Of all the upheavals that have marked Africa's transition from colonialism to political independence, none has been more tragic than Nigeria's civil war, either in terms of the immediate human suffering it has caused or the shadow it has cast on the continent's prospects for harmony and prosperity. After two years of inconclusive warfare and the collapse of three major initiatives toward negotiations, genuine peace in Nigeria seems very far away. One prerequisite to bringing it closer is the identification of the issues with which the peacemakers must deal. The present article undertakes this task, first briefly reviewing the war's background and then outlining the questions that must be considered in negotiating a settlement.

The secession of Nigeria's Eastern Region in May 1967 and its assumption of national sovereignty as the "Republic of Biafra" erupted out of a complex skein of historical experiences, cultural differences, economics, party politics and ethnic antagonisms. The federal structure which was adopted when Nigeria became independent in 1960 was intended to accommodate the local autonomy of diverse cultural groups with the economic unity of extensive and complementary resources and markets. The identification of the three regions (later four) with a particular political party and a single predominant ethnic group effected a polarization of political forces which certainly contributed to the present cataclysm. In the elections of 1959, on which the Independence Government was based, the efforts of the Yoruba-dominated Action Group (AG) and the Ibo party, the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), to win constituencies outside their own respective regions achieved only modest success.

Political action centered then on the struggle to gain or hold control of the Federal Government. The Government which emerged in 1959 was a coalition of the Hausa-Fulani-dominated Northern Peoples' Congress (NPC) and the NCNC. From then until 1966, a prime anxiety of each major group was the possibility of a shift in the balance at the center, which might allow a single region, group and party to dominate the others at the national level and to carry away the rewards of power: government jobs, contracts, loans, scholarships and community amenities.

Of the ethnic antagonisms, two things must be noted. First, the friction was not, for the most part, the heritage of open warfare among tribal groups. There had been little of this, but tribal xenophobia was deep- seated. Particularly as political modernization moved ahead, special resentment was roused by the favoritism shown by the powerful toward members of their own ethnic groups in the distribution of government largesse or of employment in private business.

Second, the three major tribes, the Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo, far from exhausted the tribal diversity of Nigeria. Each region included large ethnic groups which were culturally different from the regional majorities. All these were as anxious over domination by the majorities in their respective areas as the regional majorities were about each other on the national level. If, as was suggested in the constitutional talks preceding independence, more "regions" had been created, following ethnic lines, the three polarized regional power blocs would have been broken up. This would have accorded with a thesis of classic federalism: that the dominance of one or two disproportionately strong members paralyzes a federal system, and that a multiplicity of balanced units-permitting flexible adjustments of political alliances-is therefore necessary.

The months preceding the military coup of January 1966 were marked by widespread violence in the West, following a fraudulent election of the regional parliament, and by growing public restiveness over blatant corruption in government. Although it was executed by a small group of junior officers, the most prominent of whom was an Ibo major, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, the coup was populist in its original orientation. And the coup's leaders did not gain power for themselves but were apprehended and detained when a rump cabinet formally transferred power to Major-General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, the commander of the army, and likewise an Ibo. When Ironsi appointed as military governors of the regions officers native to each, the Ibo Lieut.-Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu came to head the East.

Despite the fact that many prominent officials, including the Federal Prime Minister, had been killed, the immediate public reaction to the coup was relief and optimism. But as time passed, attitudes changed. Many came to interpret the coup as an Ibo plot to seize control of the country. A talented and enterprising people, but aggressive and self-assured, the Ibos had long since evoked widespread resentment among other groups. It was noted that only one Ibo officer had been killed in the action, that the Ibo Premiers of the East and Mid-West had survived, and that Nzeogwu and other plotters had not been punished. When, on May 24, Ironsi issued a decree making the "federal" government the "national" government, this was read by others as an attempt to implement the Ibos' pre-independence preference for a unitary state in which they would enjoy the maximum opportunities for advancement in government service. Four days later came the first pogrom against Ibos in the North. With the connivance of local government, rampaging mobs began attacking the Ibos settled among them, killing hundreds and possibly thousands and spurring others to leave the North and return to their native East.

Then, during the second military coup, which occurred on the night of July 29 under the leadership of Northern officers, General Ironsi was killed, and Ibo troops at various military posts were attacked by their non-Ibo comrades-in-arms. Lieut.-Col. Yakubu Gowon, who had tried to negotiate with the mutinous troops on behalf of the Federal Military Government (FMG), by a curious twist won their acceptance as the new Commander-in-Chief and head of state. Gowon, though himself a Northerner, is from one of the Middle Belt tribes. In strictly legal terms his title to succeed Ironsi is not clear, for there was not, as in January, any formal transfer of power and Ojukwu, still Governor of the East, studiously refrained from officially acknowledging Gowon's position. The July events further stimulated the dispersed Ibos to return eastward, and in talks on constitutional reform, held in the following months, the Ibos shifted from support for a unitary state to advocacy of a confederal structure assuring maximum autonomy for the regions.

The most painful and provocative incident leading to the war was the outburst of attacks on Ibos by civilians-sometimes aided by troops-which swept the entire North at the end of September and the beginning of October. Between ten and thirty thousand were killed and countless others severely injured. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million Ibos from the North crowded into the densely populated East and hundreds of thousands more came from the West. Unable now to feel secure away from their native soil, the Ibos saw themselves as the target of genocide. The trauma induced by the September riots, coming on the heels of the violence in May and July, cannot be overestimated. Secession had become almost inevitable.

By May 27 relations between the East and the FMG had deteriorated to such an extent that the consultative assembly of distinguished citizens appointed by Ojukwu to advise on policy mandated him "at an early practicable date" to take the East out of the Federation. On the following day, General Gowon responded with the announcement of a decree reorganizing the Federal structure, replacing the four "regions" with twelve "states": six in the North, three in the East and two in the West, with the Mid-West remaining as it was.

The provisional boundaries of the new states followed ethnic lines which appealed to the important minorities of the North and the East. And at the national level, the arrangement removed the threat of domination by the huge undivided North. At another time this would have been extremely pleasing to the Ibos. But only one of the new Eastern states encompassed Iboland. The other two states carved out of the East were controlled by minority tribes, thereby encouraging the dissidence of non-Ibos against Ojukwu's government. The new arrangement also threatened him with the loss of ports at Calabar and Port Harcourt and with the loss of the precious Eastern petroleum-almost all of which lay outside Iboland. Ojukwu's answer to Gowon's decrees was the secession that his consultative assembly had urged.

Even after actual hostilities had begun, they proceeded fitfully. Nevertheless, by September 1968, the Federal military strategy had pushed Biafra into a desperate and painful corner, reducing Biafran-held territory from about 30,000 to about 5,000 square miles, into which were crowded about 8 million people. Relief agencies in Biafra estimated that civilian deaths from starvation and associated illnesses had risen from 300 per day in May to over 6,000 per day in August, mostly children. But at about this time, the military situation stabilized for more than six months; the Biafrans, whose equipment had been markedly inferior to that of the Federal troops, were now acquiring more and better arms, with French assistance. Negotiations arranged by the Commonwealth and by the Organization of African Unity in mid-1968 proved fruitless. A new effort by the OAU in April 1969 similarly failed.


Such is the background of the tragic situation in Nigeria. The elemental motivating force behind Ibo secession, clearly, was fear. Underlying all else, after the Northern riots and the second coup of 1966, the Ibos felt that their lives were under constant threat anywhere in the country except in the East. Beyond life was livelihood. Because under the existing constitution the most lucrative sources of public revenue were outside the control of the regions, the East could not sustain the population which had crowded into it-certainly not at the levels to which the Ibo leadership aspired. The Ibos accordingly faced the need of either modifying the Federation or abandoning it. Whatever may have been their intention before the FMG's "States Decree," the establishment of the two new Eastern states ended hopes of any viable, autonomous economy within a revised federal structure. Provided that these areas and their assets were taken along, however, complete independence seemed feasible and, now, desirable. Though small in area, the new country would have the eighth largest population of the 41 countries on the continent, including an unusually high proportion- for Africa-of skilled and educated people. The oil would provide the capital to finance development. Although the dissidence of the minorities was a formidable difficulty, it could be met.

It must be reiterated, however, that fear and personal insecurity were the prime driving force of the Ibos' move. Whether it was well-founded or not, the fear was a fact, and a fact to which the Nigerian Government has never given the weight it deserves.

The prime motivation behind the Federal effort to suppress the secession was less elemental and emotional than that of the Ibos. Despite strong overtones of tribal animosity, the Federal response was grounded in rational concern for the interrelated political and economic integrity of Nigeria. The prestige which the country has consistently enjoyed in international forums rests partly on its size and economic promise. Successful secession by the Ibos would set a precedent for other tribal groups that might feel alienated. Moreover, the FMG was not disposed to abandon the Eastern oil that promised development capital for the whole country. The essentially confederal solution put forward by the Ibos at the constitutional talks of 1966 and at the Aburi conference of early 1967 would inevitably cause dissolution or paralysis of the Government. But to concede Ibo independence would cause enduring conflict in Africa as bitter as that of Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, permanently draining the resources of both sides into a senseless arms race and possibly exposing the area once more to a dangerous rivalry of major powers.

The specific issues of the war which must be resolved fall into several clusters of related problems. The strict legitimacy of both the Gowon and the Ojukwu régimes and of their official acts is one such central question. Since Gowon's title to succeed Ironsi has been explicitly challenged, the legality of his States Decree could be queried. But the legitimacy of Ojukwu's own military government in the Eastern Region, dependent as it was on Ironsi's own tenuous title, is also questionable. In any case, the Eastern government's secession, assertion of sovereignty and claim to the region's former territorial boundaries are the central legal issues of the war. On this the positions of the Biafran and Federal authorities are in direct and apparently irreconcilable conflict.

A second and really more fundamental set of issues relates to the bitter inter-ethnic hostilities that escalated into war. In as much as the failure of the Ironsi Government to prosecute the leaders of the January coup is still cited as a Federal grievance, it does remain a grievance. Investigation is in order, but its scope should include the July coup as well. The failure of the Northern authorities and the FMG to protect the Ibos in the riots of May and September and to indemnify them adequately for deaths, personal injuries, loss of jobs, income and property also remains an issue-a more serious one than the coups themselves in terms of far- reaching impact on identifiable individuals. And similar situations have arisen during the war both from the victimization of Ibo civilians in parts of the Mid-West and East taken by Federal forces and in the harassment of non-Ibo civilians by Biafran forces in territories controlled by them.

Future Ibo security, however, is certainly the most critical issue of all; unless it is met, "one Nigeria" is an impossibility. In the first instance, the Ibos will need protection from organized or casual attack by Federal troops in the East Central State following a cease-fire or Biafran surrender. Even more difficult, it will be necessary after a peace settlement to reëstablish their freedom to move without fear in the other eleven states. Nigeria cannot be fully integrated unless all its citizens fully share the benefits of its complementary economy. To this end the Ibos will need to disperse once more from the East Central State, whose slender resources could not sustain them at a minimally satisfactory level. And the rest of the country will have need of the Ibos' talent to revitalize its disrupted economic structure. The largest problem in assuring Ibo mobility will be to provide effective police work over a huge territorial expanse. But the complexities of employment policy will also be the source of major dilemmas. The return of Ibos to jobs they had fled would raise technical questions of job perquisites like seniority and pensions. Additionally, however, their reinstatement would pose the issue of equity toward those who had succeeded them; and this could be incendiary.

A third group of issues is constitutional. The twelve states presumably must be accepted, both because the FMG has committed itself to the minorities on this point and because the new structure holds greater promise of political stability than the old. But in giving the system definitive shape, many questions raised in earlier constitutional conferences will recur. Especially relevant to the grievances that led to the war would be the equitable distribution of tax burdens and tax revenues among the states; the Ibos had long complained that a disproportionate share of Federal revenue derived from the Eastern Region was being assigned to other areas. A guarantee of reasonable legal, political and socio- economic autonomy to the states will also be needed.

A fourth set of issues concerns the security forces. Against the background of the war, their future internal deployment had best be controlled by the constitution; but an interim, provisional arrangement must be made. An issue immediately linked with the very making of peace will be the treatment of charges against military personnel-especially Biafran-arising from secession and the conduct of the war. At longer range will be the general reorganization of the armed forces and police: reintegrating Biafran personnel into the national services with appropriate regard for perquisites, and safeguarding against future military intervention in politics. A particularly formidable problem will be demobilization. While the prewar army numbered about 10,000, the estimated current total for both sides is around 160,000. Mostly men of little education, the ex-servicemen will have poor job prospects. Although they have learned to use the lethal weapons which, one fears, will be abundantly available after the war, their too-rapid recruitment and training have not developed tight military discipline. The return of servicemen to civilian society will require imaginative planning and energetic execution to spare Nigeria a grave and enduring threat to public order.

A fifth general problem is the validity of fiscal acts and financial commitments made by the Biafran government during secession-for example, the incurrence of indebtedness and the issuance of currency. Though highly technical, questions of this kind can have serious substantive implications- most strikingly as they relate to foreign governments or agencies that may have given financial support to the Biafran war effort.

A sixth grouping comprises the issues connected with relief and rehabilitation after the war. Relief must be provided and rehabilitation promoted promptly, efficiently, honestly and without discrimination against any ethnic group or geographic area.

A final cluster of issues concerns the actual cessation of hostilities. The key problem in any cease-fire is to assure each party that its adversary will gain no major military advantage when hostilities end. In the present instance, the arrangements should prevent the hard-pressed Biafrans from replenishing their arms supply, and the Nigerians from regrouping their forces for a major assault. If the cease-fire be taken as the prelude to Biafra's reincorporation into the Federation, the arrangements should also guarantee against disarmed Biafrans being placed at the mercy of Federal troops.


In planning an agenda on which negotiations could proceed, the most urgent immediate problem is to end hostilities. For the cease-fire to hold the confidence of both sides, a large force of military observers will be needed. Such a force would not be an infringement of sovereignty, as some Nigerians protest, but an exercise of sovereignty. (At the FMG's request, a very small party of observers has already inspected Federally held territory.) The invitation could be extended by the Nigerian Government, but with the assent of Biafra, to the Organization of African Unity, the Commonwealth Secretariat or the United Nations. The force's members could then be recruited anywhere. The smaller non-African countries might best assure not only an accepted impartiality but also an almost indispensable "visibility." The force should be positioned before the cease-fire, and should be guaranteed a life of one year and unimpeded movement for itself and its supplies. Its function would be to verify the cessation of hostilities for both parties and for the international community. By focusing the full light of international publicity on the situation and by intervening physically if necessary, the force would prevent victimization of the Ibos and at the same time protect Federal forces against charges of genocide. It would check any movement by either side to rearm, regroup and renew hostilities and would supervise any disarmament process, taking custody of the weapons surrendered.

Among the legal issues, the most direct clash is over sovereignty. Although one party must yield, its concession must be rendered as easy as possible by an earnest respect for its sensitivities. On the assumption that Biafra rejoins the Federation, the emphasis should be on the legal position post bellum. Judgments on the past should as far as possible be avoided. Biafra would affirm its unity with the Federation under the terms of the States Decree, and Nigeria would affirm Biafra's membership in the Federation. This exchange would imply Biafran recognition of the FMG and renunciation of the claim to sovereignty without prejudice to the past. It would also imply Federal assurances that the new state would suffer no discrimination in comparison with other states. Admittedly such a solution will not avoid abundant civil litigation involving events between the first coup and the final settlement. But civil litigation under private law will strain the social fabric less than acrimonious debate under public law.

A further politico-legal question is Iboland's access to the sea, cut off by the States Decree. In view of the loss of Port Harcourt, the FMG should undertake feasibility studies and subsequently establish, if practicable, a new river port on the Niger.

Besides the protection provided through the observer force, additional measures to mitigate ethnic bitterness could be incorporated in the settlement. The FMG could, for example, grant a general amnesty to all citizens who might be charged with political offenses, including treason, connected with the two coups and the Biafran secession. This would assuage both Ibo and anti-Ibo hostility and set the stage for a new politics of accommodation. The FMG could also facilitate the emigration of Ibos who might wish to leave the country-reversing the deliberate bureaucratic obstructionism that hampered the issuance of passports for several months before the war. This measure would relieve the Ibos' fear of physical danger and open up economic opportunities abroad in place of those curtailed in Nigeria.

To assure both Biafran and international confidence in the impartial functioning of relief and rehabilitation agencies, the FMG could appoint to the responsible governmental bodies personnel nominated by the Biafran authorities; appropriate international agencies could also be invited to appoint observers.

Other important issues involve an interweaving of political and technical considerations too complex for immediate adjustment. The FMG could create tripartite commissions to examine these problems-with members appointed by the Federal and Biafran authorities and by mutually agreeable third parties. These last would, again, assure detached evaluation of the commissions' functioning and public confidence in the findings. The commissions would enjoy freedom of access to places, persons and documents needed to complete their respective missions. Minority reports, if there were any, would be published.

Four such commissions can be envisaged. The first would study the reabsorption of Ibos into the labor force in both public and private sectors. It would look into measures to assure the Ibos personal security outside their own state, into technical questions of job perquisites, and into the provision of equity both for Ibos seeking reappointment to jobs they had abandoned and for non-Ibos who had replaced them. A second commission would examine the legal and fiscal problems raised by the actions of the Biafran government during secession, and particularly by its financial obligations. A third commission would investigate the communal riots of 1966-determining their causes, identifying persons who might have committed criminal acts in the course of them, verifying property and personal damages sustained and recommending appropriate action. A fourth commission would consider the reorganization of the armed forces and police on both sides-including technical aspects of reincorporating Biafrans into the corresponding Federal structure, reduction and redeployment of manpower, demobilization of redundant personnel and their retraining for civilian life, and the disposal of surplus military equipment.

For the permanent return from military to civil government, a new national constitution will be necessary. To frame it, the FMG might convoke a convention within six months of the termination of hostilities, to which each of the states would send equal numbers of representatives. The final draft should be submitted to a referendum, in which approval by a majority of voters in each state would be required for final acceptance. In order again to assure public trust, the FMG might invite international observers to attend the convention, watch the referendum and publish a report. In drafting the constitution, particular attention would have to be given to incorporating solidly "entrenched" clauses on the critical issues affecting national confidence. These would include the existence of the twelve states and the process for creating new ones, the amendment procedure, the formula for legislative representation, the control and possibly the internal deployment of security forces, the assignment of the Federal tax burden and the distribution of Federal revenue among the states, and the allocation of reserved, concurrent and residuary powers.


Although the lines of settlement sketched here are intended to be suggestive and not conclusive, their acceptability to either party even as a starting point for negotiation may be questioned. Is it realistic to expect the Biafran or Federal authorities even to talk about them?

The rigidity of both sides thus far is not encouraging. Lieut.-Col. Ojukwu asserts that even if defeated in the field, his people will wage guerrilla warfare until Federal troops retire from their soil. He is training his people for it and is prepared to supply them by air-drops if he loses control of the airstrips. Foreign journalists who visit Biafra uniformly report that his people are solidly behind him-to the point of restricting his own freedom to make concessions. But the FMG believes that the capture of the airstrips and possibly of Orlu will end major resistance, or that the deterioration of the Biafran military situation or civilian supply system will permit covert dissidents among the Ibos to force Ojukwu to step aside for the sake of peace. It should nevertheless be clear to the warring parties, as it is to outside observers, that continuance of the conflict makes no sense for either.

It may be possible for the Ibos to wage guerrilla warfare long after they have lost their last airstrip. But what they could gain would hardly seem to justify the heavy losses. Guerrilla warfare would invite reprisals against civilians as the line between civilian and enemy soldier became invisible. Death from starvation would rise as the distribution of food and medicine became more irregular and disorganized. Even if guerrilla tactics do compel a Federal withdrawal, Biafra would remain surrounded by hostile forces, caught in an arms race, landlocked and with only minimal natural resources on which to build a viable economy.

Though it may be possible for the Federal forces to inflict a conventional military defeat on the Biafrans, if they are faced with guerrilla warfare, the Gowon Government's primary war aim would be as far from realization as ever. "To keep Nigeria one" is not a matter of physically controlling territory, but of uniting people in the pursuit of an ordered, tranquil and prosperous community life whose benefits are shared by all its members according to the norms of social justice. Prolonged maintenance of an "army of occupation" among a sullen and recalcitrant populace would not be compatible with such a definition of "one Nigeria." The continuing effort to repress guerrillas, moreover, would further aggravate the war damages and war costs that one economist already estimates at $2.3 billion, and would further magnify the military and civilian casualties that may already exceed 1.5 million persons-all, be it remembered, citizens of Nigeria.

Continuance of hostilities would be equally distressing in terms of the positive values thus sacrificed. Economically, the peoples of Nigeria would prosper far more together than apart. Both parties would profit from a reopening of rail and motor roads from the northern states to Port Harcourt and Calabar; from the electric power and water-level control on the Niger afforded by the new Kainji Dam; and from the complementarity of Enugu coal and Jos tin, of Ogoja yams and Owerri markets, of Ibo managerial and technical skills and Rivers oil. In the long politico-military contest between the Ibos and the FMG that began in July 1966, the mutual advantage in coming to terms has seldom been as clear as in the first half of 1969.

If a settlement were to be achieved along the lines suggested, its success would still be problematic. The bitterness of the last three years will take many decades to heal. The acceptance of the Ibos by other Nigerians will be slow. The recovery of Ibo confidence in other Nigerians will be slower. Within the FMG itself, tensions that have been subordinated to finishing the war could burst forth in a power struggle involving the military leaders themselves and old-line political elements who were displaced in 1966. The task of reconstruction will be vast. Its dimensions will be stretched by the development needs of the new states, especially in the North, where resources are slender. Ethnic antagonisms within some new states will create pressures for still more such units. In short, the situation will remain volatile.

But it could hardly be much more volatile than in the crisis-ridden years 1964-1965, and it will certainly assure greater stability than would be inherent in an international confrontation on the banks of the Niger. The new states do have the potential to replace the rigid polarization of the old Federation with a more flexible political pluralism. The economic base of the new Federation will be as strong as that of the old, and some of the economic controls imposed by the war may stimulate the indigenous capital formation that is so much needed.

An optimistic forecast of Nigerian prospects naturally depends entirely on the recognition by the warring segments of the mutual advantages in negotiating a settlement while negotiation is still possible. It is a truism that the struggle can be settled only by the Nigerians and Biafrans themselves. Third-party diplomacy can, nevertheless, contribute by helping both sides to understand their own interest in an early peace and to find formulas for a settlement.

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