The Biafran Civil War: The Politics of Hunger & Starvation


Joseph E. Holloway Ph.D

The Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The people were mostly the Igbo people, who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The artificial creation of the new country by the British Colonial Government was among the causes of the Nigerian-Biafran War.

Land of the Rising Sun was chosen for Biafra's national anthem, and the state was formally recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition, but which did provide support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa and the Vatican City. Biafra also received aid from non-state actors, including Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International, Mark Press and U.S. Catholic Relief Services.

In 1960, Nigeria became independent of the United Kingdom. As with many other new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic boundaries. Thus the northern desert region of the country contained semi-autonomous feudal Muslim states, while the southern population was predominantly Christian and Animist. Furthermore, Nigeria's oil, its primary source of income, was located in the south of the country and the real source of the conflict.

Following independence, Nigeria was divided primarily along ethnic lines with Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, Ijaws in the south-south and Igbo in the south-east. In January 1966, a group of primarily eastern Igbo led a military coup during which 30 political leaders including Nigeria's Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello were killed.

In July 1966 northern officers and army units staged a counter-coup. Muslim officers named a Christian from a small ethnic group (the Anga) in central Nigeria, General Yakubu "Jack" Gowon, as the head of the Federal Military Government (FMG). The two coups deepened Nigeria's ethnic tensions. In September 1966, approximately 30,000 Igbo were killed in the north, and some Northerners were killed in backlashes in eastern cities.

In January 1967, the military leaders and senior police officials of each region met in Aburi, Ghana and agreed on a loose confederation of regions. The Northerners were at odds with the Aburi Accord; Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Western Region warned that if the Eastern Region seceded, the Western Region would also, which persuaded the northerners..

After the federal and eastern governments failed to reconcile, on 26 May the Eastern region voted to secede from Nigeria. On 30 May, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Eastern Region's military governor, announced the Republic of Biafra, citing the Easterners killed in the post-coup violence. The large amount of oil in the region created conflict, as oil was a major component of the Nigerian economy. The Eastern region was very ill equipped for war, out-manned, and out-gunned by the military of the remainder of Nigeria. Their advantages included fighting in their homeland, support of most Easterners, determination, and use of limited resources. The British, Soviet, and U.S. support of the Nigerian government was essentially military aid played a major role in the outcome of the war.

The Biafran diplomatic strategy during the Nigerian Civil War was a policy of prolongation of the war effort in the hope that outside foreign intervention by African countries and the “super-powers” would result in an outcome favorable to their cause. The Nigerian government had, from the start, a relatively strong position of diplomatic support from most of the African countries (through the Organization of African Unity) and from the major European powers such as Great Britain and Russia. Still, in the event of foreign intervention on the behalf of Biafra, the federal government had much to lose. The Biafran “underdogs” had everything to gain by creating an international issue out of a domestic civil conflict. The Biafran war policy of prolonging the conflict had three major objectives: first, to gain diplomatic recognition from African and European countries; second, to acquire military hardware from them; and third, to involve the foreign powers and internationalize the war by appealing to the sympathy of humanitarians all over the world, claiming that “genocide” was being practiced against them. In short, these were the essential points of the Biafran diplomatic strategy for achieving independence from the Nigerian federation.

For  General Ojukwu, the leader of Biafra, diplomatic recognition by African and European countries was the key to Biafra’s survival and sovereignty. Therefore, the diplomatic aspects of the Nigerian civil war were the most crucial because their interaction changed the entire nature of the war by creating an international conflict out of an internal problem.

A similar paradox can be found in the Congo, where the foreign powers entered the crises on the request of Patrice Lumumba, but took the opportunity to continue the Cold War between the East and the West. In this respect the situation in Nigeria was dissimilar, because for the first time in Africa, the East and West were aligned on the same side, but for different reasons as I shall show later. In this respect foreign involvement in Nigeria was similar to the Congo. In Nigeria, like the Congo, foreign participation played a decisive role in the course of the war, and contributed greatly to the final outcome. Therefore it is important for us to assess the nature of their involvement and the impact it had during the war.

Biafra and the Organization of African Unity

The Biafrans realized that African recognition was the key to outside intervention, and the most effective method of achieving this objective was through a strong diplomatic approach to the various head of states. The Biafrans’ first major opportunity was at the up-coming Kinshasa Conference on the Nigerian crises to make their position known. Prior to this summit meeting the Biafran government had led a strong campaign of lobbying their views to the OAU member states in Kinshasa (Zaire) where the African summit meeting was held in September 1967.1 The Biafran government called upon the Organization of African Unity to intervene. However, their efforts failed primarily because the request not only would have undermined African Unity, but was in opposition to the basic principles in which the OAU had been founded on—non-interference in the internal affairs of African states. At the Kinshasa summit meeting, the OAU’s position on the Biafran request was made very clear in their resolution on the situation in Nigeria. On this particular point, the document reads: “The Assembly of Heads of State and Government in its Fourth Ordinary Session at Kinshasa Congo, from 11 to 14 September 1967, Solemnly reaffirming their adherence to the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states; Reiterating their condemnation of Secession in any member states; Concerned at the tragic serious situation in Nigeria; Recognizing that situation as an internal affair, the solution of which is primarily the responsibility of Nigeria themselves.2

In order for the OAU to reinforce their resolution, they sent a Consultative Mission of Six African States to the Congo, Cameroons, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Niger to Lagos to reassure Gowon and his government that the OAU supported Nigeria’s territorial integrity and unity. In short, the OAU resolution condemned secession and expressed a commitment to the solidarity of a “one Nigeria instead of a fragmented state.” Traditionally, the OAU has always held a rigid respect for colonial boundaries even though they cut across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Why did a supposedly neutral organization like the OAU take such a strong one sided position in regard to Biafra, and reject their appeal to intervene? While many of the African countries actually sympathized with the Biafran cause, they feared that Biafra success might  encouraged secessionist movements within their own borders.3 According to Walter Schwartz article “Foreign Powers and the Nigerian War,” he points out that most of the African states were discouraged from recognizing Biafra because of strong British political and diplomatic support for the Federal Government. He holds that this was why only a few African states recognized Biafra. Schwartz’ arguments appear to be faulty, because to allow secession to take root in Nigeria would threaten the very foundation of most African states who were themselves colonial creations. In the light of this, it is understandable why the OAU took such a strong position against Biafra. For the most part, these African states acted in the name of their own internal security first and in the name of the Nigerian national unity secondly. Another force behind the OAU strong position was to prevent another “Katanga” from occurring in Nigeria with all the implications of an international conflict. For these reasons the Biafra “game plan” was successfully stalemated; their diplomatic recognition by African states to move in Biafra’s favor. This new war strategy was to bring into focus the question of genocide. This issue was eventually to become the main one during the war. This policy was to be a very costly one in terms of human life, because Ojukwu and Gowon were determined to achieve their goals regardless of who would have to pay the price. The head of the Biafran state Ojukwu was willing to let thousands of people die in order to bring the genocide issue to the world consciousness thinking that this would force the outside world to become involved and internationalizing the civil conflict to ensure Biafra’s sovereignty. Whereas, Gowon and his Federal Government wanted to shut off the world from becoming involved and keep the conflict as localized as possible. In order to accomplish this Gowon wanted a “quick kill” to bring the war to its logical military conclusion. If starvation would achieve this end by weakening the Biafran capacity to resist then starvation was a legitimate weapon for war.  For “political reasons” Ojukwu had opposed daylight flights that would have brought food and medical supplies for millions.4 This reinforces the argument that his costly strategy was not based on broad concern for the general welfare of his people. Thus, both sides must share the responsibilities for the tragic consequences.

African Recognition

For Biafra to consolidate its sovereignty the first steps were to attain diplomatic recognition from African countries, and the international community at large. Therefore, the fight for African recognition was one of the most crucial battles in the struggle for the newly created nation-state of Biafra. The Biafran leadership spent a great deal of time and energy on this calculated gamble, which would eventually backfire in favor of the Nigerian Federal Government.

Finally, because of the Biafran’s successful “game plan” of creating an international issue over the many Biafran war casualties (really attributable to starvation), the Biafran leaders were able to bring this issue to world consciousness. The cry of genocide was heard all over the African continent and the globe. Humanitarians were beginning to demand that something be done to save these innocent Africans. Most of the European countries had taken a position similar to that of the OAU: that this was an internal African problem. Then suddenly, on April 13, Tanzania recognized Biafra. Following in rapid succession was Gabon on the 8th of May; a week after the Ivory Coast; and finally Zimbabwe on the 20th of May followed Tanzania’s footsteps in giving diplomatic recognition to Biafra. John de St. Jorre, describes the reaction in Biafra: “People went wild with joy, dancing at night in the brilliantly lit streets every time a recognition was announced. The country took a deep breath and the general feeling expressed itself through the often-repeated phrase, ‘ the tide has turned at last; if we can only hold on now, victory will eventually be ours. God is on our side.’”5 This last- minute dramatic development threatened to change the entire course of the war in Biafra’s favor by now officially opening up the conflict for international involvement.

Tanzanian recognition of Biafra left many Pan-Africanist, and progressive African intellectuals disillusioned. This reversal came as a complete surprise and shock to many because of Nyerere’s earlier position supporting the Federal Government, particularly his stand on African solidarity and Nigerian unity. Ever since the fall of  Nkrumah, Nyerere had been regarded by many as his successor for advocating African unity and solidarity. The question arises: Why did President Nyerere change horses in midstream when he had originally deplored the break-up of the Nigerian Federation, and had endorsed the OAU resolution in support of national unity and for “one Nigeria” at the Kinshasa summit meeting in September 1967. Tanzanian recognition of Biafra appears even more confusing when one recalls that at the time of President Julius Nyerere’s recognition he knew about the Biafran Portuguese connection and their motives for supporting Biafra—an attempt to undermine African unity and to suppress the African Liberation movements. Nigeria prior to the civil war had been the OAU’s largest financial supporter for the OAU liberation funds. The Portuguese motives were clear, but not Nyerere’s, he had several direct boundary confrontations with the Portuguese. In the light of these contradictions, how were Nyerere’s change-of-mind actions and motives to be explained?

Nyerere’s change of heart can be explained from a number of viewpoints. First of all, some reasons given were that Nyerere was taken in by the genocide line propagated by the Biafrans. Secondly, that he was very unhappy with the massacres of the Igbos that had taken place in the northern cities, and the slaughter of Biafrans during the war, and the slaughter of Biafrans during the war, and for humanitarian reasons wanted to stop the war because of the danger of foreign intervention. Nyerere felt that by recognizing Biafra he would achieve this objective by forcing the Federal Government to the negotiation table. Recognition was a honest move to strengthen the Biafran position for a peaceful settlement at the forthcoming Kampala peace conference. Nyerere had recognized Biafra for the exact opposite reasons that Ojukwu was trying to accomplish. Nyerere unlike Ojukwu wanted to stop the prolongation of the war because he felt that it would provide a situation for interventionist to gain a foothold, an opportunity that Africa’s enemies had been waiting for. In short, it appears that the main reasons behind Nyerere’s motivation was to stop the war and prevent foreign intervention and to put an end to the suffering of millions of Biafrans. This view seems to be confirmed when Nyerere later wrote that “the break-up of Nigeria is a terrible thing but it is less terrible than that cruel war.”6

President Kaunda of Zambia was also motivated for the same reason as Nyerere and was strongly influenced by Nyerere in his decision to recognize Biafra. Both Nyerere and Kaunda made clear political distinctions between Biafra’s security and sovereignty. The fact that both Tanzania and Zambia never appointed ambassadors to Biafra or went through the ritualistic motions that usually follows diplomatic recognition, reinforces the argument that diplomatic recognition was to ensure their security and not their sovereignty. However, they did receive some war material (the only thing that really counted in the Biafran diplomatic maneuvering). The results were the Tanzanian purchase of the famous Von Rosen’s “Minicon” fighter planes and Zambia also giving Biafra two DC-3 transport aircraft. From this viewpoint the Biafran diplomatic strategy was a success.

Tanzania and Zambia’s recognition of Biafra are important because they broke the ice and opened the path for internationalizing a local conflict. The exact opposite of what Nyerere thought his actions were bringing. Ojukwu felt that finally his calculated gamble was beginning to show some positive signs of actually achieving his objectives. Tanzania and Zambia were real prizes, because they were not the original focal point of Biafra’s war strategy but merely pawns for a greater prize—the Ivory Coast.

The President of the Ivory Coast Felix Houphourt- Boigny, had been the target of Biafra war plans long before secession and the outbreak of war had occurred in 1966. Dr. Kenneth Dike, the ex-vice chancellor of Ibadan University was the individual to be credited for this diplomatic achievement. Because he personally spent a lot of time in Abidjan and had developed a strong friendship with Houphouet-Boigny. President Houphouet-Boigny was always under pursuit by the Biafran envoy everywhere he went, France, Switzerland, etc. Also the French government played an important role in influencing his decision through President de Gaulle’s special advisor on African affairs, Jacques Foccart. He made sure that Houphouet-Boigny was exposed to the heavy television and press coverage in Europe on the Biafran civil war in 1968 when he was in France.

According to St. Jorre, there were three major factors involved in Houphouet’s decision to recognize Biafra: First of all, he was emotionally anti-Muslim and anti-communist. The Soviet support of Lagos only confirmed his fear of an “evil” alliance between Moscow and their Arab protégé, because in the Ivory Coast he had his own Muslim problem in the north, and feared their domination, a similar paradox to the situation that had caused the civil war in Nigeria. In addition, he was a Catholic, like Ojukwu and Nyerere—brother of the same faith. (Nyerere being in Nigeria during the old days had seen how the Muslim north dominated regional and national politics which added to his fear.) Nevertheless, Houphouet’s motives for recognizing Biafra appear to have been a genuine commitment to humanitarism.          The tide of winning over the key states of Ivory Coast and Tanzania was the job of the former president of Nigeria’s eastern region, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik). A man of international standing and respect, he is one of the fathers of Nigerian nationalism and unity. The fact that he had been one of Nyerere and Kaunda’s early nationalistic African heroes no doubt had an impact on their decision to recognize Biafra. Because African recognition had came soon after Azikiwe’s tour of Tanzania, Zambia and the Ivory Coast. Nyerere’s decision was probably helped to the conclusion he arrived at when he was no doubt reminded by Azikiwe that it was Nigerian troops after the 1964 army mutinies who were sent to Tanzania to suppress the revolt and keep Nyerere in power.

Prior to African recognition and international involvement, the western powers were not sure just how to evaluate the situation and take positive action toward protecting their financial investments and interest. The OAU was the first international organization to intervene in the conflict in support of the Federal government, contrary to their policy of non-alignment and intervention into the internal affairs of African states in order to support their ideological commitment to African unity. Perhaps this early commitment to the Federal government destroyed the OAU’s effectiveness to mediate the conflict in the future. Maybe this can also explain in part the failure of the various peace conferences organized by the OAU because of the mistrust between both sides over their conflicting aims. Nevertheless Ojukwu’s uncompromising policy cannot be overlooked, especially when there was a real chance for a peaceful settlement. This was probably due to Ojukwu’s misunderstanding of what African recognition really meant; he thought that the conference would further Biafra’s security, rights of sovereignty and self-determination, but actually such support would conflict with widely held principles of African unity and solidarity.

The OAU really wanted to keep the outsiders out and to prevent international involvement because of the possible repercussions on Africa’s general security. Therefore, their aim was to keep the conflict localized and keep “Big Brother out.” But like Nyerere’s, their actions negated their purpose causing the reverse affect and creating a very dangerous international situation for Nigeria and all of Africa. Finally, the OAU fears had become a reality as the foreign powers were becoming more involved and consequently widening the war. The possibility of a third partition became a real threat and adds another explanation for OAU efforts when nullifying did not succeed in dealing adequately with the conflict. The Western powers, European and the Soviet bloc would now have the opportunity they had been waiting for to gain a foothold in one of Africa’s largest countries, laying the foundation for “neo-colonialism” in the form of spheres of influences. This in my view was the greater danger and broader implication of what foreign involvement represented.

Foreign Involvement

France was the only European power to give the Biafrans semi-recognition and half-hearted military support (compared to what the Federal government received from their Russian and British allies). In fact, Biafran was very independent and developed most of their own weapon resources because they really had no choice if they were going to sustain their war efforts. They got very little arms from the French. In July, of 1968, General de Gaulle announced that Biafra had the right to “self-determination.” For the Biafrans this move encouraged to fight on, because they were given some arms, but not enough to give them a chance to win. French intervention did, decisively save the Biafrans from defeat, and prolonged the war ensuring that countless thousands would die needlessly. Why in a game as serious as war, where the lives of millions of people are at stake, would the French give encouragement, then refuse to go all the way? St. Jorre argues that there were three major reasons behind de Gaulle’s actions: First, a united Nigeria presented a strong pole of attraction to the many weak surrounding Francophobic states and threatened to upset French influence. Secondly, de Gaulle was turned-on to the concept of Biafra, as a nationalistic nation-state struggling for the right for self-determination. Third, the President of the Ivory Coast, Houphouet-Boigny, one of de Gaulle’s most respected African friends exerted strong pressure on de Gaulle. However, one cannot overlook the economic factors which appear not to have been an important factor in limiting French support, since French investments were equally balanced on both sides. At the time of their “semi-recognition” of Biafra, most French oil concessions were already under the control of the Federal government. De Gaulle’s support of Biafra did help to please public opinion at home. French public opinion had been aroused about the Biafran sufferings long before the decision by de Gaulle, therefore the main motivation centers around humanitarian feelings. St. Jorre gives an excellent summary of the impact of French intervention. “The effect of France’s Biafra policy was like that of drugs on cancer: it kept the recipient alive but insured—barring a miracle—a lingering death.”7

French policy toward Biafra vacillated, according to Walter Schwartz, because a pro-federal government commercial lobby in Paris had made its position felt. Schwartz contends that this was why Biafra was never given the material to counter the effects of the Soviet long-range artillery, and MIG jets. In short, the French had sustained a cause and then finally allowed it to perish with a terrible cost in human life.

The Soviet involvement, according to C.J. Kuraba, accounted more than any other single thing for the outcome. The Russians were the first outside power to actively support the Federal Government position.  The Soviets (mistakenly it turned out) thought that it was “Katanga” all over again, and that the West had plotted with the Biafrans to secede because of their oil rich resources in the East. The only parallel with Katanga was the foreign intervention of the French; other than this, there is no basis for a comparison of the two conflicts. Then what motive had the Russians for coming in? The Russians, having failed in other parts of Black Africa—Guinea, Ghana and the Congo, were looking for a permanent foothold in Nigeria. The Civil War provided then with another chance to spread their influence in Black Africa. A deeper motivation for Russian involvement is that it gave them some points in the Islamic world by supporting the Federal government which was controlled by the northern region or states which were predominantly Muslim. This helped to strengthen the Soviet relations in the Mediterranean Islamic spheres. The Russian military ad and commitment to support the Federal government came right after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Arab states had blamed the Soviets for their failures, so the Soviets needed to re-establish good relations with the Arab world to keep Arab oil available to the Soviet bloc countries. Supporting the Muslim north consolidated Soviet alliances with the Arab world which had a very strong relationship with northern Nigeria, a kind of Pan-Islamic federation among brothers of the faith. More than the oil factor, Russian support of the Nigerian Federal Government must be seen as a move toward better relationships with the Arab oligarchies. Nigeria is the next largest oil-producing area outside the Arab world, producing a clean-burning fuel that has a very low sulfur content. Consolidation of Arab and Nigerian oil would put the Russians in a good position to play oil diplomacy with the world. However, the Russians did not need the Nigerian oil as much as the British.

The British were committed  to the ideal of a successful African federation. Nigeria was their creation and they were determined to see it survive at all cost. The United States’ position was that they regarded Nigeria as a part of Great Britain’s sphere of influence, and hoped that Great Britain would keep the Communists in check. Britain’s role was therefore just a reflection of American foreign policy. American diplomatic approval and British military support of the Federal government meant that both the East and the West would be aligned on the same side and would not provoke another dangerous “Cold War” confrontation that occurred in the Congo.


Odumegwu Ojukwu’s policy of prolonging the civil war in hope that world opinion over the issue of genocide would intervene and force stalemate between Nigeria and Biafra and consequently insure Biafra’s sovereignty was never to materialize. For the most part, Ojukwu’s war policy was to be a very costly one in terms of human life; the tragedy was the starvation that was the result of the war. The Biafran people bared the burden and paid the price, while the leaders talked of strategy and seek power.

Ojukwu’s war diplomacy was a calculated gamble that almost paid off, but toward the end the hand-writing was on the wall. It had become more clear that the Nigerian Federal Government had completely counter-acted whatever success Biafra had had with their diplomatic maneuvers. Ojukwu failed to realized this, and was persistent in seeking foreign intervention. In other words, Ojukwu failed, like his counterpart Gowon, to see the real significance of African recognition—that it was nothing more than a drop in the bucket. For example, the four African states that had recognized Biafra, did so to enable the Biafrans to have an equal chance to negotiate for a peaceful settlement at the Kampala Conference.

African recognition was a vote for Biafran survival and internal security, and not for their sovereignty, as Ojukwu had interpreted it. This was one of the most crucial issues of the war and went unresolved until its final conclusion, and this, I repeat, was Ojukwu’s and also Gowon’s misunderstanding of what African recognition really meant. Diplomatic recognition was not an approval of the political determination of Biafra to secede from the Federation, but, as one commentator wrote, it was the “magnitude of the suffering that had caused a few African states to recognize Biafra.” They had recognized Biafra in an attempt to end the conflict as quickly as possible in order to prevent the outsiders from coming into Nigeria.

Both the Federal government and Biafra had failed to see the significance of African recognition, as a result, over reacted by becoming more determined to achieve their objectives. For instance, after African recognition the Biafran war hawks were no longer thinking about a peace settlement, and firmly believed that the tide was going to now turn in their favor if they could prolong the war and hold on. Whereas, the Nigerian Federal government increased their determination to bring the war to a military conclusion in order to nullify the effects of what they felt were strong diplomatic achievements by the Biafrans. We must conclude that both Ojukwu’s and Gowon’s underestimated what African support really meant and that both sides must share the responsibility for the tragic consequences of their decisions—death by hunger and starvation for a million.

A  concluding note on foreign interventions.  From reading this essay one must answer the question.  What is the lesson of foreign intervention?

`The Nigerian civil war serves as an example of the failure of foreign interventions.  While the United States supported federal government in Nigeria, they supported Biafra’s bid for independents by selling weapons and planes to Biafra.  I was a graduate student at the time at UCLA, and my mentor Professor Boniface I. Obichere, who was actively raising funds, purchasing and testing weapons in the San Fernando mountains and I supported his efforts.  However, more recent case studies in foreign intervention in civil conflict demonstrated that international intervention   caused more problems than they solved.  A classic examples are Libya and Syria where intervention is motivated more by geo-political considerations than humanitarian concerns.

Another classic case of intervention was in Patrice Lumumba’s Congo were both of the East and West fought it out  and the Congo lose.  Where intervention should had taken place was in the Rwanda genocide, but the world watched as almost a million people were slaughter  because there was no oil, nothing of value except human beings. The other example where intervention worked was in the Liberian war, but the intervention was under the United States.  What is the lesson for intervention?  World problems cannot be solved by the world’s superpowers.  If it must take place, it has to be done  by parties which do not have a horse in the race.


1John de St. Jorre, The Brother’s War: Biafra and Nigeria (Boston: 1972), p. 198.

2Ian Brownlie, Basic Documents on African Affairs (Oxford, 1971), p. 364

3Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Africa Since 1800 (Cambridge, 1972), p. 293

4St. Jorre, p. 245

5Ibid., p. 193

6 Ibid., p.193

7Ibid., p. 218



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