from Africa in Transition

The Distorted Memory of Biafra

Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Catholic basilica, in Onitsha, Nigeria, which was once part of the breakaway state of Biafra, on April 14, 2005. Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Last updated October 03, 2017

Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Catholic basilica, in Onitsha, Nigeria, which was once part of the breakaway state of Biafra, on April 14, 2005. Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
Blog Post

More on:



Sub-Saharan Africa

This past Sunday’s edition of the New York Times ran a story about the revival of the Latin Mass among Roman Catholics in southeastern Nigeria, the region that was once the breakaway state of Biafra. The story discusses the popularity of conservative forms of religious expression, especially during periods of unrest, such as is occurring in Nigeria today. The country faces a continuing insurrection in the northeast associated with the radical, Islamist Boko Haram; “range wars” in the Middle Belt involving Muslim, Hausa-Fulani cattle herders and Christian, minority tribe farmers; the mystery surrounding the state of President Buhari’s health; and a revival of agitation for an independent Biafra. Meanwhile, international oil prices remain low, squeezing government revenue. This story is timely in a number of ways; in particular, it alludes to an oft-cited myth that the end of the Biafran war was characterized by “rape and pillage” by the federal forces. In fact, such violence did not take place. Given the re-emergence of pro-Biafra sentiment today, it is important to be accurate about the civil war almost fifty years later.

The predominately Igbo areas of southeast Nigeria, the core of the former Biafra, are overwhelmingly Christian and predominately Roman Catholic. Biafran propaganda at the time of the civil war greatly oversimplified the conflict, reducing it to a struggle between Christians and Muslims (though many Christian clergy supported Biafra). The reality is much more complex. Biafran secession occurred in the aftermath of two bloody coups and a pogrom against Igbos in the Muslim north, pushing Igbo refugees south into the region that would become Biafra. The secession movement reflected the Igbo desire for a separate, Igbo-dominated state. Biafra’s leaders also wanted to control Nigeria’s oil wealth, much of which came from the same region, but from parts that were not dominated by Igbo. Over the course of the war, between one and two million people died, mostly from disease and starvation. After the war was over, the Federal government in effect “punished” Christian churches that had supported Biafra by closing church schools and hospitals and incorporating them into the public system. Their quality plunged, contributing to the ongoing educational and health crisis in Nigeria.

At the time, it was widely expected that the victors would massacre the Igbo. Instead, President Yakubu Gowon instituted a policy of “no victor, no vanquished” to promote national reconciliation. The discipline of federal troops proved to be far better than anticipated, physical reconstruction and national reconciliation took place remarkably quickly, and the Igbo resumed a position in national life (though many complain of a “glass ceiling” beyond which they still may not rise). The revival of pro-Biafra sentiment appears to be acquiring a Christian colorization that reflects the same ecclesiastically conservative outlook as the popularity of the Latin Mass, and, potentially, an over-simplified characterization of the civil war. Historical memory of what happened then could distort Nigerians' and others' response to developments now.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail