Biafra War (1967-1970) – US State Department

Biafra War (1967-1970)

Nigerian tribal and civilian conflict during 1967-1970. The Biafra War
emerged from tribal conflicts in Nigeria that could barely be
contained by the poorly functioning federal government established
when the country achieved independence from Britain in 1960. The
eastern part of Nigeria, under the leadership of the ethnic Ibo (Igbo)
Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared itself independent as
Biafra in May 1967. The ensuing war caused much suffering, especially
among civilians, as the Nigerian military government under the
northerner Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon sought to extinguish the
rebellion. The war ended with the collapse of Biafra in January 1970.
At the beginning of 1966 a declaration of martial law followed by a
military coup had resulted in a military junta led by Major General
Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, an Ibo from eastern Nigeria. Fearful
northerners then launched a countercoup in July 1966, establishing the
Nigerian military government of Lieutenant Colonel Gowon. This
resulted in rioting and violence between northerners and easterners;
attacks on Ibos in the north fueled Ibo fears about the intentions of
Gowon’s federal military government. Through the second half of 1966
it became clear that tribal tensions might culminate in the secession
of eastern Nigeria, under Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu’s leadership.
Despite diplomacy intended to avoid that outcome and declarations by
all parties of allegiance to the concept of Nigerian unity, such was
the result.
Following the January 1967 Aburi Conference attended by both Gowon and
Ojukwu that was called to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis,
Ojukwu declared himself dissatisfied with the negotiations, which
envisaged a renewed federal structure. Ojukwu then moved toward
secession. The secession declaration formally establishing Biafra was
made on 27 May 1967. War quickly followed as the Nigerian government
sought to defeat the secessionists.
The Biafra War became a major problem for Britain, Nigeria’s former
colonial ruler, and Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson. While
calling for negotiations, peace, and Nigerian unity, Wilson’s
government decided to supply arms to Gowon’s federal government but
not to Biafra, on the grounds that the United Kingdom was, in Wilson’s
words, a “traditional supplier” of arms to Nigeria. This stance
brought Wilson under fierce attack in the House of Commons and even
evoked questions in Washington. Later, when the Nigerian government’s
blockade of Biafra resulted in mass starvation there, parliamentary
criticism of Wilson became even more vociferous.
Wilson’s memoirs reveal an abiding sense of hurt at his treatment; he
also believed strongly that the media had misrepresented the conflict
in Biafra’s favor. While hunger and misery on a massive scale were
indeed to be found in Biafra, Wilson was not alone in arguing that
Ojukwu’s policies, which allowed only night relief flights so that he
could simultaneously import arms, may have contributed to the
humanitarian catastrophe.
Wilson’s motives for assisting Nigeria were expressed in terms of
seeking to maintain the integrity of the country if possible while
limiting Soviet influence in the region. The Nigerian federal
government did, ultimately, purchase a limited amount of military
hardware from the Soviet bloc but pointedly noted that this did not
indicate a change in its general pro-Western orientation. Ironically,
Wilson’s memoirs are more critical of French arms sales to Biafra than
of any communist bloc sales. He even suggested that the war was
unnecessarily prolonged as a result of French President Charles de
Gaulle’s actions.
The stance of the United States toward Biafra was marked by caution
and formal neutrality, for several reasons. First, the United Kingdom
was the dominant Western power in the region, and the United States
acknowledged and accepted that fact. This was not simply an
acknowledgment of diplomatic niceties but was also a recognition by
American policy-makers that their nation had few assets and
comparatively little influence in Nigeria. Additionally, the Americans
realized that armed intervention in the conflict would require huge
resources and carry grave risks. Finally, the United States was
already deeply involved in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and
President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors did not dare risk another
war of intervention. The Americans supported Nigerian unity (in
preference to unpredictable disintegration) and pushed for a peaceful
resolution to the conflict.
The United States did not supply arms to either party although some
private U.S. citizens did, to the irritation of the U.S. State
Department. Interestingly, there was little anxiety in American
governmental circles (in contrast to Wilson’s anxieties, very much
played up in his memoirs) about the possibility of the Soviet Union
taking advantage of chaos in Nigeria to extend its regional influence.
Indeed, the Soviets were seen by some in the United States as playing
a fairly responsible role as the tension increased in Nigeria. A
National Security Council (NSC) memorandum of July 1967 declared that
“the Soviets have behaved very correctly throughout the crisis,
pressing for unity at every opportunity.” Even the Soviets saw the
risks of being caught up in an unpredictable tribal war and abstained
from action that might only have exacerbated the situation. Clearly,
neither side wished to transform Nigeria into a Cold War battle zone.
Wilson visited Nigeria in March 1969, but apart from eliciting
platitudes from his hosts he was unable to move the conflict toward
resolution. Nor was he able to remove the images of death and
starvation in Biafra from the front pages of newspapers. The Biafra
War ended only with the military defeat of the Biafran rebellion in
January 1970.
Paul Wingrove
Further Reading
U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States
1964-1968, Vol. 24, Africa. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1999.; Wilson, Harold. The Labour Government, 1964-1970: A
Personal Record. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.


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