Biafra: Dreaming of a new state

In Nigeria, Biafra has long been remembered as a former independent state at the centre of a bitter civil war.

50 years on, members of the separatist Igbo ethnic group still hope for a better life. (Picture-Alliance/W. Dubkowski)

50 years on, members of the separatist Igbo ethnic group still hope for a better life. (Picture-Alliance/W. Dubkowski)

From beer bottles, to flags, to posters on the side of the road, the image of the rising sun can be seen almost everywhere in southeastern Nigeria. But it is the symbol of a state which no longer exists: Biafra. In 1967, the declaration of an independent republic of Biafra led to a bitter civil war which lasted two-and-a-half years, resulting in the deaths of between 500 000 and 2-million Biafran civilians, largely from starvation. After the separatists were defeated, Biafra became a taboo subject for many years.

Fifty years later however, the legacy of Biafra can be openly discussed in some parts of Nigeria. In the city of Enugu, Biafra’s former capital, 27-year-old Kingsley Okah speaks with passion and conviction about the state’s history. Okah studied political science and grew up in the former Biafra region. And he wants the Republic of Biafra to return.

In a country which is home to more than 185 million people and 250 ethnic groups, as an Igbo he feels marginalized. Even though his ethnicity is one of the largest in Nigeria, Okah is distrustful of the current government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Muslim and comes from the north. “In the cabinet of the current government there are no easterners at all,” says Okah.

Biafran soldiers prepare to resist a Federal troop attack during the 1967 - 1970 civil war. Up to 2 million Biafran civilians died as a result of the conflict

“Biafra is the solution”
But it is not just that he simply does not feel represented in Nigeria. Young men like Okah also pose a threat to the current ethnic composition of the government. “If they want to kill the easterners the arrangement can go unhindered,” he says, “we must be able to agitate for our rights. Biafra is the solution.”

Such opinions have become more popular over the past two decades, especially with young people. On the 50th anniversary of Biafra’s claim to independence, these calls have intensified. On May 30 1967, Military Governor Chuckwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared Biafra to be independent following two coups and a number of major ethnic disputes. Okah says he plans to organize a youth conference on the issue. In Enugu numerous posters drawing attention to Biafra are on display. 

Leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra movement (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, is one of a rising number of people who are calling for a Biafra renaissance. However by the end of April he was in prison after being accused of conspiracy and belonging to a criminal organization. Following protests by human rights organization Amnesty International, he was released on bail at the end of the month.

Fear of the north
Kanu has since found shelter in the house of his parents in the capital city Umuahia of neighboring state Abia. Here he receives numerous visits from his supporters.

“Life is no longer worth living without Biafra,” he told DW, “we have tried Nigeria for 56 years now, but nothing has ever happened, so we want to try something new.”

Over the course of the conversation, Kanu becomes more steadfast in his opinions. He believes that Christians from the south no longer have the opportunity to exercise freedom of religion in the mostly Muslim north. He is also concerned about the economic situation. “Those that run Nigeria, mostly the Haussa and Fulani from the north, do not know how to marry the forces of production to give us the type of economic society that can accommodate the wishes and aspirations of everyone,” he says.

Pro-Biafra supporters protest for the release of activist Nnamdi Kanu in November 2015

Letting go of the south
Such accusations against the Haussa and Fulani people are serious. They trouble Said Mu’asu, who is originaly from Jigawa State but now lives in the capital Abuja. “Nobody has harassed the Igbo in the north, neither on a regional level nor on a local level,” he told DW. He considers the allegations that the Igbo people are disadvantaged to be simply false.

“It is the Igbo who organize the economy and are everywhere,” he said, also claiming that this can make it difficult for other ethnic groups. On the subject of Biafra, Mu’asu simply shrugs and says, “If they want to go, they should do that.”

The former Republic of Biafra was located in south-eastern Nigeria

No second Biafra war

Such a statement may appeal to people like Okah. But unlike the bloody confrontation still remembered from the 1960s, this time he would prefer to take part an intellectual battle for Biafra, using the media and peaceful protests. “I will not be caught armed to fight,” he says. However it is still unclear how many will participate, or even when this new movement may begin.

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