From 1967 to 1970 the south-eastern corner of Nigeria seceded and formed its own nation-state called Biafra. This state was largely unrecognised and in 1970 the breakaway state was reincorporated into Nigeria after an incredibly violent civil war that killed between 45,000 and 75,000 people. Since the region was recaptured by the Nigerian army, secessionist feelings have remained strong and there are often protests demanding a referendum on independence or for political leaders to secede unilaterally.
One such protest took place a few days ago and the Nigeria army responded by gunning down 150 people. This act of mass murder was briefly reported on in the mainstream press but was largely ignored because of the ongoing political situation in the United States. This being the case, I want to take some time to look at the brief history of Biafra and why I believe that it is incumbent on all believers in democracy to support their struggle.
As with many of the world’s problems the foundations of the current situation were laid because of colonialism. The British Empire colonised much of Africa and included in this exercise is the land that now makes up modern-day Nigeria. At this point in time Biafra was not actually part of Nigeria, but the British colonialists decided to annex territory east of the Niger River and by doing so absorbed Biafra into Nigeria under British rule. The current cultural and ethnic divide between Biafra and the rest of Nigeria is because the two territories were not unified before British rule.
In the 1950s and 1960s countries around the world were declaring independence from their former colonial masters, and one such country was Nigeria. In 1960 Nigeria became and independent nation-state and became a republic in 1963. The people of Biafra decided that this was an optimum moment to declare their own independence from Nigeria. The authorities argued that if Nigeria are justified in their desire for self-rule and independence from Britain, the same should be true for Biafra. Unsurprisingly the Nigeria disagreed and denied their request for independence or even a plebiscite on secession.
Between 1960 and 1967 there were many different ideas about how Nigeria should be governed, both structurally and in terms of individuals; this debate led to discussions about a loose confederation of states and also a series of coups by military leaders. The result of these political activities was the division of Nigeria into three regions (North, East, West) with these subdivided into a total of twelve states: the Northern Region was most of the geographical land of the country; the Western Region was the richest area, containing the major cities of Lagos and Ibadan; and the Eastern Region was Biafra.
This situation existed from 1960 until 1963 when the Nigerian government reorganised the regions of the country and established the Mid-Western Region which essentially partitioned the pre-existing Western Region along ethnic lines, particularly in regards to the systematically oppressed Igbo people. Because of the ongoing political turmoil, the treatment of the Igbo people by the Nigeria government, and the legacy of British imperialism, the military governor of the Eastern Region Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu unilaterally seceded from Nigeria and established the Republic of Biafra.
The new republic got off to a bumpy start to say the least. The Nigerian government blockaded the new nation, including their attempted exports of oil. On 6th July 1967 the government sent in the military to retake the territory, a date which many historians view as the point where this political crisis turned into a full-blown civil war. It must be emphasised, however that Biafra wasn’t easily recaptured. In August 1967 the Biafran forces invaded the Mid-Western Region and captured Benin City. The Biafran military administrator later declared the newly conquered territory as the Republic of Benin, although this new country lasted for a grand total of one day. The fighting continued for another two and a half years until Biafra was annexed by the Nigerian government on 15th January 1970.
There is also an interesting international dimension to this tale, and it’s rooted in the brutal Realism of Cold War politics, but also threw up some strange de facto alliances. On the side of the Nigerian government was: the UK; the Soviet Union; Saudi Arabia; the US; and some African states (Niger, Algeria etc.). The UK and US were there because of oil, but thankfully Western foreign policy has moved on since then. The Soviet Union were concerned that this may set a precedent for secessionists within the USSR, but also compared the Nigerian civil war to the Congo Crisis which was an incredibly messy situation that saw the USSR fight on both sides.
Conversely, the Biafrans were supported by: France, putting them in conflict with their former colony of Algeria; Rhodesia; Haiti; Apartheid South Africa; Franco’s Spain; Fascist Portugal; and different African countries (Ivory Coast, Gabon etc.). France’s involvement was part of their Françafrique policy, which was basically policy to be a geopolitical rival of Britain in West Africa. Despite the breakaway region being almost exclusively containing black Africans, Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia invested in a humanitarian relief fund along with the Roman Catholic Church which is not what you would expect. Essentially the Nigerian civil war became a large geopolitical proxy war between countries, many of whom were ostensibly allies, jockeying for regional influence.
Although this description of the historical situation of this part of Africa is brief I feel it is sufficient to understand my argument in favour of Biafran independence. In recent weeks I’ve been writing relatively frequently on the topic of rectifying former injustices. This is the first reason why supporting Biafra is important because doing so would undo an injustice perpetrated by the British (colonial rule) as well as the political injustice committed by the Nigerian government (annexation) because the result is the same: denying Biafran people the right to self-governance. I contend that if one believes in democracy, support for people seeking self-rule is a no-brainer.
Secondly I would argue that any state that opens fire on peaceful protests has no moral or political legitimacy and should be dismantled forthwith. States coerce people in many different ways, some more sinister than others, but I would argue that to kill 150 people for essentially having a different political opinion to you is unjustifiable. One of the primary purposes of politics is to reconcile differences of opinion, and so by killing dissenters the government is undermining one of the reasons for it’s existence. Nigeria is supposedly a democracy and if people are the source of sovereignty a state that kills its own citizens in this way in my view is not longer legitimate.
Finally, the history of persecution of the Igbo people in Nigeria led to many fleeing their original birthplace and moving to Biafra. Given the historical precedent of the Nigerian government’s actions towards this ethnic minority I believe that it is only prudent to support the group’s desire to secede. One could argue that multi-ethnic states are beneficial for cultural reasons and therefore secession should be avoided, but I find this unconvincing. Although I agree that all states should be as multicultural as possible, I don’t believe that allowing systematic persecution in the name of cultural diversity is an acceptable political trade-off.
To conclude the Nigerian government has killed people who wished to democratically rule themselves after centuries of colonial rule often punctuated with persecution and oppression. In an ideal world people would be able to live in harmony in one nation-state but this appears unlikely in the present time, and persecution shouldn’t be ‘waited out’ until people are no longer discriminatory. In terms of democracy I cannot see a legitimate argument against the idea of people having a vote on whether to become an independent state. If the Nigerian government believes it cannot win the argument in favour of Biafrian unionism then it shouldn’t be allowed to get away with denying them a vote. We should stand up against the Nigerian government and all those countries who refuse to denounce the violence against Biafran people.