Until the Boko Haram Insurgency, Nigeria’s longest and bloodiest conflict was the Nigerian Civil War.
As Nigeria’s only conventional war against another state and the most serious internal security crisis it is pertinent to examine this conflict, the strategic and operational outcomes and what lessons it holds for the future.
Nigeria in 1966 had a Parliamentary system of government with 4 Administrative regions (Northern, Eastern, Western and Mid West) ruled by Premiers with Regional executive powers.
The Civil Wars origins lie in the political crisis in Nigeria’s Western Region which began as a leadership tussle within one political party and exacerbated by the fairly fraudulent 1965 elections leading to street violence and unrest. A group of young officers led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu frustrated with the political situation, planned and executed a coup in January 1966 which overthrew the Federal Government killing 2 Regional Premiers, the Prime Minister, 8 other politicians and 2 officers who they considered to be the cause of the problems. They did not seem to have a coherent post coup plan beyond eliminating those politicians and releasing Chief Awolowo (a Western Region politician) and were eventually convinced to surrender by the most senior surviving officer Gen Ironsi who formed a Federal Military Government and replaced the Premiers with Military Governors. The majority of the coupists were Igbos from the Eastern Region and majority of their victims were Northerners. This situation gave rise to a belief fomented by deposed politicians and disgruntled expatriates that the coup was an Igbo conspiracy to seize power, not helped by Gen Ironsi being Igbo and politically naive. A counter coup 6 months later organised by Northern Majors TY Danjuma, Murtala Mohammed and others led to the murder of dozens of Igbo officers and other ranks including Gen Ironsi. These murders spilled over into several widespread pogroms against Igbo civilians particularly in Northern and central Nigeria leading to an estimated 30,000 deaths.
The pogroms led to a largescale displacement of Igbos and other Easterners back to the Eastern Region. Negotiations between the new head of the Federal Military Government (FMG), Lt Col Gowon and the Governor of the Eastern Region Lt Col Ojukwu, to resolve the crisis broke down.
Lt Col. Ojukwu declared the Eastern Region independent of Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra leading to the war.
Ground: had a small professional 10,500 man Army, descended from the Royal West African Frontier Force 2 Brigades organised into 6 Infantry battalions, 2 x Batteries of 105mm guns and 2 x armoured car recce squadrons, with Engineer, Signals and other service troops. Nigeria recruiting from a population of 58m ended the war with an Army of 3 Divisions, with more than the normal complement of brigades, the chaos originating from the 2 coups and rapid expansion meant that they were hampered by poor leadership, coordination and administration.
Air: the fledgling Air Force was being trained by the West German Luftwaffe when the war broke out and many pilots and technicians were Easterners who returned home. The NAF eventually consisted of Mig 17 and Mig 15 fighter bombers, Tupolev medium bombers and L29 strike aircraft. For the majority of the war the aircraft were flown by Egyptian and mercenary pilots and maintained by Egyptians whilst Nigerians were being trained. The Egyptian pilots in particular were notorious for incompetence and cowardice, the mercenary pilots whilst technically proficient through tacit agreement with each other failed to carry out the type of decisive strikes that would have knocked Biafra out of the war so as not to jeopardise their lucrative contracts.
Sea: the Nigerian Navy consisted of a frigate and several patrol boats at the start of the war, these mounted an effective blockade of the Biafran coast preventing heavy shipping from getting to Biafran ports
Ground: The Biafran Army started off with a single battalion 1 Bn Biafran Army (former 1 Bn, Nigeria Army, Enugu) in 1967 of which majority of its weapons were lost when non Eastern soldiers were repatriated to their home Regions. The Biafran Army eventually grew to a seven Division, 22 Brigade Army although these divisions and brigades were in no way comparable in strength, firepower or manpower to Nigerian brigades or Divisions.
Air: the Biafrans were the first side with a functioning air force and were the first to conduct air strikes against Nigeria using mercenary piloted B26 and Fokker executive aircraft for strategic deep strikes and 2 x executive helicopters for recce and close air support. This position was rapidly reversed with the appearance of the Migs and the loss of Port Harcourt and Enugu airfields. A brief resurgence was seen with the use of armed Minicon trainer aircraft, against strategic targets such as airfields, shipping and logistics bases but these had little operational impact.
Navy: the Biafran Navy consisted of a Nigerian Navy gunboat and other vessels converted by the Biafrans. After the initial battles along the Rivers coastline which the Biafrans eventually lost, the Biafran Navy resorted to mine warfare using locally made mines along the navigable routes to Port Harcourt and then ceased to exist as a maritime fighting force after the fall of Port Harcourt and Calabar save for a few sorties around Oguta.
The Federal Army attacked from the North to capture the Biafran capital Enugu. Initial battles around Nsukka and Ogoja revealed Biafran fighting spirit, slowing the Federal advance.
Biafra counter attacked launching their only offensive of the war, aiming (like the FMG) to achieve a decision through coup de main by capturing the Federal Capital, Lagos. The attack west through Mid West Region achieved complete surprise and despite the ramshackle and ad hoc nature of the attacking force was successful until the commanders engaging in political intrigue, lost momentum and were defeated at Ore by a scratch force of troops from Lagos. The indiscipline and inexperience of the Biafran forces manifested itself in the headlong retreat back into Biafra.
The Federal Army attacked from the south mounting a riverine campaign via Bonny to capture Port Harcourt the second biggest city in Biafra with a port, airport, refinery and power station, at the same time Federal forces attempted to open a new front to the east of Biafra by attacking from Asaba into Onitsha, which was repulsed repeatedly with heavy losses, Onitsha was eventually taken from another direction but the Federal 2 Div never fully recovered from it losses.
In the South Port Harcourt and Calabar fell, completely isolating Biafra from the sea.
The war became a slow advance inland with the operational cycle consisting of major Federal offensives during the dry season and Biafran counter offensives in the rainy season as they retreated into the rain forests of the Igbo heartland. The end came when the tiny sliver of land left as Biafra was attacked from all sides in a final offensive in December 1969 leading to a total collapse of Biafran forces, a ceasefire and surrender.
The war generates several interesting questions: Why did Biafra lose and the FMG win? Could Biafra have won and how? Who would win if the situation reoccurred?
Why did Biafra lose and the FMG win?
The wars outcome can be attributed to several military and non military factors;
Non Military factors
Geography: The Eastern Region (currently Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, Abia, Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River and Akwa Ibom States) is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, River Niger to the west, the foothills of the Cameroun Highlands to the East and the Udi Hills to the North. Most rivers run north to south with some running east-west from the Cameroun Highlands. Vegetation from south to north consists of mangrove swamps, then fresh water swamps interspersed with creeks, islands and rivers and then thick rain forests, with patches cleared for subsistence farming rising to the rolling wooded hills of the Udi Hills in the north.
Major population centres feature along transport routes such as the River Niger (Onitsha),
Bonny River (Port Harcourt), railway (Aba, Umuahia), Calabar River (Calabar) etc.
Major roads and railways ran North-South, linking coal mining and agricultural areas with the coast.
There are 2 seasons; rainy (March to October) and dry (October to March), with the latter seeing daily torrential rain which washes away even tarred roads and turns untarred ones to quagmires as well as hampering visibility on the ground and in the air.
As can be seen the terrain and climate do not lend themselves to free flowing manoeuvre warfare, assaulting troops being restricted to narrow fronts by swamps, forests or rivers, supplies must be brought by road, rail or river. Vehicles were restricted to roads which were vulnerable to ambush and mining and muddy in the rainy season if untarred.
Attacking from the south required negotiating the creeks and swamps, attacking from the west required crossing the River Niger bounded on both sides by thick rain forest, attacking from the east required repeated river crossings, with few major roads to carry supplies. Thus that the easiest avenues of approach are north south using the road and rail network to sustain the force and the east/ west roads to outflank defenders. However once through the northern hills (which are not as militarily formidable as they could be) it is rain forest, with restricted mobility.
The geography of the Eastern Region meant that after rapidly losing ground on the periphery of the central rain forest the war was a fight for roads and road junctions with major population centres as the prizes at the end of them. Whoever had the best mobility and ability to sustain themselves was best suited to prevail.
Blockade: Biafra had 3 international borders. The longest was with the rest of Nigeria north and west, Cameroun to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. The FMG imposed land sea and air blockades and got President Ahidjo of Cameroun to do the same (allegedly in return for the Bakassi Peninsula). These blockades decisively strangled Biafra’s economy and war effort. Ironically the least stringently enforced was the one with Nigeria, with enterprising Biafran civilians crossing the Nigerian border to trade in a risky but routine exchange. The isolation of Biafra from the sea and the loss of the coastline denied Biafra access to heavy shipping, the sealing of links to Cameroun denied Biafra access to sources of food, medical supplies and other equipment as well as armaments. Without its own air or sea vessels, overt first world support, or even Camerounian indifference, Biafra was unable to neutralise the blockade.
Transport: Biafra managed to maintain internal communications with train and trucks however these dwindled due to attrition and lack of spare parts. However as mentioned Biafra did not have the industrial base to sustain a major war and needed to import, however Biafra did not have any ships and even if she did had after mid 1968 there were no ports to handle them or coastal transports, barges or river boats to take supplies inland. In the absence of this Biafra relied on an airbridge, using mercenary pilots flying vintage aircraft. These aircraft with limited capacity and range were owned by foreign entities some of whom worked for foreign powers, leaving Biafra vulnerable to exorbitant charges and blackmail.
The Biafrans used aid flights as cover for their arms shipments, charged the aid agencies bringing relief to IDPs ‘landing fees’ in foreign currency and smuggled arms on them however these aid flights were also subject to pressures from their owners and home governments beyond Biafran control.
Majority of the flights were coming into Uli, a strip of straight road used an airport. Despite complete air superiority the Egyptian/ mercenary NAF failed to destroy this fairly obvious target. This was due to a combination Biafran efforts, poor technique by the NAF and also the knowledge by the mercenaries that if they cut off Biafra’s air bridge the war would end along with their contracts. This cynicism was illustrated when a mercenary piloted Red Cross plane was shot down by a mercenary piloted Mig, resulting in an international outcry and the suspension of flights into Uli. Without the aid flights as cover Biafra could not smuggle in arms, leading to an almost immediate cessation of operations. The mercenary NAF pilots immediately organised for the offending pilot to be dismissed, allowing the mercenary pilots on both sides to continue their lucrative contracts.
As the Tamil Tigers Sea Pigeons showed a combination of large ocean going vessels and small speed boats allows a blockaded force, without port facilities to be resupplied by the sea but without an indigenous transport structure they could control, Biafra could never bring in the type and quantity of weapons needed to hold onto their territory and go on the offensive.
Economic: Biafra was densely populated, comparatively well industrialised with oil, gas and coal deposits. However despite developing a rudimentary arms industry, Biafra needed heavy weapons and munitions to prosecute a conventional war. As a largely unrecognised country it could only buy on the black market with foreign currency and transport with blockade runners. Many were criminals or adventurers and sold obsolete, unserviceable equipment but all were universally expensive and requiring payment upfront in cash. Biafra had large quantities of Nigerian currency which was still legal tender but delayed exchanging it and it thus lost value when Nigeria changed its currency. The minerals in Biafra were only useful if they could be extracted and taken to market, which became problematic once the blockade was implemented and impossible once the main oil producing area and sea ports were lost. Biafra’s sole sources of foreign currency were stipends from its vast, passionate diaspora and sale of landing rights to relief aircraft, postage stamps and liquidation of assets. None of these were sufficient to fund a country at war. Once blockaded, Biafra was economically unsustainable.
Diplomatic: despite having an extremely efficient propaganda system, well-travelled, articulate, passionate urbane and professional diplomats and ‘goodwill ambassadors’ such as Chinua Achebe and Dick Tiger and an easy to understand, sympathetic narrative, Biafra’s diplomatic efforts failed completely.
Britain remained the FMG’s key patron providing diplomatic and moral support, weapons and training. Despite supplying armoured vehicles, infantry weapons and limitless ammunition, in a typically quaint and illogically British move, the UK refused to supply aircraft prompting the Nigerians to turn to the USSR, who seeing an opportunity to get a foothold into a nation that previously had been fairly snooty to it, supplied Mig 15 and 17 fighter bombers, Illyushin medium bombers, small arms, artillery and boats.
The option of appealing to the USSR’s communist rivals China was not taken up by the Biafrans who were almost universally conservative, Christians, whose embrace of enterprise and free market capitalism was the source of much of their troubles.
The US remained neutral throughout refusing arms sales to both sides and recognition to Biafra.
France played the most cynical game, giving Biafra moral and public support but never according them full recognition. Giving weapons and training but never enough to be decisive or of the types needed to go on the offensive. Ironically France did not suffer for its pro Biafra stance and actions. French companies gained significant post war contracts and concessions, whilst the British Defence Adviser was expelled within days of the war ending and British Petroleum was nationalised to African Petroleum some years later.
Biafra elicited sympathy in the third world but little practical support. This was partly due to the tortuous politics of the non aligned movement, in which the conflict could not be pigeon holed as either an imperialist or liberation struggle, or East vs West, which seemed to be the only prism available to view matters in those days. Just as importantly virtually all post colonial states had disgruntled minorities seeking rights and autonomy and a successful Biafra would have presented a very difficult example for them to ignore.
Virtually every African country is multi ethnic and multi tribal with arbitrary borders drawn by European powers. To limit the confusion that would be caused by each constituent part of a country demanding autonomy, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) agreed that the borders of a country at independence were inviolate. With this principle adhered to support for Biafra was non existent. Cote d’Ivoire as a French client and one of the richest countries in West Africa stood to gain greatly from a divided Nigeria and was far enough away with sufficiently limited ties for the recognition to be irrelevant, Gabon was closer (but with no common border) and insignificant enough to support Biafra without repercussions Zambia and Tanzania’s support appears to have been genuinely ideological however neither of these countries had the power or resources to influence the conflict or any other countries.
Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa were fighting colonial wars against their majority black populations and took the welcome opportunity to ensure the most powerful sub Saharan African country was distracted by its internal conflict.
Biafra thus had little or no chance of getting the diplomatic help needed to supply weapons and break the blockade or insist on ceasefire, which in essence was its only hope for survival.
Industrial: the Eastern Region was relatively industrialised with good transport links, an educated middle class and a good pool of technicians. However industry was concentrated mainly in the peripheries, Onitsha, Enugu and Port Harcourt. The loss of these areas meant the loss of heavy industry. Biafra also suffered a lack of iron smelting and advanced chemical industries. Through the Research and Production Directorate the Biafrans produced a wide variety of products, refining petrol and kerosene, producing weapons and other goods. They also converted vehicles to armoured fighting vehicles and armoured gun boats (of dubious utility but definite ingenuity), however these were not mass produced rather crafted in small cottage industries. Biafra was thus needed to import items they could not manufacture, which was impossible due to the blockade.
Conventional warfare: Biafran commanders were ex Nigeria Army Regulars who fought the war they were trained to fight; a conventional war with defined lines of own and enemy troops, but with an understrength, underequipped, partially trained Army in heavily restricted terrain with limited mobility. This only worked as long as it did because the Federal Army commanders were trained the same way and obliged the Biafrans by fighting a conventional war with a poorly led, poorly trained, but heavily armed and mechanised army.
Conflict between conventional forces is a contest of firepower, manoeuvre and logistics. The Federal Army tactics were generally unimaginative but they had manpower and firepower in huge amounts. Their logistics were chaotic but existed and whilst less efficient than Biafra’s were able to pump supplies to their forces.
The rain forests and swamps of the Eastern Region are ideal for guerrilla warfare, which was viewed with disdain by the Biafran commanders, with Gen. Madiebo (GOC Biafran Army) quaintly observing that Biafra would have to formally surrender before commencing general guerrilla warfare! This was a fairly strange assertion as the Biafran Organisation of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) actively conducted guerrilla warfare in the Mid West and parts of Biafra under Federal control.
The Federal and Biafran Commanders both fought the war they had trained to fight rather than the wars they should have fought. The Federal Army had sufficient resources to eventually make this work for them, the Biafrans did not.
Narratives and strategic objectives: The Federal narrative was that Lt Col. Ojukwu and an ambitious clique had deceived the Igbos and pressganged the coastal minorities into a rebellion in order to control the mineral wealth of the East. The strategic objective of the FMG was to defeat the rebels, punish their leaders and reintegrate the Eastern Region into the Federation as 3 separate States.
The Biafran narrative was that they had suffered a terrible pogrom codenamed ‘Araba’ (Hausa for separation or secession) in order to chase them out of Nigeria thus the only true reason for the war was genocide of the Igbos. This genuinely and widely held belief was reinforced by strident and effective Biafran propaganda. The Biafran strategic objective was to thus defend every inch of their territory in order to present their case as a de facto state until assistance arrived to end the war either by negotiation or the intervention of another power.
The Biafran strategic objective whilst fancifully optimistic was in fact an exact replica of Britain’s successful strategy in World War 2, (except for the negotiated settlement part) in which UK recognising, she had neither the wealth, industry or manpower to defeat Nazi Germany particularly after she had absorbed Central European powers and defeated France, resolved to hang on long enough until the USA or USSR entered the war on her side.
Biafra was in exactly the same predicament yet had neither allies, a Navy, Air Force, Army, assets or an Empire to sustain herself in the interim.
To present itself as a legitimate country it needed to defend its territory, yet defending its territory took up resources Biafra didn’t have and couldn’t acquire.
Operational objectives: The FMG believed they only needed a limited police action to defeat the Biafrans. Their plan was to isolate and capture the Biafran capital Enugu and then attack from the south isolating Biafra from the sea and separating Igbos from the coastal minorities (and oil wells), causing the rebellion to rapidly collapse. Once the Biafrans lost their capital they promptly nominated a new one. The attacks from the south caused most minorities to go over to the Federal side however a significant number remained with Biafra joining the retreat to the interior and fighting to the end.
Biafra only offensive was an attack on Lagos, which very nearly succeeded and could have led to a negotiated settlement to the war or at least bought enough time for Biafra to build up a proper military. When this opportunity was squandered, Biafra’s operational objectives were to delay the Federal Army, by fighting a series of defensive battles, with occasional spoiling and counter attacks as they fell back into the central rain forest area.
The only way Biafra could have won the war would have been to inflict massive defeats on the Federal Army or take the war to them, tasks for which Biafra had neither the men or arms. Trading space for time is a legitimate military strategy but only if you have space and you use the time to prepare your counter strike or wear down the enemy. Biafra had neither space nor time.
Tactical issues: throughout the war the Federal Army outmanned and outgunned the Biafrans. They had air superiority as well as artillery and mortars which combined with machine guns this made attacks upon fixed positions extremely costly to the Biafrans with barely any indirect fire weapons with which to suppress the Federal artillery and machine guns. Even if Biafrans were successful in the attack they could not hold on to their gains due to a lack of ammunition for their weapons and in the later stages of the war momentum was continuously lost as soldiers ate Federal rations and took uniforms, boots and equipment. In the defence the Biafrans could not neutralise Federal indirect fire or armoured vehicles and could only hope to hold position long enough until they could close with the infantry. Improvised mines, tank traps, booby traps and even rattles that mimicked machine gun fire could not substitute for soldiers or weapons. Fighting asymmetrically, the Biafrans could have picked battlegrounds of their choosing where they could have achieved local superiority, however this would have conflicted with their strategic and operational objectives.
Equipment: The Biafrans had a few mortars, purchased some obsolete artillery pieces and armoured vehicles which almost immediately broke down and improvised their own unwieldly armoured vehicles, rocket artillery and mines. The standard infantry weapon was the German Kar 98 rechambered for the 7.62mm round. Ammunition was limited for all weapon systems and the soldiers poorly trained. Federal forces possessed the full range of weaponry and had abundant ammunition for all weapon systems. However the decisive weapons were artillery and the armoured car. Whilst these Panhard and Ferret armoured cars would barely last the first few minutes of modern battle even in World War 2, in the absence of widely distributed anti armour weapons (or the skills to use them), armoured cars were battle winners. Used as mobile fire support in the advance and pillboxes in defence, their combination of firepower, protection and mobility completely outmatched the foot mobile, Biafrans with bolt action rifles and no ammunition. Biafrans had no answer to Federal artillery other than to dig deep trenches or withdraw from their forward positions.
Logistics and communications: Biafran field communications relied on runners. Obviously this meant messages were subject to extreme delays if the runner got lost, was shot, captured or decided to go home. On the few occasions that radios were available their efficacy was limited by their battery life and the surrounding rain forest. The system for resupply, reinforcement and casualty evacuation was inadequate to non existent. All supplies were transported by vehicle or canoe as far forward as was safe and then by porters carrying the different loads on their heads to and from the front. Feeding when available was done centrally, meaning food had to be cooked in the rear, taken forward, troops brought out of the line to eat and then put back in, this invariably meant many soldiers went hungry or that momentum was lost. There were limited drugs or medical supplies for wounded soldiers and civilians. Armaments flew into Uli, were distributed to dispersed arms dumps, and then distributed to the various Division HQ’s and then to the sub units. Fuel was refined in small scale refineries producing diesel, petrol and kerosene. Although there was a centralised Fuel Directorate, most units and even ministries resorted to refining their own fuel. As can be seen the distributed and fragmentary nature of the logistics system was completely inadequate to sustain an army in the field.
Humanitarian issues: the pogroms led to a huge displacement of people into the Eastern Region, causing a humanitarian and human crisis which became progressively worse as the war continued and more people fled into the interior away from the Federal Army. This meant that the subsistence farms had to feed the indigent and newly arrived populations, as the war progressed, planting, farming and harvesting was disrupted and farm land became battlefields leading to a famine in fertile lands. Cattle do not thrive in the east thus fish, goats and chickens are the main sources of animal protein. These could not be taken or looked after on the run leading to a protein famine within the famine. The FMG in a fairly stupid PR disaster repeatedly stated that ‘Starvation was a legitimate weapon of war’ and maintained a total blockade which contrasted with pictures of Biafran children with kwashiorkor and malnutrition, which the Biafrans ruthlessly and cynically exploited to obtain food aid, which they insisted came in by air, in order to mask their arms flights. A land corridor with food from Lagos was offered but the Biafrans refused as this would have been impossible to smuggle through. Whilst the famine was useful to the leadership on both sides, it was devastating to the people of the Eastern Region.
In this piece we have tried to establish what exactly caused the Biafran defeat and Federal victory, partially because this is a fascinating exercise but also because it holds lessons for the future that are unlearnt because the War is shrouded in myths.
One of the myths is that Biafra lost due to the betrayal of the coastal minorities, who ‘showed the Federals the way’. As shown above the rapid defeats in the peripheries were less to do with ethnicity than geography. Another myth is that the blockade was an illegal, deliberate act of wanton cruelty. Whilst inhumane and indiscriminate, without the blockade, Biafra would have fought on and more than likely successfully defended its territory. Another myth is that the ‘Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war’ mantra demonstrated the Federal’s genocidal intentions when in fact the Biafran leadership utilised starvation for propaganda, to conceal arms shipments and raise funds. A prevailing myth is that Biafra was defeated due to saboteurs whilst in reality Biafra was defeated for the sound military reasons of insufficient troops and resources for the tasks required and insufficient space to fall back into or time to make good losses. A prevailing myth is that the war was the conclusion of an attempt at Igbo control of the Federation, when as can be shown this was a purely defensive action by a people who fled persecution and feared for their safety.
At the end of the war Lt Col Gowon declared ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’, this was not a myth. There were no show trials, executions or organised atrocities. The FMG organised relief and reconstruction and Biafra became the East Central, Rivers and Cross Rivers State of Nigeria.
In the next part of this piece we will examine the question ‘Could Biafra have won?’ along with the question of how a future secession effort would fair.