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Coup, counter-coup and the Biafran War

Katrin Matthaei / cm
July 29, 2016

On July 29, 1966, northern Nigerian troops led a counter-coup against the Igbo-dominated junta in the former capital Lagos. A year later, the Biafran war began. Its consequences are felt to this day.

A woman refugee during the Biafra war
Image: OFF/AFP/Getty Images

"When people talked about Biafra, they talked about it in low tones and with a deep sense of loss and sadness," said Nkwachukwu Orji. The 38-year-old political scientist belongs to the Igbo ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria. The region was known as Biafra between 1967 and 1970.

Orji was born seven years after the war ended. It lasted three years and was characterized by violence, hunger and trauma. "My family was lucky, we did not live directly in the war zone, but, of course, there were friends and distant relatives who lost many relatives," Orji told DW.

Only when he was a teenager did he dare to ask questions. Having spent a few years at European universities, he is now a researcher at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, a city in the southeast.

Nigerian former leader Yakubu Gowon.
Yakubu Gowon ruled Nigeria from 1966 to 1975Image: imago/ZUMA/Keystone

On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. But the freedom came with a heavy price. The newly created state inherited a nation with many different ethnic groups bundled together into regions. There was a struggle for dominance among three main ethnic communities, the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. The predominantly Muslim Fulani from the impoverished north found themselves in opposition to the other two groups which came from the relatively economically developed south with its capital Lagos.

Deadly power games

The Igbos complained that northern Nigeria had been given preferential treatment by Britain. Six years after independence on January 15, 1966, the Igbo led a coup and killed leading political figures from the north. A few months later, on July 29, 1966, soldiers from the northern Hausa-Fulani staged a counter-coup. The Igbo were removed from the military leadership. A year later, the Biafran war broke out.

Historian Mike Gould from SOAS, University of London, has spent considerable time researching and analyzing the complex situation that followed Nigeria's independence. "The first coup left a void because it was unsuccessful so the counter-coup was decisive for the outbreak of war a year later," Gould told DW.

A man holds the flag which represents the defunct independence of Biafra.
Biafran separatists are still active in NigeriaImage: picture alliance/W. Dabkowski

Many well-educated Igbo had settled in the north, but never integrated into the local population. They were regarded as foreigners and became targets during the pogroms which started in May 1966 and reached their peak in September 29, 1966.

Conflicting casualty figures

According to Gould, Yakubu Gowon, the military leader in northern Nigeria at the time, was too weak and unable to stop with the killing of Igbo. Gowon's opposite number on the Ibgo side, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was a well-educated and ambitious man.

"The number of those killed was totally distorted. Ojukwu claimed 50,000 Igbo had been killed trying to get back to eastern Nigeria from the north," Gould said.

How many people were actually killed remains controversial in Nigeria to this day. The Igbo in the southeast used the high number of victims to justify the proclamation of an independent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. "The attacks on Igbo in the north gave Ojukwu an opportunity to satisfy his thirst for power and push through his plans for the declaration of independence," Gould said.

There had been various attempts to mediate between the two, including the Aburi accord, which was sealed in Ghana and envisaged the transformation of Nigeria into a confederation. Under this agreement, the southwest of Nigeria would have enjoyed considerable autonomy. But Gowon failed to secure sufficient backing for the compromise among his supporters in the north. Ojukwu subsequently saw no reason to abide by the deal and pressed ahead with his demand for independence. This was unacceptable to the central government and on July 6, 1967, the Nigerian army marched into Biafra. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Biafra was defeated.

'Swept under the carpet'

The conflict between north and southeastern Nigeria continues to smolder in the minds of many people to this day. "Many Igbo think it is dangerous to go to the north," Orji said. He attributes this to the failure to publicly explain or analyze the reasons for the war and hostilties between the ethnic groups. "The past was simply swept under the carpet," Orji added.

Odumegwu Ojukwu 1966
Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu died in November 2011Image: AP

No one ever has ever been held charged or held responsible for the pogroms or other crimes. There was never an official apology by the Nigerian government to the Igbo people. When the war ended, all sides agreed on a mutual amnesty. Because the subject is largely taboo, distrust between the ethnic groups festers.

This refusal to face up to the past is rekindling a sense of nationalism among the Igbo. For several years, a self-style Biafran independence movement has once again been calling for secession from Nigeria. "The subject is so sensitive, and it is even more sensitive due to the fact that the Biafran idea today is still alive," said Heinrich Bergstresser, a German expert on Nigeria.

"Hatred is still as fresh as it was then, and among the younger generation sometimes even greater than among those who actually experienced the war," Orji said.

As a consequence of the war and in an effort to minimize direct confrontation between major ethnic groups, the military converted Nigeria into a federal country. It is now made up of 36 federal states. However, in the minds of most Nigerians, the unity of their country is now beyond doubt. "The war created modern Nigeria," Gould said.