A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime and the Nigerian Civil War

Book review

By Samuel Fury Childs Daly; reviewed by Trevor James, published 19th August 2021

A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime and the Nigerian Civil War, Samuel Fury Childs Daly, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 272p, £75-00. ISBN 978-1-108-84076-7.

More than fifty years ago, a south-eastern portion of Nigeria attempted to break away and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. It is usually depicted as a struggle between the Igbo people and the majority population of Nigeria. I one sense this is too simplistic but what was seen, in what some would argue was the first televised civil war, was a struggle between a determined central government and a disenchanted minority.

What Samuel Fury Childs Daly offers us in his remarkable analysis is more than his main title suggests. The secessionist phase for Biafra only lasted three years, 1967-70, but Daly places it in a much wider perspective. This wider view is well-reflected by his exploration of what has happened subsequently, after this spectacularly brutal and violent phase of Nigerian history. He examines what happened to the people of Biafra in the years that followed but he also reveals that, whatever the federal government believed that had been resolved, various forms of secessionist mindsets still exist amongst younger people, especially those born since the civil war ended. They mirror patterns to be observed elsewhere: there is no obvious pressure for further political secession but the cultural and social identity which lay behind the original crisis still can be discerned in that portion of Nigeria. This emerging feeling of regional identity, of course, stands alongside the federal government’s continuing struggle with Bok Haram militants in the north.

One feature of Daly’s research has especially intrigued me. His view is that the breakdown in law and order in Biafra was a factor in the emergence of the crime known as ‘419’. The label originates within the Nigerian criminal code where section 419 prohibits ‘obtaining money or goods through false pretences’.  The short-lived Biafran government used the same criminal code. One of the aspects of this form of crime was a trend, now exacerbated by the internet, of attempting to defraud people by begging letters and other tactics, a phenomenon with which most email users will now be familiar. This form of fraud was not necessarily Biafran in origin but it can be readily identified within the blend of criminality and crisis that prevailed in Biafra.

Another feature that again has struck me is that, because of the international focus on the struggle with extensive loyalty and sympathy being offered to the embattled minority, it was this conflict that is seen by some as the birthplace of international humanitarian aid providers, such as Medicin Sans Frontieres.

This is a powerful analysis, and how Nigeria has dealt with the Biafran challenge is highly relevant to us because Nigeria is the most populous state in Africa and has an accelerating economic status. How it addresses the former secessionist region is a sign of new secureness and confidence of the central government.