The Nigeria-Biafra War
From 1967 to 1970, the Nigerian civil war riveted the world’s attention as the eastern province struggled to create an independent state. The timeline and primary sources provided on this site, along with the scholarly essays, explore how Biafra became an international cause, helping to forge a new form of popular humanitarianism that shaped politics both during and after the Cold War. We examine how the conflicts in newly independent Nigeria of the 1960s were shaped by the history of colonialism, the events in Nigeria that led up to the war, including mass killings of Igbo people, two military coups, and increasing sectional tensions.
The causes of the Nigeria-Biafra war are varied, but tensions between different regions in Nigeria were longstanding, and had been exacerbated with Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. There were deep divides about the relative political power of the different regions, as well as divisions over how to distribute wealth from oil found in the Niger Delta. The proximate cause of the war was a military coup in 1966, followed by a counter-coup a few months later. Both disputes were about divisions of power in the civilian government as well as sectarian tensions in the military. The eastern region seceded as the state of Biafra in May 1967, after a series of attacks on Igbo people living in other parts of Nigeria.
Militarily, the war between Nigeria and Biafra was hardly a match. Within six months, the tide had already turned against Biafra. Nigeria’s victory was all but certain, as the Federal Military Government surrounded the Biafran forces. However, when Nigeria began to blockade Christian-identified Biafra, religious communities in particular—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—were horrified. Hunger and starvation were soon endemic among the Igbo and other communities in Biafra. Images of dead civilians and starving children were everywhere in the global news, and the cause seemed straightforward; a draconian Nigerian government was intentionally starving the people of a rebellious region.
In response, a transnational coterie of advocates, together with an activist global media, helped to build a humanitarian movement that challenged traditional ideas about humanitarian aid as apolitical and impartial. The American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive, for example, raised money, held vigils, and lobbied for more government action to support Biafra. The organization’s name was intentionally multivalent: to keep the people of Biafra alive, the world must provide humanitarian aid, but to keep the nation of Biafra alive would require great political will. Specifically, it would require a willingness to watch the breakup of Nigeria, which many considered to be Africa’s great postcolonial success story. Indeed, most states, including the US, USSR, and most states in Africa, supported a policy of “one Nigeria,” arguing that Biafra’s secession would lead to an unsustainable state, and would provide fuel to secessionist movements throughout Africa.
Over the two and a half years of the war, between one and three million civilians in the Biafra died from the fighting, disease, or hunger. Millions more were homeless, and severe shortages of food, medicine, and clothing remained. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered.
The fact that Biafra became an international cause—supported by individuals and groups who lobbied governments, raised money, and held protests—is itself remarkable. The global humanitarianism was made possible by transnational networks that had already been politically activated by the Vietnam war, civil rights movements, and global opposition to South African apartheid. The materials here examine the activities, beliefs, and political influence of local citizen activists in hundreds of local groups in the US, Britain, and Ireland, as well as the work of international organizations such as Oxfam and the World Council of Churches. Today, in the wake of recent crises in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Congo, the history of the movement for Biafra offers an object lesson in both the possibilities and the dangers of humanitarian intervention.
In the decades since the war ended, Biafra has become what Alex de Waal has called the “totem and taboo” of the modern humanitarian movement. On the one hand, the extraordinary global response showed the capacity of non-governmental organizations to act quickly, and in ways that went beyond merely providing food or medicine. In addition, Biafra seemed to prove that Americans and Europeans were willing and able to shape a political response to what might previously have been seen as a sad but unavoidable food crisis. Yet, in hindsight, a number of observers concluded that the world’s passionate support for an underdog allowed the Biafrans to prolong a hopeless struggle, perhaps increasing civilian casualties. Thus any analysis of the Nigeria-Biafra war also raises questions about the politics of humanitarianism, questions that have persisted in the ensuing decades—about the efficacy of humanitarian aid; the role of NGOs in setting international agendas; the use of humanitarian logic to justify military intervention; and the ways in which the media shape political agendas.
The Nigeria-Biafra war also raises questions about the official policies of the US, Europe, and the USSR during the Cold War. The positions of the major states differed almost uniformly from that of the activist cohort that supported Biafra. Many scholars in recent decades have picked up Arne Odd Westad’s argument that the “global Cold War” was actually played out on the terrain of the so-called Third World. In other words, as the US and USSR built up their militaries, including their nuclear capabilities, in terrifying ways, they played out the political conflict via wars in the global South, including in Korea, Congo, Vietnam, South Africa, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and many other locales. In this sense, the Nigeria-Biafra war was a fascinating exception; it was one of the only global South conflicts in that period in which the US and USSR were both on the same side — that of Nigeria. Both believed that it was not in their interest to see the breakup of a major postcolonial state. However, by fall of 1968 the US did end up providing planes the groups that were delivering aid into Biafra in opposition to the Nigerian blockade, so the US government did take actions that were supportive of the Biafran side. You can learn more about the complexity of US involvement from the Timeline.