Colonial Legacy, Elite Dissension and the Making of Genocide: The Story of Biafra
Published on: Jan 10, 2007

De-Escalation: What Factors Delayed and Led to the End of Violence

One characteristic of the Ibo massacres between 1967 and 1970 that made them come short of genocide, that is, to be near-genocides, is that they were brought to a halt by the aggressors themselves. Neither the United Nations nor the Organization of African Unity sent troops to stop the killings and keep the peace. The Ibo (Eastern Nigeria) secessionists did not win on the battlefield. As gallant as they were in the battle they were out-gunned by the more formidable Nigerian army equipped and helped by foreign powers. By the late 1969, when the Nigerian army had overrun the Ibo heartland, the civilian population was at the mercy of the Nigerian troops. Although trigger-happy and genocidal federal soldiers shot and killed civilians in conditions of surrender, on the whole the Head of State, General Gowon, was able to accept the surrender of the Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) and graciously proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished.” Although this policy was implemented more in default, it helped to avert open predation of Ibos when they returned back to the federation.

Gowon as a Factor of De-escalation

The Nigeria civil war is the best example of a civil war that ended without open post-war recrimination. Evidence of how quickly the Ibos reentered the Nigerian federation they had exited with belligerence is that in the 1979 general elections, nine years after the civil war, an Ibo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was on the Presidential ballot on the ticket of a predominantly Ibo party.14  The Ibos grew influential, although still marginalized and repressed, largely due to the permissible environment of the policy of “no victor no vanquished.” Their dynamism and resilience contributed immensely to their quick re-integration. But, if they had been made easy game for predators they would not have thrived. One man who can rightly take credit for conducting a largely decent war, promoting reconciliation and staving off post-war recriminations, is General Gowon.

Gowon’s background as an ethnic and religious minority in northern Nigeria probably influenced his disposition to be less vengeful and spiteful against Ibos. He was a Christian in a predominantly Muslim north and also a Tiv, a minority tribe in northern Nigeria that suffered grave repression both at the hands of the colonialists and Hausa-Fulani feudalists. In spite of Nigeria’s overwhelming military advantage over Biafra, especially when more Ibo cities fell to the control of the federal soldiers, Gowon’s lack of murderous spite against the Ibos ensured that the war did not end as a war of extermination as some of his war generals like Benjamin Adekunle, who vowed to shoot every moveable or immovable thing in Biafran, wanted. Throughout the conflict Gowon allowed the possibility of pull-backs by creating incentives for negotiations. Although these opportunities were not well used because of his moral weakness and Ojukwu’s hawkish nature, the opportunities made it possible for leaders on both sides to intervene.

Gowon’s overall congeniality helped to smooth surrender and the reintegration of the Ibos, as can be seen from his speech accepting the terms of surrender from the rebel second-in-command, Major General Philip Effiong. After gladly accepting the surrender he painted the psychology of the war thus: “On our side we fought the war with great caution, not in anger or hatred, but always in the hope that common sense would prevail. Many times we sought a negotiated settlement, not out of wickedness, but in order to minimize the problems of reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. We know that however the war ended, in the battlefield or in the conference room, our brothers fighting under other colors must rejoin us and that we must together build the nation anew.” Most likely Gowon believed what he said, even as some of his commanders believed it was a war of extermination.

The role of charismatic and ideological leaders in fomenting and perpetuating conflict is well noted in the literature of conflict.15  It follows that well meaning and reconciliatory leaders equally help to end violent conflict earlier than predicted. In the case of the Nigerian civil war, Gowon’s lack of manifest residual hatred for the Ibos acted as incentive for Ojukwu’s lieutenants to turn to reconciliation when the tide turned against them.

The Role of Civil Society Leaders

What did important elites who were directly engaged in the secession crisis and the governance questions that triggered the later violence against the Easterners do to stop the violence and settle the conflict? Pretty little. In the context of Nigeria of the 1960s it is difficult to define who constituted civil society. There were no organized human rights or civil society groups apart from many tribal and cultural-cum-intellectual organizations. Even at that, these latter groups were not directly involved in political governance. Actually, it was ethno-religious organizations that played influential roles in governance. This started with colonial government who favored traditional rulers and traditional institutions against the newly emerging intellectual and academic class. The reason the colonialists disfavored the latter class was because they were prone to nationalistic fervor and agitation. Soldiers were made to perceive themselves as disciplined, while the chattering academics were unruly. So, the dynamism was set in motion for the impoverishment of civil advocacy.

But, nevertheless, one or two individuals played important roles in raising a different consciousness about the violence and the war and helped to stimulate non-partisan concerns about the horrors of the war. Notably among individuals outside the government who played key roles is Professor Wole Soyinka. Soyinka’s intervention in the violence dated from his engagement with the political crisis in Western Nigeria. He shocked the nation when as a young lecturer he stormed the Western Region Broadcasting Corporation to denounce the electoral fraud and the political manipulation in the region. It became known as the “Mystery Gun-man” saga.

Soyinka’s major contribution to de-escalation is in focusing attention on the stupidity and inhumanity of the war and increasing public scrutiny of the political process for the formation of the war. In the midst of war rhetoric and preparations, Soyinka opened up contact with the rebel leader to better appreciate the concerns of the government of Eastern Nigeria. He opted for a third way which neither supported the federal or eastern side of the conflict, but rather advocated for the rule of law and social justice for the Ibos and other persecuted people as the foundation for peace.

The impact Soyinka’s activism had on the crisis could be said to be minimal. The Gowon government perceived him to be a radical who was sympathetic to the rebel Biafra and imprisoned him. But, the moral stance he took against the regime and its war machine contributed to more transparent engagement with the process of decision making about the political crisis and helped to whip up more interventions for peace. One means of continuing mass violence is to enshroud the human misery in cloaks of dogmatism. Soyinka’s sharp wit demystified the ideology of war and brought home the human misery caused by elite contention for power.

Another major and influential intervention to defuse the war took place in May 1967 by a group of eminent Nigerians from different walks of life called the National Reconciliation Committee. This was a group of largely self-appointed interveners who desired to break the diplomatic impasse between the federal and rebel sides. Members of the committee included Chief Obafemi Awolowo (the leader of the Action Group who later became Minister of Finance), Professor Aluko (an economist famous for intellectual critique of government policies), Chief Rotimi William (Nigeria’s most eminent lawyer), Sir Kashim Ibrahim (a federal minister from the north) and many other notable politicians and academics.  The group met with Ojukwu in Enugu, the Eastern Region capital, and canvassed a negotiated end to the stalemate between Ojukwu and Gowon.

The committee largely failed in its peace mission because Ojukwu objected both to its constitution and its terms of reference. The issue of representation was an albatross that drowned the committee’s peace efforts. Ojukwu had objected to certain members of the committee from the north on the grounds that their impartiality was compromised since the north was a party to the dispute. He also objected to the Eastern representative who was not his own appointee. As much as it tried, the committee could not convince Ojukwu to overlook the credibility of some of the members and the grievances of the past to give it a chance to break the impasse between him and Gowon. But the committee succeeded in convincing Gowon to relax (even if momentarily) the federal blockage of Eastern Nigeria that was already resulting in grave sufferings.

Apart from this, the success of the committee was merely symbolic. But, this symbolism is important for de-frosting the relationship between the East and the rest of the federation and making it possible for members of the rebel government dissatisfied with the war to reach out to their compatriots outside the rebel territory. This bridge assisted in putting pressure on Gowon to negotiate and ultimate accept the fall of Biafra on good terms.16

Another Nigerian whose clear minded opposition to the war contributed to nudging the international community to see the war from the lens of human tragedy rather than of internal sovereignty is Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Governor-General of Nigeria and the first President of the republican government toppled by the January 1966 coup. Zik, as he is fondly called, had a love-hate relationship with General Ojukwu, a fellow Ibo. The rivalry between them dates from the removal of Azikiwe as the Chancellor of University of Nigeria when Ojukwu was Military Governor of Eastern Region. Whether from resentment or not, Zik mounted a very spirited campaign to expose the foolishness of the war. He implored Ojukwu and Gowon to “listen to the voice of humanity and stop this senseless war… (they) together with those who counsel them, should now have second thoughts and suspend hostilities. They should proceed to the conference table to negotiate a rapprochement which would safeguard the lives and liberties of innocent citizens.”17

Zik did not restrict his advocacy for peace within Nigeria. He internationalized the campaign for peace. Zik was the first to locate the possibility of settlement of the crisis on a direct and decisive intervention of the United Nations through the Security Council. In an address delivered at Rhodes House, Oxford on February 16, 1969, Zik appealed to the UN to intervene because it is “the forum of last resort” when every other effort has failed. He proposed for a UN committee of nineteen to ensure “total arms embargo; armistice embracing cessation of hostilities on land, sea and air; revocation of blockages including economic and administrative sanctions; establishment of an international peace force, to act for and on behalf of the Security Council to assume administration of the war zones, to demobilize troops engaged in war zones,… to conduct a plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the inhabitants of the war zones whether they want one Nigeria or a divided Nigeria.”18  These proposals were pretty revolutionary in cold war international relations of non-interference. If it was in the post-cold war period, they would have been possible action plans.

The OAU and International Community

Whether the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nation played an important role in de-escalating the conflict is arguable. What is unarguable is that both organizations did not act as decisively as they could and when they ought. Of course, the political climate of international relations when the Biafran-Nigerian conflict occurred is important to understanding the organizations’ dilly-dalliance. Particularly for the OAU, the conflict occurred when the fundamental policy of the organization was the maintenance of the sanctity of the borders of post-colonial states. The leaders of Africa, as part of a policy of fighting neo-colonial interference after grim battles against European colonialialism, affirmed to each other respect for internal sovereignty. There is a rich, and still growing, literature on this ill-fated policy and how it induced the collapse of African states under the twin strike forces of arbitrary rule and weak civil society.19

The OAU made efforts to resolve the crisis before it degenerated into war. But these efforts were sometimes half-hearted, and every time paralyzed by the politics of internal sovereignty. Once military hostilities were declared between Eastern Nigeria and the federal government, Gowon let it be known that any country that recognized Biafra as an independent sovereign state would be viewed by his government as interfering in the internal affairs of the Nigeria. This reduced the organization’s intervention to mere exhortation to peace.

On July 8, 1968, the Presidents of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia made joint appeal to both sides to cease hostilities. The Head of State of Lesotho brought a motion in the OAU for members to consider ways and means of ending the conflict. In a September 1967 session in Kinshasa, African Heads of States succeeded in persuading Nigeria to agree that the issue be discussed at the floor of the General Assembly on condition that they would not interfere with its internal affairs. They formed a committee to go to the Head of State of Nigeria “to assure him of the Assembly’s desire for territorial integrity, unity and peace of Nigeria.” In its resolution the Assembly affirmed its adherence to the “principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, condemns secession” and the right of the Nigerian government to determine the nature of OAU’s involvement.20

In several other meetings and peace conferences the organization was crippled by lack of moral authority and the weakness of its voice on behalf of the suffering Ibo civilians. It almost demanded that the Biafrans call off military resistance before the federal government stopped aggression. A few Presidents felt the need for a more proactive engagement with peace and justice in the Biafran question, but the organization was too bogged down in its neo-colonial nightmares to act decisively as required by the conflict. In the midst of this misstep a few countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Ivory Coast recognized the right of Biafra and further depleted the leadership resources of the organization. President Nyerere of Tanzania was so incensed by the religious commitment to internal sovereignty to the detriment of human life that he accused African Heads of State of “callously watching the massacre of tens of thousands of people for the sake of upholding territorial integrity of Nigeria.”21

The record of the United Nation in de-escalating the conflict is even more dismal. The United Nation as a body failed to intervene in any significant manner. It deferred leadership and responsibility to the Organization of African Unity, and supported the latter’s affirmation of the supremacy of internal sovereignty and the principle of non-interference. Like the leaders of the OAU, the then Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant, expressed concern at the worsening fate of the people of Eastern Nigeria but hoped that the Kinshasa peace initiative of the OAU would lead to quick resolution of the crisis. The deference to regional initiative may seem very sensible and well meaning in the geo-politics of that period. But, in the face of the huge human tragedy and the precedent of the Vietnam case, the Secretary General could have done more to move the United Nations to intervene to pressure the Nigerian government to reconsider its position and accept better terms of peace.

The Secretary-General laid the responsibility on important members of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly to table the issue for international action. However, most of the western countries that had both the diplomatic resources and stakes to effectively intervene were entangled in the conflict and could not find a neutral voice. Britain, being the former colonial ruler of Nigeria, had sufficient standing to intervene in the peace process. But she was already intervening in supplying arms and technical support to the federal side. The Russians were also supplying firearms to Nigeria. Not to be beaten, France allegedly granted Biafra a loan of 8 million pounds in return for a concession to French oil companies. The war was sustained by the involvement of western countries as arm suppliers and oil importers.

Equally, the war played into the cold war calculations of the world powers. It was obvious that these powers suspected the implication of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Nigeria and preferred to remain committed to the original Nigeria. They did nothing serious to end the war. On January 8, 1969, Radio Prague commented that “the great power rivalry is thus transferring the old West-East dispute into a particular hot part of Africa, and neither Nigeria nor Biafra can possibly benefit from it. For the matter now is no longer Nigeria or Biafra alone; the really big fight is over great power influence and over establishing new spheres of influence, and that is the biggest tragedy of the present Nigerian crisis.”22  With the possible exception of the United States, most western powers had economic interests to protect and hedged in making commitment or denouncing the massacres of the Ibos.

The British government notoriously declined to take a resolute stand in favor of ending the misery of millions of Easterners. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, expressed doubts that arm supplies to the warring parties could cease. In his words, “I know of no mediation that will be successful in ending this tragic fighting. I think the general recognition is that it need take an African solution.” Michael Stewart, the Labour Foreign Minister justified British continuous supply of arms to Nigeria in similar terms: “It would have been quite easy for me to say: this is going to be difficult – let’s cut off all connection with the Nigerian government. If I’d done that I should have known that I was encouraging in Africa the principle of tribal secession – with all the misery that could bring to Africa in the future.” The British diplomatic machine refused to grind into action, in spite of the remonstration of humanists like Lord Bertrand Russell, who argued that the doctrine of non-interference in situations like the Biafran civil war leads to much evil.23

The Role of Humanitarian Organizations and Famous Stars

When the United Nations foot-dragged and the OAU was belabored by its burden of history, some well-meaning individuals and organizations set out to reduce human suffering in the war. The Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), formed as a result of the human suffering of the dead and wounded, and did much to help humanitarian relief, as did the Red Cross. These groups, in addition to helping the wounded and the hungry, also lent their voices for calls to end the war. The reports on the suffering of Biafran civilians, especially the genocidal attack on sleepy villages and fleeing women and children, helped to thaw the ice of the politics of “internal conflict” and present the picture of a genocidal attack. These insights drove global revulsion against the war and helped to put pressure on the Nigerian government to conduct the war with fewer violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Their effort was dramatized and glamorized by famous actors and musicians who signed to the “Biafran” cause and raised money for the suffering in Biafra. In 1968, American folk singer Joan Baez and rock singer Jimi Hendrix performed in a Biafran Relief Benefit in Manhattan to raise money for the refugees of the Biafra-Nigeria war. Several such fund-raisers were organized across western societies by Ibos in Diaspora and by charitable persons and institutions. The allegation was that these charitable funds helped Ojukwu prolong the resistance instead of helping to end the war.24  This perverse incentive was unavoidable in the context of the war. In the end these interventions helped to limit the degree of human tragedy in Eastern Nigeria. The infamous starvation policy adopted by the Nigerian government as part of its war strategy contributed to the death of more Ibos than actual military hostility. But for the interventions of these organizations and individuals, extermination would have been a possibility in the war.

Defeat: The End of all Things


Ultimately, Biafra lost the war. That was the saving grace for the Ibos and Nigerians in general. On 14th of January, 1970 Biafra formally surrendered and Gowon pronounced the end of the war. By the end of 1969 Biafra has lost all its strongholds. General Ojukwu jetted out of the republic in search of peace and handed power to General Philip Efiong, his deputy. As defeat stared him in the eyes, Effiong consulted with the strategy committee and surrendered. Chinua Achebe captured the battle fatigue in a Biafran camp in a story of a palm wine tapper who was asked to come down from his palm wine tree and join the army. The man after thanking the soldiers for their heroism, begged them to tell Ojukwu that he had acted like a man, he should now throw in the towel.25  Better late than never. The war ended and reconstruction began.

Genocide usually ends by either of two ways – the victims are completely exterminated or their attackers are restrained or overcome. In the Biafran conflict none of this happened. Nigerian soldiers were not restrained by Biafran soldiers. No external forces aided the victims against the aggressors. When the aggressors overran the victims, they drew back the sword – meaning, “We did not intend genocide.” For me this is the best evidence that what happened, at least between 1967 and 1970, was a misconceived war – a war waged on the ticket of egregious persecution of Ibos and senseless brinkmanship of arrogant and insensitive leaders. Although there were moments of genocidal madness among war generals and strategists, the war policy was, as Gowon, says, to keep Nigeria together; albeit, without addressing the structural injustice that led to the pogroms. The massacres of the Ibos in 1966 seem to carry the signature of ethnic cleaning of the mild type. It was promoted in order to weaken the political and administrative advantages enjoyed by Ibos, and it was conducted on the diabolical mobilization of northerners to believe that the Ibos wanted to enslave the rest of Nigerians.

After The Violence: Old Problems, New Manifestations

The war ended and Gowon graciously proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished” and then came the tasks of reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. The scorecard is dismally poor on all three. The Ibos still feel marginalized, although some reintegration has occurred in the polity. The conflict between citizenship as a bundle of equal rights and indigeneity as a bundle of exclusive privileges is unresolved. Decades of military dictatorship – with its unaccountable use of power – have compounded the problem of ethnicity in politics. Added to the old problem of ethnic chauvinism is now religious fundamentalism. The result is that Nigeria suffers an average of three major ethno-religious and inter-communal violent events every year. Since 1999 more than 5,000 persons have been killed in these violent attacks.

The Ibos are still restless, but nothing near the disenchantment of 1966-1967 that drove them to the cold hands of death in a mismatched war. The Ohaneze Nd’Igbo, the Ibo umbrella cultural and social organization, in its petition to the Human Rights Violations Investigation Committee, alleged systematic marginalization of Ibos in the civil service and military agencies of the constitution. With the aid of statistics it has argued quite persuasively that a glass ceiling exists to stop the Ibos from occupying important and sensitive offices. Besides, it has alleged systematic and deliberate under-provision of social goods and infrastructure in Ibo states. With the notorious bad leadership in Nigeria it is difficult to know which proportion of this under-provision is ethnically constructed. But, the relief is that the Ibos are acting to regain their economic and political power through legitimate political activities.

There remains a significant proportion of Ibos, especially those in diaspora, who agitate for the resumption of the struggle for the Biafran Republic. An organization, the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), is championing this agenda. It has greatly scared the government by its open organizing of resentment against it. The movement has set up chapters in Europe and America and runs a mock embassy in Washington. It mock-heroism is paying off as disenchanted and unemployed and economically displaced Ibos are signing on to the dream of an Ibo state able to provide justice and prosperity. MASSOB’s activities are in sync with other ethnic organizations eating away the nationalism from the distressed Nigerian state.

How these forces play out is uncharted. In November, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a champion of the rights of minorities in Nigeria, was executed after a ruthless persecution of oil-rich Ogoni. Interestingly, Saro-Wiwa fought Biafra as administrator of Bonny for the federal government in the war period. Saro-Wiwa defended the economic rights of the Ogoni and alerted the world to what he termed genocide against Ogoni by the Nigerian Federal Military Government and Shell. In 1999 another oil community – Odi – was sacked by rampaging federal soldiers. It was called genocide. In 2004, Hausa (Muslim) and Indigenous (Christian) communities clashed in Plateau State in northern Nigeria leaving many dead and wounded. President Obasanjo, who led the conquering federal troops against Biafra in 1969, declared a state of emergency to save lives and property. The cause of the violence is conflict over rights to resources by those who claim to be natives and those they call settlers.

The war ended but the battle continues. When will the legacy of colonialism be overcome and transformed? Will elites overcome their brinkmanship? When will human rights provisions in the constitution be experienced as national rights alive in state institutions? Until then the Ibos of Nigeria will keep their festering wounds.