Political Economy of Memory: The Making, Unmaking and Remaking of the Nigeria-Biafra War

Godwin Onuoha, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) Programme, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Research Grant, 2014

This research examines the memories of wars, conflicts, and violence in postcolonial Africa. Its point of departure is the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967–1970). Referred to by multiple names, like “Nigeria-Biafra War,” “Biafran War,” “Nigerian Civil War,” “War of National Unity,” “War against Infidels,” the Nigeria-Biafra War was a global event, generally regarded as a defining moment in the postcolonial global order because it foreshadowed the array of devastating conflicts that would eventually threaten the survival of most postcolonial African states. The war was the first major conflict in postcolonial Africa, and in many ways, it represented the end of the “old wars” and the first of the “new wars.” Certainly, it was the first to approximate what we now call “black-on-black” genocide in postcolonial Africa; the first televised African war; the only conflict in postcolonial Africa that had both major super powers of the Cold War on the same side; and the war that launched the modern humanitarian-aid industry as we know it today.

Official memories conceal and disenfranchise other memories, but also perform the ideological task of projecting the state as the sole owner of war memories in post–civil war Nigeria.

Almost fifty years after the war, the individual and collective memories of the Nigeria-Biafra War still dominate national discourse in a manner that elicits passion, discord, and contestation in contemporary Nigeria. Drawing on a political economy approach, this research focused on the following. First, it offered new insights into memory studies by examining how memories are constructed, contested, resisted, appropriated, and structured in a postwar Nigerian context. Second, it explored how memories of wars, conflicts, and violence can underlie a group’s identity and sustain that identity and, ultimately, translate into a basis for future violence. Third, it explores the politics of “dominant” and “subordinate” memories of war and violence in a contested political space. The research was mainly qualitative and most of the fieldwork was done in the five southeastern states of Nigeria. Fieldwork comprised visiting key locations and cities in this region as landscapes of memory and where the activities of neo-Biafran movements took place.

The research provides a historical and contemporaneous analysis of memories of the Nigeria-Biafra War. It demonstrates the nuances in the making of Nigeria-Biafra War memories and why these memories continue to stymie and stunt Nigeria’s post–civil war nation-building project from becoming a more just and inclusive one. It unveiled the making of “official” memories by the state and the interrogation and contestation of these memories by opposing forces. Official memories conceal and disenfranchise other memories, but also perform the ideological task of projecting the state as the sole owner of war memories in post–civil war Nigeria. The research complicates this official narrative by exploring memory production in the Nigerian state as a continuously contested and conflicting project. This involves interrogating the ownership, production, and consumption of extant official war memories, understanding the different forces at play in inscribing and entrenching or subverting and challenging these memories, and the manifold ways in which diverse identities, classes, regions, and intellectual traditions simultaneously project memories of the war in post–civil war Nigeria.

  1. 2016: "Shared Histories, Divided Memories: Mediating and Navigating the Tensions in Nigeria-Biafra War Discourses,"Africa Today, Vol. 63, No. 1: 2-21.

  2. 2017: "Bringing 'Biafra' Back In: Narrative, Identity and the Politics of Non-Reconciliation in Nigeria,"National Identities, (Forthcoming DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1080/14608944.2017.1279133).

  3. (Forthcoming): Memory, Reconciliation and Peacebuilding in Post-Civil War South- eastern Nigeria, APN Working Papers Series, African Peacebuilding Network (APN), Social Science Research Council, New York.

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