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Eight (8) Reasons Why the Nigerian Civil War Broke Out

INTRO: The horrible incidence of civil war between Nigeria and the secessionist Biafra between July 6, 1967 and January 15, 1970 is better imagined than experienced. The bloody war claimed millions of lives of Biafrans especially through the blockade strategy of the war. Several accounts of the war have been written either from experience, careful study, or both, and none of them is pleasurable to read given the reports of tear-jerking humanitarian crises that are rife in those accounts. For instance, the account on the effect of the blockade against Biafra which made the ribs of Biafran children countable, and their bellies floatable out of Kwashiorkor. The accounts advanced several reasons why the war broke out, such as below.

#1 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out as One of the Evils of Colonialism: Nigeria is a product of British colonialism which separated kith and kin, and united total strangers with the errors of the Berlin Conference 1884/85, and the Amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria in 1914. By these dastardly and insensitive colonial decisions, Nigeria emerged a multi-ethnic country, so that from Independence, ethnic politics remained at the centre of the circle in Nigerian politics. The first generation political parties in Nigeria then took ethnic wings and played for their respective parochial interests. One thing led to the order until the war broke out between the ethnic Igbo and an amalgam of Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups. 

#2 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Due to the 1966 Military Coup: That the January 1966 military incursion into Nigerian politics changed the destiny of the country is an understatement. The military coup opened the floodgate of political crises that climaxed with the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. Although well-meaning and popular, the coup was promptly painted black by opportunists who tagged it an Igbo Coup. To make matters worse, the survival of some Igbo government officials such as Zik and Okpala in the coup, coupled with the reluctance of Major General Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi to execute the champions of the botched revolution supported the conspiracy theory that pointed accusing fingers to Igbo young majors that constituted the greater part of the coupists. Then for vengeance, there were the counter coup, the pogrom, and other sundry crises which plunged the country into the 30-month bloody civil war in 1967.

#3 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Because of Personality Issues between Ojukwu and Gowon: After the counter-coup in July 1966, barely six months after the maiden coup, the most senior in the Army, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe was denied his rightful throne in Dodan Barracks by the Northern mutineers that carried out the counter coup. Lt. Col. Danyuma Gowon instead was appointed the Head of State. This did not go down well with Ojukwu and he refused to take orders from Gowon who was also under him in the Army, although of the same rank. This left their relationship very acrimonious, and their respective egos blocked the voices of reason against the war, and the war broke out.

#4 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Due to the Breach of Aburi Accord: In January 1967 when the crisis situation in Nigeria reached a crescendo, Lt. Col. J.A Ankrah of Ghana summoned the conflicting parties to a negotiation table in search of a ground for resolution. The negotiation produced the popular Aburi Accord in which Ojukwu got the Federal Government’s consent to change Nigeria to a confederation. This system of government unlike a federation allows secession. Upon arrival, the Federal Government headed by Gowon did a volte-face from the Aburi Accord, perhaps having been told of the implication of the confederation thing. The crisis situation worsened and the war broke out.

#5 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Because of the Pogrom: It did not end with the counter coup. Igbo civilians were swooped upon and killed in their tens of thousands on the streets in the North. Gowon was on the radio giving the Igbos the assurances of their safety in the North while the Army were leading ethnic cleansing on the streets against the Igbo people. The pogrom which spanned some four or five months set off a massive exodus of the Igbos from the North. Charles Keil, an expatriate who stumbled into the eye of the pogrom recounted:

The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Ibo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowan could be heard over the radio issuing 'guarantees of safety' to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologized for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Ibos.  

This ugly condition of the Igbo people in the North set off a massive exodus of the persecuted people back to their Region. The resultant humanitarian crisis was huge in the East. Tens of people had to sleep in a room. Innocent Obieze-Ofu Ezeigbo reported a stage when couples had no qualms having sex in the night in the presence of other occupants of the room.

#6 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Due to Gowon’s Divide and Rule Policy of Creation of Twelve States: Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon’s effort to maintaining his authority informed the creation of the 12 states from the former 4 regions structure of the country. This was a political stroke geared towards muzzling the centrifugal thrust of the Eastern region. Gowon split each of the regions into 3 states. The Eastern region was split into South Eastern, Rivers, and East Central states; confining the core Igbos in the East Central state away from the oil-rich South Eastern and Rivers states. Ojukwu considered this an assault against his sphere of control and he gambled with secession.

#7 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Because of the Secession: Out of frustration and feeling of rejection by the people of the East, and based on the recommendation by the Eastern Region Consultative Assembly which May 26, 1967 voted for secession, Ojukwu declared the Region independent and named it the Republic of Biafra. Secession is a grave offence in a federation. This prompted the Federal Government to initiate what it termed a “police action” in which the breakaway region was pounded with shelling. The poorly equipped Eastern region replied fire with fire and the war broke out.

#8 Nigerian Civil War Broke Out Because of the Youthful Exuberance of the Leaders: The duo of Ojukwu and Gowon were in their early 30s when they were saddled with leadership in their various spheres. The brazen aggressiveness of a typical youthful age tainted most of their decisions. It got to a time when Zik fell out with Ojukwu because of what he considered Ojukwu’s excesses.