Causes & Effects of the Nigerian Civil War


After the independence of Nigeria, on October 1, 1960, the problems of the decolonized nation would begin. From the earliest times, the groups showed signs of collision in the competition for taking control of the young Federal State, to the point of costing the life of a prime minister and several of its administrators. To make matters worse, in 1966 the first coup d’etat came and with it great massacres, between comings and goings on the definition of the federal or unitary form of government.

The political bid implied violence against the Igbos in several regions where they were a minority. Discontent with the situation, in general, led the governor of the eastern region, Lieutenant-Colonel Igbo Odumegwu Ojukwu, to withdraw his region from the Nigerian Federation and ignore the federal government. Therefore, the independence of Biafra was proclaimed with jubilation, on May 30, 1967. Thus began a war of more than two years.

In this post, we discuss the causes and consequences of the first viral war in Africa – the Nigerian civil war.

Causes of the Biafran War/Nigerian Civil War

These are the primary causes of the Nigerian civil war or the Biafran war:

1. The Igbo Coup of January 15, 1966

On January 15, 1966, some young military officers staged a coup; the goal? The killing off of political leaders. The formation of the ‘revolutionary’ group was made up of soldiers from the Southern part of Nigeria, of which Igbos dominated.

Names of the Igbo coup soldiers of January 15, 1966

All but one of the soldiers of the coup were Igbos:

  • Maj. Kaduna Nzeogwu (Igbo),
  • Maj. Emmanuel Ifeajuna (Igbo)
  • Maj. Timothy Onwuatuegwu (Igbo),
  • Maj. Chris Anuforo (Igbo),
  • Maj. Don Okafor (Igbo),
  • Maj. Adewale Ademoyega (Yoruba),
  • Maj. Humphrey Chukwuka (Igbo),
  • Capt. Emmanuel Nwobosi (Igbo),
  • Capt. Ben Gbulie (Igbo)
  • Capt. Ogbu Oji (Igbo)

Although these self-styled revolutionaries claimed to have been on a mission to root out corrupt politicians. It turned out their idea of fighting corruption for them had an ethnic undertone. It was nothing but a targeted attack.

Prominent victims of the 1966 coup were mainly politicians of the Northern and present-day southwestern extraction who were allies of the North.

The Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, of Northern extraction and the Premier of the Northern Region Ahmadu Bello, were assassinated. Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the Western Region, an ally of the Ahmadu Bello, was killed. Somehow the Premier of the Eastern Region and the President of the country, Nnamdi Azikiwe, both Igbos were spared.

Also among the casualties were the most senior military officers from the West and North (Brig. Mailamari)

Military Officers Killed in the January 15, 1966 Coup

  • Brig. Samuel Ademulegun (West)
  • Brig. Zakariya Maimalari (North)
  • Col. Ralph Shodeinde (West)
  • Col. Kur Mohammed (North)
  • Lt. Col. Abogo Largema (North)
  • Lt. Col. James Pam (North)
  • Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe, (East); – the only Igbos, the Quartermaster of the Army who refuse to co-operate.
  • Sergeant Daramola Oyegoke (West)
  • PC Yohana Garkawa (North)
  • Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo (North)
  • (North); PC Akpan Anduka (East).

2. General Aguiyi Ironsi’s Failures

General Aguiyi Ironsi, just as the majority of the coup plotters was of the Igbo extraction. After the coup, he was expected to reassure the North and make certain decisive moves that would put away Igbophobia (the fear of Igbo domination as most top Northern politicians had been killed). Unfortunately, he failed to.

The North was clearly at a disadvantage at the time; the South dominated the key sectors of the country, the Civil service, economy, and the military. While the fear had always been there no thanks to the absence of education among the Northerners, Ironsi did not really do much do persuade the grieving North.

As a matter of fact, Ironsi greatly disappointed and the exact opposite of what was expected of him. He refused to take any decisive step against the coup plotters who were his tribesmen, annulled the Federal system of government and imposed a unitary system of government. Sadly, the uncalculated move has been plaguing Nigeria ever since, even to date.

The imposition of the military’s unitary structure was the last straw that broke the camel’s back as it meant the South domination agenda as feared by the North was indeed true since it means or implies that Southerners can be posted to the North to rule and govern.

The inability of Ironsi to carefully read and study the political atmosphere resulted in the military losing trust in him. A reprisal attack led by Northern soldiers followed in July 1966. Interestingly, the attack which was made up of Muslims and Christians saw General Ironsi killed.

3. Oil

One major motivation of the Nigerian Civil war was oil. Also referred to as ‘black gold’, the discovery of oil in what is now known as the South-South region of Nigeria, particularly in Oloibiri where it was first discovered in commercial quantity on Sunday 15 January 1956 was more of resource control for Ojukwu who was the then governor of the Eastern region.

Although there had been a collision tussle among the major ethnic groups since Nigeria gained independence in 1960, Nigeria’s show of force against the Eastern region during the wat was not to demonstrate her strength but take control of the region which was a prized asset.

Ojukwu had claimed he was more than prepared for the war and declared Biafra as a sovereign nation on May 30, 1976, but a year and a half later, half of Biafraland was lost to the Nigerian force who were better equipped and had about 100,000 troops. Although both sides had allies during the war, an underequipped Biafran force only managed to hold the Nigerian force before Ojukwu fled, leaving his second in command to surrender.

Certain documents from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) have fingered Ojukwu and Gowon as the culprit of the war as it could have been avoided. For Ojukwu, it was more of controlling the resources of his region and wanted to be the only one to do so. This was visible in the way he refused to be a part of the 1966 coup as it was supposedly spearheaded by a junior colleague.

Finally, the presence of oil in the Biafran lands was a powerful source of national income which, if lost, would be detrimental to all of the remaining regions of Nigeria.

4. Secession

Although the build-up to the war unsettled almost part of Nigeria, particularly the three major ethnic groups but with the failed talks between Gowon and Ojukwu at Aburi, a determined Ojukwu felt it was better to pull his then region out of Nigeria. Already, the region had become the cash cow of the country and conveniently replaced agriculture which was the pride of the North.

Nnamdi Azikiwe had read the riot act to the North who had wanted to pull out from the Nigerian colony which was soon to become a nation as they felt they were self-sufficient prior to the discovery of oil in Oloibiri. In his secession speech of 1953 in Yaba, Nnamdi Azikiwe warned the North of potential chaos should the North choose to secede.

You may ask me whether there would be a prospect of civil war, if the North decided to secede? My answer would be that it is a hypothetical question which only time can answer. In any case, the plausible cause of a civil war might be a dispute as to the right of passage on the River Niger, or the right of flight over the territory of the Eastern or Western Region; but such disputes can be settled diplomatically, instead of by force.

– Excerpt of Nnamdi Azikiwe Secession Speech of 1953.

Ironically, fourteen years later, Nnamdi Azikiwe’s region was seeking to pull out of a newly formed Nigeria. Led by Ojukwu, the declaration of Biafra signaled the move that prompted a bloody three-year civil war.

The secession state, the Republic of Biafra was officially recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition, but provided support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Rhodesia, South Africa, and the 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.

The declaration of the Republic of Biafra was the major cause of the Biafran war, also known as the Nigerian Civil war.

5. Ethnic Violence

While there have been disparities between the North and Southern Nigeria since independence, one of the peaks and build-ups to the civil war in itself is the ethnic violence that took place at both ends. The ‘Igbo coup’ of 1966 was more of an ethnic attack than the purging of bad Nigerian leaders.

The formation of the revolutionary soldiers was not only an indication that they had an agenda, the sparing of Eastern region elite politicians further proves this. The series of hits on top military officers again backs this claim. The reprisal attack of Northern soldiers further aggravated the situation as they handpicked and killed Igbo soldiers within the military.

Its escalation was the pogrom which saw about 30,000 Igbos living in the North killed by Northerners.

Effects of the Biafran War/Nigerian Civil War

Below are the most prominent of the effects of the Biafran war, also known as the Nigerian civil war:

1. Loss of Lives

Perhaps the most prominent effect of the civil war. The loss of lives was so great that it was termed a genocidal war by analysts who felt the war was not only one-sided but unfair. While Gowon termed the war ‘no victor, no vanquish’ after the eastern region was reabsorbed into Nigeria, the then old eastern region suffered the most casualties with about 3 million Biafran lives lost during the reign of the war.  Although there are more effects of the war, but the deaths take the cake.

2. Inter-Ethnic Mistrust

This was a major problem in Nigeria pre-independence and something that is still very much alive to date. While the ‘Igbo coup’ was a hit on non-Igbo elites from the Northern and Western region of the country, Ironsi’s failure at trying the soldiers have made sure that the Igbos cannot be trusted, particularly with Ojukwu’s declaration of Biafra.

The seeming lack of trust has seen that the South East has been denied or never allowed to come close to the presidential seat for fear of using the office to push for secession again. The South East region dominantly populated by the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria is home one of the largest three ethnic groups in the country. The same cannot be said about their worth politically as the region holds no political relevance in today’s Nigeria, no thanks to being sidelined.

Although Nothern Nigerian and their South West counterpart enjoy a fair amount of relationship, trust remains one essential aspect that has continued to strain on the relationships of the major ethnic groups of Nigeria.

Nigeria continues to suffer from distrust regardless of ethnicity, religion or tribe. This can be seen in issues like the IPOB’s quest of secession – a radical group that represents the Igbo people in championing their own cause, calls for restructuring, and even in veiled up contraptions like the quota system, catchment area, rotational presidency, and worst of all, the Federal Character Commission, a commission set up to ensure one section of the country does not dominate others, in public sector jobs/appointments, instead of considering the best candidate for the job.

3. Nepotism and Tribalism

There is no denying that one major of the major effects of the Nigerian civil war is nepotism and tribalism. From the selected killings to the reprisals with civilians being included unjustly and the Northern move to push not only their agenda but also their interests, it remains to be seen even in today’s Nigeria that tribalism has witnessed a sharp increase.

Another way this can be perceived is the South East’s cult support of the political party, PDP and their strong dislike for the APC, a party supposedly formed by the Hausa/Fulani people of Nigeria.

Key positions in the country are mostly dominated by a president’s tribesmen or people from the same region.

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