We the Vanquished: On Biafra, the Nigerian Postcolony, and the Need for Radical Solidarities



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Nigeria’s National War Museum in Umuahia in the southeastern part of the country. / Photo by Sam Iheke (April 2018).

In this personally-charged text, Amarachi Iheke analyzes the politics of the postcolonial state in Nigeria, in particular the eastern part of the country, where the myth of reconciliation after the 1967–1970 Biafran war fails to conceal the inertia of state violence. Envisioning emancipatory futures, she also questions what radical solidarities look like in this context. 

As I write to you from Marseille, in the home of my wonderful Bambara host, I am swaddled in reminders of a romantic childhood in Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria. Having not returned home for several years now after my Father’s passing, I feel called upon by the Eastern Nigerian countryside, woven into Fatou’s decorative cane mats, etched on mud and wax prints, echoing through Salif Keita’s Tomorrow. I feel my late Father’s presence urging me to do some necessary grief work, not only for him, but in many ways for my community of tradespeople, cultivators, educators, and spiritualists. A community that was once a symbol of anti-imperial and anti-state resistance in the Biafran nationalist project, now reflects the sobering violent dispossessions of the Nigerian postcolony. Stories too harrowing that they often read as folklore, of pogrom, state-orchestrated famine, and a punishing “victor’s justice” as post-conflict reconciliation, fundamentally shaped and indeed radicalized me as a child. Certainly, losing my Father as custodian of this history had kept me from engaging with the familiar inherited traumas of Biafra for some time now. In many ways, revisiting Biafra here in this text for me feels like a return. A return to a political landscape that holds and continues to reverberate all the messy contradictions of (post)colonial victimhood. A return to a call for radical empathy which allows us to acknowledge shared violations at the hands of the Nigerian post-colony, from Biafra to ENDSARS. A return to an advocacy for radical solidarity, where in acknowledging collective but differing struggles, we can still make space for each other, to feel and be with our vanquished condition(s).

This text is not concerned with legitimizing Biafran nationalisms at large or providing a historiography of the struggle for Biafran statehood. Literary accounts of the Nigeria–Biafra war, including Chinua Achebe’s There was a country (2012), Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died (1972), Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra (1982), and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy (1985) to name a few, illustrate how Cold War and African decolonial nation building politics at play instrumentalized both Biafran nationalism and the development of a “legitimate” Nigerian nation state. These regional and global political contexts shed light on the various motivations of an emergent Nigerian political class and Biafran nationalists alike. Accommodating these complexities is essential not only to understand the story of Biafra, but also to normalize contradiction and inconsistency in narrating colonial afterlives.

In the Biafran story, there are no neat binary identities of perpetrator and victim, but the nature of state violence deployed by a fledgling Nigerian postcolony remains a key defining character of the conflict. 

The present day volatility of the Biafran identity itself within the multi-ethnic eastern and southeastern region, is testament to historical negotiations around victimhood, as such, Biafran nationalist agitations and the conflict itself must be situated within a context of coloniality. A reflection of the intentional historical opacity and revisionism that surrounds Biafra discourse, I am frustrated to no end by the erasure of British coloniality in understanding the genesis of the 1967–1970 war between the Nigerian state and Biafran nationalists and the nature of violence that embedded it in international consciousness. Seeing the war necessarily as imperial production, I take as point of departure the existing ethnically antagonistic lines carving out the Nigerian “colony proper,” as North and South Protectorates and the strategic assignment of warrant chiefs, the likes of my paternal grandfather. Similarly, there were fraudulent truth commissions that silenced the women of the 1929 Aba Revolt and made de facto insurgents of us all as colonial subjects, our assaulted ecosystems, captive deities that lie estranged in the British museum… The precursory traces of Biafra are indeed too many to recount. Unquestionably, it is from the indirect bureaucracy of British coloniality, its fragmentations and what Soyinka regards as Nigeria’s negotiated—rather than collectively struggled for—independence in 1960 that Biafra emerges. The ethno-religious tensions inherited from empire’s fracturings ultimately sounded the war gong in 1966 as anti-Igbo pogroms perpetrated by both civilians and the state military in Northern Sabon Gari (foreigners’ quarters), triggered a mass Igbo exodus back to their eastern homelands. Soon after Colonel Ojukwu’s declaration of a Biafran nation, stretching across the Bight of Biafra, what transpired in the state’s ruthless three year counter-insurgent war, signaled the formation of a Nigerian postcolony. Arguably, the turning point of the conflict and death knell for the Biafran nationalist project, was the use of famine as a genocidal instrument of war by the Nigerian state, propped up by British and Soviet sponsors. For the first time, war was brought home in the global broadcast of chronically malnourished infants, masses of gaunt bodies huddled in Irish Catholic refugee and relief camps, civilian casualties strewn across the rainforest. These stories of an emergent mercenary state as postcolony, alongside parables of the wily chameleon, the leopard and the hare co-existed in my childhood imaginary. 

Equally, I am particularly amazed by how strongly these images and narratives resonated globally and across time. My travels around Europe have found me talking about the Biafran genocide with strangers, friends and colleagues alike in Valencia, Marseille, Paris, Nuremberg, and of course at home in London. I suppose my surprise reflects a disheartening rejection of history that is commonplace in Nigeria today. Rather than an intentional widespread civilian ignorance, on the contrary, such a rejection speaks to the postcolony’s inability to take responsibility for its violations and indeed practice what it preaches in the pithy post-war statement of “No Victor, No Vanquished.” On that note, I vividly remember my beloved late Godfather who supported the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wartime relief programs, taking my brother and I around the only standing national monument in memory of the war. Based in rural Umuahia and maintained by local historians, it is important to note the location (and remoteness) of this singular site of (national) memorialization, and the fact that the state has relieved itself of responsibility for its upkeep, as quite telling. In other words, this is your history, not ours. This is Biafran and specifically Igbo history, not a collective national history. My Father’s generation as Elders of the community certainly felt and still do feel that sentiment ring true as symbolic of their vanquishment. It is a commonly held view across the East and South-East, particularly among the Igbo, that the state wanted Biafrans to pay for attempting to undermine its newly won legitimacy in independence. A fragility towards history and its relegation to the victims of history itself, is certainly not new to the Nigerian postcolony. Rather, it is necessarily symptomatic of structural violence. In the context of postcolonial victimhoods in the Nigeria–Biafra war, there is little to no capacity to speak of Biafra as shared history, talk less of a willingness to accept and empathize with historic state harm suffered by Igbo and minoritized Ibibio, Efik, Ijaw, and Ogoni to name a few. This is why I address the Nigerian nation space explicitly as postcolony, molded and continuously molding itself in the image of empire. In the Nigeria-Biafra war, it efficiently demonstrated its tendencies to subjugate using all violent genocidal infrastructure at its disposal.

As mentioned earlier, the story of Biafra within a postcolonial and anticolonial framing is full of its contradictions and contestations, especially where claims to a singular or prioritized victimhood are concerned. Being Igbo myself, I feel a responsibility to emphasize the dominance of Igbo ethnonationalism in structuring a Biafran national identity. Securing Biafra as a refugee nation by a predominant Igbo political elite intent on capitalizing off a Biafran nation state, often carried deadly implications for minoritized groups in the region through forced conscriptions and various other intimidation tactics. However, the fact that the last Biafran head of state, Major General Philip Effiong, was Ibibio reminds us that collaboration between Igbo and non-Igbo groups in the region was indeed present and is still active. Understanding Biafra as colonial afterlife therefore requires that space is made for these fractures in victimhood, where the context of an operative post-colony reproduces and exploits those very same colonial frictions between groups. These antagonisms show up contemporarily as the postcolony routinely silences demands for truth-seeking around the war, which would reveal ethnoplural victimhoods. Additionally, it works to maintain half-truths of a Biafran project led by a stubborn Igbo community in isolation, who refused to get onboard with the project of a great independent Nigeria. 

Such official narratives along with a collective aversion to this painful history, has fueled the current day agitations across eastern and southeastern Nigeria to revive Biafra. Among groups such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Eastern Security Network (ESN), and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), young people have been engaged in various acts to subvert and undermine the Nigerian postcolony. Rallies, pamphleting and even local collective action to establish health facilities, schools, and various other infrastructures have been met with the swiftest and deadliest martial force, as part of the state’s default no-engagement policy. My former primary school was even a site of such state-civilian clashes, resulting in many lives lost senselessly. The current imprisonment of Nnamdi Kanu, infamous IPOB leader who is labeled as an insurrectionist by the state, certainly points to an insecurity around Nigerian nationhood and the threat Biafra still poses to the postcolony. Without exploring their respective complex claims, the intergenerational hurt that these groups speak to in the inherited narratives recounted earlier, are quite easy to understand, acknowledge, and empathize with. These intergenerational victimhoods in relation to the postcolony’s violence are not only valid but also contemporarily relevant, as along with denying genocide claims, the state never stopped punishing the East and the South-East. Socio-economic underdevelopment and an absence of necessary post-conflict repairs in the region even until today remain bitter post-war conversations back home in Umuahia. Violent anti-Igbo rhetoric and attacks during the recent national elections served as a reminder of how deeply embedded official post-war narratives are in “national consciousness.”

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Protesters during the ENDSARS movement in Port Harcourt on October 20, 2020. The left sign reproduces the logo of Femco, a feminist organization in Nigeria that has voiced the gender-based and sexual abuses of SARS. / Photo by Emmage.

Beyond neo-Biafran separatism, the ghosts of Biafra were evidently present in the ENDSARS protests of 2020.

Despite a global health crisis, Nigerian youth came together to address the ugly face of the carceral state that, through the militia Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), terrorizes, maims, and kills regular folk across the country. I am still reeling at our capacity to stand up, be counted and boldly assert a right to life. To say over and over again to the postcolony, “Stop Killing Us!” The protests brought to a global audience the extent to which the Nigerian postcolony securitizes civilians as a threat, but most importantly it said something to Nigerians about claiming a nonnegotiable humanity. Just as anticipated and in a repeat of history, the state drew its only hand, by squashing protestors like roaches under the literal cloak of darkness at the Lekki Toll Gate. 

While the online and physical agitations of the ENDSARS movement signaled the revolutionary chickens coming home to roost, there remains plenty of work to be done to seize the moment and develop necessary ethnoplural radical solidarities. This is no easy feat of course. As previous issues of this magazine have touched upon, solidarity building in the context of colonial afterlives, involves active listening and acceptance of shared but not competing experiences of harm. A necessary first step would be to develop empathy for those historically dehumanized by drawing throughlines between an experience of genocidal violence, the absence of post-conflict repairs, and contemporary extended struggles to challenge the Nigerian postcolony.

Biafra as colonial afterlife is poignant not only in holding up a mirror to Empire and the Nigerian postcolony, but more importantly to ask ourselves how do we not abandon each other?

How can we extend ourselves to one another within a suffocating state which routinely disposes of the governed? These questions are also continentally relevant and we need only look at the experience of our neighbors over in South Cameroon who find themselves similarly grappling with the tensions of building solidarity despite the pervasiveness of French and British colonial legacies.

In light of assertions of postcolonial harm, identifying ourselves as pawns in Nigeria’s (neo)imperialisms helps us develop capacities for necessary ethnoplural solidarities and indeed revolutionary empathy. It is difficult not to feel rage for my late Father, Godfather, and their generation who never received such empathy or justice for the pain they endured, but I feel renewed hope for evolving possibilities in solidarity building. Therefore, short of a call to arms and in defense of a shared colonial and postcolonial victimhood, I claim a collective We the vanquished. We the structurally violated. We the undercommons. To claim a collective “We” is to assert a shared dispossession by empire and its extensions in the contemporary Nigerian postcolony. This I believe would be a collaborative building block for radical inclusive solidarities and indeed continued resistance. ■