Welcome back to florafranca.com!
This time, this topic is inspired by the film “Half a Yellow Sun” which is itself inspired by the book of the same name. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a Ted Talk on the “The danger of a single story”, which is also extremely inspiring.
The story is about a young woman, Olanna, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied abroad, who decides to take up a position at the University of Nsukka, in the South of Nigeria where her boyfriend works. It is with Olanna’s story that the breaking of the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, erupts in 1967. Olanna and her family are then forced to flee their home and see their loved ones die amidst this conflict.Olanna’s family are Igbos and (or Ibos) wanted to seize independence from the rest of the country after years of oppression.
The Biafran War
Like many African countries, Nigeria is a purely colonial creation which did not exist as a political entity before being colonised by Britain. Organised in tribes and kingdoms, the parts of what constitutes Nigeria today were independent fragments in contact with one another, notably for trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United Kingdom conquered all administrative regions, which were regrouped in Protectorates. In 1914, the Protectorates were merged to form Nigeria.
Nigeria seized independence from the United Kingdom on October 1st, 1960, after decades of ‘struggle for freedom’ and self-determination. The Republic of Nigeria was subsequently divided into three federal regions, then four in 1963. In 1966, the government was toppled and replaced by a succession of military governments, which continued until 1979.
The military governments exacerbated ethnic divisions, of which the Igbos, the ethnicity from the South Eastern region of Nigeria, were at the receiving end. As a consequence, on 30 May, 1967, the Head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independence of ‘East Nigeria’, renamed ‘Republic of Biafra’. On 15 January 1970, the loyalist army, backed by British, American and Soviet troops, regained control of the Biafran region, seven days after Col. Ojukwu had fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
Almost three years of civil war where the central Nigerian government tried to regain control of the secessionist region left 1 million civilians dead from fighting and famine. The Biafran war also led to the creation of modern humanitarian interventions.
De facto state and African Unity
Foreign interests played a very important role in the resolution of the Biafran crisis: first for securing the stability of oil supplies (the Biafra region sits on most of Nigeria’s underground and offshore oil resources, the country’s only natural resource); second, for guaranteeing the unity of Nigeria for stability reasons. Note that those arguments are also applicable to the Nigerian government as well.
On the Biafran side, the strategy was to make the conflict last as long as possible in the hope of gaining international support, and thus armament. This worked to a certain extent as several countries like Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the newly created state. They also counted on the emotion created by the death toll (referred to as a genocide against the Igbos), the displacement of population and general humanitarian crisis in progress in Biafra to appeal to the international community’s emotion to support the Biafran cause.
For the Nigerian central government, maintaining the Nigerian unity was essential. The African Unity Organization, the ancestor of the African Union and whose principal objective was to “promote the unity and solidarity of African states”, strongly sided with Lagos. It was also in most African countries’ interest to do so as if Biafra would have become an internationally recognized state, it would have created a precedent which would have certainly inspired many secessionist regions to do the same, thus shaking the fragile post-colonial fragility of the continent. Britain and the USSR, surprisingly amidst the Cold War, both supported the territorial integrity option.
The fear of Balkanization
The case of Nigeria in the late 60s is not an isolated case as several ethnicities, notably in Africa, have been fighting for fair political representation and equal rights with other groups within their own countries. No need to look too far back to find examples: think Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey.
The issue that is often brought up to explain why Africa is so conflict-ridden since the end of colonialism in the 60s is that states are colonial constructions that have been arbitrarily drawn (also see the Sykes Picot agreement which redrawn the Middle East). Before Europeans arrived in Africa, borders were formed by natural obstacles – rivers, mountains, etc. – and each ethnicity had its more or less defined own territory. To ease their ruling over the newly conquered lands, European settlers regrouped several regions under the same jurisdictions; this inevitably caused friction as the different people composing those administrative districts had never had to work together as part of the same entity, be it political, economic or cultural.
It is thus without surprise that ethnic tension and independence movements have been emerging in Africa, causing civil wars and sometimes genocide. Some regions would potentially be viable as independent states: Somaliland, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden, possesses all the attributes of a sovereign state (currency, stable government, army and police force, etc.), much more than Somalia itself which is considered a failed state. Despite this, Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the international community. Among all the African regions claiming independence, only two managed to get international recognition since decolonisation: South Sudan which officially seized independence in 2011, and Eritrea which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Other than that, the colonial map has not changed since the independence waves.
Does the secession of a country solely depend on international support? It appears that South Sudan was able to access to full statehood because of the strong support the independence movement received from the international community, notably in the US. Is it then still down to international powers to decide? One could invoke the argument of genocide of ongoing civil war which helped the case of South Sudan; but this argument still did not allow countries like Rwanda (or Nigeria if you consider the Biafran war as a genocide) to be divided.
In general, the international community fears the “Balkanization” of Africa, whereby countries were to be divided into several smaller one (think Yugoslavia which is now divided into 7 independent countries). Dealing with one government is easier than with multiple; organizing a territorial partition is never an easy task, especially when natural resources are involved. Supporting the independence movements in Africa would come to question the inheritance of the colonial era. In the international community’s mind, and especially in that of the former colonial powers involved in Africa – France and Great Britain – more African members of the United Nations would potentially mean mmore voices to oppose the old colonial order. It would also have probably meant more members of the Non-Aligned Movement to question the West’s superiority.
Going back to the case of Nigeria, the independence of Biafra was not feasible as the project was carried by a single self-interested man who did not hesitate to leave the ship when he saw it was going to sink. National and international interests were also strongly opposing this option, making the project of an independent state totally unlikely.
The case of Biafra is an interesting one because it was the first case which raised the international community’s interest due to the extent of the humanitarian crisis. It, however, was not sufficient to push for the division of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the fastest economically growing country in Africa thanks, in parts, to the oil reserves. The destiny of Nigeria would probably have been very different if Biafra had become independent, leaving with most natural reserves.
This fear of the balkanization of Africa is not only applicable to this continent. The remodelling of borders is dreaded by all nations, including Western ones. It is widely accepted that current states are in their final forms. But the independence movements such as in Scotland, Britany, Catalonia and others, tend to think otherwise. The redrawing of borders has been a constant in history, and there seems to be an urge to continue to do so in certain regions. There is, however, a strong tendency to maintain the status quo even if it leaves many discontent.