by Eugenia Zena
With the upcoming governorship elections in Anambra State (South-East Nigeria) on November 18th, the unsolved ‘Biafra question’ is re-emerging in the international debate. In fact, leaders of some separatist movements such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) recently stated that they will boycott the elections as a response to the refusal of the central government of Nigeria to hold a referendum for the restoration of Biafra before then. Supporters of the referendum claim that Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency is failing to address the demand for self-determination of the Igbo population in the South-Eastern area of the state, bringing about new tensions in the area. Moreover, the results of this election can have a profound impact on the General Elections that will be held on 16th February 2019.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with 182.2 million citizens, is a multi-ethnic nation made of 36 states ruled by local governors. Since independence from British colonial rule in 1960, these states have witnessed a major reduction in their power, which, combined with a high degree of centralisation, has provoked an internal crisis around resource distribution, power-sharing, autonomy and fiscal federalism. As a response to this crisis, various ethno-nationalist groups have emerged in the Nigerian political arena in an attempt to gain power.
The movement for an autonomous Biafra is one such political attempt, even though Biafra is a heterogeneous region made of different groups with clashing ideas and political agendas.
Nonetheless, these sub-factions agree on three main facts: firstly that the Igbo people were brutally killed massacred during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970); secondly that the collapse of the secessionist Republic of Biafra in 1970 worsened the marginalised condition of the Igbo-speaking people (or Biafrans); and lastly that the return of the civilian rule in 1999 could provide for a solution to the Igbo ethno-nationalist struggle. This explains why in the same year MASSOB, one of the main groups advocating for secession from the Nigerian state, was created to challenge mainstream assumptions about state sovereignty, political authority and territoriality. The movement in fact exploits the ad hoc ethnic categories constructed by British colonialism to dismiss the Nigerian state as the sole provider of security; law and order; and creator of social norms and values regulating day-to-day life in the country. In practice, since 2000, MASSOB has embarked on various forms of civil disobedience to dismantle every infrastructure that supports the Nigerian government in the region. Boycotting the upcoming election in Anambra state therefore represents an attempt to assert the Biafra’s quest for self-determination.
Nonetheless, when it comes to analysing the identity claims of the pro-Biafra movement, it is difficult to discern how far the construction of its narratives has gone in trying to transcend the existence of the Nigerian state. In doing so, the movements have created a story of Igbo origins and the ‘Igboland.’ In fact, MASSOB not only traces the origins of Biafra back to Judeo-Christian traditions and history by invoking biblical examples such as David and the Goliath, but it also depicts Igbo-speaking people as the
‘Jews of Africa’. This narrative stems from the myth of Nri. The king of Eri, popularly referred to as the founding father of the Igbo civilisation, was the fifth son of the Gad, and supposedly one of the twelve sons of Jacob, connecting to the lost tribe of Israel. Following a process of internalisation and routinisation of this story, many now assume that the Jews and Igbos are somehow linked by virtue of their historical experiences, such as mass killings, and cultural practices like circumcision and religious sacrifices. This connection can be also found in the representations of Biafra as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, where the eleven sunrays symbolize the eleven Tribes of Israel.
However, while claims of Igbo-Jewishness remain debatable, their importance lies in the exploitation of such claims in the discourse of Igbo ethno-nationalism. In fact, by adopting the Igbo-Jewish equation as part of its narrative, the movement establishes itself as the ‘other’ with regards to historical cases – i.e. that it has been victim of marginalisation, persecution and deprivation.
This nexus is therefore crucial to the movement as it conveys a sense of authenticity to Igbo nationalism while depicting at the same time the Biafran struggle for independence as a collective experience that goes beyond the Nigerian state.
Therefore, the making of an Igbo ‘otherness’ based on Jewish origins makes the movement’s claims more of an ideological cause than a genealogical or historical one. Moreover, by highlighting how, in a similar way, the Jews had to go through oppression before God liberated them and assigned them the promised land, this narrative strengthens the legitimacy of the current struggle for the autonomy of Biafra.
Nevertheless, one fact that cannot be taken away when considering Igbo nationalism is that the insistent demands for an independent Biafra, find their roots in the contradictions of the Nigerian political system, where politics revolve mainly around the same ethnic categories instituted by colonialism. The British, in fact, created a political system based on the division of the three major regional ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani in the North, Yoruba in the West and Igbo in the East. The parties that arose in the political arena were therefore mainly concerned with protecting the interests of their ethnic group and ensuring that their group identity would get enough share of power. The radicalisation of such a sentiment of marginalisation followed also from the failure of obtaining more control over the territory after the resurgence of civilian rule in 1999. In fact, Ralph Uwazurike, leader of MASSOB, expected appointments for the Igbos as a return of his active involvement in the Obasanjo presidential campaign of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Indeed, he truly believed that democracy and openness would provide the opportunity to eventually address the marginalization of his ethnic group. Nonetheless, the fact that no Igbos were given any political roles in the Obasanjo Presidency soon convinced the pro-Biafra movement that the program of reintegration of Igbos in Nigeria was only rhetorical.
This unresolved national question dating back to colonialism therefore constituted (and still constitutes today) a solid ground for ethnic nationalism to thrive.
In fact, the inability of the Nigerian government to address group grievances provides a supporting argument for those who claim that only groups with the ability to challenge state sovereignty will have their complaints addressed. On top of this, ethnicity has been manipulated to mobilise the masses towards ethnic identification for political goals. Despite being fluid in its nature, ethnicity has come to acquire an objective character that renders it as a quasi-ideology through which politics is filtered. Ultimately, the myth of the Jewish origin provides Biafra supporters with a legitimate and ‘authentic’ story grounded in the past. The shared victimhood narrative creates both a cultural and physical bond among the Igbos that can be easily exploited by those who claim to be able to liberate them. The malleability of ethnic identities and the possibility to (re-)construct their narratives therefore reveal that ethnicity is deeply rooted in the pro-Biafra movement because it is politically convenient. It is not clear, should the referendum be allowed in South-East Nigeria, whether separatism will still prevail.
Links to further readings:
Featured Picture: The Indigenous Peoples of Biafra group held a series of protests following Kanu’s detention [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]
Eugenia Zena is an Italian third-year student in International Relations at King’s College of London. Her areas of interest include Sub-Saharan Africa, Forced Migration, Human Trafficking and IR theory.