By Jonathan Levy
Biafra declared independence on 30 May 1967 and was forcibly terminated on 12 January 1970 through military conquest by Nigeria after a genocide of one million people.
Biafra was diplomatically recognized by five diverse nations: Tanzania, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Haiti. Others like The Holy See and some International Governmental Organizations maintained informal relations with Biafran government. Biafra is often compared in legal treatises to the failed state of Katanga, which attempted to devolve from the Belgian Congo in 1960. While the case shares some similarities, there are many differences, the main one being at no time did any sovereign state ever recognize Katanga. Biafra therefore is no Katanga and is unique. The Biafran people like other victims of genocide such as the Jews and Armenians have recovered over the past two generations and now seek justice, freedom and recompense from the Nigerian oppressors.
The historic Biafran Republic lacked much in the way of international recognition and had virtually no allies. Biafra incurred the enmity of the major world powers of the time, the former colonial power Great Britain, and even the ire of Organization of African Unity. But Biafra did most certainly meet the test of statehood under the criteria of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: population, government, the ability to enter in foreign relations, and control of territory. Nonetheless, almost all international law sources try to categorize Biafra as a footnote and a failed attempt at secession or rebellion rather than a recognized state that once existed and was brutally conquered. This is surely a case of the victors and former colonial powers writing the legal history to raise the hurdle for national self-determination in Africa and with the vested interest to maintain the status quo of fantastically corrupt African countries like Nigeria. In fact, Biafra was the first African post-colonial state in that it was not based on some former administrative unit of imperialism.
There are many examples of states that are de facto governments yet unrecognized. Somaliland is one example having met all Montevideo criteria since 1991 but lacking the recognition of even a single nation. Somaliland is a self-declared state but the lack of international recognition hampers its ability to become a full member of the community of nation states. In Ukraine, there are the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics, which like Biafra broke away from a repressive federal state, but these too are unrecognized. There are also examples of current and past states recognized by only a single government; today’s Northern Cyprus by Turkey, Tibet prior to its annexation to China in 1951 diplomatically acknowledged only by Mongolia, and the notorious apartheid Bantustans acknowledged only by South Africa.
On the other hand, there are states like Biafra that were recognized by a minority of other states: Taiwan (Republic of China in Exile) by give or take two dozen countries and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are currently recognized by five and six UN-member states respectively. More famously the German Democratic Republic had recognition withheld for decades by West Germany and its allies. Similarly, Mongolia was unrecognized 1940-1960 by allies of the Republic of China.
Biafra was recognized by four African states and Haiti, a small minority of the world’s states yet more than a single state and therefore significant. Recognition of Biafra was not based solely on kinship, ideology or politics. In the words of the Haitian President Duvalier: “The Recognition which the Government of the Republic of Haiti solemnly gives to the Republic of Biafra is based upon the cardinal principle of its foreign policy, namely the indefeasible right of peoples and governments to decide freely of their destiny. This recognition of the Republic of Biafra as a free and sovereign state is in keeping in line with my doctrine of government to participate in the defence of oppressed states and peoples.”
The Exile Government
It should be noted that the Biafran President Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was not captured but instead went into to exile in the Ivory Coast. From there indeed the trail does go cold for a while especially as Ojukwu accepted a pardon from the Nigerian government in 1982. MASSOB (the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra), a non-violent movement, was formed, in 1999 as a catalyst to reinvigorate Biafra and is still a flickering flame today hampered much by a lack of unity among bickering pro Biafran organizations and its own foibles.
The next chapter definitively begins in 2007 in Washington, DC with the Biafra Declaration declaring a government in exile. Signed by Emmanuel Enekwechi, PhD and Oguchi Nkwocha, MD, the declaration clarifies the purpose of the government in exile and reaffirms the independence of Biafra. The definitive goals and purposes of the government are clearly delineated:
Secure the Freedom and Liberty of Biafra and its peoples;
Represent the Sovereignty and Interests of Biafra throughout the world;
Engage in international relationships and diplomacy with Governments, States, Nations and Organizations;
Organize for the security of the peoples, properties and land of Biafrans;
Obtain diplomatic recognition for the Sovereign State of Biafra;
Organize the negotiation of trade and other economic activities on behalf of the peoples of Biafra.
It is not unusual for there to be a period of years between exile and the declaration of an exile government. The de facto Republik of Serbian Krajina went into exile in 1997 and the exile government was declared in 2005, and in the case of the East Turkistan Republic the gap is far longer, with exile in 1949 and declaration only in 2004.
A legitimate exile government is one that flows from a recognized state as opposed to a so-called exile government that is in reality a liberation movement. A secondary route to legitimacy occurs as in the case of Western Sahara when a liberation movement is thought to express the will of its people to self determination and is recognized internationally. Governments however are generally reluctant to confer any legitimacy to exile governments that lacked any authority before exile.
Experts on international law have claimed that for an authority in exile to qualify as a ‘government’ in international law the following four criteria must be fulfilled:
(2) representative character;
(4) internationally recognized illegality of the government in situ.
The problem arises as to the fourth criteria, illegality of the government in situ. Who decides what constitutes an illegal occupation? The African Union supports the Polisario Front while the Arab League recognizes as legitimate the occupation/annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco. There are no courts of last resort for these matters unless a country voluntarily submits the matter to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice as in the case of Serbia and Kosovo. The international organizations including the United Nations usually support the status quo. The crimes of genocide and aggression that were committed in Biafra are jus cogens violations of international law while self-determination is enshrined in both the Charters of the United Nations and African Union. The words of the Ahiara declaration of 1969 delivered by Ojukwa therefore still ring true today:
“When the Nigerians violated our basic human rights and liberties, we decided reluctantly but bravely to found our own state, to exercise our inalienable right to self-determination as our only remaining hope for survival as a people. Yet, because we are black, we are denied by the white powers the exercise of this right which they themselves have proclaimed inalienable. In our struggle we have learnt that the right of self-determination is inalienable, but only to the white man.”
There are indeed precedents for governments that achieved sovereignty during times of strife, obtained limited international recognition, went into exile and were succeeded by declared exile governments and then eventually became independent and members of the United Nations
Slovakia was independent 1939-1945 and recognized by 29 different countries. Following Slovakia’s reintegration with Czechoslovakia in 1945, the former Interior Minister of Slovakia, Durcansky, set up a Government in Exile in 1947 which went through several transformations as an Exile Government, Liberation Committee, Liberation Council and Slovak Congress all advocating for independence. In 1992 independence was achieved by legislation when Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.
Slovakia (1938-1945) was viewed by the Allied nations as a German puppet state. However, Switzerland extended de jure recognition to it. The various Slovakian exile governments and committees were not recognized by any single country though doubtless achieved some sponsorship by the United States during the Cold War as anti Communist entities. While the reincarnated state of Slovakia was not a direct successor to the original Slovakia or the exile units; it would be nonsensical to suggest that Slovakia would exist today but for these forerunners.
Ukraine was independent 1917-1922 and was recognized by at least 18 countries including the Holy See, Russia, Germany, Turkey and Austria. The head of the government Symon Petliura went into exile, declared an exile government and was assassinated in 1926 in Paris by a Soviet agent. In 1941 an independent state of Ukraine was briefly declared and then suppressed by Germany. The unrecognized government in exile persisted until Ukraine again became independent in 1991. The Ukrainian government under the former president Yushchenko over the protests of pro Russian elements recognized exile leaders and the 1917 and 1941 governments as predecessors and precursors to the current state. The trend of Ukrainian nationalism has further intensified under the present regime.
Croatia achieved independence 1941-1945 during the excesses of the Second World War when secessionist exiles assumed leadership of the country upon the fall of Yugoslavia to the Axis powers. Like Slovakia, many countries considered Croatia as a puppet state yet it was recognized by not only the Axis states but also by neutral Spain. Following the end of the war, an exile government was declared in 1951 by the former leader of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, and his surviving government ministers. In 1956 the exile government became a liberation movement and was instrumental in the eventual independence of Croatia from Yugoslavia in 1991.
In each case the above countries initially achieved recognition by less than a majority of nations and very serious doubts were cast about their legitimacy. Warfare and civil strife were also attendant to the initial independence of each country from a federal government: Yugoslavia (1941, 1991), Czechoslovakia (1939) and the Russian Provisional Government (1917). Following loss of recognition and independence, exile governments or liberation entities kept alive the notion of nationhood until the eventual devolution of the country again from a federal entity — the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
Biafra also wrested independence from a federal government and it was also recognized by a minority of nations and eventually lost sovereignty in wartime; the government of Biafra then went into exile and declared an exile government. Biafra therefore is no different in this respect than Ukraine, Slovakia or Croatia but for its eventual independence, which has been delayed by infighting and is as yet unrealized. Ukraine waited 70 years; Slovakia and Croatia approximately 40 years each to become independent again; Biafra has been waiting 46 years for its second republic. Given the corruption, ineffectiveness, and insurrections that threaten the Nigerian federal government on all sides, Biafra’s wait will not be long. However, independence will hopefully come via an internationally recognized referendum or legislation this time, not at the point of a gun.
The ideals and identity of Biafra have been kept alive in exile and now have burst forth across Biafraland under the assorted banners of MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra), IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra), Radio Biafra, Biafra Liberation Movement, BILIE, Biafra Zionist Movement, and so forth.
An exile government exists that has been declared the successor to the Republic of Biafra. That declaration need not immediately follow the fall of a government. The exile government enjoys the confidence of the people and political leadership. Nigeria continues its political oppression and fails to protect Biafrans from religious- and ethnic-inspired attacks and terrorism. The Nigerian government has shot down, summarily executed and jailed members of MASSOB and IPOB. Amnesty International has expressed alarm regarding the treatment of Biafrans by the regime of Nigerian president Buhari. The OEAS has called for release of prisoners, a referendum and invoked the right of self-defence. Yet the international community continues to spurn Biafra in the name of the status quo. The international law, which has been deliberately misapplied to Biafra by the United Nations, The Commonwealth of Nations, European Union, the African Union and Western powers, is an unjust law that amounts to nothing more than illegitimate support for Nigerian tyranny. Only the Organization of Emerging African States (OEAS) of which Biafra Government in Exile is a member and Amnesty International have expressed support and appropriate concern for the Biafran people.
The immediate prospects for a renewed Biafra are mixed. While the movement is strong among the people and the people are willing to support a free Biafra, the Biafran leadership is weak, quarrelsome and divided. MASSOB’s leadership is challenged by BILIE, now rebranded IPOB Elders, and both are criticized by a new organization also called IPOB nominally led by the charismatic Prince Nnamdi Kanu. The two most capable Biafran leaders, Ben Onwuka of the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM) and the aforementioned Kanu, have disappeared into the Nigerian gulag. The BZM has all but disappeared without its leader and IPOB seems rudderless without Kanu’s physical presence and is seemingly more interested in attacking its Biafran rivals than the Nigerian government.
An All Biafra Conference convened by the OEAS in Accra, Ghana, in May 2016 brought together most of the Biafrans groups with the exception of the IPOB/Kanu faction, which boycotted the meeting over claims of its paramountcy. The Conference issued a hopeful communique that referenced the historic struggle for freedom, condemned the murder of Biafrans by the Nigerian government and its Muslim irregular forces, and called for the immediate release of all jailed Biafrans including Onwuka and Kanu, supported the neighbouring Ogoni people who are also under pressure by the Nigerian government, and expressed solidarity with the besieged Christians of Syria.
However, the most impressive development of the All Biafra Conference was the characterization of the Biafran struggle as one against Islamization and radical Islam and called for the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations–a demand acknowledged by the Commonwealth but not acted upon as of yet. In the context of the 21st century, the Biafran struggle is not a post-colonial one in the context of the Cold War but a struggle against the rising tide of Islam by 60 million Christians under repression by a Muslim-led government in Abuja, deadly attacks by Muslim irregular forces and terrorists, and African institutions largely hostile and indifferent or under worse under nominal Muslim leadership like the International Criminal Court and ECOWAS.
Inevitably when Biafra devolves from Nigeria by legislation or referendum, it will be the exile government that provides the continuity and hands over authority to the renewed second Republic of Biafra. Biafra then become not only the first post-colonial state in Africa but a vital partner in turning the tide against the aggressive Islamization of Africa.
* Dr. Jonathan Levy, PhD (University of Cincinnati), JD (Taft Law School),), Adjunct Faculty Norwich University Graduate School of Diplomacy, Kaplan University Graduate School of Public Service, Southern New Hampshire University, Department of Political Science, International Criminal Bar, admitted to practice law United States, Europe, Caribbean and Africa. Dr. Levy has served as legal counsel to the Biafra Government in Exile and is Chief Administrative Officer of the Organization of Emerging African States — OEAS.