The Nigerian Revolution

The 20th century was bedeviled by great wars, revolutions, and conflicts, which have left a trail of an embittered history. The Nigerian Civil War was a violent upheaval that rocked the emergent Nigerian state. In 1967, the Nigerian Revolution (July 6, 1967 – January 15, 1970), also known as the Biafran War, began. It started as a political conflict, stemming from economic, ethnic, and cultural tensions among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. It resulted in the secessionist attempts by the Igbo ethnic group of the Eastern Nigeria, which later escalated into what was to be a bloody civil war.

The century was full of revolutions, which came in different forms: political, social, cultural, scientific, economic, and technological. Sadly, political revolutions were the most common, as more countries of the world became strongholds of sit-tight leaders, dictators, and tyrants. The oppressed citizens of such countries rose up to demand justice, equality, and fair play – an action which usually resulted in civil wars, rebellion, or conflicts. During this time, the world witnessed bloody and bloodless revolutions alike. The objective of this paper is to prove, that Nigerian–Biafran War can be classified as one of the bloody revolutions, which not only led to a colossal loss of lives, but also caused a fundamental change in the society.

The Federal Republic of Nigeria is a country, which lies on the West Coast of Africa. Bordered by the Republic of Benin in the western part, Chad and Cameroon in the eastern one, and Niger in the north, its huge population and natural resources make it one of the powerhouses in the continent of Africa. Formerly a British colony, Nigeria received independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960 as a few other African countries. Events leading to the Biafran Revolution started manifesting a few years after the country became a republic in 1963. “The war was the culmination of an uneasy peace and stability that had plagued the Nation from independence in 1960” (Atofarati).

The political and electoral processes were perceived to be corrupt and full of discrepancies, and that led to a series of military coups, which left a crack in the young sovereignty of the country. It also created tension and distrust between the ethnicities. The Igbos complained of electoral fraud, northern massacres of military officers of the Igbo origin, and being marginalized in the system of things. A year before the war started, thirty thousand Igbo people were reported to have been killed in the northern part of the country as a result of the ethno-religious crises, while there was a reprisal of the northerners being killed in a few eastern cities. As the ethnic and religious tensions continued to rise between the ethnicities, people from the southern and western part of the country, where the country’s major component (oil) is, became more distrustful of the Federal Military Government, which was mostly made up of the northern officers.

On May 26, 1967, after a series of secessionist threats by the Western and Eastern Region of Nigeria and a succeeding deadlock at trying to resolve the crisis, the Eastern Region voted for a break-away from the entity called Nigeria. This was to signal the start of offensives that led to the bloodiest civil uprising in the history of the country. A young Igbo officer in the army, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was also the Eastern Region military Governor, was to lead the cause of the Biafran army against the military forces of Nigeria. Being ill-equipped, out-numbered, and out-manned for war against the Nigerian troops, the Biafran soldiers were almost fighting a lost cause but were not to be discouraged, as they had other factors to their advantage. These included support and solidarity from a few countries, fighting on their home turf, where the terrain was well understood, and largely, determination. The initial reaction of the Nigerian Government to the challenge of war by the Biafran state was to launch measures to commandeer the Eastern Region, but the Biafran troops launched an offensive, and the battle-line was thus drawn. As US Marine Major Stafford observed in his Staff College analysis of the war, Ojukwu “established directorates to control the logistical aspects of the war efforts, thus creating a rivalry not only with the military but also with the existing civil service” (Omogui).

A full blown civil war began on July 6, 1967. The Nigerian troops, expectedly comprising northern officers, led an offensive, which was executed through the North of Biafra. They were met by fierce fighting from the Biafran soldiers, and after recording a high number of casualties and fierce resistance, the Nigerian army captured Nsukka, one of the Biafran cities. While the heavy fighting raged on, the West and Mid-West perceived the war to be mainly between the Hausas, who made up the northern part of the country, and Igbos, who were of the eastern part. With total determination and firmness of purpose, the Biafran troops moved westwards, crossing the River Niger, until they encountered resistance at Ore; a western city just 130 miles to the capital of the country, Lagos. Here the Biafran troops quickly defeated the Nigerian army with little offensives, and the city was easily taken over. This was due to the indifference of some of the soldiers, who were supposed to defend the West and Mid-West Region. Some of these soldiers were of Igbo descent and had deep down solidarity for their kinsmen fighting for the Biafran army. The Nigerian military President at the time of the war, General Yakubu Gowon, heard of the advancement of the Biafran troops and capture of the mid-west city and devised a plan. He formed the second infantry division headed by Colonel Murtala Mohammed and gave the order to dislodge the Biafran soldiers totally from the Mid-West Region. He also asked the division to attack Biafra from the west. The result was a Nigerian army victory. They were able to retake the Mid-West.

One of the targets of the Biafran army was to tie down as many Nigerian soldiers as they could capture as Prisoners of War, and in this they greatly succeeded. Buoyed by the victory in the Mid-West, the Federal military government of Nigeria launched an offensive against Biafra from the Niger Delta riverine areas. A third infantry command from the Lagos Garrison was launched and was headed by Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, who was also known as the “Black Scorpion”. The Nigerian army further went ahead to enlist army recruits from a wider area, because four battalions of the newly formed infantry were needed to turn the Biafran troops back, and recapture the territories. In October 1967, the Federal Nigerian army suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to cross the River Niger from Asaba into Onitsha, a Biafran city. The first attempt was made on October 12 and was heavily repulsed by the Biafran troops; an event which had five thousand of the Nigerian troops killed, captured, wounded, or missing. The war raged on until 1968, when it fell into a sort of stalemate. The Nigerian troops had not been able to conquer the core Biafran cities, while the enemy troops could not advance beyond what was left of their territory. The Nigerian Military Government then began closing in on Biafra on all sides. This resulted in a humanitarian disaster, as relief materials could not reach the soldiers and civilians. The outcome was a widespread hunger and starvation in the besieged Biafran territories. Mothers and children started dying from various diseases and starvation. About 180,000 civilians were reported to have died, and the Biafran government claimed the Nigerian government was using starvation and genocide to win the war. Years later, analysts point to the complexities of the diversity of the Nigerian state as the cause of the war, “while the war has its roots in tribalism, the baffling political history of Nigeria makes it impossible to point a finger of guilt at any particular group” (Merriam).

The Nigerian troops launched their final offensive against Biafra on December 23, 1969 with a powerful strike by the 3rd marine commando division under Colonel Obasanjo. The strike was able to shatter the Biafran army, and the final Nigerian assault in the war tagged “operation tail-wind” was launched on January 7, 1970. The twin Biafran cities of Owerri and Uli fell to the might of the Federal forces on January 9 and 11 respectively. Colonel Ojukwu, who also doubled as the President of the Biafran State and General of the troops, fled by air to the Ivory Coast and left his deputy Philip Effiong in charge of the details of the surrender to General Gowon. The Biafran troops finally surrendered to the federal army on January 13, 1970 after 30 months of a bloody civil war. It was estimated that up to three million people died in the revolution; most from hunger and diseases.

Although Biafra was re-absorbed into Nigeria and reconstruction, aided by oil money, was swift after the war, the ill feeling still lingered. Nevertheless, the Igbo people held the Hausas in absolute distrust, and even until present, the sovereignty of Nigeria continues to seem like an unlikely alliance. After the war the military President of Nigeria promised to rebuild the nation and establish a sense of love and unity in the country, but little has been achieved in this regard. Nigeria, which was termed the giant of Africa due to its enormous human and natural resources, still falters amidst alarming rates of corruption and bad leadership forty years after the war.

The Nigerian-Biafran revolution, just like other conflicts: the Nazi Holocaust, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, and the ethnic cleansing conflicts of the Balkans and Rwanda, constitutes a great crime against humanity, which must never be encouraged. There should not be too great a price to pay for peace, as all wars leave in their trail, diseases, hunger, famine, and a total sense of hopelessness. Taking into account the bad consequences and outcomes of conflicts and revolutions in the 20th century, “today’s activists must study the mistakes of the movement in the past in order not to repeat them today” (Grant).

A revolution is a tool used within a state to bring about desired changes. The end of the Nigerian Civil War was supposed to have been the beginning of change for the country. Since a revolution by its essential characteristics is mass-oriented, the aftermath of the Nigerian events should have led to a change from a distrustful, hateful, heterogeneous polity to a feasible, unified, and functional nation. The fact that Nigeria failed to learn and acknowledge these truths shows that the lessons and rebuilding process after a revolution seem more important than the revolution itself.

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