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Biafra May Be Staging a Comeback

Walter Russell Mead

Dissatisfied with Nigeria’s messy governance and the recent election of a Muslim president from the country’s north, the Igbo people are starting to talk again about reviving Biafra, the secessionist state that was repressed in a brutal civil war in the late 60s. The Economist reports:

Secessionist organisations in Biafra have been agitating for years, but analysts reckon the scale of the current marches is unprecedented. Superficially, they were sparked by the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the outspoken head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, and director of Radio Biafra, a pirate station.[..]

In the presidential election in March most south-easterners voted for the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, who comes from their region. He lost to Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. “#NigeriaWillRot”, Mr Kanu’s radio station declared after the results were announced. Politicians have fired up impressionable agitators by claiming that the new government is marginalising Igbos, says Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank […]

So far the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, though locals say shops have been looted and tyres set ablaze, and protesters claim police have killed several of their crew (the police deny those charges). That could change if Mr Kanu is killed or mistreated by Nigerian security agents. Boko Haram sets an unhappy precedent. The Islamist movement became a full-scale insurgency only after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was shot in police detention in 2009. Another worry is the impending end of a six-year-old amnesty for militants from the Delta. They could return to violence if it is not extended next month, spelling wider instability in the region.

In Europe, nobody would doubt that Biafrans constitute a nation and have the right to a state. The Igbo population, at 32 million, is larger than 22 members of the EU. In Africa, they’ve been told they are a tribe, and in 1970 the world stood by as they were starved into surrender.

Yet even today, the thought of encouraging Biafran independence gives Africa policy wonks the hives: If one big tribe goes for independence, how many others will follow? Africa will be drenched in blood as the different ethnic groups sort themselves out. There are good reasons for worrying about this. The history of Europe from 1850 to 1950, the history of what was once Yugoslavia, the remnants of Iraq and Syria today: These all show how identity wars can plunge whole regions into terrible conflict. Moreover, the bloodshed in South Sudan shows that the dangers of breaking up African states aren’t imaginary. Partitioning Sudan did not end the bloodshed.

None of that, however, means very much to Igbos who want independence from the dysfunctional and corrupt ramshackle entity that calls itself the state of Nigeria. And this points to another problem. We all sing hymns to the wonders of diversity and to the value of cosmopolitan society these days, but multi-ethnic federations are often not very well run. That was true of the Ottoman, Russian, and Hapsburg empires in 19th-century Europe and the Middle East. Nationalist movements inside those empires thought—in many cases correctly—that a smaller state, built on the culture and language of a single ethnic group, could get better results. Belgium, torn between Flemings and Walloons, is badly governed in large part because the ethnic tensions distort politics and force dysfunctional compromises as the cost of holding the country together.

Nigeria and many African countries suffer from this problem. Unlike the Belgians, who on the whole are rich enough to put up with a weak and ineffective state, Nigerians and others in Africa desperately need good governance in order to achieve basic prosperity and order.

African states aren’t the only countries in which ethnic and religious groups are uneasily held together in a poorly functioning structure, and Africa isn’t the only place where inter-ethnic or inter-faith hostility has burst or will burst into war. Unfortunately, the problems seem to get worse with economic and social development. People care more about how they are governed and about their national or sectarian identities as they become more affluent and better read. Put all that together, and we are living in precarious times indeed.

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