In May 1967, a mere seven years after attaining independence from Great Britain, Nigeria descended into a civil war. The Eastern Region, one of the country’s three independence-era semi-autonomous divisions, which was predominantly populated by the Igbo people, had unilaterally seceded, under the name of Biafra, triggering an invasion by the Nigerian military.

By the end of the war, two and a half years later, nearly two million civilians had died, most of them from starvation, and up to four million others were displaced.

The result of the war was the total surrender and reincorporation of Biafra into Nigeria, under the motto of “no victor, no vanquished”. However, the issues that had caused Biafra’s secession were left largely unaddressed and unacknowledged. Fifty years on, a separatist movement still simmers in south-eastern Nigeria. It has boiled up sporadically over the last few years, in the form of attacks on police stations and other visible signs of state presence. It is slowly morphing into a guerrilla conflict, and no one’s to say another full-blown war is off the books.

The divisions and resentment that led to the Nigerian Civil War have deep pre-independence roots. They include the foolhardy British colonial decision to unify the Muslim-dominated north with the Christian-dominated south; the division of the south into two co-equal regions, which were nevertheless collectively outnumbered and out-represented by the north; the open predilection shown to the north by the colonial administration; the discovery of oil in the south; and the rush to unified independence against the reservations of leaders from some of the regions.

In a 2021 article for The Conversation, Dr Chikodiri Nwangwu, a political science lecturer at the University of Nigeria, argues that the current separatist movement is animated by modern analogues of the same old issues. The separatists accuse the Nigerian federal government of marginalising the Igbo area, by both limiting the flow of resources and infrastructural investment; and choking the region through a heavy military presence. The former is ostensibly motivated by the northern-dominated government’s continued disdain for the region and its people, and the latter by its victor’s complex over the defeat of Biafra.

The movement’s current face is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group founded in 2012 by Nnamdi Kanu. The group gained notoriety after Kanu seemed to call for the separatists to take up arms, though he and his allies insist that theirs is a peaceful movement. Following a spate of attacks on state installations and clashes with civilians, IPOB was designated as a terrorist organisation in 2017. It has since been targeted for repression by the Nigerian government, including through extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Kanu has been arrested twice, spending over a year without trial the first time.

However it is ultimately resolved, the issue of Biafran independence exemplifies, in a very tragic way, the absurdity of modern African nation-states, which colonial powers cobbled together from a patchwork of ethnic communities which had never had a prior collective corporate existence. In the independence era, they were thrust into the world, blinking new-borns, and left to fend for themselves, having, for their only unifier, a history of collective oppression.

What followed was a flurry of coups, secessions and civil wars. Millions died, and millions more were displaced. Few Africans liked everyone with whom they now shared territory. Yet today, with a few exceptions, the map of Africa looks almost exactly as it did in the independence era. Incredibly, these unwieldy ethnic chimeras, born for the convenience of colonialists from distant lands, heedless of the identities of those they carved up, have endured their baptism by fire.

To the extent that they have survived, they owe a lot to the decision of pan-Africanist leaders, who started the Organisation of African Unity (the precursor of the African Union) to settle for the borders left by the colonialists. The OAU’s founders resolved to only recognise African countries within their colonial-era envelopes. Any region that wanted to become a state had to not only justify its borders on colonial foundations, but also seek its independence through peaceful means.

In practice, of course, the only African countries that have successfully seceded and been recognised by the African Union (South Sudan and Eritrea) had to wage lengthy wars before referenda (the peaceful part) could be set up. Moreover, as we have seen, the decision to only recognise colonial boundaries did not prevent the strife that followed independence. But all this does not detract from the main effect it had: it froze the map of Africa, providing a path to stability.

This is not to say that I think the principle is fair.

I can enumerate dozens of reasons why it isn’t, starting from the simple fact that the idea of the nation-state rests on very flimsy foundations. Moreover, by taking the approach it took, the OAU stripped away the right of African peoples to self-determination. And, perhaps most offensively, as Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist for The Elephant, an online Kenyan publication, says, it is somewhat demeaning to think that we, so many years after independence, must heed our colonial legacy on such fundamental issues.

But I see the wisdom behind this unfair principle. As articulated by Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, in his widely-lauded speech addressing the then-imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the OAU’s founders weren’t blind to the historical legitimacy of African peoples’ desires for self-determination. However, without dismissing the complexity of the matter, they settled for a clean cut right through it, as Alexander the Great did with the Gordian Knot.

Their solution resisted the temptation to elegance, because elegance would have required the expenditure of a great amount of resources and infinite humility from all parties, both of which were in short supply. Recognising the minimal likelihood of agreement on any other approach, they settled for the most pragmatic one. And it’s as well they did: by forestalling the balkanisation of the continent, this decision probably saved more lives than all the post-independence wars took.

For this reason, though I sympathise with the Biafran cause, I cannot endorse it wholeheartedly. The goals it aims to achieve through independence, namely the de-marginalisation of the region and greater self-determination for the Igbo people, can as well be achieved without secession, especially through the reduction of corruption and a more sincere federalisation. And if independence must be had, then peaceful means must first be exhausted, which hasn’t happened.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.