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.