Tag Archives: civil war

Renewed attention to the Biafran Conflict

The BBC has reported that at least 100 people have been charged with treason in south-eastern Nigeria after a march supporting independence for Biafra, their lawyer says. Igbo members of the Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM) declared independence from Yoruba- and Haused-dominated Nigeria, raised the Biafran flag and then marched through the region’s main town of Enugu over the weekend, the Igbo stronghold during the Biafran War. Most of those arrested were young men, many sons of former Biafran fighters, but some were veterans of the war themselves. They were all remanded in custody.

More than one million people died during the 1967-70 Biafran conflict – mostly from hunger and disease. Political scientists debate whether the term “war” accurately describes the conflict. To be a “war” a certain percentage of deaths must occur on each side, and nearly the all the deaths occurred among Igbos and nearly all were due to the national government and its allies cutting off food and medical supplies to Igbo communities.

The BZM first gathered on Sunday to mark the birthday of former Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011 and was buried in Enugu in March. His burial revived some cries for independence. The BBC (from Lagos, and not Enugu mind you) says that 45 years after the Biafran flag was first raised – an action which sparked Nigeria’s civil war – a small number of separatists still keep their dream alive, despite the threat of being charged with treason.

Biafran War 1967-1970

map
  • 1960: Nigeria gains independence from the UK
  • 1967: South-eastern portion of Nigeria secedes as Republic of Biafra on 30 May
  • Biafra dominated by Igbo ethnic group
  • Home to much of Nigeria’s oil
  • Nigerian army blockades Biafra and more than a million people die through famine, disease and fighting
  • 1970: Biafran government surrenders

Some recently released books and films have increased attention to Biafra. The war has been put back in the spotlight as the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, arguably the greatest male writer in Nigeria with Wole Soyinka, has just released his memoirs of the conflict. Igbo-American Chimanada Adichie’s amazing novel  Half a Yellow Sun is being made into an American film, as this traumatic period of Nigeria’s history is set to reach a wider audience. The title refers to the flag created for the shortly independent republics of Biafra. The film stars Thandy Newton and was filmed primarily in Calabar, with my friends working as extras on set. Far less impressive, the Jeta Amata’s movie Black November is soon to be released starring Mickey Rouke, Viviva A. Fox, and Kim Basinger, which is an effort to take Nollywood mainstream to Hollywood.  Based on the ridiculous trailer I almost hope no one goes to see the unrealistic portrayal of the oil conflict. Oil was a key impetus to the start of the Biafran War and control over reserves undergirded much of the struggle over Nigerian territory in the late 1960s, but I doubt the average viewer will think enough about the movie to be able to link natural resources to conflict.

Falling birth rates across the world, some more than others

I am currently in Italy analyzing the field data I gathered last year in the Niger Delta.  The transition has clearly been challenging, as I am re-adjusting to being a place with clear rules, and where I can spend more time being professionally productive and less time “surviving,” e.g. finding potable water, clean food, sources of electricity, etc.  However, one of the more startling thoughts I had my first week here occurred to me when I was roaming through the streets of Florence among a sea of silver-haired adults. I realized that I was only seeing perhaps one baby per day during my daily commute, and almost all of them were with mothers who had clearly immigrated to Italy from another country.  I asked myself, “Where are all the babies?”

In subsequent research, I have learned that Italy has the second lowest birth rate in Western Europe this year, at 1.4 children per woman. The CIA World Factbook, a reliable statistical source, says:

A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. Rates above two children indicate populations growing in size and whose median age is declining. Higher rates may also indicate difficulties for families, in some situations, to feed and educate their children and for women to enter the labor force. Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.

In stark contrast, Nigeria has a birth rate of 5. 38 children per woman, almost four times that of Italy. Nigeria has the 13th highest birth rate in the world, in country that is already the most populous in Africa. This average probably would show a stark contrast between low rates in major cities and high ones in villages. As an anecdote,  the women I interviewed in rural areas typically said they had 6-9 living children.   Just from my observations, I recall that between 1/4 and 1/3 of rural Niger Deltan women I’d see would be carrying a pekin (baby) in a wrapper on their back. No wonder I noticed the missing babies here in Italy.

Italy’s low birth rate is coupled with a low mortality rate and longer expected life spans. The life expectancy in Italy is almost 82 years. Conversely, in Nigeria it is just over 51 years. Italians get 60% more life than Nigerians! Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a youth bulge and has been for decades; it is one of the driving explanations for ongoing violent conflicts in the region.  Europe, Asia and Russia do not even have replacement birthrates. While African governments struggle with feeding, educating and housing booming populations, Europeans and Asians are worried about who will pay into the social security necessary to care for aging populations.

The stress of the youth bulge: Lots of young people without older ones to help ensure stability.

Sociologists and economists hypothesize that the poor financial state Italy, Spain, and the U.S. are the reason for plummeting birth rates in those countries, but I will add a caveat.  In modern industrialized countries, I will buy the argument that people have less babies during times of economic strain, because in those societies children are financial burdens.  However, birth rates in developing African countries remain high because children there are not just burdens, they are also viewed as labor for rural families.  In agricultural areas, it makes just as much sense for families to actually produce more children during times of economic hardship, under the belief that they children’s labor will overall produce more resources than the children will consume. This is the reason that I don’t buy the historical argument I have read that the American birth rate in the U.S. went down during the Great Depression because of economic conditions; at that time, as is true in rural Africa today, children could create capital through their labor. The relationship between birth rates and the economy is not so clear to me.

Have any thoughts on this?

Italy’s population

Nigeria’s population

Sons of Iraq vs. Niger Delta Amnesty Program

I have been in correspondence with a Polish conflict researcher who has asked me some interesting questions about the Niger Delta Amnesty Program (NDAP) and that in Iraq, called the Sons of Iraq. Drawn from the Awakening Council, the Sons are Sunni former insurgents in Anbar Province who have been paid stipends by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government to now maintain security against both Shiite and Sunni militants who are still fighting against the American occupation and the new Iraqi political leadership. Although it would seem counter intuitive to arm and pay fighters who had been attacking American forces, the Bush administration reasoned that this tactic would both reduce the number of anti-American militants and help curtail the strength of Shiite forces backed by Iran.

 

Son of Iraq on patrol.

 

Niger Delta Amnesty Program

 

There are similarities between the two efforts.  Both in Nigeria and Iraq the governments have created “jobs for the boys” programs that aim to turn insurgents into members of a citizens’ patrol, from aggressors against foreigners and the government to defenders of them. Also, both programs are prone to immense instability and fraction, but for different reasons as I explain below.

However, I see immense differences in comparing the Sons of Iraq and the NDAP.  These variations between the two seem to be based on 24 years of stable dictatorship, the presence of the American military, the suddenness of political instability, and over millennial religious tensions in Iraq, all of which are not conditions found in Nigeria.  In contrast, Nigeria’s political history is one of perpetual coups and constant abnegation of foreign interference, and is defined almost solely by its status as an oil state suffering from the resource curse. Some differences that I can note:

1. Iraqi Sons are ideologically and religiously motivated in (large) part. The Sons must battle anti-American Shiites on a large-scale, and there is also infighting between pro-American Sunnis and suspicious-of-American Sunnis within the employment program itself. ND rebels today are not ideologically nor religiously motivated in that same way, but fight to steal oil and kidnap to get money. As opposed to the Sons, ND militants are more like a mafia that uses violence to make money, i.e. they engage in extortion. There would be security issues in Iraq with or without the Awakening, but ND rebels are the ones actually making the security problems to begin with. So, with that said, ND militants receiving Amnesty benefits are absolutely not maintaining any form of security like the Sons, but rather are being paid to stop stealing oil and committing violence. As one of my interview subjects aptly phrased it, “It reduces crime and since we have the money, it is OK.  You pay them to reduce the violence in the country.” In Nigeria, there is perhaps a price on peace.
2. Transparency: Presumable Awakening fighters trust that U.S. forces will pay them when promised, and the program is comparably fiscally transparent. One of the reasons that Nigerians are suspicious of the NDAP is that a) the government cannot be trusted to pay fighters as on time or even at all, and b) exact amounts being transferred are unclear, so there is probably much more corruption in the ND program in Nigeria than that in Iraq.

3. I don’t know exactly how the U.S. pays fighters in Iraq, but a big problem in Nigeria is that the most violent kingpins like Tompolo and Dokubo are being paid huge sums, and then very little is actually being given directly to lower-level fighters. In Iraq I suspect there is more equity in payment amounts among various fighters but in ND the money is concentrated in few hands, and that creates problems when lower-level fighters feel a sense of unfairness that leads to greater violence.

4. In Iraq there is a clear enemy that the U.S. and the U.S.-installed government hope their employment program will weaken: Al Qaeda.  In contrast, there is no clear enemy in the Niger Delta Amnesty Program for participants to battle, as the biggest threat is the factitious insurgency itself, the very men being paid and trained in the program.

5. As reported several years ago, the most salient concern for the U.S. and the Iraqi government is that the Sons of Iraq program may backfire and end up just giving newer and better arms to former insurgents who could do an about-face, thus fueling a prolonged civil conflict to a greater degree. They have publicly stated that a priority is disallow the Sons to gain enough power to become an independent authority, which was a possibly after the U.S. made the mistake of disbanding the Iraq military after its invasion. However, although ND militants have firepower that competes with that of the Nigerian military, insurgents there do not seem to have the desire to overtake the military particularly. Relinquishing arms is a large part of the NDAP mandate, with the goal that former fighters gain training abroad to come home as welders, electricians, carpenters, etc. In Iraq the participants receive training to become better fighters against threats to security in Andar, not to have a professional trade that would benefit them after the war ends.

This leads one to wonder about what all the Sons of Iraq (and NDAP participants) will do once  their stipends dry up.  Years of fighting, and being trained to do so, often do not translate into stability for soldiers when a conflict ends.

Days and Dates in the Delta

American children can identify their own birthday almost as soon as they enter school. It is just one of those things we always know. During the process of interviewing I have seen how that isn’t true in rural Nigeria, especially among older folks. My subjects often don’t know their birthdays so they date themselves in relation to others, or to major social events. The most common referential event is the Biafran War or a violent conflict with a neighboring community. One woman said that at the start of the Biafran War (1967) she already had two children, which means she was probably born in the early 1950s since she probably started having children around 15 or so. Another woman said that she had not yet grown breasts at the start of the War, so she was probably around ten then. She added that she had yet to hide herself from men at that time. Her sister-in-law said that she herself was born on the day of Ogoni independence, which after some clarification came to mean Nigerian Independence on October 1, 1960. In general, most folks guess their age based on when they started or ended puberty in relation to a political event. Additionally, children are aged according to their siblings, so one’s age matters less than relative birth order in the family. People seem to be unconcerned with how old they are, so they don’t bother to think about it; it just isn’t really applicable to their lives. When I figured out some of my interview subjects’ birthdays to within a week or so based on surrounding events, most of them shrugged their shoulders because it just didn’t really matter to them.

In terms of gathering my field data, it is difficult for respondents to answer my questions about when an event, e.g. a conflict with a neighboring village, took place. We can usually guess events of the last two decades within a few years based on which President was in office and which children in the family had finished primary school. Calendars are a rarity. Ultimately, they are farmers. What matters is the start and end of rainy season, the week that they should plant and uproot, and when their cassava is ripe for harvesting. They keep track of days of the week in order to know market days to buy and sell their produce. For Igbos for instance, there are four days in the week and all are based on market trading. Dates don’t dictate their lives in the rural Delta. I have been wondering how the new ubiquity of cell phones might change this in the coming years, but I still have faith that as long as my respondents depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the crops will continue to decide what day it is.

Renewed Conflict in Nigeria between Northerners and Easterners

There have been an unusual number of reports here on eastern-northern tensions recently. This is a terrible oversimplification, but for those new to Nigerian politics this situation is easier to understand by thinking of most northerners as Hausa Muslims and most easterners as Christian Igbos. However, there are many Igbos living in the north and many Hausas living in the east, contributing to the conflict. Other important factors are contemporary worry about the northern Islamic sect of Boko Haram and residual strain left over from the Biafran independence effort.

There is still tension between northerners and easterners over the question of who started the Biafran War. In 1966, several Igbo radicals deposed the first president of an independent Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe (also an Igbo, but one who grew up in the north). Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was installed as head of the military government for six months until Northern officers staged a much more violent counter-coup that put Lt. Colonel Gowon (a northerner) into power.  It was under his administration that Igbos perceived an increase in violence and persecution against both the Igbos living in the north and those who had remained in their historical homeland in the south-east. In 1967, the eastern region declared itself independent, as the Republic of Biafra led by Dim Ojukwu, creating a two-and-half year civil war that killed a million people, mostly Igbos.

So, northerners and westerners tend to view the conflict as being created by Igbos who staged the first coup and then tried to declare independence, while Igbos argue that Gowon declared war on the Eastern region in order to force the region back to Nigeria. They say that Ojukwu and his troops fought in defense, and that he only declared independence under pressure from eastern people who wanted to end the violence against the easterners living in the north.

Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, late Biafran leader

There remains a pervasive sense of injustice among many Igbos in the east regarding the failed independence movement. There is still the Movement for Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), led by Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, and various association of Biafran War veterans. Ojukwu died this past November and Igbo war veterans immediately called for him to be given a proper state burial by the Federal Government but the Senate rejected the measure because he is not a former Head of State. His body will tour three West African countries and Haiti before he is interred.

Ojukwu’s burial in Enugu has been postponed due to fuel subsidy protests but is scheduled for March 3. The event has been jointly planned by the Federal Government and MASSOB. The South-east and South-south geopolitical zones will be closed down for the day and MASSOB has issued a sit-at-home order. There is a major security concern that Boko Haram will see the burial as key target for attack. Boko Haram has killed almost 300 people so far this year. The security will be even more tenuous since a northern police officer in the eastern state of Anambra shot a man this week for failing to pay a bribe in full.  Although the Hausa officer has been arrested for murder, Igbos committed retaliatory violence in Onitsha, Asaba against northerners seen as interlopers in the region.  Northern Muslims in Anamabra have fled into neighboring states, and now there is worry that Boko Haram could in turn attack the east. We will have to watch how March 3 unfolds.

The Earliest Oil War

Biafran Flag

The earliest evidence of oil’s role in civil conflict can be seen in the Biafran War from 1967-1970. During what is also known as the Nigerian Civil War, the Igbos of southeastern Nigeria attempted to secede from the national federation in response to alleged political marginalization. In the few years prior to the announcement of an independent Biafra it was clear that the majority of Nigeria’s oil resources were in Igboland, and this was the perhaps the galvanizing force behind the secessionist move.  Under distribution scheme at that time, the majority of oil revenues were going to the northern-dominated federal government.  In an independent Biafra, Igbos would have formed a 7 million strong majority over the 4 million non-Igbos in the area, thus raising its oil revenues from the 14% it was receiving to 67% after secession. The Federal Republic of Nigeria realized that Biafra’s independence would have cut its national oil production in half and consequently President Gowon came down fiercely on the secessionist movement, leading to the death of almost a million Igbos (largely due to starvation caused by food embargoes). Did oil cause the Biafran War?  No.  Was it a necessary condition? Maybe.  Was it a stronger contributor?  Most definitely.