Renewed attention to the Biafran Conflict

The BBC has reported that at least 100 people have been charged with treason in south-eastern Nigeria after a march supporting independence for Biafra, their lawyer says. Igbo members of the Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM) declared independence from Yoruba- and Haused-dominated Nigeria, raised the Biafran flag and then marched through the region’s main town of Enugu over the weekend, the Igbo stronghold during the Biafran War. Most of those arrested were young men, many sons of former Biafran fighters, but some were veterans of the war themselves. They were all remanded in custody.

More than one million people died during the 1967-70 Biafran conflict – mostly from hunger and disease. Political scientists debate whether the term “war” accurately describes the conflict. To be a “war” a certain percentage of deaths must occur on each side, and nearly the all the deaths occurred among Igbos and nearly all were due to the national government and its allies cutting off food and medical supplies to Igbo communities.

The BZM first gathered on Sunday to mark the birthday of former Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011 and was buried in Enugu in March. His burial revived some cries for independence. The BBC (from Lagos, and not Enugu mind you) says that 45 years after the Biafran flag was first raised – an action which sparked Nigeria’s civil war – a small number of separatists still keep their dream alive, despite the threat of being charged with treason.

Biafran War 1967-1970

  • 1960: Nigeria gains independence from the UK
  • 1967: South-eastern portion of Nigeria secedes as Republic of Biafra on 30 May
  • Biafra dominated by Igbo ethnic group
  • Home to much of Nigeria’s oil
  • Nigerian army blockades Biafra and more than a million people die through famine, disease and fighting
  • 1970: Biafran government surrenders

Some recently released books and films have increased attention to Biafra. The war has been put back in the spotlight as the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, arguably the greatest male writer in Nigeria with Wole Soyinka, has just released his memoirs of the conflict. Igbo-American Chimanada Adichie’s amazing novel  Half a Yellow Sun is being made into an American film, as this traumatic period of Nigeria’s history is set to reach a wider audience. The title refers to the flag created for the shortly independent republics of Biafra. The film stars Thandy Newton and was filmed primarily in Calabar, with my friends working as extras on set. Far less impressive, the Jeta Amata’s movie Black November is soon to be released starring Mickey Rouke, Viviva A. Fox, and Kim Basinger, which is an effort to take Nollywood mainstream to Hollywood.  Based on the ridiculous trailer I almost hope no one goes to see the unrealistic portrayal of the oil conflict. Oil was a key impetus to the start of the Biafran War and control over reserves undergirded much of the struggle over Nigerian territory in the late 1960s, but I doubt the average viewer will think enough about the movie to be able to link natural resources to conflict.

Days and Dates in the Delta

American children can identify their own birthday almost as soon as they enter school. It is just one of those things we always know. During the process of interviewing I have seen how that isn’t true in rural Nigeria, especially among older folks. My subjects often don’t know their birthdays so they date themselves in relation to others, or to major social events. The most common referential event is the Biafran War or a violent conflict with a neighboring community. One woman said that at the start of the Biafran War (1967) she already had two children, which means she was probably born in the early 1950s since she probably started having children around 15 or so. Another woman said that she had not yet grown breasts at the start of the War, so she was probably around ten then. She added that she had yet to hide herself from men at that time. Her sister-in-law said that she herself was born on the day of Ogoni independence, which after some clarification came to mean Nigerian Independence on October 1, 1960. In general, most folks guess their age based on when they started or ended puberty in relation to a political event. Additionally, children are aged according to their siblings, so one’s age matters less than relative birth order in the family. People seem to be unconcerned with how old they are, so they don’t bother to think about it; it just isn’t really applicable to their lives. When I figured out some of my interview subjects’ birthdays to within a week or so based on surrounding events, most of them shrugged their shoulders because it just didn’t really matter to them.

In terms of gathering my field data, it is difficult for respondents to answer my questions about when an event, e.g. a conflict with a neighboring village, took place. We can usually guess events of the last two decades within a few years based on which President was in office and which children in the family had finished primary school. Calendars are a rarity. Ultimately, they are farmers. What matters is the start and end of rainy season, the week that they should plant and uproot, and when their cassava is ripe for harvesting. They keep track of days of the week in order to know market days to buy and sell their produce. For Igbos for instance, there are four days in the week and all are based on market trading. Dates don’t dictate their lives in the rural Delta. I have been wondering how the new ubiquity of cell phones might change this in the coming years, but I still have faith that as long as my respondents depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the crops will continue to decide what day it is.

Nigerians in WWII

During one of my interviews recently, I spoke with a wonderfully open elderly woman whose husband had fought in WWII. She told me that he traveled by foot from his village in the Niger Delta, in present day Rivers State, to the port city of Calabar to board a boat for Europe around 1940. As the youngest of many children, going to war was the best opportunity he had of gaining employment. I have read about the million or so African troops who fought in WWII on the side of the Allies. West African soldiers, including many Nigerians, were instrumental in liberating Ethiopia (the only African country to successfully resist colonization) from fascists. I have known that the British offered inducements to subjects in their African colonies to convince them to fight in Europe against Germany, of course in worse conditions and for less pay than their white counterparts.

However, I was surprised when the widow told me that her late husband fought on the side of Hitler. I reworded the question several times and she seemed certain that he had been employed by the Germans during WWII. Perhaps she is confused, as she was just a child during the war, but if she isn’t, then that is very intriguing. I have done some follow up reading and found that Nazi violence was directly almost totally against Jews and gypsies and less against Blacks in Europe. Although Nazi doctrine indeed preached the inferiority of Blacks, they were not enough of a political or economic threat to merit the systematic killing that Jews suffered. So, perhaps the utility of African troops would have justified their employment by Nazi Germany? For a politically conscientious Nigerian soldier, a German victory may have seemed to be a way to weaken Britain, thus increasing the chances of Nigerian independence.

Regardless of which side they fought on, engagement in WWII changed the way most African soldiers viewed their nation and the balance of world power. After the war, they received little compensation or thanks for their service to their European colonizers. This disillusionment combined with their new understanding that their colonial rulers, whether British, French, Portuguese, were not all-powerful. These African men had traveled the world, sometimes fought alongside white comrades, and their political consciousness had changed. They had a deserved sense of entitlement to their own freedom. They would not return home and accept the oppression of colonial rule. The golden year of independence for British colonies, 1960, followed fifteen years after the end of the war.

Here are some of the photos that the widow shared with me.  In the group photo you will see that the seven white men seated in front have kept their hats on, which I presume is a sign of their authority since the others have their caps off.  I am interested in the African sitting in front just to the right of the white men, as he is the only black with his hat still on.  I wonder what his rank was. The date written on this back of this photo was September 6, 1945. The truce was signed on September 2, so presumably this is a photo taken just before soldiers were sent home.

Although it is very blurry, the eight African soldiers in this other photo below were the troops who fought with her husband, who is on the bottom right.

I am not a historian, so can anyone with a stronger background in this history offer any information on the possibility of Africans fighting for the Axis Powers?

When Oil Helps and When Oil Hurts

Is the resource curse inevitable in oil states?  There are many countries that have clearly benefited from oil both economically and politically, such as Canada, the U.S. and Norway.  However, I would like to point out that these developing countries had robust democratic traditions and institutions firmly in place before the extraction of oil, which is in contrast to many developing countries that discovered their mineral wealth right around the time of independence, e.g. those of sub-Saharan Africa.  These nascent states were too weak and lacking in leadership to be able to manage their mineral endowments properly while the well-established states had the democratic checks necessary to avoid such problems. Basically, because the general goal of democracy is to stop bad behavior, strong democracies put checks on the use of oil revenues that weak democracies don’t. Since commercial drilling started in 1958 and independence came just two years later, you could say that Nigerian oil arrived too early to be helpful. This means that natural resources coming after democracy can be helpful and natural resources coming before democracy can be harmful, more or less.  Does this argument hold up?

For a fascinating visual representation of wealth in various countries, and to see which of those are democracies, take a look at this Wealth Distribution Map from Global Finance magazine.