The Nigeria-Biafra War

From 1967 to 1970, the Nigerian civil war riveted the world’s attention as the eastern province struggled to create an independent state. The causes of the Nigeria-Biafra war were varied, but tensions between different regions in Nigeria were longstanding. Those tensions had been exacerbated with Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. There were deep divides about the relative political power of the different regions, as well as divisions over how to distribute wealth from oil found in the Niger Delta. The proximate cause of the war was a military coup in 1966, followed by a counter-coup a few months later. Both disputes were about divisions of power in the civilian government as well as sectarian tensions in the military. The eastern region seceded as the state of Biafra in May 1967, after a series of attacks on Igbo people living in other parts of Nigeria.

Militarily, the war between Nigeria and Biafra was hardly a match. Within six months, the tide had already turned against Biafra. Nigeria’s victory was all but certain, as the Federal Military Government surrounded the Biafran forces. However, when Nigeria began to blockade Christian-identified Biafra, religious communities in particular—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—were horrified. Hunger and starvation were soon endemic among the Igbo and other communities in Biafra. Images of dead civilians and starving children were everywhere in the global news, and, to international observers, the cause seemed straightforward: the Nigerian government was intentionally starving the people of a rebellious region. In response, a transnational coterie of advocates, together with an activist global media, helped to build a humanitarian movement that challenged traditional ideas about humanitarian aid as apolitical and impartial. The American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive, for example, raised money, held vigils, and lobbied for more government action to support Biafra. The organization’s name was intentionally multivalent: to keep the people of Biafra alive, the world must provide humanitarian aid, but to keep the nation of Biafra alive would require great political will. Specifically, it would require a willingness to watch the breakup of Nigeria, which many considered to be Africa’s great postcolonial success story.

Over the two and a half years of the war, between one and three million civilians in the Biafra died from the fighting, disease, or hunger.  Millions more were homeless, and severe shortages of food, medicine, and clothing remained.

In the decades since the war ended, Biafra has become what Alex de Waal has called the “totem and taboo” of the modern humanitarian movement. On the one hand, the extraordinary global response showed the capacity of non-governmental organizations to act quickly, and in ways that went beyond merely providing food or medicine. In addition, Biafra seemed to prove that Americans and Europeans were willing and able to shape a political response to what might previously have been seen as a sad but unavoidable food crisis. Yet, in hindsight, a number of observers concluded that the world’s passionate support for an underdog allowed the Biafrans to prolong a hopeless struggle, thus increasing civilian casualties. Thus any analysis of the Nigeria-Biafra war also raises questions about the politics of humanitarianism, questions that have persisted in the ensuing decades – about the efficacy of humanitarian aid; the role of NGOs in setting international agendas; the use of humanitarian logic to justify military intervention; and the ways in which the media shape political agendas.

Today, the south and eastern provinces of Nigeria are again riven by conflict, often driven over issues of control over oil. A small but visible movement for an autonomous Biafra has been revitalized. The questions that shaped the conflict fifty years ago — about secession and independence, ethnic identity, division of resources, and the role of the rest of the world will play in Nigeria’s conflicts  — are still very much at hand.