Colonial Legacy, Elite Dissension and the Making of Genocide: The Story of Biafra
Published on: Jan 10, 2007

“The Nigeria civil war broke out on 6 July 1967. The war was the culmination of an uneasy peace and stability that had plagued the nation since independence in 1960. This situation had its genesis in the geography, culture and demography of Nigeria.”
– Major Abubakar A Atofarati1


Between 1964 and 1970, the Ibos of eastern Nigeria were victims of mass violence. The violence occurred in two phases, first as a result of planned murderous assault by the Nigerian ruling elites, mainly of Hausa-Fulani ethnic origin in peacetime, and later in a full-blown civil war between Nigeria and Biafra. Biafra was an enclave that the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, carved out and declared a sovereign state at the height of the genocidal attack against the Igbo. Ibos were the overwhelming majority in the new Biafran state. They shared the state with minority ethnic groups in Eastern Nigeria. Ojukwu declared Biafra as Governor of Eastern Nigeria, not necessarily as the representative of the Eastern minorities.

The “genocide” in Nigeria raises a number of questions. Did the government intend to wipe out the Ibos as suggested by the statements of some of the war generals, or to politically confine the Ibos to a position of inferiority and subordination as later events indicate? If the intention was to wipe out the Ibos, why did the Nigerian army stop short of accomplishing the goal immediately after the secessionists surrendered, when it had the upper hand? As I argue later, the plausible interpretation of these complex and conflicting data is that the political elites intended to politically subjugate the Igbo and the genocidal dimension arises from the psychological orientation of the politics of Igbo-phobia.2

Patterns of Violence

Violence against Ibos occurred in phases. Significant “group-targeted” violence began as early as 1945, but the major and sustained phases began in 1966. About 30,000 Ibos, mostly civilians, were killed in three waves of genocidal attacks between May 29 and September 29, 1966. The killings were indiscriminate except that victims were Ibos, and they were killed for being Ibos. The killings were not outcomes of mob actions or riots. Evidence from survivors, victims and observers of the genocides prove that the various acts of violence against the Igbos were deliberated and coordinated by highly placed northern politicians with the connivance of some officers of the federal government.

The instigation for violence against Ibos in 1966 derived from various incitements by government functionaries who complained bitterly about Ibo dominance of commerce in the north. This complaint was extended to mean the existence of an Igbo conspiracy to become the new rulers of independent Nigeria.

The pattern of violence during the pogroms (May 29, July 29 and September 29, 1966) was similar to the attack against the Ibos during the civil war that would last for more than 3 years, between July 1967 and January 1970. Although official hostilities were declared between the federal and Biafran side, the conduct of the war by the federal troops in some instances offended the laws of war and invoked images of the pre-war violence against the Ibo. Even when Biafran strongholds were overrun by the federal side and there were no effective resistances, the genocidal dimensions of the war continued to manifest. Several foreign and local journalists reported cruel attacks on Ibos who were neither belligerents or in the way of battle.

There are many documented testimonies of victims and observers about the gross cruelty and barbarism of the Nigerian soldiers meted on Igbos civilians even after the surrender of Biafran rebel soldiers, acts that raised the question of a genocidal motivation. At least that was the conclusion of the Investigators of the International Commission of Jurists led by Dr. Mensah of Ghana. According to Dr. Mensah he received evidence from two witnesses about mass graves where dead, sick and wounded Biafrans were buried alive with some sucklings and “the cries and wailing of the sick, the wounded and the babies could be heard from a long distance away.” In this testimony, it was also mentioned that, when these mass graves had been covered, the Federal soldiers danced native war dances over them. Dr Mensa concluded that “I am of the opinion that in many of these cases cited to me hatred of the Biafrans (mainly Igbos) and a wish to exterminate them was a foremost motivational factor.” 3

There is no doubt from the evidence of international and local observers of the pogroms of 1966 and the three year civil war that Biafran civilians, especially Ibos, were victims of gross cruelty reminiscent of the Jewish genocide. There is sufficient evidence that the masterminds of these attacks were motivated, as Dr. Mensah put it in the ICJ Report, by a “wish to exterminate” the Ibos. But how does this motivation square up with the policy and politics of the war? Is it really the fact that other ethnic groups, especially the Hausa-Fulani in northern Nigeria, wanted the Ibos completely wiped out or driven out of Nigeria?

The difficulty in understanding the genocidal behavior derives mainly from the nature of the civil war: how to reconcile the genocidal intent with the determination to keep Biafrans in Nigeria? It will appear that rather than other Nigerian ethnic groups wanting the Igbo outside the federation, they wanted them inside. Given that genocide usually involves determination to drive the victimized ethnic or religious group out of the territorial space, how do we understand the sort of genocide that wants the victims inside rather than outside?

The Political Economy of Escalation: History, Institutions, and Leadership

“Northerners” and “Southerners”

The ordinary fact of colonialism, as heinous and ruinous as it was, does not adequately explain the tragic direction Nigerian politics took after independence. But the colonial legacy, in which colonialists conceived and birthed the idea of Nigeria to serve largely imperial interests, cannot be overstressed. The Nigerian erudite political thinker and one of the foremost nationalists, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, has described the idea of Nigeria as a “geographical expression.” The various ethnic nations bounded together into the Niger-area by her majesty servants existed as a nation only in name.

The basic characteristic of British colonialism was that it assumed a “single model of customary authority in precolonial Africa…authority was considered an attribute of a personal despotism.”4  Unlike French colonialists who strived to create French citizens out of Africans, the British retained Nigerians in their ethnic constitutions. But the worst is that British administrative policies created the binaries of citizens and subject and of native and settler.

This bifurcation of citizenship manifested physically in the ghettoization of Nigerians in places outside their so-called states of origin. In the case of northern Nigeria, there developed many “Sabon Gari” (strangers’ quarters) in such major cities as Kano and Jos. The incessant incidences of ethnic attacks, often directed against the Ibos, could be explained by this ghettoization and the subsequent complex of “a stranger in his country.” The British colonial system relied on manpower and resources from the south to run the north. This opened the way for immigration to northern Nigeria. But the problem remained: how to maintain northern cultural exceptionalism as well as allow for needed economic interdependence? The result of the tension was a nation that was administratively interdependent but culturally and politically differentiated. The colonial governor’s wide-ranging powers were applied to demographically segregate Nigerians who managed to migrate to northern Nigeria in spite of dissuasion. Major cities in the north were organized around three categories: the walled city reserved for indigenous population; Tudun Wada housing non-indigenous northerners; and Sabon Gari for southerners.5

The politics of “northerners” and “southerners” beclouds the realities of deeper ethnic and cultural diversities and, similarly, deep interrelatedness.6  The politics of indigene and stranger breeds a psychology of envy and resentment. The Ibos were special butts of resentment and envy. Because of economic considerations, Ibos were the most eager to leave their native land in search of “white man” jobs in northern Nigeria. Many of them became successful merchants living in “Sabon Garis.” These pressures created an unhealthy competition in these cities between generally “northerners” and “southerners,” and in most cases, specifically between the Ibos and the indigenous ethnic groups.

Failure of the Rule of Law Institutions

As a result of minority disquiet, the colonial government commissioned a study of minority questions preparatory to independence, “The Willink Commission.” It toured Nigeria and elicited ideas on the constitutional fundamentals of post-colonial Nigeria that could guarantee peace among the many ethnic groups. The commission rejected the demand for creation of more regions for the minorities, and instead recommended the entrenchment of fundamental human rights in the independent constitution as a protection for minorities.7  Thus began Nigeria’s constitutional democracy. In 1960, a bill of rights was entrenched in the independence constitution, and has remained a permanent fixture in Nigeria’s many truncated, voided and breached constitutions.

The bill of rights guaranteed equality under the law and prohibited discriminatory treatment based on gender, membership or other affiliations with a religious or ethnic group. The problem was that whereas the constitution proclaimed citizenship rights for every Nigerian the colonial laws that regionalized and ethnicized access to privileges and rights remained effective. More importantly, political leaders did not take seriously the responsibility to protect those rights when they were breached in respect of any Nigerian. In May 1966, after the gruesome attack against Ibos, the Aguiyi Ironsi regime did nothing to ensure that those who fomented the crisis and directed violence against Ibos were prosecuted. Little wonder that the same genocidal attack was launched against the Ibos again on July 29, 1966.

The idea of common citizenship is the resource which keeps multiethnic states together. Where this idea is abandoned in practice, the empty platitudes of human rights or the institutions of the rule of law are incapable of protecting citizens from being victims. Hannah Arendt was right to have insisted on civil rights above human rights. For where the guarantees of citizenship are feeble or absent, as in Nigeria, common humanity means nothing; and the worst can be done against fellow citizens.8

The Failure of Leadership: Elite Dissension  

Individual leadership flaws contributed both to the dynamics of conflict in Nigeria and the actual outbreak of violence. The personality conflict between Ojukwu and Gowon undermined efforts to peacefully settle the crisis that snow-balled into a war. Negotiations for the settlement of the secession crisis and the regaining of Ibo confidence in the idea of one nation fell through because neither Ojukwu nor Gowon could abandon hard positions.
General Gowon and his cabinet focused more on breaking the political power of the Ibos of Eastern Nigeria instead of reassuring and compensating them for the grievous wrong suffered in a year-long massacre. In the face of the threats of chaos and disintegration, these leaders could not rise to the requirements of forthrightness and selflessness. However, based on official statements, we can give the benefit of doubt to Gowon and conclude that in spite of brutality and violence against civilians, acts that contravened the Geneva Conventions, the policy for taking arms against Biafra was to crush Ojukwu’s rebellion and maintain the federation. But this conclusion has to explain such egregious violence against ordinary Ibos and statements by Nigeria war commanders like Benjamin Adekunle, a.k.a. “Black Scorpion,” that “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the center of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move…”9  Is such statement part of the conduct of a dirty war or does it evince a “motivation” to genocide? At a minimum, we can argue that there was strong hatred and demonization of the Ibos, which made such cruelty and gory killing of civilians conceivable and tolerable, even in the context of a civil war.

General Odumegwu Ojukwu has been faulted, notably by Ken Saro-Wiwa and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, for rejecting peace overtures from the federal government. Both Saro-Wiwa and Azikiwe believe that Ojukwu stage-managed the Eastern Region Constituent Assembly to authorize him to declare secession. The decision to declare Biafra was a product not of deliberative reasoning in the face of odds but of cajolery, bribery, coercion and sophistry tinged with elements of repression of dissent.

The feuding generals had an opportunity to reverse the momentum to war when the Ghanaian Head of State, Gen Ankra, hosted a peace meeting in Aburi, Ghana. An accord was reached at Aburi whose exact terms became a matter of renewed aggression between the federal government and the Biafran government. Ojukwu’s account of the agreement differed from the federal government interpretation on the extent of power and responsibility of the federal executive council vis-à-vis the regions. Ojukwu absented himself from a meeting called to implement the accord. In his absence the meeting approved Decree No.8 enacted by the federal government to implement the agreement. Ojukwu did not accept the decree because it compromised his position by not granting the regions complete authority in dealing with certain issues that concern their sovereignty.10  Azikiwe faults Ojukwu’s rejection of the decree as in service of greed for power and an attempt to “continue a calculated gambit which has led to the civil war.”11

Even as secession was declared the damage could still have been controlled but for the peculiar interplay of arrogance, ambition and naiveté. Ojukwu had boasted about the Biafran capability to face-down federal soldiers; that he had long planned for the crucial moment and that he knew that by starting the war he was “carving his name in History”; and that he had built the largest army in black Africa.12  The propaganda machines on both sides of the war were merciless in their prevarication and embellishment. They overrated their little successes in battle and diminished the scale of human tragedy in Biafra. Ojukwu and his war generals reluctantly admitted the huge loss the young republic was suffering for fear of demoralizing the people who were volunteering and being conscripted for battle. Propaganda helped to blind the people to the fact that the war could and ought to be avoided. It has been alleged that many deaths occurred because of policies by both the federal government and rebels to block food or medical supplies or to prioritize arms delivery above humanitarian aid. By certain perverse incentives the Biafran army was alleged to be compounding the human suffering in Biafra as a ploy to whip up sentiment against Nigeria and in favor of the Biafran republic.13