Dr. Samuel Fury Childs Daly on the sources of Biafran History

Guest post by Samuel Fury Childs Daly, Rutgers University.

In recent years, historians have begun to revisit a set of questions that Nigerian politicians and intellectuals first posed in the aftermath of Biafra’s defeat. What internal tensions and fault lines had led Nigeria to war? How could the violence of the conflict be represented accurately, and what were the ethics of trying to do so? How had Biafra shaped the practice of humanitarianism and the international politics of the day? Underpinning these questions (and others) is the methodological challenge of how to narrate the contentious events of the Nigerian Civil War, and from which sources.

Scholars of the war have a large but fragmentary body of sources at their disposal. Some read Biafran and Nigerian propaganda “against the grain” for information about what was going on in their respective governments, or use it to understand how the belligerents made their cases to the outside world. Others have written the war’s history from diplomatic records, or from the public and private writings of foreign journalists. Their accounts are thoughtful and detailed, but diplomats and journalists often misinterpreted what they were seeing – many were shown Potemkin villages by the Nigerian and Biafran armies, for example, and only the most astute of them realized that their view of the war was being curated by their hosts. Oral history underpins some of the most detailed accounts of the war. Interviews have revealed dimensions of the conflict not visible in official and formal accounts, and they give a sense of how ordinary people experienced the fighting. The most widely-known interpretations of the war are derived not from documents or interviews, but from life history and the literary imagination. As the contributors of a recent book on Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War (Toyin Falola and Ogechukwu Ezekwem, eds., 2016) convincingly argue, fiction and memoir have been the most influential genres of writing on the war since its end. Public perceptions of Biafra, both within Nigeria and elsewhere, continue to be shaped by works like Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra and the war memoirs of Alexander Madiebo, Olusegun Obasanjo, and others.

Writing the history of Biafra from any other vantage point entails seeking out sources that are concealed, partial, and scattered. My own work makes use of a body of legal and administrative records from wartime Biafra preserved haphazardly in courts, government agencies, and archives in eastern Nigeria. Using cases from the Republic of Biafra’s courts, I examine how the secessionist state was governed and how armed robbery and other criminal activities became means of survival there. These cases reveal how Biafrans and their government negotiated what kinds of survival tactics, many of them “criminal,” were permissible or ethical in the context of the war and the humanitarian crisis attending it. Biafra’s courts also became a space where individuals could assert themselves as moral actors in the face of political disorder and enormous humanitarian strain. The war shaped Nigeria’s postcolonial experience profoundly. As in many conflicts, acts of violence and deception became ordinary – in some cases honorable – when surviving and winning the war trumped all other considerations. When the fighting ended in January 1970, the practices that Biafrans had used to endure the war did not end with it. In the years that followed, fraud and armed violence would become major features of life in reunified Nigeria. Biafra had declared independence in the name of preserving law and order, but the result of the war was to create conditions in which forms of illegality that would later become endemic – forgery, armed robbery, and the body of fraudulent activities known as “419” – could take root. This history does not feature in the best-known accounts of the war, but Biafra’s state records reveal a meaningful connection between crime and the conditions of the battlefield.

Samuel Fury Childs Daly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Mellon Sawyer Seminar “Ethical Subjects: Moralities, Laws, Histories” at Rutgers University. He is currently writing a book on law and crime in the context of the Nigerian Civil War. His recent work includes:

“The Survival Con: Fraud and Forgery in the Republic of Biafra, 1967-1970,” The Journal of African History 58, 1 (Mar. 2017): pp. 129-144. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021853716000347

“Archival Research in Africa,” African Affairs 116, 463 (Jan. 2017): pp. 311-320. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adw082