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The Nigeria-Biafra War: A fight to finish

By Prof. Peter Okorie (08033386262)
Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide – Henri Barbusse



The Nigeria-Biafra War: A fight to finish

Widespread militancy is often mistaken for militarization, just as bravado is sometimes mistaken for bravery. Militancy is the use of confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause on the other hand, militarization is the process by which a society prepares or organizes itself for military conflict and violence. The State of Israel can be used to illustrate the difference. Israel is one of the most militarized countries in the world, there being no other option since it is bordered by hostile countries who deny its right to exist. But the Israeli society is one of the least militant. The use of violent public protests in pursuit of a cause is rare in Israel.

Secessionist Biafra was an example of a society where militancy was mistaken for militarization. Demonstrations and calls for war, was a daily occupation of the youth segment, especially student bodies. Army recruitment centres were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The regular army could not recruit up to 5% of the volunteers and a militia division had to be created to enlist a little more of the volunteers. Those who could still not join the militia were encouraged to join a third tier of military service – the Civil Defence. The willingness to fight is one thing; the capacity to fight is yet another. The bravest unarmed soldier would be defeated by the most cowardly soldier with a modern automatic rifle. An army needs automatic rifles, machine guns, endless stores of ammunition, mortar guns, artillery, assorted grenades, rockets, bombs, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, assorted vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, tanks, communication systems etc. The individual soldier needs several pairs of combat gear-boots, underwears, uniforms, steel helmets, bayonets, night vision goggles etc – as well as food and water cans, emergency first aid kit and personal communication devices. An army needs protection from attacks from the sea or major water bodies by assorted naval vessels; just as it needs air support by assorted aircraft – transport planes, fighters, bombers, reconnaissance planes – as well as helicopters for close ground support especially for immediate treatment of wounded combatants. These items, both in quality and quantity, grossly eluded the Biafrans from the beginning to the end of the war.      

There were three major reasons for the unpreparedness of Biafra for the war. The most obvious was the near total lack of pre-existing military infrastructure in Eastern Region of Nigeria. The East had only one battalion, the First Battalion at Enugu. The Western Region had a battalion in Abeokuta while Lagos had a garrison. The rest of the military facilities (over 70%), including training schools and Airforce infrastructure were all located in Northern Nigeria, specifically Kaduna-Zaria-Kano triangle. Kaduna-Zaria axis, roughly 73km apart, was the densest concentration of military facilities in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. It had the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna; the School of Aviation, Zaria; Nigeria Military School, Zaria; School of Artillery, Kachia; Nigerian Army Depot, Zaria; Kaduna Airforce base, as well as numerous barracks to house several battalions and their stores. Whether the British did this by design or default would continue to evoke arguments on British neutrality, or lack of it, during colonial-era Nigeria.

The second reason for Biafran unpreparedness was the attitude of a segment of the intellectual class in Biafra. While the youths demanded for guns to fight the war, some theoreticians among the elites argued that war, was unlikely. They argued that the North had already achieved its objectives of pushing the ‘troublesome Easterners’ away, not only from the North, but also from their positions in all Federal Government Corporations, Public Service, Universities and the Army. The East, over-burdened with over one million refugees, was no longer a threat to the North. This intellectual class mistook the chants of ‘Araba’ (secessionist calls in the North) by the marauding mobs during the pogroms as the authentic strategic objective of the North. Soon the mobs were enlightened on how challenging ‘Araba’ would be without support from revenues accruing from crude oil export from the East. Crude oil had not started accounting for over 80% of Nigeria’s export earnings, as is the case today, but it did not take an economic guru to see the rising trend in oil revenues.      

The third major reason, perhaps the most painful, was the initial reluctance of any major power to come to Biafra’s military aid. To the international community, Biafra was a temporary humanitarian crisis that could be resolved within the context of one united Nigeria. It was almost two years into the war, when the Biafran determined resistance won international respect, that some countries started airlifting military assistance. But it was a case of ‘too little, too late’. Biafrans misjudged, to their own peril, the humanitarian sympathy over the pogroms in the North as a signal of subsequent military assistance. It did not happen that way. For instance, Richard Nixon as a Presidential candidate in 1968 was a highly vocal sympathizer of the Biafran cause. But when he became US President in 1969, not much was heard from him again on Biafra.      

In summary, by the time news filtered into Enugu in June 1967 that Nigeria had amassed about eight thousand soldiers around Makurdi-Oturkpo axis on Biafra’s northern border in readiness to match on Biafra, there were only about two thousand soldiers on the Biafran side with rifles, a few mortar rounds and hardly enough ammunition to last a company for a week. In contrast the Nigerian side had abundant supplies of rifles, machine guns, grenades, mines, bombs, Soviet T-34 battle tanks, armoured ferret cars, anti-aircraft guns plus later brand-new MiG-17 and Il-28 Beagle (Ilyushin) jets from Soviet Union. It was an extra-ordinary imbalance. In a BBC documentary titled ‘Biafra, Fighting a War Without Guns’, Frederick Forsyth, who was several times in Biafra as a reporter, described how Biafran soldiers marched into war one man behind the other, because, they had only one rifle between them, and the thinking was that, if one soldier was killed in combat, the other would pick up the only weapon available and continue fighting.

Apart from the scandalous military imbalance, Biafra was also disadvantaged both geographically and politically. With a land area of about 78,612km2, Biafra was less than 10% of Nigeria’s land area. Also, based on the 1964 Nigerian census, the population of 12,388,646 for Eastern Nigeria was roughly one quarter of Nigeria’s population of 43,255,009. Above all, there was a psychological issue for the ethnic Igbo. The northerners used the term Igbo or ‘Nyamiri’ to describe all persons from Eastern Nigeria in the same way that Easterners referred to over 150 ethnic groups in the North as Hausa. An average Hausa man will say: Dukan su nyamiri ne (All of you are nyamiri). Some northerners in the far north even refer to some other northerners in the middle belt as ‘Nyamiri North’ because of the perceived similarities with the Igbo. Unfortunately, some ethnic minorities in the East felt that, the war against the ‘Igbo’ did not include them, which turned out to be a fatal miscalculation on several occasions during the war. In any case, members of the Igbo ethnic group felt some psychological strain from this. To worsen matters, the very first senior officer of the Nigerian army captured in the first week of battle was a Yoruba. In popular language, a Yoruba officer commanding Hausa soldiers to attack the Igbo; the psychological isolation of the Igbo was complete. However, as the war progressed this perception was corrected. The so-called minority areas in Biafra produced some of the most spectacular war heroes of the war. The Director of Biafra Military Intelligence, Bernard Odogwu, wrote: “I found out during the war that the most loyal Biafrans were more from the minority areas, followed by the people from the old Owerri province.” 


Culled from “Nigeria Too Hard to Hold,” By Prof. Peter Okorie 

(Copies available at Assumpta Bookshop Owerri, OCS Building, IMSU. Cost N3000. Contact: 07036465863, 08037061402)

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