“If we fail, the white man, who has been so surprised by our movement, the white man, who has entirely miscalculated every facet of this struggle, will have garnered a new range of knowledge about the potential of the black man and prepared himself to combat us should we ever again rear our ugly head. We owe it, therefore, to Africa not to fail. Africa needs a Biafra. Biafra is the breaking of the chains.

“It is not enough just to fight the Nigerians or their friends. We have to fight as a starting point of the African revolution…. If the revolution fails, we do a disservice to our race. But…what really frightens the white man is this whole challenge to the direction of international economy…. This is the one black society that on its own can go out and seek raw materials, manufacture finished products and sell them with absolute equality in the open world market. Once this has been demonstrated, you will find that the basis of neo-colonialism has been removed; which is continued economic dominance.”

—C. O. Ojukwu,
at the Biafran People’s Seminar,
Umuahia, March 5, 1969


Now that Biafra has been defeated by Nigeria and its patrons, history is being rewritten in order to accommodate the interests of the victors. In fact, the defeat of Biafra is not a victory for the Nigerian people but for the neo-colonialists, whether Soviet or North-Atlantic. As Conor Cruise O’Brien has pointed out, it is Nigeria, not Biafra, which resembles Katanga. But statements emanating from the Great Powers would have us believe that the Biafrans were the aggressors against a liberal and well-intentioned Nigerian regime, that the nation was allied with the white supremacists, that it was a creature of the oil companies, that the war was a conspiracy by a clique of adventurers led by Ojukwu. These variations on a theme run from Moscow through Whitehall to the State Department and the editorial pages of The New York Times,1 and they echo in the pronouncements of General Gowon.

Moreover, Nigeria and its allies, misrepresenting the depth of the Biafran struggle in an effort to mitigate their own responsibility, have done everything in their power to underestimate the past suffering and the present condition of the Biafran people. In spite of the grim reports of correspondents who have penetrated the Ibo-heartland, the British government and the press in this country even now refuse to acknowledge the full extent of the human disaster in Biafra. A generation of children has either been starved to death or deprived of the protein necessary for normal mental and physical growth. A generation of young adults, among them the most talented and skilled in black Africa, has been stifled.

At whatever cost to the Biafrans, the Nigerian state must not be embarrassed. For example, the Nigerians have forbidden the use of the airstrip at Uli although, or perhaps because, it is situated in the most devastated area and could serve as the channel for large-scale, rapid relief where it is most needed. Uli has become a nonplace. In order to further the appearance of independence, the Nigerians have also barred Joint Church Aid, the efficient and humanitarian organization that did its best to supply Biafra with protein food and medicine during the war.

While Whitehall and the State Department collaborate in these empty rituals of sovereignty, their grandiose offers of aid stand little chance of reaching the affected areas in time to do much good because of poorly organized and indifferent Nigerian officials. This half-hearted Anglo-American humanitarianism masks the ruthlessness of a war which took two million lives (all but a tiny percentage of them Biafran), decimated the Ibo-speaking people, destroyed Biafran society, and ruined a national culture at the moment of its birth. It should be clear that supporters of Nigeria are eager to minimize the suffering that has taken place: the less the suffering, the shallower the struggle can be assumed to have been. That is the link between official humanitarianism and the politics of conquest.

Having insisted from the beginning that the plight of the Biafrans was exaggerated, the Russians, at least, avoid humanitarian gestures. They express disapproval of “interference in the internal affairs of Nigeria” but agree, nonetheless, that Soviet assistance during the war was, “more than any other single thing—more than all other things together,” responsible for the Nigerian victory,2 a “victory of progressive forces of the whole African continent over imperialism [represented by Biafra].”3 In the words of the Nigerian ambassador to Moscow, “the Soviet Union came out openly and honestly on the side of right, on the side of the federal government…there is something commendable, something great and something honorable in this attitude.”4 This view fits the self-interest of the Russians, and their self-interest commands their theory of current history. One now senses, with growing horror, that similar falsifications are being accepted in the West.


The representation of Biafra as a puppet of reactionary forces can be readily refuted by the facts. There is, first of all, the overwhelming reality of Biafra’s economic and military collapse. Obviously, as every visitor to Biafra has reported, external aid and support were tragically inadequate. Just how inadequate should be clear from the following:

Approximately half of Biafran arms were manufactured in Biafra by Biafrans, although this figure varied considerably during the course of the war. In the beginning of the war, apart from Nigerian army stocks on hand, almost all arms were locally made. There were no European experts on the scene, and the traditional smiths of Awka proved equal to the task. Toward the end of the war, the displacement of men and the loss of materials made the manufacture of arms virtually impossible. Biafra had on hand mines, armor plate, short-range mortars, ammunition for an idiosyncratic arsenal, and explosives. Scrap iron was the major local resource. They manufactured explosives from local stores of dynamite, supplemented by ingredients purchased in Europe, and built gun-boats for patrol of the Niger and the Niger basin. They secretly purchased electronic components from commercial companies in Europe and the United States, copied them wherever possible, and assembled them locally.

The remaining half of Biafran military supplies came from foreign sources. For the first eighteen months of the war, French arms comprised only 10 percent, half of which consisted of black market cash purchases made in France, presumably with the knowledge of the French government. A high proportion of these sales was sight unseen; and often, when the crates were broken open in Biafra, many of them turned out to be loaded with iron rods. In the last year of the war, however, French arms rose to about half of the foreign total. With francs from the Ivory Coast (which recognized Biafra), Biafra purchased from the government of Gabon (which also recognized Biafra) arms originally bought from the French government, and resold at cost. They were shipped to Libreville and flown to Biafra by French commercial pilots on chartered planes.

The French government made no sales, and extended no grants, directly to Biafra. Moreover, by indirectly selling arms for French francs, the French government profited from its former colonies. De Gaulle’s oratorical sympathy for Biafra, reinforced by the protests made by the President of the Ivory Coast, may have expressed his own appreciation of nationality, but, more significantly, he may have been stimulated by the possible deterioration of British influence in Nigeria and the chance of French access to the Biafran oil-fields. Still, French commercial investments in Nigeria did not seem to decline during the war, nor did Nigeria sever its connection with the Common Market. The Biafrans were well aware that French support was capricious. Last April, just before Umuahia (then the capital) fell, Ojukwu was disappointed but not surprised when the French failed to recognize his regime. At that critical moment, French arms had been reduced to a trickle.

Portugal supplied about one quarter of the foreign military supplies throughout the war, mostly small arms and ammunition, including some automatic weapons. These were strictly cash, commercial transactions. Most of these arms had initially been sold to the Portuguese government by Spain, which also supplied Nigeria directly via commercially registered flights from Madrid through Las Palmas to Lagos. The arms supplied by the Portuguese were flown into Biafra from Lisbon, on Biafran-owned or chartered transport planes. Among the dozen or so pilots involved, five were Biafran, the remainder were American, Rhodesian, South African, and Portuguese.

It is likely that Portugal sold arms to Biafra partly because she would be contributing to a war in black Africa, and thereby deflecting attention from her own atrocious colonial record. Biafra, however, made no economic or political alliance with the Portuguese. In their desperate effort to survive, the Biafrans bought arms from whatever sources they could, using (and paying for) facilities in Lisbon and São Tomé, which became strategic links between Europe and Africa.

But so far as Rhodesian and South African “aid” was concerned, there was none. The Rhodesian and South African commercial pilots were strictly private and well paid. Gowon has charged Rhodesia and South Africa with sympathy for Biafra, but he has no evidence for this except their hostility to England and the Soviet Union. In fact the governments of Rhodesia and South Africa did not condemn Nigeria. Gowon has conveniently forgotten that Balewa, the first Prime Minister of “independent” Nigeria, a Northerner, once expressed his “understanding” of the racist South African regime. And Kenneth Kaunda, who was to become the President of Zambia, attacked a Nigerian delegation for overlooking the racial situation in Rhodesia.


At the same time, Nigerian propaganda fails to mention the Czechs and Chinese as sources of arms for Biafra. For the first year of the war, Czech arms, about one quarter of the foreign supply, were purchased through black market traders, presumably with the knowledge of the Czech government. After the fall of Dubcek, in August 1968, this source dried up. Throughout the war small amounts of Chinese small arms and ammunition were made available via Tanzania.

The Scandanavian countries, on the other hand, supplied no arms, although half a dozen single-engined planes were purchased through private Swedish sympathizers, fitted with arms in France, and flown by Swedish pilots until they were replaced by Biafrans. For a very brief period during the early months of the war, no more than a dozen European mercenaries were active in Biafra; and these were subsequently expelled for insubordination and misbehavior toward their hosts.

This foreign military aid was obviously not only inadequate in itself but enormously outweighed by British and Soviet support of the Nigerian regime. Certainly no pattern of foreign dependence emerges from this picture. In that respect, and in every other, as we shall see, Biafra was indebted to no European power, received no grants, no cut prices. Indeed, after the first six months of the war, foreign investors in the secessionist area completely dissociated themselves from the Biafran regime.

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.

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.

By supporting the present Nigerian regime, the Soviets also solidified their relations with the circum-Mediterranean Islamic sphere, the Northern source of Islamic Africa. Thus far, the abortive revolutions in the Arab lands have not accomplished their internal aims nor has the leadership been capable of subduing Israel. Israel remains the logical symbol (whether the Israelis like it or not) of North Atlantic power in the Eastern Mediterranean, although here too the Western powers show signs of accommodating Russia for the sake of oil and better relations with the Arab oligarchies.

Israel is the Mediterranean bone in Russia’s throat; as well as the scapegoat for the new Arab leadership. The Arab failure against Israel in 1967, the year the Nigerian civil war began, for which the Arabs militarily blamed Russia even though the Soviets had armed them to the teeth, threatened the balance of the Soviet-Islam equation in the Middle East and alerted the Russians to the need for finding another means of entering the Islamic, Middle-East-Africa sphere.

By supporting Nigeria against Biafra, the Soviets appear to the Middle East as champions of Islam (the Nigeria-Biafra struggle was watched very carefully in the Islamic capitals where it was another official cause) and they also entrench themselves further in their assault on the Mediterranean. Egyptian pilots flew Soviet planes maintained by Soviet technicians against Biafra. The symbolism of this cultural alliance is not lost on the more reflective leaders of black Africa. If the Soviets represent the newest imperialism in Africa, the Arabs represent one of the oldest. They have their own history of African conquest; they have also enlightened and enslaved the pagans.

In both the Middle East and Nigeria, the Soviet-Islamic accommodation is directed at people of another religion—Jews, on the one hand, Roman Catholic Christians on the other. This helps to fuel the attack while consolidating the alliance, since the Russians seem to have no trouble in rationalizing their antagonism to either Judaism or Christianity. Like the British colonialists, the Soviets in their foreign policy show a certain affinity for the traditional political rigidity of Islam, where the many can be manipulated by the very few.

The irresponsibility of the Russian role seems boundless. The Arab leaders had threatened the obliteration of Israel. Did the Russians know that this could not happen? At what point would they have demanded a halt? At what point would they have imagined an Arab victory to have attained a legitimate goal? Or were the Israelis considered expendable in the larger Soviet design, as the people of Biafra have already proven expendable? (And as the legitimate aspirations of Palestinian Arabs have been expendable?)

The reluctance of many black American militants to support Biafra (the notable exceptions being Floyd McKissick and Charles Kenyatta) can now be understood. In part, it can be attributed to the “nationalist” identification with the feudal civilizations of Moslem Africa as exemplars of “black” historical achievement. The very size of Nigeria was confused with the substance of black power in Africa. Moreover, “high” civilization seems to be defined according to ethnocentric European standards; the more “primitively” organized pagan black peoples have been largely ignored in black American nationalist ideology. Neither the paganism nor the Christianity of the Biafrans fits the nationalist mystique; Christianity is viewed as an exploitative agency both at home and abroad. It is true that Christianity has been used in this country to encourage black passivity and has preached integration with the system.12 But the Irish Catholic missions, which were largely responsible for formal, elementary education throughout Eastern Nigeria, were not at all oppressive. They were apolitical, uncommitted to British colonial policy, and certainly did not inhibit the revolutionary drive of the Ibo.

The second term in the Soviet equation is oil. “Eastern Nigeria” (Biafra) and adjacent territories, including off-shore installations, comprise a major reserve. Although the federation before the war had been one of the world’s leading petroleum producers, the potential has hardly been tapped. The field in Eastern Nigeria may well be among the largest ever surveyed; it is certainly one of the richest, producing a clean-burning fuel with a very low sulphur content.

Should Russia persevere in her influence in Nigeria, gaining a voice in the disposition of this high-quality petroleum, her geopolitical position would be further solidified. At the same time, England’s relatively direct, short line of supply with Nigeria would be threatened. The situation in the Middle East being what it is, the loss to the North Atlantic Powers, the gain to Russia, need not be labored. Obviously, the defeat of Biafra was essential to the realization of British and Soviet ends, contradictory though they are. That is, before the Soviet Union and England could square off over the oil, the Nigeria that they are sustaining had to be firmly in control of the areas involved.

Petroleum politics was, however, a relatively recent nuance in the Nigerian scene. The colonial and post-colonial issue would have been basically the same had the extent of reserves not been suspected about a decade ago. Oil complicates and intensifies the conflict, but it is not the cause. The Biafrans told me that they would respect the existing foreign oil leases in their territory but that, apart from this, they were determined, of course, to refine, use, and trade their own oil. Moreover, as they proved in Port Harcourt and elsewhere, the Biafrans did not need foreign technicians in order to tap the field or run the refineries. The particular quality of British desperation, as the two months’ war they had predicted lengthened to two years and more, was certainly the result of large plans gradually going awry. (The British government owns 49 percent of BP; the Shell BP consortium is the largest Nigerian oil producer.) Nigerian oil production was well below the amount anticipated; until the last months of the war, the Biafrans held, or were able to harass, 60 percent of the field within or on the fringes of Biafran territory. (BP holdings almost certainly would have been liquidated eventually.)

As the present British Labour government inadvertently revealed the brutal rationality of its Nigerian policy, even the pretense of decency fell away. The self-justifying clichés of “decolonization” and “commonwealth responsibility” were hardly heard any longer. It was the British interest against that of the Biafrans, and if the Biafrans had to be sacrificed, so they would.

As the war persisted, the quiet rage of the British leadership mounted. Spooked by the Russians, angered by a strong undercurrent of pro-Biafran public opinion (including, along with Catholic Tories, British Communists who apparently chose the Biafran issue to declare a certain independence of Moscow), British government policy became more savage as it lost credibility. But the Russians could afford patience. Time sharpened the contradictions in the British position. The Russians did not need Nigerian oil but they did feel the need to deepen their Mediterranean and Islamic associations in their strategic confrontation with the North Atlantic powers. Ironically, the Biafrans, not the British, were the barrier.

The inevitable consequence of the Soviet presence in Nigeria was an extension of the confrontation with China: Soviet geopolitics versus Chinese ideology. The Russians have bad dreams about Chinese influence among the global proletariat and peasantry. Leninist logic must lead them to assume that the Chinese experience is likely to prove more pertinent than their own to the oppressed majority who populate the lower-class nations. Of course, what the Russians fear is that they have betrayed their own revolution, and it is the Chinese who remind them of their new position among the rich and powerful of this world. China is still a very poor, overwhelmingly agrarian country; and the Chinese have already replaced the Russians as a modern symbol of revolutionary possibility in “underdeveloped” areas.

As I have tried to point out, the British, and often the Russians, recognized the critical importance of Northern Nigeria for the whole of black Africa. Hence the compulsion to define Nigeria according to its old colonial boundaries. In the Soviet perspective, Northern Nigeria, with its archaic and oppressed peasantry, the largest population bloc in Africa, must be walled off from Chinese “influence.” The Chinese, on their part, were quick enough to realize that aspect of Soviet policy. Therefore, we can understand Chinese sympathy for Biafra, expressed as a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism,” “neo-colonialism,” and “Marxist revisionism.”

Recently, the Peking Review declared intself as follows (July, 1969):

Ganging up with the U.S. and British imperialists, the Soviet revisionist clique supports the Nigerian federal military government in its large-scale slaughter of the Biafran people who have announced their secession from the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Since the outbreak of the war in August 1967, Soviet revisionism, openly supplying the federal military government with large numbers of military aircraft, warships, bombs, rockets and other military equipment and dispatching large numbers of military personnel, has helped it massacre the Biafran people. By providing the military government with generous “aid,” Soviet revisionism is attempting to infiltrate this country with the largest population in Africa and pave the way for establishing a bridgehead for aggression and expansion in West Africa.

This is not to say that the Chinese fully appreciate the Biafran situation. The Biafran struggle, for them, is a symbol for a revolution that must occur throughout Africa. One senses in the Chinese position confirmation of an abstract anticipation, rather than a particular appreciation of Biafra’s immediate problems and cultural possibilities.13

Chinese sympathy for Biafra and Soviet support for Nigeria also reveal differences in attitudes toward the peasantry. The peasants of Northern Nigeria are not a national peasantry. Oppressed for centuries by successive indigenous ruling classes, and then manipulated by the British through the pre-colonial emirate system, they have, like peasants in archaic civilizations everywhere, primarily been concerned with survival, evading the central authority when they could, paying tribute when they had to. Moreover, in modern times they have not been subject to foreign military assault, which can have a unifying effect among peasants whose political relations to each other and to the urban areas are usually tenuous.

In Biafra, on the other hand, a national peasantry, identifying both with the townspeople and with the fate of the regime, did in fact emerge. Such a peasantry, evolving directly from a tribal base, was already evident under colonialism but was unified in the recent struggle. The Chinese presumably understand that a national peasantry is a prerequisite for further revolutionary development, for it can be brought into the nation-building process and is not readily manipulated by foreign elements. On the other hand, a feudally exploited peasantry, which is long removed from its tribal origins but has not yet evolved a national consciousness, a peasantry such as that of Northern Nigeria, potentially explosive as it may be, remains helpless in the presence of superior power and is, in any case, isolated from the political process. Soviet support for Nigeria, then, which costs the Russians almost nothing (the moral cost is, as usual, beyond measure), is tactically brilliant and ideologically bankrupt.

The Soviet insensitivity to the nature and importance of national consciousness in Africa is shared by the British and, for that matter, by the United States, which has persistently supported the idea of a Nigerian federation with a cruel, abstract, and ignorant enthusiasm. None of the three major powers seems to understand or recognize the substance of nationality. The ideological world shared by the great modern political structures of the West is collective, legal, sealed by constitutions and documents; its formalist character is enforced from the top down. It is increasingly alien to authentic national and cultural expression, as distinguished from the merely patriotic imperatives of political survival.

The Soviet Union is a type of federation, in name and formal structure, with the rights of diverse peoples mummified in the constitution of 1936 (socialist in content, national in form) but, in fact, the political legitimacy of constituent nations has never been recognized. Nor is it necessary to speak of the curtailment of national-cultural expressions, established under Stalin, throughout the Soviet Union. The United Kingdom, which typically turned colonies into federations as a means of solving national problems while maintaining the British association, is itself a kind of federation, both domestically and in the Empire-turned-Commonwealth. And the United States reflects the idiosyncrasies of its own history when it sees federation in the abstract as the highest form of political union.


In the “underdeveloped” world, where the primitive and peasant communities have long been assaulted, and where nations have not yet formed, the plans of imperialists, whether capitalists or socialists, further inhibit the possibility of an emerging national expression. The nation is merely regarded as co-terminus with imposed political boundaries. The culture of such a “nation” is of no concern to the colonial mentality, the ethnocentric assumption being that the culture is largely derived from the metropolitan mentor. And certainly the conscious, necessarily political, struggle for national emergence or survival is hardly tolerated; it is regarded as an historical offense in a world dominated by power blocs. The ignorance and denial of the authenticity of the Biafran struggle are, then, fully in accord with our knowledge of the internal mechanisms of contemporary, bureaucratic, highly rationalized states in their imperial phase.

The Biafrans were struggling to protect a nation in which the culture of the primitive past made itself felt and yet had become part of the modern experience. For these people, genocide meant both more and less than physical extinction. It meant the collapse of their symbolic universe and living on sufferance in a state that had used every conceivable means to reduce them to its own aspirations and pace, that is to say, to the Nigerian common denominator as it had been determined by colonial powers. The war waged upon the Biafrans was total. Economic blockade and starvation were the major weapons. Clearly, every means was being used to bring these people to heel because they were a political threat to the alliance against them and they were a political threat precisely because of their cultural possibility as a people.

Therefore I conclude that cultural genocide was being perpetrated. As for premeditated biological genocide, it was no doubt the policy of this or that field commander in localized areas, though it was not officially sanctioned—a fact that does not relieve Lagos of the ultimate responsibility for indiscriminate killing, however defined. But we can well understand why many Biafrans felt that their destruction was planned. Certainly the massacres that precipitated secession were, like all pogroms, organized from the top, igniting disaffected elements at the bottom, while displacing attention from the genuine grievances of the people at large.

As Biafra became a concentration camp encircled by Nigeria and its allies, the people did not dwell upon their misfortune; as introspection deepened, their humor sharpened, their style and verve persisted. Vance Bourjaily, one of the last Americans to visit Biafra, stated that he had “never seen such grace.” History had imposed upon the Biafrans the task of reconstructing a people from what the British gazeteers had designated the population of Eastern Nigeria. This is the rarest and most basic of human experiences. We were witnessing a rite of cultural death and rebirth, an experience which the modern world seems hardly capable of understanding.14

And what of the future? Ironically, it is the war against Biafra which has imposed upon the uneasy Nigerian leadership a certain mechanical identity. But there is little evidence that the Hausa and Yoruba and the many other peoples of Nigeria at large share that identity in depth or that the complex alliance of class and ethnic interests at the top can cohere much longer. Like every other bloody exercise in political scapegoating, the aggressor’s sense of unity is always false. It is the victim who learns the real name of the game. Gowon himself is a man in a quandary. Torn between Russia and England on the one hand, regionally based politicians on the other, and faced; moreover, with a rising military class, his political moment is probably ending.

Still, Nigeria under Anglo-American and Soviet surveillance will probably preserve some kind of formal unity. The peoples of Western Nigeria, though badly divided throughout the post-colonial period, have demonstrated against the present regime. Indeed, their elder statesman, Awolowo, had announced shortly before secession that he sympathized with the Eastern predicament and that if the East managed to secede, the West would follow suit. Now that Biafra has been forced back into the Federation, a change in regime more acceptable to the West seems likely. In any event, Nigeria is not a nation but a political idea imposed by force of foreign arms. The variety of peoples within its borders will continue to seek accommodation, and a formal change in structure, perhaps toward confederation, may occur, although Russia will probably press for its version of a unitary state. But Baifra may well be the last hope for a self-determining black Africa, and a revolution based on an indigenous model.

What will become of the Ibo-speaking peoples of Biafra, the heart of the enterprise? Their survivors will be confined to the East Central state. Their cultural energies exhausted for the time being, they will be suffered by the Nigerian regime just so long as they settle into a poor and meager existence, just so long as they “return to the fold.” One does not have the right to anticipate the resurrection of Biafra.

This Issue

February 26, 1970