If Biafra Had Won the War
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 “let Biafra go?”
Or if Biafra had hung on long enough for a United Nations resolution
calling for the establishment of a new independent state in eastern
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 –
billions of dollars worth of crude oil flowing underneath its soil.
BIAFRA – A WORLD SUPERPOWER?
With oil wealth and a vibrant citizenry, Biafra could have become Africa'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, soldiers…Biafra
had them all. When Biafra seceded, it took not only a portion of Nigerian
territory with it, but also a massive part of Nigeria's brainpower, army
officers corps, and wealth.
The remarkable ingenuity of Biafra's engineers during the war proved the
old adage that “necessity is the mother of all invention”. 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 Africa's answer to Israel; the little
country that punches above its weight and refuses to give in.
THE “JEWS OF AFRICA”
However as well as emulating Israel's benefits, Biafra may also have
mimicked Israel's problems. Igbos are often called “The Jews of Africa”.
The title is not fanciful. Had Biafra succeeded, it would have had similar
demographic and geographic challenges to the world'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 Biafra'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 People'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 Biafra's
borders – against the Biafran government. Isaac Idaka Boro'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
To Biafra'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 “law of
return”. 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 Biafra'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
Nigeria's existence today owes much to the “No Victor, No Vanquished”
policy of Nigeria'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
'pound of flesh' 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
Biafra'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
WOULD OJUKWU HAVE BECOME A DICTATOR?
Biafra's leader Ojukwu was every inch the revolutionary leader:
charismatic, iconic, and intelligent. He even wore the revolutionary's
trademark green fatigues and intense beard. He was almost Fidel
Castro-esque or Yassir Arafat-esque in that regard. However would Ojukwu's
strong leadership have been able to resist a slide into a personality cult
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 Ojukwu'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 assassin's bullet, it would have
come at a price. Biafra's paranoid “Sabo” 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
Biafra may have been Nigeria in a microcosm.