Books Written About Nigerian Civil War

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian–Biafran War, 6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970, was a political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria.

The Nigerian government launched a "police action" to retake the secessionist territory. The war began on 6 July 1967 when Nigerian Federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra. The Nigerian army offensive was through the north of Biafra led by Colonel Shuwa and the local military units were formed as the 1st Infantry Division. The division was led mostly by northern officers. After facing unexpectedly fierce resistance and high casualties, the right-hand Nigerian column advanced on the town of Nsukka which fell on 14 July, while the left-hand column made for Garkem, which was captured on 12 July. 

At this stage of the war, the other regions of Nigeria (the West and Mid-West) still considered the war as a confrontation between the north (mainly Hausas) against the east (mainly Igbos). But the Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when, on 9 August, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-Western Nigerian region across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore (in present day Ondo State) just over the state boundary on 21 August, just 130 miles east of the Nigerian capital of Lagos. The Biafran attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, with the Biafran rank of brigadier. The attack met little resistance and the Mid-West was easily taken over. This was due to the pre-secession arrangement that all soldiers should return to their regions to stop the spate of killings, in which Igbo soldiers had been major victims. The Nigerian soldiers that were supposed to defend the Mid-West state were mostly Mid-West Igbo and while some were in touch with their eastern counterparts, others resisted.

General Gowon responded by asking Colonel Murtala Mohammed (who later became head of state in 1975) to form another division (the 2nd Infantry Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Mid-West, as well as defend the West side and attack Biafra from the West as well. As Nigerian forces retook the Mid-West, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin on 19 September, though it ceased to exist the next day. (The present country of Benin, west of Nigeria, was still named Dahomey at that time.)

It was Ben Okri, the notable Nigerian writer, who said that people are diminished by a nightmare they do not come to terms with. Perhaps it is the effort to come to terms with the awful Nigerian civil war and the agonies it unleashed that has led to the impressive spawning of books about the conflict and the circumstances that led to it. During and since the war, books have been written about the fratricidal conflict; books that tell a tale that seems inexhaustible. We will be looking into some of the books that deal with the war and the political crisis that ignited it. 

The Biafran Story’ by Frederick Forsyth: First published in 1969 by Hutchinson, a leading publishing outfit in Britain, the book was the outcome of Forsyth’s years as a journalist covering the war in Biafra. Forsyth, who eventually became a globally acclaimed thriller novelist, was a close friend of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran head of state. 

The writer does not hide his pro-Biafran sympathies in the book. In the introduction, he wrote: ‘I may be accused of telling the Biafran story.’ He portrays Biafra as the underdogs and oppressed victims of the Nigerian behemoth who had no option but to quit the country and fight for their lives.

‘The Biafran Story’ is well written, with the graphic simplicity and factuality that foreshadowed Forsyth’s literary career. The book gives a heart-wrenching account of the 1966 coups; the massacres of Eastern Nigerians; the pulsating operations in the theatres of war and the kwashiorkor that brought Biafra to her knees. Forsyth is unsparing in the searing criticism of his home (British) government’s support for Nigeria which he concludes as being rooted in economic interests, a plain anti-Igbo bias that dates back to the colonial era and a gross misreading of the political situation. Although the author’s sympathies question the objectivity of the book’s contents, ‘The Biafran Story’ is helpful in understanding that troubled time for a number of reasons. First, it was written by an eyewitness who brought fresh perspectives, not being a Nigerian or Biafran. Then it was one of the earliest, if not the first, non-fiction about the war out of Biafra. Finally, it has served as the basic introductory text to the war for many Nigerian writers who went on to write gripping fiction about the war. Eg. Sefi Atta, in an interview shortly after the publication of her novel ‘Everything Good Will Come’, admitted that it was Forsyth’s book that gave her an insight into Biafra. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie acknowledged her debt to Forsyth by loosely basing Richard Churchill, one of the major characters of her war novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, on the British journalist.

Why we struck’ by Adewale Ademoyega: What strikes one about the book from an esthetic point of view are the lucid prose; the gripping presentation of facts and the connotations behind expressed accounts. This is not surprising given the background of the author. Apart from being an officer of the Nigerian army, Ademoyega was a graduate of History from the University of London. Thus he was blessed with the true historian’s flair for presenting facts in unblemished prose.

Why We Struck’ is the account of an eyewitness. Ademoyega was an active plotter and participant on January 15, 1966, coup which many students of that troubled times believe was a major factor that led to the war. Although a Yoruba, Ademoyega fought for Biafra and was a key operator in the brief but highly controversial Biafran invasion of the Midwest. He was detained by the Ojukwu regime till the end of the war when, after a short spell of freedom, he commenced another spell of detention till 1974.

The book is significant because it is the first account of Nigeria’s first coup by a participant. It dispels many myths about that putsch and provides insights into developments that would eventually pitch brother against brother in July 1967. But though the book answers many questions, it leaves one hanging on many points. For instance, did Ademoyega really know the genesis of the January coup despite his claims that he and Majors Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna initiated it? The book does not give us a deep insight into the Biafran military and administrative machinery. Till his death in 2007, Ademoyega justified the January 15 ‘revolution’ and argued trenchantly that it was the mishandling of its objectives by the soldiers who aborted the coup that laid the foundation for the subsequent crisis that led to Nigeria’s civil war.

The Brothers’ War’ by John de St. Jorre (1972): At first glance, the size of the book might be intimidating to some readers. But if you summon the courage, you might get lost in pages that are as spicy as any Tom Clancy novel. The writer, like Forsyth, is a British journalist but unlike his contemporary, he tried to be even-handed. Die-hard supporters of either side might have reservations about this approach but younger readers seeking the truth need such objective accounts if at all objectivity can be attained in such highly combustible historical drama.

St. Jorre traced the origin of the war. He reconstructed the crises from 1966-1970 and delved into the personalities who shaped Nigerian and Biafran policies. His revelations about the internal politics of each entity are illuminating. eg. the struggle for supremacy between the ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in the Biafran government. One outstanding point about St. Jorre is his ability to paint personal portraits away from the power figures of both sides; the war commanders and the politicians. For example, he portrays Biafrans still trying to live a normal life despite the screams of bullets and bombs; going to church, playing football. The photographs scattered in the book are eloquent testimonies to an era many Nigerian youngsters may consign to the period of moonlight tales unless there is visual proof. St. Jorre writes with empathy for both sides and at times he finds it difficult to morally justify his country’s wartime policies though he understands the cold-blooded interests that define British diplomacy. Through this book, the reader gains a ‘feel’ for the nationalistic fervour of the young intellectuals of that period such as Chinua Achebe and how the war torpedoed their pan-Nigerian idealism. 

The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran Civil War’: Written by Alexander Madiebo, the commander of the Biafran army and published in 1980 by Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, the book is a gripping account of what transpired in Nigeria between 1966-1970. Madiebo was major dramatis personae in the play: he actively scuttled the first coup by, in his own words, putting ‘a quick and tidy end to Nzeogwu’s revolution’; he was an active player in Ironsi’s government and nearly lost his head to the July 29 coup plotters. In Biafra, he participated fully in major military operations and tasted the bitter pills of intrigue and ‘sabotage’ politics. The book, unlike the ones mentioned earlier, is a first-class manual for anyone who wants to understand the Biafran military machine and why it eventually collapsed to the Nigerian onslaught. Madiebo writes in a manner that will make reading easy for a non-military man. But what stands out about the book is the author’s critical perspectives about the conflict. Contrary to expectations he does not lionize his commander-in-chief; he analyzes the power plays in Biafra and how Ojukwu covered his unpreparedness for the war with subtle and overt manipulations of the Biafran war hysteria. At times one begins to wonder if the personal relations between the commander-in-chief and the army commander were fractured and how it affected the war effort. Madiebo has good words for some top Nigerian officials and strives not to malign their humanity where appropriate. E.g. He portrays General Gowon’s laudable efforts to save him from the rampaging coup plotters and acknowledges Colonel Shuwa’s efforts to protect the Igbo in his domain despite official censure. The impression one gets from the book is that Madiebo was a dedicated Biafran but no fanatic. Interestingly, Adichie also draws on the book and its author to develop the character, Colonel Madu, in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.

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Sunset in Biafra’, published in 1975, is an evocative and highly personalized account written by Elechi Amadi. Unlike other books mentioned above ‘Sunset in Biafra’ is not a history, a journalistic account, a war diary nor political propaganda. But it does not avoid the heated polemics of the period.

Amadi was a Nigerian army officer. An Ikwerre man from Rivers State, he fought on the Nigerian side as a Captain with the fearsome Third Commandos under the command of the ‘Black Scorpion,’ Colonel Benjamin Adekunle and his successor, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. Amadi portrays himself as a convinced believer in One Nigeria and an advocate of the rights of the minority groups who had to contend with the dominant Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, later Biafra. At first glance, one would expect an outright anti- Biafran stance. But while Amadi does not believe in secessionist Biafra he clearly has a humane disposition towards the average Biafran who bore the brunt of the conflict. The book is not a justification for the excesses of the Nigerian side.

‘Sunset in Biafra’ is important because unlike most non-fiction on the war, it does not flow from ‘top-down’ i.e. from principal actors/witnesses in the war. The writer’s personal insight into some of the personalities who shaped the events of the period is interesting. Eg. Ifeajuna, the author’s contemporary at the University of Ibadan and co-tennis player, is described as ‘charming’ and ‘dignified.’ The book is one of the early pacesetters for civil war non-fiction by non-principal actors in the crisis.

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The 1990s and 2000s have also witnessed continued publications on the civil war by surviving eyewitnesses and their descendants and supporters who have access to inside information. E.g. ‘A Gift of Sequins’ by late Colonel Victor Banjo’s daughter and Max Silloun’s historical writings. Although points of view cannot be ignored, it is obvious that these latter-day works have elements of revisionism, probably because of the writers’ access to new information and the passage of time which might have mellowed tempers and given fresh insights.

But with the avalanche of histories, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, political accounts, journalese, etc, one question remains unanswered: when will Generals Gowon and Ojukwu release their own accounts? General Ojukwu is dead now and General Gowon is well into his seventies. The closest General Ojukwu came to releasing such an account was in 1989 when he published ‘Because I am involved’, a book which leaves more questions than answers. In a 1997 interview with ‘The Source’ magazine, the Eze gburu-gburu indicated that he was writing an account of the war but due to its volatile contents it might be published posthumously. So far Gowon has been silent on the subject. Though much has been written and published by their close confidants about their war-time activities, these authorized accounts are not the definitive accounts Nigerians and non-Nigerians yearn for. But it just might be that these statesmen, having been tempered by those dark days and age, have gazed into the crystal ball and decided to let their secrets remain exclusively theirs for the sake of national stability. 

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On the 10th January 1970, Lt. Col. Ojukwu, the self-proclaimed Head of State of Biafra, on realizing the total chaotic and hopelessness of the situation, handed over to the Commander Biafran Army Maj. Gen. Phillip Effiong, the administration of Biafra and flew out of the enclave with his immediate family members in search of peace. Maj. Gen. Effiong consulted with the Biafra Strategic Committee on the situation and they decided that enough was enough and that the only honorable way out was to surrender. In his surrender announcement to the people of Biafra on Radio Biafra, part of Maj. Gen. Effiong address said:

Fellow Countrymen,
As you know I was asked to be the officer administering the government of this Republic on the 10th of January, 1970. Since then I know some of you have been waiting to hear a statement from me. Throughout history, injured people have had to result to arms in their self-defense where peaceful negotiation have failed. We are no exception. We took up arms because of the sense of insecurity generated in our people by the events of 1966. We have fought in defense of that cause. I am now convinced that a stop must be put to the bloodshed which is going on as a result of the war. I am also convinced that the suffering of our people must be brought to an end. Our people are now disillusioned and those elements of the old regime who have made negotiations and reconciliation impossible have voluntarily removed themselves from our midst. I have, therefore, instructed an orderly disengagement of troops.

I urge on Gen. Gowon, in the name of humanity, to order his troops to pause while an armistice is negotiated in order to avoid the mass suffering caused by the movement of population. We have always believed that our differences with Nigeria should be settled by peaceful negotiation. A delegation of our people is therefore ready to meet representatives of Nigerian Government anywhere to negotiate a peace settlement on the basis of OAU resolution. 

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Part of Maj. Gen. Yakubu Gowon, the Head of the Federal Government's speech to accept formally the declared surrender and the end of the civil war read: 

Citizens of Nigeria,
It is with a heart full of gratitude to God that I announce to you that today marks the formal end of the civil war. This afternoon at the Doddan Barracks, Lt. Col. Phillip Effiong, Lt. Col. David Ogunewe, Lt. Col. Patrick Anwunah, Lt. Col. Patrick Amadi and commissioner Police, Chief Patrick Okeke formally proclaimed the end of the attempt at secession and accepted the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. They also formally accepted the present political and administrative structure of the country. This ends thirty months of a grim struggle. Thirty months of sacrifice and national agony.

The world knows how hard we strove to avoid the civil war. Our objectives in fighting the war to crush Ojukwu's rebellion were always clear. We desired to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of Nigeria. For, as one country, we would be able to maintain lasting peace amongst our various communities; achieve rapid economic development to improve the lot of our people; guarantee a dignified future and respect in the world for our posterity and contribute to African unity and modernization. On the other hand, the small successor states in a disintegrated Nigeria would be victims of perpetual war and misery and neo-colonialism. Our duty was clear. And we are today, vindicated. 

The so-called "Rising Sun of Biafra" is set forever. It will be a great disservice for anyone to continue to use the word "Biafra" to refer to any part of the East Central State of Nigeria. The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have the opportunity to build a new nation. On our side, we fought the war with great caution, not in anger or hatred, but always in the hope that common sense would prevail. Many times we sought a negotiated settlement, not out of wickedness, but in order to minimize the problems of reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. We knew that however the war ended, in the battlefield or in the conference room, our brothers fighting under other colors must rejoin us and that we must together rebuild the nation anew. All Nigerians share the victory today. The victory for national unity, the victory for hopes of Africans and black people everywhere. We mourn the dead heroes. We thank God for sparing us to see this glorious dawn of national reconciliation. We must seek His guidance to do our duty to contribute our quota to the building of a great nation, ounded on the concerted efforts of all its people and on justice and equality. A nation never to return to the fractious, sterile and selfish debates that led to the tragic conflict just ending. 

The Federal Government has mounted a massive relief operations to alleviate the suffering of the people in the newly liberated areas. We are mobilizing adequate resources to provide food, shelter, and medicines for the affected population. My government has directed that former civil servants and public corporation officials should be promptly reinstated as they come out of hiding. Details of this exercise have been published. Plans for the rehabilitation of self - employed people will also be announced promptly. We have overcome a lot over the past four years. I have therefore every confidence that ours will become a great nation.

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The surrender paper was signed on 14th January 1970 in Lagos and thus came the end of the civil war and renunciation of secession. 

The war had come and gone. The story of the war and what led to it has been told is being told and will continue to be told. What seems to be a human tragedy all through ages is the inability of man to learn a good lesson from the past so as to avoid the pitfall of those who had gone before. There is also the innate and unconscious desire of man to remain oblivious of the lessons of the past. He hopes and believes that the past can be ignored, that the present is what matters, that no mistakes of the present can be as serious and grievous as the mistakes of the past. As a result, history tends to repeat itself. However, there are exceptions of nations and men who had learned from history to avoid collective and individual disasters or repetition of such disasters. I feel confident that Nigeria must join the group of these happy exceptions if we are to have political stability, economic progress, integrated development, social justice, contentment and be the epicenter of African solidarity. Since the end of the civil war, Nigeria has made considerable progress in all these areas.
- Major Abubakar A. Atofarati 

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