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Why Biafra Lost

A Riposte to Revisionism

by Mazi K. Ani, Gamji, Nigeria, date unknown, 2000?

As things stand, it seems that the first Biafran war was merely a notice served to the effect that a state of that name will someday re-appear in the world map unless the grievances that led to war in the first place are addressed. In that respect, Ojukwu has played his historical role of putting Biafra on that map of world history complete with its own flag, national anthem, currency, postage stamps etc. No liberation struggle on the scale of Biafra has ever been totally and permanently defeated. Nigeria may well become a world first in this regard if the underlying grievances are addressed.

In May 2000, the anniversary of Biafra's independence the Biafran flag was hoisted anew in Igboland by a local group. Quite clearly, the Biafran saga is not over until it is over. Unless the grievances that lead to that war are satisfactorily addressed, those dry bones may yet rise.

 

There has been a proliferation of Biafra and Ojukwu-related articles lately in the Nigerian cyber media. This is both a reflection of the critical role of one man -His Excellency Gen. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu- in the historical turning point of Nigeria as well as the Igbo proverb that after brave men have done the real fighting, the effeminate would remain at home by the fire-side and tell the tales. The cyber space has become the ultimate fire-side, the destination for cowardly tale telling by effeminate revisionists of all hue about a war that ended over three decades ago.

One theme that recur with regularity in these fancy tales is the issue of Ojukwu's leadership and the outcome of the Biafran war. However, all the articles written so-far on the issue have missed the point by narrowly focusing on leadership. Therefore they suffered from one debilitating weakness: one-factor analysis. The theme Ojukwu da da da da da taken out of its historical context from predictable sources has become as boring as it is unproductive. In this essay, we unpack the real reasons for Biafra's loss of the war and the implications for the brand of total political posturing that fail to account for the changed context of that defeat.

Biafra lost mainly because the idea that it portrayed was too far advanced for its time. The Biafran war broke out just over 6 years after Nigeria's independence. At that time, anti-colonial struggles were still going on elsewhere in Africa, pitting African nationalists against colonial and neo-colonial forces in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa etc. The issues thrown up by Biafra had not been properly understood at the time as they are now.  These issues are:

(a) Self-Determination vs. Territorial Integrity.

The dominant debate in the war was the right of nations to self- determination versus the right of states to maintain their territorial integrity. At the time of Biafra, the principle of territorial integrity was upheld world-wide over self-determination.  And because the Nigerian side represented the politically correct ideology at the time, it was able to mobilise a vast array of forces incorporating both NATO and Warsaw Pact countries and the Arab League (USSR, UK, OAU, USA, Egypt etc.) against Biafra which was seen as a threat to Nigeria's territorial integrity.

At the time Biafra was declared, very few people e.g. France's Charles De Gaulle, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda etc. upheld the right of nations to self determination over territorial integrity of states. Today, the picture is different. The scale has tipped in favour of national self-determination as seen in Eritrea, Yugoslavia, East Timor, USSR etc.  Indeed during the Biafran period, the collapse of a state, any state was viewed with utmost horror. Yakubu Gowon scored cheap points by raising the spectre of tens of African republics invading the UN! No one imagined that the almighty USSR would disappear from the world map, each of its 15 constituent republics becoming full members of the UN and the high heavens did not fall. Today the reality of collapse is taken for granted after the disintegration of USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and separatist pressures in Canada, Spain, Britain etc.

(b) The Viability of Colonial Boundaries in Africa.

What Biafra challenged at the time was the viability of the African boundaries as constructed by colonial powers. At the time, the received wisdom was that African boundaries were inviolable and non-negotiable. The idea was that if these boundaries were successfully challenged, it would open a floodgate for more agitation and therefore chaos in Africa and elsewhere. As a result, the OAU incorporated in its charter, the inviolability of African boundaries, a clause which it defend with great zeal.

It was precisely this principle that Biafra attempted to challenge in the 1960s. Again this idea was far ahead of its time. Today after millions of Africans have died in wars related to these same boundaries, millions are maimed and million more rendered homeless,  serious people everywhere have come to see the futility of maintaining those artificial boundaries. In fact, many more Africans have died fighting about Africa's artificial boundaries than killed under direct European colonialism itself. When the British colonial police shot a dozen coal miners in Enugu, all hell broke lose, but the Biafran War alone claimed over 2 million lives. The same scenario is being played out in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, etc. Therefore, a lot more people are today willing to accept that African boundaries are not and should not be inviolable. Ironically Ethiopia itself where the fate of Biafra was discussed several times became the first to accept this compelling reality by not only letting Eritrea to go but also incorporating the rights to secession in its constitution! The OAU itself has lost much of its relevance and became a talking shop for tin pot dictators, no longer able or willing to assert the principle of inviolable and sacrosanct boundaries.

(c) International Matters.

The Biafran war strategy was based on the goodness of the international community and their ability to intervene in the resolution of conflicts. Biafra believed that the international community would not stand by while acts of genocide were being committed. Again this idea was far ahead of its time. It was not until the 1990s in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo and East Timor that the international community became involved in this way. At the time of Biafra, the international community was there all right but there was no unity of purpose between the wishes of the masses and their governments.

Thus while the masses and their organizations in Europe and North America i.e. charities funded by mass donations supported Biafra, their governments supported the Nigerian side. Nigeria's argument that other states should not interfere with its internal affairs was more or less accepted by the international community, except the aid agencies. Today, the situation is different in that governments can actually act according to the humanitarian impulses of the masses to prevent international disaster on the Biafran scale, territorial integrity or no territorial integrity, internal affairs or no internal affairs as seen recently in Kosovo.

(d) Religion: Islam vs. Christianity

This was another question thrown up by the Biafran struggle which was poorly understood at the time. Although the conflict between Islam and Christianity is a very old one, at the time of the Biafran struggle, the main ideological battle was between communism and capitalism. Biafra however presented the religious side of the conflict to the world, but again on this issue too, Biafra was far ahead of its time. Whereas Biafra saw the conflict as a struggle between Islam and Christianity, the Nigerian side was able to use Yakubu Gowon, Anthony Enahoro etc. as fronts to mask the religious dimension of the war.

With the end of the cold war and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism world-wide threatening the interests of the USA and European states, the religious issue is viewed rather much differently today. The re-emergence of the Sharia etc. in Nigeria, Al Quida and Islamic international sponsored terrorism today shows a far clearer understanding of the question than was possible at the time of Biafra.

(e) The Concept of Hausa-Fulani Hegemony and the Role of Local Groups

Aside from the international ideological currency in favour of maintaining territorial integrity of existing states at the time of Biafra, the other major reason for Biafran defeat was the role of  local groups. Biafra interpreted the conflict in north-south terms, internal colonialism and the need to fight Hausa-Fulani domination. This idea turned out to be far ahead of its time in that many local groups did not buy the idea of Northern domination. Indeed, many Nigerian groups contested the notion of Hausa- Fulani domination and considered Igbo domination as a more dangerous threat to themselves.

This explained the pattern of alliances that occurred during the war. In Western Nigeria, the idea of Northern domination was bought only by a radical fringe made up of Wole Soyinka, Tai Solarin etc and was of no mobilising value. In the Midwest, the idea of Northern domination was totally rejected by all non-Igbo groups who considered Igbo domination to be far more dangerous. In Eastern Nigeria, not only was Hausa-Fulani domination rejected but non-Igbo groups saw the Hausa-Fulani as liberators from Igbo domination. This writer finds this attitude intriguing given that oil had not become as important in this area at the time. Ultimately the answer to this antipathy towards the Igbo must be found in pre-colonial history. Only in the 1990s after three decades did the idea of Hausa-Fulani domination begin to be accepted. Even then, how much this is weighted against the bogey of Igbo domination among southern Nigerian groups remains unclear.

(c) The Leadership Issue

Biafra lost the war also because we were outgunned and out manned by the Nigerian side.  As a result of the local and international climate which existed at the time of Biafra, the Nigerian side was able to put together a far more formidable array of forces that eventually gave them more military clout and led to the fall of Biafra. Those international configurations of forces and ideologies have now shifted. I read an Hausa chap in Gamji.com recently proclaiming that the whole world would not sit by today and watch Nigeria murder two million Igbo as was the case in 1966-70. This is a fact. The local attitudinal climate also appears to have changed in such a way that will make it impossible to recreate the anti-Biafran alliances of the 1960s.

The idea that Ojukwu's personality was contributory to Biafra's Defeat is a myth created to scapegoat and demonise him after the war. Sociologically, there are three sources of legitimate authority: traditional, legal-rational and charismatic. Ojukwu was (and still is) a charismatic leader, precisely the sort of leadership you need to found a new state. Every other issue must be subordinated to that single aim and that was precisely what happened in Biafra. So, Ojukwu has done his bit. All the arm-chair theorists and back-stabbing internet revisionists are hereby reminded that modern states and nations are not founded by whingeing sissies, cringing fence-sitter or crumb eaters who believe in nothing and will ultimately die for nothing.

As things stand, it seems that the first Biafran war was merely a notice served to the effect that a state of that name will someday re-appear in the world map unless the grievances that led to war in the first place are addressed. In that respect, Ojukwu has played his historical role of putting Biafra on that map of world history complete with its own flag, national anthem, currency, postage stamps etc. No liberation struggle on the scale of Biafra has ever been totally and permanently defeated. Nigeria may well become a world first in this regard if the underlying grievances are addressed.

In May 2000, the anniversary of Biafra's independence the Biafran flag was hoisted anew in Igboland by a local group. Quite clearly, the Biafran saga is not over until it is over. Unless the grievances that lead to that war are satisfactorily addressed, those dry bones may yet rise. Triumphalism or revisionist posturing about Igbo, Biafra, Ojukwu etc. may be soothing, but they cannot by themselves change the course of world history.

Mazi K. Ani

Executive Director

CIVIL RIGHTS LEAGUE-NG

crlng@catholic.org