Biafra 40 Years on – What It Tells Us About African Nationalism

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.

10 comments on “Biafra 40 Years on – What It Tells Us About African Nationalism

  1. I tend to think that the difficulties of post-colonial states
    are not easily understood on the basis that these were
    ‘artificial’ lines on the map. I think such an analyses gives
    too much importance to the agency of colonialism as opposed
    to the agency of anti-colonial nationalism, and the different
    circumstances in which anti-colonial nationalism worked and
    didn’t work. I don’t think that Nigeria is any more artificial
    a territory then France (although its newer).

    But on another subject entirely, could Andy please write to my
    Hotmail account so I can write to him. Thanks.

  2. Andy introduced this video thus:

    “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”

    If you want more women to participate on this blog, you might want to stop apologising for Galloway’s column in the Daily Record.

  3. very interesting post, glad to see you are bringing this issue to the light. there’s a couple of points i like to address. first the development of europe and north america was the direct result of the underdevelopment of africa. another issue is the fact that the French ran their colonies different than the English colonies and so on. So when indepence was granted and administration left, it created a vacuum. I don’t think colonialism can be separated from post-colonialism states and that the present cant only be understood by examining the past.

    How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
    Class Struggle in Africa
    White Skin Black Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

    are all good books.

  4. Thanks for the mention and appreciation. I am not sure I understand the comment on Galloway’s column – is there something sexist about it?

    On another note – I feel one of the problems of Nigeria (and possibly other post-colonial ethnically diverse countries) is that difference is not seen as something positive and progressive. On the contrary ethnic differences have always been central to the political in Nigeria. Nationalism in Nigeria is superficial and a construct that has never really taken root but just manages not to die completely!

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    JOhn if you want to make a comparison between France and Nigeria you have to be much more specific, and I don’t think your argument holds water at all. In comparing modern European nationalism, your case wuold be much stringer f you took Italy or Germany, but even there there was a developed shared high culture and low culture, which was absent on Nigeria pre-independence. BTW contact me on

    Interesting what you say Sokari about etnnic diversity in Nigeria and some other post colonial states. I can see that the differences can lead to ethnic groups being played off againt one another, but I think my argument here is that no single ethnic or lingusitic group has been strong enough to elevate its own culture or language as being dominant. (Your observation of course contradicts John G)

    Blackstone’s point is interesting about the different model of French colonialism. And is is also true that the post-colonial states have been locked into a global economic system still dominated by the old imperial powers.

  6. What a disgrace this post is. You are essentially an apologist for an act of genocide, which you choose to blame on the Biafrans themselves.

    Words can’t really express my contempt.

  7. Unfortunately because of my computer set up I can’t use that messenging service Andy. But the matter I wanted to write to you about seems to be fading, and as that was the intention, let sleeping dogs lie.

    On the argument about different kinds of nationalism. My point is perhaps best made with reference to debates about Iraq. One argument frequently used is that the persistance of sectarian and ethnic divides in the M/E is due to ‘lines in the sand’ drawn by colonial powers.

    The difficulty with this argument is that it presumes that the states that resulted were simply the gift of the colonial powers. This simply writes out of history the anti-colonial movements which both forged a very different national identity then the one imposed by colonialism, and the way in which subsequent political controversy (between, for example ‘Iraq first Nationalists’ who tended to favour alliances with Iran and Turkey, and on the other hand Pan Arabists who saw Iraqi nationalism as part of the wider current of Arab Nationalism) revolved around competing political idea’s about the shape of the post-colonial settlement (in both national and social terms: Think of the relationship between military republicans and constitutional monarchists).

    Ethnic conflicts in the post-colonial period were often shaped by these arguments, rather then simply either the persistance of ancient animosities or on the other hand the novelty of new territorial entities. Its neccessary to understand this in order to avoid essentialist approaches to conflicts which do not have primordial origins (despite appearences). Paradoxically this also makes it possible to develop critiques of these different forms of politics, and the strange thing about Gellner’s approach is that he combines
    treating these arguments as different forms of childish extremism on the one hand, and on the other, supplies sociological arguments justifying the worst excesses of dictatorships, whilst neglecting any study of the ideological differences understood in terms of competing political visions.

    In the Arab world in particular these have made up the very stuff of politics. But more generally, Gellner’s argument would suggest that most nationalism’s in the world are artificial requiring dictatorship to hold them togeather, and on the other hand comprising of silly ideologies which should not be taken seriously. This is not only politically unacceptable its also analytically deficiant.

    In terms of Biafra, its simply true that the French intervened there in order to prolong the conflict. Liberal Internationalist outrage notwithstanding. Liberal Internationalists, rather like their close but hostile cousin’s like Gellner, are always loath to discuss the politics of Human Rights abuses, despite the fact that the origins of such conflicts are usually political (as is almost all human suffering).

  8. Kayyou on said:

    Interesting to see that the role of the Soviet Union (on the side of Nigeria) is completely ignored, and so is the notion of support by France stressed, although it was only partial, covert and minimal (Most of Biafra’s weapons were bought through the black market). The Soviet Union had 1 to 3 advisers per Nigerian company, provided airplanes, which (Nigerians could not fly: they had no non-Igbo pilots)were flown by Egyptian pilots…..

    This unholy alliance was all for money (oil/blood) and suppressed the development of a nation populated primarily by the Igbo, a republican people governed previously by one of the purest forms of socialism practiced by man….. CHECK YOUR FACTS and discuss more relevant topics, ENJOY

  9. I tend to be see living, anonymous writers as cowards. I’m as sceptic as scepticism itself. And what the heck does who primarily did what secondary matters never did have to do with history and facts. When people write fiction in history, they should make it clear… that is, if they know. When they don’t? Oooh la la!

    When are we ging to face up to the facts of the present. That as much as the facts expressed here are as brilliant as ‘a sunny day’ everyday in our countries where money and religion as well as ethnicity and foolish pride in concert with cheap profits without honour on the sweat/blood and daily bread of fellow victim/fellow citizen is more imprtant than identities.

    We lack focus and someone wsould start reviewing the facts on these pages and even the ones that cannot be proven as wrong should be asterixed and made bold.

    THERE WAS NO WAR OF SECESSION IN NIGERIA PER SE since the argument which brought up BIAFRAN SECESSION was TREASON as committed by NZEOGWU, GOWON AND OJUKWU. However, there is no treason committed at all if the colonial question which prompted Nzeogwu as well as the incompetence and avarice of the political elite to the detriment of the lifestyle of Nigerian citizens at the time (I was born in 1968, during the war) till date (2010) is taken into cosideration.

    In the light of the fact that a coup d’état and spoken English and guys with guns and ammunitions when their felow citizens can’t afford a stall led to the death of millions, Russia, France, defunct Rhodesia, Ahidjo and cameroon, Houphoet Boigny and Cote d’Ivoire, famine and all that crap… the proponents should be brought to justice in a court and face the capital punishment if necessary.

    Test and Measurement. What are we analysing in Africa and people come here flaunting he ego of a tribe again. Igbo are the most populous of Nigerians and would have said the richest, the best and the brightest: well, they lost but they were the best and cannt pick it up. We can’t go back to that, and to the remise that Egyptians flew Nigerian planes. That is doubtful in the extreme sense of the world… I’m not saying it is a lie… since these were a bun of recruits of a Nigerian Army at the time when the Biafrans could come as far as Ore, Ondo State. A few hundred (200km?) from Lagos, the capital inthe late 60s until the 90s.

    What happened in Nigeria was a fracas between two Colonels controlling much of what could aid the fllaunting of their ego and Ojukwu did not plan it and had to fall sooner or later: since one of the facts remain that with Ironsi(+Fajuyi) dead, Ogundipe, a General ad to take over but was scared of the Northern clique in the Nigerian Army and the other Yoruba navy Big Wig was not allowed to vie by the Army standards at the time then it remained Gowon who could speak for his clique and Ojukwu (I’m making this up said: If you, why not me as Head of State?) because the argument was not we want to seceed though it came and it came up because there was a coup, a failed coup and the Igbos were been slaughtered… (more later, if I could get a cue o where to continue) Going to bed… peace out