At the beginning of 1966 a declaration of martial law followed by a military coup had resulted in a military junta led by Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, an Ibo from eastern Nigeria. Fearful northerners then launched a countercoup in July 1966, establishing the Nigerian military government of Lieutenant Colonel Gowon. This resulted in rioting and violence between northerners and easterners; attacks on Ibos in the north fueled Ibo fears about the intentions of Gowon's federal military government. Through the second half of 1966 it became clear that tribal tensions might culminate in the secession of eastern Nigeria, under Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu's leadership. Despite diplomacy intended to avoid that outcome and declarations by all parties of allegiance to the concept of Nigerian unity, such was the result.
Following the January 1967 Aburi Conference attended by both Gowon and Ojukwu that was called to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis, Ojukwu declared himself dissatisfied with the negotiations, which envisaged a renewed federal structure. Ojukwu then moved toward secession. The secession declaration formally establishing Biafra was made on 27 May 1967. War quickly followed as the Nigerian government sought to defeat the secessionists.
The Biafra War became a major problem for Britain, Nigeria's former colonial ruler, and Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson. While calling for negotiations, peace, and Nigerian unity, Wilson's government decided to supply arms to Gowon's federal government but not to Biafra, on the grounds that the United Kingdom was, in Wilson's words, a "traditional supplier" of arms to Nigeria. This stance brought Wilson under fierce attack in the House of Commons and even evoked questions in Washington. Later, when the Nigerian government's blockade of Biafra resulted in mass starvation there, parliamentary criticism of Wilson became even more vociferous.
Wilson's memoirs reveal an abiding sense of hurt at his treatment; he also believed strongly that the media had misrepresented the conflict in Biafra's favor. While hunger and misery on a massive scale were indeed to be found in Biafra, Wilson was not alone in arguing that Ojukwu's policies, which allowed only night relief flights so that he could simultaneously import arms, may have contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe.
Wilson's motives for assisting Nigeria were expressed in terms of seeking to maintain the integrity of the country if possible while limiting Soviet influence in the region. The Nigerian federal government did, ultimately, purchase a limited amount of military hardware from the Soviet bloc but pointedly noted that this did not indicate a change in its general pro-Western orientation. Ironically, Wilson's memoirs are more critical of French arms sales to Biafra than of any communist bloc sales. He even suggested that the war was unnecessarily prolonged as a result of French President Charles de Gaulle's actions.
The stance of the United States toward Biafra was marked by caution and formal neutrality, for several reasons. First, the United Kingdom was the dominant Western power in the region, and the United States acknowledged and accepted that fact. This was not simply an acknowledgment of diplomatic niceties but was also a recognition by American policy-makers that their nation had few assets and comparatively little influence in Nigeria. Additionally, the Americans realized that armed intervention in the conflict would require huge resources and carry grave risks. Finally, the United States was already deeply involved in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors did not dare risk another war of intervention. The Americans supported Nigerian unity (in preference to unpredictable disintegration) and pushed for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The United States did not supply arms to either party although some private U.S. citizens did, to the irritation of the U.S. State Department. Interestingly, there was little anxiety in American governmental circles (in contrast to Wilson's anxieties, very much played up in his memoirs) about the possibility of the Soviet Union taking advantage of chaos in Nigeria to extend its regional influence. Indeed, the Soviets were seen by some in the United States as playing a fairly responsible role as the tension increased in Nigeria. A National Security Council (NSC) memorandum of July 1967 declared that "the Soviets have behaved very correctly throughout the crisis, pressing for unity at every opportunity." Even the Soviets saw the risks of being caught up in an unpredictable tribal war and abstained from action that might only have exacerbated the situation. Clearly, neither side wished to transform Nigeria into a Cold War battle zone.
Wilson visited Nigeria in March 1969, but apart from eliciting platitudes from his hosts he was unable to move the conflict toward resolution. Nor was he able to remove the images of death and starvation in Biafra from the front pages of newspapers. The Biafra War ended only with the military defeat of the Biafran rebellion in January 1970.
U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States 1964–1968, Vol. 24, Africa. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.; Wilson, Harold. The Labour Government, 1964–1970: A Personal Record. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.