The Biafra Story - Page 2


The Background

One of the main complaints made against the policy of the Biafrans, and in support of the Nigerian war policy to crush them, is that the breakaway of Biafra wrecked the unity of a happy and harmonious state, which General Gowon of Nigeria is now trying to restore. In fact, through all the years of the pre-colonial period Nigeria never was united, and during the sixty years of colonialism and the sixty-three months of the First Republic only a thin veneer hid the basic disunity.

By 30 May 1967, when Biafra seceded, not only was Nigeria neither happy nor harmonious, but it had for the five previous years stumbled from crisis to crisis and had three times already come to the verge of disintegration. In each case, although the immediate spark had been political, the fundamental cause had been the tribal hostility embedded in this enormous and artificial nation. For Nigeria had never been more than an amalgam of peoples welded together in the interests and for the benefit of a European power.

The first Europeans to make their appearance in today’s Nigeria were travellers and explorers, whose tales brought slave-traders in their wake. Starting around 1450 with the Portuguese, this motley collection of freebooters bought healthy young slaves from the native kings of the coast for re-sale. At first they were exchanged for gold in the Gold Coast, later shipped to the New World at a handsome profit. After the Portuguese came the French, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Germans, Spaniards and the British.

While the European slavers made private fortunes, several dynasties were founded on the African side and flourished on the profits from the role of middleman, notably at Lagos Island and Bonny Island. Penetration by the Europeans into the interior was discouraged by the coastal kings. Gradually other commodities were added to the slave trade, mostly palm oil, timber and ivory. In 1807 the British outlawed slaving and for the rest of the first half of that century British naval commanders supervised the coastal trading to ensure that the ban was effective.

Faced with the Hobson’s choice of concentrating on other commodities, the traders saw little reason in continuing to pay money to the native potentates, and urged for permission to press inland and deal directly with the producers. This caused great friction with the coastal kings. By 1850 a series of British consuls held office along the coast, and penetration had already started to the north of Lagos, in what is today Western Nigeria.

The most notable of these traders was Sir George Goldie. This colourful pioneer had, by 1879, succeeded in uniting the British merchants along the coast into a fighting front, not against the Africans but against the French who were their more natural rivals.

He and the local consul, Hewett, wanted the British Government to step in and declare the area of the Oil Rivers and the Lower Niger a British colony. The Liberal British Government, however, demurred, believing colonies in such places to be an expensive waste of time. Although this government had rejected the recommendation of the 1875 Royal Commission on West Africa, which called for withdrawal from existing colonies, it did not seem willing to set up any more. So for five years Goldie waged a two-front struggle – on the one hand ag

ainst the French traders whom he had finally bought out under pressure by 1884, and on the other against apathy in Whitehall.

But the mood in Europe changed in 1884. Germany’s Chancellor Bismarck, having previously been as lukewarm as Gladstone to the idea of West African colonies, called the Berlin Conference. In the same year Germany annexed the Cameroons, lying to the east of present-day Biafra. The point of the conference was ostensibly to enable Bismarck to back French and Belgian demands for a cessation of British activities in the Congo basin – activities being carried out by Baptist missionaries and merchants from Manchester and Liverpool. In this he got his way; the conference declared the Belgians’ Congo Free State to be the authority administering the Congo. Not wishing to push Franco-German collaboration too far, the conference had little hesitation in permitting Britain to be responsible for the Niger River. Goldie attended the conference as an observer.

The result of all this was the Berlin Act, which provided that any European country which could show that it had a predominant interest in any African region would be accepted as the administering power in that region, providing it could show that its administration was a reality.

But the British were still unwilling to saddle themselves with another colony. Accordingly Goldie’s company was in 1886 granted a ‘charter of administration’. For the next ten years Goldie pushed north, establishing a monopoly of trade in his wake, flanked by the Germans in the Cameroons on his right hand and the French in Dahomey on his left. Of the two Goldie feared the French more, the latter being led by the energetic Faidherbe whom Goldie suspected of wanting to cut across from Dahomey to Lake Chad and link up with other French interests moving north from Gabon. In 1893, largely by his own efforts, Goldie managed to persuade the Germans in the Cameroons to extend northwards to Lake Chad, foiling the French link-up and buffering his eastern flank. But by this time the French under Faidherbe had conquered all Dahomey and were pushing eastwards into present-day Nigeria.

Goldie had neither the men nor the resources to keep them out and sent heartfelt appeals to London. In 1897 the British Government sent out Sir Frederick Lugard, a soldier and administrator who had seen service in Uganda and Nyasaland. Within a year Lugard had pushed the French out of Nigeria and war with France threatened. The Niger crisis was settled by the Anglo-French agreement of June 1898, which established the basis for the new country’s borders.

Britain had gained a colony. It had not been conquered, it had not really been explored. It had no name, so later Lady Lugard gave it one – Nigeria.

It was a land of great climatic, territorial and ethnic variety. From the four-hundred-mile-long coast of tangled swamp and mangrove a belt of dense rain-forest ran inland to a depth of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty miles. This land, later to become Southern Nigeria, was split into an eastern and a western portion by the Niger River flowing south from its confluence with the Benue River at Lokoja. In the Western part of the south the predominant group was the Yoruba, a people with a long history of highly developed kingdoms. Because of the British penetration through Lagos, Western culture first reached the Yoruba and other tribes of the West.

In the eastern part of the south lived a variety of peoples, predominant among them the Ibos, who lived on both banks of the Niger, but mainly east of it. Ironically, in view of their later speedy development and progress which finally enabled them to overtake the other ethnic groups of Nigeria in terms of Europeanstyle development, the Ibos and the other peoples of the East were regarded as being more backward than the rest in 1900.

North of the forest line was the woodland, verging into savannah grass and prairie, and finally to semi-desert and scrub. Along the southern fringe of this enormous area runs the Middle Belt, inhabited by numerous non-Hausa peoples, mainly pagan and animist in religion, who were nevertheless vassals of the Hausa/Fulani Empire. The North proper was the land of the Hausa, the Kanuri and the Fulani, the latter having originally come south from the Sahara in conquest, bringing with them their Muslim religion.

Lugard spent three years subduing the North, conquering with his tiny force one emirate after another. The stiffest opposition was provided by the sultanate of Sokoto. Despite the greater numbers of the Fulani armies Lugard was able to depend on superior firepower, as expressed by Belloc in the couplet: ‘Whatever happens we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not.’ Lugard’s repeating-guns cut the Sultan’s cavalry to pieces, and the last bastion of the Fulani empire in Hausa-land fell.

Lugard forms the bridge between the haphazard trail-breaking of the merchants and missionaries and bona fide imperialism. Yet his was not the first empire in Northern Nigeria. Between 1804 and 1810 Usman Dan Fodio, a Muslim scholar and reformer, had led a jihad (holy war) against the Hausa kingdoms, and had subjected them to his Fulani kinsmen. What started as a crusade to clean up irreligious practices in Islam turned into a move for land and power. The Fulani Empire swept southwards into the land of the Yoruba. The movement of the jihad was stopped between 1837 and 1840 by the northward move of the British up from Lagos and came to rest at Ilorin and along the Kabba Line. Everything north of this line became Northern Nigeria, occupying three fifths of the land area of all Nigeria and having over fifty per cent of the population. The enormous preponderance of the North became one of the factors that later condemned the viability of a truly balanced Federation.

During Lugard’s wars against the Emirs, the latter were largely unsupported by their Hausa subjects who comprised, and still do, the great majority of the people of the North. Yet, when he had won, Lugard opted to keep the Emirs in power and rule through them, rather than to sweep them away and rule directly. It may be that he had no choice; his forces were small, the attitude of London indifferent, the area to be ruled was vast and would have required hundreds of administrators. By contrast, the Emirs had a nation-wide administrative, judicial and fiscal structure already in place. Lugard chose to permit the Emirs to continue to rule as before (subject to certain reforms) and maintained for himself only a remote overlordship.

Indirect rule had its advantages. It was cheap in terms of British manpower and investment; it was peaceful. But it also fossilized the feudal structure, confirmed the repression by the privileged Emirs and their appointees, prolonged the inability of the North to graduate into the modern world, and stultified future efforts to introduce parliamentary democracy.

Lugard’s idea seems to have been that local government would start at the village council level, graduate to the tribal council, from there to the regional level, and finally produce a representative national government. It was a neat theory and it failed.

For one thing the concern of the Emirs and their courts, like that of most feudal potentates, was to remain in power in conditions as unchanging as possible. To this end they set themselves against the biggest challenge to their own conservatism – change and progress. The obvious forerunner of these two is masseducation. It was no accident that in Independence Year, 1960, the North, with over half of Nigeria’s 50-million population, had 41 secondary schools against the South’s 842; that the North’s first university graduate qualified just nine years before independence. To the Emirs Western education was dangerous and they did their utmost to confine it to their own offspring or those of the aristocracy.

By contrast the South, invaded by missionaries, the precursors of mass-education, soon developed an avid thirst for education in all its forms. By 1967 when the Eastern Region pulled out of Nigeria it alone had more doctors, lawyers and engineers than any other country in Negro Africa. Missionary work in the North which might have eased that area into the twentieth century was effectively stopped by Lugard at the request of the Emirs when he pledged to discourage Christian apostolic work north of the Kabba Line.

In the sixty years from Lugard to Independence the differences in religious, social, historical and moral attitudes and values between North and South, and the educational and technological gap, became not steadily narrower but wider, until the viability of a united country which would be dominated by either area became impracticable.

In 1914 Lord Lugard amalgamated the North and South as an act of administrative convenience – on paper at least. ‘To cause the minimum of administrative disturbance’ (his own phrase) he kept the enormous North intact, and the two administrations separate. Yet he also imposed the indirect-rule theory that he had found worked so well in the North on the South, where it failed, notably in the eastern half of the South, the land of the Ibos.

The British were so concerned with the idea of regional chiefs that where there were not any they tried to impose them. The Aba Riots of 1929 (Aba is in the heartland of the Ibo) were partly caused by resentment against the ‘warrant chiefs’, men imposed as chiefs by the British but whom the people refused to accept. It was not difficult to impose measures on the Northerners, accustomed to implicit obedience, but it did not work in the East. The whole traditional structure of the East makes it virtually immune to dictatorship, one of the reasons for the present war. Easterners insist on being consulted in everything that concerns them. This assertiveness was hardly likely to endear itself to the colonial administrators and is one of the reasons why the Easterners came to be referred to as ‘uppity’. By contrast the English loved the North; the climate is hot and dry as opposed to the steamy and malarial south; life is slow and graceful, if you happen to be an Englishman or an Emir; the pageantry is quaint and picturesque; the people obedient and undemanding. Unable to run the newly installed offices and factories, the Northerners were content to import numerous British officials and technicians – one of the reasons why today there is a vigorous and vociferous pro-Nigeria lobby of ex-colonial civil servants, soldiers, and administrators in London for whom Nigeria is their beloved Northern Region.

But the gaps in society caused by Northern apathy towards modernization could not be filled by the British alone. There were posts for clerks, junior executives, accountants, switc

hboard operators, engineers, train drivers, waterworks superintendents, bank tellers, factory and shop staff, which the Northerners could not fill. A few, but only a very few, Yorubas from the Western Region of the South went north to the new jobs. Most were filled by the more enterprising Easterners. By 1966 there were an estimated 1,300,000 Easterners, mostly Ibos, in the Northern Region, and about another 500,000 had taken up jobs and residence in the West. The difference in the degree of assimilation of each group was enormous and gives an insight into the ‘oneness’ of Nigeria under the public-relations veil.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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