Resource 3: The Nigerian Civil War

Background information / subject knowledge for teacher

The Nigerian Civil War, 1967–1970, was an ethnic and political conflict caused by the southeastern provinces of Nigeria proclaiming themselves as the republic of Biafra. The war was very violent and many places were besieged and cut off from the world. Many people, mainly Igbo, were killed or starved to death because provisions were blocked.

Causes of the conflict

The conflict was the result of serious tensions, both ethnic and religious, between the different peoples of Nigeria. Nigeria was a country put together by agreement between European powers who paid little notice to the historical African boundaries or population groups. Nigeria, which received independence from Britain in 1960, had a population of 60 million people with nearly 300 differing ethnic and tribal groups.

The largest groups were the largely Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the half-Christian, half-Muslim, southwest, and the Igbo in the predominantly Christian southeast. At independence, a conservative political alliance had been made between the leading Hausa and Igbo political parties, which ruled Nigeria from 1960 to 1966. This alliance excluded the western Yoruba people. The well-educated Igbo people were considered by many to be the main beneficiaries of this alliance.

The elections of 1965 saw the Nigerian National Alliance of the Muslim north and the conservative elements in the west against the United Progressive Grand Alliance of the Christian east.

The alliance of north and west won a crushing victory under Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, amid claims of widespread electoral fraud.

Military coup

The claims of fraud led to a military coup on 15 January 1966, which led to the accession of General Aguyi Ironsi, the head of the Nigerian army, as head of state of Nigeria. This coup benefited the Igbos because most of the coup plotters were Igbos and Ironsi. On 29 July 1966, the northerners carried out a counter-coup. It placed Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon into power. Ethnic tensions due to the coup led to the large-scale massacres of Christian Igbos living in the Muslim north.

The discovery of large quantities of oil in the southeast of the country had led to the prospect of the southeast becoming self-sufficient and increasingly prosperous. 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.

Break away

The military governor of the Igbo-dominated southeast, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu announced the breaking of the southeastern region from Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra, an independent nation on 30 May 1967 (29 May in some sources). Only four countries recognised the new republic.

The Nigerian government immediately launched a ‘police action’, using the armed forces to retake the declared independent territory.

Civil war

At first, Nigerian progress was slow, and failures of its larger army to invade the territory of the new republic led to a growth in worldwide support for Biafra. Biafran troops led by Colonel Banjo, a brilliant tactician, crossed the Niger River, entered the mid-western region, and launched attacks close to Lagos, the then Nigerian capital. However, reorganisation of the Nigerian forces, the reluctance of the Biafran army to fight and the effects of a naval, land and air blockade of Biafra led to a change in the balance of forces. Biafran forces were pushed back into their core territory, and the capital of Biafra, the city of Enugu, was captured by Nigerian forces. The Biafrans continued to resist in their core Igbo heartlands, which were soon surrounded by Nigerian forces.


From 1968 onwards, the war fell into a lengthy stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control. The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans led to a humanitarian disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas. Farmland was sabotaged and this was affecting the Biafran population. Images of starving Biafran children went around the world. The Biafran government claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world.


Biafran forces surrendered in 1970 when Ojukwu fled to the republic of Cote d'Ivoire, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender. To the surprise of many in the outside world, the threatened reprisals and massacres did not occur, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation.

It is estimated that up to a million people may have died in the conflict. Reconstruction, helped by the oil money, was swift. However, the old ethnic and religious tensions often remained.

On Monday 29 May 2000, The Guardian of Lagos reported that President Olusegun Obasanjo commuted to retirement the dismissal of all military persons who fought for the breakaway state of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. In a national broadcast, he said that the decision was based on the principle that ‘justice must at all times be tempered with mercy’.

Adapted from: Wikipedia, Website

Resource 2: Possible interview questions

Resource 4: The Aba women’s riot