January 2014 marked the 44th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war, and the end of the short lived Republic of Biafra. Biafra did not live long enough to see its third birthday.
Although the war ended 44 years ago, wounds from it still fester. Many eastern Nigerians still wonder and ask what would have happened had Biafra succeeded. What if the federal government had agreed to â€œlet Biafra go?â€ Or if Biafra had hung on long enough for a United Nations resolution calling for the establishment of a new independent state in eastern Nigeria?
Ostensibly, Biafra had the ingredients to succeed and become a successful nation. It had an educated and skilled workforce, a charismatic head of state, a citizenry with a messianic zeal for their country to succeed, natural resources, a coastline, and perhaps most crucially of all â€“ billions of dollars worth of crude oil flowing underneath its soil.
BIAFRA â€“ A WORLD SUPERPOWER?
With oil wealth and a vibrant citizenry, Biafra could have become Africaâ€™s first world superpower. With citizens of the caliber of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Louis Mbafeno, Matthew Mbu, Chike Obi, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Christopher Okigbo, and Michael Okpara, it had men of foresight, intellect, and vision to rival any nation in Africa. Academics, civil servants, diplomats, doctors, judges, mathematicians, professors, scientists, soldiersâ€¦Biafra had them all. When Biafra seceded, it took not only a portion of Nigerian territory with it, but also a massive part of Nigeriaâ€™s brainpower, army officers corps, and wealth.
The remarkable ingenuity of Biafraâ€™s engineers during the war proved the old adage that â€œnecessity is the mother of all inventionâ€. Had the short-term technical ingenuity which led Biafra to refine fuel, manufacture everything from armoured vehicles to soap, and land mines encased in milk churns, been allowed to continue long term; it may have led to an industrial and technological revolution in west Africa. A country full of people that could create, invent, lead, teach, think, and fight. Surely nothing could stop such a country. The sky was the limit for a country blessed with so much talent, motivation, and patriotic intensity to succeed. Biafra could have been Africaâ€™s answer to Israel; the little country that punches above its weight and refuses to give in.
THE â€œJEWS OF AFRICAâ€
However as well as emulating Israelâ€™s benefits, Biafra may also have mimicked Israelâ€™s problems. Igbos are often called â€œThe Jews of Africaâ€. The title is not fanciful. Had Biafra succeeded, it would have had similar demographic and geographic challenges to the worldâ€™s only Jewish state. It would have been surrounded by hostile nations, while simultaneously facing an armed insurrection within its borders by its own citizens.
Biafra faced many challenges within; including a Game of Thrones style cocktail of conspiracies, internal rivalries, politics, and in-fighting. Not all eastern Nigerians approved of secession. The Efiks, Annangs, Ibibios, and Ijaws within Biafra were not enthusiastic about swapping a Nigerian passport under a Hausa-Fulani led government, with a Biafran passport where they would be led by an Igbo government. How would the ethnic groups on Biafraâ€™s southern coast react to being minority citizens of a country where most of the wealth is obtained from their land, but where they did not have economic and political leadership? Probably in the way they reacted when the same circumstances arose in Nigeria; MEND, Niger Delta Peopleâ€™s Volunteer Force et al. The armed campaign of kidnapping and violence which Niger Delta militants waged against the Nigerian federal government would instead have been waged within Biafraâ€™s borders â€“ against the Biafran government. Isaac Idaka Boroâ€™s short-lived Niger Delta Peoples Republic (and the fact that Boro fought for the Nigerian federal army against Biafra) was a demonstration that Niger Delta militants would have turned their guns on Biafra before long.
How would Biafra have related to its neighbours? To its northern border would have been one or two landlocked northern republics awash with trained combatant soldiers and guns. These landlocked countries would need would need deals with Biafra to gain access to the sea. If Biafra refused or negotiations got difficult, their demands for access to the sea may have turned violent. Would these northern republics quietly tolerate the noisy, rich, and successful little nation to their south without envy or rivalry? Unlikely.
To Biafraâ€™s western border would have been a diverse country of Edos, Esans, Isokos, Itsekiris, Urhobos, Ika-Igbos and others (modern day Delta and Edo States). Would Biafra have closed its borders to its Igbo brothers living in the state next door? Two options were open to Biafra. It could have encouraged the Igbos living to its west to migrate to Biafra by granting them automatic Biafran citizenship under an Israel style â€œlaw of returnâ€. That of course would have presented its own problems by inferring that Biafra was an Igbo ethnic theocracy. It would also have fuelled fears among non-Igbo Biafrans that Biafra was an Igbo project.
The other option would have been to enlarge Biafraâ€™s territory by extending its borders westward into Igbo speaking areas west of the River Niger such as Asaba. Non-Igbos living in such areas were unlikely to accept such territorial encroachment peacefully. Any Biafran attempt to annex territory west of the Niger would have been violently resisted. Even if successful, Biafran soldiers would have been viewed as an army of occupation in the manner of British soldiers in Northern Ireland and Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
FORGIVENESS AND BEYOND
Nigeriaâ€™s existence today owes much to the â€œNo Victor, No Vanquishedâ€ policy of Nigeriaâ€™s leader General Gowon after the war. Had Gowon not declared a blanket amnesty for all combatants and reintegrated some Biafran soldiers back into the Nigerian army, there would likely have been a Biafran resistance army in existence for several decades. Conversely, had Biafra won the war; the bitterness caused by the 1966 pogroms and slaughter of Igbos would have made it impossible to treat defeated Nigerians leniently. Biafran officer Colonel Ben Gbulie admitted that Gowon would not have lived to tell the tale of a Biafran victory. Gbulie said “Probably if we had won the war, we would have shot him.” Biafran â€˜pound of fleshâ€™ reprisals against those who so badly wounded it in 1966 would have led to a decades long tit-fot-tat war to rival the Israelis and Arabs.
Biafraâ€™s army would have been kept very busy. It would simultaneously have to defend itself from two potentially hostile northern republics (one of which was likely to be Islamic), fight resentful neighbours to its west and/or maintain an occupying army outside its borders to its west, and simultaneously try to suppress an armed rebellion within its borders by Niger Delta militants. The military strain may have compelled Biafra to introduce compulsory military service for all adults, and would require it to spend a sizeable chunk of its budget on defence and military expenditure.
WOULD OJUKWU HAVE BECOME A DICTATOR?
Biafraâ€™s leader Ojukwu was every inch the revolutionary leader: charismatic, iconic, and intelligent. He even wore the revolutionaryâ€™s trademark green fatigues and intense beard. He was almost Fidel Castro-esque or Yassir Arafat-esque in that regard. However would Ojukwuâ€™s strong leadership have been able to resist a slide into a personality cult or tyranny?
For all his articulation and intelligence, Ojukwu was no democrat. He himself admitted that leaders do not voluntary surrender power. Instead power must be wrestled from their hands. The execution of Alale, Banjo, and Ifeajuna demonstrated that Ojukwu was not safe from his own people, and the lengths he would go to in order to remain in power. He also fired, then arrested and detained, his army commander Brigadier Hilary Njoku (who had disagreed with him and questioned the wisdom if fighting a war against an army with vast superiority in manpower and weaponry).
Biafra had several officers who were senior to, or had equal seniority with, Ojukwu in the pre-war Nigerian army. Many of these officers did not enjoy Ojukwuâ€™s arrogance or having to serve under a junior officer. Ojukwu would eventually have faced a coup or assassination. Even if he somehow managed to faced down coups or escape the assassinâ€™s bullet, it would have come at a price. Biafraâ€™s paranoid â€œSaboâ€ mentality would have led him to establish a KGB or Orwellian-like secret police to keep continual watch on his population and potential enemies within. Biafra would not have been an oasis of freedom.
The defection of Ijaw air force officer George Kurubo demonstrated that some non-Igbo ethnic groups did not have their hearts entirely in Biafra. Several other non-Igbo officers were also likely to defect. The suspicion with which Igbos regarded their ethnic neighbours such as the Efik, Ibibio, and Ogoni was likely to have led to racial profiling of these ethnic groups by Biafran intelligence services (further increasing their hostility to the Igbo leadership).
Biafra was not immune from corruption either. If some Biafrans could sell weapons to an enemy that was resolutely determined to bomb them into the stone age, and which continually bombed women and starving children in hospitals and markets, could embezzle funds meant for the welfare of Biafran troops and the purchase of weapons, imagine what heights corruption could have reached in peacetime in a country awash with oil money…
Biafra may have been Nigeria in a microcosm.