A decade after gaining independence from Britain, the West African nation of Nigeria experienced a reprieve from strife when the Nigerian-Biafran War — a civil war divided along ethnic lines — came to a close on January 15, 1970. Brutal at every turn, as many as three million people may have died during four years of combat.
Following World War II, the British Empire receded slower in Africa than in Asia. Whereas many new nations on the subcontinent and in the Far East — India, Pakistan, Burma and so on — received independence within the first two to three years after the end of hostilities, their African counterparts generally had to wait until the 1960s or later. Despite the obvious problems with territorial division in Asia, such as the Radcliffe Line between India and the two Pakistans, British administrators once again ignored cultural nuances when it came time to set Africa free.
The rather arbitrary borders for Nigeria encapsulated three primary ethnic groups comprised of 300 distinct social organizations — everything from desert-dwelling tribes to rapidly-growing cities built on exporting oil. Within the differing regions, governing structures were incredibly different. The Hausa-Fulani Muslims in the northern half of the country submitted to local emirs who, in turn, followed the orders of a sultan. The Yoruba in the southwest were under the control of an Oba, a royal system supported by wealthy nobles. The Igbo, taking up the southeastern corner of the nation, had a more modern government built on democratic interactions with rulers connected in a loose confederation.
With the imperial governments moving out, culture clashes were nearly immediate. Tensions which existed before colonization only became worse as time wore on, with the Hausa-Fulani becoming more isolated and the Igbo receiving many of the benefits of western involvement. (Newly-rich Igbo families often sent sons to Britain for top-notch education.) In the 20 years before independence, the Igbo and Yoruba argued for the creation of several countries — perhaps half a dozen — in order to neutralize the population advantages of the British-friendly Hausa-Fulani. The call fell on deaf ears.
In truth, there were many interests at play, as petroleum companies in Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and France competed for the rights to drill in Igbo areas. Corporate hostilities played on ethnic differences, with the Nigerian military slowly gaining influence as the 1960s wore on. In January 1966, with President Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe out of the country on vacation, five officers staged a coup. Though the conspirators were unsuccessful, the result left Azikiwe deposed and General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in power.
With most of the death and destruction in the Hausa-Faluni lands, whispers of an “Igbo Conspiracy” floated through the nation. By the time a second coup occurred near the end of July, tens of thousands of Christians in the north had been murdered in retaliation. Those who survived the ethnic cleansing flooded the Igbo territory in the southeast, leading Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu to declare the region as the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967.
Though leaders from both sides made initial attempts to negotiate a compromise, the Nigerian Federal Army (NFA) moved into Biafra in early July. Within months, the troops gained control of large swathes of rebel territory, but Biafran soldiers managed to force a war of attrition by early 1968. British and Soviet aid backed the Nigerian government, while the Canadians and French provided support to the Biafrans. Both sides gained small victories, but the civilians suffered most. When the NFA launched Operation Tailwind on January 7, 1970 as a final push to take Biafra, millions of non-combatants were already dead or starving from violence and famine.
The NFA, facing a depleted force, conquered the rest of Biafra on January 15, 1970. Nigerian leader General Yakubu Gowon called for a “national reconciliation,” yet the country would take years to rebuild emotionally. Fueled by oil exports, the physical damage would soon be handled, but religious and ethnic resentment continues in some corners to this day.
Also On This Day:
1493 – Christopher Columbus leaves Hispaniola for Spain, the end of his first trip to the New World
1559 – Queen Elizabeth I is crowned in Westminster Abbey
1889 – Pemberton Medicine Company, the precursor to the Coca-Cola Company, is incorporated in Atlanta, Georgia
1991 – The United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait expires, leading to Operation Desert Storm
2001 – Wikipedia goes online
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