A Tribal Conflict in Nigeria That Left a Million Dead
314 pages. Illustrated throughout with black-and-white photos. 16 pages of color photos. Index and bibliography.
The first thing to know is that the author was there. He started his journalism career covering one side and then the other, and is considered the only man to have been rocketed by aircraft on both sides!
The second thing to know is that the author has published a number of books on African conflicts, but this is his definitive volume on the Biafran War.
If you are unfamiliar with the Biafran War, the author recommends his friend Frederick Forsyth's The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend. Then this current book, which is organized both chronologically and by topic, would be the second book you should read.
The colonial nation of Nigeria was hastily cobbled together by the British prior to independence, composed of peoples who identified by tribe (and religion) rather than theoretical nationality. In the southeast were the Ibos, a Christian tribe that had adjusted well to Western colonial culture. As merchants and civil servants, their influence had spread across Nigeria. In the north were various Muslim tribes, numerous but poorly integrated into the colonial system.
After Nigeria gained independence following WWII, a faction of Ibo army officers rebelled against government corruption in a bloody coup that saw several top Nigerian Muslim political and religious leaders murdered. This was followed by a counter-coup, with the Muslim tribes taking control of the country. Persecution of Ibos living outside of their tribal territory ensued, many being killed and the rest driven out as refugees.
The Ibos, claiming to be acting in self-preservation, seceded from Nigeria. At first, the Muslims were content to let them go… until it was realized that the new nation of Biafra (Ibos) was sitting on top of considerable oil reserves!
The Nigerians eventually launched a large and ponderous offensive, striking from the north into Biafra. The Biafrans responded by surprising the Nigerians, striking west across a major river toward the defenseless capital city! This operation would have succeeded but for its commanding officer, who defected to the other side. The war then entered the attrition phase, as the Nigerians surrounded Biafra from all sides and slowly took more and more territory, until ultimate victory. The Biafrans, who expected racial annihilation, were surprised when the Nigerian leader did not countenance reprisals.
Both sides made extensive use of foreign mercenaries. The Nigerians were supported by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, with Egyptian/Soviet jet aircraft flown at first by Egyptian personnel and later by Western mercenary pilots. The rebel Biafrans were supported "under the table" by South Africa and France, providing training and small professional infantry forces, as well as a tiny aviation component. There was also a civilian airlift of food and other supplies into Biafra to fight starvation (and children were evacuated), but the Biafrans pragmatically ensured that the airlift also brought military supplies.
The author provides what must be the most extensive information available on mercenary activities on both sides of the conflict, in many cases based on interviews and obscure publications. The dubious qualifications of some of the mercenaries are pointed out.
Material from the Nigerian viewpoint is evidently more difficult to obtain. However, the author does provide extensive information on Biafran improvised armaments, including munitions for aircraft and claymore-type infantry weapons.
A theme for the author in this book, to which the final chapter is devoted, is a warning that something like the Biafran War could happen again, due to the rise of radical Islam in northern Nigeria, largely ineffectual national forces, and the continued struggles of the Ibo people.
While this book is packed with useful information, it is somewhat disorganized, some material is repetitive, and it is not what I would call 'easy reading'.
Can you wargame it? The air war featured no dogfights, so the only thing to game would be often indiscriminate air-to-ground missions or night intercepts of unarmed transport aircraft – not something most people would want to game. The ground war features an interesting contrast between a large, poorly trained, often inebriated Nigerian army lacking in command, versus Biafrans with better command, better motivation, but lacking supplies and often starving, sprinkled with a few mercenary units (equipped with foreigners or foreign-trained Biafrans) operating at higher levels of proficiency. Unfortunately, this book does not provide the level of detail to design accurate scenarios based on specific combats.
If you are interested in gaming the Biafran War, or want to know more about the conflict, this book is highly recommended.
Available in hardback, trade paperback, and Kindle editions. (Cover shown is the paperback edition.) The Kindle version is currently bargain-priced.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .