In January 1966, a series of insurrections in the Nigerian army brought chaos to the country. Troops murdered their officers, civilians killed each other. The governor of the Nigerian Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwi Ojukwu, set up an independent regime. On May 30, 1966 he declared the eastern region independent as the new Republic of Biafra.
The events leading to the war can be traced back to January 1966 when a group of army officers, primarily of Igbo descent, led a coup against the leadership of the First Republic. Although the coup was touted as a nationalist endeavor to end corruption and ethnic politics, the fact that most of the political leaders killed were from the northern and western regions, while Igbo leaders were largely spared, bred suspicions of ethnic motivations. This coup led to a counter-coup in July 1966 by northern officers, which was accompanied by widespread anti-Igbo pogroms in the North.
In response to the perceived threats and actual violence against the Igbo population, many Igbos retreated to the eastern region of Nigeria. Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Region, tried to negotiate with the Nigerian federal government for more autonomy for his region. As tensions rose and negotiations broke down, Ojukwu declared the Eastern Region an independent state named the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1966. This declaration was not accepted by the Nigerian government, setting the stage for a full-scale civil war.
The war began in July 1967 when the Nigerian government launched a "police action" to retake the secessionist territory. The conflict was marked by prolonged fighting, and significant civilian suffering. A naval blockade imposed by the Nigerian government led to widespread famine in Biafra, which drew international attention and condemnation. The haunting images of malnourished Biafran children became emblematic of the conflict.
Various nations, including the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, provided support to the Nigerian federal government, while Biafra received support from countries like France and Israel. The international community, while sympathetic to the Biafran cause, was largely unwilling to recognize Biafra as an independent nation due to concerns over the potential fragmentation of African states along ethnic and tribal lines.
The war ended in January 1970 after Biafran forces, facing complete encirclement, exhaustion, and starvation, surrendered to the Nigerian federal troops. While the exact number of casualties remains debated, it is estimated that between one to three million people died as a result of the war, most from starvation. The war had lasting political and cultural implications for Nigeria, shaping its national discourse and policies for decades.