Remembering Biafra Violence and Nigeria's Long Road to Redemption

The Biafran War, which took place between 1967 and 1970, represents a very dark time in Nigerian history. It was a tragedy that exceeded conceivable imagination.

1966, the year before the Biafran War became a real thing, my father moved the family from Enugu to Sapele, leaving behind my mother, who refused to travel to Delta without her father. Her father, my grandfather, had insisted on not abandoning Okutu, the village in Enugu where he grew up. ‘When Biafra wins,’ he used to say, ‘I am going to offer drinks to my Chi on this earth, on a ground we are familiar with.’ For a while, in Sapele, we went about our normal lives: children danced and played games outside; the sky was not burning; the streets were not flooded with blood.

We had no knowledge of the War, besides what we picked up from the streets or heard on the radio. This was until Mama brought the War home to us. She told us how she and her father were buying food items in the market when the sound of death sent everyone scampering—it was an air raid. At first, Mama and her father ran in the same direction. Suddenly, Mama noticed he wasn’t running anymore. She saw him stop, blown apart, and she kept running.

After the raids had stopped, Mama went back to the market to claim her father’s body. She found only his upper torso; there were too many body parts to choose from, so many that she said if it were possible she could have remade him. But my grandfather’s death was only the beginning of our loss. Every month or so, we took stock of the names that no longer belonged to the living, and of people who could no longer be found. My father lost all his landed properties in the North, a house in Port Harcourt and another in Delta. And at the end of the War, the government said ‘Come and collect 20 pounds’. What could 20 pounds buy? How many could it feed? How many people could it resurrect? Till this day, the 20 pounds has not gotten to our hands. Many families were vanquished during the War, and they remained that way. We have not forgotten, and we are still taking stock.’

This is my mother, Flora Illikanu, on her family’s experience of the Biafran War.

The Biafran War, which took place between 1967 and 1970, represents a very dark time in Nigerian history. It was a tragedy that exceeded conceivable imagination—a country went to war with itself and lost. Despite the casualties and the debilitating impacts of the War on the country, there remains a dearth of information about it. It is a part of Nigerian history that has been repressed by both the government and individuals for widely disparate reasons. Due to this, in place of facts, there is a plethora of speculation about the events that led to the War, the manner in which it was fought, and the factors that necessitated its end. It is now impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the seeds of the Biafran War were sown, or trace, exactly, when the War sprouted its first fruits and left a harvest of terror that people would know as intimately as the outlines of their own palms.

The coup of January 1966 overthrew the civilian government and resulted in the death of 22 people. They included prominent politicians such as the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. And while it is convenient to ascribe the Biafran War to the coup alone, it is also misleading to do so. In order to understand the specific causes of the War, we must not only look at Nigeria’s political and colonial history, but also regard the broader contexts within which violence in Africa operates.


It is no coincidence that various forms of violence have ravaged much of post-colonial Africa, threatening the stability and development of the continent. These conflicts possess genealogies traceable to the brand of colonial conflict or violence that prevailed during the era of imperialism. In Religion and African Civil Wars, Niels Kastfelt writes that the region from the southern Sudan through northern Uganda to Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—which has experienced brutal civil wars and genocide—have, in common, a long history of colonial violence, particularly in the form of plantation labour, plantation terror and the institutionalization of gun violence gun culture. These factors, Kasfelt argues, all have to be taken into account when explaining each country’s post-colonial experience of conflicts.

The colonial intention in Africa was never to build viable independent states. As a result, upon independence, African nations had to face the arduous task of formulating institutional vehicles for state-building and national identity development. The newly created states were unprepared for the full range of these responsibilities, which included generating a shared nationalism that would, in many cases, fuse and embody the spirits of diverse cultural identities. Such weaknesses within the new African states, therefore, created a vacuum in post-colonial polity and this vacuum served as room for violent conflicts and insurgency.

When Britain carved out Nigeria as a colony, the Europeans’ primary concern was economic advantage. To achieve this, British officials united the colonial possessions under their administration in 1914. Moreover, the unison occurred absent the consultation of the colonies to be amalgamated. In Nigeria, which consisted of numerous ethnic groups, some linked by cultural history and others with no discernible relations, British officials administered along ethnic lines and territorial borders bound by religion. These divisions—such as religion between the north (Islam) and the south (Christianity)—proved to be the kegs of gunpowder which, when combined with the nascent fires of political instability, corruption, institutionalized ethnocentrism, unequal resource distribution and shifting configurations of nation-building, saw the implosion of Nigeria merely 6 years after Independence.

Perhaps the events of the May 1953 Kano Riot should have been given more attention and used as an opportunity to consider crises that could potentially occur after Independence. The Kano Riot occurred as a result of strained relations between northern Nigeria and southern Nigeria, and the clamour for independence in 1956 by the latter against ‘as soon as practicable’, which the leaders of the former advocated for. The riots, which took place the weekend of May 15 to May 17, saw an increase in the levels of tension in the country and disorderly outbursts that culminated in violent conflict. People of various ethnic groups fought against each other in the Fagge area of Kano, before a faction of the mob set out to attack Sabon Gari, a part of Kano mainly occupied by southerners. Casualties of the Riot ran into hundreds, with the injured or dead mainly Igbo or Hausa. In a bid to distance itself from the conflict, the colonial government dismissed the riot as inter-ethnic rivalry. Then, it granted more autonomy to the regions and brokered a new constitution as the resolution to the conflict.

In the year 1966, history repeated itself and unfolded in episodes of killings targeting the Igbos in northern Nigeria. These killings ran unchecked from late May to early October and claimed an estimated ten thousand to thirty thousand lives in September alone. The style and manner of these massacres suggested that they were not random outbursts of violence, but carefully organised chaos with genocidal implications. With assistance from the army, civilians carried out mass murders and swept through northern Nigeria, ensuring the erasure of nearly all Igbos living in the region.

The precursor to the massacres was the earlier coup of that year, nicknamed the ‘Igbo Coup’, which saw General Aguiyi Ironsi assume power over the country. An Igbo man himself, Northerners viewed Ironsi’s later attempt to abolish regionalization and transform Nigeria into a unitary state as a move by Igbos to control and subjugate the rest of the nation. The counter coup led by Northern officers, which took place in July that same year and claimed 240 lives of southern officers including Ironsi’s, did nothing to correct this suspicion. What followed was the systematic killing of civilian Igbos. And the new military government headed by Yakubu Gowon, a northerner, did nothing to stop the murders.

The remaining Igbo population in the region fled to Eastern Nigeria. Shortly after, Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, announced the secession of the region from Nigeria, and declared it The Republic of Biafra.


A comprehensive analysis of civil wars in Africa will reveal some interplay of internal and external forces as responsible for the outbursts of conflicts and the proliferation of breeding grounds for violence. One of such internal forces is the nature of government or regime in practice.

Furthermore, studies have shown that concrete democracies are less prone to large-scale conflicts and insurgencies, as democracies possess legitimate mechanisms for adequate conflict resolution and management. In Democracy and War: The End of an Illusion? Errol Henderson argues that a lesser disposition to conflicts also applies to autocracies because the use of repression tactics in governance throttles dissent. Governments that are neither fully democratic nor autocratic are semi-democracies and uniquely vulnerable to conflicts and civil wars.

The post-colonial republic of Nigeria, which had a nascent democracy, was toppled by civil unrest in 1966 and 1984. Burundi’s civil war, from 1993 to 2006, followed the assassination of, Melchior Ndadaye, their first democratically elected president. The 1975-2002 civil war in Angola occurred due to the refusal of rebels to accept the results of observed elections. Uganda’s democracy got choked up in civil war in 1966 as a result of ethnic and political tensions amplified by the prime minister, Milton Obote’s dictatorial actions. Congo’s civil war followed in the wake of its first democratically elected president’s assumption of office.

Despite more complex realities, a peculiar practice among international scholars and commentators alike is to pronounce conflict in Africa as simply ‘ethnically oriented’. In this, these agents downplay the impacts of economic development, socio-cultural norms, and political climates on social stability. But the international community is not alone in over-simplifying African conflicts. The Nigerian government, for example, seems to grapple with the politics of naming; of misnaming the causes of conflicts as their effects, and exacerbating both the actual causes and the real impacts of violent crises through the mismanagement of both small and large-scale conflicts.

In addition to ignoring markers of conflict, the Nigerian government resolves conflicts through excessive show of force. This was exemplified in the destruction of Odi, Bayelsa State, in 1999, and the rape incidents that occurred in Choba, Rivers State, that same year. According to Human Rights Watch, both incidents occurred on orders given by the Obasanjo administration. As recently as November 2016, Amnesty International reported that Nigerian security forces had unlawfully killed at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protestors. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find politicians making incendiary comments on social media, comments capable of fuelling existing ethnic rivalries or conflict.

Civil society depends on the subsistence of law and order—all inter-personal, communal and governmental relations are to be guided by it. The failure of the Nigerian government to maintain law and order has produced a rupture in the fabric of society. It has also caused underlying ethnic, social and religious sentiments to atrophy. This is one explanation for the cycle of violence that keeps replicating itself in the country.

When people break the law and go unpunished; when a crisis occurs and nothing is done about it by way of justice, offenders think they have a monopoly of power that places them above the law; that gives them a right to bigotry and a right to act on their hatred. The state becomes complicit directly or by implication in these conflicts by not pursuing a path to justice even when perpetrators are reported to the authorities.

Government patronage, ethnic and religious prefentialism, and the marginalization or exploitation of certain groups over others precipitate ethnic and religious grievances, and foster conflicts between groups. While state actions may speak volumes, inactions can be interpreted to say more than was intended. In these situations, victims see their assailants running free as a norm, and they, in turn, make villains out of themselves and victims of someone else. The Sagamu clashes and Kano reprisals of 1999; Kaduna riots and Aba reprisal riots of 2000; Jos riots of 2001; Yelwa massacre of 2002; Jos riots of 2008; Bauchi crisis of 2009; the Jos massacres of 2010; the Deeper Life Church shooting of 2012; and the murder of Shiites in Zaria of 2015. Collectively, these events speak to the extent to which violence in Nigeria has been normalized.

Simply declaring crises to be acts of terrorism, the work of hoodlums, militants, or unknown herdsmen does nothing to resolve such crises. To understand the extent and causes of violence in Nigeria, and in the wider context of Africa, is to abandon singular ahistorical explanations. It is, also, to take into full account the constructions and configurations of our identities—what we were before colonialism, what we became after, and what we are now—and how these identities intersect. In this, Edward E. Azar’s theory of ‘protracted social conflict’ is especially important, as it suggests that conflicts erupt or persist when new threats trigger unresolved memories of humiliation, oppression and marginalization, both real and mythologized.


The measure of a war is not in the casualties, but in its aftermath, in what remains long after the guns have withdrawn, when the heavens stop giving birth to bombs, and each gift of day does not come wrapped in gunfire. Invariably, the weight of violence lies in its consequences. In his introduction of The Roots of African Conflicts, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza eloquently posits that wars exact a heavy toll on society, the economy, and the environment. Both directly and indirectly, the impacts of war manifest as deaths and injuries, sexual crimes and intimidation, population dislocations within and across national borders, and the damage and distortions they cause to societal networks and the fragile social capital of trust and interpersonal associations and inter-group interactions.

The Biafran War dispossessed millions of property and financial resources of value through obliteration or relocation of wealth. The War also displaced entire populations, and led to unequal structural developments in areas that bore the brunt of the fighting. Yet, perhaps, the most insidious consequence of the War, has been the persistence of its causal factors.

On the 13th of September, 2017, a shocking video showing members of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South East of Nigeria searching transport buses for people of Northern origins surfaced on the internet. A two-minute-long footage shows how a group of young men opened the bus, look inside and asked if there was any Hausa person on board. In the video, some of the passengers can be heard responding in Igbo, ‘onwer onye Hausa noro ebea’ which translates to ‘there is no Hausa person here’. Another voice adds, ‘soso umunne gi no ebea’, meaning, ‘It is only your mother’s children that are here’. Laughter erupts, the door of the bus slides shut, and the travellers are sent on their way to another group upfront, for a repeat of the process.

The horror of the video is in what it portends. As viewers, we are left to imagine what could have happened had they found any Hausa person on board. To construct meanings for the laughter we hear—does the laughing imply comic relief, indifference, or offer an inroad into the psyche of a people with sentiments that consider the unseen Hausa man deserving of being hunted? Does it suggest that only a particular mother’s children deserve to occupy certain spaces?

Biafran angst, as manifested in IPOB, is neither new nor a sudden occurrence. Rather, the conditions that fostered the extremism of IPOB had been dormant until the group started gaining traction, following the popularity of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu, who once operated Radio Biafra—a small pirate radio station that rallied for the secession of the south-eastern part of Nigeria—from his apartment in Peckham, south London, is IPOB’s biggest voice, and the face of today’s pro-Biafra movement.

IPOB has attracted some generous sponsors and gained numerous members in the last five years. The movement organises protests, publishes and distributes seditious and inflammatory propaganda. Although IPOB claims to be a non-violent organization, some of its demonstrations have resulted in violent outbursts such as the burning of a mosque in Onitsha in 2015.

Despite the recent celebration of Nigeria’s 57th Independence Day anniversary domestic tensions continue to mount. In particular, the issue of self-determination and the legacies of the Civil War take a prominent stage in the country’s socio-political landscape. The lack of structural development, high poverty and illiteracy levels, the indiscriminate use of military forces, economic stagnation, blatant disregard for law and order across all social and institutional levels, however, remain the work horses pulling the cart of long-held grievances towards violence.


Other than conflicts fought for the sake of liberation, there are no redeeming qualities to be found in violence. This argument is often associated with the thinking of Martinician philosopher, Frantz Fanon. In his context, liberation refers to freedom from colonial or oppressive powers. Moreover, violence is legitimate because it acts to counter a dominant violence; as a way to restore agency; as a means to reclaim political autonomy, or gain access to the economic possibilities of development and establish new social contracts about the rights of people.

In critiquing the validity of violence, the historical context of liberation must be taken into account. This enables the understanding of violence as a process through which the re-humanization of the oppressed and the oppressors can occur. In How Fascist Dictatorship Fell, for example, Arrin Hawkins notes violent decolonization in Mozambique and Angola—asides leading to freedom from colonial oppression—had implications that transcended national borders. These included the liberation of Portugal from four decades of fascist rule. In addition, Cambridge University’s Fighting for Algeria, Fighting for France 1945-1962 argues, the crisis generated by Algeria’s War heralded the fifth Republic in France.

By dismantling imperialism and weakening the structure of colonial empires, Africa’s liberation wars spurred Europe to re-humanize itself. But while the measures of such violence can be perceived or validated by the agency they restore to the oppressed, it is crucial to note that violence for liberation sake is not exempt from the lasting legacies of conflict. The damage done to the ecological system is acute; economic downturn and stalled commercial activity become the order of the day. Already scarce resources are channelled towards security operations and become even more inadequate; new strains of distrust and tension are introduced to communities; structural development is rendered more uneven. Ultimately, civil obedience and discriminate use of military forces are decapitated from the state.

Nigeria still searches for a national identity, and for restoration from all the violence the country has borne. Our country is still suffering and needs a way to rehabilitate, recoup its losses, and forge a future that glows bright as it did that first day of October in 1960.

If Nigeria is to get any closer to achieving these goals, Nigerians must make a religion of remembering. We must never forget the numerous families that were torn apart during the Biafran War; the people we have lost to riots, from Sagamu 1999 to Jos 2008; the men and women who have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2011; the Shiites slaughtered in 2015 in the name of religion. We must account for all of them. We must constantly remind ourselves what happens when factors that lead to conflicts are improperly managed. We must attest to the ruins these conflicts engender and develop solutions that allow the least possible animosity to remain. We must start repaying the debts owed the victims of these conflicts by way of justice, social infrastructure, and the protection of human rights.

When tensions awaken, when we bear witness to violence, we must ask questions: How did we get here? How can we retrace our steps? And we must provide answers, tactfully, each time⎈

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