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Nigeria’s first oil-cargo was exported in 1958 from the Oloibiri oil-field

(located in present day Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region), under the

 sponsor of the Shell-BP Development Company of Nigeria,



Books by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart Arrow of God / No Longer at Ease  / A Man of the People / Anthills of the Savannah

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Remembering Biafra: A literary review

By Chioma Oruh


In the quest of understanding the causations of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), otherwise known as the Biafran war, I stumbled upon an interview with Chinua Achebe, a prolific Igbo writer that is best known his book Things Fall Apart  (1958) that has earned over twenty honorary doctorates and several international literary prize.1

In understanding this brief yet complex war of the Eastern tribes of the colonial territory—which later became the Federal Republic of Nigeria—it was important for me to get under its skin, so to speak. Getting-under-the-skin of Biafra implies that there were causes much deeper than secession from the Federal Republic of Nigeria, yet in order to understand the struggle for a nation separate from Nigeria, it is critical to include the well known driving force of control over the oil territories and the policies that disenfranchised, and continue to disenfranchise, the various populations of Eastern Nigeria.

It is also necessary to understand the thick layer of the divide-and-conquer strategy, as used by the British, which stimulated negative relations and undermined any unity efforts that would have taken place between Nigeria and the proposed sovereign nation of Biafra.

Resting at the core of this getting-under-the-skin analogy is the cancer filled causation of corruption that assisted in the political and social unrest that attributed to the senseless massacres of the Igbo that lived in the North and Western regions of Nigeria—a major factor in the logical conclusion for the formation of the separate nation of Biafra.

All of these factors were addressed by this leading writer, poet, and intellectual, Chinua Achebe, in an interview conducted in 1968 by Transition—just a year into the three year arms dispute that was to follow the Biafran legacy, a dream tainted by bloodshed in the infancy of neo-colonialism.

Massacres in Nigeria

This interview started out with Chinua Achebe recounting the trauma he felt from the reality of war by stating, “you got used to sleeping with the sound of shelling and all the other things . . . I only realized how nervous I had become when I got out to London about three weeks ago. The first sound of an aeroplane I heard and my first reaction was to take cover.” 2 Shortly after this chilling prelude, he starts an even more devastating story of killing sprees that defined his life as an Igbo in post colonial Nigeria:

…between May and September 1966, there were massacres in Northern Nigeria, and not only in the North, but also in the West and Lagos. People were hounded out of their homes, as I was from my house in Lagos and we returned to the East…3

It is in this retreat to the East that Achebe reported as the involuntary organization that began the necessity for a separate nation of Biafra. According to Achebe, this necessity for a separate nation did not begin in an egotistic desire to divide and create a separate world for he mentioned that  “[Igbos] went out in the spirit of this experiment of one nation,”4 and that the settlement outside of the indigenous Eastern region was a voluntary move to work as one nation.

In further support of this argument, Achebe stated,

The original idea of Nigeria had its base from the leaders and intellectuals from the East, and they had, with all their shortcomings, this idea to build the country as one, and a long time this has been the paradox of the situation. It was the Easterners who were pressing for one Nigeria. The first people to object were the Yorubas. Awolowo came and created the Action Group on the basis that the sons of Odudu were the founders of the Yoruba people. Eventually the Northerners took it on and developed their own Northern Peoples’s Congress. This was supposed to be the national party, yet it refused to change its name from Northern to Nigerian People’s Party, even for the sake of appearances…So you had a possibility for tribal conflict accentuated by the power struggle in the political scene.5

The most devastating part of these massacres, as Achebe described, was the Nigerian governmental support against this movement to annihilate the Igbos,

…if it was only a question of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained. It happens everywhere in the world. But where you had a plan in detail—mass killing which the Government—the Army, the Police, the people where there to protect life and property— brought against the people they were supposed to protect—this is to me something quite terrifying.6

In another report of these massacres, more fittingly described as genocide, C. Odumengwu Ojukwu described in detail the events leading to the final retreat to the East,

From police reports, I know that the May, 1966, riots claimed more than 3,000 lives. Indeed, the police reports say 3,300. I know that on the first night in Zaria, Northern Nigeria, 670 people were killed. I know also that in Kano, also in the North, on the same day of the riot, we lost over a thousand people, including women and children. International Press Conference, Enugu. October 11, 1966 7

It is with these recounts that I began to question the true motivations that led to this seemingly obvious state-sponsored acts of violence, a trend that Africa will see time and again in the successive tragedies of Rwanda, Somalia and, most recently, in Sudan. It is here the excavation of layers of debris of understanding the effects of colonization begins for me, and with the help of Chinua Achebe (amongst other brave souls that took it upon themselves to tell this story), my comprehension is learned through Biafra.

Divide and conquer

The term ‘divide and conquer’, rooted in the Latin words divide et impera, can be understood in its modern usage in computer science as splitting a large system into manageable components.8 Ironically, this system that works well for the computer technology currently craved by contemporary African countries seeking development was a major tool of implementation and sustainability of colonial rule. As Walter Rodney describes in his famous book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1973):

…the gap in levels of political organization between Europe and Africa was very crucial. The development of political unity in the form of large states was proceeding steadily in Africa. But even so, at the time of the Berlin Conference, Africa was still a continent of a large number of socio-political groupings who had not arrived at a common purpose. Therefore, it was easy for the European intruder to play the classic game of divide and conquer. In that way, certain Africans became unwitting allies of Europe. Many African rulers sought a European ‘alliance’ to deal with their own African neighbour, with whom they were in conflict. Few of those rulers appreciated the implications of their actions. They could not know that Europeans had come to stay permanently, they could not know that Europeans were out to conquer not some but all of Africans. This partial inadequate view of the world was itself a testimony of African underdevelopment relative to Europe, which in the late 19th century was self-confidently seeking domination in that part of the globe.9

It is with this science that Biafra found itself a victim of divide and conquer. In Achebe’s reporting of the involvement of the former colonial master, Britain, during the Nigerian Civil War, he lamented that, “…my position would be that [Britain] has no right to supply arms to Nigeria, in these particular circumstances and especially on this scale.”10 In the truly invisible nature of divide and conquer, it was difficult to fully implicate the British as allies of the Nigerian Army as Achebe explained, “They will try to refute your charge by technicalities: they would say, for instance, that they are not sending any air force pilots or any Royal Navy personnel; they are merely sending them to the Nigerian Navy or Air Force.”11

The strategy of divide and conquer was also used in efforts to build divisions between the various tribes of Eastern Nigeria. As Achebe responded to a question posed about the alleged ill-treatment of non-Igbo groups that reside in the Eastern region,

A very good example of propaganda. Rather than go into any special pleading, I have made the position quite clear, if anyone thinks that these minorities would rather not go among the Biafrans, it is quite a simple procedure to go and ask them through plebiscite, and if they want to go with Nigeria…my own personal belief is that if you did hold this plebiscite you would find that these people would not want to go with Nigeria.12

Unfortunately, divide and conquer continues to play an active role in Nigerian politics as there has not been a president from the East since before the Biafran War and this continues to inspire organized efforts at secession such as the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) due to charges of discrimination and marginalization as evident in federally mandated policies towards issues that concern Eastern Nigeria.13

The oil factor

Nigeria’s first oil-cargo was exported in 1958 from the Oloibiri oil-field (located in present day Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region), under the sponsor of the Shell-BP Development Company of Nigeria, jointly financed by the Royal Dutch Shell group and British Company.14 Shortly following this discovery, the Nigerian government granted 10 oil exploration licenses to five companies—Shell-BP, Mobil Exploration Nigeria Incorporated, Amonsea, Texaco and Nigerian Gulf oil—and in 1965 commissioned the first oil refinery to be located at Port Harcourt, also in the Eastern region of Nigeria.15

By the beginning of the Biafran war, Nigeria was already a major oil producing nation with its production of more than 152 million barrels per annum being extracted from the Eastern region.16 The desire to keep control of this lucrative oil business was a motivating factor for the British involvement in supplying Nigerian Army with arms against Biafra.

Achebe explains his belief that oil was a major factor in the arms struggle in Nigeria,

"…Well, I think there are many economic reasons. It is probably clear to them that Nigeria will be the worse for not having the place now called Biafra, not only in terms of natural resources but in human resources. But more, there is the glamour with oil. I think this is by far the most important reason…"17

Unfortunately, Achebe’s assertions would be proven correct and made evident in the policies taken after the end of the Biafran War. In May of 1971, a year after the end of Biafra, the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) was set up as a government agency empowered to engage in all phases of oil industry from exploration to marketing—this being a formation of a powerful governmental union between the ministry of petroleum and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).18

By the mid 1980s, under the leadership of the military leader President Babagida, NNPC would re-organize itself into six semi-autonomous units known as sectors in a bid to privatize oil and under the pretenses of encouraging revenue, Nigeria would sell oil at a cheaper rate than other member of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries)—hence making way for inflation that has led to the disparities of lack of economic compensation in the present day conflicts in the Niger-Delta region on claims that the indigenous tribes are not receiving reparations for the privatized oil drilling by foreign corporations.19

Biafra: A dream tainted by blood

Towards the end of the interview, Achebe remembered the enthusiasm that came as a result of Tanzania recognizing Biafra as a sovereign nation. He recounted, “it was a fantastic day . . . the streets were filled with people dancing and singing. For the first time in months you found dancing again, and the radio was playing Tanzanian music . .  the gesture meant nothing in military or material terms but it assured us—the effects it had on us—was electric.”20

It was with this innocent desire for autonomy that inspired millions of tribes-people of Eastern Nigeria to believe in this liberation and waited for the world to support them in their desire for freedom and independence…a call that would be answered in trickled and faint responses. As Ojukwu reported,

The Biafran problem, to most major powers, is a nuisance. They would rather not have to deal with it in a world already gripped with the Vietnam War, economic crises, monetary crises, election fever here and there. There is an initial resentment against Biafra for leading them into another problem when they have got so much to deal with…" Address to delegation of World Council of Churches, Umahia, March 28, 1968.21

Biafra was isolated. There were only five countries in the world that officially recognized Biafra: Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia.22

A big part of this isolation was due to the lack of media coverage of this case due to the state-sponsorship of the atrocities towards the people of the East, particularly the Igbos. Achebe recounted the bombing in the center city of Aba that happened in the presence of twenty foreign journalists just arriving and how that event broke the news and successive international protests at the injustice imposed on the people of the East.23

As a descendant of two ex-Biafran soldiers, my mother and father, this story stings with the remembrance of a tragic time in our people’s history. However difficult of a subject that this matter may be, it is necessary to remember how situations like this arise so as to be part of efforts to stop them from happening again. Unfortunately, Africa finds herself in many other conflicts that resemble Biafra and it is with this knowledge that I take the time to remember the root causes that stem in public policies towards certain groups, primarily on ethnic bases.

As Biafra served as the sound bell for one of the most tragic consequences of the colonial tool of divide and conquer in its neo-colonial manifestation, so must of its memory serves as a reminder that in 2007 African nations still suffer from this type of seemingly invisible rule.

As Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, prophetically noted the five points of neo-colonialism in 1965:

•It continues to actively control the affairs of the newly independent state

•In most cases neocolonialism is manifested through economic and monetary measures. For example the neocolonial territories become the target markets for imports from the imperial centre(s)

•While neocolonialism may be a form of continuing control by a state's previous formal colonial master, these states may also become subjected to imperial power by new actors. These new actors include the United States or may be international financial and monetary organizations

•Because of the nuclear parity between the superpowers, the conflict between the two takes place in the form of "limited wars." Neocolonial territories are often the places where these "limited wars" are waged.

•As the ruling elites pay constant deference to the neocolonial masters, the needs of the population are often ignored, leaving issues of living conditions like education, development, and poverty unresolved.24

The consequences of going against the grain of neo-colonialism were expressed by Chinua Achebe in his concluding statements at the end of this published interview on Biafra as he affirmed, “I have no intention of being placed in a Nigerian situation at all. I find it untenable. I find the Nigerian situation untenable. If I had been a Nigerian, I think I would have been in the same situation as Wole Soyinka is – in prison.”25

It is with this reflection on neo-colonialism that I also conclude this review with the hopes in remembering Biafra because I realize my part in the efforts to recognize the bigger picture of what has gone wrong for Africa since the 1960s, the supposed era of independence. This remembrance is not aimed at the continuous tensions inspired by divide and conquer tactics but as an invitation to look at Pan Africanism despite the scars and wounds with sympathy towards all other African nations that have fallen prey, and continue to fall prey, to the divisive effects of neo-colonialism.


1] “Chinua Achebe Profile” BBC Chinua Achebe.

2] "Chinua Achebe on Biafra” by Achebe, Chinua. Transition No. 36 (1968), pp. 1-38. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

3] Ibid, pp. 32.

4] Ibid, pp. 32.

5] Ibid, pp. 33.

6] Ibid, pp. 35.

7] “On Genocide,” Random Thoughts of C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, General of the People’s Army by Ojukwu, Chukwuemeka O. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Incorporated, 1969.

8] Divide et Impera: A Computational Framework for Verifying Object Component Substitutability by Nordhagen, Else K. Olso, Norway: University of Oslo, Department of Informatics, November 1998.

9] “Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment: 4.4 The Coming of Imperialism and Colonialism”. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney, Walter. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1963.

10] Achebe on Biafra, pp. 35.

11] Ibid, pp. 36.

12] Ibid, pp. 37.

13] Biafra Land.

14] “Oil Policy in Nigeria: A Critical Assessment” by Nwaobi, Godwin Chukudum. Abuja: Quantative Economic Research Bureau, 2005.

15] Ibid.

16] Ibid.

17] Achebe on Biafra, pp. 33.

18] Oil Policy in Nigeria, 2.0 “Nigeria’s Oil History.”

19] Oil Policy in Nigeria, 3.0 “Oil Policy Evaluation.”

20] Achebe on Biafra, pp. 37.

21] “On the World,” Ojukwu.

22] Biafra Land.

23] Achebe on Biafra, pp. 35.

24] “Neocolonialism” by Yew, Leong, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme of Singapore. Scholars.

25] Achebe on Biafra, pp. 37.

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Chioma Oruh is a Doctoral student at Howard University in Washington DC.  (31 October 2007)

Source: Pambazuka / Maps source: Encarta--Republic of Biafra

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Remembering Biafra--Uchenna Izundu talks to musician and actor, Ben Okafor

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Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (1933-2011). The man who will always be remembered as the face and voice of the attempted Biafran secession from Nigeria in the 1960s. He was a master of vocal expression, though prone to moments of grandiloquence. But he had his moments of effective understatement. I recall an interview conducted in Paris during the 1970s. A British reporter, I think Frederick Forsyth,... was reading him a verbatim account of what his rival Lt. Colonel Gowon had told him at the time was his opinion of his fellow colonel, Ojukwu: "I know Ojukwu. We both served in the same army and I can tell you that he is ambitious. He really cannot be trusted . . ."

It is a fairly lengthy personal indictment. The segment starts which archival footage of Gowon speaking before the reporter completes the words and puts it to Ojukwu. A pause ensues which is then punctuated by a ball-puff of exhaled smoke before Ojukwu replies, almost lazily: "We had a war in Nigeria. Gowon was on one side. I was on the other. That really is all there is to it."—Adeyinka Makinde

Ojukwu's thinking was excellent, but his actions were premature; though most of today's suffering were caused by Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi and Nnamdi Azikiwe; Onyeka is a rare gem and he knows what pain means.—Francis Adie Ushie

posted 30 November 2007

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.

"Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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Home   Transitional Writings on Africa   The African World   Igbo Marriage   Uche Nworah   / Ugochukwu

Related files: Ojukwu  Reading Rose Ure  Mezu   Achebe Preface  Achebe Introduction   Mezu and Achebe: An Inside Knowledge     Achebe Another Birthday in Exile 

Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya  Women in Achebe's World  Okonkwo's Curse  Achebe's Female Characterisation