from Africa in Transition

Fifty Years Later: U.S. Intelligence Shortcomings in the Nigerian Civil War

September 19, 2017

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, U.S. on August 14, 2008. Larry Downing/Reuters
Blog Post

More on:



Wars and Conflict

The Nigerian Civil war, which lasted from July 1966 to January 1970, remains the most significant event in the country’s post-independence history in ways reminiscent of the American Civil War. In the aftermath of a coup, a counter-coup, and a pogrom against the predominately Christian Igbos living in the mostly Muslim north, Igbos in their south-eastern homeland organized an independent state, Biafra, and attempted to secede from the Nigerian Federation. The civil war left an estimated 1.5 million dead, mostly from disease and starvation. Commonly called the Biafra War in the West, it was the first in a dreary series of large and highly publicized post-independence conflicts, which include those in Angola, Central African Republic, Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan. A widely published photograph of a starving Igbo child became the face in the West of these African conflicts.

In the United States, especially on college campuses and in progressive circles, there was strong support for the Biafran cause. Activists in the Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement tended to support Biafra. Pro-Biafra sentiment was strengthened by Biafra’s highly effective international propaganda and by the presence of large numbers of Igbo students on American college campuses, sent there by various Nigerian governments using newly-acquired oil wealth. Hence, Biafra was an American domestic issue, as well as a foreign policy challenge for the Johnson and Nixon administrations. In addressing those challenges, presidents Johnson and Nixon turned to the intelligence community (IC), as all administrations do when shaping foreign policy.

More than fifty years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, Judd Devermont has analyzed the IC’s biases that contributed to distortions in policy making in a recently published paper. Devermont is currently the national intelligence officer for Africa at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Hence, he is writing as an insider. His lessons-learned study has a primary focus on intelligence, but it also provides important insights into the broader process (or lack thereof) of policy making.

Devermont give good marks to the IC’s reporting on the coming of the civil war. However, once the war started, Devermont shows that IC “cognitive biases and faulty assumptions tilted its judgments in favor of Biafra and amplified its fear of mass atrocities committed by Nigerian forces.” Those biases included wishful thinking about the Biafran military, an undervaluing of the Nigerian military, and an over-estimation of the abilities of Odumegwu Ojukwu, the charming, Oxford-educated Biafran leader. The IC also underestimated Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian chief of state who, among other things, was a Christian, which contradicted the popular Muslims vs. Christians narrative. Contrary to IC views, he successfully instituted a policy of “no winners, no losers” once the civil war was over in order to reintegrate Biafra. (Arguably, national reconciliation in Nigeria took place faster than in the post-civil war United States.) 

Devermont concludes with lessons for the IC community that are equally applicable to the broader policy community. He warns that the IC’s conclusions cannot be “swayed by public sentiment;” cautions that the past is not always a prologue (the 1966 northern pogrom did not make inevitable a post 1970 pogrom); and implores analysts to always consider alternative outcomes to the conventional wisdom. 

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail