The Forgotten African War of Independence

Biafran soldiers aboard army tugs during the Biafran War.

Source David Cairns/Getty

Why you should care

Because the struggle for freedom never ends.

The young rebels lay in wait, hidden in a trench by the road through the bush in Azu-mmili, near Port Harcourt. Their leader was Sylvester Egbunna, 20, who had positioned his ragtag platoon of 25 other recruits, all of them under 30 years of age and armed with AK-47s as well as Dane guns and ogbunigwe — locally produced rifles and rocket-propelled missiles. They had been in position for two days, and now they could hear the throaty diesel roar of a snub-nosed Mercedes-Benz 911 truck as the vehicle lumbered up the road. Egbunna and his men maintained discipline and held their fire.

When the 911 was alongside them, they sprang their trap, leaping from the trench and firing on the 25 federal troops in the truck bed. “I killed them all with my boys,” says Ebgunna, now 70, gesturing with a crutch to demonstrate how he mowed down the enemy. “It was bloody. I drank their blood.”

Egbunna thrived in military service, earning the nickname “guitar boy” for his strumming the trigger the way a musician would strum a fine instrument.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, which had been raging for 18 months when Egbunna led his commando-style “911 operation.” At the time, the West African country, which had gained independence from Britain in 1960, was being torn apart by multiple forces — corruption, military coups, the discovery of oil at the delta of the Niger River and, most significantly, ethnic strife. In the north and southwest, Muslim Hausas were slaughtering Christian Igbos. From May to September 1966, the death toll reached 80,000 to 100,000, according to “Israel, Nigeria and the Biafra Civil War,” by Zach Levey. Survivors — 700,000 to 2 million of them, according to some estimates — fled to Biafra and its neighboring states, which were majority Igbo. 

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A starving Biafran family during the famine resulting from the Biafran War.

Source Express Newspapers/Getty

On May 30, 1967, Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, a 34-year-old Igbo who had studied history at Oxford, joined with other representatives from the region to announce the founding of the independent Republic of Biafra. When negotiations over reunification broke down, “the federal government launched a military operation on July 6, 1967, to crush what they called the ‘rebellion’ of Biafra,’” says Christopher Ejiofor, a Biafran veteran and author of Biafra’s Struggle for Survival. “This officially marked the beginning of the war.”


Egbunna hadn’t waited for hostilities to commence. Working as an apprentice for his brother, who sold double-barreled shotguns and ammo in the Biafran city of Ogoja, he signed up for the Biafran army as soon as he heard Ojukwu’s declaration of independence. A stubborn child, Egbunna had made up his mind to defend his homeland, and he didn’t want his parents, who were farmers and petty traders, to try to stop him. “I did not tell them when I joined the army,” he says. “But during the war I wrote letters telling them that I was fine but would not return any time soon.” 

From Ogoja, Egbunna traveled by boat to Cross River and a Biafran army camp, where he joined the 10th Battalion. After three weeks of basic training, he was shipped 250 miles to Port Harcourt on the Niger Delta, a key hub of the petroleum industry, and from there to a palm oil plantation on Bonny Island, where he was later assigned to the Eighth Battalion. Egbunna thrived in military service, earning the nickname “guitar boy” for his strumming the trigger the way a musician would strum a fine instrument. “He was respected by even senior Biafra military officers because of his success on the battlefield,” says John Oliwe, who fought alongside Egbunna. “He was aggressive and young. His profile rose after he successfully led the 911 operation, which was one of the turning points of the war because the federal troops withdrew for days.”

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Nigerian men during the Biafra War, circa 1968. Members of the Igbo tribe rebelled in 1967, demanding a separate Republic of Biafra. The war and famine lasted until 1970, when the decimated republic surrendered to federal forces.

Source Hulton Archive/Getty

That was the high point of the war for Egbunna. The next day he was wounded during heavy gunfire and shelling when his platoon was outflanked by federal troops. “It was fierce and bloody,” he recalls. “We were waiting in our trench to lay ambush for the enemy soldiers. They came in their numbers in a pickup truck. We were surrounded. That was where I got this injury here,” he says, unbuttoning his shirt to show scars from the shelling.

But there were other wounds as well. Egbunna was taken to Umuahia, about 60 miles northeast of Port Harcourt, where his right leg was amputated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (now the Federal Medical Centre). He remained there until the breakaway republic surrendered on Jan. 12, 1970. Disillusioned, he returned to Ogoja and his parents. Currently, he lives in a resettlement camp for disabled Biafran veterans in Oji River, Enugu state, southeastern Nigeria, with his wife and three of his five children. (The two oldest children live and work elsewhere.) 

Half a century after a war that saw more than 3 million Biafrans die of disease and starvation as a result of federal blockades of relief supplies, renewed agitation for an independent republic of Biafra is growing once again. In May, groups commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ojukwu’s declaration staged sit-at-home protests in the southeast and south-south regions — major strongholds of what was once Biafra.

However, resistance from the Nigerian government continues. Last year, Nigerian security forces killed 150 peaceful protesters celebrating the 49th anniversary of Biafran independence.

As for Egbunna, when asked if he wants to see another war, he answers immediately: “We have not yet recovered from the one we fought. We are still living with the scars of that war.” And then, in a whisper, he adds, “You don’t use war to fight for every cause.”

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