Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy on post-independence Nigeria and warns that the desire for national self-determination remains undiminished among the country’s 15-million Ibo people
BACK IN 1967 I was one of a number of leftists in this country who supported the Biafran republic, trying to tell people the truth behind the propaganda and organise relief for that sad, war-torn country fighting for its independence. When Mrs Oyibo Adinamadu came to Britain, as the official representative of Biafra, in order to meet representatives of the UK’s Labour government, they shamefully refused to meet with her. We lobbied our MPs and demonstrated, but to no avail.
Mrs Adinamadu was not even seeking United Kingdom recognition for her fledgling republic but merely asking them to stop supplying arms to the Nigerian federal government, the military dictatorship led by General Yakubu Gowon, who was engaged in crushing Biafran independence. The Labour government was then the regime’s major arms supplier and political supporter.
We protested at the crocodile tears being shed by the Labour foreign secretary, Michael Stewart (1906-1990), who announced that it had been a difficult decision. But why should we remember Biafra today?
Because, like Ireland, you may crush a nation’s aspirations for a short period but you cannot crush them forever. Since Nigeria’s conquest of Biafra in 1970, the Biafran people have continued to strive for national self-determination. Today, although we don’t see much in the press and media, the Biafrans are still working for independence. The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob) has continued to organise and agitate, only to be met with ruthless repression by the federal forces.
The Voice of Biafra has been broadcasting once a week since late 2001, the one-hour broadcast providing a critical source of information. A Biafran ‘embassy’ exists in Germany and one is currently being set up in London. Last September Biafran House was opened in the USA to act as a centre for members of the Biafran diaspora there.
Let’s remember the facts of the Biafran war of independence.
Michael Stewart (later Lord Stewart of Fulham) on behalf of Harold Wilson’s Labour government justified his support for crushing Biafran independence because, if he had not done so, “I was encouraging, in Africa, the principal of tribal secession -- with all the misery that could bring to Africa in the future.”
Remember those words “the principal of tribal secession”.
Biafra consisted of a people called the Ibos (aka Igbos). Were they merely a tribe? In fact, they comprised 15 millions; three times the size of the population of a united Ireland. They were a people with a distinctive language, cultural unity and politically united. They were Christian as opposed to the Muslim communities of the other nationalities lumped into the Nigerian federal state.
They had, significantly, played a major role in the colonial struggle that saw Nigeria emerge as an independent state from British rule in 1960. But it was Britain who dictated the boundaries of Nigeria when it became independent. Like most ex-colonies of Africa, its boundaries had been arbitrarily defined to demarcate where the competing claims of the imperial powers collided and not with regard to the people who actually inhabited those states.
Nigeria was composed of the Muslim feudal states in the north, the Hausa and Fulani, and the Yoruba in the south-west. The Ibos, or Biafrans, were in the south-east. Michael Stewart must have known that it was as ridiculous to call the 15 million Ibos a ‘tribe’ as it would have been to call the Danes, Swedish, or Norwegians, with smaller populations, ‘tribes’. But this terminology was part of the insidious propaganda to justify Labour’s support for the genocide in Biafra.
In 1966, a mere six years into the ill-put-together but independent Nigerian state, the Hausa officers of the Nigerian army staged a military coup which brought the 32-year-old, Sandhurst trained, General Yakubu Gowon to power. Within days, 30,000 Ibos were slaughtered by Hausas and a million more were on the move as refugees. While the Biafrans constituted 15 millions, they had to share the state with 85 millions constituting the other nationalities. At this time, the three main ethnic areas (Hausa and Fulani, the Yoruba and Ibo homelands) still had provincial parliaments. On May 27, the eastern Nigeria provincial parliament, representing the Ibos, declared that it would secede, a right given in the then constitution. The provincial parliament stated that the Ibos could not develop or even survive within Nigeria which was now a Hausa military dictatorship. On May 30, in the capital Enugu, the republic of Biafra was declared.
Lt. Colonel Chukuemerka Odumegwu Ojukwu, born 1933, an Ibo who had become military governor of eastern Nigeria just before Gowon’s coup, was declared head of state by parliament. The Biafran State welcome a number of non-Ibo refugees and, indeed, the boundaries of the new state included several other ethnic groups who had decided to join with the Ibos.
From the start, Ojukwu and his government preached a socialist and humanistic approach to politics. I remember how popular Ojukwu’s ‘little green book’, outlining his government’s political philosophy, was in 1968/69.
At first General Gowon’s regime was unsure of what to do, and merely imposed sanctions on Biafra. But Biafra had oil fields. That was probably its undoing so far as the United Kingdom was concerned. It did not want a left-wing Biafra nationalising its oil. Gowon was soon assured of British military support and in July 1967, Nigeria invaded Biafra by air, land and sea. The Biafrans put up an heroic struggle, even making military gains in the early part of the war.
With British support and advice, the Nigerian army made the oil fields their prime target. Apart from oil, Biafra was a net importer of food and had little industry. With the oil fields captured or on fire, Biafra was weak. Enugu was captured in October 1967. The capital was eventually pushed back to Aba, then Umuahia and then Owerri.
Only five nations recognised the republic although socialist movements in many countries tried to give moral and material support.
The Biafrans resisted against enormous odds. Two-and-a half years later they were still fighting and a million civilians had died, not only from the Nigerian federal army rampages but from the famine engendered by the war. Photographs of starving children horrified people around the world but did not shame the UK Labour government who continued to support General Gowon.
Resistance to Nigeria could not be sustained. Ojukwu knew Gowon would not negotiate with him and went into voluntary exile on January 8, 1970 in the Côte d’Ivoire, one of the few states, like Zambia and Tanzania, which had recognised the republic.
On January 10, Major-General Philip Effiong was appointed acting president. On January 12 he made a broadcast on Biafran radio to his people announcing that he was despatching emissaries to the Nigerian field commanders to arrange an armistice. He called on General Gowon “in the name of humanity, to order his troops to pause while an armistice was negotiated in order to avoid the mass suffering caused by the movement of population.” On January 15, Effiong went to Lagos and formallly surrendered the starving and crushed country to Gowon.
“Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defence where peaceful negotiation fail. We are not an exception,” said Effiong. “We took up arms because of the sense of insecurity generated in our people by the events of 1966. We have fought in defence of that cause. I am convinced now that a stop must be put to the bloodshed which is going on as a result of war. I am also convinced that the suffering of our people must be brought to an immediate end.”
Gowon claimed to the world that there would be “no victor, no vanquished”, but his rhetoric was soon disproved. The Biafrans have suffered 30 years of humiliation. Anyone who fought in the war is either singled out for special treatment or can be seen in wheelchairs along the main roads in Enugu begging for money.
General Gowon, in his turn, was overthrown in another military coup in 1976. Ojukwu was ‘forgiven’ by the Nigerian government and is allowed to live in Enugu. But democracy appears to be returning to Nigeria, with some degree of freedom of speech.
Ojukwu has warned: “None of the problems that led to the Biafran war have been solved yet. They are still there. We have a situation creeping towards the type of conditions that saw the beginning of the war.”
It seems likely the Ibos might vote for independence when the promised democratic elections are held in 2003.
Indeed, it would take a fool to think that the resentment of a nation (the ‘tribe’ of 15 millions, as Michael Stewart would have it) could evaporate after being so ruthlessly crushed. Surely the lesson of Ireland must have some resonance in people’s minds? You cannot exterminate by force any people’s desire for national self-determination.
In spite of the return of so-called democracy the Nigerian federal government has yet to demonstrate any systematic regard for the civil rights of Biafrans. Indeed, it still seems to promote sectarian violence and hate.
Nigeria’s provincial assemblies have begun to adopt Sharia Law, like Zamfara in January, 2000, and Gombe last December. Christian Biafrans fear a creeping Islamisation. Even in the Islamic provinces of Nigeria there have been many protests. Christian Biafra looks on at these developments with fear.
Nigeria is still labouring under high level corruption, its security forces still have complicity in civilian deaths and the government have not convinced the Biafrans that the federal forces are willing to or capable of protecting their civil rights.
The rise of Massob is seen as a response to the terror, cruelty, failure and utter lack of humanity represented by the Nigerian state. Ralph Uwazurike, the Massob leader, has said that his movement would engage in the forthcoming elections but does not place much faith in their being held in 2003. He fears another Hausa military coup to create Nigeria as an Islamic state. The mathematics of religious imbalance do not given the Biafrans confidence for the future -- 15 millions outnumbered by 85 millions.
The current Nigerian president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was also a field commander whose troops committed atrocities in Biafra during the war. He has already made several threatening remarks about the Biafran independence movement. In December, signing the acts for elections in 2003, he was criticised by the former Senate president, Dr Chuba Okadigbo who accused him of altering the legislation to perpetuate his own power if he did not like the results.
It is time these British imperial constructs like Nigeria were all dismantled and states reflecting a genuine union of national groups or, when union cannot be achieved on the basis of an equal coming together, then a separation of state boundaries, should be made. To call a nation of 15 millions ‘a tribe’ and use the excuse of fighting ‘tribal secession’ to send arms and aid to a military regime crushing the life out of that people was indefensible. The million deaths from famine as well as the causalities of that war should haunt the members of the Wilson Labour government.
Let us fervently hope that we will not have to witness another Biafran war of independence if such a struggle is forced on the Biafran people again, let us hope the UK Labour party will play a more moral role than it played in 1967-70.
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