The Role of The Soviet Union in The Nigerian Civil War

The Nigeria Civil War of 1967 to 1970 is a significant event that drew much international concern. It was significantly caused by the struggle for power between Nigeria state and the civilians of Eastern Nigeria. The war had severe effects including loss of life and property which led to a drawback in the economy of the country. However, the international community had to reach out and stop the conflict to bring peace and unity to Nigeria. The paper aims to highlight and discuss the role of Russia in the Civil War. Previously, the Socialist bloc states were often politically and ideologically opposed to the capitalist countries, therefore; they shared a common aspect with the colonized people after the war's freedom. The conflict in Nigeria conformed with the cold war where the Eastern bloc and the West were at logger's head in the international politics hence the main reason why Russians wanted to get involved with the Nigerian politics. Nevertheless, the calamity presented a circumstance where the Capitalist nations and the Socialist countries had to work together though with different objectives to achieve the same outcome.

In 1968, there was a policy disagreement in the Eastern bloc that led to a military struggle between some states in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, presenting the role of Russia. The first aspect of the paper covers the politics in Nigeria including the amalgamation, politics of Independence and the protest that led to the war. The other part is the events witnessed in the conflict. Another aspect is the part that Russia had in the battle and the impact they had on bringing peace to the Nigerian states. The final element is the conclusion which includes the evidence to show how Russia improved the state in Nigeria and the struggle the State faced with a struggle for power and ethnic politics.

The Role of Russia in the Nigerian Civil War

               Nigeria is a country in the Africa Continent which came to its present form of existence in 1914. The reality came to be after sir Fredrick Lugard merged the Northern protectorate with the Southern territory. The name of the country was suggested by the then Britons who wanted the British colonies to have a name different from the current name of that time Niger. They proposed their protectorates to be called Nigeria1. However, the naming of Nigeria does not mean the country was formed in 1914 since the state traced its roots back more than two thousand years ago. Nigerians have myths and legends which explain the Northern part of the country where the Hausa and the Kanuri traded with the Arabs before the nineteenth century.

             As stated earlier, it is clear that Nigeria was a creation of the western ambitions. However, the idea of the European countries to partition the Africa continent does not mean that most of the territories did not have contact years before their coming to Africa. The concept applies not only Nigeria but also to all countries in the Africa continent. Nigeria had some ethnic groups as well as several great kingdoms which evolved their form of government which was way far different from Western leadership. Furthermore, the kingdoms and their rulership were not subject to European influence. One of the kingdoms is the Kanem-Borno which had a history of more than one thousand years (Stremlau, 2015 p.67). Another kingdom which is popular among Nigerians is the Sokoto Caliphate which ruled the Northern Savannah part of Nigeria for more than one hundred years. However, the kingdom was defeated by the British rulership after extended antagonistic activities.

            Other kingdoms in Nigeria include the Ife and the Benin kingdoms which became famous because of their art among people of the world.  Furthermore, it is known that the Empire of Oyo was at one time the most powerful among the different states of the Guinea coast. On the other hand, the Niger Delta grew tremendously as a result of the slave trade. The growth was further significant due to the ever-growing demand for the slave by the Europeans as well as the later demand for palm oil.

During the civil war period, the country's external relationship with Russia was not that cordial. However, the relation became strong as from 1967 until the end of the civil war. In an attempt to support Nigeria and Russia relationship, the permanent secretary of the then ministry of finance addressed the county’s loan agreement with Russia. Furthermore, an understanding of promoting cultural cooperation between the two countries was also signed by both Nigeria and Russia. The deal helped many Nigerians to travel to Russia on a different basis, including education and business trips (Stremlau, 2015 p.74). Furthermore, students from Nigeria were able to get Russia scholarships. At the end of 1967, the USSR was allowed to open an embassy in Nigeria as well as increasing the number of working staffs in the embassy. Moreover, The USSR was also allowed to establish other information agencies in the country.

In 1994, Lord Fredrick Lugard amalgamated two protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria as one state. Furthermore, the year has much significance to the development of politics in Nigeria since it marks the evolution of Nigeria State and the making of the country as a political entity. The main reason for the amalgamation is because the Northern protectorate was not economically stable. Therefore, there was the need for it to be taken care by the Southern Protectorate. Lugard failed to listen to the better judgment of people who knew Africa better, and his decision led to political conflict. Furthermore, during the period of Nigeria independence, a lot was questioned on whether the amalgamation was necessary since it contributed to adverse effects.

Nigeria’s road to independence was marked by the introduction of the 1947 Richard’s Constitution. Despite the constitution signifying unity and ensuring the participation of Africans in the country's affairs, it received many critics. After the introduction of the constitution, there are adverse effects that interfered with the peace and unity of Nigeria. The decision made at the Ibadan conference in 1948, contributed to increase in ethnocentrism and tribal bitterness between members of political parties. The situation got intensified and led to the emergence of a coup which later steered to the Civil War.

In 1960, Nigeria achieved its independence and became a member of the International Community. The country's future was now bright since it was free from influence especially the European powers. Freedom was achieved through the patience of political leaders and without them influencing the natives to a violent revolution (Stremlau, 2015 p.97). During the first years, the constitution was able to perform its duty by containing various issues it was subjected to. However, in 1965, the western region tried to overthrow the government by the use of the military to suspend government activities. There have been various factors that led to the breakdown of law and order in Nigeria, including the increase of contempt by the politicians for their corruption. The other is there was a massive gap between the poor people and wealthy people that was significantly increasing. Another factor is that the government continued a policy not to regard the constitution. The politicians failed to respect the law leading to chaos in 1966, which later erupted to a coup.

The North wanted unification of services provided by the government and considered the coup as an Eastern coup. Also, when the Northern military officer was killed, they viewed it as an attempt to influence and control the military. Later, the North decided to stage a coup which Ironsi was murdered as he visited Ibadan and Yakubu Gowon took over as the Head of State. The other states did not want Gowon as their leader thus leading to conflict between the North and Igbos. The struggle continued over the years with the Igbos rejecting Gowon and considering their republic of Biafra.

During the first periods of independence, Nigeria faced a series of political unrest. One of the violence which threatened to cause anarchy and disintegration in the country was the post-election violence in 1964. During this period, the Soviet Union could have propagated its ideas to cause more tension in the country, but that was not the case. Russia decided to stay calm about the matter since it had experience with such situations. The USSR maintained its calm about the situation and limited its contact. However, it later decided to encourage the formation of neutralist foreign policy. Therefore, at this stage, Russia played big a role in maintaining peace in the country.

The most significant role that Russia played in the civil war was its will to provide the government of Nigeria with weapons. Nigeria found refuge in Russia since British refused to sell arms to Nigeria as it did not want shed of blood in the country (Stremlau, 2015 p.101). However, the urge to buy cocoa from Nigeria by the USSR accelerated their will to sell arms to the country as a form of mutual exchange. The Russians had lost the cocoa, and they were to be compensated by the Nigerians after the fall of Nkrumah. The cocoa export to Moscow begun rising with about seven thousand tons of cocoa being exported by the Nigeria Cocoa Marketing Company. It was only after constant pressure and pestering by the Russians to Nigeria that they were able to import cocoa. 

In 1967, it became official that Lagos had the support of the Soviet by Kosygin sending a letter commending Gowon to maintain the unity in Nigeria. Furthermore, Russia increased the supply of arms and amplified the activities of their leaders in the labor sector. There was no risk at all of Moscow supporting Nigeria, and it was a more realistic decision which would enable Nigeria to stand against Biafra. Even though the Biafran secession would be successful, the Nigerian government would continue to dwell in Lagos. However, the Russian policy was inscrutable as they were not concerned with the ideas of Gowon rule, which was not socialist inclined. Also, the need for a constant supply of firearms by Nigerians and actions of  Gowon's government contributed to the rapprochement of Nigeria with Moscow. The activities included Issuement of a Decree 21, which ordered that all the conflicts be submitted to arbitration. The other action is the arrest of various leaders such as Wahab Goodluck, who wanted to attend a conference of Liberal movement in Khartoum and Dr. Tunji who participated in a meeting in Moscow. Gowon believed that by remaining in the system of Capitalism, Nigeria could achieve significant development that would enable the country to be sustainable and recognized globally. 

Russia intervened the war with the aim to protest the imperialist power of the western countries and to protect Nigeria from imperialist machination. However, the anti-imperialist stance was neutralized by Lagos support through cocoa trade and social pacts between Russians and Nigerians. The more the cocoa was exported from Nigeria to Moscow, the more the military of Nigeria got assured of an endless supply of firearms which included boats, ammunition, and howitzers (Stremlau, 2015 p.86). Nevertheless, the Soviet Union did not want to jeopardize the growing influence they had in Nigeria, and they did not see the quest for Biafra secession as a right for self-determination. The support was not only out of selfless exercise, but it was a necessary foreign policy option.

The Soviet Union armed the federalist and ignored the fact that Nigeria was in the capitalist camp. Though other countries had banned the arms trade in 1968, Russia and Britain continued and therefore Russia, in a way contributed to the extension period of the civil war. The Soviets did not stop the trade as they wanted to compete with the influence that the Britons had and maintain political significance in Nigeria. Furthermore, Russia hugely benefited from the arms trade regarding monetary gains which made them be widely recognized.

Another role which the Soviet Union played during the Nigeria civil war is financial aid it offered to trade unions in the country as well as the government. It is understood that Russia broadened its contacts with some groups in the country. One of the unions which were substantially financed by the Soviet Union is SWAFP (Stremlau, 2015 p.89). Another union is the NTUC. Later in the year 1968, trade union activities flourished in the country. The success of the unions was attributed to the Soviet Union influence by both Nigeria and other external observers. It is believed that Russia financed the NTUC with a figure of approximately 30 000 sterling pounds every year. The financial aid which the government of Russia offered to various unions in Nigeria further accelerated the improvement of the relationship between the two countries.

Financial aid offered by the Soviet Union was not only to the Nigerian trade unions but also the various government projects in the country. It is seen that in 1968 the government of Russia agreed to finance the Kainji dam in the Niger River. The dam began to be constructed in 1964 by a consortium of civil engineering contractors from Italy. However, much of the pumped monetary fund into the project was used to finance the displaced people from the site of construction. It was until 1968 did the Russia government involved in the project to help complete the dam.

The Soviet Union initiated industrialization in Nigeria during the civil war (Stremlau, 2015 p.103). In 1967, it is evident from writings and other secondary sources that there were nine delegates from Russia who were experts in industrial matters who traveled through the country in their urge to establish industries in all the states in the country. The Eastern region was also a part of the initiative but was considered in the run to industrialization after Ojukwu rejected Gowon's authority. Furthermore, during the civil war, the government of Russia established itself as Nigeria's biggest importer of cacao. The trade enabled the country to earn foreign exchange, thus improving the economy of the country. It was during this period that Nigerians started to see Moskvitch cars in the country particularly in Lagos. The Soviet Union further supported the state through their offer to donate aircrafts to the government of Nigeria.

In conclusion, it is clear that Russia played a significant role during the settling of peace during the Nigerian civil war as well as developing the economy of the country. One of the roles discussed in this work is the provision weapons to the Nigerian government by the USSR. Furthermore, it is seen that Russia went a step further and helped Nigerian trade unions regarding financial aid. The monetary assistance helped to maintain the economy of the country in that period of civil war. There were also other financial aids which were offered to the government of Nigeria to finance the construction of projects like the Kainji dam. It was the Soviet Union which initiated industrialization in Nigeria as stated earlier in this work. From this paper, it is clear that nine Russian engineering experts toured Nigerian states to establish industries in each of the regions. It is therefore clear that Russia played a significant role during the civil war.


Stremlau, J.J., 2015. The international politics of the Nigerian civil war, 1967-1970. Princeton University Press.

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