On the 30 May 1967, in the town of Enugu in south-east Nigeria, a special audience led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, arrived at the government building, known as State House, to declare the creation of a separate entity for the Igbos known as ‘Biafra‘.
The 33-year old Lt-Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, then proceeded to make the declaration, which would change the course of Nigeria’s history, saying :
‘The territory and region known as Eastern Nigeria’, he proclaimed, ‘shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name “Biafra”.’
Following the dramatic announcement, many people took to the streets, in celebration of their ‘liberation’ from the Nigerian regime led by General Yakubu Gowon. Soon this relatively small region, comprising just 29,000 square miles, less than ten per cent of Nigeria’s landmass, would have its own flag, currency, even an anthem.
But Gowon’s federal government would not allow oil-rich Biafra to go its own way and it had everything to fight for. Within weeks, a brutal civil war had begun.
THE NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR & THE TERMINATION OF THE BIAFRA MOVE
The civil war commenced on the 6th of July, 1967, and raged on till January the 15th, 1970. It had been a long time coming, as the Igbo people were tired of living in a Nigeria that was dominated by the Northern region, and as such, the idea of Biafra was born.
The immediate cause of the civil war however, was the ethno-religious violence, and particularly the persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria. Ultimately, the control over the lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta also played a vital strategic role in the eventual break out of the Nigerian Civil War.
The civil war can be traced back to the colonial amalgamation in 1914 of Northern protectorate, Lagos Colony and Southern Nigeria protectorate (later renamed Eastern Nigeria), which was initially intended for better administration due to the close proximity of these protectorates.
The change however, did not take into consideration the differences in the culture and religions of the peoples in each area. Competition for political and economic power exacerbated tensions.
In contrast to the two other major ethnic groups,(Yoruba and Hausa), Igbos and the ethnic groups of the Niger Delta in the southeast lived mostly in autonomous, democratically organized communities, although there were monarchs in many of the ancient cities, such as the Kingdom of Nri.
At its peak, the Kingdom controlled most of Igbo land, including influence on the Anioma people, Arochukwu (which controlled slavery in Igbo), and Onitsha land. Unlike the other two regions, decisions within the Igbo communities were made by a general assembly in which men and women participated.
In contrast to the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbos and other Biafrans often participated directly in the decisions which affected their lives. They had a lively awareness of the political system and regarded it as an instrument for achieving their personal goals.
Status was acquired through the ability to arbitrate disputes that might arise in the village, and through acquiring rather than inheriting wealth.
The Igbo had been substantially victimized in the Atlantic slave trade; in the year 1790 it was reported that of 20,000 people sold each year from Bonny, 16,000 were Igbo. With their emphasis upon social achievement and political participation, the Igbo adapted to and challenged colonial rule in innovative ways.
These tradition-derived differences were perpetuated and perhaps enhanced by the colonial government in Nigeria. In the North, the colonial government found it convenient to rule indirectly through the Emirs, thus perpetuating rather than changing the indigenous authoritarian political system.
At the time of independence in 1960, the North was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria. It had an English literacy rate of 2%, as compared to 19.2% in the East (literacy in Ajami (local languages in Arabic script), learned in connection with religious education, was much higher).
The West also enjoyed a much higher literacy level, as it was the first part of the country to have contact with western education, and established a free primary education program under the pre-independence Western Regional Government.
In the West, the missionaries rapidly introduced Western forms of education. Consequently, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to adopt Western bureaucratic social norms. They made up the first classes of African civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and other technicians and professionals.
In Eastern areas, missionaries were introduced at a later date because of British difficulty in establishing firm control over the highly autonomous communities. However, the Igbo and other Biafran people actively took to Western education, and they overwhelmingly came to adopt Christianity.
The tensions that later culminated in the 3-year long Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafra War, were as a result of ethno-religious differences between the North and South especially between the Hausa/Fulani of the North and the Igbo people of the East, and the threat of secession of such an oil rich region from the rest of Nigeria, became the trigger of the ensuing war.
It has been over 50 years since the end of the Civil War, but we will always remember.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.