Colonialism and conflict in Biafra

Words: Millie Lord


How often do you see news reports and headlines condemning the dysfunction of ex-colonised countries? Britain is all too quick to decry conflicts it had a hand in creating. This was true of the wars of the 20th century, and continues to be true today. 

One of the first examples of this tendency was the Biafran war which took place in the late 1960s – a civil conflict that rent Nigeria in half and killed over a million, many of whom were civilians. Despite being a defining moment for Nigeria – the world’s seventh most populous nation – the war is rarely studied outside of the African continent. When it is, blame is laid with inadequate Nigerian leadership, ethnic fault lines, and economic challenges. All conflicts have more than one trigger point, but of equal significance – and working to magnify other factors – was British colonialism. 

Colonial policy shaped the political life of Nigeria for over a century. As one of the first major post-independence conflicts, the Biafran war is a case study on how colonialism directly leads to civil conflict. 

On the 30th May 1967, seven years after Nigeria achieved independence from Britain, Eastern Nigeria proclaimed itself the Republic of Biafra. The first years of independence had been fractured, marked by pogroms, multiple constitutions and coups. The immediate lead up to the war was complex, and agitations rose from regional and tribal divisions, especially between the Northern Hausa/Fulani and the Southeastern Igbo, with the Yoruba and Middle Belt being pulled into the conflict. These rivalries were ancient. 

Factionalism didn’t turn into significant violence until January 1966, in the so-called ‘Igbo coup’. A group of army officers, mostly Igbo, ousted and killed President Balewa and other notable Northern leaders. In response, Northerners massacred Igbo and other non-Northern tribes, such as Yoruba. There was a mass exodus of Igbo people fleeing South, and a year of political instability, culminating in the secession of Biafra, and the Northern-controlled national government declaring war to reunite the nation. 

That’s the usual story, at least. But as revisionist and postcolonial historians argue, it’s impossible to discuss events in newly-independent nations without taking into account their longer-term colonial histories. In Nigeria, this was a history of colonist-stoked regionalism, and ignorant British rule.

Despite British missionaries appearing in Nigeria from the early 19th century, Britain only began to play a defining role in Nigerian political life following the 1885 Berlin Conference, generally considered the start of the ‘scramble for Africa’. 

The Conference designated land by commercial interest. The North and the South of Nigeria were initially treated as separate due to their differing cultures and governmental structures, with especially potent differences between the (mostly Islamic) feudal Hausa and the village democracies of the Igbo. However, in 1914, the British unified the regions, creating a fragile lattice of disjointed groups. Journalist Frederick Forsyth, who covered the Biafran War extensively, called Britain’s Nigeria an ‘amalgam of peoples for the benefit of European powers’ which enabled colonial divide and rule tactics.

This unification of two disparate cultural entities, creating a nation almost destined to fracture, was not the only way in which the British failed to understand the nation they were imposing on. From 1914, Nigeria was under ‘indirect rule’, which meant some responsibilities were devolved to locals of the colonised nation. The British respected the feudal Hausa system, so gave power to them in the North, but were unfamiliar with the participatory democracy of Igbo villages. They imposed unpopular ‘warrant chiefs’ as representatives in the South, widening regional divisions.

This false democracy meant that very few Nigerian people had access to or experience with democracy under British rule. Much of the population came to view governance as ‘olu oyibo’ – white man’s business.

The use of different governance systems created separate entities within a country the British themselves had chosen to unite as one, destroying any real chance the new state had at national unity. Even Ababubaker Balewa, the future prime minister of an independent Nigeria, argued that ‘Nigerian unity was a British invention’.

By the 1930s, disparities between North and South were huge: Northern leaders prevented mass education, while the South had an explosion of talent. Southerners quickly came to dominate the civil service and white-collar industries, migrating North en masse. The British did little to challenge regionalism, allowing the creation of segregated ‘sabon gari’, or ‘strangers’ quarters’, ghettoised areas for Southerners in Northern cities. While Southeasterners pushed for independence, Britain refused to let the regions separate and instead exploited the regionalism, using Northern fears of Igbo dominance to push back against calls for independence.

There was a chance for these divisions to be rectified in the four different constitutions created by the British: in 1947, 1951, 1954 and 1959. All of these constitutions highlighted cultural and ethnic divides, but did nothing to stop them, because the British were desperate to appease the North, who had repeatedly threatened to secede if not granted certain rights.

Northern leaders were concerned that being joined with the South in an (eventually) independent Nigeria would hurt them economically, and that Southerners were undermining their cultural and societal autonomy.  British colonialists were determined to present Nigeria as a colonial success story, and were therefore adamant that the states should remain unified, despite strong anti-unification sentiments throughout the country. The British also understood that the oil-rich South was the most anti-British region, and therefore the British would only continue to receive oil revenues if the South remained united with the more pliant North. The only way to persuade Northern emirs to agree to a joint constitution was to give them more political power than warranted by their geopolitical significance.

It has been argued that if the North had been allowed to secede 1953, when they first demanded it, there would not have been a war. Britain did not begin the tribal rivalries that led to conflict, but it was their independence plan that failed to create a functioning democratic state. 

The Biafran war may have been one of the first examples of colonial ignorance causing civil conflict that takes the lives of millions, but it was far from the last. Civil strife linked to colonial history happens time and time again. Our media and politicians tell us tales of vicious sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and the African continent, lamenting the factional nature and dysfunctional leadership of ‘their’ societies. 

But British colonial policies drew straight lines through diverse and culturally complex regions, usually for commercial reasons. Colonial policies forced conflicting groups into close proximity and exacerbated divisions by favoring those who helped British rule, or whose structures were closest to what the British were familiar with. ‘Indirect rule’ meant democracy could not self-develop, so often the only politics accessible to the colonised was the politics of resistance. 

We saw this in Nigeria in the 1960s, and we have seen it again and again in the last 60 years: in Palestine, in Iraq, in Kenya, in the DRC. Wherever conflict grows, its colonial roots are ignored. Only comprehensive education on colonial history can stop the spread of false information, and of the belief that conflict is simply in the nature of certain communities. Nigeria has recovered since the war, but the tensions stoked by colonialism still exist under the surface. Other nations are still paying a high price for the foolish and uninformed decisions of their colonisers. 

learn more

  • BOOK: There Was a Country – Chinua Achebe
  • BOOK: The State of Africa – Martin Meredith
  • ARTICLE: Letter from Biafra – Renata Adler in the New Yorker

Millie Lord is a journalist who studies History and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Read her blog here.