No one gave the Biafrans a chance, not even the Biafrans themselves. The Nigerians called the action intended to bring them back to the fold a ‘Police Action’.
Nigeria declared war on the newly created ‘Republic of Biafra’ on the 6th of July, 1967 and attacked it from the North. Ojukwu and the others at the helm of affairs in the then Eastern region had declared their region a Sovereign State, after what they say was due consultations with the various section of Eastern Nigerian society.
Nigeria’s Head of State countered this by dividing Nigeria into 12 states from the regions that used to be, giving prominence to the minority states in the East for the first time in an attempt to break the hold of the Igbos who formed the majority in the region like the Hausa-Fulani and Yorubas did in their own regions.
Although, this did not initially affect the declaration of the state of Biafra, as the minority groups continued to support the predominant Igbos (even popular musician Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson did a song in honour of Biafra- in ‘Hail Biafra’- and Ojukwu in the early days, though he was of the Kalabari stock in today’s Rivers State, but of the minorities in the Republic of Biafra), with whom they’d suffered in Nigeria, eventually it did contribute to some extent to Biafra’s downfall, as most of those states served as inroad into the Biafran Republic, after they were coerced, in some cases forcibly.
An attempt to open a new front in the Mid-West, just weeks into the war by a Biafran army group led by Colonel Victor Banjo, a Yòrùbá was thwarted. He was later executed alongside three others including Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the January 15, 1966 coupists and another been Ojukwu’s brother-in-law.
In those early days of the war, losses on the Biafran side was attributed to the activities of saboteurs, which though may not be totally spurious but also was largely due to the fact that Biafra went into that war ill-prepared and under-equipped, in all ramifications. The lack of equipments by the Biafrans meant that they had to improvise, leading to the dé facto industrialization that the young state witnessed in it’s short life with the activities of the Research and Production, RAP department. The magnitude and genius of the ability of Biafrans within this period remain unrivalled in black Africa, unfortunately none of the achievements of those days were ever harnessed by a united Nigeria after the war.
Biafra owed it survival for the period the war lasted to the doggedness of it’s citizens, the tactlessness of the Nigerian forces, the highly effective propaganda machinery employed by the Biafrans and mostly to luck (especially for some mindless loss of lives and of machinery of the Nigerians in stupid mistakes like in the ‘Abagana Miracle’, even when they appeared to have gained grounds).
Nigeria had the support of all the major world powers, and in the rarest of all times, Russia and the West had no qualms supporting the same side. The French in slightly aiding the Biafrans only intended to slight the British and not necessarily for the love of Biafrans.
The Biafrans had support of individual soldiers of fortune and white mercenaries, while many of the pilots who flew in relief materials (including those from international church organizations) have confessed that most of their cargo contained arms to the besieged young republic. A few countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania recognized Biafra in Africa while some others in the Caribbeans did same.
Ultimately, it will be starvation on the scale never witnessed before by the media, due to the blockade by Nigeria that will greatly hamper war efforts and contribute to the ending of the war. The Igbos have never forgiven nor forgotten the role played by the the architect of that ‘solution’, who at the time was Nigeria’s Finance Minister, considering that there were some indications that the first coupists (who were mainly Igbos) planned to sprout Chief Obafemi Awolowo from jail and instal him as Head Of State, also once Ojukwu was about to declare Biafra an independent state, he’d confided in the same Awolowo (though the details of that meeting remain controversial regarding what agreements were reached and made as to the declaration of the secession of Western Nigeria, once the East had done theirs), and the fact that it was this same Awolowo that Victor Banjo was attempting to reach in the Midwest while stalling further incursions into Nigeria via the West.
Biafran Propagandists did more than any other arm of the war efforts, in putting the Nigeria-Biafra war on top of the World’s agenda, though at the time happenings in other parts of the world were also angling for such attention.
Citizens of many Western Countries got to know about this little place and contributed their piece in cash and kind, even organizing, leading and participating in protests to force the hand of their governments to either withdraw support for the Nigerian government or work more to bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table.
You could see the disgust on Gowon’s face in describing the escape into exile of Biafra’s leader in one of the interviews he granted in the hours preceding the surrender of the ‘rebels’; he looked to me like he was particularly pained that Ojukwu, a mere rebel made the front page of the ‘TIMES’ magazine.
The Nigeria-Biafra War ended after 2 years, 6 months, 1 week and 2 days on the 15th of January, 1970, with about 40,000 military causalities on the Nigerian side (that went into the war with 120,000 troops) and 15,000 on the Biafran side (of the 30,000 that went into the war), while civilian casualties can be conservatively put at more than 2 million, largely Biafrans who had mainly died of starvation, and indiscriminate strafing of civilian targets by Egyptian pilots flying Russian MiG’s.
Though General Gowon declared the war ended with the words, ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ (war weary Nigerians now fashioned his name into the acronym, Go On With One Nigeria), he claimed the Biafran leaders who wilfully surrendered and made themselves available to Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo (interestingly, the only officer of all those that fought on the Nigerian side to be present at the ceremony, in what will appear to be the beginning of the Obasanjo phenomenon in Nigeria’s political psyche) were ‘captured’, when the latter brought the so called ‘rebels’ led by Biafra’s General Phillip Effiong to the then seat of power in Dodan Barracks.
Peace, was immediately followed by an oil boom, the 3R’s (Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation) mantra of Gowon somehow did not yield much benefits to the Igbos but rather would make them the most marginalized of Nigerians, and not until recently certain positions were simply denied them in the general scheme of things.
At a point Nigeria was so rich, that during a visit to one of the Caribbean countries, General Gowon had offered to help the country’s leader with some money to offset salaries of striking workers, stating that the problem with Nigeria wasn’t making money, but how to spend it.
Many say Gowon did not personally enrich himself as president but he did absolutely nothing to those who did, and though Nigeria witnessed unprecedented growth in that period especially infrastructurally, discontent was rife. It was in Gowon’s time as Head of State that the many structures such as refineries and the Ajaokuta Steel complex (a ‘Thank You’ gift to the Russians for their help in prosecuting the war) which will eventually become the loopholes through which billions of Naira will make their way into private pockets, in the name of Turn Around Maintenance (TAM, in the case of refineries) and never-ending attempts at completing of the steel rolling mills, was built.
And so, Africa’s hope and Giant began to take further steps at further salting the injury it had afore-inflicted upon itself.