Biafra–nostalgia as critique

It was past midnight in a sleepy suburb of Guangzhou in southern China, and the loudspeakers of a restaurant were blaring highlife, upbeat but mournful:

Ojukwu has died, people of Nigeria
Ojukwu has died, people of Biafra
Ikemba [Ojukwu] has died

About one hundred young Nigerian men were celebrating the 2014 launch of an Igbo-language highlife music album, released by one of their own — one of the thousands of Nigerian businessmen making their livelihoods by connecting factories and markets in Asia to West African consumers.

Otigba, the Nigerian highlife singer based in China, dedicated his album to “all his people living abroad” and opened the party with a light, rippling number. The song narrated a cascade of shout-outs to fellow Nigerian businessmen and the markets they work in across Asia and Nigeria, encouraging them to jisie ike, stay strong. Men “sprayed” bills into Otigba’s face or slapped thick stacks of bills one by one onto his head, where they stuck momentarily on his sweat before falling to the ground.

Closing the album was a song entitled “Ojukwu,” which combined a eulogy of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military leader of the failed 1960s secessionist state of Biafra, with praise singing for the Nigerian community in China. One young man with an “I LOVE BIAFRA” t-shirt walked proudly around the party while table conversations escalated in excitement. Obinna, an Igbo Nigerian merchant in his thirties, smiled as he told me that the increasingly loud table next to us was debating about Biafra and how it will soon return.

Otigba’s album evoked two themes of contemporary Igbo political critiques of the Nigerian nation-state: diasporic hustling and Biafran secessionism. But how does rhetoric of a 1960’s failed secessionist state in Nigeria flow into a sleepy industrial city in southern China? And how does it take hold amongst young Nigerian merchants, none of whom lived through the war themselves?

Since the 1990s, markets across the Asia and the Middle East have seen an uptick of these young, Igbo Nigerian men who carve out livelihoods by sourcing goods and importing them to Africa. While Igbos in Nigeria are generally stereotyped as a business-minded minority, many Igbos themselves narrate their entrepreneurialism as a creative and necessary response to historic discrimination and systematic exclusion from access to oil and government sectors by the post-civil-war nation-state.

Refrains like Otigba’s song appear across the towns and markets of the Global South where young Igbo Nigerian merchants congregate; small Biafran flags hang alongside Nigerian flags in shops in southern China and Dubai, banter on slow market days in Lagos often turns to political debate. Photoshopped images and memes of Biafra circulate on social media, and illegal Radio Biafra (a pirate station based in London) broadcasts crackle over the radio waves on public transportation in eastern Nigeria. Some of the most vivid mass demonstrations in Nigeria have been through massive market closures by predominantly Igbo traders in commemoration of Ojukwu’s burial in 2012 and the 50th anniversary of Biafra’s secession earlier this week.

Yet while many of these globally-mobile Igbo Nigerian merchants are clearly moved by Biafran rhetoric, they always simultaneously express hesitation (and often straight up rejection) of this as a concrete militant movement through war. Unlike many migration paths towards the West, migrations across the Global South are largely temporary, with few to no paths to naturalization across Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Nearly all merchants expect to return to Nigeria and subsequently maintain intensive material and social commitments across Nigeria through practices such as frequent remittance, construction, and house-building from afar.

None of the young Biafran commemoration demonstrators lived through the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, yet Biafra as a concept is alluring in its power as a counterfactual history of Nigeria: the thinking goes, if Biafra had successfully seceded in the 1960s, young Igbos today would be living a completely different material reality. Redrawing the past has implications for the present: it re-inserts a devastating war back into the national historical narrative and calls the Nigerian state into action concerning the war’s legacies of political power and resource distribution inequalities. As Nigerian columnist Emeka Obasi wrote earlier this week, “Let there be justice and you may not hear much of Biafra.”

Evoking Biafra, either as a nostalgic homeland of the past or as a messianic polity of the future, perhaps can be read as a provocation that a different material reality for Nigeria is necessary, possible, and just within reach. Otigba’s closing song continually addressed the diasporic crowd, interchangeably hailing them as Nigerians, Igbos, and Biafrans. At least in Otigba’s rolling highlife refrains, it is possible to be all three at the same time.

*Translation of song lyrics assisted by E. Nwosu.

Vivian Chenxue Lu

Vivian Chenxue Lu is a PhD Candidate in cultural anthropology at Stanford University.

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