THERE are independence movements all round the world at the moment and several in Europe – including the Catalan and the Scottish ones – are at critical stages, but in Africa there is another big one we should keep our eyes on.
This is Biafra. There was of course a savage civil war in Nigeria in the mid 1960s when the Igbos of the South East seceded and declared themselves the Independent Republic of Biafra. But to understand the dynamics of that conflict one has to understand exactly what the giant state of Nigeria is. With a population of more than 190 million, it is the largest country in Africa by a very considerable way. With accelerating population growth across Africa, its population is forecast to approach the 400 million mark by the 2020s. That would make it the fourth biggest country in the world. But it is an artificial construct knocked together for the convenience of British colonial interest. It was governed up to independence in 1960 as the Northern, Eastern and Western regions. The huge Northern region verging on the Sahara desert was largely Islamic, and the East and the West were mainly varieties of Christian.
But that is far from the whole story. There are more than 350 languages spoken in Nigeria and a look at history identifies dozens of empires, states and emirates, some of them well over 1000 years old before the colonialists came. English is sensibly lingua franca (and Nigerian pidgin is developing, as all languages do, a syntax and glossary that is understood across the whole nation). It is a federation of 36 federal states with a capital territory at Abuja. All the federal states have their own broadcasting services and there are 30 cities in Nigeria bigger than Glasgow. Lagos may well be the world’s largest city.
Nigeria is hugely rich, hugely fertile and some would judge mismanaged on a monumental scale. The level of corruption is almost beyond description with dozens – yes dozens – of Nigerian dollar billionaires in the US, the UK and other countries. It is presently governed by President Muhammed Buhari, elected on an anti-corruption ticket. Its history since independence in 1960 (with a savage civil war in 1966) is mainly of civilian and military governments taking turn about, though it seems to have settled down to democratic government in recent times.
And it has oil. Aha!
All the oil is in the east – in the Niger Delta that was “Biafra”, in fact. The oil of course played a major part in the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria and the entirely questionable part played by the British Government in the murderous civil war that followed.
Britain’s overriding intention was to retain access to Nigeria’s huge oil production through support of the Nigerian Government. But the divisions in Nigeria were and are much more fundamental than who had the oil. And they are not going away. The Islamic Northern Region under British control was more populous than the Western and Eastern regions together and Britain had always found these essentially feudal communities much easier to deal with and much better allies.
The Yorubas, who dominated the Western Region, were socially much further advanced and theirs was the first significantly educated region, but they had many hundreds of years of well-organised empire behind them.
The Igbos, who dominated the Eastern Region, were a village-organised society that could almost be described as strongly democratic, with traditions of meritocracy rather than inherited position and local area organisations choosing their own leaders.
This is as it is today. Nigeria remains a country of these three dominant groups and hundreds of minority tribes who still retain a strong tribal identity. The Igbo community historically was much more open to Europeans from the 15th century onwards. Of all the homogenous peoples in Nigeria, the Igbos are the most pronounced.
They traded to the Middle East long before the Europeans came, which supports the suggestion that there may be semitic DNA in the Igbos’ make-up.
The sturdy self-reliance of the Igbo makes them adventurous, ambitious, imaginative and hard-working and therein was a problem. Shortly after Nigerian independence they very quickly took over huge areas of Nigerian enterprise and governance and resentment against this was significant in the civil war that engulfed Nigeria in 1966. More than two million Igbos were killed by mobs in the north of Nigeria and between two and three million died in the actual civil war, many of a result of starvation in which the stopping by British authorities of mercy flights into Biafra played a major part.
And here we are today, 50 years and long memories later, with a renewed movement for the independence of Biafra gathering strength among the 35 million Igbos. The collapse of the oil price has had a fundamental effect of the politics of Nigeria. As Nigerian state governments lurch about in crisis due to lack of funding from a now impoverished Federal Government, the Igbos have remembered the billions of dollars their oil has pumped into the whole of Nigeria over the past 40 years (sound familiar?). They have noted the billions and billions of pounds and dollars in bank accounts across Europe and America plundered from the Nigerian nation by rogue elected politicians – and they want out.
Dangerous sabre-rattling is going on at the moment and it is to be hoped Nigeria is not lurching into another civil war.
The leader of the Biafran secessionist movement, Nnamdi Kanu, has already been in jail and more than 30 Igbos were shot and killed last year by police as they commemorated the 50th anniversary of emergence the short-lived Independent Republic of Biafra in 1966. But I do not know if even now we can trust the UK to respect the desire of many Igbos to have an independent country and their absolute right to choose that.
And we have again all the evidence we need that “divide and rule” may be a very useful device when employed by an imperial power but it leaves a poisonous legacy when the colonists pull out. Nigeria will not be at peace until its various nations realise that independence with friendly neighbours is a much better future than to be trapped in an imperial construct that has run out of time.