The Biafran War

Lizzie Williams gives a brief history of this vicious civil war.

Lieutenant Colonel Odemugwu Ojukwu declared the Eastern Region as the Republic of Biafra on 30 May 1967, citing the predominant cause for his action as the Nigerian government’s inability to safeguard the lives of the Igbo people. The federal military government of Nigeria declared war against the new republic and a brutal and disastrous civil war raged over the next three years, leaving an estimated one to three million people dead through fighting and starvation. The Biafran army was an ill-equipped, under-manned and under-trained rebel force up against a Nigerian army 250,000 strong. Some of Biafra’s military supplies came with unofficial assistance from France and its former west African colonies, but it wasn’t enough.

This late 1960s photograph depicts a field that had been converted into a make-shift airport in Calabar, Nigeria, where relief efforts were aided by a helicopter team. © Dr Lyle Conrad, CDC, Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the federal government of Nigeria got its artillery, fighter planes and gunboats from the international arms market, with official support from Britain and the Soviet Union. The United States remained neutral. Without international help, the Biafrans resorted to making their own artillery and vehicles, and at the beginning of the war set up a group of engineers, railway workers from Enugu and university professors to design and assemble fabricated weapons. These people had no experience of making guns or armoured cars and had to invent them from scratch – the resulting artillery was a lot less sophisticated than that on the Nigerian side.

Nevertheless they worked, and Biafra had some successes during the war; they even made their own landmines and called them ogbinigwe meaning ‘muscular’. But Biafra’s homemade anti-aircraft guns, tanks and rocket launchers were constantly beaten down by Nigeria’s superior firepower.

Throughout the war the fighting was confusing and vicious, and many of the major cities such as Port Harcourt, Enugu, Aba, Calabar and Umuahia kept changing hands and were routinely attacked by air and the coast by gunboats. The Nigerians eventually retook the coast and when they captured Port Harcourt they found that the Biafrans were distilling their own petrol from crude oil in makeshift refineries to fuel their war vehicles.

The Biafran army was eventually reduced to an enclave in the Niger Delta around Owerri. On 12 January 1970, after 31 months of civil war, the Biafran forces surrendered and by the end of the war Biafra was no more than 60km wide and just a few kilometres long, crowded with some three million Igbo refugees.