Remembering Biafra

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Volume 25


In this decade of anniversaries, 30 May 1967 is unlikely to loom large. Yet it marked the start of a war that for Irish people of a certain age (children in the 1960s or older) was as big as Vietnam—the war sparked by the secession of Biafra from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The caricature of independent Ireland as an inward-looking backwater masks the fact that it always had a universal aspect, through the Catholic Church generally and through its missionary activity in particular. And in that ‘spiritual empire’ Nigeria was the jewel in the crown. Before the war, the greatest concentration of Irish missionaries was to be found there. Five hundred of its 850 Catholic priests were Irish, and its hierarchy was similarly Irish-dominated. The Holy Ghost Fathers mission, spearheaded by Tipperary-born Bishop Joseph Shanahan, in the early twentieth century made major inroads, particularly in education, amongst the Igbos of the Eastern Region (Biafra). The invariably articulate and well-educated Igbo taxi-drivers one meets in Ireland today attest to its legacy. It also contributed to the rise of the Igbo to a pre-eminent socio-economic position by the time of Nigerian independence in 1960. But if partition was to be the malign legacy of British imperialism in Ireland, its opposite—the amalgamation of two politically and religiously disparate protectorates in 1914—was at the root of Nigeria’s problems. Inevitably the upwardly mobile Igbos drew upon themselves the resentment of the less-developed Muslim Hausa/Fulani-dominated North and, to a lesser extent, the Yoruba-dominated West.

Such complexities were rarely discussed in late ’60s Ireland. A simplistic religious gloss was often projected onto the conflict—Catholic Igbos suffering ‘dungeon, fire and sword’. Accusations of genocide against the Nigerian government were often accepted at face value. But as Tom Lodge points out (Seen on TV, pp 52–3), post-bellum Biafra was reincorporated without wholescale slaughter. Yet one cannot but admire the scale and sincerity of the humanitarian response, both in Ireland and on the ground by activists like Fr Tony Byrne. That has left a lasting legacy in NGOs like Gorta and Concern, an equally complex one explored by Kevin O’Sullivan in this issue. (Platform, pp 16–17).

And the Igbo taxi-drivers I’ve talked to? They have little interest in an independent Biafra. Their concern is for the unity and reform of a still-fractured and deeply corrupt Nigeria.

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