Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.
The state was formally recognised by Gabon, Haiti, Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania, and Zambia. Other nations which did not give official recognition but which did provide support and assistance to Biafra included Israel, France, Spain, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa and Vatican City. Biafra also received aid from non-state actors, including Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International, MarkPress and U.S. Catholic Relief Services.
After two-and-a-half years of war, during which a million civilians had died in fighting and from famine, Biafran forces agreed to a ceasefire with the Nigerian Federal Military Government (FMG), and Biafra was reintegrated into Nigeria.
In 1960, Nigeria became independent of the United Kingdom. As with many other new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic boundaries. Thus the northern Sudan and Sahelian Savannah region of the country is made up of Muslim majority, while the southern population was predominantly Christian and Animist. Furthermore, Nigeria's oil, its primary source of income, was located in the south of the country.
Following independence, Nigeria was divided primarily along ethnic lines with Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, Ijaws in the south and Igbo in the south-east. In January 1966, a group of primarily eastern Igbo led a military coup during which 30 political leaders including Nigeria's Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, were killed. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the President, of Igbo extraction, and the premier of the southeastern part of the country were not killed.
In July 1966 northern officers and army units staged a counter-coup. Muslim officers named a Christian from a small ethnic group (the Anga) in central Nigeria, General Yakubu "Jack" Gowon, as the head of the Federal Military Government (FMG). The two coups deepened Nigeria's ethnic tensions. In September 1966, approximately 30,000 Igbo were killed in the north, and some Northerners were killed in backlashes in eastern cities.
In January 1967, the military leaders and senior police officials of each region met in Aburi, Ghana and agreed on a loose confederation of regions. The Northerners were at odds with the Aburi Accord; Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Western Region warned that if the Eastern Region seceded, the Western Region would also, which persuaded the northerners.
After the federal and eastern governments failed to reconcile, on 26 May the Eastern region voted to secede from Nigeria. On 30 May, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Eastern Region's military governor, announced the Republic of Biafra, citing the Easterners killed in the post-coup violence. The large amount of oil in the region created conflict, as oil was a major component of the Nigerian economy. The Eastern region was very ill equipped for war, out-manned, and out-gunned by the military of the remainder of Nigeria. Their advantages included fighting in their homeland and support of most Easterners. The British and Soviet support (especially militarily) of the Nigerian government played a major role in the outcome of the war.
The FMG launched "police measures" to annex the Eastern Region on 6 July 1967. The FMG's initial efforts were unsuccessful; the Biafrans successfully launched their own offensive, occupying areas in the Mid-Western Region in August 1967. By October 1967, the FMG had regained the land after intense fighting. In September 1968, the federal army planned what Gowon described as the "final offensive". Initially the final offensive was neutralised by Biafran troops. In the latter stages, a Southern FMG offensive managed to break through the fierce resistance.
On 30 June 1969, the Nigerian government banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra; two weeks later it allowed medical supplies through the front line, but restricted food supplies. Later in October 1969, Ojukwu appealed to the United Nations to mediate a cease-fire. The federal government called for Biafra's surrender. In December, the FMG managed to cut Biafra in half, primarily by the efforts of 3 Marine Commando Division of the Nigerian Army, led by then Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, popularly called "The Black Scorpion", and later by Olusegun Obasanjo. Ojukwu fled to Côte d'Ivoire, leaving his chief of staff, Philip Effiong, to act as the "officer administering the government". Effiong called for a cease-fire 12 January and submitted to the FMG. More than one million people had died in battle or from starvation. Biafra was reabsorbed into Nigeria on 15 January.
Biafra comprised over Script error: No such module "convert". of land, with terrestrial borders shared with Nigeria to the north and with Cameroon to the east. Its coast was on the Gulf of Guinea in the south.
Biafra has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons, dry and rainy. From April to October the rainy season takes place, with heavy rain and high humidity. The heaviest rain occurs between June and July with up to Script error: No such module "convert". of rain. The temperature of the region on a clear day is 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) high and 22 degrees Celsius (71.6 degrees Fahrenheit) low. The dry season starts in November and ends in April. The lowest rain level Script error: No such module "convert". in February. The temperature at night reaches 20 °C (68 °F) and in the day has a peak temperature of 36 °C (96.8 °F).
The English language is spoken throughout Nigeria and carried on into the new state of Biafra. The predominant language of Biafra was Igbo. Along with Igbo there were a variety of other languages, including Efik, Annang and Ibibio.
An early institution created by the Biafran government was the Bank of Biafra, accomplished under "Decree No. 3 of 1967". The bank carried out all central banking functions including the administration of foreign exchange and the management of the public debt of the Republic. The bank was administered by a governor and four directors; the first governor, who signed on bank notes, was Sylvester Ugoh. A second decree, "Decree No. 4 of 1967", modified the Banking Act of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for the Republic of Biafra.
The bank was first located in Enugu, but due to the ongoing war, the bank was relocated several times. Biafra attempted to finance the war through foreign exchange. After Nigeria announced their currency would no longer be legal tender (to make way for a new currency), this effort increased. After the announcement, tons of Nigerian bank notes were transported in an effort to acquire foreign exchange. The currency of Biafra had been the Nigerian pound, until the Bank of Biafra started printing out its own notes, the Biafran pound. The new currency went public on 28 January 1968, and the Nigerian pound was not accepted as an exchange unit. The first issue of the bank notes included only 5 shillings notes and 1 pound notes. The Bank of Nigeria exchanged only 30 pounds for an individual and 300 pounds for enterprises in the second half of 1968.
It is estimated that a total of £115–140 million Biafran pounds were in circulation by the end of the conflict, with a population of about 14 million, approximately £10 per person.
At the beginning of the war Biafra had 3,000 soldiers, but at the end of the war the soldiers totaled 30,000. There was no official support for the Biafran army by another nation throughout the war, although arms were clandestinely acquired. Because of the lack of official support, the Biafrans manufactured many of their weapons locally. A number of Europeans served in the Biafran cause; German born Rolf Steiner was a Lt. Colonel assigned to the 4th Commando Brigade and Welshman Taffy Williams served as a Major until the very end of the conflict.
The Biafrans managed to set up a small yet effective air force. The BAF commanders were Chude Sokey and later Godwin Ezeilo, who had trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Early inventory included two B-25 Mitchells, one B-26 Invader (piloted by Polish WWII ace Jan Zumbach, known also as John Brown), a converted DC-3 and one Dove. In 1968 the Swedish pilot Carl Gustaf von Rosen suggested the MiniCOIN project to General Ojukwu. By the spring of 1969, Biafra had assembled five MFI-9Bs in Gabon, calling them "Biafra Babies". They were coloured green, were able to carry six 68 mm anti-armour rockets under each wing and had simple sights. The six aeroplanes were flown by three Swedish pilots and three Biafran pilots. In September 1969, Biafra acquired four ex-Armee de l'Air North American T-6Gs, which were flown successfully to Biafra the following month, with another aircraft lost on the ferry flight. These aircraft flew missions until January 1970 and were flown by Portuguese ex-military pilots.
The international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières ("Doctors Without Borders") came out of the suffering in Biafra. During the crisis, French medical volunteers, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the Nigerian army and witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. French doctor Bernard Kouchner also witnessed these events, particularly the huge number of starving children, and, when he returned to France, he publicly criticised the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behaviour. With the help of other French doctors, Kouchner put Biafra in the media spotlight and called for an international response to the situation. These doctors, led by Kouchner, concluded that a new aid organisation was needed that would ignore political/religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of victims.
In their study, Smallpox and its Eradication, Fenner and colleagues describe how vaccine supply shortages during the Biafra smallpox campaign led to the development of the focal vaccination technique, later adopted worldwide by the World Health Organization, which led to the early and cost effective interruption of smallpox transmission in west Africa and elsewhere.
On 29 May 2000, the Lagos Guardian newspaper reported that the now ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo commuted to retirement the dismissal of all military persons who fought for the breakaway state of Biafra during Nigeria's 1967–1970 civil war. In a national broadcast, he said the decision was based on the belief that "justice must at all times be tempered with mercy".
Violence between Christians and Muslims (usually Hausa or Fulani Muslims and various Christian ethnic groups) has been incessant since the end of the civil war in 1970.
In July 2006 the Center for World Indigenous Studies reported that government sanctioned killings were taking place in the southeastern city of Onitsha, because of a shoot-to-kill policy directed toward Biafran loyalists, particularly members of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB).
In 2010, researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, showed that Igbos born in Biafra during the years of the famine were of higher risk of suffering from overweight, hypertension and impaired glucose metabolism compared to controls born a short period after the famine had ended. The findings are in line with the developmental origin of health and disease hypothesis suggesting that malnutrition in early life is a predisposing factor for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes later in life.
Movement to re-secede
The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) advocates a separate country for the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria. They accuse the state of marginalising the Igbo people. MASSOB says it is a peaceful group and advertises a 25-stage plan to achieve its goal peacefully. There are two arms to the government, the Biafra Government in Exile and Biafra Shadow Government. The Nigerian government accuses MASSOB of violence; MASSOB's leader, Ralph Uwazuruike, was arrested in 2005 and is being detained on treason charges; MASSOB is calling for his release. MASSOB is also championing the release of oil militant Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who is facing similar charges. In 2009, The MASSOB launched "the Biafran International Passport" in response to persistent demand by Biafrans in diaspora.
Meaning of "Biafra" and location
Little is known about the literal meaning of the word Biafra. The word Biafra most likely derives from the subgroup Biafar or Biafada of the Tenda ethnic group who reside primarily in Guinea-Bissau. Manuel Álvares (1526–1583), a Portuguese Jesuit educator, in his work Ethiopia Minor and a geographical account of the Province of Sierra Leone, writes about the "Biafar heathen" in chapter 13 of the same book. The word Biafar thus appears to have been a common word in the Portuguese language back in the 16th century.
- The original word used by the European travellers was not Biafra but Biafara, Biafar and sometimes also Biafares.
- The exact original region of Biafra is not restricted to Eastern Nigeria alone. According to the maps, the European travellers used the word Biafara to describe the entire region east of River Niger going down to the Mount Cameroon region, thus including Cameroon and a large area around Gabon. The word Biafara also appears on maps from the 18th century in the area around Gambia.
Maps indicating the word Biafara (sometimes also Biafares or Biafar) with corresponding year:
Maps from the 19th century indicating Biafra as the region around today's Cameroon:
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- My Biafran Eyes – Writer Okey Ndibe's memoir of the Biafran War in Guernica
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