When one thinks of Nigeria, often the first things that come up are the music, the food, and the enigmatic energy of its people. To Nigerians, the first thoughts may often stray to corruption of government officials, strikes, increasing violence of oil, but an inexplicable beauty of a land they call home. The last thing on many peoples minds, whether a native or not, is Nigeria as a site of black liberation. Post-colonial Africa outside of the context of South African apartheid does not elicit the same feelings of racialized injustice that the physicality of the white gaze in nations in which whiteness goes unquestioned as foreign. However, the colonial relationship of many African nations casts it in a racial system of oppression that functions in a different way. The racialization of black Africa gets at the mental decolonization that Frantz Fanon points to.
Fully aware that this mental subjugation of the black mind and capacity was at the heart of the colonial system, the Biafran War functioned as an unrecognized turning point in Nigerian and African history.
Moving from an artificially constructed British colony to an independent Nigerian state, Nigeria had to fight to create an understanding of itself outside of its colonial master. The Nigerian Civil War or Biafran War became the fight for Nigeria. It became more than a fight for an understanding of what it means to be Nigerian. For an Igbo ethnic group that felt a strong ethnic discrimination, it became a critique of colonial power; it signified a fight for representation and became the manner in which the subaltern could gain a voice. In a speech given at the Biafran People’s Seminar, C.O. Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, noted the importance of Biafra as a movement. In his mind, Biafra was a call for liberation not only from the hands of Nigeria but also functioned as a black struggle that aimed to renegotiate the power differential between the black man and white man:
“If we fail, the white man, who has been so surprised by our movement, the white man, who has entirely miscalculated every facet of this struggle, will have garnered a new range of knowledge about the potential of the black man and prepared himself to combat us should we ever again rear our ugly head. We owe it, therefore, to Africa not to fail. Africa needs Biafra. Biafra is the breaking of chains. It is not enough to just fight the Nigerians or their friends. We have to fight as a starting point of the African revolution…If the revolution fails, we do a disservice to our race.”
Manhood, especially white manhood, has served as platform through which the nation was been understood: “That is, to describe and subsequently critique the idealized concept of ‘white manhood’; moreover, to recognize not only its power as the dominant ‘representative’ identity in the United States, but also its defining capacity as a fundamental determinant and exemplar of the nation.”(2) This understanding of representation and the politicization of the nation through the white male figure is not limited to the US context but has a broader hold as result of Western hegemony. The emphasis on man in his speech highlights the normativity of masculinity in the establishment of nationhood and becomes a signifier to the question of sub-colonization by the subaltern to other subaltern groups: “...it is a question of whether the subaltern can act as a semi-sovereign colonial agent in the orbit of European imperial hegemony, and whether we can ascribe a rational, fairly autonomous colonial agency to African inside the deterministic ambit of colonial subjugation.” (3)
While the black man seeks to establish himself as sovereign, his understanding of this fight ignores the ways in which he too serves as oppressor.
While considered a western liberal concept, the nation is very much entrenched with modes of masculine normativity at its root. Like the family, the nation is the nucleus through which a people come together. The Christian motif of male dominance in the family context and female helper status is something that is replicated in the liberal proliferation of nationhood that has spread across cultures. The inextricable link between religion and nationhood in this sense cannot be lost. This recurring concept then reproduces itself in the increasing globalization of Western ideologies that have spread as a result of forms of colonialism. The Igbo identity and its stronghold with the Christian religion is one that functioned to reinforce these understanding of gender. The Igbo peoples were one of the first groups within Nigeria to noticeably develop a relationship with the Christian religion and still to this day maintain one of the strongest ties to the religion. While an original hesitation towards Christianity by the Igbos can be noted in works like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, there was an eventual acceptance:
“As the records reveal, however, it was in the period following the extension of British political authority into the Igbo country that missionary evangelism prospered. Prior to that time, in fact, it may be safely said that most Igbos treated missionary propaganda with ‘respectful indifference’….To most people, therefore, it became quite obvious that those who were associated with the Christian missionaries received preferential treatment. Fear and insecurity coupled with the realization that Christianity had suddenly become a badge of honor, persuaded many people then to reconsider their position vis-à- vis the Christian mission.”
Christianity in many ways in the Igbo culture became a status symbol and following the Christian tenets only added to the devotion and public display associated with being a Christian Igbo person, particularly a man. This continued connection between the formation of the man, status, and the Christian religion are explored in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. The novel grapples with this tension that exists between the public and private space, with the main character documenting the status her father has not only as a businessman but a man of the Church and how that coincided with his role as the head of the household. The mother consistently reduces herself in an effort to let her husband assume his natural role at a cost to her own self-worth and dignity. The family is the building block to the nation, and this necessarily follows this tradition of norms of masculinity that in many ways inhibit full female participation. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun is filled with the tension between masculinity and nation-building. While in private Olanna and several other women can gather, join the men and legitimately talk about politics, war, and violence, their voices are limited to the private sphere. Like Purple Hibiscus this idea of acceptability between the private and public sphere perpetuates the strength and importance of particular voices. The man must be the man at all cost and this cost is often associated with a religious notion of the male role.
The woman, while given some freedom within the private sphere, is limited in her association with nation building in the public.
As Olanna listens, on the radio, for news from Biafran officials, all she hears are the voices of men who are given legitimacy in society as a function of their maleness to speak on such topics in a public forum and the actions taken by men to deliver a people to freedom. In continuing with the role of Christianity and Igbo culture, it is important to note how it allows people to frame themselves. The Igbo identity is one that has, to some extent, been framed around its likeness to the persecution faced by Jews. In the face of persecution by their government, the Igbo adopted this claim of understanding themselves as a chosen people, the “Jews of Africa”. This is still evident today in regards to the documentation and perpetuation of Zionism in Igbo-land. Though Chinua Achebe would disagree in the comparison between the Jewish and Igbo question in terms of the establishment of a homeland, it cannot be lost the similarity by the Igbos for liberation in conjunction with the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel. In an interview he states:
“There is a difference- the Jews for thousands of years were always thinking of their return. It’s not the same with the Ibos; they were not pushed out of their original homes to begin with. There was no dispersion. They went out in the spirit of this experiment of one nation. There was nobody who told them you must leave your territory. They went out, and many of them decided to settle out-side for good, and you found quite a number of people in the North would never return to the East…It is not like the Jewish problem. We are forced back.”
Whether forced back or searching for a lost home, there is a victimization involved in the proliferation of nationalist sentiments. This idea of nationhood through victimization is one that provides for a framework through which those understood as the subaltern can engage in the process of sub-colonization. In the Edward Said piece, “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” he notes the significance of displacement in examining Zionism and its place in the Middle Eastern context. This displacement “of peoples, other ideas, prior legitimacy,” notes the hegemonic power imbalance that exists among groups. (6) The piece begins with two quotes from Walter Benjamin and Gramsci respectively, that notes the importance of historical recognition in one’s understanding of self. In examining Biafra from this standpoint, Biafra is a movement that understood itself in simply liberatory terms and denied that it too was a process of the colonial historiography that created the space for the need for Biafra. Biafra was a tool for a reclamation of identity for the Igbo people; it was a way of humanizing themselves. However the process of humanization did not fully consider how it benefited the “ruler”.
The masculinity in war and the perpetual need to assert one’s humanity through the masculinization process of rationality and physicality denied the Igbo woman an entrance into this fight for a reclaiming of humanity.
The Igbo man, the black man is fighting for the ability to rule himself. As noted by the aforementioned speech by Ojukwu, the black man is in a constant battle with the white male a means of trying to legitimize himself as someone who is worthy, valuable, and capable. With the white man being the pinnacle of the masculine being, the black man must prove himself. Biafra as a nation-seeking entity is a mechanism through with the black man, the Igbo man is defeminizing himself and proving his masculinity to his former white male ruler. As a result of this, he perpetuates this notion of black female subjectivity and asserts that liberation is his alone. The black woman, the Igbo woman must find another means through which she can establish her own humanity or reclaim her own identity. This means is confined to what she has already been relegated to, that of the nurturer:
“Women were not represented in the political structure of government, and their once representative voice in politics paled in the face of other pressing matters and the constraints of the war. Notwithstanding the lack of direct and visible involvement in the political arrangement, in other arenas of the war effort, such as organizing the kitchens and transport for the Biafran forces, energizing the land army effort (to beef up food cultivation), collaborating with the International Red Cross, Caritas, the World Council of Churches, and other relief agencies, helping to transfer sick children for treatment to friendly countries overseas that had recognized Biafra, establishing schools for children, and keeping the markets open and the food supply trickling in despite the blockade, the women made a systematic effort, in their words, to ‘prevent the Nigerian vandals’ from overrunning Biafra.”
Though the man came to signify the nation, it was the woman that became its mechanism of nourishment. The invisibility of the woman in the maintenance of the nation was lost in the everyday actions of feeding the peoples, educating the children, and supporting the soldiers. The Igbo woman sought to establish her agency through an everyday that was both violent in the invisibilization of her woman-ness but liberating in her identification as an Igbo person.
This sub-colonization by the subaltern by way of nationhood through victimization allows for a blinding of the ways in which one’s understanding of self as victim hinders one’s ability to see oneself as oppressor. Biafra for Igbos, like the state of Israel became an absolute good. It ignored how its establishment disregarded the bodies of women and other minority groups and insisted that the existence of itself was the only means through which safety could be guaranteed. While Biafra was necessary and atrocious in its consequences, the need to remember it as a humanitarian issue should not hinder the need to critique it as state exemplifying decolonization.
1.qtd Stanley Diamond, “Who Killed Biafra?” (Dialectical Anthropology: 2007), 340.
2. Stephen Whitehead, “Masculinities, Race and Nationhood-Critical Connections” (Gender & History: 2000), 475.
3. Moses E. Ochonu, “Colonialsm by Proxy,” (Indianan University Press: 2016), 211.
4. Ekechi, F.K. “Colonialism and Christianity in West Africa: The Igbo Case, 1900-1915.” (Journal of African History: 1971), 103-115
5. Chinua Achebe, “Chinua Achebe on Biafra,” (Indiana University Press: 1968), 36.
6. Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” (Social Text: 1979), 11.
7. Christie Achebe, “Igbo Women in the Nigerian Biafran War 1967-1970: An Interplay of Control,” (Journal of Black Studies: 2010), 793.