A New Government

A mere six years after attaining independence, Nigeria became entangled in the unavoidable net of differences that existed between its people. Political parties split the nation on levels equivalent to ethnic and regional divisions with the Action Group of the Yoruba in the West, the Northern People’s Congress of the Hausa-Fulani in the North and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens of the Igbo in the East.


The scene in 1966 included a dense population disgruntled by the corruption and apathy of the government under Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of the NPC. In the early morning hours of January 15, Prime Minister Balewa was awakened, shoved into a car, taken to the outskirts of Lagos, and shot in the head. A full military coup had begun. Several other prominent men, both of the government and the military, who were seen as threats to the revolt were also killed. Sooner rather than later, however, the rebels had to surrender to army loyalists who had them outnumbered.

Nevertheless, as the government of Balewa had favored the Northern Region in a blatant manner, many southerners took joy from the fact that he and some of his regime’s primary men had been forced from power. The government wiped clean, the army loyalists who had detained the rebels were left with an orphaned nation to piece together. Major General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi became Nigeria’s new leader.

Unfortunately, Ironsi was a known Igbo from the southeast; many of the original coup’s leaders had also been Igbo. On top of regional disparities, Igbo are predominantly Christian while Hausa-Fulani practice Islam.

Northerners immediately took the new government as a drawn-out scheme by the Igbo people to win power over the North and the country as a whole. Soon enough, Igbo were persecuted.


Let’s go kill the damned Igbo/ Kill off their men and boys/
Rape their wives and daughters/ Cart off their property…”

A radio broadcast in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s northern Hausa-Fulani people delivered this message in the Northern state of Kaduna on May 24, 1966. Only a few days later, an unknown number of Igbo peoples in the North were sought out and killed. People were reportedly targeted in churches and in their homes. The killings were seen as revenge on the Igbo for the deaths of the Northern government officials who perished in the coup.

The violence continued into the following month and many Igbo were forced from their homes in the North to the Eastern region where they would be safe amongst other Igbo. The East, in turn, was overflowing with injured and maimed refugees with little resources and shelter.

Even after the counter coup of July 29, 1966 gave the North the upper hand once more, Igbo continued to be hunted down in a second wave of hatred that lasted from September to October.


  • Many speculate the Igbo were still experiencing the anger of officials who had lost power in the original coup.
  • Others think the economic prosperity and educational superiority of the Igbo may also have aroused resentment against them from the Hausa majority.

Whatever the case, thousands upon thousands of Igbo were dead in a matter of months. Prior to the counter coup, Ironsi’s philosophy of centralized government and reduction of regionalism kept him from taking any decisive measures; and even after the north regained power, Igbo were targeted, mutilated, killed. Those who survived were driven to the East in search of refuge. In response to the agitation caused by hatred from the people and apathy from the government, the Eastern states of Nigeria declared sovereignty from Nigeria on May 30, 1967, calling themselves the Republic of Biafra.


Nigeria-Biafra Civil War

The Nigerian federal government’s primary strategy during the war with the self-proclaimed state of Biafra drew numerous negative responses from all over the world in terms of humanity, but many nations did nothing to get in Nigeria’s way due to issues that would arise politically.

The federal government, under General Gowon immediately disregarded Biafra’s claims of sovereignty and promulgated that its main objective was a unified Nigeria, under any circumstances.

Whereas Biafra started out as encompassing most of Nigeria’s southeast regions, the end result was a landlocked Biafra who had no access to food or medicine with which to aid its dying population (as depicted on the map: the green area in the second frame is all that’s left of Biafra, which was originally the entire tan area).


Nigeria’s strategy to impose sanctions and blockades on Biafra began immediately in 1967 and even warned outside nations from assisting Biafra as it would infringe upon Nigeria’s authority as a sovereign state. The effects of the strategy were so swift and profound that a 1968 report from the International Red Cross stated three million children were nearing death.

The UN could do little as Biafra was not recognized as a state and governments responses varied in terms of their political relations. France upheld a people’s rights to self-determinations as outlined in Article 1 of the ICCPR while Britain and the US refrained from interfering, saying Nigeria’s sovereignty would be infringed.

Many organizations not affiliated with governments did come to Biafra’s aid, however, including UNICEF and OXFAM.

The unfair distribution of military power coupled with a dying economy (and population) ultimately led Biafra to surrender to Nigeria on January 15, 1970…exactly 4 years after the original military coup overthrew the government.


The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states “genocide” is “an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Did the Hausa-Fulani commit genocide against the Igbo during the massacres of ’66? Did the Nigerian federal government commit genocide against Biafra by starving its population during the Civil War?

The Igbo definitely constitute as a “national, ethnical, racial, or religious group,” and many would argue that the radio broadcast and the simultaneous outbreaks of violence against the Igbo prove the killings were engineered. However, although the Igbo were systematically targeted in the killings of 1966 with full intent to harm, there is nothing proving that the government or the Hausa was trying to wipe the Igbo out completely, especially since most of the attacks against them were in the Hausa-dominated North as opposed to the entire country. But, the Convention states “in whole or in part,” one of the most ambiguous of descriptions in Human Rights law.

Why did no one act? Nigeria itself had an Igbo man in power at the time of the first massacres, but his principles of unifying Nigeria while Nigeria was splitting at the seams kept anything productive from happening.

Upwards of 30,000 Igbo were killed and 2 million were displaced after the massacres, but they are not officially recognized as ‘genocide.’

Could the systematic starvation of an entire population, therefore, be genocide? This time Nigeria was targeting the whole of Biafra and it was relentless in its agitation right up until Biafra’s surrender. The famine induced by Nigeria’s blockade left another 2 million dead. Some nations offered their help, others respected political ties. It is easy to see why the situation was difficult to handle as, more than anything at this point, Nigeria was fighting with itself.