The Biafra Question: Sifting Facts from Sentiments

Jan 15, 2016 | 19:54 GMT

By SBM Intelligence


Nigeria became a unified country in 1914 after an amalgamation of three British mandates – the Southern Nigeria Protectorate, the Northern Nigeria Protectorate and the Lagos Colony. Since then the country has faced some serious trials against its unity, the most serious during the Nigerian civil war which took place 1967 – 1970. It was a war that resulted after one of 4 regions at the time, the Igbo-dominated Eastern region, sought to secede from Nigeria after a period of political unrest following Nigeria's first coup d’etat in 1966. In reality, this secession attempt was the culmination of the various contradictions within the Nigerian state. Various constitutions had been negotiated and adopted prior to 1966, but none addressed the fundamental social differences, political tensions, economic competition and ethnic imbalances that the Nigerian state struggled with. Before the Igbo secession that led to the war, the Yoruba, dominant in the then Western region, as well as the Hausa-Fulani who dominated the Northern region, had contemplated, and sometimes threatened secession. The civil war and the victory for the Nigerian forces put paid to secession attempts – for a while. Now, because the fundamentals were not addressed in the interregnum, agitations are resurfacing.

Forty-six years after the end of the civil war, the agitations for separation, which have been intermittent, have resumed with a renewed vigour, and the Igbo dominated South-East geopolitical zone and the rest of Nigeria could be heading for a messy divorce with serious political and economic consequences for both parties. While the Biafra of circa 1967-1970 was defeated, the separatist spirit of that war still lingers among many especially with the return of democracy in 1999 with the formation of the Ralph Uwazurike led Movement For The Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Things however did not escalate significantly until 2005 when MASSOB reintroduced the Biafran Pound into circulation. The move was met with unexpected excitement in the South East and the Obasanjo government moved to crush the momentum by arresting Uwazurike, keeping him incarcerated until the Yaradua government released him in 2007. Moves like the launch of the Biafran Passport in 2009 led to several arrests of Uwazurike and its members, culminating in the Jonathan administration declaring the group an extremist group in the same bucket as Boko Haram in 2013.

The arrest in Nigeria of the UK-based Radio Biafra “director” Nnamdi Kanu has brought to the fore the clamour for a separatist Biafran nation. The rise of Kanu, and his movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, shows that unless the issue is tackled at its root, newer, more sophisticated movements among ever-younger generations demanding Biafra will keep rising.

This report does not make a case either for or against the independence of the Igbo people of Nigeria. The purpose of this report is to empirically examine Biafra, its history, its viability, the level of support it enjoys and objectively provide a case for or against Biafran secession. We have examined the available data and conducted interviews on the economics and politics of independence, and we have sought to present our conclusions in an easily understandable form. This task will not be easy as the economy, politics, culture and society of the Igbo Nation is more- or-less fully integrated into the larger Nigerian nation.

Evolution of the Igbo Identity & the Geopolitical Boundaries of the Proposed Igbo State

The Igbo nationality of today is a product of historical processes that coincided with the advent of colonial rule. Before then, very few among those we now call Igbo people identified themselves as such. Kenneth Dike and Felicia Ekejiuba wrote in The Aro of South-eastern Nigeria, 1650-1980: A Study of Socio- Economic Formation and Transformation in Nigeria: “It is often forgotten, or merely mentioned in the footnote, that Igbo is a modern ethnic category which many of the constituent groups have only recently and often reluctantly accepted as their ethnic identity, often on political and administrative grounds. During the period covered by our study, the now twelve million or more ‘Igbo’ distributed over 30,000 square miles of territory east and west of the Niger were variously referred to either as cultural groups (e.g. the Nri, Isuama, Ezza or Otanzu), or by the ecological zones in which they are found (e.g. Olu or Oru i.e. the riverine people or Adagbe, people of the foodplain); Enugu, people who live on the hills, Aniocha, people who live on heavily leached and eroded solids; Ohozara, people of the savannah; or as occupational groups such as Opi egbe (people who fashion guns, Ndinzu or Umudioka (blacksmiths, artists and carvers). Since Igbo was used at this time pejoratively to refer to the densely populated uplands, the major sources of slaves, and by extension to slaves, it is not surprisingly that many of these groups have been reluctant to accept the ‘Igbo’ identity.”

Present-day Igboland was then a collection of fiercely independent city-states, village and clan federations. It was historical processes that gave a collective Igbo identity to this loose group of people.

The modern Igbo identity was created between 1947 and 1951 when BON Eluwa, then Secretary General of the Igbo Progressive Union visited each hamlet in both Western and Eastern Igboland and convinced them to buy into the Igbo project. While not on the scale of Eluwa’s e ort, such historical processes are evolving in present-day Nigeria, creating identities that sometimes cut across ethnic lines.

There are two critical points to note when considering the formation of this identity. It was in its nascent stage when independence came and hence at the civil war. Because of this, groups such as the Ikwere that identified as Igbo prior to the civil war chose different identities after it, fiercely defending their difference from the generality of the Igbo. This ties into the second point. The idea of “Biafra” today will involve only Igbo- speaking people. This is in stark contrast to the Biafra of 1967- 70, which was a multi-ethnic nation that included “minorities” like the Efik, Ijaw, Ogoni, Kalabari.

Gauging the Level of Support

Our methodology for gauging support included first; the use of an online polling engine to capture the internet savvy (and mostly educated – over 70% with a minimum of BSc) Igbos located across the country, and second; face-to-face (on the ground) interviews to survey Igbos resident in the South East and South South. We quickly observed that discussions on the issue of a Biafran state can be volatile. Online, such discussions often devolved into ethnic shouting matches, and on the ground, it sometimes led to dangerous encounters for our correspondents. For example, one of our correspondents was arrested by the police in Ebonyi State for conducting the survey and the survey forms were seized.

Both polls, online and offline, asked questions around whether respondents wanted a referendum on Biafran independence and then what their responses would be if the referendum was indeed carried out.

On The-Ground Poll

Our researchers visited Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo states, as well as the Delta North Senatorial District of Delta state, which has a significant Igbo speaking native population, and administered surveys asking questions similar to those asked on the online poll. More women responded on-ground (31%) when compared with the online poll (14%). 

Putting Surveys Together

When we put the data together for both offline and online polls, a few trends became evident. First, the vast majority (82%) of our respondents support holding a referendum on the Biafra issue. 59% of the total number of people surveyed indicated that they would vote for full independence in a referendum, but this is skewed towards those in the less that 40 age bracket, mainly those that did not actually experience the war. A higher number of older people prefer more autonomy for the region rather than outright independence.

The numbers of those expressing a desire for independence are far higher among those who were born in the South-East, or reside in the South-East. Among those who were born in, or live in other parts of Nigeria, the far greater desire (52%), is for autonomy, only 24% of those born, or residing outside the South- East believe that the region should go it alone, but, in a contradiction to the desire for full independence expressed, on the question of citizenship, most (60%) indicated a desire to maintain dual Nigerian and Biafran citizenships. Pressed a little further, and it became clear that this desire was mainly due to economic reasons.

On the question of economic viability, the responses were close, with a slight majority (52%) believing that an independent Biafra will be an economically viable entity. Finally, while most of our respondents (88%) will want to maintain a cordial relationship between Nigeria and Biafra in the event of a secession, a smaller number (60%) believe that such a relationship is possible.

OUTSIDE VIEW: Biafra, and The Need For New Leadership in the South East

Chike Chukudebelu @cchukudebelu

My introduction to Radio Biafra was in the back of a taxicab shortly before last year’s presidential elections. The driver, on discovering I was Igbo, spoke Igbo began to tell me about “IPOB”, “Radio Biafra” and Nnamdi Kanu. I had never heard those names before.

I also detected a passion in him that I found a bit odd coming from an Igbo person (we don’t usually stress ourselves over politics, we face our business). He told me he was “ready to die for what he believed in” and that “he had already told his family about that.”

I am by nature, curious. So, I decided to listen to Radio Biafra (it was streamed over the Internet). My reaction on hearing it was “o buzikwa ndi b’anyi di ifa?” I still have questions today, like what sociological or demographic phenomenon is behind the spate of Biafra agitations?

Hopefully, the results of a recent study by SBM Intelligence will aid us in our understanding of the section of the population that buys into current agitation in the South East and parts of the South South. Further research is required, but it is a useful introduction.

I was privy to the results of the online survey, only a small part of the entire thing, before publication. The majority of respondents in the online survey are below the age of 40 (about 85%). 77% are from the South East, while the remainder are from the South South. They are relatively well educated (about 93% have at least a Bachelor’s degree) and most are in private sector employment.

A surprisingly large percentage of respondents were in favour of a referendum to determine if the South East and other regions should pursue independence (79.1%). Few of the respondents were in favour of maintaining the status quo (24.6%) – i.e. Nigeria’s present “unitary federal structure”. Few of the respondents were in favour of full independence too (23.5%). Respondents preferred autonomy (26.2%) and limited autonomy (including resource control) (25.7%).

The comments and results to specific questions in this survey clearly show that an important segment of our young population is dissatisfied with Nigeria as currently structured and what they perceive to be their place in contemporary Nigeria. Many are yet to be convinced that a fully independent nation in the South East will be economically viable, but they are not satisfied with the current status of the South East within the Nigerian “federation” either. Dealing with this demographic will require a deeper understanding of their situation and tact – as opposed to the classical “Nigeria’s unity is non- negotiable” and our traditional reluctance to discuss history or the national question.

I foresee that the extraordinarily shortsighted and mercenary political class in the South East and South South will eventually find it more difficult to deal with this upcoming generation. This is a vocal generation, less timid and more willing to speak their minds than their parents. This appears to be a generation in search of leadership.

It appears that there is an opening, an opportunity for leaders in the mould of Mbonu Ejike, leaders who can productively channel the frustrations of an entire generation into productive engagement with the rest of Nigeria. Leaders who will negotiate for their people, not sell their people’s “birth right for a pittance.”

Nnamdi Kanu appeals to a segment of this population, but thankfully this survey suggests that he does not appeal to the majority. Sadly, it is also difficult to name a single “conventional leader” who appeals to this demographic or even stands for anything apart from corrupt personal enrichment.

So who will take advantage of this vacuum in leadership? It remains to be seen.

Will An Independent Biafra Be A Viable Nation?

Many of our respondents believe that even without the South South joining a Biafran secession, an independent Biafra centered on the Igbo heartland will be a viable state. In this section, we take a look at facts on ground to empirically determine if this will be the case.

Originally the bulk of what was one of three regions pre-independence, the South-East now has just five states (four of the states from that original region are now in the South-South) while the North now has 19 states and the South-West having six (two states from this region were also ceded to the South-South).

State numbers are important because they serve as a major factor in determining the amount of federally generated revenue (as a percentage of the total) allocated to each region. Population, number of local government areas, and landmass are also factors which determine how much a state receives. Landmass is given, but successive military administrations in Nigeria’s past carried out asymmetric state and LGA creations to favour the Northern region from which they came.

Allocated revenue in today’s Nigeria is extremely important considering that most sectors of the economy are docile following decades of neglect from successive federal and local administrations.

It stands to reason therefore, that the key selling points for an independent nation include the following:

  • A competitive economy and a fairer society. The nation will be better able to tackle inequalities and enhance its competitive position by increasing opportunity and participation
  • The dynamics of small economies are inherently different from larger economies

Opinions on the economics of independence among Igbo Nationalists (we will call them “Pro-secessionists”) and their opponents (we will call them “Pro-Nigeria”) are starkly divided. Pro-secessionists argue that, mostly thanks to Niger Delta oil and gas deposits, the “old Biafra” territories subsidise the country and would be better off alone. For them, the independent Igbo Nation will be a wealthy and productive country by international standards because of the following:

  • Majority of Igbos currently residing in other regions of Nigeria and overseas will relocate giving the new nation a highly educated and skilled workforce, including those with international influence
  • Many non-Igbos who were part of the old Biafra nation will rally to the cause and join in the new country
  • The nation will be a major oil producing state able to generate enough revenues to make it one of the wealthiest in Africa Agriculture will flourish driven by food and cash crops like corn, oil palm, cassava, etc. and a youthful population
  • Electricity generation will grow at the back of new coal and natural gas plants
  • The new nation will have cordial relationships with its neighbours, including Nigeria
  • The government and central bank will make use of the full range of fiscal and policy levers (including tax waivers and exclusive commercial rights for foreign direct investors) to ride the financial and economic waves in the nation’s first few years

Every future growth must have a pedestal to start from. In terms of internally generated revenues (IGR) and other key economic indicators, the South-East performs well against the rest of the country as shown in the table below:

At the other end of the argument, the Pro-Nigeria (who include every other non-Igbo Nigerian that is against the independence movement) believe that an independent Igbo Nation will be badly governed and non-productive largely because of poor infrastructure, poor governance and limited natural resources. Indeed, many Igbos do not buy the story being told by the Pro-secessionists. For them this is totally unnecessary. They feel Nigerian, and that the energy being dissipated will be better spent elsewhere.

It will be foolhardy to believe that any independent Igbo Nation in the future will include the Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross Rivers or Rivers – the states which used to be part of old Eastern Region and are now part of the South-South geopolitical zone. Whilst an argument can be made that the current “zone structure” is not recognised by the Nigerian constitution, any split to Nigeria will likely mirror the zone structure (particularly for Southern Nigeria). It is based on these that we base our extrapolations.

Biafra in 1967 encompassed the present South East and two-thirds of the South South, with roughly half of the Nigerian coastline. If secession happened in 2016, the Biafra map would be closer to the 1969 extent of Biafra, limited to the Igbo heartland.

The resulting country will be landlocked, totally surrounded by the very hostile Nigerian state. Much of the land is infertile and erosion ridden, meaning the new nation will have a hard time growing its own food.

Closely related to the land size are the new pressures that an increased population will put on the land. In 1966, the Igbo population was put at 12 million. Today, that number is put at 33 million according to the CIA Factbook. According to the same source, roughly 45% of this number is estimated to live outside Igboland.

This intra-Nigerian diaspora will be forced to return in the event of a secession, almost doubling population density in the new country instantly. Population pressures on land is one of the reasons why Igbos are more disposed to commerce and dispersed across Nigeria. Population pressures will also exacerbate latent intra-Igbo divisions with potentially violent clashes along the lines of the Ezza-Ezillo clashes that have been on-going intermittently since 1999.

Assuming it had kept 100% of the oil revenues generated in Abia and Imo states in 2014, the independent Igbo nation would have made roughly N40.2 billion in 2016. It would however have lost the statutory allocation from oil revenues generated in other parts of Nigeria. The results are presented in the table below:

This shows that the new nation would have earned a whooping N46.5 billion less than it received in 2014. Whilst this is a rather simplistic computation of revenues, it does show that some of the assumptions being made by Pro-secession should be revisited. Also, the new nation would be dependent on oil for more than majority of its revenues, making equally vulnerable to fluctuations in global commodity prices.

Outside of the oil debate, the nation lacks the financial markets infrastructure that is required to support the economy. It would have to develop a financial capital from scratch – probably at Onitsha, a busy market town.

Currently, all of Nigeria’s banks are headquartered in Lagos. It is hard to see any of them relocating all of their operations to the new country. Just as the banks are based out of Lagos, so are the industrial conglomerates – the new country would therefore need new banks and new conglomerates. It is believed that the Nnewi-Aba-Onitsha axis will supply this. However, this assumption is very hopeful. In addition, the new nation’s borrowing costs, by virtue of its size and pedigree, would almost certainly be higher. Its bond market would be small and illiquid.

The responses of the respondents to the survey where they overwhelmingly desired to retain citizenship of Nigeria even with Biafran independence points to the fact that many have built lives, businesses and assets where they reside in Nigeria and do not wish to forfeit this. However, this will not be practicable in the event of a secession.

A big problem could be its currency. Proponents want to re- launch the Biafra Pound which existed during the civil war; others have discussed maintaining use of the Naira. This second option would imply entering a monetary union without fiscal union, a set-up that has proved disastrous in Europe.

The new nation would share in Nigeria’s oil, power and agricultural assets, but it would also have a share of its toxic assets. The Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) currently holds N5.6 trillion worth of toxic assets generated during the last financial crisis. It sold bonds to banks to take the assets off their books and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) currently holds those bond, some of which would be inevitably be transferred along with the good assets. Nigeria also has a debt profile of N12 trillion, which is expected to grow to N14 trillion in 2016. The new Biafran nation will be expected to take on some if this debt and the attendant debt servicing responsibilities.

The new nation would suffer restrictions in trying to access Nigeria’s 120 million+ market. Currently there are no borders, customs checks, separate administrative, accounting or tax procedures on the movement of labour, goods or services. The separation of the two states would require new border posts to be set up, and the dynamics of international trade would take root thereby eroding the benefits of a single market. In addition to attracting foreign investments, the independent nation would need quickly to establish the legal and administrative framework to promote its interests in the global market place. This would require enhanced skills and capabilities in a range of areas that are now the responsibility of the Nigerian Government. Whilst there are Igbos around the globe with these skills, attracting them to this project may prove di cult.

Much of the new nation’s budget will be devoted to defence. Surrounded by a larger and very hostile Nigerian nation on all sides, it is inevitable that border clashes will happen and Biafra will need to equip itself for defence very quickly, which will likely prove to be an expensive and draining venture on much needed public funds.

Implications for Nigeria

Given the disparity in size between the South-East’s current economy and that of the rest of Nigeria, the economic implications of independence for the Igbo Nation on what will remain of Nigeria would not be as significant as many may fear. The areas which we believe would deal Nigeria the most impact its international standing and development indicators. Nigeria has a target to be one of 20 largest economies by 2020, and losing its South-East states would dent that mission considerably; bye-bye G20. Regardless, Nigeria would remain the largest economy in Africa, and its largest oil producer.

In terms of its poverty index, the country will su er a dent. According to the World Bank, the number of poor Nigerians as at 2013 stood at 58 million, half of whom live in the North East and North West. An estimated 60% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, which is defined as living under US$2 a day – and this was pre the 2014 upsurge of Boko Haram violence in the North-East. It is safe to say that less the South-East region, Nigeria’s poverty numbers will cross 70%.

It is truly difficult to imagine that majority of Igbos residing in Lagos and other Nigerian cities will close their businesses and relocate to the new nation. If they do, the traffic conditions in those cities will improve but the loss of vibrancy offered by the Igbos will be felt by all who remain. Without the Igbos, Nigeria’s general literacy and skills level will also drop. In terms of demography, Nigeria will lose its religious balance, and become a majority Muslim country. This is a major fear harboured by many non-Muslims.

Finally, whilst Nigeria does not have the complications regarding defence that plagued Britain before the Scotland referendum of 2015 due to the location of ship building and nuclear deterrent activities in the region, there are still some strategic and financial consequences for Nigeria. Defence assets currently located in the South-East include a full Army Division (located in Enugu with smaller battalions scattered in various locations), an Air force base at Enugu and a major automobile manufacturing plant also at Enugu. Relocating these will cost money and the border with the new nation will added to the cost of border patrols required to be patrolled by Nigeria’s military, customs and immigration services amongst others.


Politically, there are just no incentives for Nigeria to recognise the Igbo nation’s independence especially since Nigerian blood has been spilled on this same issue. This is the biggest obstacle to the dream ever becoming a reality. Unlike Scotland which was once an independent country, the Igbo nation was never such and it just does not have the legal basis, political clout, land mass and natural resources required to win its independence. If by some miracle it does gain its independence, it would still face huge sovereign risks in early life.

The new nation will have a population exceeding 30 million people, with majority below the age of thirty. This will give the new nation its greatest asset – a highly motivated and significantly educated work force. Many more professionals from the diaspora will join to build the nation. But that may be as good as it gets, as this will quickly become a huge problem if the nation is unable to create jobs for these people.

Whilst small countries around the globe have been known to pull in foreign investment, the new nation would struggle to attract enough to pay its workforce. Uncertainty is the biggest killer for investment. The nation would be bordered on all sides by a hostile Nigerian state, powerful enough to scare off political allies. If the global community is hesitant at receiving this new nation into their fold, so will the investors.

It is actually difficult to find positives in this independence story. The region has no tourist draws, no significant solid mineral deposits apart from medium grade coal. If the Igbos really want independence for political or cultural reasons, they should go for it. One cannot place monetary value on national pride. However, analysed factually, it is not the best course of action.

The original version of this report can be found here.