Colonial Continuities Biafraland and the Doppelganger of a Never Past

Decolonisation – In this photo taken Sunday, May 28, 2017, members of the Biafran separatist movement gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. The members are commemorating their fallen heroes 50 years after Nigeria's civil war saw more than 1 million die to create the state for the Igbo people.
In this photo taken Sunday, May 28, 2017, members of the Biafran separatist movement gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. The members are commemorating their fallen heroes 50 years after Nigeria's civil war saw more than 1 million die to create the state for the Igbo people. | Photo (detail): Lekan Oyekanmi © picture alliance/AP Photo

The upheavals and instability in many African countries are often linked with the legacy of colonialism. Richard Ali’s critical analysis of the situation in Nigeria not only points to other origins of the crises as well but also offers solutions.

By Richard Ali

“Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,” (Odenigbo) said. “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “Half of a Yellow Sun”

Nigeria—Britain’s colonial project and Africa’s most populous country with well over 200 million people, whose sheer energy gave us the urban nightmare that is Lagos and the immense foundry of dreams that is Nollywood, suffers a crisis that finds its roots in that collision with Europe a century ago. Europe’s impress lingers in the geographical and anthropological categories they created or emphasized, such as tribes and ideas about boundaries. Continent-wide, these lie at the root of the profusion of separatists battling formal states, led by men who take up the guise of revolutionaries and are anything but that. The newest of these, in my country’s context, is Biafraland.

A vision hijacked

Biafraland is rooted in the 2012 hijack of the earlier Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) by its London guerrilla radio station operator, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu (MNK). Naming his faction the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), MNK continues to cultivate a cult of personality through vaguely Jewish symbolism and the image of an enfant terrible jingoist. Where MASSOB spoke of self-determination for an administrative unit created by the British, IPOB desires the supremacy of a tribal solidarity that did not exist before the Europeans arrived.
  • Decolonisation – In this Wednesday. Feb. 29, 2012 file photo, Igbo men ride on a motorbike carrying a Biafra flag on a street in Nnewi, Nigeria. Nigeria's military has killed at least 150 peaceful protesters in a "chilling campaign" to repress renewed demands to create a breakaway state of Biafra in the southeast, Amnesty International said Thursday Nov. 24, 2016 © AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File
    In this Wednesday. Feb. 29, 2012 file photo, Igbo men ride on motorbikes carrying a Biafra flag on a street in Nnewi, Nigeria. Nigeria's military has killed at least 150 peaceful protesters in a "chilling campaign" to repress renewed demands to create a breakaway state of Biafra in the southeast, Amnesty International said Thursday Nov. 24, 2016
  • Decolonisation – In this May 28, 2017 file photo, Uboha Damia, a 75-year -old Biafra veteran, holds a Biafra flag as members of the Biafran separatist movement gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. © Lekan Oyekanmi / picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this May 28, 2017 file photo, Uboha Damia, a 75-year-old Biafra veteran, holds a Biafra flag as members of the Biafran separatist movement gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria.
  • Decolonisation – In this photo taken Sunday, May 28, 2017, members of the Biafran separatist movement sing and clap their hands as they gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. The members are commemorating their fallen heroes 50 years after Nigeria's civil war saw more than 1 million die to create the state for the Igbo people. © Lekan Oyekanmi / picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this photo taken Sunday, May 28, 2017, members of the Biafran separatist movement sing and clap their hands as they gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. The members are commemorating their fallen heroes 50 years after Nigeria's civil war saw more than 1 million die to create the state for the Igbo people.
  • Decolonisation – Nigerians of Igbo tribe ethnicity in traditional attire arrive to pay respects outside the house of the late South African president and anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, 09 December 2013. © Ian Langsdon / picture alliance / dpa
    Nigerians from the Igbo ethnic group in traditional attire arrive to pay respects outside the house of the late South African president and anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, 09 December 2013.
  • Decolonisation – Igbo Chiefs, Nigeria, date of recording 23.05.2013 © Sunday Alamba / picture alliance / AP Photo
    Igbo Chiefs, Nigeria, picture taken on 23.05.2013
Before Nigeria got its present name, it was just land lying coastal to ways inland at one of the nooks of the island of Africa, a spread of lush green rainforest yielding to stretches of golden savannah. The curvature of its coastline arose from three geographical features—the bights of Benin and Biafra and the Niger river delta. Tracing the Niger upriver to Lokoja divides southern Nigeria into two nearly equal halves. At Lokoja, the Niger is fed by the mighty river Benue before continuing across West Africa to its Futa Djallon headwaters. This Niger-Benue confluence creates a natural barrier for northern Nigeria, which is really just north of the Niger—Benue shore. The eventual administrative unit known as Northern Nigeria, which included the Niger-Benue basin, was twice the size of the south with two-thirds the country’s population. These facts led to Nigeria’s first military coup in January 1966, led by mostly Igbo junior officers, ostensibly to redraw the political map by murdering the elite of northern and western Nigeria. Civil war followed. An estimated three million people died.

Systemic kleptocracy

When the war ended in 1970, a no-victor-no-vanquished policy was implemented which created a multi-ethnic elite united in stealing the country’s petrodollars while building systems of patronage. This elite involved all the ethnic groups in the country, cutting across the private, military and civil service. Today’s decay in quality of life and public services, the pervasiveness of official corruption, alongside the widening gap between rich and poor started in this period.

The failure of Nigeria to live up to its potential is directly related to state plunder by an elite limited to ways of seeing themselves adopted from the colonial collision, one of competition and narrowness at the expense of collaboration and inclusion. Their pillaging of the common wealth necessitated creating ever narrow markers of identity, ever lower bars of achievement. Newer emphases were found to exclude fellow citizens and to justify cries of marginalization which gave this elite legitimacy in ever smaller subnational spaces. Here we find MNK and his Biafraland.

“When seen from these lenses, Biafraland and similar separatist movements, whether ethnic or religious or cultural, are in fact colonial continuities and not the disruptions they are packaged to be.”

Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has written about the essential deception of these salesmen in his 2016 BBC Reith Lecture series, “Mistaken Identities”. The certainties in which separatists locate their appeals for solidarity are entirely made up. MNK’s Biafraland is based on a fiction that a composite socio-political construct of an Igbo identity existed in the past when the reality was one of diverse people acculturated around a language rooted in the period around the desiccation of the Sahara in 3500 BC. Biafraland does not fare better when framed as the geographical former Eastern Nigeria, for there we find a multi-ethnic reality of groups alongside the Igbo but unrelated to them. In order to correct this defect of multi-ethnicity, MNK proposes an “ancient Igbo land”, a solution that encompasses his desired geography. MNK’s Biafraland is no more than a small country in which his Igbo people are an ethnic majority, where forced assimilation or genocide are valid options to smoothen the rough edges. But forced assimilation is a decidedly colonialist idea, definitely not more than a century old in Africa. Genocide as serious sociocultural policy is just as recent, finding its roots in European nationalism and the industrialization of war. How are these the pathways to a future rooted in a past, when that past did not imagine these monstrous things?

When seen from these lenses, Biafraland and similar separatist movements, whether ethnic or religious or cultural, are in fact colonial continuities and not the disruptions they are packaged to be. Purveyors of these are not in fact revolutionaries but doppelgangers of a never past.

“If we are to be revolutionary, it must be by arming ourselves with the technologies of the present and the full understanding of ourselves—as African—found in the past.”

Africa’s past as an island bounded only by the oceans can be seen in the Kwararafa example. The Kwararafa, initially a Nilotic people, moved into the Niger—Benue area in a wave of migrations and by 1600 AD had established a powerful trading confederacy. Wherever in the Nile valley these ancestors of mine came from, they lost their languages and cultures and became indistinct from several Nigerian people—the Igala, the Jukun, the Goemai for example—changing in organic ways in a beneficial give-and-take. Also, in this African island imaginary, proto-Bantu speakers left their Cameroonian heartland in 1000 BC and started a series of migrations southward that created today’s distinct ethnicities such as the speakers of Lingala, Shona, Kinyarwanda, Kikuyu, Swahili and hundreds of others.

Solutions within the continent

If we are to be revolutionary, it must be by arming ourselves with the technologies of the present and the full understanding of ourselves—as African—found in the past. But this cannot be the convenient past of recent slights sixty years old in a seven-thousand-year history.

If these ancestors of ours did not recognize geographical or anthropological boundaries—why should we insist on these today? To be revolutionary just might be to realize that our ancestors did not think in terms of borders and neither should we, that all Africans are African and that the continent we should be working towards is a comity of diverse peoples of ancient, common ancestry inhabiting the world’s largest island. Not little petty fiefdoms based on confirming sealed colonial containers of language, geography and identity such as MNK’s Biafraland.