The Nigerian Civil War broke out after years of political and ethnic tension within the country. The conflict began when eastern Nigeria, with the Igbo as its ethnic majority, declared that it was seceding from the federal government and proclaimed the secessionist Republic of Biafra. The ensuing war would kill three million and displace even more, leaving lasting scars that still exist in Nigeria to this day.

After exploring the events of the war, it’s time to look at one of the decisive factors in the victory of the federal government. This would be foreign intervention, both materially and diplomatically. The war took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, at a time when independence movements were emerging in Africa. The Nigerian Civil War was one of the few examples where the East and the West supported the same side, less for political reasons than for economic reasons. An investigation on foreign intervention in the war reveals how the decision to intervene in post-colonial conflicts was motivated mainly by the control of access to resources; in the case of Nigeria, oil.

Global Superpowers and the Nigerian Civil War

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Nigerian artillery in Port Harcourt, via CNN

At the start of the Nigerian Civil War, both the Nigerian and Biafran armies were in disarray. Each would soon be able to muster a significant manpower to their cause, but they needed weapons to assert their dominance, especially heavy weaponry. The world superpowers, primarily Britain, were ready to provide the Nigerian head of state, Yakubu Gowon, with the necessary money and supplies to give them an advantage against the Biafran forces.

The Soviet Union also supplied Gowon with a significant number of aircraft, manned by Egyptian pilots. This advantage gave the Nigerian military ownership of the skies, making it easier to encircle and trap Biafran soldiers. The side effect of this Soviet aid was to make British diplomats nervous, so they in turn pressured their government to step up material support from Britain to limit Russian influence in the region.

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One of the few powers that provided substantial aid to Biafra was France. Covertly, the Quai d’Orsay dispatched weapons, mercenaries and technical specialists to help stop the advancing Nigerian army. China also provided some weapons, but this was more of a diplomatic affront to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split than an actual attempt to turn the tide of the war.

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Nigerian soldiers enter Port Harcourt, via CNN

The United States declared neutrality but secretly supported the Nigerian government, as they had significant investments in the region that could be threatened if Gowon’s leadership were destabilized. Outside of Africa, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Bulgaria were the smallest countries that supported the Nigerian government. On the contrary, Israel (after 1968), Czechoslovakia, Haiti, Portugal and Spain helped Biafra in some way. However, this material aid was not significant enough to affect the war as a whole. Thus, the deciding factor was the impact of the great powers due to their increased arms supplies and aid budgets. While minor players were more likely to be driven by ideology, for superpowers, control over resources motivated their actions.

This can be clearly seen in Britain’s decision to side with Nigeria. At the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, BP/Shell was Nigeria’s largest oil exporter. The British government had a 49% stake in the merged company, and thus a significant interest in continuing its dominance. Biafra owned 60% of the oil in Nigeria, and its leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, had admitted he wanted more control over oil revenues in eastern Nigeria, a key reason negotiations broke down in the run-up to war. Previously, he had felt that they had been divided unfairly and sold on unfair terms to foreign companies. One of the key promises that the Ojukwu made to the fledgling state of Biafra would be to reverse these agreements.

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Lake Oguta, a key supply source for Biafra, via CNN

Instead, Gowon promised to honor existing agreements, particularly by keeping Nigeria’s oil supply regular and favorable to Britain. The British government therefore quickly backed him to protect his investment. When Nigerian forces captured the valuable Bonny oil terminal in July 1967, Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed to fully commit to supplying the federal government.

The Soviet Union had similar material concerns that influenced their participation. After a failed coup in Guinea, a frustrated Politburo wanted more influence over West Africa. The Nigerian Civil War offered this opportunity, as Gowon had promised to continue trading on neocolonialist terms, which the USSR hoped to take advantage of. Furthermore, the Soviets hoped that supporting a majority Muslim government would bring allies in the Middle East, which in turn could secure future oil supplies.

France’s participation in the Nigerian Civil War was similarly motivated by economic concerns. The French government feared that a unified Nigeria would become too strong and dominate its smaller colonies in West Africa. If the Biafran secession attempt were to succeed, French companies could potentially make their own trade deals. When the war broke out, the key oil company SAFRAP rushed to sign agreements to secure Biafran oil reserves. Another major oil producer, Elf Aquitaine, was highly influential in government debates and pressured cabinet members to increase support for Biafra.

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Jacques Foccart, mastermind behind France’s African policy, via

The emphasis on economic concerns above all others in France’s decision to support Biafra was reflected in the speed with which trade with the Nigerian government resumed, not only after but also during the war, exposing the extent of the influence that the oil lobby had within French politics. Unfortunately for Biafra, the lack of conviction from the French meant that their support was nowhere near the same as that of the British or the Soviet. Thus, the Nigerian government quickly gained military superiority, particularly over the skies, and would maintain it for most of the war.

However, the Nigerian Civil War demonstrates how the foreign intervention of the three major powers in the conflict was primarily motivated by economic gain and neocolonialist attitudes. Despite aid from other nations, Biafra’s hopes of survival then rested on Nigeria’s immediate neighbors and on the power of international organizations.

Africa and the Nigerian Civil War

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Nigerian federal troops near the town of Ore with imported weapons, via New York Times

Within Africa itself, the conflict was far more decisive. Biafra received recognition from Gabon, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia, including some material aid and passage for its fighters once the war turned fully against the Ojukwu. This was partly motivated by sympathy for the Biafran people’s struggle but, more importantly, in the hope that it would weaken Nigeria as a state and could cause further fragmentation of Africa’s most populous country. A fractured Nigeria would then be less aggressive and consolidate the rule of its neighbors.

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OUA Assembly Hall, via Middle East Monitor

Unfortunately for Biafra, this was the degree of support it received on the African continent during the Nigerian Civil War. The majority of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) supported maintaining the status quo in Nigeria, a decision that was later replicated in the United Nations. The movement to defend the existing state followed a similar line to the action that the OAU and the UN had taken in the Congo Crisis less than a decade earlier. Similar to the Nigerian Civil War and the secession of Biafra, a series of political assassinations caused the mineral-rich state of Katanga to declare its independence. The international community had moved quickly, preventing the state from seceding for many of the same reasons that were witnessed in Biafra.

A key facet of the OAU’s reasoning for its decision was that it was hesitant to criticize the domestic politics of member states. Instead, their primary goal was to preserve external authority, particularly borders. Many states had recently gained their independence and were still struggling to establish authority over their populations. Due to the lazy partitioning of Africa by the colonial powers and their ignorant mapping, many of these states had various minority ethnic groups calling for independence. Biafra’s success would only have emboldened them, so states were hesitant to support such moves, even if they quietly agreed.

Conclusion: Foreign intervention in the Nigerian civil war

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Biafra children during the famine, via CNN

Thus, without broader international support or significant diplomatic recognition from key organizations, Biafra was all but doomed before the Nigerian Civil War even began. Like the Congo crisis earlier in the decade, the Biafran struggle showed the importance of natural resources in determining which side would choose to support foreign intervention in a conflict. Weakened by decades of colonialist destruction and extraction, these fledgling breakaway African states needed international help if they were to have any chance of success. The secession of Biafra exposes the extent of the influence that the oil lobby had within the governments of the international superpowers.

With a chronology of the Nigerian Civil War and an investigation into its most decisive factor, foreign intervention, it remains to look at the consequences of the conflict. In particular, the humanitarian crisis that engulfed Biafra in the last years of the war would see some of the most gruesome scenes broadcast from conflict zones, often for the first time to international audiences. Mass famine in eastern Nigeria would help spark the international relief movement, but not before significant and devastating loss of life.