Breakaway in Biafra: Fifty Years After Nigeria’s Civil War

Posted on 6/16/2020

In 1968, Biafra was forced to produce its own set of banknotes in order to purchase much-needed medical supplies and food.

For collectors of African banknotes, there is a bevy of countries both big and small to choose from. From the elaborately patterned notes of mid-20th century Morocco to the varied birds of modern Gambia, African banknotes are as varied as the continent itself. However, one such series of notes stands out, with their visually striking designs and bright yellow half-sun underprints. These are the notes of the tiny separatist state of Biafra, whose breakaway from Nigeria in 1967 and the conflict that followed would result in the deaths of roughly 2 million Biafran civilians over the course of 3 years.

Fifty years on, the Biafran War – oftentimes referred to as the Biafran Genocide or the Nigerian Civil War – is largely forgotten by the West, but its banknotes live on as a testament, a reminder of the horrors that were carried out on both sides. So what caused this conflict? What prompted the decision to attempt to break away from the largest African nation, and what were the reactions from the global powers of the day to what is generally considered the first post-colonial conflict in Africa? As tends to be the case, it can all be traced back to oil.

Nigeria had obtained independence from Great Britain on October 1, 1960, and brought with it the vast and recently discovered oil reserves of southern Nigeria, in Oloibiri. These fields were of particular importance to British Petroleum, which had discovered them 2 years prior after decades of searching.

While one might have expected the nation to experience an economic boom after this (similar to places like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait), competition both internally and externally over the profits of this oil meant that only a fraction of the profits from these fields went toward the state. What it did do, however, was establish Nigeria as a point of interest for global powers like the USSR, Great Britain and the United States. This would prove problematic when, following a series of coups in 1967, the majority of southeastern Nigeria — with nearly all of Nigeria’s oil fields — declared independence and established the breakaway state of Biafra.

The reasoning behind Biafra’s independence was rather sound: Following years of persecution — which had culminated in the 1966 pogroms that resulted in the deaths of upwards of 100,000 people — the Igbo people had been steadily forced east. The Igbo were a minority ethnic group who were predominantly Christian in a majority Muslim nation. At the time, they were viewed as the educated and intellectual elite of Nigeria, with many Igbo people occupying roles as professors and, more importantly, officers in the military. As a result of this perceived superiority, as well as their differing religious beliefs, the Igbo were severely persecuted, resulting in a massive influx of refugees fleeing east, the homeland of the Igbo.

In an attempt to quell the civil unrest that had been caused by both the pogroms themselves, and the ensuing influx of refugees, Nigeria split into 12 states, with the eastern region of Nigeria being divided into 3 separate states. The issue that arose was that the division of these states meant that the Igbo would lose control of those vast oil reserves they were sitting on. As a result, on May 30, 1967, the military governor of the Eastern Region, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared independence from Nigeria, establishing the Republic of Biafra overnight. A mere six weeks later, two columns of troops under the Federal Government of Nigeria marched into Biafra, and the war commenced.

While Biafra was at a glance wealthy – in that they had immense reserves of Nigeria’s oil under their control – the reality was very much an opposite of this. Due to the fact that they were technically separatists, the international community more or less had its hands tied in regards to officially supplying them with goods. On the other hand, despite being a majority group that was carrying out a genocide, the federal forces were nonetheless still Nigerian. As a result, they were more than able to spend the vast resources afforded to them on the international market. Additionally, neighboring nations and global powers were hesitant to involve themselves with the conflict, with nations like the USSR being all too aware of the political ramifications of choosing sides in a separatist conflict.

Compounding the issue of international aid was that Nigeria had carried out an overnight change of currency in late 1968, rendering worthless the millions of Nigerian Pounds that the Biafrans had in their treasury. This dramatically reduced their ability to purchase much needed medical supplies and food.

In response to this, Biafra produced its first of two series of banknotes, the designs of which look strikingly different from anything else in Africa at the time. The lathwork is extensive, while the denominations are very fluid. While the notes themselves may only use two to three earth-toned colors each, the end result is that the symbol of Biafra — a bright yellow half-sun — stands out even more. While the first series only produced a 5 shillings and £1 note, the second series — released sometime in 1969 — fleshed out the rest, adding 10 shillings notes, as well as £5 and £10 notes.

Biafra, Bank of Biafra, Pick# 1, ND (1968), 5/- Shillings, front
Graded PMG 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ
Click image to enlarge.

Biafra, Bank of Biafra, Pick# 1, ND (1968), 5/- Shillings, back
Graded PMG 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ
Click image to enlarge.

The defining moment of the Biafran War came when federalist troops established a blockade around the whole of Biafra, preventing not only people from coming in and out, but preventing any and all goods from arriving by land or sea. Thus, while the military conflict resulted in the deaths of between 50,000 and 100,000 troops across both sides, the true death toll came in the form of starvation.

Some 1 to 3 million Biafrans died of starvation or starvation-related illnesses in the 3 years the conflict took place. Skeletally thin children with haunted eyes were plastered on newspapers and magazines across the globe, alerting the world at large to the plight of the Igbo people. Despite extensive humanitarian efforts from nonprofit groups, the enforcement of the blockade by Nigeria meant that diplomatic action was nearly impossible without risk of further escalating the conflict.

Click image to enlarge.

In the end, following a major offensive in late December 1969, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu was forced to flee into exile, and on January 14, 1970, Biafra surrendered. The cultural ramifications of Biafra are still being felt to this day in Nigeria. While the government refuses to adequately teach its citizens on the subject and even mentioning the "Biafran genocide" is taboo, those once-skeletally thin children are now long since grown. They have passed on their memories of Biafra to their own children, through stories and photographs, articles and mementos, and – most notably for us – through worn and faded banknotes, whose bright yellow half-sun shines on.


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