Nigeria achieved independence from the UK in October, 1960. It has seen little but strife ever since. This is in large part due to the fact that the British laid out the boundaries of the most populous country in Africa without regard to anything but geography. Nigeria might be a country, but it is not a nation. There are over two hundred fifty different ethnic groups in Nigeria, and hundreds of languages, encompassing multiple “families” of African languages. Even more divisive, over the last fifty-four years of the country’s independence, are the religious divides between North and South.
The north of the country is dominated by the Muslim Hausa and Fulani peoples. The south is largely dominated by the Yoruba in the west, and the Ibo, Ibibio, and Ijaw tribal grouping around the Niger Delta. The southern tribes are largely Christian, providing a pretty sharp dividing line between north and south, that has shaped the politics of the country, and its wars, since independence.
As expected, when the British left in 1960, they left their chosen officials in charge. That administration rapidly fell into corruption and nepotism, leading to the first military coup d’etat, in 1966. The younger Nigerian officer corps, mostly European-educated, and largely leftist by ideology, conducted the coup to force out the “old guard” and try to get rid of some of the corruption. However, the coup raised hackles in the north, because most of the officers who took part were Christian, and worse, Ibo. The Ibo have a reputation for being ambitious and arrogant among the Muslims in the north; Al Venter describes this as largely due to the Ibo’s willingness to work for what they want.
While the officers who had taken over professed their desire for an equitable, if somewhat Marxist, government, the northern Muslims weren’t buying it. Many of the precepts the new military government was ascribing to were contrary to Islam, and, worse, General Aguiyi Ironsi, the army chief who had taken over, was an Ibo.