nigeria. The mid-western region, the present location of Nigeria’s capital - Abuja - announced that it would remain neutral in the event of a civil war.

What followed was indeed a civil war - and a brutal one, too. From 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, Nigeria proper was at war with the tiny and far less equipped state of Biafra. Despite the initial successes of Biafra’s military, it would be the cruelty of the Nigerian government that would lead to their downfall. On 30 June 1969, the Nigerian government banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra but two weeks later it allowed medical supplies through the front line, but restricted food supplies.

Ojukwu appealed to the United Nations to mediate a cease-fire in October of that year, but to no avail. By December, Biafra was cut in half by the Nigerian military under the command of Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, popularly called “The Black Scorpion”, and later by Olusegun Obasanjo. Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast leaving his chief of staff Philip Effiong to act as the “officer administering the government”. Effiong called for a cease-fire on January 12th and submitted to the Nigerian government. By the 15th of January, Biafra was absorbed back in to Nigeria proper.

Looking at these devastating and horrific images, it’s hard to imagine that these events were real, that a genocide was committed out of greed resulting in the deaths over a million civilians, many whom were starved to death. And yet, as Nigerians, we either refuse or prefer not to openly talk about this period in our history. Even the federal government are so threatened by talk of Biafra that Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun film has been ‘indefinitely banned from being screened in the country. The suffering caused by the Nigerian government on the citizens of Biafra was so severe that it launched the Doctors Without Borders organization.

Biafra was formally recognised only by Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition but provided support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Portugal, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa and Vatican City. Biafra also received aid from non-state actors, including Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International, MarkPress and U.S. Catholic Relief Services

(sources: 1; 2 & 3)