The days between July 6, 1967, and January 15, 1970, have gone down as perhaps the most indicative period in Nigeria's history.
Over the course of 2 years, 6 months and some days, the federal government fought to keep the secessionist South-East (or the “Republic of Biafra”) and cut short the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people.
Most of the events that happened are now popular history. However, the sensitivity of the topic and the passage of time have buried some information about the war that changed Nigeria.
Here are some little-known facts about the Nigerian Civil War.
(1) Neither side expected the war to drag on for so long.
After Ojukwu declared the Republic of Biafra on 30 May 1967, the Federal Government was satisfied with simply placing an embargo on the South-East, blocking shipping to and from the region.
Even when the situation escalated to war, both sides were reluctant to commit to a full-blown war.
In the weeks before, Ojukwu had famously warned that if the Federal government decided to object the secession of Biafra, it would find that the republic was more prepared than was expected.
Unfortunately, that insistence led to over two years of war and the deaths of about two million people.
(2) Minorities in the secessionist Biafra suffered atrocities and impulsive pogroms at the hands of both sides during the war.
As the Federal troops advanced towards the Biafran capital, troops loyal to Ojukwu killed many young men in the South-South on the suspicion that they worked for the Nigerian army.
The Federal government also proved to be no different. High-flying jets provided by Russia bombed civilian areas in Biafra. Over 2000 Efiks were killed in Calabar.
Federal government troops also perpetrated the Asaba massacre, where over 700 young men were shot dead in full view of their families and their community.
(3) The Yoruba Biafran: Few people know about Lt. Col. Victor Banjo, a Nigerian soldier of Yoruba extraction who fought on the Biafran side until his death in September 1967.
Banjo was a victim of circumstance, more than anything else. Three days after Aguiyi-Ironsi took power, he was accused of trying to kill the new head of state, arrested and detained.
He spent the next year or so being transferred to various prisons. When the Civil war broke out, Ojukwu released Banjo from a prison in the South-East and made him a colonel in the Biafran army.
Banjo was an astute military mind, winning major battles for Biafra.
Things took another sad turn when Banjo was accused of planning a coup against Ojukwu; alongside Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Phillip Alale, he was taken to the Enugu city centre, tied to a pole and shot.
(4) Other nations played an important part in the war. When a secessionist state declares its independence, its first battle is the struggle for legitimacy.
When it was declared on May 30, 1967, only five nations (Haiti, Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire) acknowledged the tiny nation of Biafra.
In the hardest months of the war, when weapons and aid became valuable currencies, both sides got help from foreign interests.
The Federal government received support from the United Kingdom, (desperate to secure the unity of the project it had started), the United States, Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Russia, which mostly gave weapons and aircraft.
The United Kingdom tried to play both sides by sending aid to Biafra, which was also supported by South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Israel, Portugal, Spain and France (which sent heavy caches of weapons through neighbouring Gabon)
(5) 40 years before Mohammed Bouazizi ignited the Arab Spring, a young American student set himself on fire to protest the atrocities committed against Biafra during the civil war.
According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, dated 3 June 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a 20-year-old student at the School of General Studies and a sports photographer for the Columbia Daily Spectator, died after setting himself on fire in front of the United Nations to protest the war.
Mayrock’s self-immolation was only one in a number of reactions to the humanitarian disasters of the Nigerian civil war.