A Child of Circumstance: the Life, Death and Rejuvenation of Nigeria’s Biafra

Hattie Goldstaub

Today’s title quotes Biafran president Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s assessment of the short-lived secessionist state situated in Nigeria’s south-east region from 1967 to 1970, whose existence was dominated by devastating civil war. With a resurgence in pro-Biafran demonstrations throughout Nigeria in recent months, examination of these circumstances and Biafra’s short history seems apt in order to explain the calls for a breakaway state. 

The colonisation and decolonisation of Nigeria by the British created and maintained a patchwork nation, pieced together by an alien will that ignored cultural, religious and ethnic distinctions. Nigeria as we know it is a state beset by divisions: a Muslim majority of Hausa and Fulani people in the north and a Christian majority of Yoruba, Ijaw and Igbo in the south. After its formal independence in 1960, the country was shaken by military coups in 1966. The first of these was viewed as an Igbo operation and killed the incumbent Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, while the second was a direct reaction to the first, led by Muslim officers and resulting in a backlash of pogroms against Igbos in the north where at least 30,000 were brutally murdered. After an attempt by the new head-of-state, Yakubu Gowon – a northerner, albeit not a Muslim and not of Hausa or Fulani descent – to create a Nigerian federation of twelve states, with the Igbo people concentrated in the central east away from control of southern oil, the then south-eastern governor Ojukwu announced the secession of his region from the rest of the country in May 1967. This was the inception of Biafra.

Although Biafra and its predominantly Igbo population of 13.5 million intended a peaceful split, Nigeria could not allow this due to the aggregation of oil in the Niger Delta, then under Biafran ownership. It declared war. Despite its greatly inferior military capability Biafra fought back bravely and held the British and Soviet-supported Nigeria off for the best part of three years. During this time, Biafra was only recognised as a state by Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia. Much of the rest of the world remained silent over Biafra’s plight, although international aid efforts intensified after a Nigerian blockade created a chronic shortage of food and medicine to the region, aiming to starve it into submission. Nigeria’s Federal Commissioner for Finance, Obafemi Awolowo, stated: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war.” This tactic broke Biafra, which surrendered to Nigeria in January 1970, after at least a million deaths of both civilians and combatants. When previously Biafran Igbo citizens tried to return to their pre-war lives in the north, they found their houses and jobs occupied by northerners. A Bank of Nigeria ruling that Biafran supplies of pre-war Nigerian currency were now defunct rendered the savings of many Biafrans worthless. Regardless of pre-war earnings, each Biafran was guaranteed only 20 Nigerian pounds. Despite Gowon’s promise of an equal peace and his use of the slogan "no victor, no vanquished", the post civil war situation did little to appease or even to help those who had fought for Biafra.

So what remains of the Biafran movement now? After decades of official silence, a pro-Biafran secession organisation – the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) – was established in 1999 and regularly calls for the United Nations (UN) to reinstate and recognise Biafra as an independent nation. Despite the non-violent nature of its demonstrations, it has been declared treasonous and aggressive by the Nigerian government, with former President Goodluck Jonathan terming it extremist in 2013, comparing it to Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. Its leader Ralph Uwazuruike was arrested for treason in 2005; despite bail, his trial is due to continue. Similarly, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, headed by UK-based Igbo, Nnamdi Kanu, has set up a Radio Biafra station and campaigned for the state’s recreation. However, upon a visit to Nigeria in December 2015, Kanu was arrested for treason and is currently detained by the Nigerian government. Peaceful protests calling for his release have been dispersed and violently repressed by the Nigerian police and military: according to the South-East Based Coalition of Human Rights Organisations, 80 members of IPOB were killed by Nigerian forces between August 2015 and February 2016. Such demonstrations have once more led to an aggressive reaction against Igbo civilians, even those not involved in pro-Biafran demonstrations. Despite apparently flagrant human rights abuses by the Nigerian government, its denial of these has been more or less accepted by multilateral organisations such as the UN and the European Union. 

Although the possibility of a renewed Biafran secession in Nigeria remains remote, the tensions and divisions that caused a civil war in the 1960s are clearly still present, as are the motivations for a breakaway Igbo state. The international community, particularly those who are responsible for such a state of affairs, have a moral duty to disregard their economic motivations and pay greater attention to such a volatile and unjust situation.

Child Soldiers in South Sudan

Reports reveal further human rights abuses and child conscription

Will Yeldham, writing for the Organisation for World Peace

On June 29th the UN released a new report detailing not only ongoing child conscription by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), but also how attempts to verify first hand accounts were prevented by the SPLA. Members of the UN mission in Sudan (UNMISS) interviewed 115 victims and eyewitnesses in Unity State, which has been the sight of heavy fighting in recent months.  They recorded how the conflict has become characterised by 'new brutality and intensity' such as the allegation that SPLA soldiers raped then torched girls alive inside their homes. Indeed, The U.N. children’s agency also stated earlier this month that that warring forces have carried out horrific crimes against children, including castration, rape and tying them together before slitting their throats.
This corroborates the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. IGAD is ostensibly a trading bloc of 8 east African countries but has also provided a key platform to debate economic and security issues plaguing the region. Members of IGAD's monitoring and verification mechanism described how Major General Johnson Olony and Shilluk Militia, affiliated to SPLA, had "carried out forcible recruitment of an estimated 500-1000 youth, many of whom were children aged between 13 and 17 years". This took place between 7-9 June, when militias conducted house to house searches of Kodok and Wau Shilluk, and is only one example from the lengthy report listing similar violations.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011; however, the present conflict was sparked in 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir tried to put down an uprising led by his former deputy, Riek Machar.  In the resulting civil conflict thousands of people have been killed and almost two million displaced.  There has been renewed fighting after peace talks between the factions disintegrated in March this year and the SPLA launched a major offensive in April with fierce fighting in Unity State's northern Mayom district. 
The problems facing the international community in reducing violence and quelling the resulting human rights abuses are twofold. Firstly, the present difficulties in effectively punishing generals responsible has engendered a dangerous lack of accountability. The UN and its member states have spent many years encouraging the demobilisation of child soldiers in the region and supported the creation of the government's national Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission. However, in the case of warlord David Yau Yau, UNICEF is in fact funding the reintegration of 1755 boys in his militia after he signed a peace deal that bagged him a high ranking government job. Indeed, the threat of culpability was so slight that Yau Yau gave the approximate number of children in his militia as twice that of what the DDRC found and released. Government officials who subsequently gave each of Yau Yau's soldiers monetary gifts only reinforced the benefits of child soldiering and in fact drew more children into the ranks ahead of planned release ceremonies.


All this means that, despite the illegality of the use and conscription of children under 18 in South Sudanese law, it appears as a legitimate method of recruitment to commanders on both sides of the conflict. 
Secondly, the hampering of UN investigations by SPLA forces must not be tolerated. The UN states that attempts to corroborate the eyewitness accounts featured in its most recent report were hampered by the SPLA who denied their teams access to the areas under question. "We call on the SPLA to fulfil this commitment and allow our human rights officers unfettered access to the sites of these reported violations," said Ellen Margrethe Loej, the head of UNMISS. However, the military spokesperson for the SPLA Philip Aguer Panyang stated that the accusations made in the UN report were in need of further verification and denied that troops had interfered with UN investigations stating: "Our role as an army is to facilitate humanitarian deliveries and access for civilian protection". Such denials only serve to hamper efforts to highlight and undermine the ongoing abuses. 

Both these issues lend credence to Human Rights Watch's comment that “military and political leaders on all sides have failed to make any serious attempt to reduce abuses committed by their forces, or to hold them to account”. It must be the task of the UN and the wider international community to force serious reduction in human rights violations through targeted sanctions, the proposed arms embargo and diplomatic pressure.


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