BIAFRA- How Did it Last and Could it have Won? (2)

In the first part of this series we examined the civil war, concluding that Biafra’s defeat was caused by several military and non military factors such as the Geography of the Eastern Region, which restricts movement and makes conducting and sustaining military operations difficult. The lack of heavy Transport assets such as ships, boats, barges or even aircraft after the loss of the coast and ports in order to break the Blockade which prevented Biafra from accessing large quantities of arms, food and other heavy equipment. With limited foreign currency Biafra’s blockaded Economy was unable to sustain the military effort and despite relentless Diplomatic outreach, Biafra was unable to develop the alliances that would enable it to break the blockade or acquire war winning heavy weapons and Biafra’s small Industrial base was unable to make up the deficiencies.

Militarily Biafra’s strategic narrative and objectives prioritised defending every its entire territory in order to preserve their claim to sovereignty, leading Biafra’s commanders to fight a conventional war in classic guerrilla terrain, which suited their training but not the training, equipment or logistics of the men they were leading. This led to the key operational objectives of the war to be defensive, trading space to allow enough time for a diplomatic or negotiated solution or the arrival of heavy weapons. These objectives were hampered by a lack of sufficient or war winning equipment, abysmal logistics and communications leading to wasteful tactics which limited their small pool of fighting aged males to defend the shrinking territory. These combined with horrifying humanitarian issues such as millions of IDPs and a famine led the final collapse.

With all these in mind it is still pertinent to examine under what kept Biafran resistance going for so long, under what conditions Biafra could have prevailed.

Administration: In 1966 Nigeria had a highly efficient national Police force and Civil Service. These were mirrored in the Regions which for all intents and purposes were fairly autonomous, each of which performed the administrative tasks of a country bar defence and foreign policy. With an experienced and well trained civil service, the switch from Eastern Region to Republic of Biafra was as simple as changing letterheads rather than changing roles and responsibilities.

These competent administrators kept water, electricity, mail, customs, banking, telephones etc working, resilience was provided by the many refugees from other parts of the country who were also technical or administrative staff or otherwise professional or well educated people providing a surplus of talent allowing ministries to relocate and function efficiently as fighting overran one town after another.

The qualitative advantages of an efficient public administration were not limited to Biafra, the loss of thousands of Eastern professionals from the rest of the Federation did not grind Nigeria to a halt as Biafran leaders thought, rather the remnants of the civil service regenerated itself, keeping essential services going despite the chaos of the pogroms and mass displacement.

Unifying narrative: the Biafran narrative was simple, clear and unambiguous. Easterners had been persecuted, massacred and driven out of Nigeria. Having left Nigeria, the FMG was now making war on them in order to complete the annihilation started in the earlier pogroms.

This narrative was popular and organic as virtually everyone in the Region had first person contact with a returnee with a gruesome story to tell. It was sustained by the failure of the FMG to halt the massacres or provide support for the displaced before the war started and reinforced by the excesses of undisciplined Federal soldiers in certain incidents such as Asaba or Onitsha, the relatively indiscriminate use of artillery against targets in population centres and inaccurate and indiscriminate air attacks.

This basic narrative of tribal persecution and survival sufficed for the lower socio economic classes, for intellectuals the narrative was further refined into a black liberation, anti-colonial struggle.

British support for the FMG, made the war a continuation of the anti-colonial struggle, whilst the support of the USSR for the mainly feudal Islamic North dominated FMG, allowed Biafrans to claim an unholy alliance of feudalists, godless communists and jihadists were trying to destroy an avowedly egalitarian, democratic, capitalist, Christian people.

Thus Biafran intellectuals defined the conflict as the first genuine liberation struggle in Africa, in which peoples not motivated by alien ideologies sought freedom and self determination on their own terms, without adhering to East or West. This narrative was further reinforced for both classes as Biafra struggled on and persevered through ingenuity and sacrifice, proving to the intellectuals that they were genuinely building a new sovereign African state free from European domination and dependence whilst for the others the bombings and displacement reinforced the genocide narrative.

Propaganda: whilst the Biafran narratives were fairly strong and self sustaining,  Biafran propaganda ensured that the dominant narrative of the Biafran war was (and to an extent still is) the one they crafted.

The genius of Biafran propaganda is that it took genuine fears and events and magnified them to fit an easily believable narrative. It initially focussed on highlighting the genuine grievances of the Eastern population such as the pogroms and then developed it into a genocide narrative by highlighting the many tribalistic comments and practices of certain groups and personalities. Once this ‘reality’ was established the genocide narrative was cemented by exaggerating casualty figures from the pogrom from the initial (conservative) estimate of 7,000 to 15,000, 30,000 and then 50,000. The number of registered IDPs after the pogroms was increased from 150,000 to 1m, 1.8m and then 2m. The effectiveness of this propaganda is such that even today respected sources use these inflated figures.

As famine set in, the Biafran leadership attempted to suppress the news as it undermined the ‘Sovereignty’ narrative of a small, plucky state successfully defending itself and providing for its people.

When pictures and stories of the famine generated international revulsion at the FMG and support for Biafra, the famine became part of the genocide narrative and the major story of the war for both internal and external audiences, leading to support for the Biafran leadership by the populace despite constant defeat and hardship and an increase in funds, aid, sympathy from abroad and lessening of political support by the FMGs allies with several arms suppliers embargoing the FMG.

Biafran propaganda whilst efficient and effective was given an immeasurable boost by the sheer incompetence of the FMG which mostly refused to allow journalists to report from their side, some that did were poorly treated and even threatened by some Federal Commanders. The FMG did not provide clear reassurances to the Eastern peoples genuine fears or effectively counter Biafran propaganda. Even today there is no official casualty record for the pogroms or even the war.

Federal propaganda emphasised Unity at all costs and blamed the conflict on an ambitious rebel elite, completely ignoring the legitimate grievances of Biafrans and making light of the famine, describing ‘Starvation as a legitimate weapon of war’. The Biafrans encouraged journalists to come into the country and more or less gave them free rein (although with official minders), thus broadcasts of NAF Migs bombing markets and towns, did not come from official Biafran sources but reputable western journalists, giving them credibility. The Biafrans were also fairly adept at planting false stories and exaggerations that were easy to believe simply because the FMG was repeatedly on caught in similar actions.

Internally Federal propaganda had reasonable success with the coastal minorities once Cross River and Rivers States were formed. With a smaller diaspora than the Igbo’s these people had suffered less from the pogroms and had a healthy fear of Igbo economic and political hegemony. The narrative that Igbo rebels were forcing the weaker, reluctant Riverine minorities to join them, was effective in weakening Biafra’s appeal, particularly when she was clearly losing.

Even Biafran excesses in the Mid West which should have severely dented their claimed moral superiority was immediately overshadowed by the Asaba massacre, Onitsha massacre and the deliberate looting and destruction of Onitsha market.

The FMG made little effort to explain why a Federal soldier should fight. As the FMG was supported by the UK and USSR it was not possible to paint Biafra as a colonialist or communist plot, at least 50% of the country was Christian so there could be no religious narrative, nor a tribal or regional one as it was West and North vs East (with the Mid West in between)

This lack of internal narrative became problematic in the latter years of the war as casualties, war weariness and Biafran tenacity made it increasingly unclear as to why a Yoruba, Birom, Angas or Hausa man should be stuck in a miserable jungle trying to force Igbos to be Nigerians however Biafran propagandists seemed to have made limited effort to spread general disaffection amongst Federal troops.

Biafran propaganda was an effective and efficient weapon of war that undoubtedly helped Biafra gain the financial, military and material support needed to fight on.

Trained commanders: prior to military regimes, the military was not seen as a positive or fashionable career. Few educated men joined the military and those that did were stifled by restrictions on promotion due to colonial racial policies.

The first African officer commissioned in 1944, the first Nigerian in 1948. By 1966 there were just 511 officers in an Army of approximately 10,000 men. This meant that the Nigerian Army had a young cadre of officers rapidly promoted to fill the Field and Staff posts left by the departing British. These officers had limited operational experience but were well trained and motivated and proud of their traditions and profession. Many of these officers were from the East, serving mostly in Support or Combat Support roles however all officer training is infantry based and these officers brought valuable experience and served under an acknowledged chain of command from the Head of State Lt Col. Ojukwu via the GOC Gen Madiebo. Although there were tensions and rivalries this chain of command more or less worked

Federal Army had to expand rapidly. The Head of State was junior or equal in rank to his Divisional and Army commanders, many of whom resented this. The officers and men left over had just experienced two traumatic breaches of discipline and order and were difficult to control. The Army had to expand quickly and without conscription was forced to recruit from prisons and other less savoury places. Tensions between the Regions had not abated, with Western Region vehemently opposed to Northern troops being based there.

The rapid expansion led to relatively junior officers commanding large formations they were not trained to control and more importantly without the trained or experienced Staff officers needed to plan operations or administer these formations.

The rapid promotion of pre 1966 officers to Field and Staff positions meant undertrained, inexperienced subalterns or field promoted NCOs commanded platoons, company’s or battalions which were the main battle winning manoeuvre units in the conflict.

The Biafrans suffered from similar issues but leadership and administrative issues of a small underequipped Army fighting a defensive war on home territory with interior lines are different to those of a large, newly formed army fighting a war with complex equipment and weapon systems, thousands of kilometres from its support bases in Lagos, Makurdi and Kaduna.

Whilst it can be argued these professional officers in fact lost Biafra the war by their insistence on conventional warfare, Biafran strategy called for total defence, thus it needed competent trained leaders to plan and lead operations and to train and mentor other commanders.

Innovation: Biafran ingenuity sustained Biafra both militarily and otherwise. To make up for the lack of weapons, Biafrans made command detonated area denial weapons (ogbunigwes), surface to surface rockets (Marshalls), surface to air rockets, anti personnel mines, anti vehicle mines, hand grenades, small arms, armoured vehicles, bombs, gun boats etc.

Once the refinery at Port Harcourt had been lost, Biafrans made several improvised refineries of varying scales, with Bonny light is easy to refine however unlike the crude illegal refineries of today Biafra’s decentralised refineries produced petrol, diesel, kerosene and bitumen without the pollution.

Biafran produced batteries, drilled oil from their last remaining oilfields, kept trains, power, and telephones working. Biafra was aided by the large pool of skilled, educated people living there and who returned as IDPs. The presence of the oil industry and various educational institutes meant there were industrial chemicals and manufacturing facilities that could be used to make arms and other goods.

The Biafran spirit of innovation was a direct result of the blockade and the lack of alternatives. Combined with the ‘can do’, ‘birth of a nation’ spirit of the educated elite there was a desire to innovate.

Without the ability to produce weapons, fuel and other stores, Biafra would have collapsed sooner.

Poor Federal operational and tactical performance: the Biafran war was a conventional war fought by trained, professional officers with untrained, amateur armies. One side prevailed because it had the resources to overcome their deficiencies. Despite having 3 divisions in the field there was no Corps or Field Army HQ to coordinate their efforts. Each Division (and at times Brigades) operated singly allowing the Biafrans to use their interior lines to move men and materiel to which ever front was most active. Only at the very end when Biafra was a few thousand square kilometres in area did all 3 Divisions act in concert collapsing Biafra’s defences.

Tactics were based on the heavy (or excessive) use of firepower rather than manoeuvre. This wasteful tactic put heavy pressure on Federal logistics but ultimately worked against the Biafrans who could not counter Federal firepower or win firefights except by expeditious use of ground, surprise, home made weapons and discipline.

The ultimate irony of the campaign is that the British trained officers unconsciously mimicked the behaviour of a previous British Army that fought in the Malayan jungle in World War 2 using roads and fighting conventionally whilst their enemy the Japanese used the jungle and fought unconventionally, outflanking and surrounding units using allegedly impassable ground such as swamps and dense jungle.

After the British retreated to India, the first British unit to return to the jungle and comprehensively beat the Japanese in jungle warfare was 81 West Africa Division of whom 4 out of 9 Battalions were Nigerian.

Many veterans of this campaign fought in the Federal 1 Div but whilst these veterans could provide experience, skill and discipline at section and platoon level, they could not contribute to the operational planning and execution of the campaign.

Could Biafra have won and how?

In the opinion of this commentator Biafra could have won due to the following conditions;

Capture Lagos: a Biafran expeditionary force under Lt Col Victor Banjo attempted to take Lagos by attacking through the Mid West Region, declaring it an independent Republic of Benin, allied or neutral to Biafra and then pushing on to capture Lagos. This was a brilliant strategic move by the Biafran command and failed due to duplicity and poor execution.

The troops detailed to conduct the operation were poorly trained and equipped however used surprise, subterfuge and stealth to overwhelm Federal defences which in any case were poor to non-existent as the still small Federal Army was fully engaged in northern Biafra and preparing for operations in southern Biafra.

The offensive failed when it halted in Benin City (capital of the Mid West Region), rather than pushing on for undefended Lagos in order to conduct endless discussions about who would take over the Republic of Benin, Nigeria and possibly Biafra. Individual sub units lacking leadership either continued operations on their own or halted.

When the advance eventually resumed, a scratch force defeated the overextended and confused Biafrans at Ore (present day Ondo State), pushing them back into headlong retreat.

The choice of Banjo to lead the operation was possibly due to Lt Col Ojukwu wanting a Yoruba officer to command the expeditionary force so as to reduce fears of an avenging Igbo Army and to make negotiations easier, but Banjo was highly politicised and ambitious officer and not a noted tactician, whose key imperative was who would adopt political leadership of a defeated Nigeria and with Major Ifeajunu who would take over Biafra.

The weakness of Biafran forces manifested itself as they were unable to sustain or even communicate with their far flung units operating over a vast terrain characterised like Biafra with rain forests stretching from the swampy coast to the hilly north. Looting and excesses committed by Biafran forces particularly against non Igbo tribes did little to win over people who were at worst neutral rather than hostile.

The Biafran retreat cost them men, equipment and goodwill as the British then gave the FMG full support.

If the attack had successfully captured or even threatened Lagos, it would have had the following effects;

  • The Federal Government would have had to withdraw from Lagos, either to Ibadan or into the North, presenting the Biafrans with the opportunity to pressure the Western Region to also secede (as previously promised by Chief Awolowo the Western leader), thus isolating Northern Nigeria from the sea, preventing them from exporting their agricultural produce, accessing petroleum product and other supplies. Even if the Western Region did not secede the presence of Biafran troops would have wrung other concessions such as Western neutrality, embargo on war materiel etc, that would have confused the Federal cause.
  • The FMG would have had to redeploy troops from the attack on southern Biafra to retake Lagos and halted operations in the North to try and cut Biafran supply lines to the west or at least prevent Biafrans from trying to cut Federal supply lines. This would have allowed Biafrans the breathing space needed to counter attack and retake their territory.
  • Other countries would have been more supportive, thinking that Biafra might win and bringing in recognition and support
  • Negotiations with the FMG from a position of strength could have led to a restitution of the Aburi Accords or recognition of their claim to sovereignty.
  • Denied the Nigerian Navy any ports to service their ships forcing them to berth at neutral ports (and risk internment) or else return west to harass Biafran forces with Naval Gunfire. In other words it would have meant the blockade would have been lifted.
  • The withdrawal of the Navy, and access to Mid Western ports would have allowed Biafra to bring in heavy weapons and supplies by ship and stockpile enough weapons for a long fight
  • The fledging NAF would have had to fly from Northern airfields extending their range and limiting the amount of time they had over targets
  • Resupplied Biafra with funds (looted from Lagos banks) and supplies looted from Lagos stores relieving the economic pressure.

Taking all these into account if the offensive had been a better led and resourced operation it is would have probably succeeded and Biafra would have achieved its strategic objectives.

Financial Management and Logistics: As part of the measures to put pressure on the Eastern Region an economic embargo was declared prior to secession. Whilst this halted money transfers between the rest of Nigeria and the Eastern Region, the internationally recognised Nigerian pound was still legal tender in the Biafra which accumulated £53m by 1968. To neutralise Biafra’s economic power, the FMG announced it would change currency, which would obviously leave the Eastern Region with a currency it could not use internationally. Despite this being a widely predicted move and Biafran agents in the FMG passing along timely information, the Biafran leadership dithered on a decision even after the date was announced perhaps hoping for a better deal. The FMG brought the date forward causing the Biafrans to eventually exchange the currency at a significantly lower rate that previously agreed, with some shipments being impounded, lost or seized in a series of farcical efforts.

Using this reduced pool of foreign exchange Biafra sent unqualified individuals to purchase weapons in the European black market, costing Biafra a fortune in blood and treasure.

To the lay person the considerations underlying arms purchases such as utility, maintenance serviceability, range, armour, etc did not compute. Thus ancient artillery pieces were purchased without sights or geodetic equipment, bolt action rifles were purchased when semi automatic WW2 weapons were going cheap, jet aircraft were purchased without engines and so on.

Biafrans obsessed with owning offensive weapons like armoured vehicles and jet aircraft when what she needed were defensive weapons such as anti armour and anti aircraft weapons to neutralise the Federal firepower and close with Federal infantry.

Artillery was another obsession understandably due to the heavy bombardments suffered by military and civilians but Biafra could never win the artillery battle with the Federal Army which would consistently outgun and outrange them. With an air bridge as their main supply line, the huge amount of artillery shells needed could never be sustained, even if the weapons bought had been serviceable. Mortars with smaller cheaper shells would have been a better use of resources.

Despite all of this Biafra held on for 2.5 years thus it can be considered that if they had used the funds they had more intelligently, they could have held onto their territory and forced a stalemate and negotiated an end to the conflict.

Murtala: during the period leading up to the declaration of Biafra and the start of the war Lt Col Murtala the most strident of the July 1966 coupists advocated for a military offensive to restore Federal authority over the Eastern Region.

The Head of State Lt Col Gowon demurred, still hoping for a negotiated settlement and fearing that the still indisciplined troops who had murdered colleagues and civilians would commit further atrocities in the East.

Ironically though if he had got his way and attacked in the January to May 1967 period, the Federal Army would have almost certainly prevailed as there were virtually no military forces in the East except the depleted 1st Bn, Police (armed with Lee Enfield rifles) and various disorganised, displaced soldiers.

The interesting paradox is that while this action would have most likely succeeded in defeating the secession and occupying the East, it would also have put the small, disorganised, indisciplined Federal Army in unfamiliar, restricted terrain surrounded by hostile people whose language they didn’t speak with a paucity of experienced leaders and an indifferent supply chain.

Many of these people were trained military and police or unemployed, bitter young men with excellent local knowledge and a ‘sea’ of non combatants to support them and a large amount of small arms in circulation from the recent fighting.

In essence the classic conditions for an insurgency.

Federal forces would have not had enough men to hold the entire region thus would have focussed on major population centres and lines of communications, leaving the rural areas and forest to the insurgents, isolating themselves and making themselves vulnerable to terrorist attacks and ambushes. As these grew in intensity, ‘no go’/ liberated areas would be defined and even if the Federal Army did not retaliate with repression and atrocities, the growing strength of the insurgents would lead more people to join.

The Federal Army’s advantages in firepower came from the UK and USSR’s weapons, but without Biafra’s unilateral declaration of independence or the invasion of the Mid West, there would have been less British support. With no Biafran air strikes, the FMG’s requests for combat aircraft would have looked like a desperate repressive move against an occupied province and the USSR would have been unlikely to support a pro Western regime against ‘freedom fighters’.

The freedom fighter narrative would have also gained sympathy from African, third world and other governments without the negative stigma of secession.

The Federal Army would have been forced to fight in the manner it was worst at (infantry close combat) without any of the tools it needed to be successful (armour, artillery, air support and limitless ammunition).

As the example of South Sudan, Eritrea etc show, a long bloody insurgency will eventually lead to success, with a well motivated people. As noted above even without Biafran propaganda the Biafran genocide/ survival narrative was well defined.

The destruction and loss of life would have been devastating however it is more than likely that this manner of conflict would have favoured Biafra and eventually led to success.


The reasons for Biafra’s defeat were examined in the first part of the series. In this part we have looked at why a country with all its disadvantages actually survived as long as it did.

Biafra was able to stave off defeat by an intelligent utilisation of the resources they had at hand, defining and controlling their narrative, using this narrative to launch such an aggressive and plausible propaganda offensive which sustained their war effort to the detriment of their population. They were aided by the FMGs mishaps in propaganda and the Federal Army’s inexperience.

None of this was enough to overcome their disadvantages but as examined in the final section, there were at least 3 different scenarios under which Biafra could have achieved victory.

In the final instalment we will look at how a present day secessionist campaign could emerge, its concept of operations and likelihood for success.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Defence, Geopolitics, Nigeria Strategy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to BIAFRA- How Did it Last and Could it have Won? (2)

  1. Pingback: Starvation as a weapon of war: From Biafra to Borno | Vox Peccavi

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