The New Biafrans: Discussing Discontent

A recent CCW public lecture illustrates the complexities of academic analysis in an increasingly connected world. 

On March 8, 2016, Olly Owen’s public lecture for Changing Character of War (CCW) of drew unexpected attention. Owen, an anthropologist with Oxford’s Department of International Development, intended his discussion, The New Biafrans: Historical Imagination and Structure Conflict in Nigeria’s Separatist Revival, to be an exploration of history, memory, economics and politics in Nigeria’s southeast. The hope, Owen told CCW, was to prompt further investigation into the roots of the Nigerian independence movement, which has waxed and waned since the 1960s. 

“I think investigating history, and the role that history plays in explaining how people understand the present, is increasingly important,” Owen told CCW last Friday afternoon in his office in Oxford. Noting the revival of certain separatist factions in Nigeria, Owen added: “There is value in looking further into the drivers of radical movements … to prevent needless conflict and loss of life.”

Even before the event, however, the conversation, was recast, thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, by separatist discussion forums who publicised and reframed the presentation in terms supportive of, or at least sympathetic to, Biafran independence. Caught unaware, Olly Owen told CCW this was never his intention. Instead, he said the experience served as a clarion call about the unintended consequences of modern academic inquiry. 

“It really teaches you that in the era of the internet and diasporas, and as academics are being asked to talk to the real world more, we have to think about our own accountability,” Owen told CCW. “We aren’t just scientists looking through a microscope. There are other people looking back at us through the other end.”  

Biafra, if it is known outside of Nigeria, is usually associated with the 1967 Nigerian civil war  —a contest that turned deadly when secessionist protestors were met with a military blockade and a sharp escalation of violence. The war lasted two and a half years, and cost more than one million lives due to the war’s violence and the famine it induced. Inside Nigeria, however, Biafra came to signify much more. “Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal,” wrote Chinua Achebe, the famed Nigerian novelist in a 2012 memoir. “But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.”

Sensitive to this history, Owen said his lecture was also an attempt at “horizon scanning,” The project was an academic’s opportunity to explore discontents both past and present. Specifically, Owen focused on four potential drivers of the Biafran independence movement: the powerful role of history, memory, and myth; the economic conditions (specifically the impact on the informal sector); the perceived failure of electoral politics in Nigeria’s southeast; and broader changes in the patterns of national politics. The value of presenting with CCW, Owen said, was the opportunity to air these political questions in front of a diverse, academically-attuned audience. 

“Many people there were well-versed in comparative perspectives on political and military conflicts, and could draw interesting similarities between these kind of issues and those that crop up elsewhere,” Owen said. “These are the kinds of conversations you have to have early. By the time you are looking at a major security issue, it is too late.”  

That threat of instability is captured by the modern Biafran secessionist movement, connected to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group that has rallied around grievances linked to their continued sense of political marginalization. Frustration has led to flashpoints in recent months, including the arrests of prominent pro-Biafran activists. The most notable, the prominent pro-Biafran leader Nnami Kanu was detained on October 19, 2015.  As the director of Radio Biafra, the fringe, pro-Biafran media outfit based in London alleged to stoke separatist sentiment, Kanu’s arrest sparked renewed tension.  

“These are painful moments that whole societies have reacted to with silence,” Owen said, about the Biafran civil war. “Now, 50 years on, with a lifetime in between, people want to know what their stake in that history is. Things like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun, serve as the beginning such a conversation.” However, for some, this national soul-searching clashes with a wider Nigerian zeitgeist. 

“Nigerian debate is always future oriented. That’s the fantastic thing about Nigeria: it’s a country of plans with no shortage of dynamism,” Owen told CCW. The consequence, he added, is that people fail to see what history has to do with it. “That’s the instability of history. That’s unsettling power of history: History is not something you can just close the door on. It has a way of coming back.” 

The paper presented by Dr Owen at the CCW can be downloaded here.