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The Biafran War


1. Abstract

Nigeria is a federation of states which are segregated by 3 major ethnic groups: the Ibo, Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba. The eastern region is dominated by the Ibo, the west by the Yoruba and the north by the Hausa/Fulani. These 3 major ethnic groups were brought together via European efforts to divide Africa among themselves. Mounting ethnic tension between these groups caused the Biafrans - the Ibos and other minority ethnic groups - in the south-eastern region to fight for their independence from the federation only 6 years after Nigeria gained its independence from British rule. The Hausa/Fulani refused to grant the Biafrans their independence in order to maintain access to oil reserves in the southern Niger Delta. Oil was first discovered in the Niger delta in 1958, and quickly took over Nigeria's economy. The low sulphur content of Nigerian oil stimulated great international demand, therefore the northerners would not allow Biafra to secede from the federation. The Biafran war, 1967-1970, resulted in 100,000 military casualties. However, between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died from starvation during the war.

2. Description

The war began with ethnic rivalry in the armed forces. After the military coup in January 1966, in which Tafawa Balewa's government was overthrown by junior Ibo officers, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Ibo, was the appointed head of government by ministers that survived the January 1966 coup. Anti-Ibo riots followed with traditionalist Muslim attacks on Ibo people residing in the north, in September of 1967, which resulted in a massacre; 30,000 deaths and massive Ibo flight of over 1 million, from the north to the east. Easterners, who had previously supported the idea of a united Nigeria, now opposed it based on fear of safety outside the eastern region. The Federal Military Government (FMG) made peace offerings and invited military governor of the eastern region, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to peace talks in Lagos, (the former capital located in the west), but Ojukwu rejected them.

In January, 1968, Ojukwu finally met with Gowon, some other regional leaders and police on neutral territory - Aburi, Ghana under the protection and mediation of the Ghana's military government. The agreement reached at this conference was that a loose confederation of the regions might solve Nigeria's ethnic problems. This agreement was violently opposed by civil servants in Lagos. Awolowo, the leader of the western region demanded the removal of all northern troops in the west, and threatened to leave the federation if the east did so first. The FMG subsequently removed northern troops from the west; "and issued a decree resurrecting the idea of a confederation discussed at Aburi." Ojukwu and the other eastern leaders rejected it, by voting in May to secede from Nigeria. The mid-western region, the present location of Nigeria's capital - Abuja - announced that it would remain neutral in the event of a civil war.

On May 30, 1967 Ojukwu formally announced that Biafra would be an independent Republic. He stated that Nigerian government's inability to protect the lives of easterners and its collaboration in genocide forced the Ibo to secede from the federation. In July army combat units were dispatched to the east, but were met with rebel troops. Biafrans retaliated by taking control of strategic points in the mid-western region. The FMG reacted by sending large numbers of the armed forces to fight in a full-scale civil war. The FMG regained control of the mid-west and the delta region, and terminated Biafra access to the sea by the end of 1967, yet, they were unable to penetrate the Ibo heartland - resulting in a stalemate.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the rebel troops had the advantage of excellent leadership and morale. However, the FMG invaded Owerri, an oil rich area of the Niger delta, in 1968 and increased their army to 250,000 men. The Biafran rebels liberated Owerri. However, but a new federal offensive in the south forced the rebels into submission.

Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon proclaimed a state of emergency and announced plans for abolition of the regions and the redivision of the country into twelve states. This effort was recognized as a concession to the eastern region that removed northern domination, and as a strategic move, which won over eastern minorities and deprived the rebellious Ibo heartland of its control over the oil fields and access to the sea. The division of Nigeria into 12 states took effect in April 1968 and the East Central State, formerly Biafra, was reintegrated into Nigeria after the cease-fire in January of 1970.


U.S. and European relief organizations, private groups and religious groups came to the assistance of the Biafrans in response to Biafran propaganda stressing the genocide of the Ibo. Airlifts brought food, medical supplies and arms to the war zones during the nights. Most of Biafra's military supplies were acquired through unofficial assistance by France via the franco-phone colonies, in the international arms market. Britain, on the other hand gave diplomatic support and limited military aid to the FMG. The former Soviet Union was a significant source of arms for the FMG. Biafra was formally recognized by Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, South Africa and Ivory Coast. Most African countries did not recognize Biafra to spite South Africa. The U.S. placed sanctions on exports of military goods to both the Biafrans and the FMG.

3. Duration


4. Location


Most of the war took place in the Niger delta, thus, oil production ceased during the civil war. However, battles were fought in other areas of the country.

5. Actors

  • The Federal Military Government (FMG) consisting mostly of Muslims from the Northern region
  • Biafran rebel troops led by military governor, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
  • Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Yakubu "Jack" Gowon.

    II. Environment Aspects

    6. Type of Environmental Problem

    Control of oil and access to the Atlantic ocean

    7. Type of Habitat

    Tropical rainforest

    8. Act and Harm Sites:

    The North attacked the South-east.

    III. Conflict Aspects

    9. Type of Conflict


    10. Level of Conflict

    HIGH: full-scale civil war

    11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

    2 million people in the eastern region died from the warfare, disease and starvation.

    III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

    12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

    This causal-loop diagram provides a general idea of the links between conflict and the environment based on ethnic differences. Specifically, by looking at this diagram, one concludes that there is a positive effect between the following:

  • ethnic differences and conflict, and vice versa
  • oil needs and conflict
  • superpower involvement and conflict
  • oil needs and superpower involvement

    13. Level of Strategic Interest

    Confined to the south-eastern area of Nigeria

    14. Outcome of Dispute:

    Biafran rebels were defeated. The eastern region was war-torn. Over 3 million Ibo refugees fled to the east, into a 2,500 square kilometer enclave. Under Gowon's close supervision, the FMG took steps to ensure that the Ibo would be treated as countrymen, rather than defeated enemies. Programs were implemented to reintegrate the Ibo into a united Nigeria. The FMG retained access to enormous oil reserves in former Biafra.

    IV. Related Information and Sources

    15. Related ICE and TED Cases

    16. Relevant Websites and Literature

    McCaskie, T. C. 1997. "Nigeria" Africa South of the Sahara 1998 London: Europa.

    Nelson, Harold. 1982. Nigeria: a country studyWashington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

    Nwankwo, Arthur and Samuel Ifejika. 1969. Biafra: the making of a nation New York: Praeger Publishers.

    Schabowska, Henryka and Ulf Himmelstrand. 1978. Africa Reports on the Nigerian Crisis; News, Attitudes and Background Information: a study of press performance, government attitude to Biafra and ethno-political integration New York: Africana Publishing Company.

    Smock, Audrey. 1971. Ibo Politics: the role of ethnic unions in eastern nigeria Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    November, 1997