Regional hostilities are a feature of independent Nigeria from the start, partly due to an imbalance of population. More than half the nation’s people are in the Fulani and Hausa territories of the Northern region. Northerners therefore control not only their own regional assembly but also the federal government in Lagos.
From 1962 to 1964 there is almost continuous anti-northern unrest elsewhere in the nation, coming to a climax in a rebellion in 1966 by officers from the Eastern region, the homeland of the Ibo. They assassinate both the federal prime minister and the premiers of the Northern and Western regions.
In the ensuing chaos many Ibos living in the north are massacred. In July a northern officer, Yakubu Gowon, emerges as the country’s leader. His response to Nigeria’s warring tribal factions is to subdivide the four regions (the Mid-West has been added in 1963), rearranging them into twelve states.
This device further inflames Ibo hostility, for one of the new states cuts their territory off from the sea. The senior Ibo officer, Odumegwu Ojukwu, takes the drastic step in May 1967 of declaring the Eastern region an independent nation, calling it the republic of Biafra.
The result is bitter and intense civil war, with the federal army (increasing during the conflict from 10,000 to 200,000 men) meeting powerful resistance from the secessionist region. The issue splits the west, where it is the first post-independence African war to receive widespread coverage. The US and Britain supply arms to the federal government. France extends the same facilities to Biafra.
In any civil war ordinary people suffer most, and in small land-locked Biafra this is even more true than usual. By January 1970 they are starving. Biafra surrenders and ceases to exist. Ojukwu escapes across the border and is granted asylum in the Ivory Coast.