Nigeria: Civil war

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


Following independence, Nigeria entered a phase of turbulent politics that was marked by violent leadership transitions and regional tensions, many of which corresponded to ethnic cleavages. This tumultuous context set the stage for organized violence against Igbos, which occurred in two phases.

Atrocities (1966-1970)

The first phase of violence occurred from May 29 to September 29, 1966, when organized killings of Igbo communities took place in northern and western Nigeria. The ancestral land of the Igbo is in eastern Nigeria, but communities lived in northern areas as well. The traditionally northern ethnic communities resented the Igbo for dominating commerce and for their perceived desire to become the new rulers of independent Nigeria.[i] The proximate cause of the first wave of inter-communal violence seems to have been a January 1966 military coup led by a small group of junior southern (and primarily Igbo) Nigerian officers, which led to the killing of several prominent northern politicians.[ii] In the months that followed, ethnically targeted attacks accompanied by mob violence unfolded in three main waves throughout the northern and western regions. The first and third wave targeted Igbo civilians living outside the east. Between those waves soldiers in July 1966, there was a counter-coup, during which Igbo officers and men were systematically slaughtered.[iii] The extent to which Nigerian state officials organized and coordinated the killings remains disputed.[iv] General Yakubu Gowon, named Nigerian Head of State following the counter-coup, spoke out against the anti-Igbo violence, but the national government failed to assert its authority to effectively end the killings. Though death tolls have not been well documented, it is estimated that a minimum of 3,000 and a maximum of 30,000 Igbos living in northern Nigeria were killed during these attacks.[v]

Following the pogroms in the north, 150,000–300,000 Igbos fled to their traditional lands in southern and eastern Nigeria.[vi] Shortly following this migration, on May 30, 1967, General Emeka Ojukwu, a young Igbo leader, declared eastern Nigeria to be an independent new state called the Republic of Biafra. In response, the Nigerian government initiated the second phase of violence in order to reclaim the region. The first measure taken was an aggressive blockade of the region, which led to a rapid deterioration in living conditions in Biafra. Despite protests from humanitarian agencies, the blockade continued. It is estimated to have caused the deaths of one million people, largely due to malnutrition and disease. Threatening language from several military leaders raised fear of an imminent genocidal massacre. For example, Benjamin Adekunle was quoted as saying: “We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the center of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move.”[vii] Belief in the Nigerian government’s genocidal objectives became a core tenet of emergent Biafran nationalism.[viii]

As the war progressed, the Biafran forces seemed destined for defeat. Their territory shrank and arms supplies diminished. Biafran leaders continued to mobilize international humanitarian support due to the atrocities being committed by the Nigerian government, including the man-made famine.[ix] Government forces nevertheless continued to experience military success. Federal aircraft frequently shelled Biafran towns and other targets, causing considerable civilian casualties.[x] By mid-1969, Gowon replaced his leading generals, who had previously been afforded a great deal of latitude in waging the war, with men that he considered to be easier to control.[xi] The territory held by Biafran leaders continued to shrink. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered, ending both the conflict and atrocities against the Igbo people. Ojukwu fled the country and pledged to return and continue the fight for Biafran independence, but he no longer had the necessary political support to make this a reality. Following the end of the conflict, President Gowon proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished,” thereby enabling a relatively peaceful reincorporation of the Igbo into the Nigerian federal state. According to Amadi, “the Nigeria civil war is the best example of a civil war that ended without open post-war recrimination…[After the war] the Ibos grew influential, although still marginalized and repressed, largely due to the permissible environment of the policy of ‘no victor no vanquished.’”[xii]


We use an estimate of at least 50,000 deaths to try to capture the very wide range of estimates.

Analyzing the data on the number of civilians killed during both the pogroms and the Biafran conflict is difficult for several reasons. First, there is a lack of a sound statistical baseline to compare pre- and post-conflict figures. According to Wiseberg (1975), “the statistical data quoted for civilian deaths has ranged from a low of 500,000 to a high of 6 million. The ‘true’ estimate may never be known because there is no accurate baseline for comparison with both the 1962-1963 and 1973 suspect data.”[xiii]

Secondly, there are issues with the data available for the Nigerian Civil War due to the aggregate nature of figures, which make nuanced analysis of who was killed when and due to which causes exceedingly difficult. Existing statistics generally do not differentiate between civilians who killed by bombs and bullets and those who died from disease or hunger.[xiv]

Thirdly, the manipulation of figures by various Nigerian and international actors to provoke or justify certain actions has led to gross distortions of the data, and explains some of the divergences between different figures. Wiseberg notes that Biafran officials were well aware that they could famine for political advantage, and therefore “had good cause to bias their figures upward.”[xv] British and American officials favoring a unified Nigeria, on the other hand, sought to downplay the extent of the crisis. In his article about the coverage of the Nigerian Civil War in the international press, Adepitan Bamisaiye highlights one example of this distortion. When the first atrocity stories were filed, Igbo sources were claiming that 10,000 civilians had been killed at that time. The international press, however, reported a figure of 30,000, and used that figure throughout the conflict. The journalist Lloyd Garrison cited a figure as high as 200,000, a number that by the summer of 1968 had entered serious academic writing.[xvi] This extreme variance in figures calls into question much of the data available about the conflict.

As a result of these challenges, it remains unclear how many Eastern Nigerians died in the 1966 attacks and in the subsequent civil war. As the 1966 crisis unfolded, the government of the Eastern Region published a series of pamphlets that reported on political developments in the country. The third volume, titled Nigerian Pogrom: The Organized Massacre of Eastern Nigerians, reported a total of 7,000 deaths from the attacks, but according to Anthony the report was hastily assembled based on early estimates.[xvii] In subsequent months, the regional government increased the estimated total number of fatalities to 30,000, a figure that also appeared in the 1967 U.S. Congressional Record and in other academic publications.[xviii] The British government claimed that 7,000 had been killed, whereas the Biafran government in the later stages of the conflict cited a total of 50,000 deaths.[xix] De St. Jorre (1972) uses the figure of 10,000 for the total number of Easterners killed between May and October 1966, and suggests that this number is an over- rather than an under-estimate.[xx]

Wartime casualties were significantly higher, and soon eclipsed the 1966 attacks. Estimates range from a low of 500,000 or lower to a high of 6 million.[xxi] Due to the blockage and disruption of agriculture and food distribution, relief agencies operating in the region at the time estimated hunger deaths at more than 1,000 a day.[xxii] In July 1968, the British mission estimated that 200-300 Biafrans were dying every day. However, their estimates were based on numbers reported by the federal Nigerian government, as the British did not have access to the Biafran enclaves. Two months later, during the height of the crisis, the ICRC cited a number of 8,000 and 10,000 deaths per day.[xxiii] It obtained these figures based on random samples of death rates in villages, refugee camps and hospitals across Biafra, and argued that the estimates were likely to be conservative.[xxiv] Jean Mayer, Professor of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, similarly argued that estimates of 10,000 deaths a day by starvation appeared to be accurate.[xxv] After the war, researchers often noted an estimate of a million total deaths by starvation and disease.[xxvi]


In the case of the Igbo in Nigeria, the killing of civilians ended following the resolution of the Biafran War. Existing evidence suggests that the targeting of Igbos was not necessarily part of a broader genocidal plan to eliminate the entire population. Instead, local-level targeting and killing accompanied a broader political struggle over the unity of the Nigerian federal state. Towards the end of the conflict, it became clear that there would be no state-authorized retribution campaign against those who had fought for Biafran independence and that the government intended to integrate the remaining Igbos back into Nigerian society. John de St. Jorre, in his seminal book on the conflict, underlines that “massacres did, of course, occur, and were perpetrated by both sides, usually in the heat of battle or in the immediate aftermath. There was, however, no constant ‘genocidal’ pattern or theme or even agent in these atrocities…”[xxvii] Alex de Waal, in his discussion of humanitarian aid in Biafra, also highlights this point: “The Biafran line…was that the Biafran people faced systematic massacre by Federal troops should the latter win the war. But there was no Federal massacres, and indeed by the time the relief operations began its massive expansion in September 1968, there was a large amount of evidence that there would be no genocide.”[xxviii]

The atrocities perpetrated during the conflict ended when President Gowon was able to consolidate his authority after the 1969 replacement of the more radical generals, who had been operating with a great deal of autonomy. Following this consolidation of power and the increasing influence of a more moderate leadership group, the collapse of the Biafran state and its military defeat were the final steps towards ending atrocities.


We code this case as ending ‘as planned,’ through a process of normalization following the conclusion of the conflict. We credit the influence of domestic moderating forces. To account for the pogroms at the beginning of the atrocities period, we also code this case as involving mass popular violence.

Works Cited

Amadi, Sam. 2007. “Colonial Legacy, Elite Dissension and the Making of Genocide: The Story of Biafra.” Social Science Research Council Available at: Accessed January 5, 2017.

Anthony, Douglas. 2014. “‘Ours Is a War of Survival’: Biafra, Nigeria and Arguments about Genocide, 1966–70.” Journal of Genocide Research 16, no. 2–3, 205–225.

Bamisaiye, Adepitan. 1974. “The Nigerian Civil War in the International Press.” Transition 44.

Conley-Zilkic, Bridget, and Alex de Waal. 2014. “Setting the Agenda for Evidence-Based Research on Ending Mass Atrocities.” Journal of Genocide Research 16, no. 1, 55–76.

de St. Jorre, John. 1972. The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

de Waal, Alexander. 1997. Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eastern Nigeria. 1966. Nigerian Pogrom: The Organized Massacre of Eastern Nigerians. Enugu: Ministry of Information, Publicity Division.

Goodell Report on the Biafran Study Mission Special to the Readers of Africa Today. 1969. Congressional Record 115, vol. 33, S1975-S1987.

Gould, Michael. 2012. The Biafran War: The Struggle for Modern Nigeria. London: I.B.Tauris.

Heerten, Lasse, and A. Dirk Moses. 2014. “The Nigeria–Biafra War: Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide.” Journal of Genocide Research 16: 2–3, 169–203.

Leitenberg, Milton. 2006. “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century.” Cornell University, Peace Studies Program.

Njoku, Carol Ijeoma. 2013. “A Paradox of International Criminal Justice: The Biafra Genocide.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 48:6, 710–26.

Smith, Karen E. 2014. “The UK and ‘genocide’ in Biafra.” Journal of Genocide Research 16: 2–3, 247–62.

Wiseberg, Laurie. 1975. “The Statistics Jungle: Measuring War, Plague, Fire, and Famine.” Society 12: 5, 53–60.


[i] Amadi 2007.

[ii] Anthony 2014, 205.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Heerten and Moses 2014, 169.

[v] Conley-Zilkic and Waal 2014, 55–76.

[vi] MGould 2012.

[vii] Amadi 2007.

[viii] Anthony 2014, 205.

[ix] Conley-Zilkic and deWaal 2014.

[x] Heerten and Moses 2014, 175.

[xi] Gould 2012.

[xii] Amadi 2007.

[xiii] Wiseberg 1975, 53–60.

[xiv] Wiseberg 1975, 55.

[xv] Wiseberg 1975, 55.

[xvi] Bamisaiye 1974, 30–32 and 34–35

[xvii] Eastern Nigeria, Nigerian Pogrom: The Organized Massacre of Eastern Nigerians (Enugu: Ministry of Information, Publicity Division, 1966), 4, cited in Anthony 2014, 215.

[xviii] Anthony 2014, 215; and Smith 2014, 250.

[xix] Smith 2014, 259.

[xx] de St. Jorre 1972.

[xxi] Wiseberg 1975, 54.

[xxii] See, for example, “Starvation in Biafra is Termed More Ominous Now Than in ‘68,” New York Times, 30 August 1969. cited in Anthony 2014, 216.

[xxiii] Wiseberg 1975, 55.

[xxiv] Wiseberg 1975, 56.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Goodell Report 1969.

[xxvii] de St. Jorre 1972.

[xxviii] de Waal 1997.

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