Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Biafra, Nigeria, the West and the World” by David Trask. 


The Structure and Operation of This Unit

Historians do not believe that events “just happen” for no apparent reason. If we believed this, there would be no reason to take this course. Instead it is one of the core tenets (beliefs) of historians that the past is connected to the present, helps shape current issues and defines the options which seem most workable as citizens address the concerns of their time and place. The Biafran episode in African/global/European history did not “just happen” either. By working through the materials accumulated at this website students will not just learn more about this episode from the “near past” but will learn how to “do” history by framing questions to understand the dynamics of other situations past or present. To achieve these goals, this unit has a number of special features.


Initial Focus on a Single Event

At the end of this project you will find out that your knowledge is important for understanding current issues not just in Nigeria but also, potentially, globally. Another way of defining this effort is to call it a “posthole“—we will focus on a single event and, by working through all of its implications, get a good understanding of broad issues such as colonialism and imperialism as well as other topics in African and European history. And in this process students will become historians for a semester.

The Importance of Questions

This inquiry will be driven by questions because that is how historians work. Teaching is not a task where historians reveal to students information that is hidden away in a mystic mountain which each historian visits during graduate school in order to learn all the answers. Instead (although historians may disagree on the meaning of events) historians are unified by the ways they approach issues. They look at primary sources, ask questions as a result of this reading and analysis, and then look for other materials to answer these new questions. (or else we reread the material with these new questions in mind). The need to learn to ask and answer questions is part of why this unit is organized the way it is. For historians an unanswered question is preferable to an unquestioned answer.

As the author/compiler of this material, my goal is not to tell a story through many screens in the sense that there is a single answer or single story that will emerge from your work if you do it “right.” Instead my goal is to lay out some resources for people to fit together, to see how formal or informal collaboration helps achieve a fuller understanding of issues and to see how new evidence, added to previous understandings, changes or reinforces understandings of the past.

Backwards Chronological Approach

History has been defined by some as the study of “one damn thing after another.” The teacher asserts that a particular set of events is “very important” and that you should learn the chain of events (in chronological order) to understand the event. In contrast, this material on Biafra is presented in chunks which come in reverse chronological order. Students will learn first about the episode itself, then move back to the era of early political independence which hatched this revolt, then further back to the era of colonialism and imperialism. In effect this unit works deeper into the past as the study goes along because that seems to be a natural way to study history. We start with an event and ask why it happened. Then we form some hypotheses and look at the events immediately prior to the episode. But to understand more fully what our study of the immediate past turned up, we have to push further into the past.

Take a familiar example. The study of the American Civil War can start with the election of Lincoln, the failure of the Crittenden Compromise and the shots fired on Ft. Sumter. But, in order to understand these actions, students have to know about the Dred Scot decision and “bleeding Kansas.” Then we have to move further back to look at forces driving the people to make the decisions they did. These deeper, earlier issues can include slavery, abolitionism and world trade. Then we ask how these forces developed and look at the efforts to compromise these differences in 1820 and 1850. And so on. Similarly we will move backward in stages to gain a fuller understanding of Biafra. [The pre-nineteenth century era of the slave trade is not part of this unit even though it is clearly part of the background to these events; at many institutions slavery was covered in an earlier course.]


This unit makes extensive use of “primary sources” for understanding history. Primary sources are direct evidence left from earlier times—diaries, laws, speeches, photos, and statistics, for example. Memoirs of participants are “nearly primary” sources in the sense that they were produced later but were written by participants about the events in which they were actors. Questions raised by some materials will be answered when you read into the materials from earlier eras. According to the terminology of this paragraph, your textbook is a “secondary source.” It was written years after the events it describes by someone who was not there. On the other hand, the careful study of the past by a trained historian yields a “secondary source” (a book or an article or a lecture) which is a very reliable analysis of what happened and why it happened.

Collaborative Approach

This unit lends itself to collaborative study. It is based on the premise that if everyone person does a part of the work and shares their results with other members of the working group, the outcome will be an enhanced understanding of the issues for everyone involved. You will have to take the work you do and put it into your own words to teach others what you found out. To achieve this goal, each of the major sections of the unit is divided into four subsections. You will be asked look into the material in your subsection and see how it relates to the bigger issues which are raised by this posthole. Your instructor will decide how this collaboration is to be carried out. The possibilities include in-class study groups, outside of class meetings, or online discussion using email and listservs or bulletin boards.

Some faculty and students will recognize parts of this activity as comparable to the documents-based questions used in advanced placement courses in high school history for college credit. Therefore you should first read each document simply for its content–What is it saying? What are the author’s main points? Who was the intended audience for this statement? What did the author hope would be the impact of the statement? Then you will need to address the questions associated with each reading which (are supposed to) help you fit the material into the various contexts of this study. Your collaborators will help you fill in some of the context when they share their findings with the group.


Unit Goals and Suggestions for Evaluation


This unit presents material focused on a particular set of historical dynamics with the requirement to process that information according to the methods that historians use. For this reason both the objectives and the evaluation of this unit should pay attention both to historical content and to the development and demonstration of analytical skills. The material is not intended as a complete compilation of the evidence needed to make a thorough analysis of the issues. Instead it reflects the real experience of historians who often find that their early reviews of a new issue leave them with more questions than answers.


This unit presents a field of historical sources to enable students to examine the dynamic interactions which have helped shape post-colonial Africa by seeing how these dynamics worked out within Nigeria in the events associated with the Biafran secessionist movement of 1966-1970. At the same time this information gives students the opportunity to learn more about the meaning and impact of European ideas, interests and actions outside of Europe. These dynamics include

  • the competing aspirations and global understandings of newly independent peoples;
  • the interplay between traditional values and the demands of modern national and international institutions;
  • the opportunities and challenges of building a nation on the foundations left by a colonial power;
  • the long term impact of colonial policies;
  • differing estimates of the needs of people in the colonies as expressed by Europeans and within African communities;
  • the rationale for and the impact of the decision to transform an imperial relationship into a colonial one.


Students are presented with historical sources arranged by topic and era; this information is accompanied by some questions and suggestions for dealing with these sources. In addition students will be asked to develop their own questions in order to mine these materials more fully and to determine relationships among the different readings. Although students could work through this material as individuals, one goal of this unit is to create the possibility for students to work collaboratively in teams. If this approach is taken, student contributions to the effectiveness of their team should be evaluated. Faculty will have to assess the abilities of their students to determine how to organize and, if necessary, teach the skills needed for team work. This unit is structured so that students will have the opportunity to develop these skills over time.

Where Does This Unit Fit in My Course?

This unit focuses on events beginning with the onset of the “new imperialism” as some textbooks call it with a glance at earlier issues. On the other hand this unit works its way backwards (chronologically) from the 1960s to imperialism. One option for implementation is to schedule this unit to be the culmination of the course with the last student work turned in at that moment. Alternatively, this material could be started much earlier and culminate at the moment when the course is covering imperialism, World War I and the Wilsonian ideals expressed at the Versailles peace conference.


If students work collaboratively in teams, they will undoubtedly reach different understandings of the meaning and relative importance of the forces at play in the postcolonial world. This situation means that it is not possible to reduce the knowledge gained in this unit to a common body of facts that will be mastered by everyone. Whether students work individually or in teams, the evaluation of learning achieved in this unit is, to a significant degree, tied to the thought processes developed and used in the study of these materials.

Evaluation of student performance can include:

  • A “team” grade assigned by team members for the effort and quality of work of each member of the team.
  • An evaluation of the work and insight of individuals according to the quality of their “postings” on electronic bulletin boards.
  • A final debate within teams or between teams where they test their understandings against the understandings of the dynamics developed by other teams.
  • An individual or group paper recounting their conclusions and how they reached them.
  • A journal maintained throughout the process.

Any of these forms of evaluation should require students to show how they reached their conclusions and how their work is supported by the evidence. The final evaluation could also include a statement of unanswered questions, an evaluation of the evidence presented, and a list of additional topics/issues that need to be studied.

Why Was This Unit Created?

This unit was created as the result of a collaborative effort to experiment with ways to improve the instruction of history by taking advantage of the capabilities of electronic media. Historians need to find approaches to historical study that are more than books brought to the computer. This is difficult to do because history has been shaped by print and its resources and methodologies are based on print–and many of the faculty are more comfortable working with traditional print.

The collaborative effort to create these materials was organized by the American Historical Association and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the project direction of Dr. Noralee Frankel, Associate Director of the AHA. This effort is divided into three clusters of faculty organized by locale—southern California, Wisconsin and North Carolina. This unit on Biafra was developed by David S. Trask of Guilford Technical Community College who also facilitates the North Carolina group. Other members of the team are John Beck of Vance-Granville CC, Jeff Kinard of Guilford Technical CC, Jim Leloudis of UNC- Chapel Hill, and Russ Van Wyk, Cary Academy. This effort has been greatly enhanced by support from the Project for Historical Education, Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. PHE co-directors Lloyd Kramer (on leave from UNC in 1999-2000) and Leon Fink (on leave from UNC in 1998-1999) have been supportive above and beyond the call of duty in this effort. The project has also benefited from the help of Leah Potter, a graduate student in History at UNC.

Thje project leaders of the other clusters are Linda Trask’s of California State University, Dominguez Hills, and David Huehner, Department Head for the University of Wisconsin Colleges and professor of history on that system’s Washington County campus.

Operating assumptions for overall project include:

  1. that the history profession must place more emphasis on the importance of introductory and survey courses for non-majors
  2. that there be collaboration between community college and university faculty as a necessary development for the history profession
  3. that students will study history collaboratively
  4. that all students need to work with primary sources
  5. that students gain experience developing historical interpretation.