Biafra and the African Europeans

Coverage of the Nigerian civil war (1967 -1970) provides another stark example of the storyline that war is hell only in the absence of Western values. The war took place roughly a century after the U.S. civil war (1861-1865). And the circumstances were remarkably similar. Not long after Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, regional differences and rivalry deteriorated into political bloodshed. A civil war ensued after the Eastern Region—which bore the brunt of the bloodshed— seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra.

As with all civil wars—America’s included—it was an existential war that saw both sides fighting ferociously. Accordingly, there was much casualty on both sides. However, because the war was fought mostly within the secessionist territory, people of the Eastern Region sustained the most casualty.

It also happened that a majority of the federal side of the war were Muslim, while the Eastern Region was almost entirely Christian, especially Catholic. Not surprisingly, public opinion in the Western world weighed heavily in favor of the secession. And the Western press largely covered the war through that prism. The federal side of the conflict was portrayed as feudal, brutish, and incompetent. And the secessionist side was cast as aspirants to Western values.

Time magazine was especially effusive in its praise of the Igbo, the dominant ethnic group in Eastern Nigeria and leaders of the secession. According to the magazine, the Igbo became successful because they were receptive to “Western values and education.” They were at once the “Jews of Africa” because of their capabilities and industry and the “Irish of Africa” because they are “ready-witted, strong-willed ... with a burning sense of patriotism for their own.”

In contrast, Nigeria’s other ethnic groups—especially, the Hausa/ Fulani and the Yoruba, who anchored the federal side of the conflict— embodied African values. Time described the Hausa/Fulani as haughty Muslims, who lived in mud houses, were resistant to progress, and were led by reactionary emirs. The Yoruba were “a tribe known for its profusion of gods ... and joie de vivre” and given to “endless draughts of pungent palm-wine.”1

Coverage of the war reflected the evident cultural affinity. Early in the war, secessionist troops took over the Midwestern Region in a lightning operation that caught everyone by surprise. Their success was attributed to Sandhurst, the British military school where several Nigerian officers were educated. When federal forces retook the Midwest and began to advance into the Eastern Region, their success was attributed largely to African brutishness. It didn’t matter that several of their officers were also trained at Sandhurst.

Massive shelling before infantry advance is a common practice in war. Yet when the federal side engaged in it, Time (August 23, 1968) claimed that “such tactics, or the attitude behind them, are not confined to Nigeria’s federal troops; they are commonplace with most African armies.” This claim derives from a broader theme. In summarizing the political violence that precipitated a military coup and led to the civil war, Time (January 28, 1966) declared: “To the African mind, a political group is either for the government or against it, and if the latter, it has no business existing.”

By the 1990s, such a stark contrast between Europhilic civility and African barbarism had eased somewhat. Even the Hutu-led pogrom against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 was covered with less emphasis on primordial tendency and more on political rivalry. The shift became more pronounced in the coverage of Kenya’s post-election bloodshed in 2008, the Darfur crisis, and the protracted civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the storyline of Africans’ uniquely savage behaviors in wars remains quite entrenched. For people lacking “Western values,” the hell of war is rarely inherent in the wars but in themselves.


1 The excerpts are all from Minabere Ibelema’s “Tribes and Prejudice: Coverage of the Nigerian Civil War,” in Beverly Hawk (ed.), Africa’s Media Image (New York: Praeger, 1992), 77-93.

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