The Nigerian Civil War and the Soviet Unions Involvement into the Conflict

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: People’s Friendship University of Russia
Journal nameAsia and Africa Today
EditionIssue 5

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, took place between July 6, 1967 and January 13, 1970, and was a political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. This attempt led the young nation into a civil war which resulted in estimated casualties of one million.

During the conflict, both the then Federal Military Government of Nigeria and the defunct Biafran regime had the desire to secure diplomatic support as well as military assistance from both the West and the East. This desire coupled with other reasons attracted many countries to declare support and assistance to either the Government of Nigeria or the Biafran regime. The “great powers” sided with opposing parties. The focus of this work is to examine the Soviet Union’s involvement into the conflict and the moves made by Nigerian diplomatic missions in Moscow, analyze the previous relationship between Nigeria and USSR and its development during all stages of the civil war, and venture to understand the reasons underlying this strange and interesting alliance.

KeywordsNigerian civil war, USSR, international relations, diplomatic support, Soviet involvement
Publication date22.05.2019
Number of characters21460
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1 Created as a colonial entity by the British, Nigeria was divided between the mainly Muslim North and the mainly Christian and animist South. Following independence in 1960, three provinces were formed along tribal lines: the Hausa and Fulani dominated the Northern Region, Yoruba – the Western Region, and Igbo – the Eastern Region.
2 Tribal tensions increased after a military coup in 1966 which resulted in General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, taking power as President. This was followed by a northerner-led counter coup a few months later. Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed and widespread reprisals were unleashed against the Igbo. Fearing marginalization within the state, on May 30, 1967 the Igbo-majority province declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra.


4 The causes of the Nigerian civil war were exceedingly complex. The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. Like many other African nations, Nigeria was an artificial structure initiated by the British, who had overlooked to consider religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences.
5 The coexistence of different ethnic groups in Nigeria played a crucial role in the oubreak of war: Nigeria consists of between 250 to 300 ethnic groups forced to co-exist within the artificial boundaries constructed by Great Britain. “The ethnicity of Nigeria is so varied that there is no definition of a Nigerian beyond that of someone who lives within the borders of the country” [12]. However, only three ethnic groups have attained ethnic majority status in their respective regions: the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Igbo in the southeast, and the Yoruba in the southwest. These groups make up about threefifths of the total population of Nigeria. The HausaFulani are mostly Muslim, while many of the Igbo and Yoruba are Christian.
6 After independence from Britain, the governmental reorganization resulted in the formation of three major political parties that corresponded to the major ethnic groups in the country, each vying for control.
7 In particular, The National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) dominated the Eastern Region, being comprised of the ethnic group Igbo; The Action Group (AG) dominated the Western Region, being comprised of the ethnic group Yoruba; and The Nigerian Peoples Congress (NPC) party of the Muslim area in the Northern Region was comprised of the ethnic group Hausa-Fulani. The different political systems among these three peoples produced highly divergent sets of customs and values.
8 Regional and ethnic distinctions within Nigeria literally tore the country apart. Their different religions and political ideologies, the structural imbalance of the Nigerian federation and, most importantly, the asymmetrical distribution of power among the various ethnic and geopolitical groups, created increasing tension among these peoples. A growing demand for self-determination contributed greatly to the secessionist Republic of Biafra.
9 In this scenario, we must consider also the economic causes, including the factor of oilfields, first discovered in the Niger delta in 1958 and which quickly formed the basis of Nigeria’s economy.
10 Beers [7] speculates that one of the major reasons the Hausa-Fulani objected to the Biafran secession was the vast supply of oil reserves in the southern Niger delta. According to his theory, the northerners violently opposed the Biafran secession not only to protect Nigerian unity, but also to maintain access to the eastern oil supply.
11 In addition to this already fragile situation, two events that added to growing political tensions were the electoral boycotts during the first general elections in 1964, and the violent rioting after the NPC was charged with rigging political party elections in the Western Region.
12 Furthermore, claims of electoral fraud were the ostensible reason for a military coup on January 15, 1966, led by General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo and head of the Nigerian Army, who took power as President and became the first military head of state in Nigeria.
13 In July of 1966, a group of northern army officers staged a counter-coup, assassinating General Aguiyi-Ironsi. Lieutenant Yakubu Gowon, a northerner and the army chief of staff, became head of the new Federal Military Government (FMG). Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region, refused to accept Gowon as the head of state and, on May 30, 1967, declared the Eastern Region an independent republic called Biafra. According to historian Burton F.Beers, Ojukwu and the Igbos felt secession was justified, “charging persecution and seeking to protect their oil wealth”.


15 The beginning of the war was described by the Federal government of Nigeria as a “police action” meant to arrest leaders of the rebellion – the Biafran regime, but it later metamorphosed into a fullfledged war. Both parties engaged in propaganda activities designed to win the support of the outside world to secure diplomatic assistance, as well as military aid, consequently leading to the internationalization of the conflict. This desire coupled with other reasons attracted many countries to declare support and assistance to either the FMG or the Biafran regime.

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1. Ate, B (1968). The Influence Dynamics in Nigeria-United States Foreign Aid Relationship, 1960-1968 // The Nigerian Journal of International Studies, 4 (1 & 2). Pp. 39-43.

2. Adegbonmire, W. (1970). Our Foreign Policy in Years ahead // Nigerian Observer, October, 1. P. 24.

3. Astrachan, A. Nigerian mission is accused of seeking Russian arms to fight Biafra // Washington Post. 23 June, 1967. P. 19.

4. Africa Diary. 26 November – 2 December, 1967. P. 3681; Daily Times [Lagos], 17 October, 1967.

5. Stent A. (1973). The Soviet Union and the Nigerian Civil War: A Triumph of Realism // A Journal of Opinion. Vol. 3, No. 2. Pp. 43-48.

6. Chief Obafemi Awolowo: a prominent Yoruba politician who, prior to being jailed for seven years by the Balewa administration, had gained some standing with the Soviet Union during the First Republic.

7. Beers, Burton F. (1993). World History: Patterns of Civilization. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

8. Joint Communique issued in Moscow on 28 May 1974 // African Research Bulletin (1974). Pp. 32-46.

9. Stremlau J.J. (1977). The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970. Princeton University Press.

10. Free L. (1964). The attitudes, hopes and fears of Nigerians. Princeton, NJ: Institute for International Social Research.

11. Ogunbadejo, O. (1976). Nigeria and The Gret Powers: The impact of the civil war on Nigerian foreign relations // African Affairs, 75(298). Pp. 14-32.

12. Okpu, U. (1977). Ethnic Minority Problems in Nigerian Politics: 1960-1965. Stockholm: LiberTryck AB.

13. Legvold, R. (1970). Soviet policy in West Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Mazov, S. (2010). A Distant Front in the Cold War. The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956-1964. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Stanford University Press.

14. Radio Moscow (11 February 1966), quoted in ‘Nigeria’ // Mizan, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1966. P. 130.

15. The New York Times, 24 August 1967. P. 15; The Times, 9 March 1969. P. 5.

16. The Times and Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1970.

17. Moscow Radio, quoted in West Africa (1970). P. 122.

18. Temps Nouveaux. No. 24 (15 June 1966). P. 23.

19. Korshunov Y. Reports from Nigeria // Za Rubezhom (Moscow). No. 24, 9-15 June 1967 (In Russ.)

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