A Brief Recap of the Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War)
From the years 1967 to 1970, the Biafra War was a terrible result of social unrest within Nigeria. Despite its liberation from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was a country split into three (amongst many) large ethnic groups: northern Hausa-Fulani, southwest Yoruba and southeast Igbo. While Christian missionaries were banned from northern, mostly Islamic Nigeria, the British still ruled indirectly through appointed officials.
Southwest and southeast Nigeria embraced education. The Yoruba consisted of monarchs and appointed officials, but were less conservative allowing upward mobility for their people. Many of the Yoruban population became civil servants, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The southeast Igbo people were very democratic with officials based on heredity and or election. The Igbo took education and ran with it sending family members to British universities and allowed free discussion of politics. When Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, the north was severely underdeveloped compared to its southern counterpart. To top this off, an abundance of natural resources such as oil were located in the south thus helping the economy in a globalizing world.
In 1966, a military coup led mostly by revolutionary Nigerian-Igbos overtook the government. This act was seen as only benefitting the Igbo, so the north launched a counter-coup. Soon after, large scale massacres of Christian-Igbo living in northern Kano only enhanced tension.
Michael Peel’s book Swamp Full of Dollars discusses the tipping point when “negotiations failed after General Ojukwu, then the eastern region’s military governor, claimed that General Gowan (from the north) had gone back on agreements made. In May 1967, General Ojukwu declared the secession of the eastern Biafran Republic, with himself as head of state. General Gowan imposed an economic blockade on the east, and in July the first shots of the civil war were fired.”
The war revealed stark regional divisions in post-colonial Nigeria. With this was Britain’s continued interest in Nigeria’s oil. Peel notes that “Britain would have a strong influence on the conflict’s outcome. From start to finish, London’s position was one of unequivocal – and highly controversial – support for the Nigerian federal government. Arms continued to flow to the then federal capital, Lagos… much to the Lagos authorities’ relief and the Biafran’s dismay.” Eventually food became a weapon and blockades left the Biafrans malnourished and unable to continue. Nigeria won and reclaimed the southeast territory.
Estimates of the death total range from half a million to six times that, according to Peel.
Didactic Learning with the Novel
Literature is important because it helps us learn of our past, present and future in a very creative way. From Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings’s Horseman to Chris Abani’s Graceland readers can see the evolving country of Nigeria.
The Pre-Colonial areas practiced no outside influence. The soon to be called Nigeria understood its own identities and lived quite peacefully. The tribes “would not go to war without first trying to find a peaceful settlement” (Achebe 12). For example, a tribe who lost a member due to violence would demand a man price from the offending tribe as atonement for their loss. While this was still bloodshed, it was far less than the thousands of innocent casualties of war. There was much respect and understanding that the balance of a tribe was a priority that kept the medium gods and Chukwu [the one God] happy. Striving for peace was everyone’s ultimate goal.
Chris Abani’s Graceland, introduces this with the city of Lagos [Yoruba territory] representing a torn apart culture primarily dominated by Western Colonialism. The result of poverty and education has combined to form a distinct separation amongst social classes. Instead of rediscovering the authentic tribe, American music and movies provided an influential culture to the split society. While parts of Lagos are very attractive, others are very run down and malnourished reducing the citizens into illegal behavior. Abani’s protagonist, Elvis, became a character trying to survive by impersonating Elvis. Like the city Lagos, Elvis finds himself constantly changing with the outside influence of the characters King and Redemption – the one who “hooked Elvis up spots at the beach and in Iddoh Park and kept the hoods off of him” (Abani 26). Because of the poverty, these characters find themselves smuggling what they think is cocaine. Instead, they discover they’re smuggling “six human heads sitting on a pile of ice” (Abani 237).
The withdrawal of Great Britain and the introduction of American culture after World War II contributed to the globalization of Nigeria. As foreign interests play their roles, many controversial topics also surface in referencing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in relation to debt. But the topic of a Post Colonial world is not just about Britain and Nigeria. Forms of colonialism are seen through many societies. Here are a few events to consider:
- The Conference of Berlin saw that Spain, France, Belgium, Britain, Portugal, Italy and Germany gained fair shares of Africa in 1884-1885.
- Early U.S. policy had a “Manifest Destiny” to gain North American territory. This practice relocated and destroyed thousands of Native American lives.
- French governed Martinique focused on the cash crop of Sugar Cane. This led to exploitive labor practices of uneducated blacks in the 1930s Martinique. See Euzhan Palcy’s film Sugar Cane Alley.
The list goes on as many of our histories are actually far darker than we’d like to acknowledge. Some even say that colonialism and globalization did more harm than good, and if anything good is to come out of this practice it is a valuable lesson learned: That we should not play the blame game. Yes, there is a mess, and as Morgan Freeman said in the movie Bruce Almighty: “No matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up.”
I once saw a Granny D. Haddock quote on an office door at Wright State University reminding us that “life is about living, and helping other real people get through the world with a minimum of pain and a maximum of human dignity. We simply can’t do that with authoritarian politics and its deadly abstractions. We have a duty to look after each other. If we lose control of our government, then we lose our ability to dispense justice and human kindness. Our first priority today, then, is to defeat utterly those forces of greed and corruption that have come between us and our self-governance.” This reminded me that we are all in this together. It reminded me that the future possesses something special for us all… Hope.
Below is the Biafran Flag.
Abani, Chris. Graceland. New York: Picador, 2004.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 50th anniversary Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Peel, Michael. Swamp Full of Dollars. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.