From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Oil was a major issue in the Nigerian civil war forty years ago.
Nigeria is a country that was created artificially by British colonialism. It has a complex ethnic mixture of groups, with a division between the North, inhabited by Muslim Fulani-Hausas with a rigid feudal system, and the South where a number of different ethnic groups co-existed loosely, the largest of these groups being the Christian Igbos and Yorubas. The trick of British colonialism was the divide and rule system. They knew the nature of Nigeria; that it is a country that doesn’t have the same climate, not the same religion, not the same mentality, not the same food, not the same dress, not the same dialect, and not the same culture. They used their military might to force Nigeria to be one by the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria. They gave the Fulani emirs political prominence at the expense of the Southern population and left a time bomb with the fuse burning.
Prior to independence, and afterwards, many threats of a Northern secession were made by the Northern politicians because they did not want to be part of Nigeria. But in realty these Northern political kangaroos called leaders did not want to lose the benefit of Southern oil and industries. Nigeria was supposed to get its independence before the Gold Coast (now Ghana) did in 1957 but, because Northerners were not prepared to be part of the new country, Nigeria lost many years in debate and compromise until the North agreed to be part of it. It was only in 1960 that independence came.
But the new Nigerian constitutional framework did not resolve everything, it being clear that Nigeria was sitting on a time bomb that would explode and cause real dangerous harm to all Nigerians.
The constitution did not change the relative cultural backwardness of the North compared to the South. What the Northern leaders wanted was a guarantee that they would retain their dominant political position after independence. If not, they would pull out and form an “Arewa Republic” for the interest of the Fulani–Hausa. British imperialists taught that the North were fools to be used, and stole the resources from the South. But, the North got their way in political domination in Nigeria.
In 1966, a group of young officers assassinated the Northern leader Bello, the federal Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and the Western leader Akintola who had become discredited in the eyes of the population. The coup leader, Major Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu (now dead) broadcast the following reasons for the coup on radio:
“Our enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent, those that seek to keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office as Ministers and VIP’s of waste, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles”.
In the North, jubilant masses ransacked the governor’s palace and cheered the coup leader, despite his Igbo origin.
The coup did not succeed. In Lagos, General Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi had restored peace and order in the name of the old government with British backing. He placed himself as the first army general at the head of the federation and declared Nigeria under military rule.
Despite opposition from Northern politicians, General Ironsi announced his “Unification Decree” which although it changed little but names – regions became provinces, the federation became a Republic – caused a series of the most violent massacres of Southerners yet seen in the North. “Armed thugs moved across the space between the city walls of Kano and the Sabon Garis where the Easterners lived, broke into the ghetto and started burning, raping, looting and killing as many men, women and children from the East as the could lay their hands on”. It is without doubt that these massacres were deliberately planned by Northern politicians using their own armed gangs to whip up local feelings against the Igbos and other Southerners.
General Ironsi then went on a tour to Ibadan, Western region, to promote the “ One Nigeria” ideal. While he was on this tour another coup was staged, by Northern army officers. General Ironsi and two of his commanding officers were stripped, beaten, tortured and then shot. With taking over command, the coup leader, led by a young British trained officer, General Gowon, issued instructions for Igbos in the army – many off them formed the majority of the technical corps – to be rounded up and imprisoned. And Gowon declared himself the supreme commander of the Nigerian armed forces. During September and October 1966, three months after Gowon’s takeover a large scale massacre of Southerners was reported again from the Northern region.
The British High Commission in Lagos after meeting with the coup leaders came out in their full support – including their demand for recognition of the dominance of the North in any political process. All the regions except the South Eastern region – where the former governor, colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, remained in command with his troops and refused to recognize the new dictatorship. This Ojukwu, son of a millionaire who had been knighted by the British, had been educated in Oxford Universty and Sandhurst college, saw the atrocities of Gowon and decided to lead the South-East to secession and war.
Gowon taught that British imperialism liked him and that was why they would support him to fight a war against Ojukwu. But he failed to understand that Britain and America were only interested in stealing Nigerian oil.
The Biafra War
On 30 May 1967, Colonel Ojukwu proclaimed the independent Republic of Biafra. Biafra fought a war against Britain, the United States of America, the Nigerian federal army and the River State militia. The actual fighting lasted for 24 months and took the form of an initial conquest of towns and a whole region to the west of Biafra by the Biafran Army and then the slow re-conquest of this region and Biafra itself, town by town, with the Nigerian Federal Army with its imperialist backers pushing the Biafran troops further back.
What the Nigeria and Biafra civil war did achieve was hatred, tribalism, nepotism, marginalization, ethnic inquisition, killings of 2 million innocent Nigerians who did not know anything about politics nor the oil in their region by Gowon and his capitalists backers, i.e. Britain and US. It also resulted in the reinforcement of the Gowon regime as the military dictatorship was to remain in power for a further six years before being kicked out of power by another brutal military dictator Major General Murtala Mohammed in 1976.
Rivalries for Oil
The BBC journalist Frederick Forsyth, who reported from Biafra during the war, later highlighted a major factor precipitating the war:
“It has been postulated that if the Biafrans had had their way as a republic of semi-desert and was allowed to separate from Nigeria, there would have cries of ‘Good Riddance’ in their ears. One foreign businessman said that ‘it’s an oil war’ and felt obliged to say no more.”
Biafra was not a semi-desert, beneath it lies an ocean oil. Approximately one tenth of this field lies in neighbouring Cameroon, three tenths in Nigeria. The remaining six tenths lies under Biafra.
Gowon and his ruling bandits and Ojukwu’s Eastern interest group had attempted to make an agreement over the terms of their relationship with the British and US oil companies in New York in June 1967. Ojukwu claimed the right to the royalties paid in Lagos by Shell/BP. Up until June 1967, £7 million due to Nigeria in oil royalties had not yet been paid. It was discussed that Biafra should receive 57.7 percent of the royalties and the rest be put aside until there was a political settlement. Gowon vehemently refused to pay and threatened to extend the anti-Biafra blockade to the Bonny Island oil terminal. Without respecting the agreement, Gowon’s troops launched their attack and captured the terminal at Port Bonny.
As soon as the Nigerian army took the oil terminal, the British and US oil companies arrived behind them building new oil installations as fast as they could while war was still raging a few kilometres away.
The Gowon regime represented by proxy the interests of Britain, the US and Muslim countries including Egypt whose pilots flew the Ilyushin jets provided by the USSR. The important imperialist interests at work were those of the oil companies owned by the British, Americans and French and backed by their respective governments in the way they lined up for and against Biafra.
Shell/BP was the biggest exploiter of Nigerian oil. This Anglo-Dutch consortium held the major concessions for oil in both the Biafran and Niger delta region where oil had more recently begun to be pumped. When Biafra was blockaded all oil ceased to flow – because the oil from outside of Biafra, from the Niger Delta’ was conveyed to Port Harcourt, now in Biafra, via a large pipeline. The US companies were also exploiting Nigerian oil but their interests were mainly in the Niger Delta region.
As to France, since all oil concessions in the Biafran region were not yet taken by super imperialists, they had been planning to expand their own concession already operating in Biafra in the name of the state-owned company ELF. Because of that they were in direct rivalry with Shell/BP and hope to gain something at their expense.
The President of France, General Charles De Gaulle kept his options open. Though he never formally recognized Biafra, he did support Biafra’s “right to self–determination” and gave aid through France’s colonized states like Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Gabon. Biafra also got support from South Africa, and Israel.
In 1970, after the genocide, a series of peace talks were held and a settlement was reached and Gowon made his famous speech that there were no victors, no vanquished in this war. Of course, this was true. Both sides had suffered severe losses and part of the country had been devastated. But there was one victor not only in Biafraland but, also in the whole world. Imperialism had established a number of new oil terminals and ensured the stability of its oil profits thanks to Gowon.
The “unity” of Nigeria in reality disappeared because of the mistrust built up during the war and the atrocities perpetrated against Biafrans by Gowon and his imperialist backers.
Every war fought in the world is at the advantage of capitalism. The Nigerian-Biafran war, Rwandan genocide, Liberia war, Sierra Leone war, Democratic Republic of Congo war, Ivory Coast war, Uganda war, Eritrea-Ethiopia war, Darfur conflict, Angola war, Iraqi war, Palestinian-Israeli war, Afghanistan war, India-Pakistan war, Somali war, Zimbabwe conflict, Senegal-Cassamace war, Guinea Bissau war, Chechnya-Russia war. All wars to the advantage of capitalism. Beware and be warned.
Do not say that you did not know or hear about socialism and what we do. The choice is yours. Enough is enough – we must work together and join hands and cast capitalism and imperialism to burn in the abyss of everlasting fire.