Author’s note: this essay attempts to explain the motivations of Biafran secessionists, not endorse them. The author takes a neutral stance on whether the creation of Biafra was justified. Additionally, explanations of the Biafran War of 1967-1970 should not be applied to present-day Biafran nationalism.
On May 30th, 1967, secessionists in eastern Nigeria declared the independent nation of Biafra. Less than three years later, after a war against federalist Nigeria that left two million dead, Biafra lost its independence. As with all conflicts in “tribal” Africa, in Western minds the war could lazily be chalked up to ethnic tensions. In fact, the Biafran secessionist movement was deeply rooted in ideology. Seven years after independence, Nigeria’s economy seemed to still be serving the same foreign interests. Nigeria’s political structure, though now with a domestic head of state, was still dominated by a corrupt anti-democratic elite. Biafran secessionists recognized that without real structural change, Nigerian independence was of little benefit to most.
Biafran leader Colonel Ojukwu with secessionist soldiers. Photo credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
Eastern Nigerians—of whom a majority were ethnically Igbo—shared the optimism and pride felt across Nigeria when it gained independence in 1960. Even as problems began to show, there remained a faith in the first years after independence that Nigeria could remain unified. While ethnic Igbos did express civic nationalism towards Nigeria in its early years, they also recognized the difficulty of building a multi-ethnic state. Nigeria’s borders had been arbitrarily drawn by the British, and in the words of author Chinua Achebe these boundaries “did violence to Africa’s ancient societies.” It would be Nigeria’s multi-ethnicity and political geography, both colonial products, which were the catalyst for Biafra’s creation.
On January 15th, 1966, a group of mostly Igbo junior officers staged a coup against the Nigerian leadership, citing corruption and misrule. Initially Nigerians of all ethnicities expressed widespread support for the coup. However, the support quickly evaporated as the coup came to be seen as an Igbo power grab, especially by northern Nigerians. The anger felt at the idea of an Igbo-controlled government had a historical context. Igbos had been overrepresented in bureaucracy since colonial times. With ancestral land near the Atlantic coast, and with a social structure less reliant on religion than the Muslim north, Igbos had been more readily converted by Christian missionaries. They entered the missionary school system, and were able to attain bureaucratic positions across colonial Nigeria. Northern Nigerians, on the other hand, only represented 2-5% of secondary school students by 1947. Thus, government positions in northern Nigeria were filled more by eastern Nigerians than locals, fomenting resentment.
Beginning in the spring of 1966, a wave of violence descended upon the Igbo diaspora. Across northern and western Nigeria, in urban centres where bureaucratic jobs were concentrated, majority ethnic groups targeted the Igbo in pogroms. These were especially violent in northern Nigeria where civilians assisted by the military killed roughly 30,000 primarily Igbo Easterners. Simultaneously, a counter-coup installed General Yakubu Gowon, a leader from the north whom Igbos regarded as being complicit in the pogroms. Igbos from across the country, including both Achebe and Chi, returned to eastern Nigeria en masse; eventually eastern Nigeria would house roughly 2 million refugees, 1.3 million from the North.
The central feature of colonial Nigeria’s economy was its almost exclusive reliance on commodity exports rather than domestic industry. As these were exported in raw form, Nigeria was denied the profits from the value-added goods into which these commodities were processed. Britain deliberately pursued anti-industrialization policies in Nigeria for political reasons. Nigeria was not a settler state; climate and disease prevented large scale European immigration. Therefore, the British relied on the system of indirect rule wherein tribal chiefs were coerced through bribery and protection racket schemes to recognize British power. In this way, the networks of loyalty already in place could be maintained, ensuring social stability. The British feared introducing wage labour, as it would create a working class that had the potential for unrest, and erode the communal ties to chiefs on which British control depended.
The colonial regime assumed it could maintain traditional tribal society and also extract profit through cash crop cultivation, yet these two goals were at odds. Amenities previously distributed communally gained monetary value, and the resulting need for a living wage made unemployment a new reality. Those who could not afford the newly commodified living necessities moved to find work, many to the growing cities, and thus broke the extended family ties that had held together their communities. The working class that the colonial regime feared had been birthed by the creation of a market economy.
Biafran nationalists spoke of a return to African values. Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu proclaimed that Biafra would be based on “indigenous African ideologies,” and that Africans’ acceptance of the supposed superiority of Western “political, social and economic” systems had allowed their own subjugation to continue. How this type of communal African ideology would look at a state level had Biafra continued was never made fully clear.
After Biafra proclaimed independence and federalist Nigeria under General Yakubu Gowon declared war on the secessionist state, a group of foreign powers came to Nigeria’s aid. The military support that Britain and the Soviet Union both openly gave the federalist war effort, combined with widespread tacit support from Europe and America, seemed to validate the secessionist position. To secessionists, traditional colonial powers from both sides of the Cold War were united in suppressing Biafra in order to advance “white economic imperialism.”
Just as secessionists felt the international community cared more about white economic interests, they perceived a media bias against black lives. In his famous Ahiara declaration, Biafran leader Ojukwu spoke at length about the complete naval blockade of Biafra aided by Britain that ultimately killed over a million civilians by starvation. Alluding to the secessionist kidnapping of British oil workers that had exploded in the European press, Ojukwu stated; “for eighteen white men Europe is aroused. What have they said about our millions? […] How many black dead make a missing white? Mathematicians, please answer me. Is it infinity?”
After three years of civil war Biafra, which had gradually been losing territory, was finally defeated in 1970. Two years later General Gowon issued the Indigenization Decree. Hoping to prevent any resurgence of political unrest, the Indigenization Decree addressed the accusations of neocolonialism that Biafran secessionists had levelled against Nigeria. Foreign investment became severely limited in many sectors and Nigerians were to assume larger roles within multinational corporations operating in the country. Though many considered it an honest attempt by Gowon to address neocolonialism, the decree did not bring the structural change that Biafran secessionists had dreamed of, and widespread corruption and impoverishment continued.
Seeing themselves as revolutionaries against a world economic order dominated by Europeans, Biafran secessionists had believed they could build a new state based on indigenous communal values. By rejecting what they saw as a British-imposed state structure as well as state ideology, Biafra was to be truly postcolonial. With that central aspiration, secessionists were willing to fight a civil war.