Biafra deserves self-determination

Starving Igbo children in 1970
Biafra, January 1970: Starving Igbo children at the hospital in Okporo (now in Imo State), at the very end of the Biafra war (source: dpa)

Just over 50 years ago, on May 30, 1967, Biafra, a region in southeastern Nigeria, declared its independence. A few weeks later, the government of Nigeria began a bloodthirsty war against the secessionist area. In the course of this two-and-half-year conflict, in which the Nigerian army committed unspeakable atrocities, some 1.5 million people died, mainly members of the Igbo ethnic group. Some 80 percent died due to famine.

Nigeria was formed as a colony by Britain and received its independence in 1960. Today it is a presidential republic. It calls itself a federal state, but in fact, it is strongly centralized. It has a population of some 190 million, made up of about 500 different ethnic groups.

Deep divides

The largest of these are the Hausa-Fulani, who mostly live in the north and account for about 30 percent of the population. Other large groups include the Yorubas in the southwest, with more than 20 percent of the population, and the Igbos in the southeast, also accounting for about 20 percent.

The Hausa-Fulani are nearly all Muslims, the Yorubas practice Christianity and Islam with strong influences from traditional religions, while the Igbos are mostly Catholics. The overall literacy rate is about two-thirds, but it is very low in the north and very high in the southeast.

The Igbos were an easy target – they were better educated, more industrious and they were Christians

The southeast is prosperous. As the region of the country where oil and gas are produced, it is crucial for the Nigerian government. All revenues from fossil-fuel exploitation go into federal coffers, leaving the southeast only with the environmental repercussions.

Gowon’s repression

When Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a northerner, took power in Nigeria in 1966, a murderous pogrom against Igbos in the north began. The Igbos were an easy target – they were better educated, more industrious and they were Christians. Some 30,000 to 50,000 men, women and children were massacred under the auspices of the federal government.

The repression that followed under the regime of then General Gowon led the Igbo-inhabited southeast to declare its independence as the Republic of Biafra. The result was a murderous war and the intentional starvation of Igbos.

General Gowon had the support of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the Arab countries and diplomatic backing from the United States, despite his horrific tactics. France (at the time under President Charles de Gaulle), Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Israel, Taiwan and especially the Vatican tried to help Biafra’s people. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant deliberately closed his eyes to the suffering.

The defeat of Biafra and the murderous revenge the federal troops took in 1970 did not close this dark chapter in Nigerian and African history

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a supporter of the Gowon government, said at the time: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.”

Still marginalized

The defeat of Biafra and the murderous revenge the federal troops took in 1970 did not close this dark chapter in Nigerian and African history. Igbos continue to be marginalized. They are underrepresented in nearly all top government positions. The southeast is thoroughly neglected by federal authorities, except in the quasi-confiscation of oil revenues.

President Muhammadu Buhari received few votes from the southeast in the 2015 elections. When, during a trip to the U.S. later that year, he was asked what he would do to help the region, he responded: “I hope you have a copy of the election results. Naturally, the constituencies that gave me 97 percent cannot, in all honesty, be treated [in the same way] on some issues with constituencies that gave me five percent. I think this is a political reality” – indicating a willingness to give the areas that support him preferential treatment.

Last year, at a gathering of Igbos commemorating the start of the Biafra war, federal police killed some 50 people. The 50th anniversary will take place this year, and we can only hope that there will not be a repeat of such a massacre.

No wonder new secessionist movements in Nigeria are gaining momentum. Nnamdi Kanu is the leader of a growing group demanding Biafran independence. “Nothing seems to be working in Nigeria,” Al-Jazeera quoted him as saying. “There is pain and hardship everywhere. What we’re fighting [for] is not self-determination for the sake of it. It’s because Nigeria is not functioning and can never function.”

Corruption trap

Nigeria, with its geographic, ethnic and institutional structure, is a political and economic monster – a real “Frankenstein.” The wish for self-determination is natural and understandable under the circumstances, with such discrimination ongoing. A peaceful separation would be the best outcome.

The only way out of Nigeria’s corruption trap is for the regions to have strong governments within a true federal system, or to secede

Unfortunately, since Nigeria’s corrupt federal state apparatus lives off the oil revenues and has neglected non-oil-related economic development, it is unlikely to agree. If a situation like the one 50 years ago recurs, we can only hope that the international community will act more responsibly, and not try to maintain the integrity of an inherently corrupt state at any price.

The only way out of Nigeria’s corruption trap is for the regions to have strong governments within a true federal system, or to secede. The problem is that not only the federal government, but many of the regions depend on the oil revenue earned in the country’s southeast.

In doing business with Nigeria, it must be kept in the back of one’s mind that Biafra’s secession would drastically change Nigeria’s financial situation. In terms of the country’s politics, one has to consider the possibility that Nigeria could become much poorer than it is already.


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