The Battle for the Soul of Nigeria PDF Print E-mail


Even before its Independence in 1960, Nigeria had been a battleground between the Muslim North and the Christian South. Nigeria has never really been one homogenous country. The area today known as Nigeria existed as a number of independent and hostile nations until 1900. Britain was requested to intervene in the area in the 1800s, by the Yoruba king, to stop the ravages of the slave trade.


The first step towards building Nigeria came in 1900 with the creation by the British government of the Northern and Southern Protectorates, along with the Colony of Lagos. In May 1906, the Colony of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was amalgamated to become one administrative area.


The first step in the amalgamation of the Muslim North with the Christian and Animist South of Nigeria, was the move by Lord Lugard on 1 January 1914, to bring both Nigeria's under one amalgamated administrative base in Lagos. During the Nigeria Council debate in Lagos 1920, Sir Hugh Clifford described Nigeria as: "A collection of independent native states, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions and by ethnological, racial, tribal, political, social and religious barriers."

A Country of Contrasts and Conflict

The 1922 Constitution made provision for elected members of the Nigerian Legislative Council to make laws for the Southern provinces, but not for the North. The British recognised that Nigeria was effectively three regions and they organised their indirect rule through the already well-developed political, social and economic systems of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups.

Muslim North

The mostly Muslim North was ruled indirectly through the Emirs, who themselves owed allegiance to a supreme Sultan. The Hausa and Fulani tribes predominate in the North.


The Yoruba predominate in the South West. Although ruled by monarchs, the Yoruba allowed for greater upward mobility based on acquired, rather than inherited, wealth and titles.


The Igbo in the South East lived in autonomous, organised communities, which were under chiefs, but who made their decisions through general assemblies, in which the men could participate.

Missionary Work

As Christian missionaries had first begun work among the Yoruba in the South West, the Yoruba were the best educated, and provided most of the civil servants, doctors, lawyers, technicians and other professionals. The Igbo had received the Gospel much later than the Yoruba, but had overwhelmingly adopted Christianity and had enthusiastically taken to Western education. Many of the wealthiest Igbo sent their sons to British universities. Soon the Igbo outstripped all others in entrepreneurship.

No Missionaries Allowed in the North

However, Christian Missionaries were forbidden to operate in the Muslim North of Nigeria. As a result, by 1960, Northern Nigeria was by far the least developed area, with a literacy rate of barely 2%.

Divergent Aspirations

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Igbo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the campaign for independence from Britain. The Northern leaders, fearful that they would be swamped by the more prosperous, better-educated Southerners, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. The Hausa/Fulani North demanded that they would only accept independence on the condition that the country continue to be divided into three regions, with the North having effective autonomy in terms of its laws, but benefiting from the wealth of the South.


The Constitution of 1950 entrenched the regional separation along ethnic lines between the Fulani and Hausa North, the Yoruba South West and the Igbo South East. The 1951 Constitution granted strong regional legislatures.

Independence Delayed

The Kano riots of 1953 delayed the target date of self-government. The Constitutional Conferences of 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960, culminated in the granting of Independence to Nigeria on 1 October 1960.

Tribal Politics

The political parties were largely regional and based on tribal allegiances. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) represented the Hausa and Fulani Muslims of the North. The Action Group (AG) represented the Yoruba in the West and the National Conference of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) the Igbo in the East.

Tumultuous Times

From the beginning of Nigeria's Independence, ethnic and religious tensions between the Southern regions and North, beset the new government. The general census of 1962 was widely denounced as riddled with malpractices and gross inflation of figures of such astronomical proportions that the Eastern region refused to accept the results.

Revolt Against Islam

The middle belt of tribes, including the Tiv, revolted against the Islamic rule of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) from 1962 to 1965.

Fraudulent Elections

The first general elections of 1964 triggered the greatest crisis of all. The elections were generally dismissed as neither free, nor fair, and even the Chairman of the Electoral Commission admitted that there were proven irregularities. The 1965 Elections were even more brazenly and shamefully rigged and law and order broke down completely, leading to a state of anarchy.


Arson and indiscriminate killings were carried out by private armies of thugs owing allegiance to the various political parties. Law-abiding citizens lived in constant fear of their lives and properties.

Chaos Leads to Coup

Amidst the widespread chaos and confusion, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu led a group of junior army officers in seizing control of the government in a coup d’état. This coup was generally applauded in the North where it was most successful.

Military Rule

Then General Johnson Ironsi took control of the country instituting military rule, but claiming that he wanted to defend the democratic institutions (which had clearly failed) and clean up corruption, before returning the country to democratic rule.

Counter Coup

As Ironsi was an Igbo, the Northerners executed a counter coup on 29 July 1966, led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed. To attempt to allay the fears of the Southerners, Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from a minority tribe in the North, was put forward as the nominal head of the military government.


Thereafter large-scale massacres of Christian Igbo living in the Muslim North erupted and continued throughout August and September 1966. General lawless and disorder spread throughout the North like wildfire, with widespread looting and killing of Southern Christians.

Ethnic Cleansing

Even Lieutenant Colonel Gowon, as the military head of state, broadcast: "I receive complaints daily that up till now Easterners living in the North are being killed and molested and their property looted. It appears that it is going beyond reason and is now at a point of recklessness and irresponsibility."

Seceding from Chaos

Amidst this breakdown of law and order, the military governor of the Igbo dominated South East, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu joined with the Southern parliament in proclaiming the secession of the South Eastern region from Nigeria. As one commentator at the time proclaimed: "The federation was sick at birth and by January 1966, the sick, bedridden babe collapsed." Three coup d’états in one year, followed by widespread targeting and massacres of Christian Igbo in the Muslim North, had now provoked the South Eastern region to secede from chaos.


At this point soldiers in the Nigerian Armed Forces were encouraged to return to their place of origin. Muslim Hausa soldiers in the South moved North, Igbo and Yoruba Christian soldiers in the North returned to their homes in the South. These soldiers, along with a stream of other refugees, returned to the South with news of Muslim brutality against them.


Indignation grew and the fragile threads that held the artificial country together were severed. A war of words erupted through the radios and newspapers. Nigeria had never been united. The sixty years of British protectorate and 63 months of the First Republic had only hidden the basic disunity beneath a thin veneer.

Peace Negotiations

Early in 1967, a peace negotiation was called under the auspices of General Ankrah of Ghana, in Aburi, Ghana, between the Supreme Military Council of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Eastern Region Military Governor, Lieutenant General Ojukwu. Ojukwu managed to achieve agreement to a Confederation for Nigeria.


However, when Gowon returned to Lagos, the Nigeria Military Government reneged on the agreement he had just agreed to. Ojukwu accused the Federal Government of bad faith, lack of integrity and going back on its agreement. An attempt by the Emperor Hallie Selassie of Ethiopia to intervene was unsuccessful. This new nation was proclaimed the Republic of Biafra on 30 May 1967.

Independence Declared

When on 30 May 1967, the Republic of Biafra was proclaimed, Colonel Gowon ordered a total blockade of the South Eastern province. June was spent by both sides in frenzied preparations for war.

The Nigerian Civil War Begins

The war began on 6 July 1967, when the Nigerian Federal troops opened an artillery barrage and then advanced in two columns into Biafra. They faced unexpectantly fierce resistance and suffered high casualties. The Biafrans then responded with an offensive of their own on 9 August when Biafran forces moved West, across the Niger River and through Benin City. Within two weeks they had advanced to just 130 miles East of the Nigerian capital of Lagos. While the Nigerians ultimately recaptured this territory, the Biafrans had succeeded in throwing the Nigerians onto the defensive and tying down vast numbers of Federal troops, who otherwise would have been invading Biafra.


When the Nigerian Federal Army attempted to cross the Niger River from Asaba, they lost over 5,000 soldiers in the battle. 1968 was a year of military stalemate. The Nigerian forces were unable to make significant advances due to stiff resistance and a series of major defeats.


However, the capture of Port Harcourt and the naval blockade of Biafra led to a humanitarian disaster with widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas. The Biafrans claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war. At this stage volunteer bodies began organising blockade breaking relief flights into Biafra, carrying food and medicines.

International Involvement

Nigeria received huge financial and military support from the United Arab Republic, including Egyptian Air Force units which ruthlessly bombed refugee feeding centres, hospitals and churches. Nigeria also received military support from the Soviet Union, Syria, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Red China and inexplicably the United Kingdom.

Atrocities from the Air

Egyptian pilots used MiG17 fighter bombers and Ilyushin-28 bombers to attack civilian targets, even bombing Red Cross shelters and hospitals. French Doctor Bernard Kouchner was outraged that the gag order, that the Red Cross required its volunteers to sign, prevented him from reporting on the widespread, systematic human rights violations by Nigerian forces and their Egyptian allies, against the Christian Igbo.

The Birth of Doctors Without Borders

When Dr. Kouchner publically criticised the Nigerian government and The Red Cross for their seeming complicity in this humanitarian disaster, which was leading to the deaths of hundreds-of-thousands of Biafran civilians, a new aid organisation was born. Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), was founded in 1971, by these dissident French Red Cross medical personnel who were outraged by the helplessness of the Red Cross to ignore the political and religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of victims.

Against All Odds

Biafra received support only from South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal. A small number of foreign volunteers also helped the Biafrans in their brave battle against all odds. German born Colonel Rolf Steiner was not a mercenary, in that he fought as a volunteer - without pay. Col. Steiner led the Fourth Commandos effectively against the Nigerians. On one raid he destroyed six Soviet bombers and fighter jets on the ground. South African soldier Maj. Hugh (Taffy) Williams inspired his Biafran soldiers to defeat divisions of Soviet led Federal forces with skill and courage. Captain Jan Breytenbach led a company of South African paratroopers to train and support the Biafrans.

Biafran Air Force

Count Carl Gustav von Rosen, was a Swedish flying Ace and idealist who came close to changing the course of the war with his bold hedge-hoping minicoin raids on Nigeria. Count von Rosen equipped five Malmo MF1-9 Minicoin small single piston engined aircraft with 68mm anti-armour rocket pods and machine guns. His Biafran Air Force included three Swedes, and an ex-royal Canadian Air Force pilot. Van Rosen's BAF succeeded in destroying several MiG-17s and three of Nigeria's Ilyushin-28 Bombers, which had been used to bomb Biafran villages and farms on a daily basis. The small, but bold, Biafran Air Force disrupted the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force and army attacking Nigerian air fields and military columns.


The Canadian pilot, Lynn Garrison, innovated the method of dropping bag supplies to remote areas. By placing a sack of food inside a larger sack, when the package hit the ground, the inner sack would rupture, but the outer one would keep the contents intact. Many tonnes of food were dropped in this way to besieged Biafrans who would have otherwise died of starvation. Rhodesian pilot, Jack Malloch, flew desperately needed supplies, landing at Annabelle - Biafra's jungle airstrip near Uli.


The odds were greatly against the Biafrans. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Eastern region had insufficient arms for their soldiers. With great ingenuity, and enthusiastic support of the general population, the Biafrans manufactured rockets, mines, tanks, grenade launchers, bombs, flamethrowers, vaccines, and clothing. They also armoured and equipped civilian boats to form a small Navy.


However, very few countries in Africa recognised Biafra's independence. The exceptions were Zambia, Tanzania, Gabon and the Ivory Coast.

Overwhelming Logistical Disparity

Logistics plainly won the war for the Nigerians. Not only were numbers on their side, but vast quantities of ammunition were supplied by the Muslim Middle East and by Red China, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. The Biafran soldiers were plainly better trained and more highly motivated. However, in the end, lack of ammunition and food proved decisive.

Operation Tailwind

With increased British support, the Nigerian Federal Forces launched a final offensive against the Biafrans on 23 December 1969, with a major thrust from the South, led by Colonel Obasanjo (who later became a military ruler and much later the first elected President in Nigeria). Operation Tailwind was launched 7 January 1970 with Third Division launching from the South, the First Division from the North and the Second Division from the West.


Overwhelmed from all sides, and with their only remaining airstrip overrun, the Biafrans surrendered on 15 January 1970. The war cost the Igbos a great deal in terms of lives, money and infrastructure. Up to 3 million people died in the conflict, most of these from starvation and disease.

Dispossessed and Impoverished

Igbos who fled for their lives during the war, returned to their homes to find their properties taken over by others. This injustice was condoned by the Nigerian government by claiming that the properties were "abandoned". Similarly, Igbos lost their jobs by being informed that they had "resigned" by fleeing the fighting. The suffering of the Biafrans was intensified by Nigeria changing its currency and refusing to honour Biafra's supplies of pre-war Nigerian currency. Effectively this devastated the Igbo middle-class and destroyed their savings.

Three Decades of Dictatorships

Nigeria continued to suffer under a succession of military dictators. Each coup d’état seemed to only intensify the widespread corruption.


Today Operation World reports that: "The scale of corruption in Nigeria is staggering. It is widely regarded as one of the world's most corrupt societies and is infamous for e-mail scams, international crime and drug-running. Graft, bribery and embezzlement are commonplace at every level of society. Since the 1960s, over US$400 Billion has been lost through corruption, almost all to the very people entrusted with the nation's stewardship." "The impact of corruption on Nigeria is devastating and crippling. It pulls others into the grasping free-for-all… it leaves the Nation's reputation in tatters and it generates such disillusionment that violence and extreme reactions appear to be the only ones that work." 

Ongoing Threats

"Extremist Muslim agitation in the North, armed militias in the disgruntled and oil-rich South East, pervasive corruption, a self-serving network of beaurocratic elite, immigration/brain drain, widespread poverty…" all threaten Nigeria's fledgling democracy.

A Divided Country

The three regions of Nigeria have now developed into 36 states. 8 of these states are overwhelmingly Muslim, 18 are overwhelmingly Christian, and 10 are split roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims.

Sharia and Jihad

The imposition of Sharia law since 1999, in 9 Northern states and parts of 4 others, has led to the martyrdom of over 13,750 Christians and the destruction of many hundreds of church buildings. Officially, Nigeria is constitutionally a secular state with freedom of religion, but that is not protected in the Sharia law dominated North. The Muslim Hausa and Fulani dominated areas continue to be a law unto themselves and the constitutional rights of Nigerians are ignored in these areas. As Operation World reports: "The introduction of Sharia law in Northern Muslim states is a direct challenge to the Federal government. It is an open door to human rights abuses and the further infiltration of Nigeria by extremists. It is a danger to national stability and a threat to Christian ministry in those states."

The Greatest Need

Operation World reports that church growth in Nigeria has been massive, yet there is a widespread failure of discipleship and balanced Bible teaching. "Africa's - and Nigeria's - greatest spiritual challenge is not Islam, not corruption, not even the need for Missions, but Discipleship. If the Nigerian Church were truly discipled and brought to maturity in Christ, it would be an unstoppable force."

False Gospels Inoculate Against the True Gospel

"Unbalanced prosperity theology and chasing after dubious miracles, cheapen the Good News. Numerous doctrinal distortions, greed masquerading as Biblical prosperity, spiritual charlatanism and unethical fundraising, not only exchange the truth for lies, but also inoculate millions against the real message of the Gospel." "Nominalism …double standards are widespread and immorality, …compromise with the world brings strife and disrepute to the Gospel."

Threats and Pressures

"Christian leaders are under great stress in today's Nigeria, including spiritual opposition, political pressure and financial temptation. Those in the North also face very real dangers from Muslim extremists."

Credibility Gap

"There is frequently a gap between what is preached and what is perceived to be practised by Christian leaders."

Cultic Competition

"A profusion of competing denominations and sects has emerged, many of them claiming inflated numbers to increase the prestige of their leaders."

Fakes and Frauds

"Extravagant lifestyles and oily showmanship assert spiritual depth and Biblical preaching as indicators of anointing. Instances of corruption, theft, embezzlement and sexual immorality are tragically frequent. Accountability is often absent; the 'big man' dynamic plays into the same materialism, pride and carnality that cripple Nigeria politically and economically. Pray that humility, simplicity and holiness might become the watchwords of the Nigerian church."


"The scale of persecution of Christians by Muslims has accelerated Nigeria's Northern states and as far South as the Central Plateau. It has caused the deaths of thousands, including pastors, and the destruction of hundreds, even thousands, of churches. It has united Christians and driven them to the Lord in prayer, but it also threatens the very fabric of Nigerian society and statehood."


"Literature is vital… especially in the areas of Discipleship… they are avidly sought after, but in short supply. The number of bookshops is very few… many mega church pastors write copiously, but the topics are the same - Prosperity, Success and Overcoming. Pray for those who are interested in writing on a wide range of issues, and in a culturally and contextually relevant way, but lack the means and publishing sources."


"Nigeria has one of the world's highest proportions and numbers of short wave radio listeners. Even more have access to FM. With Nigeria's low rural literacy level and strong oral story telling culture, radio is vital for evangelism and discipleship. Pray for all unreasonable restrictions to be lifted for local radio. Many unevangelised groups can receive Christian radio broadcasts in their own language. The Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) is known to play a restrictive role on Christian broadcasts on national stations, as well as frustrating the setting up of Christian radio stations. This calls for prayer."

Islamic Oppression

"Sharia law is accompanied by restrictions on church buildings, the banning of Christian religious education in state schools, communal violence, destruction of many churches and loss of life - mostly of Christians, who are automatically degraded to second class citizens. Pray that Christians may respond with love, wisdom, peace and spiritual authority; pray they will be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to testify about Christ."

Christian Courage and Resilience

"Persecution is often so severe that many Christian workers have fled the region. In some areas, many churches and even entire denominations have been burned out. Rebuilding often happens - occasionally multiple times - at great expense to the congregation and without compensation, or assurances that attacks won't happen again. Pray for great faith and endurance for those Christians suffering such loss."

(Source: Operation World - The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation, edited by Jason Mandryk, 7th Edition, 2010, Biblica.)

"Brethren, pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for not all have faith." 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2

Dr. Peter Hammond

Frontline Fellowship
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Tel: 021-689-4480
Email:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

See also:

Churches Bombed in Nigeria and Burned in Ethiopia
What is Behind the Jihad in Nigeria?
The Church Under Attack in Nigeria
Pray for Christians Under Fire in Nigeria, Sudan and Tunisia

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