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Who Killed Biafra?

And, of course, no European state recognized Biafra. Biafra’s main benefactor was the non-political Joint Church Aid Group, operating from São Tomé. In the face of overwhelming force, the Biafrans had to rely largely on their own ingenuity. The airstrip at Uli, for example, was initiated, maintained, and operated by Biafrans, one of the most extraordinary ground operations in the history of aviation.

If Biafra was starved of arms, Nigeria had more than it could use. There is no need to document the endless flow of military and related equipment from Europe to Lagos, the open presence of Soviet technicians, British military advisers, and Egyptian and East German pilots who bombed Biafra in Soviet planes. The foreign support of the Nigerian regime, however, is also a revealing measure of Nigeria’s neo-colonial status. It is no accident of history that both the Soviet Union and Great Britain attacked Biafra. Inevitably, the United States supported its leading NATO ally (who also well understands the American position in Vietnam). The Nixon Administration regarded the conflict as falling within the British sphere of influence. The State Department rightly assumed that American banking and oil interests would continue to prosper in a Nigeria that maintained its colonially imposed form (although it claimed that the US was officially neutral and sympathetic to the suffering of all affected by the war).


For the British, Nigeria was the rudder of black Africa: as Nigeria turned under England’s indirect hand, so turned the continent. The colony was the largest of England’s African holdings, as well as the most profitable; and its “moderate” transition, under England’s “enlightened” tutelage, was the pride of the Colonial Office. Nigeria was represented as the realization of the best intentions of the West in those areas we first attempt to bleed white and then call underdeveloped. In fact, Nigeria was a political legend, conjured out of a patchwork of trading routes in order to make money and gain ground for England. But it was and is vital to England’s idea of itself that the ultimate brutality and greed of Empire be rationalized to more humane and altruistic ends.

The North, two thirds of the territory, was easily subdued, and provided England with the basis for the political formation of Nigeria. Working through an economic and political alliance with the feudal Hausa-Fulani aristocrats, the initial Muslim conquerors of the peasants, the Colonial Office then extended its indirect rule. The British affinity for this sort of colonial government was genuine. Power recognized power, class recognized class, whatever the cultural form. Given the presence of hierarchical societies, indirect rule was efficient and economical. It proved relatively successful in the West because the Yoruba-speaking peoples had a well-articulated political structure, with a complex system of chieftaincy. But the primitive democracies which criss-crossed the primarily Ibo-speaking East resisted domination.

There the British residents and district officers found themselves in a maze of subtly organized autonomous hamlets. (Even the language of the Ibo, as a leading authority attested, contained “complexities to which we are unaccustomed in European languages, living or dead.”) They could hardly have imagined a more widely diffused or intangible authority.

As Margery Perham, one of the leading experts on Nigeria, has written of this Ibo culture,

The headship of any [Ibo] group is never autocratic; it is representative in an exceptionally full sense… To us, with our logic and our standards of size, it must seem that these thousands of little groups living, not dispersed, but very densely upon the soil, must have spelt anarchy. But—and here lies one of the chief fascinations in studying the complexities of primitive society—Ibo institutions cater with remarkable success for the basic needs of men in society. Anti-social conduct, exceptional in small kinship groups, was checked by the authority of the ancestors wielded by those who stood nearest to them….

The earth deity, “the unseen president of the community,” was ready to punish desecrations and thefts from her bosom: while the Yam-god protected the store-house. …All members of the community, down to quite young children had their active social responsibilities…. Collective family responsibility turned relations into potential policemen who might force a murderer in their midst to commit suicide rather than bear the results of his crime, or sell a thief rather than repay his theft with interest and stand the cost of the sacrifice necessary to purify his offence. Feuds between local groups could be settled at councils representing the wider group which contained them, or by neutral arbitration. Members of age grades would fine one of their number who shirked his duties. [Special] insignia helped to shield traders and travellers. Kinship ties spread in a strong, intricate network…. The Ibo were never bound by mere forms to incompetent leadership.

Observers consistently emphasize the “remarkable plasticity of Ibo institutions…the extraordinary tolerance and adaptability of the people and their desire for new things.”5 Such “excess of democracy,”6 such “formlessness in form” provided the Ibo and the tribes related to them with the means of combatting the worst effects of colonialism. In spite of the slave and palm-oil trades, the local communities in the forests of Eastern Nigeria were able to maintain a substantially primitive character. And the customary forms of British administrative and fiscal control met with open rebellion, as in the Aba women’s riots of 1929, the first large-scale uprising against colonial rule in Nigeria. In Ibo society, “the women were at least the equal of the men.”

Under colonialism, the original social character and independence of the Ibo were transformed into a vast effort at self-modernization. In the words of one shrewd British commentator, writing more than thirty years ago:

They want to learn from us but only such things as may be materially productive as soon as possible. They tolerate us because they need us. They look upon us as stepping stones…. Dissociated from our inventions and the riches they imagine we all possess, they see little in us.7

It was, then, typical of the Ibo that they complained bitterly of the absence of technical education and had no desire to reproduce themselves in the image of the colonial power. Black Englishmen were rare among the Ibo, although they were frequently encountered in Northern and Western Nigeria. Moreover, the saturation of the Ibo heartland by Irish Catholic institutions, including primary schools, was hardly a mechanism for converting Ibo-speakers, or Easterners generally, into Anglophiles. But the mission schools, and later education generally, did provide them with a further opportunity for those attempts at self-improvement and self-validation which had been a universal feature of their native communities.

Inherited or ascribed status was of little importance to the Ibo. But they honored the man who strove for skills and self-mastery. In their open but communal society, the Ibo were able to change on their own terms. They rapidly developed the most comprehensive educational system in Nigeria, and achieved the highest proportion of physicians, engineers, and technicians, relative to their population, in black Africa. Their passion for higher education and their restiveness under the British brought them to the United States. By the late 1940s, although only 17 percent of the population of the colony, the Ibo accounted for more than two-thirds of the Nigerian students in this country. The typical Ibo student was proudly financed by his local hamlet and considered a national resource.

Although the Ibo resisted British indirect rule, they responded to, and extended, the idea of Nigerian unity. The pressure of over-population in the heart of Ibo territory led hundreds of thousands of Ibo to migrate to other parts of the country, primarily to the Northern region. Settling, as technicians, professionals, traders, and civil servants among a people of different culture and inferior formal education, they maintained their connections with their native hamlets through a network of “improvement unions.” The mutual aid, the political and educational activities of the unions perpetuated in a different form the aboriginal egalitarianism of the people. The unions sharpened Ibo self-consciousness and were, so to speak, a nationality in microcosm. The traditional demand that status be achieved not inherited inhibited the emergence of rigid class distinctions. They respected effort above all. Typically, the most they would say of Azikiwe, for example, the Ibo who was to become President of Nigeria, was “Zik tries.”

Although the superimposed entity known as Nigeria was a British creation, the efforts to achieve internal coherence and the idea of a Nigeria unified from the inside were primarily generated by these Ibo migrants, many of whom found jobs in government service, in education, and in commerce, and were much envied for this. Nevertheless, they were the primary architects of Nigerian freedom; inevitably, their conception was that of an independent, democratic, economically sovereign, unitary state. As the most widely dispersed people in Nigeria, the Ibo were in a unique position to define the territory as “more than a geographical expression.”

Moreover, their Nigerianism was hardly inhibited by loyalty to any pre-existent archaic political structure. This distinguished the Ibo from the Hausa of the North and the Yoruba of the West and helps to account for their anti-colonial, unitarian, nationalist zeal. For the most part, the Hausa and Yoruba accepted the colonial definition of Nigeria and, in that sense, remained provincial. As one scholar put it:

…there actually seems to be an inverse relation between the passion for modern (territorial) nationhood and the long-standing indigenous experience of large-scale organization. Thus, the Ibos have carried a minimum of excess baggage, so to speak, in the way of tribal or quasi national organization crystallized around symbols which inhibit broader, trans-tribal identification of indefinitely broader scope.8

Those of us who visited the country in the late Fifties found that Ibos were becoming missionaries for the idea of Nigeria; the Ibo typically refused to identify himself publicly as other than Nigerian.

It should be clear, then, that the Ibo were evolving directly from a “primitive” society to a modern nationality without passing through any significant archaic phase, and thereby conceived the modern Nigerian nation as one that should be both universal and egalitarian. The improvement unions were a critical link in that evolution. When the Ibo lost faith in the possibility of a unified Nigeria, they expressed their sense of nationality in the creation of the state of Biafra.

The Biafrans finally opted out of the Nigerian federation when it became clear that the British role was evolving from outright colonialism to neo-colonialism, and that the cultural differences between Eastern and Northern Nigerians, in particular, were too great to overcome. As noted, Northern society was hierarchical and, at least in the upper castes, conservatively Islamic. Paradise awaits the true believer; the goal is the protection of the status quo. In the view of the Northern Muslim leaders, Nigeria was conceived as a theocracy. The inevitable Ibo- Northern opposition was further sharpened by the economic threat the Ibo posed to the routinely corrupt and nepotic Northern hierarchy.

  1. 5

    Margery Perham, Native Administration in Nigeria (London, 1962), p. 229ff.

  2. 6

    K. Onwuka Dike, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta (Oxford, 1965).

  3. 7

    Sylvia Leith-Ross, African Women (New York, 1965), p. 356ff.

  4. 8

    Linville Watson, “Some Cultural Aspects of Nigerian Nationalism” (unpublished manuscript), p. 17, quoted in James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Los Angeles, 1965), p. 337.

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