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The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, 6 July 1967–15 January 1970, was a political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria.The independent state of the Republic of Biafra in June 1967Causes of the Conflict
Like many other African nations, Nigeria was an artificial structure initiated by the British which had neglected to consider religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Nigeria, which gained independence from Britain in 1960, had at that time a population of 60 million people consisting of nearly 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups.
The causes of the Nigerian civil war were diverse. More than fifty years earlier, Great Britain carved an area out of West Africa containing hundreds of different ethnic groups and unified it, calling it Nigeria. Although the area contained many different groups, three were predominant: the Igbo, which formed between 60-70% of the population in the southeast, the Hausa-Fulani, which formed about 65% of the peoples in the northern part of the territory; the Yoruba, which formed about 75% of the population in the southwestern part.
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by an autocratic, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of some thirty-odd Emirs who, in turn, owed their allegiance to a supreme Sultan. This Sultan was regarded as the source of all political power and religious authority.
The Yoruba political system in the southwest, like that of the Hausa-Fulani, also consisted of a series of monarchs being the Oba. The Yoruba monarchs, however, were less autocratic than those in the North, and the political and social system of the Yoruba accordingly allowed for greater upward mobility based on acquired rather than inherited wealth and title.
The Igbo in the southeast, in contrast to the two other groups, lived mostly in mostly autonomous, democratically-organized communities although there were monarchs in many of these ancient cities such as the Kingdom of Nri
, which in its zenith controlled most of Igbo land, including influence on the Anioma people, Arochukwu which controlled slavery in Igbo land and Onitsha. Unlike the other two regions, decisions among the Igbo were made by a general assembly in which men could participate.
The differing political systems among these three peoples reflected and produced divergent customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through their village head who was designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be submitted to. Like in every highly authoritarian religious and political system leadership positions were taken by persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors. A chief function of this political system was to maintain Islamic and conservative values, which caused many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or sacrilegious.
In contrast to the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo often participated directly in the decisions which affected their lives. They had a lively awareness of the political system and regarded it as an instrument for achieving their own personal goals. Status was acquired through the ability to arbitrate disputes that might arise in the village, and through acquiring rather than inheriting wealth. With their emphasis upon social achievement and political participation, the Igbo adapted to and challenged colonial rule in innovative ways.
These tradition-derived differences were perpetuated and, perhaps, even enhanced by the British system of colonial rule in Nigeria. In the North, the British found it convenient to rule indirectly through the Emirs, thus perpetuating rather than changing the indigenous authoritarian political system. As a concomitant of this system, Christian missionaries were excluded from the North, and the area thus remained virtually closed to European cultural imperialism, in contrast to the Igbo, the richest of whom sent many of their sons to British universities. During the ensuing years, the Northern Emirs thus were able to maintain traditional political and religious institutions, while reinforcing their social structure. In this division, the North, at the time of independence in 1960, was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria, with a literacy rate of 2% as compared to 19.2% in the East (literacy in Arabic script, learned in connection with religious education, was higher). The West enjoyed a much higher literacy level, being the first part of the country to have contact with western education in addition to the free primary education program of the pre-independence Western Regional Government.
In the South, the missionaries rapidly introduced Western forms of education. Consequently, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to adopt Western bureaucratic social norms and they provided the first African civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and other technicians and professionals.
In Igbo areas, missionaries were introduced at a later date because of British difficulty in establishing firm control over the highly autonomous Igbo communities. (Audrey Chapman, “Civil War in Nigeria,” Midstream, Feb 1968). However, the Igbo people took to Western education actively, and they overwhelmingly came to adopt Christianity. Population pressure in the Igbo homeland combined with aspirations for monetary wages drove thousands of Igbo to other parts of Nigeria in search of work. By the 1960s Igbo political culture was more unified and the region relatively prosperous, with tradesmen and literate elites active not just in the traditionally Igbo South, but throughout Nigeria.Conflicts During the Colonial Era
The British colonial ideology that divided Nigeria into three regions North, West and East exacerbated the already well-developed economic, political, and social differences among Nigeria's different ethnic groups. For the country was divided in such a way that the North had slightly more population than the other two regions combined. On this basis the Northern Region was allocated a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislature established by the colonial authorities. Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups; the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo respectively formed political parties that were largely regional and based on ethnic allegiances: the Northern People's Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG): and the National Conference of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the East. These parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up; the disintegration of Nigeria resulted largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe. To simplify matters, we will refer to them here as the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo-based; or Northern, Western and Eastern parties.
During the 1940s and 1950s the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organized into several small states so that the conservative North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, however, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernized elites in the South, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. As a condition for accepting independence, they demanded that the country continue to be divided into three regions with the North having a clear majority. Igbo and Yoruba leaders, anxious to obtain an independent country at all costs, accepted the Northern demands.Military coup
On January 15, 1966, Lt Kaduna Nzeogwu and other junior Army officers (mostly majors and captains) attempted a coup d'etat. It was generally speculated that the coup had been initiated by the Igbos, however, not only had Nzeogwu been born and bred in the North (and couldn't even speak Igbo) but Chief Obafemi Awolowo (a Yoruba man) had also been involved. This was the first coup in the short life of Nigeria's nascent democracy. Claims of electoral fraud was one of the reasons given by the coup plotters. This coup resulted in General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo and head of the Nigerian Army, taking power as President, becoming the first military head of state in Nigeria.
The coup d'etat itself failed, as Ironsi rallied the military against the plotters. Ironsi then instituted military rule, by subverting the constitutional succession and alleging that the democratic institutions had failed and that, while he was defending them, they clearly needed revision and clean-up before reversion back to democratic rule. The coup, despite its failure, was wrongly perceived as having benefited mostly the Igbo because most of the known coup plotters were Igbo. However Ironsi, himself an Igbo, was thought to have made numerous attempts to please Northerners. The other event that also fueled the so called "Igbo conspiracy" was the killing of Northern leaders, and the killing of the Colonel Shodeinde's pregnant wife by the coup executioners. Despite the overwhelming contradictions of the coup being executed by mostly Northern soldiers (such as John Atom Kpera later military governor of Benue State), the killing of a Igbo soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Unegbe by coup executioners, and Ironsi's termination of an Igbo-led coup, the ease by which Ironsi stopped the coup led to suspicion that the Igbo coup plotters planned all along to pave the way for Ironsi to take the reins of power in Nigeria. It also ignored the fact that the army was largely composed of Northerners at the private level, but Igbo at the officer level, and thus promotions would have to draw upon a large body of Igbo officers.Counter-coup
On 29 July 1966, the Northerners executed a counter-coup. This coup was led by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed. It placed Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon into power. Gowon was chosen as a compromise candidate. He was a Northerner, a Christian, from a minority tribe, and had a good reputation within the army. Ethnic tensions due to the coup and counter-coup increased and the sequels to the mass pogroms in May 1966 repeated later the same year in July and September known as the large-scale massacres of Christian Ibo living in the Muslim north.Pogroms
In the aftermath of the Counter coup, there were pogroms in the North where soldiers, officers and civilians were killed. It was estimated that about 30,000 out of the 13 million people of Ibo/Igbo ethnic origin lost their lives. Northerners beheaded numerous Igbo civillians and left the headless corpses on trains to the East for the Igbos to see. This led to a large influx of refugees from the North, about 1.8 million refugees heading to the south-east.Oil
The discovery of vast oil reserves in the Niger River delta, a sprawling network of rivers and swamps at the southernmost tip of the country, had especially tempted the Federal Government to re-annex the region. However, the exclusion of easterners from power made many fear that the oil revenues would be used to benefit areas in the north and west rather than their own. Prior to the discovery of oil, Nigeria's wealth derived from agricultural products from the south, and minerals from the north. The north, up until around 1965, had had low-level demands to secede from Nigeria and retain its wealth for northerners. These demands seemed to cease when it became clear that oil in the southeast would become a major revenue source. This further fueled Easterners' fears that the northerners had plans to strip eastern oil to benefit the North.CONTINUE READING BELOW