You are currently viewing THE NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR (JULY 6, 1967- JANUARY 15, 1970)
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War and conflicts are enduring features of human existence throughout the ages. Indeed, as social processes, they have remained critical variables in the nature and character of the emergency, development and transformation of human society in the sense that they are critical determinants in the processes of state formation, boundary adjustment and consolidation, cultural contacts, interactions, identity definition, social transformation and commercial intercourse and exchange.

The available literature on wars and conflicts largely presents them as negative human phenomena even though they do have some positive results.

  Civil war can be defined as a war between opposing groups in a country to get hold of political, economic and social power. It is a war fought between these opposing groups to control the nation in all its spheres of life.

Nigeria regained political independence from the British on October 1, 1960. Regardless of the euphoria that accompanied this historical development, independence came with many challenges for the emerging nation.

For example, Nigeria inherited a weak social and political structure, a defective and unbalanced federation, an intensification of ethnic consciousness and rivalries and above all, an inexperienced leadership.

From all indications, it became crystal clear that despite the euphoria that greeted the independence of Nigeria, the nation was heading for a turbulent and crisis-ridden future.

This led to intra-ruling elite’s contestations for political power and the resources of the country which later degenerated into a bloody civil war fought between the secessionists (mainly Igbo who declared the sovereign state of Biafra) and the Federal government of Nigeria.


 One of the main events that preceded the Nigerian civil war was the massacre of the Christian Igbo by the Muslim Hausas in the Northern region of the country in 1966.

This massacre prompted the fleeing of over ten thousand Igbo back to the East where their people were a dominant ethnic groups.

This recall of the Igbo was facilitated by the Governor of the Eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.

 After the recall, there were several attempts to make peace between the Igbo’s and the rest of the ethnic groups in the country. Lots of negotiations and conferences were held within and outside the country.

One such conference was held in Lagos for two days, August 9 and 10, 1966. The meeting was held in order to stop the bloodshed that was ongoing in the country.

The meeting was opened by L.t-Colonel Gowon who made a lot of recommendations but unfortunately, none of the recommendations was implemented.

Another ad hoc conference was held in September 12 to 15, 1966 and was also unable to reach any conclusion as a result of the difference in ideology of the regional delegations.

Since Lagos was no longer safe as alleged by Eastern delegates, the venue was thereby shifted to Aburi in Ghana which had been tagged as the Aburi Accord between January 4 and 5, 1967.

The Aburi meeting was declared open by L.t General J.A Ankrah, the leader of the Ghanaian government. During the meeting, leaders of the military and senior Police officers signed an accord and agreed on a loose confederation of regions.

Unfortunately, all the decisions arrived at were subjected to different interpretations back home.

Prominent to these interpretations was when Gowon said “I concur”.This statement, to the Igbos means that the head of state has given his consent to their secession.

  All attempts made to resolve the disagreement proved abortive. Also, in an attempt to break the Eastern region solidarity, when Ojukwu, L.t Col Gowon divided the country into 12 states namely Benue, Plateau, East Central, Kano, Kwara, Lagos, Mid-West, North West, North East, North Central, Rivers, South East.

The creation of state came into existence on May 27, 1967. The Igbos doubted that Nigeria’s oppressive military government would allow them to develop or even survive.

For this reason, on May 30, 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu and some other Igbo representatives created the Republic of Biafra.

Since peaceful negotiations could not be made to reintegrate the Eastern part of the country, this, therefore, resulted in the use of arms and ammunition which eventually led to the bloody Nigerian civil war on July 6, 1967, which lasted for 130 weeks and 4 days.


It could be agreed that the Nigerian Civil war did not just happen in a vacuum. Various reasons constituted factors that led to the outbreak of the war.

The first cause of the war was the alleged rigging of the Western election of 1965. The crisis that erupted from the alleged rigging facilitated the collapse of the first Republic and the eventual takeover of the military which culminated in the events that contributed to the civil war.

 In addition, the enmity between the Igbos and the Hausas also fast-tracked the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil war.

Evidence of this was the January 15, 1966, first military coup in Nigeria which had been tagged as the Igbo coup because no politician from the East was killed neither its military officers but politicians from the North and a few from the West were murdered.

In retaliation, the Northern army officers staged a counter-coup on July 29, 1966 which removed General Ironsi from the government in place of Col. Yakubu Gowon, a Northerner.

This enmity further resulted in the massacre of the Easterners by the Northerners in the North: hence, there was the proclamation of secession by the Eastern which later cumulated into the civil war.

Also, the abolition of federation in place of a unitary system of government by General Ironsi was another cause of the civil war.

The abolition which was contained in Decree No 34 of 1966 was viewed in some sections of the country as a step of concentrating power in the hands of a particular tribe.

This fear was further ignited when Ironsi promoted twenty-one military officers of which nineteen were of Igbo origin. This thereby made the civil war almost inevitable.

The war was also caused due to the failure of General Ironsi to bring to book the plotters of the January 15th coup. People, especially the army officers had expected General Ironsi to punish five army Majors who carried out the sectional killings.

Those major political party leaders who were killed during this coup were Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister; Festus Okotie Eboh, Finance Minister; Ahmadu Bello and Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the North and the West respectively. None of this was an Igbo man. This further developed the hatred for the Igbos.

 The September 1966 massacre of the Igbos prompted Ojukwu to recall his people from the federation back to their homeland and he also drove other ethnic groups back to their country home.

This massacre prepared the ground for secession and the eventual civil war.

Another notable cause of the civil war was the intention of the Eastern region to control the oil that was discovered in that part of the country.

The Federal Military Government saw the oil as a Federal concern and viewed the action of the Eastern government as embarrassing. In addition, the personality clash between Gowon and Ojukwu led to the war.

When Ironsi was removed from power, Ojukwu presumed that Brigadier Ogundipe, the next in command should have become the Head of state instead of Gowon who happened to be a junior officer at that time.

As a result of this, L.t Col Ojukwu was not ready to take orders from Gowon who he had seen as a military mate and therefore did not recognize his leadership.

In addition, the Nigerian civil war also occurred due to the fact that Ojukwu and Gowon both believed that they can only reach an agreement through violence.

Ojukwu was of the belief that no power in Black Africa could enter an inch into his proposed Biafra kingdom. Gowon on the other side saw the use of violence as the only way of bringing the Eastern region back into the country.

As earlier stated, the division of the country into twelve states by Gowon which eventually led to the secession of the Eastern region of the country also played a major role in the bloody civil war.

Moreover, the civil war was also caused by the various interpretations given to the statement of Gowon during the Aburi Accord in Ghana.

For instance, the statement “I concur” was opened to various debates back home, especially by the Igbos. This later led to the Nigeria civil war which claimed the lives of several Nigerians.


 It is vital to state that several events happened during the Nigerian civil war. After the secession of the Igbos from Nigeria, the government of Biafra set up the Biafran Federal Executive council. Some of the notable highly ranked personnel were as follows:

Odumegwu Ojukwu- Head of Government

Philip Effiong- deputy head of government

Godwin Oyegbula- Secretary to the Biafran Head of state

Graham Douglas- Biafran Attorney General

Louis Mbanefo- Chief Justice

M T Mbu- Chairman, Civil Service Commission

Authur Mbanefo- Finance Minister

Engineer Onubogu- Biafran Aircraft Engineer, e.t.c

          It should be noted that Ojukwu made several conscription into Biafran Army while some able-bodied young men joined that army willingly.

          Consequently, on July 6, 1967, the first shell was fired over the Biafra region and the war started. The Biafran soldiers retaliated by taking control of the mid-Western region on August 11, 1967.

It is worthy to note that on September 11, 1967, Gowon gave two conditions for the cessation of hostilities which were renunciation of secession and acceptance of the twelve new states structure of the federation.

The Biafran forces did not regard these conditions but went ahead to blow up the newly constructed Niger bridge at Asaba.

This action taken by the Biafran forces angered the Federal troops and on October 4, 1967, Enugu, the rebel headquarter fell to the Federal forces.

Also, there was an attempt by Ojukwu to escape from Nigeria on October 23, 1967, but the attempt was foiled by Col. Mobolaji Johnson.

 On the 27th, January 1968, the Biafran new currency was introduced and it was printed from Switzerland but it was surprising to note that on April 28, 1968, Ojukwu agreed to peace talks with the Federal government but like other previous peace talks, the meeting was deadlocked thereby, making the civil war to continue with several killings and bombings.

It must be noted that both the Federal government and Biafra did not fight the Civil war in isolation. The Federal government received aids from countries such as 29.

Britain, Canada, Sweden, Poland etc. for example, in October 1968, the British Prime Minister, said in London that Britain will continue to grant aid to Nigeria.

 On the other hand, Biafra received aid from France and Russia. Also, President Houphouet Biogny of Ivory Coast served as the Godfather to the Biafrans.

This was due to his belief that his fellow African brothers were been treated unjustly by their counterparts. Portugal also helped the Biafran soldiers, most of the aircraft Pilots of the rebel forces were Portuguese.

 One of the most bizarre events during the civil war was the diplomatic recognition that was given to Biafra by a tiny state called Haiti under the leadership of Papa Duvalier, a dictator.

 During the course of the war, Ojukwu hired a white mercenary, in late 1967. These white soldiers were known as Soldiers of Fortune.

However, Ojukwu’s advisors opposed the hiring of the mercenaries on the basis that it will make Biafra lost its respect among countries in the organization of the Africa Union.

Ojukwu went ahead to secure the service of French mercenary, Roger Faulkes. He demanded six-month payment in advance and heavy weapons to fight the war.

This will cost the Biafran government a huge amount of money which makes the period the most unpleasant period for Ojukwu and his cohorts.

          Unfortunately, these mercenaries were defeated by Col. Adekunle Benjamin at the Port of Calabar and they went back to France via Gabon haven lost ten of their men. Some of these white mercenaries were even imprisoned for crime against Africa. For example, Rolf Stein was imprisoned in Sudan. Due to all these defeat, Ojukwu went into exile on the 8th of January 1970 to Ivory Coast and Phillip Effiong, his deputy became the acting President of Biafra.

          After the exile of Ojukwu, Biafran delegates went to Lagos for peace talk and Effiong was set to announce the end of the secession and negotiates terms for peace, January 15, 1970, therefore marked the end of the war. According to Philip Effiong, he said;

“We have come to give up secession and as officers of the Nigerian Army, to report for redeployment. The Republic of Biafra ceases to exist today.

General Gowon responded by saying that;

          “We have been reunited with our brothers. Let us join hands together to build a prosperous Nigeria in the interest of the welfare and the happiness of our people”

          He also added that the war had ended with no winner and no vanquished.


          Like all modern wars, the Nigerian Civil war was bloody with heavy casualties on both sides. Inestimable lives and properties were lost.

The war reduced the population of the country. Several people who died during the war did not die at the battlefield but due to hunger.

Men, women and children were caught in a helpless situation that was not of their own making.

 The war led to the death of young soldiers who could have been useful for the development of the country. Also, the money that could have been used to develop the nation was used to prosecute the war.

The money spent on the war is yet to be estimated. The war also bestowed lots of hardship on several Nigerians as most people lost their breadwinners on the battlefield and outside the war front. Many people were also displaced from their homes during the thirty months of war.

Another implication of the war was the disruption of education in many parts of the country, especially in the Eastern part.

Many institutions were closed down and some were destroyed during the war, the example was the bombing of some sessions at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

 Economic activities in the country came to a halt during the war. Internal and external trade came to a stop, also, many factories and industries stopped production due to the war.

The war also brought about disrespect for Nigeria in Africa and in the rest of the world because of her wealth and population.

The country did not enjoy peace during the war. Development was also affected as no development can take place during the outbreak of war.


 After the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, the Federal government of Nigeria under General Gowon was saddled with the project of peacebuilding, reintegration and reconciling Nigeria and above all, reconstruction of badly damaged infrastructures.

In order to achieve all these, the Federal Government launched the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation programs popularly known as the three Rs.

The program was coordinated by the National Commission for Rehabilitation and the Nigerian Red Cross Society.

          The performance of the NRC and the NRCS in collaboration with the Nigerian Army helped to reduce the challenges. For example, by 1970 NRCS was feeding about 700,000 people in the Eastern part of the country.

The Federal government, through its Finance Minister, Chief Obafemi Awolowo declared a post-war budget of twenty million nairas. This surplus budget had a positive impact.

Other salient features of the three Rs were the implementation of the second National Development Plan, the change of Nigerian currency from pounds and pennies to Naira and Kobo, the creation of the National Youth Service Corp, and the creation of Agricultural Development Banks, to mention a few.

It must be noted that despite the successes of the three Rs, there were some challenges it also encountered such as lack of funds, large numbers of destitute and the challenge of reintegration; but the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation program witnessed huge success.


It is therefore safe to conclude that although post-civil war peace was eventually achieved in Nigeria, this was at great human and material expense, both for the Federal and Biafran governments.

As we can see, some of the unresolved problems of post-civil war still trouble the political stability in contemporary Nigeria. Also, some indigenes of the Eastern part of the country still look forward to a kingdom called Biafra.

Some notable soldiers who fought for the Federal government were Brigadier Katsina, L.t Col Jallo, Col Alao, Col Shuwa, Admiral Wey, Col Obasanjo, and Col Adekunle Benjamin, to mention a few.

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Dr Afe Adedayo Emmanuel

AFE, Adedayo Emmanuel Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Department of History and International Studies Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.