I do feel a bit weary that the discussion on this blog, and in general on the left in England, gets to be so male, pale and stale. At such times I turn to the fantastic Black Looks blog, knowing that there will be something interesting and informative that you wouldn’t see elsewhere, though I won’t always agree with it.
Recently Sokari Ekine wrote a really interesting article about the 40th anniversary of the war in Biafra. A documentary about the war can be found on You Tube, in seven short clips. For some reason part one cannot be embedded, but you can find it here).
The following clip is part two.
The Biafran war was very significant because it was the first time that a famine was reported by the television media, and for perhaps the first time a government used the suffering of their own people as their main military weapon to undermine the international political standing of their enemy. This technique was later used by Yasser Arafat.
While the failed secession of Biafra from Nigeria was not unrelated to the presence of oil in the Niger delta, it is more significant that Biafra was the first attempt to create an ethnic based national state in sub-Saharan Africa, based upon the Igbo people, although the presence of significant minorities of Kalabari and Bonny people within Biafra was a complication that the government of Colonel Emeka Ojukwu did not address.
Certainly the fact that the Nigerian government was backed by Britain, and committed terrible atrocities in suppressing the secession, would give some instinctive sense of solidarity with the Biafran cause. But on closer examination the secession of the oil rich Delta province was supported militarily by France, apartheid South Africa and the white settler regime of Rhodesia.
The big question that Biafra raises though is how have all these African states survived, after now half a century since the colonialists left, despite the artificial borders created by the colonial powers, with no regard to the ethnic and linguistic make up of the peoples.
Unfortunately much of the political understanding of the left about nationalism is impoverished by taking as its starting point the debates between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, that happened in an utterly different context.
A much more useful starting point for understanding Nigeria is Ernest Gellner’s work “nations and nationalism”. Gellner observes that the development of modern twentieth century imperialism saw the undermining of pre-industrial agrarian societies, and their replacement by industrial economies with free wage labour. He argues that in pre-industrial societies, a multi-national and multi- linguistic state created few problems, because the majority of direct production was very local, and took place in a specific and particular context. Indeed having visibly and linguistically discrete elite classes could be a factor of stability in such societies, reinforcing caste differences, and also giving the elite clerical and ruling classes links of international solidarity.
So for Gellner it was the introduction of market relations that made colonial societies unstable. What is more, the incorporation of a layer of blacks who would be educated at Oxford, Cambridge and Sandhurst, and who spoke perfect English, created an anti-colonial nationalist class who wished to replace the white colonialists. But these blacks did not share a common language, ethnicity or culture, and they were united by their knowledge of English, and the customs of the colonialists.
An exception to this, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was brutally suppressed by the British prior to handing over to black rule.
Independence therefore saw new black ruling classes take power in multinational and multilingual states, inheriting the imperial colonial borders. And the common factor for binding the new states together were the former colonial power’s languages, laws and customs. All the main players on both sides of the Biafra war were Oxbridge educated.
The linguistic and ethnic diversity within the colonies like Nigeria, meant that no single ethnic group could provide the basis of the new state. Indeed the coup by Nigerian nationalist Major Chukuma Nzeogwu in 1966 was not perceived as Nigerian nationalist by the non-Igbo peoples because Nigerian nationalism was too thin a gruel. Instead they saw it as a Igbo/Christian ethnic/religious take over – which is what prompted the anti-Igbo massacres in the north, which were then exploited by (Oxford and Sandhurst educated) Colonel Ojukwu to ferment Biafran separatism.
Nationalism itself is an indispensable from of consciousness in modern industrial societies, as people have needed to move from very specific and context particular forms of productive labour towards selling their labour power in a market economy, and national consciousness both provides an imagined community for that to take place within, but also a shared cultural framework necessary for communication. It is interesting that the post-colonial African states have therefore created a non-ethnic nationalism.