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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Nigeria celebrates the end of the Civil War circa 1970 Published by Gale Cengage

The First Governments
Nigeria, a British colony, gained its independence in 1960. Each of Nigeria's regions was the center of one of the major ethnic groups—the Muslim Hausa and Fulani in the north, the Christian Ibo in the southeast, and the Yoruba, who were Muslim or Christian, in the west. The new country's first government was a parliamentary system, with each region represented in the federal government. The northern region, however, with its large population, soon dominated the entire country politically. Friction increased, particularly between the Hausa/Fulani and the Ibo in the southeast. In January 1966, an Ibo-dominated group of eastern army officers, hoping to rid the country of political corruption, led a coup that toppled the government. They handed over control of Nigeria to the commander-in-chief of the army, Maj. Gen. Johnson T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, who abolished the federal constitution and established a military government.

As Aguiyi-Ironsi attempted to promote national unity by doing away with the traditional regional power structure, political tensions led to tribal conflict. In July 1966, a group of northern army personnel launched another coup, placing Lt. Col. Yakubu Danjuma Gowon in power. He restored the federal system of government in August.

The Civil War
Since the first coup, the Ibo, now living in the north, had experienced violent persecution. Many Ibo were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others fled to their traditional homeland in the south. They began to fear that the July coup was an attempt by the north to gain control of all of Nigeria. These concerns led Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of eastern Nigeria, to boycott the constitutional talks held in October 1966. He pressed for a loosening of the bonds of the federation. Negotiations broke down, however, and in March 1967, eastern Nigeria announced that it no longer recognized Gowon as its head of government. In May 1967, the Ibo declared their secession and the formation of the Republic of Biafra.

A bloody civil war broke out in July as the federal government attempted to reclaim its territory. The Ibo experienced initial military victories, but soon the momentum was swinging in favor of Nigeria. The Biafran capital of Enugu fell to federal troops in October 1967. By April of the following year, the Nigerian army had reconquered most of the eastern territory. In May 1968, federal forces occupied Port Harcourt, Biafra's last remaining supply link with the outside world. Although the Biafran forces were surrounded, the rebellion continued until January 1970, when they surrendered. Along with heavy military casualties, perhaps as many as one million civilians died during the war, many the result of severe malnutrition.

Post-Civil War Nigeria
Col. Gowon remained in control of the Nigerian government. He initiated a policy of reconciliation with the Biafran rebels and announced his intention to stay in power until 1976, which he set as his target year for the country's return to an elected civilian government. Many Nigerians criticized this six-year plan, worrying that the military would retain power indefinitely. The Gowon regime also was attacked for its widespread, blatant corruption. Graft (illegal or unfair gain, such as in money), bribery, and nepotism were an integral part of all levels of government. In 1973, the federal government established a special anticorruption police force, known as the X-Squad, whose investigations revealed ingenious forms of extortion and fraud among private businesses and professions, as well as in the government and public corporations. Crime also posed a serious threat to internal security. Armed gangs, often composed of former soldiers, roamed the countryside, robbing, extorting, and kidnapping Nigerians. Sometimes the gangs operated with the approval of the local police or included moonlighting soldiers. Although punishment for these crimes was severe,...

(The entire section is 1,862 words.)