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Who Killed Biafra?

This profound cultural antipathy held the seeds of the tragedy. The model federation began to disintegrate after nominal independence in 1960. Census rigging, electoral corruption, financial scandals, led to the first military coup of January 1966 and the end of the first republic. This coup, drawing its strength from Ibo-speakers and other Southern Nigerian elements, resulted in the assassination of the Sardauna of Sokoto, the leading Northern theocrat, his ally, Balewa, the first Prime Minister of the federation, and Akintola, the reactionary premier of the Western region. Nonetheless, the new military government was generally hailed throughout Nigeria as the beginning of a new era.

The goal of General Ironsi, the Ibo who inherited this coup, was to end corruption, centralize the regionally duplicated machinery of government, overhaul the electoral system, and undertake national planning. He soon appointed Ojukwu military commander in Eastern Nigeria. But Ironsi, who was less radical than the young Ibo officers who conceived the coup, faltered. The second coup, six months later, which established the present regime, was revanchist—an alliance of quasi-feudal Northern elements, some reactionary Westerners, and, behind the scenes, the British. Ironsi and several hundred Ibo officers were put to death. Following the coup, General Gowon, a Northerner from a minority tribe, and a thoroughly colonialized personality, publicly announced that the federation was not workable; the evidence indicates that he was preparing for Northern secession. But the British wanted a Nigerian federation and they persuaded the new military government that it was in their mutual interests to maintain the structure that they had invented. The federation had, for example, provided the North with access to the sea.

During this chaotic period, the Ibo were isolated as enemies of the regime. By October 1966, thirty thousand had been murdered in Northern Nigeria, in a systematic series of pogroms (Western Nigerians were not molested). Most of the remainder, nearly two million, finally found their way back to the East in one of the most extensive migrations in modern history.9 In May 1967, after fruitless negotiations with Lagos, Eastern Nigeria and its fourteen million people seceded from the federation and established the independent republic of Biafra.

The record of the Ibo was not that of chauvinists or of tribalists but of nation-builders; they acted as catalysts to the process of forming a nation, first in Nigeria, then among culturally related peoples of Eastern Nigeria, a more practical and natural undertaking. Nor was the Biafran conception an exclusive one. In the beginning, the Biafran regime, while insisting upon protective political sovereignty, proposed a common market with Nigeria at large, as well as a customs union, common currency, transport and communications systems, shared educational facilities, and even common diplomatic representation in receptive countries. Furthermore, the regime had suggested plebiscites in Nigerian-Biafran border areas, so that people might determine their political allegiance for themselves. Not withstanding facile accusations of “Balkanization,” a realistic pan-Africanism was at the heart of the Biafran enterprise, just as pan-Nigerianism had been so vital a part of the old ideology.

The war that Nigeria declared on Biafra in 1967 developed in two phases. During the first phase, up to the fall of Enugu, the capital of Biafra, the exiles were reintegrated into their local communities and the conventional army carried on the fight. But the fall of Enugu was the signal for a sharp change. The people took up whatever arms they could find and bolstered the demoralized officers. Those of us who were in the country at the time were moved by the depth of the popular commitment. Every hamlet geared itself to a war economy: even young children declared themselves Biafran and stood guard, shouldering wooden guns, at village cross-roads.

As the war persisted, the people radicalized themselves in ways unique to their tradition, without the benefit of abstract blueprints. The old interest groups—including rich merchants, old-line politicians, government bureaucrats—dissolved, to be replaced by new elements. It was as if the people of Biafra were ridding themselves of their colonial past. The colonial structure had proven useful to them in the past, but, in typical Ibo fashion, they discarded it when it was no longer useful. One sensed, under the social surface, the primitive pulse of Ibo adaptability. One sensed “form in formlessness” and finally understood the amazement of the colonial observers who first encountered the Ibo.

The main social groups that emerged were the national peasantry, the petit bourgeoisie of small traders and store-keepers which had been smashed and dispersed by the war but had never lost its link to the land, and the energetic and ingenious young technical intelligentsia who kept the machines running.10 These “science boys,” as they were called, were the most systematically “radical,” that is to say, they viewed the war as both a national and a social revolution. They were determined to eradicate every vestige of colonialism and build a society that would achieve, in new form, the old balance between individual freedom and community responsibility. They had the ear and trust of Ojukwu, the leader in crisis who symbolized the national effort.

Ojukwu himself, who came from one of the richest families in Nigeria and was educated at a British military academy and at Oxford, had matured in the course of the war. If, in the beginning, he had trusted the British sensibility and depended upon the British sense of fair play, he quickly became a black revolutionary, one with few illusions. He spent his personal fortune during the first few months of the war and his first concern was for the kind of society that would follow the hostilities. He was fully responsive to the wishes of his people. He saw himself as leading a people’s war, with himself as their representative. He had also a thoroughly civilian mentality. As the American consul in Enugu told me in the fall of 1967, Ojukwu was “not ruthless enough” for the job that he had. He always referred to his Nigerian and British-trained officers as “they.” And he told me last April that the remnant of the colonially trained officer group comprised the one element in the nation which he feared might betray the developing ideas of the revolution.11 But he minimized this because the army had been more and more popularized after the fall of Enugu.

The new government bureaucracy, dispersed through the bush as the Biafran territory contracted, was composed, for the most part, of young intellectuals. When I talked to these men and women, they seemed completely dedicated to the struggle for national independence. They debated the shape of the future endlessly, and their physical and psychological proximity to the people at large offset the authoritarianism that one would ordinarily anticipate in a poor nation struggling for existence.

To an even greater degree than was the case before the war, the distance between these groups was small; a single family might include parents who farmed, relatives who ran small stores, children serving in the army or the government. But this reconstitution of people and society could not sustain the foreign assault forever. Just before Enugu fell, Ojukwu privately said that unless the economic blockade was broken, the resistance would last for no more than seven months, since he felt that starvation would overtake the nation. Even he underestimated the endurance of the Biafrans; but he was well aware of the strength of their enemies.


England stared across the barricades at its old antagonists in a new guise. The former colonial power could not afford an independent Biafra, hostile to the trading and investment interests which Nigeria had accommodated, to the profit of both the local business and political elites and the colonial companies. United Africa Company, the world’s largest trading group, a subsidiary of Unilever, had, for example, dominated the Nigerian import-export trade. The British were still buying cheap in Nigeria and selling dear. Biafra intended to trade as equals and with whomever it pleased. Moreover, the political example of Biafra could well have broken up the oil and banking connections which helped to feed the British economy. In the crunch, the British looked to their Northern clients, whom they had had to persuade, time and again, to the idea of Nigerian unity, but who had always proved easy to manipulate, in part because the federation provided the North with access to the sea. Biafra, then, was an economic threat to England, and the final embarrassment to England’s image of itself.

But the Biafrans were also fighting Russia. The play of interests here is somewhat more intricate but not difficult to understand. The basic Soviet concern is geo-political. The Russians grasp as coolly as the British that Nigeria, with the heaviest and ethnically most diverse population on the continent, is black Africa’s strategic territory. The eventual economic and political contour of a Nigerian settlement is likely to serve as a model for other black states, not only as something to imitate, but also actively, for Nigeria’s aims will weigh heavily in pan-African councils. The Russians, having failed elsewhere south of the Sahara (vide Guinea), where they have demonstrated a profound ignorance of local African conditions, both in theory and act, now turned to Nigeria. And what better ground than so huge and amorphous an area, well suited to that type of colonial control which requires a minimal investment of men and materials but provides great opportunity to apply pressure. England, it turns out, systematically prepared Nigeria for still another imperialism.

Certainly the Russians are not primarily interested in exporting revolution, a concept which they no longer seem able to define (perhaps the British and our State Department will find comfort in that). Their aim is to neutralize the British, lessen the influence of the North Atlantic powers generally in Africa, and clarify the lines of division between the Soviet and North Atlantic spheres of influence. One must note that this re-definition of the world, so evident in Africa, is being consummated in an atmosphere of more or less good-natured, if risky, competition. It has its ritual and its rhythm; only the poor and exotic masses suffer.

But why did Nigeria fit the Russian interest so well at this precise moment in history? There are two major reasons: Islam, that is to say, the manipulation of Islam, and oil. The Northern Nigerian hierarchy, predominantly Islamic and flexible in its negotiations with powerful foreigners, has done everything within its capacity to keep the twenty-five million peasants, the largest population bloc in Nigeria, in material and ideological serfdom. Thus, with the defeat of Biafra, negotiations with Lagos are apt to be undisturbed by disaffection from the Northern areas. Although this condition cannot persist forever, it can go on long enough to gain immediate Soviet ends. And should discontent increase, the Russians will be on hand, attempting to deflect any peasant-based revolution that may occur to their own political ends.

  1. 9

    Some Ibo remained in Western Nigeria during the complex negotiations prior to secession. One cannot know how many had intended to leave. During the war, the 35,000 (?) Ibo in Lagos were registered, and reports about their treatment vary. The least that can be said is that they held very few significant posts in education, industry, etc. In the adjoining Mid-Western region, there were perhaps 500,000 Ibo-speakers (initially ranging somewhat in culture from Eastern Ibo) who were native to the area. Many of them crossed the Niger to Biafra. Some were molested and murdered by federal troops. Some tried to remain neutral. Some shielded Biafran guerrillas. Some were pressed into the Nigerian army. Northern Nigeria, three-quarters of the country, had, of course, rid itself of Ibo; and these had comprised the majority of migrants. In any case, the fact that some Ibo lived outside Biafra (a handful may have actually chosen to do so) and survived is not relevant to the Biafran experience though the Biafran experience has much to do with them.

  2. 10

    Biafrans made their own matches, refined their own oil, experimented in separating protein from grass, grew new crops, and developed new forms of communal land tenure. Although children could no longer attend school, and the universities had been sacked, the people, impoverished from top to bottom, held seminars from one end of the country to the other, inquiring minutely and with pristine, un-prejudiced curiosity into the meaning and the outcome of their struggle.

  3. 11

    For Ojukwu’s ideas about the revolution see Biafra, Random Thoughts of C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, General of the People’s Army (Harper & Row, 1969) and Biafra, Selected Speeches with Journals of Events (Harper & Row, 1969).

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