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nigeria: The rebirth of ‘Biafra’

A vendor in Okwe, Southeast Nigeria, selling newspapers and magazines and receiving payment in Biafran currency. The reappearance of the currency is a sign of the centrifugal forces threatening to tear Nigeria apart


More than three decades after the breakaway “Republic of Biafra” suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of Nigerian federal forces, rebellious shoppers are once again spending Biafran pounds and shillings in the markets of Southeast Nigeria.  
 

In the latest sign of the centrifugal forces threatening to tear Africa’s largest oil exporter apart, ethnic Ibo rebel leaders have reintroduced the bills, which are identical to those minted during Biafra’s doomed three-year struggle for independence.
They now circulate widely in the Southeast’s bustling street markets and have partially displaced the Nigerian naira, the national currency and a hated symbol of central rule.
Violence, disease and starvation killed more than a million Nigerians during the country’s 1967-1970 civil war. Most of the dead were Ibos from the territory claimed as Biafra by rebel forces, and many from the region still cling to dreams of full independence.
Separatist leaders say that they will not now take up arms against the Nigerian state, but that they instead plan to edge their homeland into freedom through a 25-step program of gradual autonomy. One of the first such steps was the reintroduction of the pound, which has proved popular.
“I cannot accept Nigerian naira because I am a Biafran. Besides, the naira is as worthless as toilet paper. This is Biafran land and I have to abide by the laws of this new republic,” declared 22-year-old Ogbonnaya Udeh, who trades in textiles in Owerri market.
“I have renounced my Nigerian citizenship. I am a Biafran in everything; mind, body and soul,” said Cyprian Onyejekwe, an Ibo who said he became a trader after losing a place in law school to a rival from another ethnic group who had lower test scores.
“I will have nothing to do with Nigeria again. The naira has become a taboo to an Ibo man. It is a sacrilege to touch it here because anything Nigerian is evil,” the 30-year-old added.
In Owerri and Onitsha, the most downstream bridging point on the Niger River and home to West Africa’s busiest market, pounds and shillings were changing hands between Ibo shoppers and traders and being sold by moneychangers at a rate one pound to 270 nairas.
At a boisterous Onitsha street rally organized by a banned separatist group, the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), protesters brandished fistfuls of the notes alongside the rising-sun banner of the defunct republic.
“The naira ceased to be legal tender in Iboland in 1999 when MASSOB began the current struggle,” the group’s leader Ralph Uwazuruike told reporters at his fortified compound in the farming village of Okwe in the forests of Imo State.
Uwazuruike said the pound notes now circulating in Onitsha and across the cities of Iboland had been taken from stocks preserved after Biafra’s defeat in 1970 -- although notes appeared to be in good condition -- and that more could be printed as their use spreads.
“My people have come to terms with reality. They know they are no longer Nigerians because they have realized they are not wanted,” he said.
The growing sense of rebellion in Ibo lands has not gone unnoticed by Nigeria’s federal government and President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former loyalist general who fought against Biafra and accepted the surrender of rebel leader General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s forces.
Scores of MASSOB activists have been rounded up and some of them charged with treason. Local and international human rights groups have expressed concern that separatists have been killed or tortured by police and by the feared State Security Service.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country -- estimates for its population range between 130 and 150 million -- and it is home to more than 250 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups. With perhaps 40 million people the Ibo are one of the three biggest, along with the Hausa in the North and the Yoruba in the West.
Since independence from Britain in 1960, the country has been hit time and again by regional uprisings, the most serious being in Biafra. Since the war, Ibos have complained about being marginalized by successive military regimes headed by Hausa and Yoruba generals.
The country’s return to civilian rule in 1999 brought with it hopes of greater harmony. Instead the removal of the military’s iron fist unleashed a torrent of long-repressed demands for regional autonomy and for a new balance of power between the many national groups.
More than 20,000 people have been killed in ethnic, religious and political violence and many outside observers fear that Nigeria -- which the world’s ninth largest oil exporter and the key to security in a fragile region -- could fall apart.
“Nigeria’s leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave,” warned a report by the US National Intelligence Council which was released in March.
Of the many dangers facing Africa over the next ten years “the most important would be the outright collapse of Nigeria” it noted, adding that “if Nigeria were to become a failed state, it could drag down a large part of the West African region.”


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