Moving Beyond Semantics Examining the ‘Biafran Genocide’ Claim

Having accomplished a plethora of historical firsts, observations from the Nigeria-Biafra conflict can act as important references to better understand the evolving dynamics of warfare.

2020 signalled the turn of a new decade and the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigeria-Biafra War. While the conflict remains a fringe topic in war discourse, it reflects a wider trend of erasure concerning African narratives in academia. More than just a lack of representation, erasure seeks to render narratives invisible, while dictating what can be regarded as ‘legitimate’ modes of knowledge production. Borrowing from Foucault, prominent postcolonial thinker, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, articulates this erasure, as the production of ‘subjugated knowledge,’ ‘ a whole set of … naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’.

I observed this phenomenon during my undergraduate studies in International Relations, where I faced a startling absence of African conflicts from mainstream international relations dialogues. Particularly symbolic of this exclusion was the frequent bypassing of the Nigeria-Biafra War. Having accomplished a plethora of historical firsts, observations from the Nigeria-Biafra conflict can act as important references to better understand the evolving dynamics of warfare. First, let’s consider the revolutionary role of media and technology during the Nigeria-Biafra War. In an unprecedented way, media brought into our homes the horrors of warfare and its consequences, creating, as a result, ‘the world’s first televised war’. We also observed key transformations of the roles of state and non-state actors, as the three-year conflict produced unforeseen public relations and NGO activity. It is not common knowledge that today’s Médecins Sans Frontières would never have come into being without the conflict exposing issues with aid and ‘political neutrality’. Perhaps of greatest consideration, would be the conflict’s contribution to shaping discussions on international human rights, especially norms surrounding genocide and mass killings.

Biafra’s genocide claim became embedded into its persecution narrative and sustained the conflict’s global relevance. Naturally, it remains a theme that carries significant emotional resonance for Biafran secessionists. Pro-Biafra supporters often cite sustained state and civilian violence, from 1966 until early 1970 when Biafra surrendered, as the embodiment of the Nigerian genocidal campaign. With wartime death tolls in the millions, an impassioned neo-Biafra movement has revived calls for the Nigerian federal government to be held accountable for its alleged genocidal campaign against Biafrans and the Igbo in particular. But does a genocide allegation against the Nigerian state hold much water?

According to an international observer team sent to investigate accusations of genocide, Nigeria stands falsely accused. The team, constituting international state representatives and UN officials, were invited by the Nigerian government in 1968 with British support, to oversee Nigeria’s wartime conduct. Between September 1968 and January 1970, the team inspected displaced peoples’ camps, villages captured by the Nigerian military and prisoner of war camps; eventually, it concluded that no evidence had been found demonstrating ‘any intent by the Federal troops to destroy the Igbo people or their property’. Essentially saying Biafra had no genocide claim.

Unsurprisingly, leading voices in the Nigeria-Biafra conflict have been quick to call out the problematic manner by which the investigations were conducted. In her 1969 book, ‘Biafra: Britain’s Shame’, Suzanne Cronje highlights what appears to be British vested interest in refuting genocide claims, as Britain supported the federal government’s campaign, supplying arms to its former colony. She further states that ‘given the nature of its composition, its mandate, and its positioning, the Team was not competent to render an impartial judgment’. Interventions such as Cronje’s are essential in constructing a more multidimensional narrative of the conflict, particularly as actors are often ‘binaried’ and their motivations and goals, equally portrayed as one dimensional.

All Is Fair in War

To make any such judgments on the legitimacy of the Biafran genocide claim, we must contextualize our assessments within pre-existing legal frameworks for understanding genocides. Currently, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, stands as the principal reference for understanding this specific type of mass violence. After being adopted in December 1948, the convention set out the definition of genocides as ‘the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ and is widely credited for igniting a global human rights movement. It is precisely on this notion of explicit intent that the Biafran claim seemingly comes undone.

Similarly, scholars and thinkers have collectively refuted the Biafran claim. Genocide scholars seem steadfast in protecting the integrity of the legal literature, often claiming that the inclusion of the Nigeria-Biafra conflict weakens the political and legal aspects of genocide studies as a discipline. Most importantly, they maintain there’s not enough evidence to ascertain intent by the Nigerian state apparatus to annihilate the Biafrans. Irving Louis Horowitz corroborates a ‘statist’ understanding of intent, interpreting intent as systematic, and requiring the ‘direct intervention’ of a ‘state apparatus’. Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn similarly emphasize the intention of ‘a state or other authority…to destroy a group’. In other words, an absence of state-driven intent in the Biafran case legally delegitimizes the Biafran genocide claim.

But how do such intent-focused interpretations account for the blockade of the seceded region from April to June 1968? The ensuing famine and starvation produced apocalyptic images, hauntingly similar to the Holocaust. Emotions ran high across the globe and the genocide narrative took hold; but, again, all hopes of galvanizing legal proceedings against the Nigerian republic were stifled. International criminal tribunals emphasized on a marked absence of dolus specialis or ‘special intent’ by the Nigerian state as the predicted outcome of the blockade ‘tactic’, did not ‘qualify’ as genocidal. It follows that regardless of the Nigerian federal government’s prior knowledge that the blockade would result in large casualties, there was no specific intent to exterminate the Biafrans, vis-à-vis starvation.

In essence, the consensus is that all violence incited by the Nigerian state—whether seemingly disproportionate or excessive, against combatant or civilian—does not necessarily equate to genocidal intent. The context of warfare neutralizes intention and, instead, leads to a parley on collateral damage and victory by all means. Following Carl von Clausewitz’s approach to understanding war, Nigeria was merely exercising a ‘maximum use of force’ in order ‘to disarm the enemy,’ coercing them to submission.

Fragmented Identities

More ambiguous than an intent prerequisite as a determinant of genocide is implied group identity. The contention lies within the idea of a ‘Biafran people’, which includes a diverse amalgamation of the various minority ethnic groups within the seceded South-Eastern region. The average Nigerian knows all too well that there is no such unified Biafran identity, rather it is widely accepted that the Igbo ethnic group had a monopoly over the identity. Igbo cultural and political dominance within the activities of the short-lived nation was so evident, such that ‘Biafrans’ and ‘Igbos’ are often conflated and used interchangeably as identity denominators.

To stir the pot, Igbo Biafran secessionists are accused of ironically perpetrating genocide violence against smaller-sized ethnic groups like the Ogoni and further marginalizing these groups. Damming accusations have equally come from prominent figures including the late environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who alleged that the Ogoni population fatally suffered at the hands of the military government and Igbo policies of ‘relocation, reprisal and enlistment’. Such accusations represent perforations in the Biafran genocide claim, carrying serious implications for any attempt to galvanize sympathy for a neo-Biafra movement. They paint a rather murky image of a Biafran state falling victim to the same violent tendencies they accuse of Nigeria.

Problematizing the Framework

Case closed, it seems, but have we been asking the right questions? It appears academia has been focused on interrogating the Biafran claim, placing the burden of proof on Biafra to evidence its victimhood. I believe this to be a distraction from the necessary excavations of available legal frameworks and their applicability to our current contexts and experiences. We are currently asking whether Biafra meets certain criteria to substantiate a genocide claim when it might be more useful to question if the current criteria are fit for purpose? A more concerning problem within our line of questioning is the inadvertent reassertion of Nigeria’s genocide counter-discourse. The risk is that we legitimize Nigeria’s defence, entrenching a power dynamic within the discussion, whereby the state as a recognized authority can assert a monopoly over truth and narrative.

Upon closer inspection, the narrowness of the UN’s genocide definition becomes more apparent, as an attempt is made to distinguish the categories of war and genocide. However, it is important as Lasse Heerten asserts, to understand that ‘war can be waged in a genocidal manner’. Therefore to require the ‘innocence or agentlessness of the victim party ontologizes the victim collective, conflates combatants with civilians and thereby imports a genocidal logic into academic analysis’. It follows that while Nigeria might not have intended for the blockade and resulting famine to exterminate people en masse, the effects were predictable and could be seen as characteristically genocidal.

While implying an objective of annihilation, intent, as previously stated, is also predicated on the existence of a state apparatus and a collectivization of guilt. In this case, the Nigerian state is the necessary machine to operationalize a genocidal campaign. What follows is an erasure of acts committed by combatants or civilians that could qualify as genocidal in intent. In the absence of state authorization, however, such acts are summarily discounted. In other words, the Nigerian state can distance itself from acts of disproportionate and/or ‘illegal’ violence committed by its military personnel. We can thus ignore mass murders committed by servicemen such as the celebrated Col. Murtala Muhammad, who is often held responsible for orchestrating the systematic massacre of more than a thousand people in Asaba. Again, it raises vital questions about how we justify the exclusion of such fatalities, and what this exclusionary approach means for post-conflict accountability.

There is a troubling assumption present within this discussion, which concerns the sacrosanctity of the legal framework and immovability of International Human Rights legislation. What use are processes that are unresponsive and unwilling to engage with a dynamic global community? Academia must be more daring in questioning the norms we take for granted and approach legislation from a critical tradition. Opting to coddle our frameworks does more harm than good and further entrenches the idea that our legal norms are impersonable. Furthermore, if we continue seeking genocidal violence par excellence, which perfectly measures up to an ‘ideal Holocaust benchmark’, we play a waiting game with the lives of vulnerable, marginalized populations. The international community’s foot-dragging on the ongoing genocide massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, Myanmar, perhaps best exemplifies this.

Addressing National Trauma and Collective Healing

There are further implications on processes of truth-seeking and reconciliation, where a memorialization of trauma becomes ‘peacetime’ praxis. The recent Netflix documentary series on the trial of Ivan Demjanuk, demonstrated a necessary understanding of the Holocaust as a human tragedy. The trial’s centring of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, was particularly key in exposing the gravity of trauma and loss. I was struck by how seen the victims were by the judicial system, with great value placed on their word, their experiences and their truth. I often wonder, what this would look like if applied to the Nigerian context. What if survivors of the Nigeria-Biafra conflict were permitted to share their trauma with the nation and the world? What would then be the final word on genocide? The denial of appropriate avenues to empty the traumatic contents of the soul assumes that there were indeed no victors, no vanquished. It assumes that the story ended in 1970 and fled to Cotê d’Ivoire with Lieutenant Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.

Moving forward, as part of a national reconciliation project, it is necessary we embark on critical truth-seeking around Biafra’s genocide claim. Precious Arinze best articulates this process as ‘a religion of remembering’, whereby our collective healing becomes key in reconstructing a Nigerian identity rehabilitated from violence and trauma. It is important that we consider this a policy-based project and look to our neighbours for inspiration. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which painfully unveiled the evils of apartheid or Rwanda’s Gacaca courts that provided localized justice and accountability for the violence of the genocide, could serve as inspiration for Nigeria’s personal healing.

Essential to remembering is compassionate memorialization and a confrontation with the bastions of post-conflict trauma. So far, attempts at unearthing ‘truth’ have been suffocated by the Nigerian government’s abrasive attitude towards themes associated with ‘Biafra’. While it remains a hot topic amongst ordinary Nigerians and political commentators alike, there is a lack of tangible engagement with the ‘ugly’ stuff of Biafra and what it means for Nigeria’s nation-building project. We err on the side of caution to remain objective and avoid being labelled ‘sympathizers’ to pro-Biafra agitators, whom the state has dubbed comical and their qualms, emotional. Ultimately, the price of our ‘objectivity’ is the continued crumbling of our fledgeling nation-state.

Regardless of where you fall on the discussion over Biafra’s genocide claim, it is essential that we consider the conflict’s role in exposing blind spots in our application of international human rights norms. The Nigeria-Biafra conflict represents an important litmus test of the international community’s understanding of the decrees to which they agreed to be a party. It highlights the very real scholarly and legal contestations in interpretations, and what this means for our actions and inaction regarding conflict and violence

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