5 Historical Riots/Wars In Nigeria That Almost Destroyed the Country

Various factors have stirred up conflicts among ethnic, religious and political groups in Nigeria. Religious, political and ethnic nationalism have led to riots and conflicts about control of power, state collapse, unequal allocation of resources, economic decline and ethnoreligious clashes in Nigeria.


Some of these clashes could well have been avoided while some, on the other hand, were inevitable. Whichever way, these riots will forever remain dents to the beautiful history of Nigeria.

highlifextra brings you the top 5 historical riots/wars in Nigeria that almost destroy the country. It is worthy of note that these riots or wars happened after the amalgamation of northern and southern protectorates in 1914.

5. Adubi War of 1918

Adubi War of 1918 | Historical riots/wars in Nigeria
The Adubi war, also known as the Egba Uprising broke out in 1918, between June and August, as a result of the taxation system introduced by the British colonial government in Abeokuta, the present capital of Ogun State, Nigeria.

highlifextra gathered that more than thirty thousand (30,000) Egba people went to war against the colonial officials in Abeokuta, destroying many railway and telegraph lines in the southern part of the territory.

The Adubi war was mainly caused by the introduction of the direct taxation system on the Egba people as well as the cancellation of Abeokuta’s independence in the year 1918. Read about Adubi war in full details here.

4. Aba Women’s Riot of 1929

Aba Women's Riots of 1929 | Historical Riots/Wars in Nigeria
The riots or war led by women in the provinces of Calabar and Owerri in southeastern Nigeria in November and December of 1929 is known as the “Aba Women’s Riots of 1929” in British colonial history and “Women’s War” in Igbo history.

The roots of the riots evolved from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. Under this system, British administrators ruled locally through “warrant chiefs,” essentially Igbo individuals appointed by the governor.

Within a few years, the appointed warrant chiefs became increasingly oppressive. Colonial administrators added to the local sense of grievance when they announced plans to impose special taxes on the Igbo market women.

The Aba women’s riots prompted colonial authorities to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs. Read about the Aba women’s riot in full details here.

3. Operation Wetie: Western Region Riots of 1962

Operation Wetie
The third on our list of historical riots/wars in Nigeria is Operation wetie. This was the name given to the series of riots that characterized both the political and civilian scene of the defunct Western Region of Nigeria in the 1960s. Operation wetie, in the context of the crises, means to douse or wet politicians, their properties and supporters with petrol and set them ablaze.

The bloody riots started with intra-party disagreements between the leader of the Action Group, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and his deputy, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola. It all began when Chief Obafemi Awolowo gave up his post as the Premier of Western Region to seek power as the Prime Minister but lost and settled as the leader of opposition in the federal parliament.

Though the premiership mantle was handed over to Akintola, Awolowo still retained his post as the leader of the Action Group. However, Samuel Akintola did not reckon with Awolowo’s decision to remain the leader of the party and this brought about division of interest and loyalty in the Action Group. A faction of the Action Group pledged loyalty to Awolowo while another supported Samuel Akintola.

This caused serious uproar and unrest in the Western Region which later resulted in chains of violence. Several people were killed and properties worth millions were destroyed in days. Shortly after, a state of emergency was declared throughout the Western Region.

This became the first time in the history of Nigeria that a state of emergency would be employed to curb violence. Political opponents and their families were set ablaze and their properties too. Read about Operation Wetie in full details here.

2. Kano Riot of 1953

Nigerian Ciil War | Historical riots/wars in Nigeria
Another one in this list of historical riots/wars in Nigeria is the Kano riot of 1953. In March 1953, a member of Action Group (AG) in the House of Representatives, Chief Anthony Enahoro, moved a motion requesting that Nigeria should be granted self-government in 1956.

The leader of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), Sir Ahmadu Bello, moved a counter-motion. He proposed an amendment that self-government should be granted “as soon as practicable”. This led to disagreements over the motion and equally resulted in a strained relationship between the Northern and Southern leaders.

highlifextra gathered that the meeting of the House was adjourned and members of NPC were booed and called all sorts of names before they left Lagos for the North. A retaliatory move was made by Northern leaders in Kano to avenge humiliation they faced in Lagos after the self-government motion adjournment on March 31, 1953.

It was while Akintola and his group were in Kano that a riot broke out which is later known in history as the 1953 Kano riot or Kano riot of 1953. Several people lost their lives in the riot and scores were wounded. Read about the Kano riot of 1953 in full details here.

1. Nigerian Civil War/ Biafran War

19th May 1968: Nigerian Federal Troops in command of Port Harcourt after routing Biafran troops, during the Biafran War.
Nigerian Federal Troops in command of Port Harcourt after routing Biafran troops, during the Biafran War. Getty Images

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, broke out between July 6, 1967, and January 15, 1970. This bloody war caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra.

Created as a colonial entity by the British, Nigeria was divided between a mainly Muslim north and a mainly Christian and animist south. Following independence in 1960, three provinces were formed along tribal lines, the Hausa and Fulani (north), Yoruba (south-west), and Igbo (south-east).

Tribal tensions increased after a military coup in 1966 which resulted in General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, taking power as Head-of-State. This was followed by a northerner-led counter coup a few months later. Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed and widespread reprisals were unleashed against the Igbo.

Nigerian Civil War
Fearing marginalization within the state, on May 30, 1967, the Igbo-majority province declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra. Initially, its forces pushed back the Nigerian army but after a year of fighting, a stalemate developed.

The Republic of Biafra lost its oil fields which were its main source of revenue and without the funds to import food, an estimated one million of Biafrans died as a result of severe malnutrition.

On January 11, 1970, Nigerian forces captured the provincial capital of Owerri, one of the last Biafran strongholds, and Ojukwu was forced to flee to the Ivory Coast. Four days later, Biafra surrendered to Nigeria. Read more about the Nigerian Civil War/Biafran War here.

Bonus: Kaduna Riots of 2000

Kaduna riots of 2000 | Historical Riots/Wars in Nigeria
The Kaduna riots of 2000 were religious riots between Christians and Muslims over the introduction of sharia law in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria. The riots which began on the 21st of February, 2000 claimed between 200 to 1000 lives.

Some of the protesting Christian youth smashed vehicle windshields and disrupted the flow of traffic in the Kaduna metropolis. In retaliation, many homes, banks, shops and businesses belonging mainly to Igbo traders from eastern Nigeria were looted and vandalized by Muslim rioters.

In Aba, trouble began when the bodies of Aba natives were shipped from Kaduna. Aba residents, furious over the deaths, attacked Muslim Hausa who live in the city and burned the mosque. Violence was also reported in the nearby towns of Owerri and Umuaha.

highlifextra gathered that President Olugusen Obasanjo appealed to both Christians and Muslims “to desist from violence” and the government sent elite troops to Aba. Kaduna state governor, Ahmad Maikarfi, imposed a dawn to dusk citywide curfew and the military and police were put on high alert.

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Photos from General Yakubu Gowon’s Wedding in 1969

On the 19th of April, 1969, Major-General Yakubu Gowon who as at then was Nigeria’s Head of State got married to Miss Victoria Zakari at the Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos. It was a joyous and memorable day for Nigerians even though there was an ongoing war in the country. Below are some lovely photos from the state wedding.


General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
General Yakubu Gowon and Victoria Zakari
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
The bride, her father and bridesmaids
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
General Yakubu Gowon and his bride, Victoria Zakari
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
Entrance of the bride accompanied by her father
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
General Yakubu Gowon and his wife cutting their wedding cake
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
General Yakubu Gowon and Admiral Akinwale Wey
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
The bride and her Chief bridesmaid
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
L – R: Yakubu Gowon’s elder sister Maryamu, his mother Saraya and relative arriving at his wedding. Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, 1969.
General Yakubu Gowon and wife
General Yakubu Gowon's wedding
General Yakubu Gowon and the Bishop of Christ Church Cathedral

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The Nigerian Civil War: Why and How It Happened (1967-1970)

Nigerian troops entering Port Harcourt, after routing Biafran troops during the Biafran War.
Nigerian troops entering Port Harcourt, after routing Biafran troops during the Biafran War. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War or the Nigerian-Biafran War, broke out between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra from July 6 1967 to January 15 1970. Nigeria’s main reason for going to war was to counter the secession of the Eastern Region (Biafra) from the Republic of Nigeria.

The Igbo people of the Eastern Region felt they could no longer tolerate the Hausa-Fulani-dominated federal government and saw secession as the only way out. It was a three-year bloody war with a death toll numbering more than one million people, children included.


Immediate Causes of the Nigerian Civil War

1. The first military coup of Jan. 15 1966, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, was seen as an Igbo coup by the Northerners. Prominent Northern leaders like Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Nothern Region) and his wife, Hafsatu Bello, were killed in the coup while some Igbo leaders were spared. After the coup, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo officer, was installed as the Head of State. This angered Northerners who sensed foul play. They prepared for retaliation.

Troops from the Nigerian Federal Army marching along a road after routing Biafran troops at Port Harcourt during the Biafran War.
Troops from the Nigerian Federal Army marching along a road after routing Biafran troops at Port Harcourt during the Biafran War. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

2. The 1966 counter-coup. This was the second coup in Nigeria. On July 29 1966, some Northern military officers led by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed staged a coup which was a retaliation to the killings of Northern politicians and officers by January 15, 1966 coup plotters. This coup brought General Yakubu Gowon, a Northerner to power. The North successfully reclaimed power.

3. The third immediate cause of the Nigerian civil war was the massacre of Igbos living in the northern part of Nigeria. After the first and second coup which was seen as ethnic strife, tension began to rise amongst Igbos in Northern Nigeria. This tension culminated in the pogroms targeted at Igbos. Between June and October 1966, pogroms in the North killed an estimated 8,000 to 30,000 Igbos, half of them children, and caused more than a million to flee to the Eastern Region.

4. In May 1967, to strengthen the unity of the country, the Federal Military Government of Yakubu Gowon divided Nigeria’s four regions into twelve states. The former Eastern region under Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu saw the state creation (without consultation) as the last straw. And so, on the 30th of May, 1967, Lt. Col. Ojukwu declared the existence and independence of the Biafra Republic.

The outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War

The Federal Military Government condemned Ojukwu’s action and ordered that the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra should be countered. On the 6th of July, 1976, the Nigerian federal troops marched in two divisions into Biafra. Division 1, led by Col. Shuwa operated through the north of Biafra, while the second Division advanced on Nsukka which was captured on July 14 1966.

Nigerian civil war
JULY: Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, the Biafran secession leader in front of a map during the Biafra war in Nigeria in July 1968. (Photo by Fondation Gilles CARON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On the 9th of July, the Biafran army retaliated by attacking the mid-western region of Nigeria. They marched across the Niger River, passed through Benin city and later stopped at Ore on August 21. This attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, with the Biafran rank of brigadier. The Biafran troops captured the mid-west after a little resistance from soldiers stationed in the region.

This infuriated Gowon and commanded Col. Muhammad Murtala to form another division (Division 2) to drive the Biafran army out of the mid-west and attack Biafra afterwards. The mid-west region was recaptured by the Nigerian army on the 20th of September.

Enugu was made the capital of the Republic of Biafra. Later when Enugu was captured by Federal troops in October 1967, Aba, Umuahia and Owerri successively served as the provisional capitals of the Republic.

A starving Biafran family during the famine resulting from the Biafran War. (Photo by Express Newspapers
A starving Biafran family during the famine resulting from the Biafran War.

Within a year, the Federal Military Government (FMG) captured the city of Port Harcourt and many other coastal oil facilities. The Federal Military Government blocked all the routes for transporting food into the Republic of Biafra which led to the starvation and death of over 2 million Biafrans.

The FMG saw food blockade as a war strategy while many people around the world tagged it a genocide. The food flown into Biafra by foreign mercenary pilots was little and couldn’t solve the starvation Biafra faced. One of the notable mercenaries was the Swedish Carl Gustav Von Rosen who attacked Nigerian military airfields in Port Harcourt, Benin City and Enugu.

End of the Nigerian Civil War/Biafran War

The FMG attacked Biafrans through air, land and sea, leaving them helpless at some point. By the end of 1969, it was obvious that the Nigerian civil war will soon come to an end.

Ojukwu flees Biafra

The FMG launched its final operation known as “Operation Tail-Wind” on January 7, 1970. The operation was executed by the 3rd Marine Commando Division and supported by the 1st and 2nd Infantry division. Owerri was captured on the 9th of January, while Uli fell on the 11th of that same January.

The self-acclaimed head of state of Biafra, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, aware of the situation, fled the Republic with his family on the 8th of January, 1970. Philip Effiong, Ojukwu’s deputy who was left with the administration of Biafra later surrendered to the Federal Government on the 14th of January, 1970, therefore, bringing the Nigerian civil war to an end. Philip Effiong signed the surrender paper in Lagos and the Nigerian civil war officially ended on the 15th of January, 1970.

Soldiers celebrating the end of the Nigerian Civil war
Soldiers celebrating the end of the Nigerian Civil war

After the war, General Yakubu Gowon said, “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.”

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  1. Hogan, John (20 May 2017). “How Ireland got involved in a Nigerian civil war”. Irish Times.
  2. Olawoyin, Historical Analysis of Nigeria–Biafra Conflict (1971).
  3. Omaka, Arua Oko. (2016). “The Biafran Humanitarian Crisis, 1967–1970“.

Asaba Massacre: How Hundreds of Asaba People Were Killed In 1967

Biafra war
Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and Biafran troops


On the 27th of May, 1967, General Yakubu Gowon promulgated decree number 14 which created 12 states (six in the north and six in the south) out of the former four regions in Nigeria. Governor of the Eastern Region, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, saw this creation of states (without consultation) as a breach of the 1967 Aburi Accord.


This rubbed salt to the political and ethnic wounds the country has been nursing long before independence. Following the creation of states, Col. Ojukwu considered the seven-point resolution of the Eastern Assembly and the Advising Committee of Chiefs and Elders which mandated him to declare the secession of the Eastern Region from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Eventually, on the 30th of May, 1967, Col. Ojukwu declared the independent Republic of Biafra and this immediately set the stage for war, the Nigerian civil war.

Nigerian Troops In Asaba In 1967
Nigerian troops at Asaba in 1967

How The Asaba Massacre Happened

It was during the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran war, that the Asaba massacre was perpetrated. This was from the 5th to 7th of October 1967.

In August 1967, two months before the Asaba massacre, a division of the seceded Eastern Region (Biafra) army led by Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Banjo occupied Benin in the Midwestern Region of Nigeria.

The Biafran army (also called Liberation Army) wanted to use Benin as a launching ground for the invasion of Ibadan and Lagos but unfortunately for them, the proposed invasion failed due to reasons connected to the newly promoted Lieutenant Banjo. Lieutenant Banjo wanted to secure Benin in good hands before proceeding to Ibadan so he would not be suddenly cut off from Biafra. (Ademoyega 1981)

Lieutenant victor banjo
Lieutenant Victor Banjo

Banjo’s failure gave the Federal (Nigerian) troops an opportunity to recapture Benin and drive Biafran army out. They chased the Biafran army into Asaba and then into Onitsha. After the Biafran army crossed into Onitsha, they blew up a part of the Onitsha bridge making it impossible for the Federal troops to continue the chase.

It was at this point that the people of Asaba met their ill fate. The Nigerian army second division led by Col. Murtala Muhammed turned back to Asaba and killed many people, ransacked their houses and perpetrated other war crimes on the claim that the victims were Biafran sympathizers. This happened on the 5th of October, 1967.

Asaba Massacre of 1967
Map showing the movement of the Nigerian and Biafran troops

Knowing things could go worse, on the 7th of October, two days after the federal troops arrived in Asaba, the people of Asaba organized a dance to show their support for One Nigeria. Men and women, boys and girls all danced in their Akwa Ocha (white) attire and repeatedly showed the intention of the dance.

Unfortunately, the federal troops turned the dance into a bloody one. They separated men from women and killed the men. Many sources have it that the troops led by Col. Murtala Muhammed and Col. Ibrahim Taiwo oversaw the aspect of adult male killings.

Asaba Massacre of 1967
Mural depicting the Asaba massacre. October 7, 1967 | Cheta Nwanze

Asaba stank with blood and dead bodies which were later pilled up and buried in a mass grave. None of the dead could be given a proper burial with necessary funeral rites. Up to 1000 people lost their lives in the Asaba massacre. A source claimed that younger girls were raped and the recalcitrant ones were shot dead.

A video which documented the Asaba Massacre of 1967 showed one of the lucky survivors, Patience Chukwura who was then a young mother pregnant with her fourth child as she narrated how her husband, Eddie, was killed. Her father-in-law and two brothers-in-law were also murdered in cold blood.

Many citizens of Asaba fled their homes and did not return until the Nigerian civil war ended in 1970. Below is a video documenting the Asaba massacre by S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli in 2013. In this video, witnesses of the Asaba massacre recounted their horrible experiences and losses.


  1. The Asaba Memorial Project at the University of South Florida []
  2. Emmanuel Emma Okocha. Blood on the Niger: The First Black on Black Genocide, The Untold Story of the Asaba Massacre in the Nigerian Civil War
  3. Ademoyega, Adewale. Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup. Evans Brothers (Nig. Publishers) Ltd.; 1981; P.g. 140-150
  4. Bird, S., & Ottanelli, F. (2017). The Road to War and Massacre. In The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War (pp. 1-20). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316493168.002