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 events in Biafra from 1967 to 1970 are worthy of study by themselves. More than thirty years ago military leaders of the Igbo (Ibo) people attempted to create the independent Republic of Biafra through the secession of the Eastern region of Nigeria. The attempt failed but the effort was accompanied and preceded by large scale massacres. Of course, massacres of this kind have occurred throughout time and across all cultures and seem to be especially frequent lately. Why single out this one for study? The event represents one of the first in the series of global crises in the television age where people outside the theater of crisis encounter the existence of vast human misery “almost first hand” before they actually find out (if they ever do) the issues and motivations of the actors involved. In short, concern outruns knowledge as outsiders try to grasp the basics of the conflict. This was true for Biafra for several reasons. The break up of the vast European colonial empires following World War II created an unfamiliar “new world” by redefining and re-labeling the maps of much of the world with newly independent countries. The Cold War, a fact of life from the late 1940s to 1989, heightened people’s awareness of the potential for catastrophic outcomes from global crises—even in situations where the interests of the US and the USSR were not directly at stake. The continuing growth of electronic media, especially television, brought more pictures of misery more quickly into many homes than in earlier times. Furthermore, the unfolding Civil Rights movement in the United States created an era which increased the awareness of many people about the importance of human rights and the need to protect these rights globally. But that was thirty years ago. The world has dealt with numerous crises since then—most recently with Rwanda in Africa and the Kosovo Albanians in the former Yugoslavia (southeastern Europe). Why should we revisit this one?

There are several reasons—and they undercut the arguments some people use to validate the study of history. For some folks the outcome of a history course is to learn the 50-100-200(?) most important facts about a portion of the past. These people may ask, “Does Biafra make this list of importance?” One answer, of course, is that it does make the list in Nigeria. But this approach to history—learn the most important factoids—ducks the issue of what makes an event or trend “important.” Why shouldn’t we study the ramifications of an event in Africa’s most heavily populated nations? The Biafra episode combines a number of issues into a single moment: the impact of imperialism; the difficulties of starting a nation; and dynamics of ethnic diversity. These issues also reveal a lot about why historians enjoy the study of the past and believe history is a valuable part of the ideas and understandings people should have in order to understand the world in useful ways.


What Are the “Big” Issues Covered in This Unit?

This unit connects 1) to events in African and European colonial history; 2) to the broad relationships and dynamics of global history; and 3) to the themes often used to teach western civilization.

The story of Biafra addresses some of the same issues faced in the United States during the American Revolution and the Civil War. In the former event, which parallels the 1945-1960 period in Nigeria, we see the people of the different regions of the United States trying to work together, to overcome regional differences to unite in order to break free from English colonial rule. In this effort Americans sought to eliminate English political and economic control in their part of North America but also used a number of English ideals and principles to justify the break. Then, as independence was won, Americans incorporated many English principles into their system of law and government. In the American Civil War, paralleled by events in Biafra, many northerners and southerners reached a point where they felt they had irreconcilable differences. Although these differences can be seen as largely economic and institutional, each side feared what would happen if the other side controlled the instruments of national government. Wouldn’t the dominant region simply use national power for its own local purposes? Specifically, northerners claimed that the south dominated the national government, a condition which ended with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Following this election, southerners seceded rather than wait to see how the northern dominated government would administer laws of vital importance to the south. Secession occurred before Lincoln was even inaugurated.

Similarly, in Nigeria, we find a group of regions and ethnic groups brought together into a single unit by the British for administrative purposes in 1914; the people of modern Nigeria had not considered themselves as members of a single nation before this time. In the face of the British they developed a “Nigerian” identity and tried to work together against the outside power. Following independence, however, their regional ethnic differences (and divergent value systems) led to a series of crises, two coups, and the secessionist movement.

What were the British trying to do in Nigeria? Maintain an economically advantageous foothold on the African continent? Bring “technologically less advanced” people the benefits of western civilization? Or did they see the Nigerians as morally “backward” as well? How did African—and Nigerians—see themselves in this era? Did they think they needed help? Did they think they needed to change? And, if so, in what ways? Which parts of western civilization did they want to adopt (if any)? What did they wish to retain of their familiar way of life? These questions could go on and on.

One of the major assumptions of western culture was (is?) convergence, the belief that over time all cultures of the world will adopt a single set of basic principles for their economies and governments—and religions and cultures. Furthermore, westerners have always assumed that “convergence” meant that the rest of the world would adopt European models to organize their “modern” lives because these models were the “best” arrangements for living. These models include, for example, Individualism, Legislative Democracy, Market Capitalism, Political Freedom, Guarantees of Human Rights, Christianity. In Nigeria we can see both the attraction and the problems tied to these ideals.

A cautionary note. This material relates to the history of a relatively recent event that still “echoes” through Nigerian society because many feel Nigeria has not effectively addressed the underlying issues that initially caused the crisis. Some feel that all that has happened is the emergence of a Nigeria-wide, tacit agreement not to discuss the issue. Historians need to pay attention to the voices of all of the participants in Nigeria’s Civil War, past and present. Although the study of these materials should yield a better understanding of these events as well as an improved ability to “do” history; there is no single “best answer” to these issues. Furthermore, those who have or had a “stake” in these issues have been rightly concerned that outsiders have made pronouncements about Nigerian events even though these outside analysts were not well informed on the issues. For a statement of these “cautions” see this critique of European understandings of Africa & Biafra.


How Does This Material Relate to the Study Of Western Civilization and World History?

World Civilization courses are usually organized in one of two ways: a) they analyze the processes which are common to all regions of the world with special attention to why and how the histories of different regions worked out differently in the face of these processes or b) they focus on a variety of cultures in order to convey some sense of the diversity and cultural richness of the peoples of the world. This unit straddles this divide. By focusing on a single “posthole” into recent history, the material can present the ideas of writers, the culture of a people, and the ways culture and history help shape perspective. On the other hand, this unit deals with a lot of processes and cultural interactions. Imperialism, colonialism and global economics are central to this story as are interactions between world religions (Christianity and Islam). Participants in this episode had conflicting ideas of how or to what extent to adapt to the ideas of the West even as their speeches were laced with the language of political rights drawn from the Enlightenment.

For Western Civilization courses this electronic unit on Biafra places European actions in a non-western context and examines more fully the impact of Europe on the rest of the world. It supplements the usually limited coverage of non-European events provided in sweeping surveys and gives students the opportunity to gain a new perspective on European ideas and actions. Additionally all students will benefit from the intellectual approaches used in the unit to give students the opportunity to think historically, a skill which is transferable to the worlds of citizenship and work.

There are few opportunities in a modern western civilization course to encounter the non-western world and Europe’s impact on it. Depending on the way content is divided into courses, students encounter the non-western world either two or three times. The first time occurs with the European discovery of the new world (and the discovery of Europeans by the residents of the Americas) including the first round of European colonization. [These events sometimes appear in the first course in the sequence.] This colonial era represented new economic opportunities for Europeans that they pursued vigorously including a significant reliance on slavery in many settings. The non-western world usually then disappears until the chapter on late 19th century imperialism where we often look at several examples of reactions to European imperialism as part of this round of European expansion. Finally, many western civilization courses have a concluding chapter on decolonization as part of the world after World War II or after the end of the Cold War.


The Lens of History

How do people make sense of events in the world around them?  One way is by drawing on previous personal and historical experience.  If you go out with someone whose actions remind you of some earlier romance that ended badly, what do you do?   Continue to see that person or . . . .?  In the United States, the Vietnam war is a reference point for American foreign policy–Will what we are thinking about doing (in any particular situation) lead to another Vietnam?  What does that statement do to public debate? Another example.   In the current Republican presidential primaries—some of the actions of GOP candidates are compared (by opponents) to President Clinton while other actions are regarded  (by candidates themselves) as clearly in the spirit of Ronald Reagan.  In short our initial reaction to any situation is to try to understand it by analogy.  We use our experiences from an earlier, presumably similar, situation to give us a sense of understanding in the new situation.  The use of analogies based on the past is one meaning of “lens of history”—we use past experience to make sense of present dilemmas.

The concept of the “lens of history” can mean something else.   What do we do when we think we need to know more about an issue than we can learn “by analogy”?  In the examples in the previous paragraphs, the person you are now taking out is not the same person you broke up with earlier, the new military situation is not actually Vietnam and none of the Republican candidates are Clinton or Reagan clones.  In other words while analogy is useful for providing a sense of understanding of an event, it is not the same thing as actually understanding the event itself.  For that we need to use the “lens of history” in a different way–to try to gain a good knowledge of the actual background to the events under study.   What are the concerns of the people, the values of the cultures, the goals of leaders, the economic conditions of the area?  How have these and other factors shaped the situation and defined the range of possible options for solutions?   Historians do not really believe that each moment in life is a totally “new” moment where everyone has total freedom to decide what to do.   Instead each moment is at least partially defined by past events and decisions–as well as our own previous, personal decisions.  For this reason historians often feel that the lens of history can provide a fuller and more realistic understanding of a situation than we can get by reacting to analogies based on the past.

This section may make it sound as if the first use of lens (analogy) leads to false understandings while the second use (the understanding of the actual historical background) leads to true understandings.  This is not really correct.   Analogies can lead to good as well as false insights.  And aspects of the actual past may be irrelevant to decision-makers.  In reality historical study of issues which are part of current debates requires an understanding of both aspects of the “lens of history.”


Current Events in Nigeria: The Debate over Sharia (Law)

In Spring, 2000, news reports on the Cable News Network (CNN) and elsewhere told a tale of riots and murder in Nigeria.  The source of this conflict was the decision of several states in northern Nigeria to adopt the Sharia (strict Islamic law) to define the crimes and punishments within these states.  These laws include severe punishments such as the removal of a hand for theft and the requirement that women be completely veiled in public (wear a chador). Non-Muslims living in the north, both Christians and followers of traditional beliefs, are concerned about their futures.   Although currently exempt from Sharia law, these residents of the northern states fear that these laws could one day be extended to them.  They saw this effort as, in part, the attempt to neutralize if not eradicate the power of non-Muslims in Nigeria.

Nigerians demonstrated that they viewed these outbreaks through the lens of history the minute they introduced comparisons with Biafra.  They expressed fear for the future of the nation itself—would it break apart along ethnic lines into a number of separate nations?  The Eastern Region of Nigeria attempted to do just that in 1967 when it renamed itself Biafra and seceded from Nigeria.  The fact that members of many ethnic groups are spread out around the country would/could require massive relocations of people in the event that some sort of ethnic consolidation (what would happen to Iowa if all Iowans–and their descendents–who had moved away were required to move back to Iowa?).   In addition there was widespread fear of personal attacks on people found outside their traditional “home” regions.   This is another parallel with the events leading up to the Biafran secession.

If Biafra is a distant concept for many students in the early 21st century, it is a living presence in Nigeria.  So to understand Nigeria today, we need to apply the lens of history to the Biafran moment in Nigeria.  [The direction of this unit suddenly becomes apparent:  To understand Biafra, we have to understand the issues and hopes leading up to Nigerian independence.  To understand these issues and hopes, we have to look more fully into the colonial/imperial period in Nigeria.  The hope/expectation, of course, is that these excursions further into that past will illuminate later events and provide valuable understanding for what is occurring in Nigeria today.]


False, Dry, Boring Ideas about History

Do we have to memorize a lot of dates and names???  [This is the most frequently asked question in history courses, especially on the first day of class.]   For some folks the goal of historical study is to learn the 50-100-200(?) most important facts about a portion of the past.  This approach suggests that knowing a number of terms is good-in-itself even if you don’t learn why the events are important [almost in the same way as you were once told to “eat your vegetables without hearing first about the value of vitamins, minerals, etc.].

People might ask, “Does Biafra make this list of importance?”   One answer, of course, is that it does make the list in Nigeria.  But this approach to history—the admonition to learn the most important factoids—ignores the issue of what makes an event or trend “important.”  Why shouldn’t we study the ramifications of an event in Africa’s most heavily populated nation?  The Biafra episode combines a number of issues into a single moment:  the impact of imperialism; the difficulties of starting a nation; and the dynamics of ethnic diversity.  The list could go on.   And we agreed (did we not?) that the human misery accompanying events like Biafra around the world are upsetting if not intolerable.  [I use this phrasing because there is a school of thought in the study of foreign policy that holds national security interests rather than human concern should guide the foreign policies of nations.  It is a valid policy issue.]

Furthermore, do you really think that history majors have no life other than to sit around and mention stray names and dates to one another?  If you don’t think that would be interesting, why do you think historians might find it interesting?   History (or at least interesting history) is the attempt to understand past events, often, as with this unit, to gain insight into the dynamics of what is going on in the world today.  And one of the goals of historical study in survey courses is to get students to develop the “habit of mind” of incorporating an understanding of the past into their understanding of the present.  In short to know history as a lens on the past.

Echoes of the Biafran Era in Nigeria Today

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a celebrated writer and activist, who was executed by the Nigerian government in the mid-1990s. His importance for Biafra is the fact that although he was Ogoni rather than Igbo, he was a soldier on the side of Biafra during the civil war.