Biafra war (it was Unita)

David Altman altman_d at
Thu Dec 30 06:41:15 MST 1999

Néstor Miguel Gorojovsky wrote:

>Sorry, David, I do not remember that I have stated anything as
>regards the Biafra war. I do not agree with EVERYTHING Julio
>believes, as your confusion seems to imply!
>David is right, however, in a sense: Julio, Joao, Carlos, Nestor
>and other comrades on this list share both concrete experiences
>and a general theoretical framework that turns us quite
>suspicious of secessionist movements in semicolonial countries,
>particularly when backed by an imperialist oil company. Thinking
>of it in a cool temper, it sounds quite natural. In the
>particular case we are talking about, secession would have
>further fractured the Nigerian working class. I guess that this
>is what lies behind David's confusion (but I insist that up to
>now I had not said a word on Biafra).
>But well, now I am forced to give my own position. Here it is:
>if , as David himself seems to be saying, there were imperialists
>on both sides or backing both sidese (and this sounds very
>possible) the Biafrans wanted to further Balkanize Africa. I do
>still believe that Nkrumah was right: Africa must unite. So that
>I would have hardly given my support to the Biafran leaders.
>Other variables remaining equal, Balkanization in the Third World
>will always count on my opposition.
>I will resort to the Middle East example again: the independence
>of Israel was, among others, a move by the USA to expel the Brits
>from Palestine.  Accordingly, the Jordanian troops that fought
>against the Israelis were commanded by British officers (Glubb
>Pacha if I do not remember wrongly). Would you say, in this case,
>that since there were imperialists on both sides one would have
>supported poor little Israel, this tiny haven that the European
>Jews were trying to build after the Holocaust, against the
>corrupt Hashemite dinasty?  C'mon, David, you wouldn't.

My apologies, Néstor, but "Biafra," as you've probably guessed, is a
personal obsession of mine.  Since you bring up Nkrumah, he did believe in
African unity, but one based on the free and voluntary association of
Africans themselves.  In one of his letters from exile in Guinea, he writes
(and to my knowledge this is his only statement on the subject): "...Neither
Ojukwu [Biafran leader] nor Gowon [Nigerian leader at the time] are
socialist.  You see, the Yorubas and Ibos are capitalist inclined.  And
people like Azikiwe and Awolowo [first President of Nigeria and Premier of
the Western region, respectively] are the cause of the tragedy of Nigeria
today.  As for the north, they are feudalist pure and simple.  But the
trouble in Nigeria is not wholly tribal, it is the fusion of feudalism and
capitalism, the former introduced by the northern emirs and the latter by
the West.  Only socialism can break through all these tangled tendencies for
a 'one' Nigeria.  But it is too late now.  The way out now is for that
country to be divided into four independent separate states, all pursuing a
socialist pattern of development within the framework of an All-African
Union Government."

The late Nigerian musician & prominent Pan-Africanist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
also expressed support for the Biafran cause in the book "Fela Fela: This
Bitch of a Life" by Carlos Moore. I thought this was particularly notable
since Fela was not Ibgo.  His nationality, the Yoruba, overwhelmingly
supported the Federal side in the war.

Julius Nyerere, the father of Tanzania and probably the most respected
African leader who ever lived (save perhaps Mandela), also supported the
Biafran cause, bringing up the example of the union of Tanganyika & Zanzibar
to form Tanzania.  He stated that unity was a good thing, but not a unity
based on force.  He said that if Zanzibar wished to leave the Tanzanian
union, he would regret it, but could not force the Zanzibaris to stay.  In
his statement supporting Biafra, Nyererre made a clear distinction between
the imperialist-backed Katangan rebellion against Congo in the early '60s,
and the Biafran rebellion, which stemmed from internal grievences.

Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, another respected "frontline leader," also
supported Biafra.

I recently moved and all of my books are in storage, or I would give you the
exact quotes (the quote by Nkrumah was in another article in my hard drive).
  I bring these quotes up to refute the "big lie" promoted by the Stalinists
during the war, and which has since moved into left-wing "folklore," that
Biafra was nothing but an imperialist puppet state for the purpose of
"balkanizing" Africa.  I think I've made the case that it stemmed from
internal divisions within Nigeria, divisions which were the legacy of
British colonialism.  As for the "unity" of the Nigerian working class,
whatever unity there was disappeared when one group (the Igbo) were singled
out for pogroms and the (mainly Yoruba) leaders of the Nigerian Labour
Congress for the most part stood by and did nothing.

I don't see why, in the name of "African Unity," Africans must be compelled
to accept the artificial borders and divisions imposed on them by European
colonialism.  I think that in the future we will see more secessionist
movements (and unions of countries and territories), in Africa as Africans
decide for themselves how their affairs will be ordered. Isn't that what
"self-determination" means?

As for whether I think that's a good thing or a bad thing, it all depends on
the particular circumstances.  Marxists may not favor "Balkanization" in
principle, but they don't fetishize huge multinational states either,
particularly states based on force and bloodshed.

Lastly, your analogy of Israel doesn't make much sense to me. The Biafrans
were not fighting to take over somebody else's land. They sought
"self-determination" in the same land they had lived in for at least four
thousand years.  Of course, I wouldn't have supported Israel.  I do think,
though, that the European Jews' desire for "self-determination" after the
holocaust was reasonable.  They just should have sought that
self-determination at the expense of the people who had really oppressed
them, not the Arabs.

David Altman

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