A War That Killed Millions in Nigeria Threatens to Flare Up Again
In the city of Nsukka, in Nigeria’s increasingly restive southeast, there is a street just south of the University of Nigeria’s campus named Marguerite Cartwright Avenue. The late Nigerian intellectual Chinua Achebe once lived on this avenue, as did influential Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is in Nsukka that one finds the intersection of their lives—and the intersection of past and present in Nigeria’s struggle over Biafra.
Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in southeastern Nigeria that existed from 1967 to 1970. The desire for an independent Biafra has stirred again in Nigeria.
Adichie, speaking recently at Notre Dame University near Chicago, reiterated her commitment to the collective memory of Nigerians in writing her novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun.” Her characters are placed in the context of the Biafran secession that led to the 1967–1970 civil war.
That war ultimately killed millions of people when the economic and political frustrations of the Igbo minority in southeastern Nigeria—and the fallout from the violent scapegoating of Igbos for all of Nigeria’s ills—could no longer be contained.
It has been just a handful of years now since Achebe, an Igbo supporter of an independent Biafra state, and the Biafran national leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu shared a university stage. When Odumegwu-Ojukwu was asked shortly before his death if he had any regrets about the failed Biafran secession, an attempt crushed by Nigerian forces that left an indelible mark on the nation as well as in the wider political experience of the African continent, his answer was curt: “History does not repeat itself. But if it did, I would do exactly the same again.”
Buhari: Nigeria ‘Will Not Tolerate’ Biafras
While history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme, and the renewed agitation for a Biafran homeland has escalated sharply in the past year with troubling echoes of that painful past. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, asked about Biafra during a March 5 interview with Al Jazeera, said that “Nigeria will not tolerate” the rise of a new Biafran nationalism. He added that he has no plans to dialogue with activists and ease the tensions.
The October arrest of controversial pro-Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu on charges of treasonable felony—and more recently, procedural decisions about his ongoing trial and questions about transparency and justice—have only added fuel to the fire. Biafran activists demand Kanu’s release; human rights groups are accusing Buhari of crimes against humanity at The Hague; and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leadership has warned Buhari that history won’t repeat itself: their secession will be different this time.
The defiance of the IPOB isn’t mere talk, and the heightened sense of awareness in the international community about the Biafra issue has led British MPs to call for investigations, activists in Prague to plan marches, and even Pope Francis to meet with IPOB protesters at the Vatican and promote nonviolence.
Religion does factor into the cultural and ethnic tensions in Nigeria, since many citizens in the south are Christian while the north is predominantly Muslim. Ethnic Igbo and pro-Biafran activists are among the Nigerians concerned about a government under the newly elected Buhari that has a controversial history with political Islam.
Economy, Oil, and the Intersection With History
But turning a deaf ear to the frustrations in Nigeria’s southeast reflects an overarching problem with Buhari’s authoritarian style, and a centralized model of governance where local control is limited. What’s more, the Igbo feel disenfranchised in Nigeria’s present, not its past. Many pro-Biafra activists are too young to remember the suffering of the civil war years and their aftermath—but they’re all too familiar with the staggering youth unemployment rate of 50 percent.
The Igbo also voted heavily for Nigerian southerner Goodluck Jonathan, who lost to Buhari, a former army officer who once helped to crush the Biafran secession and now gives the best of government jobs to ethnic groups that do not include the Igbo.
Buhari has declared war on Nigeria’s rampant corruption, which has one of the worst Transparency International ratings in the world—but people in the south, where the nation’s oil wealth is generated, get no say on where the money is going. The southern Igbo and their minority neighbors demand to see oil investment flowing back to their own communities, but the Igbo are also suspicious that they will never reap the benefits because of civil war.
The drastic plunge in oil prices has damaged Nigeria’s economy—the drop since early 2015 is now greater than 45 percent—as inflation, driven by food prices, is at the highest level in three years. Electricity is unreliable, infrastructure is lacking, poverty affects about 80 percent of rural households, and the volatile overall climate is making the clamor for a new Biafra into an issue that Nigerians, and the international community, must address.
This is a destabilization we’ve seen before, in a country where ethnic and cultural conflict has been the post-colonial legacy since its independence.
EU officials have insisted that international law guide the process of Biafran self-determination, but also affirmed the EU commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. As Nigeria navigates another difficult passage in its history, those principles must be what prevent that bloody history from repeating itself.
Uju Okoye is a Toronto-based researcher with a focus on African politics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.