From war in Biafra to the conflict in the Niger Delta

9 May 2012

Professor Edlyne Anugwom of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is working on a project entitled "From Biafra to the Niger Delta Conflict: Memory, Ethnicity, and the State in Nigeria". We asked him to talk about his country, which is suffering not just from the current conflict but also, it seems, from denial of the past as well.

Professor Edlyne Anugwom is understandably stressed. At present he doesn't have an office on campus, his computer's misbehaving, and now he's just been asked to take time out and explain his research project in Mainz entitled: "From Biafra to the Niger Delta Conflict: Memory, Ethnicity, and the State in Nigeria".

"Let's go to the café next door," he says with a smile. So, despite all his own annoyances, he decides to find the time to talk about the major problems his country is facing.

Poor in everything except oil reserves

Nigeria doesn't seem to be able to find lasting peace. The most populous country in Africa has the richest oil reserves in the Niger Delta yet remains one of the poorest regions in all of Africa. There have been conflicts here for years. Happily, it does seem that democratization is gradually getting the upper hand after the dictatorships of the 80s and 90s. That's a ray of light – isn't it?

Anugwom frowns and concentrates. He needs to consider carefully before answering. "There are three regions of Nigeria, with three main ethnicities: to the north, the Haussa; to the west, the Yoruba; and to the east the Igbo." The rest of what he tells us deals mainly with the peoples in the north and east, in the Niger Delta.

"After gaining independence in 1960, our national government was weak. Democracy was based primarily on ethnic association." The political power lay in the north, with the Haussa. In 1966, several young officers, most of whom belonged to the Christian Igbo people, staged a coup during which Prime Minister Abubaka Tafawa Balewa was murdered. "The people in the north weren't happy about it." A countercoup deposed General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the leader of the first coup, who was then executed.

War for Biafra

"At that time many Igbo still lived in the north. Then came ethnic cleansing against them. 30,000 people died. Women and children in particular," explains Anugwom, himself an Igbo. "The outside world did nothing; it just stood and watched."

On 30 May 1967, after the ethnic conflicts had wound down, the military governor of the east, Chukwuemaka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared his region independent. He had barely had time to declare the existence of the new state of Biafra before Nigerian troops crossed the Niger. A three-year war was launched, costing at least one million lives and ending with the reintegration of Biafra.

"For the British, post-liberation Nigeria was a model experiment. They wanted it to be one single state." Oil from the Niger Delta had already been bringing in money during their reign as colonial masters. "But it wasn't that much." A unified Nigeria seemed a guarantee for uninterrupted exploitation of the mineral resources.

Anugwom jumps forward several decades – the military dictatorships, increasingly intensive oil drilling – and lands in the present. For several years there's been unrest in the Niger Delta.

Environmental catastrophe in the delta

The oil drilling led to an environmental catastrophe. "Many tributaries have become so polluted that nothing can survive in them. The local people have to take their canoes out onto the ocean, but their boats aren't designed for that." Earnings from oil went half to the region and half to the central government until 1970, at which point the relationship was drastically altered. "Today the region receives just three percent." Young people in particular have been protesting about this situation in recent years. They started to arm themselves, and the military responded.

"Inside the country, it is claimed that this is a new, different conflict." But Anugwom sees it differently. For him the crisis in the delta is closely tied to the Biafra war. "In both cases it was young people that were staging protests." The government is actively attempting to prevent people from recognizing the parallels: "The violence against the Igbo, the Biafra war – these are never mentioned. Kids are not told about these in school." This is no way to deal with the past, let alone achieve reconciliation.

Sadly, none of this seems to bother the ruling party. They continue to play the ethnic card indiscriminately whenever it suits their purposes. "The political class is misusing ethnicity for its own purposes." The religions are being exploited in a similar manner. The Muslim north is played off against the Christian south and east.

A cowed opposition

"Their only purpose is to ensure that they retain power and wealth. Support for the governing People's Democratic Party (PDP) is consistently around the 70-percent mark, meaning that opposition groups have no chance to gain influence. And the PDP maintains its support by means of intimidation and bribery."

The fact that with President Goodluck Jonathan a man who is well-disposed towards the Igbo currently holds the top position in the government means little to Anugwom. The north typically provides the presidents and the Niger Delta the vice-presidents. A power vacuum developed after the sudden death of President Umaru Yar'Adua in 2007. As called for by the constitution, Vice-President Jonathan ascended to the presidency.

No bastion of hope

"He's a weak president. The people around him dictate what he does." Nothing has changed on the political scene; the only aim of those in power is still to cling on to power."

Anugwom was forced to leave his country. One evening two men appeared in his hotel room and told him: "If you don't intend to eat with us, you'd better get out." He got out. Two years ago he came to Mainz. His research work, which is being funded by a Georg Foster Research Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, will soon be completed. At which point he'll likely be on the move again. "The Igbo people do tend to wander," is all he says.

Photo exhibition

Until September 16, 2012, a photo exhibition entitled "Letzte Ölung Nigerdelta. Das Drama der Erdölförderung in zeitgenössischen Fotografien" ("Last rites for the Niger Delta. The catastrophe of oil extraction in contemporary photographs") will be on view in Munich's State Museum of Ethnology. Images from the affected region attest to the ecological and social tragedy and illustrate the consequences of oil drilling in the Niger Delta. The visitor is given direct insight into local conditions in the areas producing oil and provided with visual evidence of the dilemma of the Delta region: The people there often have to live without electricity in their own homes, yet are repeatedly exposed to the destructive power of uncontrolled pipeline explosions.

The State Museum of Ethnology in Munich kindly placed two images of the exhibition at JGU MAGAZINE's disposal to be used in this article.