Reading Biafra What to Read on the Nigerian Civil War

The Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War), from 1967 to 1970, was a complex conflict that still has a tight hold on politics and society in Nigeria today. It is a topic that has been written about extensively; and one that has served as inspiration in the world of literature, music, theatre and film. But it is also a topic that is poorly taught in Nigerian schools, and a topic that most Nigerians learn about through oral history—accounts transmitted across generations from people who experienced the war to their offspring.

While oral history is a valuable source of information, often, such histories are very subjective and tend to deviate from historical truth. In the case of Biafra, historical deviation has become quite problematic, especially with the misappropriation of the Biafran experience by ethno-nationalist groups, who seek to use the war to legitimize their causes. Despite the extensive literature on the war, it seems that the most popular narratives are those that are more subjective and biased; those that err on the side of revisionism; and not those that may bring clarity and foster a better understanding of the war.

With the foregoing issues in mind, these texts will serve as an accessible and critical introduction to the war. Moreover, these texts are important for their relative objectivity, their focus on areas of the war that have been less explored, and for the new perspectives that they espouse. The majority of the texts are relatively easy to find online, being either open access articles or books easily available for purchase. Finding some of the older texts may prove challenging, regardless, the older texts have been included because of the value of their contents.

Max Siollun
Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976
New York: Algora Publishing, 2009. (Available here.)

There is no history of the war without a history of the military. And on this topic, a critical text is Siollun’s. Oil, Politics and Violence is a thoroughly researched account of post-independence Nigeria’s military up until 1976. The crucial period for Biafra readers, are the years leading up to the outbreak of war. Siollun provides extensive detail on the expansion of the Nigerian armed forces after independence, and the events surrounding the two coups in 1966. Writing with clarity and focus, the author also describes the key personalities of the Nigerian army and their involvement at the different stages of the 1966 crisis.

Axel Harneit-Sievers, Jones O. Ahuazem, and Sydney Emezue
A Social History of the Nigerian Civil War: Perspectives from Below
Hamburg: Lit, 1997. (Available here.); and
Egodi Uchendu
“Recollections of Childhood Experiences during the Nigerian Civil War”
Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 77, No. 3 (2007), pp. 393-418. (Available here.)

A great number of books on the civil war can be categorized as being about “big men”, i.e. central figures who were in control of the military and the government—the “Ogas at the top”. However, these two texts look at those at the bottom, those who had no say in how war progressed but who, nevertheless, had to deal with the consequences. A Social History is based on extensive interviews conducted in the war-affected areas; each chapter in this book gives insight into how the common people dealt with different aspects of the war, and, crucially, the relationship between civilians and soldiers. Meanwhile Uchendu’s article—which is also based on interviews and oral accounts—looks at the memories of youth whose childhoods were spent in the theatre of conflict. Read together, these texts provide a good basis for anyone interested in the social history of the war.

Anthony Kirk-Greene
Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria: A Documentary Source Book, Vol. I & II
London: Oxford University Press, 1971. (Available here.)

This is a go-to book for primary resources, particularly useful for researchers or students writing dissertations on the war. The book is a miniature archive compiled just after the civil war, and includes [transcribed] speeches, press reports, radio broadcasts and other primary material, from the two warring sides. While the author does include his own narrative of how the war came to be, the most important qualities of these two volumes are the primary sources they contain, as they serve as an important launch pad for anyone who wants to seriously research the conflict.

Chibuike Uche
“Oil, British interests and the Nigerian Civil War”
The Journal of African History, 49, 111-135, 2008. (Available here.)

The significance of crude oil to both warring sides is an area of civil war history that is still quite tenuous. Clearly, oil was important to Biafra’s future viability and, undoubtedly, the Federal Military Government’s insistence on securing the oil-producing areas (for instance, Bonny Island was captured early on in the war by the FMG). Uche’s article explores how crude oil also played an important role in Britain’s decision to support the Federal Military Government over secessionist Biafra.

Nicholas Ibeawuchi Omenka
“Blaming the Gods: Christian Religious Propaganda in the Nigeria-Biafra War”
The Journal of African History, Vol. 51, No. 3 (2010), pp. 367-389. (Available here.)

Once, after presenting a paper on Biafra at a conference in Paris, the head archivist of a well-known charity organisation posed the question, “But wasn’t the war a religious war between Christians and Muslims?” This misconception of the war, held by many in the West is a result of the prolific religious propaganda spread in order to gain support for the Biafra cause. In this article, Omenka explores the intersections between religion and propaganda and its implications during the war.

Graham Furniss,
“Hausa Poetry on the Nigerian Civil War”
African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 4, No. 1, The Literatures of War (1991), pp. 21-28. (Available here.); and
Ogonna Agu,
“Songs and War: The Mixed Messages of Biafran War Songs”
African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 4, No. 1, The Literatures of War (1991), pp. 5-19. (Available here.)

Breaking up this list—which has, so far, focused on politics, religion, and history—are these two highly illuminating articles on Hausa poetry on the civil war, and Biafran war songs. Published in the same journal issue, the articles provide insight on the war from two different perspectives. Furniss shows how Hausas perceived the war in Northern Nigeria—an area that for the most part was relatively peaceful for the duration of the war, but held many grudges against the Eastern government (then Biafra). Despite being from opposing sides, the poetry and songs cover similar themes: ethnic pride, vilification of the enemy, praise for their own soldiers and anthems to foster bravery. Additionally, both the poetry and songs allow us to see interpretations of the war from those below.

Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou
“Heroes and Villains: Ijaw Nationalist Narratives of the Nigerian Civil War.”
African Development, Vol.XXXIV, No. 1, 2009, pp. 47-67. (Available here)

Nwajiaku-Dahou provides a much-needed discussion of narratives of the war as seen through the eyes of Ijaw nationalists who agitate for their own independence of the Niger Delta. Readers will find interesting how even minority narratives are subject to revisionism and misappropriation by nationalist groups struggling against the Nigerian state. Given the relative lack of work focusing on minorities in the war, this article also provides good background on the Ijaw ethnic group’s Biafra experience.

Elechi Amadi,
Sunset in Biafra,
London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973. (Available here.); and
Ken Saro-Wiwa,
On A Darkling Plain,
Port Harcourt: Saros International, 1989. (Available here.)

Biographical accounts of the civil war are quite easy to find, with major figures from both sides having published their own personal histories of the war. The most well-known biographical account of the war is, perhaps, There was a County by Chinua Achebe, who held a prominent role as Biafra’s communication minister. There are, nonetheless, other important Nigerian authors who also published their experience of the conflict but are less well-known. I have included these two books, by Amadi and Saro-Wiwa not as a contrast point to Achebe’s biographical account of the war—the authors, Amadi and Saro-Wiwa, are from minority ethnic groups which have had their own particular experiences of the war. These minority ethnic groups, the Ikwere (Amadi) and the Ogoni (Saro-Wiwa) also each had unique relationships with the majority ethnic group of the region, the Igbo. This is reflected in Amadi and Saro-Wiwa’s texts, both of which help to expand our perspectives of the conflict.

Kate Meagher
“The Informalization of Belonging: Igbo Informal Enterprise and National Cohesion from Below”
African Development, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, 2009, pp. 31-46. (Available here.); and
Daniel Smith
“Corruption complaints, inequality and ethnic grievances in post-Biafra Nigeria”
Third World Quarterly, 35:5, 787-802, 2014. (Available here.)

These two articles shed some light on the experience of Igbos in post-war Nigeria. Meagher argues that rather than ethnic exclusivity as is often alleged, Igbo entrepreneurship following the war up to modern times helped foster ethnic inclusivity and cohesion at the local level. Meanwhile, Smith explores how grievances against state corruption and perceived ethnic inequality have helped revive pro-Biafra Igbo nationalism.

Olukunle Ojeleye
The Politics of Post-War Demobilisation and Reintegration in Nigeria.
London: Routledge, 2010. (Available here.)

Another aspect of the war that is still a painful issue for many to discuss is post-war fiscal policy. Many pro-Biafrans claim that fiscal policies implemented after the war were specifically created to target and debilitate former Biafrans’ financial power, as punishment for the war. While Meagher’s article (listed above) argues otherwise, Ojeleye’s book is crucial for an overall understanding of FMG post-war policies, especially the 3Rs (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) and their economic consequences.

Brian McNeil
“The Nigerian Civil War in History and Historiography.” in
Africa, Empire and Globalization: Essays in Honour of A.G.Hopkins, eds. Toyin Falola and Emily Brownell, 539-551. Durham, North Carolina: North Carolina Academic Press, 2014. (Available here.)

This relatively short chapter on the historiography of the war is crucial for those who want to understand the general trends within publications on the war, as well as how the war has been studied in academic circles. It also serves as a good starting point for readers interested in those areas of the war that have been paid little attention in the historiography of such a complex conflict.

While the re-emergence of Biafran separatists in recent times is a worrying development for the Nigerian state, it has generated renewed interest in the narrative of the war, not only from an academic point of view but also from the general public. For a historian, this is quite exciting because it affords the public an opportunity to critically re-examine the war, to explore its different aspects, and to promote new or under-discussed perspectives. Recently, there has been increased interest in the war’s narratives as told through the experiences of minority ethnic groups. Areas of the war that have come into focus on the back of this interest are: the role of women in the war; humanitarian aid; Biafran propaganda; and the question of genocide. Though, at this moment, this list does not include works related to these themes, the list will be updated over time to reflect the ongoing expansions of Nigerian Civil War studies.

For Nigerians, the conspicuous re-emergence of Biafra in public discourse is particularly important. This is because it has become necessary to come to terms with the war’s trans-generational trauma. Biased narratives on either side of the war’s legacies are unlikely to foster reconciliation; and, as we have seen with Biafran separatism, such narratives only serve to create further disunity. Only if we approach the conflict with objectivity, independent thinking and genuine interest will we be able to foster a critical understanding of the war