The Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, was a political conflict waged from July 6, 1967, to January 13, 1970. It was a war rooted in ethnic conflicts between three main tribes in the country: the Igbo in the southeast, the Yoruba in the west, and the Hausa/Fulani in the north.
The war came about as a result of events that followed the independence of Nigeria in 1963. In 1964 elections were held, which were afterward condemned by non-northern Nigerians as fraudulent. In January 1966 a coup d’état was staged by mostly Igbo officers that put Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in power at the head of a government that gave more favor to Igbo-related officers. A countercoup was then staged by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed that placed Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon (a northerner) in power on July 29, 1966. Because Igbos became suspect for the problems caused by the first coup, social unrest started that led to massacres of Igbo people, continuing into September of the same year. Around 30,000 Igbo civilians were killed, and over 1 million Igbos began to relocate to the southeast to escape persecution. At the same time Hausas and other non-Igbos were killed in Igbo lands, causing a counter-exodus to escape retaliation.
Oil had been discovered in Nigeria in 1958, and the country’s oil industry was based in the Igbodominated southeast. Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, military governor of the eastern region, became the leader for the Igbo side. Based on Igbo appeals for secession from the federal government, he declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1966. Unwilling to lose the oil industry, the FMG advanced into Biafra on July 6, 1967, to force Biafra back into the fold of Nigeria. The Biafran forces repulsed the advance, then launched a counterinvasion into FMG territories, seizing key strategic locations. At the end of 1967 however, the FMG regained these territories, and the Biafran forces were again looking for breakthroughs into Nigeria.
For most of 1968 the forces were stalemated. The Biafran military enjoyed much support from foreign countries. French doctors and other volunteer groups airlifted supplies and medical assistance into Biafra. The Swedish eccentric Carl Gustav von Rosen fought as a mercenary on the Biafran side.
When Biafra was declared, the country was formally recognized by only Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, South Africa, and Ivory Coast. Other African countries refused to recognize Biafra because they were opposed to South Africa.
FMG forces later took the town of Owerri, the capital of the Igbo heartland, and thought that victory was close. But Biafran forces reclaimed it later on, and the stalemate held again. By April 1969 the Biafran forces were heavily reduced, but they continued fighting. Ojukwu’s appeals for United Nations intervention in October were unsuccessful. The final push of FMG forces started in December of 1969. On January 6, 1970, Owerri again fell to the FMG. On January 10 Ojukwu admitted defeat and fled Nigeria for the Ivory Coast. He left the country to the commander of the Biafran Army, Philip Effiong, who led a delegation to Lagos and formally surrendered on January 15, 1970, thus ending the existence of Biafra.
The Biafran War ended with 100,000 military casualties, while between 500,000 and 3 million Biafran civilians became casualties from starvation during the war. After the war, ethnic tensions continued to be a problem in Nigerian politics.