|Country Report Nigeria - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)|
Upon Nigeria's independence from Great Britain in 1960, serious doubts existed as to whether the disparate parts of the new Federal Republic would be able to co-exist peacefully. These doubts were due in large measure to the fact that various regions of colonial Nigeria had been arbitrarily joined together by the British in 1914 - without regard for the incredible linguistic and ethnic diversity within the colony's borders. The various groups that had been united by decree were so culturally and historically different that it seemed nearly impossible to unite them - even to the most optimistic of observers.
The friction this caused became evident in the years leading up to Nigerian independence. Primary amongst the differences was the disparity of educational levels between north and south - so vast that it was feared that the north would not have enough qualified civil servants to constitute a smoothly running government. In addition, economic development in the south had far outpaced that of the north. In the south, Nigerians had benefited from education and access to the colonial apparatus, while the north lacked an entrepreneurial and commercial class.
When independence was granted, the leaders of the new Republic embarked upon an aggressive campaign of social engineering to try and mitigate the differences in Nigerian society. These efforts came to an emphatic close when a prominent politician from the western region, Obafemi Awolowo, was tried for treason, found guilty and jailed. This sparked riots in the west, further exacerbated by allegations that post-independence elections in that area had been effectively rigged. A state of emergency was subsequently declared in the west, and a federal administrator was appointed in lieu of elected government officials.
Uncertainty and chaos continued until early 1966, when a number of young southern officers staged a coup. In the process of seizing governmental power, the officers also arranged to have a number of northern political figures slain while sparing politicians and government officials from the south. The coup actually failed, but the Nigerian Senate subsequently handed power over to Major-General Aguyi Ironsi, thus bringing about Nigeria's first military government. In a self-proclaimed attempt to stifle further political violence, Ironsi centralized governmental control by promulgating a Unification Decree. This only served to alienate northern leaders, who felt the coup to be the latest in a series of southern attempts to seize control of the government at their expense.
The result was a counter coup, led six months later by a cadre of northern officers hoping to break up the federal union and let the north secede. Although the putsch failed to divide the country, it aggravated already inflamed regional tensions. Eastern immigrants in the north were attacked by local populations, provoking a mass displacement of south-easterners returning home to escape the violence. Attempts by south-eastern leaders (with assistance from various international bodies) to ameliorate the situation by way of a reorganization at the federal level failed, and in 1967 the military government declared a "police state" in an attempt to rein in the eastern secessionist movement. The leader of the south-eastern region, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, then declared his region independent, renaming it the Republic of Biafra, and sparking a bloody three-year war between Biafran troops and the Federal army.
During the conflict and after the Biafran surrender in January 1970, an estimated 3 million Nigerians died, with scores more injured, displaced or rendered homeless.1 War victims suffered numerous medical and psychological traumas - many of which never fully disappeared. The international community mounted a vigorous campaign to aid the war victims, with the ICRC and the Catholic relief agency, Caritas, playing prominent roles. Following the cessation of hostilities, the military government immediately launched a programme to re-integrate the south-east back into Nigerian society under the slogan of the "Three Rs": Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation.
1Nigeria - A Country Study, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1991, Chapter 1: Historical Setting, the Civil War, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Nigeria suffered from a political and economic boom and bust cycle. Following the discovery of oil in the south after the war, Nigeria joined OPEC and enjoyed robust growth until the price of oil plummeted in the mid-1980s. Today, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent and a major power in sub-Saharan Africa. Through its membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its attendant peacekeeping missions, Nigeria seeks an active role in the political development of West Africa.