Tag Archives: Igbo

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.

Guinness Commercial Represents Modern Nigeria

Watching cable in Port Harcourt, I used to see this commercial often, and it still fascinates me. There are many scenes familiar to Nigerians—congested go-slows (traffic jams), the broken down bus, and the city-dwelling relative coming home to his rural family bearing gifts. The two most salient themes for me are those of urbanization and masculinity. The male breadwinner of the family moves into the city to try to make his fortune, earning the respect of his family, thus urbanization creates not only potential financial capital but social capital as well. Femi buys his younger brother a bus ticket when he sees him as “man enough” to make it in the city. The men are constructing their masculinity by through earning money. I heard that Guinness made this commercial in the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo languages as well, possibly changing the man’s name from Femi (a Yoruba name) to a Hausa or Igbo name for the ad to have more resonance among respective ethnic groups. I think Guinness really did its marketing research with this one:

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.