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 era studied here extends roughly from the end of World War II up to January, 1966. It should orient you to major issues in this period and help you lay out some basic background to the Nigerian civil war in relation to the attempted creation of Biafra. Explanations of this conflict are rooted in these events although there is disagreement about which elements are more important and which, if any, are not really essential to understanding Biafra.

At the end of World War II, most of Europe was in shambles.  The colonial powers, primarily England and France, were significantly weakened and had to come to terms with the question of what they wanted to do with their colonies. These colonies had been a source of manpower, raw materials and, in some ways, social responsibility. But what could be done now? The United States was injecting massive financial aid into Europe in the form of the Marshall Plan. But what about the rest of the world? Should England, the recipient of financial assistance itself, immediately cut its colonies loose or prepare them for independence first? Or was the need to “prepare them for independence” a British, not an African concern? In other words, was preparation really needed?

What was the chain of events from 1945 to 1966? In a sense it was the transition from the generalized hopes and ideals drawn both from Africa and the European Enlightenment to the realization that governments and societies operated in a world of competing visions and values. The people of Nigeria (and many other post-World War II colonies) had the opportunity to “start over” with a “new” government of their own creation. But many factors impinged on this “freedom.” Nigeria contains (and contained) more than 250 different ethnic groups and the colonial power (England) held the power of approval and wanted to use that power to make sure that the new governmental structure met their requirements.

What did the Nigerians have in common? They shared their status as British colonial subjects. As speakers of a vast number of different languages they used English (as a second language) to communicate with one another. Raised in the values of their ethnic groups, many had also been exposed to the Enlightenment ideas and capitalist practices of Europe. But what to do with this heritage? What kind of country should they create? What questions about Nigeria emerged from the sources for the Republic of Biafra?   To what extent does the information in the following documents answer these questions and raise new ones?


Collaborative Topics

The following links deal with only a few of the myriad issues which are present in this era of late colonial and early national (or post colonial) Nigeria. At the end of these readings your collaborative discussions will expand your understanding of Biafra, give insight into the problems of achieving independence (Nigeria from England, Biafra from Nigeria), and the problems of establishing or maintaining a group identity in the face of strong outside influences.

  1. An important piece of background to this period is a declaration made to the United Nations in 1945 by a convention of African leaders.  This document on the expectations of Africans in the post-WWII world should be read in advance of looking at issues specifically related to Nigeria. What principles are used by the writers of this document to justify their position? How are these ideas similar to or different from those expressed in western documents such as the Declaration of Independence (U. S.) or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (French Revolution)?
  2. How did Nigerians place their colonial experiences in the broader contexts of African and global realities? One person who analyzed these issues was Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of the major figures in Nigeria’s efforts to gain independence. A journalist who began publishing in the 1930s he was also one of the founding fathers of independent Nigeria. His early speeches give you some indication of his thinking and of the situation in Nigeria. The diversity of peoples present in Nigeria needs to be examined.
  3. In many ways the people of northern Nigeria come off as the villains of this story. They are charged with running the country on the principle of “what is good for the north will be regarded as good for everyone.” They can be portrayed as the region not devoted to independence or to democratic processes.  This motion and speech by one of the north’s most prominent speakers and leaders, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, adds a northern voice to the discussion.
  4. When we talk about the factors that define an ethnic group, we focus on language, religion, place and shared experience (history). Any attempt by the British to create a greater degree of Nigerian home rule–as well as any effort by Nigerians to create their own government–required that they figure out a way to incorporate the reality of this diversity into the structure of government and perhaps to create a new, “national” Nigerian identity to supplement pre-existing ethnic loyalties. Writers and other intellectuals attended Nigerian (or English) schools and colleges where they learned European culture and became familiar with the philosophers, writers, artists and others who created the masterpieces of Western culture. You can see references to these ideas and people in their work. On the other hand these people did not want to become Europeanized Africans; they wanted to reform their own culture in light of their own experiences. But how to express these ideas? Insist on using one’s native tongue (which was usually not a written language) and adapt an alphabet for expressing that language or re-form English to meet their needs? A lot of this intellectual struggle occurred in the first decade after World War II. It is evident in the Igbo market literature, also called Onitsha market literature.