An Exchange on Biafra
Volume 14, Number 8 · April 23, 1970
By Sara S. Berry, George A. Elbert, Norman Thomas Uphoff, Reply by Stanley Diamond
To the Editors:
Stanley Diamond's article, "Who Killed Biafra?" (NYR, February 26) sets out to rescue us from the propaganda of governments seeking to justify their roles in the conflict. His discussion of the considerations which moved other nations to support one side or the other is plausible and informative, but sheds little light on the course of events in Nigeria and Biafra themselves. I have no reason to question Diamond's conclusion that Biafra was not "a puppet of reactionary forces," or the fact that the unequal supply of foreign arms and assistance to the belligerents was crucial to the outcome of the war. (Nor is it startling to learn that foreign powers supported one side or the other only insofar as they felt it would be in their own interests to do so; it hardly seems necessary to demonstrate that nations' policies toward one another are not predicated on altruism.) I do think, however, that to represent the Nigerian war as merely the product of external manipulation, past and present, is highly misleading.
Diamond does devote quite a bit of space to developments in Nigeria itself, but his discussion of them contains serious omissions. One of the fundamental problems which has plagued the peoples of Nigeria for a long time is that of developing a political structure which is responsive to the needs of an ethnically diverse population, without being subservient to the interests of any one cultural or linguistic group. By and large, Diamond dodges this issue, both in his treatment of Biafra since 1967, and in his historical analysis of the Ibos' role in developing Nigerian nationalism.
…Apart from a brief reference to "culturally related peoples," [Diamond] ignores the non-Ibo residents of Eastern Nigeria. In making this omission, Diamond passes up an excellent opportunity to clarify a complex and often obscure situation—namely, the position and involvement of non-Ibo peoples in Biafra, and how their role developed during the war—and contents himself instead with adding to the cloud of emotional prose which surrounded the whole conflict from its inception. "The Biafrans were struggling to protect a nation in which the culture of the primitive past made itself felt and yet had become part of the modern experience," etc. (p. 26)
Diamond makes frequent use of the word "primitive" in his depiction of the history of Ibo relations with the British and the rest of Nigeria.
…the primitive democracies which criss-crossed the primarily Ibo-speaking East resisted [British] domination. [p. 19]
In spite of the slave and palm oil trades, the local communities in the forests of Eastern Nigeria were able to maintain a substantially primitive character. [p. 19]
It should be clear, then, that the Ibos were evolving directly from a "primitive" society to a modern nationality without passing through any significant archaic phase, and thereby conceived the modern Nigerian nation as one that should be both universal and egalitarian. [p. 21]
One sensed, under the social surface [of Biafra] the primitive pulse of Ibo adaptability. [p. 22]
In other words, Diamond seems to conceive of the modern Ibo as a sort of national Minerva springing full-blown from the head of her aboriginal parent; the fact that her passage was unsullied by contact with various forms of "archaic," hierarchical social organization insures the purity of her present political wisdom.
Shades of the Noble Savage? I'm afraid so. Diamond does not do the Ibo the familiar disservice of expecting them to evolve in our own political image; he goes one step further and traces their "emergence" in terms of the romantic images of Western political utopianism. This makes for inspiring reading, but sheds little light on the realities of Nigerian or Biafran life. For example, Diamond dwells on the Ibos' "attempts at self-validation and self-improvement" which led them rapidly to acquire Western education and to settle "as technicians, professionals, traders, and civil servants among a people [sic] of different culture and inferior formal education…." (p. 20) He also emphasizes their role as "the primary architects of Nigerian freedom…[whose] conception was that of an independent, democratic, economically sovereign, unitary state." (p. 20) But he never bothers to develop one obvious implication of these arguments—namely, that had the Ibo succeeded in creating a unitary Nigerian state, they would have controlled it, ipso facto. Were the "routinely corrupt and nepotic Northern hierarchy" the only people in Nigeria who objected to this prospect? The events of 1966 suggest not, just as the ready acceptance by many non-Ibo-speaking people in the Southeast and Rivers States of an early return to Nigerian control suggests that they had mixed feelings concerning their prospects in a predominantly Ibo Biafra.
Diamond criticizes those who would argue that Biafra's secession simply pointed the way to debilitating "Balkanization" of the African continent, and assures us that the Biafrans were "nation-builders" and "pan-Africanists," not "Balkanizers." But it is not clear from Diamond's discussion in what way Ibo nationalism differs from the familiar notion of self-determination, or how Ibo self-determination was to be reconciled with the self-determining impulses of other peoples, either in Biafra or in a unitary Nigeria. He fails to show why, in a Biafran or Nigerian or African context, self-determination should not be expected to lead to Balkanization, just as he does not explain how "nationalism" is the same thing as "pan-Africanism." Thus, Diamond's essay is unconvincing, both as an analysis of the internal problems of Nigeria and Biafra, and as a prescription for African political development.
Sara S. Berry
To the Editors:
…History is not made in a day. The issues which appear at a given moment to be matters of life and death are seen in perspective to be ones which time itself heals. Had the Biafrans remained quiet they would undoubtedly have suffered some forms of oppression but certainly nothing like the total tragedy which occurred. They could have recovered their strength and, if they are the kind of people Mr. Diamond claims they are [NYR, February 26], would through "self-improvement" have increased their influence again within a few years. Perhaps on a second try they could have achieved their objectives by diplomacy instead of force….
George A. Elbert
New York City
To the Editors:
…I share Mr. Diamond's admiration of the Ibos as a people. Their energy and talents, however, do not lead me to ignore the needs and rights of the 40 percent minority in Eastern Nigeria who did not want to be part of Biafra. The Efiks, Ijaws, Ibibios, Annangs, Kalabaris, Ogojas and others had been taken advantage of by their Ibo neighbors for decades. These minority tribes had asked repeatedly for independence from the Ibos since the 1950s.
The minority people within the East preferred to be free of Ibo domination by having states of their own as promised by the Federal government. But the Biafran leadership denied them the same right it claimed for itself vis-à-vis the rest of Nigeria, the right of self-determination and protection from victimization….
[Diamond] first exalts the Ibo people, with some justification, and then exalts Biafra, without considering that the two were not identical. True, there were minority persons within the Biafran leadership, but these were mostly "co-opted" (bought off) persons regarded as quislings by their own people.
Within the East, prior to secession and afterwards, there was no free expression of opinion by the minority groups, and Biafra was created without any democratic consultation of the minorities. Hand-picked "representatives" voted for secession or were locked up in Enugu. After the Biafran army had taken hundreds of hostages to its shrinking enclave it dared to call for a plebiscite in the victimized areas.
Reports of Biafran terror and intimidation to ensure "support" from non-Ibo areas never reached the American public because of the press's quick identification of the Ibos/Biafrans as the "underdog." I have missionary reports of burnings of villages (as many as 400 homes at a time), mass graves (sixty men, women and children buried alive at Ndiya), and massacre of non-Ibo civilians by Biafran forces. But these things made the Biafrans look more like Nazis than Jews and conflicted with our preconceptions about the situation. They were therefore given no publicity.
For Ibo secession (planned already in mid-July, 1966) to succeed, it needed to annex the territory of neighboring tribes and in particular to have the oil resources and facilities of Port Harcourt in Ijaw territory. I find in my estimation of the Ibos as a people no justification for the Lebensraum philosophy of the Biafra leadership or of the Anschluss of neighboring territory and people.
An indication of the antipathy felt by "fellow Biafrans" toward Ibo overlordship before and especially during secession was the terrible killing of Ibos in non-Ibo areas once the Biafran army was forced to retreat. Ironically, it was the Federal army which protected Ibo civilians from reprisals of their non-Ibo neighbors once the army had gained control of the areas. But this was never reported.
Non-Ibos objected to secession because they feared being "second class citizens" in an Ibo-majority Biafra. Mr. Diamond's article mutely confirms this objection. Ijaws, Efiks, Ibibios and other non-Ibos are as invisible in his reporting of Biafra as American blacks were in most reporting of the US until only recently….
Norman Thomas Uphoff
Department of Political Science
University of California
Stanley Diamond replies:
My critics take me to task for not doing what I did not propose to do. My intent was to locate the Biafran tragedy within the broadest possible historical and international context; in this light, the points they make (which I am well aware of and which I have dealt with elsewhere) are minor, misleading, and seriously misconceived.
Sara Berry's insouciance about the role of the Great Powers in the Nigerian civil war betrays a lack of subtlety. It is no longer a question of good old-fashioned nineteenth-century conflicting interests but of a single converging interest. Miss Berry does not seem to realize that the peoples of Nigeria and Biafra were subject to exquisitely detailed imperial power politics, with tragic implications for the whole of the third world. The victimization of Biafra, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, "totalizes" this assault, and represents the ultimate phase of colonial manipulation.
Moreover, as commentators of such divergent views as Richard Sklar and Auberon Waugh have pointed out, it is unlikely that the war would have been declared or, if declared, that it would have followed its tragic course, had the interests of the Big Powers not been decisive. In so critical an area as Nigeria, which attained formal independence as recently as 1960, imperial and internal dynamics can hardly be divorced from each other.
Miss Berry seems equally cynical about my analysis of the social character of the Ibo-speaking people, although it is not entirely clear whether she puts into question my analysis or their character. In support of my argument, I quoted four experienced scholars but could have quoted forty, both Nigerian and foreign. How else can one understand the differential behavior of groups of people except by engaging in cultural and historical analysis? And that means linking the past to the present in both continuity and discontinuity. I fail to see that the social character of the Ibo—the result of continuities in their underlying social system, developing ecological factors, and modern cultural influences—reflects "romantic images of western political utopianism."
Nor am I sure what my sophisticated critic means by "western political utopianism," but I suspect she refers to the tradition evolving from Rousseau through Marx. May I suggest to her, as an aside, that that tradition has been a revolutionary force of world-wide dimension. Rousseau did not naïvely believe in the possibility of a return to the largely hypothetical state of the "Noble Savage." Like Marx, Engels, and Morgan after him, he endeavored to understand the principles of primitive organization in necessary counterpoint to class-structured civilizations, both archaic and modern. It is obvious that Miss Berry has not grasped the revolutionary implications of Rousseau's insight, although leaders throughout the third world have.
She also fails to understand that an authentic pan-Africanism must be based upon the legitimate national aspirations of voluntarily associated peoples. Pan-Africanism can no more emerge from the colonially fixed cultural and geographical frontiers of Black Africa than could a united Nigeria, as we have learned. Like pan-Africanism, self-determination is not a mechanical principle indiscriminately applicable to all groups whatever their social context, nor can it be dismissed as just a "familiar notion," for it is a complex historical process, which is only now beginning to make itself evident, against the interests of the imperial powers and their African clients.
I have no difficulty in reconciling the prewar universalistic Ibo striving with the authenticity of their belief in a unitary state. The Ibo-speaking people were prepared to adopt the larger Nigerian identity, if the larger identity had proved workable. It is mischievous and inherently contradictory to confuse their readiness to become Nigerian with a "tribalistic" desire to dominate Nigeria. Such distortion is only one step away from rationalization for slaughter. As Miss Berry perhaps knows, when the Ibo and other Easterners were driven back to their homeland, they surrendered the notion of a united Nigeria and called for a loose federation, "until the wounds were healed." But this desire for what amounted to confederation, which had been the basic sense of the Aburi agreements reached early in 1967, was unilaterally abrogated by the central government; and that became a proximate cause of secession.
However, my correspondents consider most important the position of minority peoples in Biafra, an issue which they charge me with avoiding. It is relevant to note that Julius Nyerere, the President of multi-ethnic Tanzania, circulated a brilliant and comprehensive memorandum analyzing the over-all Nigeria-Biafra crisis at the September 1969 meeting of the O.A.U., in which he did not mention the Biafran minorities at all. One can hardly charge this humane statesman with either ignorance or callousness. We can only conclude that Nyerere felt that their situation accorded with his brief for Biafran self-determination. Similarly, my stress on the Ibo (who made up between 63 and 68 percent of the Biafran population) acknowledges historical reality, without prejudicial intent.
The fundamentals of the minority situation are as follows:
1. The peoples of Eastern Nigeria have been intricately interrelated, culturally, socially, and economically, for centuries: and they traditionally occupied contiguous areas. Indigenous Eastern Nigeria could be defined as an ethnological "culture area."
2. Since the nineteenth century in particular, migration, intermarriage, internal trade networks, and bilingualism have further blurred ethnic distinctions. Moreover, in the modern period, Easterners have been subject to similar modes of acculturation.
3. Indeed, the Willink Minorities Commission, appointed by the British government in 1958, prior to independence, in order to determine the status of minorities throughout the federation, concluded that there was no adequate basis for the formation of new political units within the Eastern region.
4. It is not surprising, therefore, that the massacres in the North victimized all Easterners—Ibo, Efik, Ibibio, Annang, Ijaw, and others. Perhaps one third of the 30,000 killed were members of the minority groups. As indicated in my article, Western, non-Ibo-speaking Nigerians were not molested. This lack of discrimination with reference to Easterners was also evident in the behavior of federal soldiers in occupied minority areas such as Bonny, and in the bombing of such areas.
5. In the Eastern region of Nigeria, there had been no record of violence directed by the majority against minority groups.
6. The 300-member Consultative Assembly of Eastern Nigeria and the Council of Elders and Chiefs voted unanimously for secession. These bodies were representative of the twenty provinces into which Eastern Nigeria, later transforming itself into the republic of Biafra, had been divided.
7. Eight of the provinces comprised minority areas; their chief administrators were members of the various minority groups. The system was designed for an extensive decentralization of powers in accordance with local custom, while securing national support in response to local needs. One purpose was to achieve even development throughout the nation, since uneven distribution of amenities (primarily because of physical isolation) had been a cause of local resentment in the former Eastern Region.
8. Maintaining civil order never became a problem in Biafra, despite the traumatic effects of bombing, hunger, and the largescale displacement of people. As K. W. J. Post, the respected expatriate scholar, who cannot be accused of pro-Ibo bias, pointed out (January 26, 1968, International Affairs), "…Even with the fall of Enugu, there were no widespread uprisings by the minorities against General Ojukwu, although he would hardly have had sufficient troops to fight the war and hold down five million people." (Indeed, in his article Post does not state nor otherwise imply that there were any such uprisings.)
Moreover, civil decrees, such as the calling in of the old Nigerian currency (which Lagos had nullified in January 1968) in return for "mere official receipts" were executed without disturbance. "If there were any considerable body of responsible opinion in Biafra against [the Regime], it could not have failed to gain publicity long before the present stage [Nov. 1968]." (Page 26 in document mentioned under #11.)
The unprecedented mingling of all groups and the settling of many minority peoples in the Ibo heartland during the course of the war was simply taken for granted. Nonetheless, the Biafran regime was unreservedly committed to plebiscites in any disputed areas within Biafra, or on the borders (as I wrote in my article), so that the people involved could determine their allegiance. It was proposed that these plebiscites be conducted under international (UN or O.A.U.) supervision, and with adequate safeguard against punitive retaliation.
9. The federal government rejected the plebiscite proposal, obviously because it implied the recognition of Biafra and the substitution of a democratic vote for force of arms. Had the plebiscites been held, a cease-fire would have had to be declared, neutral observers would have been on the scene, and the secession would have been revealed as a people's movement.
10. Instead, the federal government stuck to its unilateral division of the Eastern Region into three states as part of the federation-wide twelve-state proclamation of late May 1967, which had been an immediate cause of secession. The division of the East was done by administrative fiat and was clearly directed against the Ibo-speaking peoples of the Biafra heartland. "This was obviously," as K. W. J. Post has written, "an attempt to set the minorities in the East against the Ibo, and was rejected by the new Biafra." For example, the booming city of Port Harcourt (in recent years an oil refinery center), created by the Ibo, who made up the great majority of the population, and whose prosperity was due to Ibo enterprise and labor,  was awarded to the Rivers State. One of the rationalizations seemed to be that Port Harcourt had been built on land traditionally claimed by the Ikwerre, who are an Ibo-speaking people, but are not Ibo proper.
It should be noted, however, that the Ibo had been the largest population bloc in the Rivers area. Moreover, the Ogoni people, who inhabit the oil-bearing country between Port Harcourt and Opobo, were strongly pro-Biafran, as were the Ibo-speaking Opobos themselves. The boundary drawn by the federal government between the Rivers and the other two states carefully placed almost all the producing oil wells on the Rivers side. This meant that the Efik, Ibibio, and Annang of the Southeast State would derive no greater direct benefit from that particular reserve than would the Ibo of the East Central State. Such gerrymandering with national consciousness and national resources is hardly likely to prove successful in the long run.
11. In an authoritative and detailed memorandum on the background, cause, and consequences of the Nigerian civil war issued in November 1968 by more than sixty British subjects, including Sir Robert Stapledon, the last British governor of the Eastern Region (1959-60), it was concluded that of the 37 percent of the population which they estimated that the minority group represented in Biafra, only 10 percent would favor continued association with the federal government. The signatories of this widely circulated, but unpublished document, had spent a great part of their lives working in Eastern Nigeria (collectively from 1910 to 1968) as civil servants, missionaries, teachers, anthropologists, and in other capacities.
Their sober cry of conscience, which charged the Nigerian government (and the British Parliament) with evading the Biafran plebiscite proposal, was heard only after the war had continued for sixteen months, and because the resolve of the Biafrans had become clearly evident, along with the "terrible loss of life and destruction of property." The signatories who took pains to indicate that they were not expressing the "Biafran viewpoint" concluded on the issue of plebiscites:
Finally the signatories wish to emphasize that no solution, in their view, will be complete unless it provides for the holding of a plebiscite throughout the area of the former Eastern Region to determine the wishes of the people as to their future status. No reasonable person can deny that there is the strongest prima facie evidence to indicate that a large majority of the population have been profoundly alienated by the policies and actions of the federal government, and the reluctance of that government to agree to any form of plebiscite is in itself further evidence of the fact. The argument that a plebiscite would have been an inducement to disaffection and secession might have been maintained a year or two ago, but by the present stage, after two years of crisis, and a further 16 months of the most desperate civil war, such arguments have lost all plausibility.
12. The foregoing does not mean that there had been no honest sentiment—along with the opportunistic manipulation by northern and western political interests—for separate states expressed by certain minority representatives within the Eastern region of Nigeria during the first republic. But it is necessary to view this in the perspective of subsequent events, and also to ask the question, "what could those minority spokesmen who favored separate states have gained within the federation which their people could not have developed further in Biafra?" As K. W. J. Post put it, "…certainly their [the minorities] bargaining power would be greater as part of the smaller unit [Biafra], of some five million of them out of a total population of about 14 million." As indicated, the Biafran provincial system, negotiated with the localities, was designed to be sensitive to local custom and demand in Ibo, mixed, and minority sectors.
Certainly no one can rationally claim that every "tribal" or linguistic minority must become a politically independent nation, in Nigeria or elsewhere. The conditions for such political sovereignty (beyond the level of states or provinces) are: the natural association of peoples with a society that is defining itself as a nation; economic viability and interrelatedness; freedom for local growth; and a large majority dedicated to the struggle for political self-determination. Biafra met these conditions.
Mr. Elbert has no right to make his curious, if well-intentioned, statement that the Biafrans should have suffered "some forms of oppression" in the hope of reaching their "objectives by diplomacy in the future." The people who were to call themselves Biafrans had undergone every conceivable risk and penalty, and had made their complement of political mistakes, in the effort to achieve: 1) a unitary Nigeria; 2) a loose federation; and 3) in desperation, secession. Mr. Elbert should know that Colonel Ojukwu, as Governor of the Eastern Region, had advised his compatriots to return to the North after the initial pogrom and flight (summer 1966) in the vain hope of national reconciliation. The bloodiest pogrom was to occur the following September.
Having outlined the minority situation, I see no good reason for responding to the particular distortions and lurid allegations in Mr. Uphoff's letter. I doubt whether the Ibo-speaking people appreciate his praise. He confuses the victim with the aggressor, insinuates that the victim, in spite of his remarkable qualities, or perhaps because of them, deserved his fate. We have heard this sort of thing before. Even now correspondents in Hamburg inform me that Ojukwu is being compared to Hitler in the West German press (the Nigerian Regime drew the same analogy many months ago), and the Ibo are said to have deserved what they got. These paranoid rationalizations are part of the pathology of our time.
Direct reports from the former Biafran enclave (East Central State) indicate the following:
1) No systematic distribution of food and relief supplies is taking place; indeed no adequate effort is being made. This was already evident by the end of January. On the 24th the London Observer had reported that only eighty food distribution centers remained in the enclave; before the surrender there had been 3,000. David Taylor, an America expert quoted in Les Temps Modernes (Feb. 1970), estimated that 9,000 such centers were necessary to reach the population adequately.
2) Biafran currency has not been converted, nor is it accepted as legal tender. This works a particular hardship on the majority of impoverished peasants who must buy seed yams for the current growing season. A new cycle of hunger and dependency seems to have begun.
3) The more than 60,000 federal troops are billeted in secondary schools and private homes throughout the former Biafran enclave. Most if not all secondary schools are so occupied, prolonging the educational crisis.
4) Foreign correspondents are barred from Eastern Nigeria. Dispatches filed from Lagos on the situation in former Biafra are confused and contradictory.
The general policy seems to be one of attrition and isolation of the Ibo-speaking peoples in particular, with the promise of reward being held out for certain minority groups.
 "The history of Nigeria over the last twenty years does not suggest that the twelve-state pattern is likely to prove a much more satisfactory solution than Ironsi's decree of unification; if the latter precipitated tribal rivalries by the premature amalgamation of three major groups with totally different ideals and ways of life, the former seems to be in risk of foundering because it has tried to split a large and powerful group which is still essentially a unit and thinks of itself as such. Any further subdivision into a still larger number of states would merely serve to increase this risk; the smaller the states become, the less would be their effective power as entities, the more important, accordingly, would be the question of power at the center, and the more openly and forcefully would the major political and ethnic groups—Hausa-Fulani, Ibo, and Yoruba—make themselves felt as the only effective units with any true and lasting identity in the complex patchwork of Nigeria." (Page 22 in document listed under #11.)
Post states further that with the failure of Biafran secession, "…a restoration of the old spoils system is certainly on the cards. Similarly the northern leaders may emerge again, heading an axis of the six new states [in the north]; the old NPC [Northern Peoples' Congress] was always something of a coalition of local interests and there is no reason why this should not emerge again under some of the old leaders, probably those from Kano and Bornu."
 Dr. E. C. Schwartzenbach wrote in the Swiss Review of Africa (February 1968), on the basis of an interview with a Nigerian Commissioner, whom he described as "one of the most impressive of the present military regime in Lagos":
"The [Nigerian] war aim and solution…of the entire problem was to discriminate against the Ibos in the future in their own interest. Such discrimination would include above all the detachment of those oil-rich territories in the Eastern Region which were not inhabited by them at the beginning of the colonial period, on the lines of the projected twelve-state plan. In addition, the Ibos' movement would be restricted, to prevent their renewed penetration into the other parts of the country. Leaving them any access to the sea, the Commissioner declared, was quite out of the question."
 The Ibo, it should be noted, were "over-represented" throughout prewar Nigeria as skilled and semiskilled laborers, trade-unionists, and radicals.
 This document was distributed as an ad hoc statement by Peter L. Wood, Glebe House, Stockden, Shipnal, Shropshire.
 Post does not mean to imply that the minorities ever acted en bloc. Intra-minority tensions (e.g., Annang vs. Ibibio, or among Ijaw subgroups) certainly existed. And attitudes toward the Ibo proper also ranged from trust to suspicion. But these feelings were not of national consequence. They were the result of social circumstances, such as the differential distribution of scholarships, which were generated in the old Nigerian Federation, and which the Biafrans were determined to rectify.
 In the British memo quoted above, it is stated: "There can be no reasonable doubt that the massacre in the North, so concentrated and devastating in its effects, was an organized affair and that its purpose was to drive the Easterners out of the North…. The situation of the Easterners had become similar in many respects to that of the Jews in Nazi Germany; hated by the people they lived among, they were a target for every accusation, and provided a ready scapegoat for all inadequacies and complaints. The critics of the Easterners, of the Ibos in particular, attribute to them many faults; they have been called aggressive (ambitious and energetic, say the defenders), money-loving (thrifty), unscrupulous in grabbing advantages (quick to realize the value of education), and so on.
Each medal has its reverse. But, whatever the verdict, there can be no conceivable justification for what happened to the Ibos in the North in 1966. No objective consideration of their case can avoid the fact that, as rational and sentient human beings, they were made to feel themselves rejected by the most brutal possible means from the North and from Nigeria as a whole. The irony for Biafra was to be that, having seen her people driven out by the rest of Nigeria and hunted back to their homeland, she found Nigeria at war with her to preserve the integrity of a Federation where her people could no longer live." (pp. 15-16.)