Biafra’s Crisis of Faith The Spiritual Legacies of the Biafran War

From pre-independence ethnic dog whistling, to pogroms, a civil war and the systemic socio-political ostracization that has since followed, the Igbo are the most discriminated ethnic group in Nigeria and ethnic bigotry against Igbo people has been on full display in the 2023 election.

The flood of writing attending the fiftieth anniversary of the Nigerian Civil War has found a place for Biafra in many histories, ranging from the birth of political humanitarianism to the articulation of Nigerian masculinity. One topic that is conspicuously absent from studies of the war is its connection to religion. There is good reason for this: religion explains less about the Nigerian Civil War and its aftermath than it might seem looking back from the present.

The fact that religious difference has become such an important fault line in Nigerian politics today might lead one to believe that this was always the case. In fact, religious difference was only a minor factor in the story of Biafra. To be sure, religion figured in Biafra’s national ideology, and in how foreign observers made sense of what was going on there. Some on the front lines understood the stakes of the conflict in religious terms too, and Biafran propaganda intended for the outside world argued that the war was a battle between Biafran Christians and Nigerian Muslims—a gross simplification, but one that was effective in mobilizing sentiment nonetheless. But Biafra was not a war about religion. The war’s root causes were political, ideological, and moral—disagreements which may have overlapped with religious difference, but were not determined by it.

Religion was not what sparked Biafra’s secession, but the war shaped the ways in which people believed and worshipped in important ways. During the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, Biafrans turned to new devotional practices to grapple with the circumstances in which they found themselves. In the context of hunger, violence, and a constant, ambient fear of annihilation, many people found consolation in charismatic Christian churches. Others turned to faith-healers and ritualists, who offered more potent forms of protection than the scapulars and St. Christopher medals of the Catholic tradition.

A Biafran administrator in Aba described how a “spurious” church called the Mercy of the Holy Nights became popular in the town of Umuoba, a railway hub and an important garrison town in Biafra. According to Ben Gbulie’s The Fall of Biafra, the Mercy of the Holy Nights was one of many “mushrooming prayer-houses functioning like thriving business ventures in our area of authority.” The church offered healing services, blessings, and divination to civilians and tactical advice to soldiers—all at a price—with extensive theatrics and a patina of Christian respectability. It thrived in the context of insecurity that the war had created.

The church was, in the Biafran administrator’s description, “a highly organized, most intriguing place of nocturnal worship attracting an ample crowd of people said to be in distress. Its clientele—or, better still, its congregation—comprised men and women from all walks of life: senior as well as junior officers of the Biafran Armed Forces, plus a good number of the rank and file; doctors, lawyers, engineers, big-time contractors, barren women, high-ranking police officers and so on.” The crisis of faith, as the historian Tekena Tamuno described, cut across religions: “the old gods and goddesses and other ancestral watchdogs could no longer be trusted.”

Many of those who survived the Biafran War physically unscathed found that it had shaken their religious convictions. Catholicism, which had been widespread in the East since the beginning of the twentieth century, saw a decline in prestige. Catholic priests in Biafra expressed worry that their congregations would thin after the war, and this appears to have happened in some places. Priests worried that, as conditions became difficult in the post-war East, former Biafrans would seek solace in older spiritual practices, like consulting oracles and visiting traditional healers.

There was nothing new about this anxiety, and the clergy had long recognized that there would be some overlap between outwardly Christian practice and the continuation of religious beliefs that pre-dated Christianity. But they also feared that the experience of the war had driven some Biafrans away from the Catholic ecumene and “back” into traditional belief systems. In some towns in the former Biafra the end of the war brought a resurgence of traditional practice as people turned away from Catholicism, including an invigoration of the masquerade. In others it exposed “violent community conflicts… involving masquerade communities and adherents of the Christian religion,” as a priest wrote after the war’s end.1

For some former Biafrans, disenchantment with Catholicism arose from how they viewed the church’s politics. In the aftermath of the war, some felt that the Catholic Church had not done enough to support Biafra’s political struggle. Many saw the humanitarian activities of the church as heroic—the priests and nuns who risked their own lives to save others were widely remembered—but it was not always easy to square this memory with Rome’s tepid response to Biafra’s political struggle.

In the eyes of many ex-Biafrans, all of this added up to a moral crisis. In the East Central State, crime, poverty, the damage of the recent war, and the indifference of the Nigerian government conspired to make life very precarious. These impossible conditions led some to millenarian forms of Christianity that presaged the apocalypse—an apocalypse that some who had experienced the war felt was already upon them. Others were attracted to charismatic churches like the Cherubim and Seraphim, which had existed since the 1920s but became popular in the East after the war.

“Spiritual churches and faith healing temples of worship are sprouting,” wrote a newspaper editorialist in the early 1970s. “Every third person belongs to the Aladura, Seraphim and Cherubim, or some Temple of The Holy Light or divine Shepherd. … Perhaps their days are numbered. Perhaps not! But there is no doubt that like what the Tijaniyya sect is to Islam, and the Lumpa is to Christianity in Zambia, spiritual churches and faith temples have come to stay.”2 

Other pastors and healers, unaffiliated with any established church, also thrived in war-shattered cities like Enugu and Owerri. Hucksters and false prophets found a large market of people seeking protection. “There’s that prophet in tawdry colours and tatty drooping hairs,” opined a popular columnist. “I’ve watched him umpteen times swallowing ‘ogogoro’, diving into trance, seeing visions, communing with ‘God’, burning incense and candles, whipping barren women with live pigeon, ‘intervening’ for long-time spinsters and lunatics, and above all, erecting colourful mansions for his poor, long-suffering self.”3

False prophets, spurious pastors, and fraudulent priests who plied the trade in miracles became a source of concern for the state and federal governments. In 1971, a judicial commission of inquiry was established to investigate, among other social problems, the sale of protective charms and elixirs that purported to guard their bearers from armed robbery. The East Central State government shut down many of these “churches”, including the Mercy of the Holy Nights. But investigating fraudulent healers and discouraging people from worshipping in new churches did not address what priests and others saw as an underlying crisis of faith.

Like many of the Biafra’s legacies, the question of how the war shaped religion and spiritual practice was seldom asked openly in the years following Biafra’s defeat. Later, after witnessing communal violence in the North and elsewhere, some looked back on the period of the Civil War and tried to find the seeds of religious conflict there. Others scrutinized the actions of religious organizations like the World Council of Churches and Joint Church Aid during the war, asking how their involvement might have prolonged the conflict even as they ameliorated the immediate conditions of hunger. But the religious and spiritual consequences of the war for individual people were rarely discussed.

It is only now—half a century after the war’s end—that historians and others are beginning to speak openly about how the war shaped the worldviews of the people who experienced it. As that generation grows older, the need to record their recollections of what happened grows more urgent with every passing day

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  1. The pattern of returning to “traditional” forms of religious practice emerged in some minority areas of the former Biafra as well, much to the chagrin of at least one Catholic priest. Rev. Patrick Akaninyene Basil Okure, The Notion of Justice Among the Ibibio People (Rome: Institutum Superius Theologiae Moralis, 1983): pp. 83-87.
  2. The Renaissance [Enugu], 9 January 1972, p. 8.
  3. The Renaissance [Enugu], “The Holy Word Booms and Mansions Sprout”, 16 January 1972, p. 7.