The civil war can be connected to the British colonial amalgamation of Northern protectorate, Lagos Colony and Southern Nigeria protectorate (later renamed Eastern Nigeria). Intended for better administration due to the close proximity of these protectorates, the change did not account for the great difference in the cultures and religions of the peoples in each area. Competition for political and economic power exacerbated tensions.
Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, but remained in the Commonwealth of Nations, composed of 53 former UK colonies. In 1960, Nigeria had a population of 60 million people, made up of more than 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups. More than fifty years earlier, the United Kingdom had carved an area out of West Africa containing many different ethnic groups calling it Nigeria. When the British arrived the three largest ethnic groups were the Igbo, which formed between 60–70% of the population in the southeast ; the Hausa-Fulani of the Sokoto Caliphate, which formed about 65% of the population in the northern part of the territory ; and the Yoruba which formed about 75% of the population in the southwestern part . Although these groups have their own homelands, by the 1960s, the people were dispersed across Nigeria, with all three ethnic groups represented substantially in major cities. When the war broke out in 1967, there were still 5,000 Igbos in Lagos.
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by a feudal, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of Emirs who, in turn, owed their allegiance to a supreme Sultan. This Sultan was regarded as the source of all political power and religious authority.
The Yoruba political system in the southwest, like that of the Hausa-Fulani, also consisted of a series of monarchs, the Oba. The Yoruba monarchs, however, were less autocratic than those in the North . The political and social system of the Yoruba accordingly allowed for greater upward mobility, based on acquired rather than inherited wealth and title.
In contrast to the two other groups, Igbos and the ethnic groups of the Niger Delta in the southeast lived mostly in autonomous, democratically organised communities, although there were eze or monarchs in many of the ancient cities, such as the Kingdom of Nri. In its zenith the Kingdom controlled most of Igbo land, including influence on the Anioma people, Arochukwu (which controlled slavery in Igbo), and Onitsha land. Unlike the other two regions, decisions within the Igbo communities were made by a general assembly in which men and women participated.
The differing political systems among these three peoples reflected and produced divergent customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through a village head designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be submitted to. As with all other authoritarian religious and political systems, leadership positions were given to persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors. A chief function of this political system in this context was to maintain conservative values, which caused many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or sacrilegious .
In contrast to the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbos and other Biafrans often participated directly in the decisions which affected their lives. They had a lively awareness of the political system and regarded it as an instrument for achieving their personal goals. Status was acquired through the ability to arbitrate disputes that might arise in the village, and through acquiring rather than inheriting wealth. The Igbo had been substantially victimized in the Atlantic slave trade; in the year 1790 it was reported that of 20,000 people sold each year from Bonny, 16,000 were Igbo. With their emphasis upon social achievement and political participation, the Igbo adapted to and challenged colonial rule in innovative ways.
These tradition-derived differences were perpetuated and perhaps enhanced by the British system of colonial rule in Nigeria. In the North, the British found it convenient to rule indirectly through the Emirs, thus perpetuating rather than changing the indigenous authoritarian political system. Christian missionaries were excluded from the North, and the area thus remained virtually closed to European cultural imperialism. By contrast the richest of the Igbo often sent their sons to British universities, thinking to prepare them to work with the British. During the ensuing years, the Northern Emirs maintained their traditional political and religious institutions, while reinforcing their social structure. At the time of independence in 1960, the North was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria. It had an English literacy rate of 2%, as compared to 19.2% in the East (literacy in Ajami (local languages in Arabic script), learned in connection with religious education, was much higher). The West also enjoyed a much higher literacy level, as it was the first part of the country to have contact with western education, and established a free primary education program under the pre-independence Western Regional Government.
In the West, the missionaries rapidly introduced Western forms of education. Consequently, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to adopt Western bureaucratic social norms. They made up the first classes of African civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and other technicians and professionals.
In Eastern areas, missionaries were introduced at a later date because of British difficulty in establishing firm control over the highly autonomous communities. However, the Igbo and other Biafran people actively took to Western education, and they overwhelmingly came to adopt Christianity. Population pressure in the Igbo homeland, combined with aspirations for monetary wages, drove thousands of Igbos to other parts of Nigeria in search of work. By the 1960s, Igbo political culture was more unified and the region relatively prosperous, with tradesmen and literate elites active not just in the traditionally Igbo East, but throughout Nigeria. By 1966, the ethnic and religious differences between Northerners and the Igbo had combined with additional stratification by virtue of education and economic class.
Politics and economics of federalism
The British colonial ideology that divided Nigeria into three regions—North, West and East—exacerbated the already well-developed economic, political, and social differences among Nigeria's different ethnic groups. The country was divided in such a way that the North had a slightly higher population than the other two regions combined. There were also wide-spread reports of fraud during Nigeria's first census, and even today population remains a highly political issue in Nigeria. On this basis the Northern Region was allocated a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislature established by the colonial authorities. Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, respectively formed political parties that were largely regional and based on ethnic allegiances: the Northern People's Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG); and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the East. These parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up; the disintegration of Nigeria resulted largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe.
The basis of modern Nigeria formed in 1914, when Britain amalgamated the Northern and Southern protectorates. Beginning with the Northern Protectorate, the British implemented a system of indirect rule of which they exerted influence through alliances with local forces. This system worked so well, Colonial Governor Frederick Lugard successfully lobbied to extend it to the Southern Protectorate through amalgamation. In this way, a foreign and hierarchical system of governance was imposed on the Igbos Intellectuals began to agitate for greater rights and independence. The size of this intellectual class increased significantly in the 1950s, with the massive expansion of the national education program. During the 1940s and 1950s the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. Northern leaders, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernized elites in the South, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. As a condition for accepting independence, they demanded that the country continue to be divided into three regions with the North having a clear majority. Igbo and Yoruba leaders, anxious to obtain an independent country at all costs, accepted the Northern demands.
However, the two Southern regions had significant cultural and ideological differences, leading to discord between the two Southern political parties. Firstly, the AG favored a loose confederacy of regions in the emergent Nigerian nation whereby each region would be in total control of its own distinct territory. The status of Lagos was a sore point for the AG which did not want Lagos, a Yoruba town which was at that time the Federal Capital and seat of national government to be designated as the Capital of Nigeria if it meant loss of Yoruba sovereignty. The AG insisted that Lagos, a Yoruba city situated in Western Nigeria must be completely recognized as a Yoruba town without any loss of identity, control or autonomy by the Yoruba. Contrary to this position, the NCNC was anxious to declare Lagos, by virtue of it being the "Federal Capital Territory" as "no man's land" - a declaration which as could be expected angered the AG which offered to help fund the development of another territory in Nigeria as "Federal Capital Territory" and then threatened secession from Nigeria if it didn't get its way. The threat of secession by the AG was tabled, documented and recorded in numerous constitutional conferences, including the constitutional conference held in London in 1954 with the demand that a right of secession be enshrined in the constitution of the emerging Nigerian nation to allow any part of the emergent nation to opt out of Nigeria, should the need arise. This proposal for inclusion of right of secession by the regions in independent Nigeria by the AG was rejected and resisted by NCNC which vehemently argued for a tightly bound united/unitary structured nation because it viewed the provision of a secession clause as detrimental to the formation of a Unitary Nigerian state. In the face of sustained opposition by the NCNC delegates, later joined by the NPC and backed by threats to view maintenance of the inclusion of secession by the AG as treasonable by the British, the AG was forced to renounce its position of inclusion of the right of secession a part of the Nigerian constitution. Had such a provision been made in the Nigerian constitution, later events which led to the Nigerian/Biafran civil war would have been avoided. The pre-independence alliance between the NCNC and the NPC against the aspirations of the AG would later set the tone for political governance of independent Nigeria by the NCNC/NPC and lead to disaster in later years in Nigeria.
Northern–Southern tension manifested first in the 1945 Jos Riot in which 300 Igbo people died and again on 1 May 1953, as fighting in the Northern city of Kano. The political parties tended to focus on building power in their own regions, resulting in an incoherent and dis-unified dynamic in the federal government.
In 1946, the British divided the Southern Region into the Western Region and the Eastern Region. Each government was entitled to collect royalties from resources extracted within its area. This changed in 1956 when Shell-BP found large petroleum deposits in the Eastern region. A Commission led by Jeremy Raisman and Ronald Tress determined that resource royalties would now enter a "Distributable Pools Account" with the money split between different parts of government (50% to region of origin, 20% to federal government, 30% to other regions). To ensure continuing influence, the British promoted unity in the Northern bloc and discord among and within the two Southern regions. The government following independence promotes discord in the West with the creation of a new Mid-Western Region in an area with oil potential. The new constitution of 1946 also proclaimed that "The entire property in and control of all mineral oils, in, under, or upon any lands, in Nigeria, and of all rivers, streams, and watercourses throughout Nigeria, is and shall be vested in, the Crown." Britain profited significantly from a fivefold rise in Nigerian exports amidst the postwar economic boom.