Samuel Fury Childs Daly. A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xiii + 272 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-84076-7.
Reviewed by Roy Doron (Winston-Salem State University)
Published on H-Africa (September, 2021)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
In A History of the Republic of Biafra, Samuel Fury Childs Daly focuses on the Republic of Biafra and its manifestation in the country’s legal documents, rather than the state itself. Daly’s work eschews the traditional history of the separatist state, and instead it tells the story of crime and punishment during the war and the legacies of Biafra’s legal system in a reunited post-1970 Nigeria. This refreshing take not only shows Biafra as a republic in flux but also uses Biafran society at war to explain the criminality in postwar Nigeria, especially armed robbery and the notorious fraud emails, nicknamed 419 after the Nigerian penal code section that deals with fraud in general, that have been the butt of many a joke around the world. In short, this work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the Nigerian Civil War, and its refreshing perspective makes it an invaluable read beyond Nigerian and even African history. At its core, it is a story of a society at war and in crisis and the ways that crisis affected life after the war ended.
The book questions the notion of crime and criminality in an important way, looking at armed robbery, forgery, and other forms of fraud. Daly contends that these acts, which in peacetime would be considered serious crimes, could become redefined during war, especially in Biafra, whose population was under a constant state of deprivation. In fact, the war transformed the entire idea of criminality, as Biafran propaganda sought to portray the nascent republic as one of “law and order” of “resourceful and progressive blackmen.” At times, the resourcefulness clashed with the progressive law and order, due to the travails of war. Daly’s first chapter charts the crisis in Nigeria that led to the war in broad strokes that leave out much of the country’s political complexity before framing his work within the context of secession and the ideologies of state and nationhood. Most important to this analysis is that what made Biafra a state was its adherence to legal codes and the country’s active eschewing of Nigeria specifically for that reason.
The next two chapters examine violent crime and fraud respectively, with chapter 2 focusing on how different forms of violent crime spilled from the battlefield into the civilian sphere with crimes like robbery, rape, and, as food scarcity increased in the besieged Biafran enclave, murder and cannibalism. Chapter 3 centers on nonviolent crimes, such as fraud, forgery, bribery, and other types of deceptive practices. Unlike violent crimes, the Biafran judicial system proved more sympathetic to forgery, counterfeit, and other crimes of that nature, especially when they were crimes of survival. As the war dragged on and travel became more difficult, passes came into high demand, and they showed a particular breakdown of the state, as the distinction between forged and valid passes broke down with legitimate signatures adorning supposedly forged passes. Courts considered this and proved especially lenient in convicting forgers, especially toward the end of the war, when most aspects of Biafran governance had frayed.
These chapters display Daly’s work at its best. As any scholar of postcolonial Africa well knows, access to archival material is difficult, if it exists at all, and the case of the Nigerian Civil War, especially the Biafran side, is especially problematic. Recordkeeping in Biafra was near impossible, especially toward the end of the war, yet Daly’s impressive fieldwork and synthesis give the reader a vivid picture of a Biafran society suffering from war and famine, and the ways Biafrans, both government officials and private citizens, struggled to balance survival with values in the face of increasing hardships, often with contradictory results.
Chapter 4 deals with reintegrating Biafrans into Nigeria after the war. While Nigerian leader Yakubu Gowon decreed the war one of “no victors, no vanquished,” the Nigeria that Biafra was returning to was very different to the one it had left. Because of the massive exodus of Igbo from their homes in Nigeria and from the frontlines during the war, the abandoned properties became a serious wartime issue that the Nigerian legal system struggled to resolve. Port Harcourt in particular suffered from the problem, as half of the city’s prewar population was Igbo, most of whom fled in 1968. When they returned after the war, they found their properties occupied, and the courts largely sided with the squatters, leading to Igbo disillusionment with the courts. Compounding this, many saw the courts and the criminals now as part of a cooperative conspiracy that tolerated and even encouraged virtually all forms of crime, from theft and embezzlement to armed robbery and murder. Daly highlights this collusion with the case of an officer named Ededey, who would arrest people for imagined violations and impound their goods and possessions to sell on the black market. Though Ededey was punished, the government treated him as a “bad apple” rather than acknowledge the systemic issues at all levels of Nigeria’s government.
The book’s final two chapters follow the issues of violent crime and various frauds and forgeries after the war ended. Following the themes during the war, Daly examines violent crime and forgeries in separate chapters, linking the rise in crime both in the war’s aftermath and in the changing attitudes toward the rule of law in Nigeria under military rule. As a result, many in Nigeria came to see the courts not as an arbiter of justice but as part of a partnership with the criminals as the rule of law broke down and corruption and fraud ran rampant in the country
Daly’s at times overreaching thesis seeks to understand what happens “when a war ends, but the habits of the war do not,” adding that “it is impossible to understand Nigeria’s long experience with crime without the context of the Nigerian Civil War” (pp. 9, 13). The civil war no doubt intensified much of the criminality in the country, as Daly correctly asserts. He tends to treat the war as a break with Nigeria’s past and minimizes continuity, claiming that “the period when crime defined whole areas of Nigerian life began during the war” (p. 4). In doing so, he seems to understate some currents in Nigeria’s short history that led to the crisis and civil war, especially as the plotters of the first coup framed their action as a fight against corruption, cronyism, and “indiscipline,” a term that later became ubiquitous in Nigeria’s fight against crime, as Daly rightly states. However, his argument is even more cogent without claiming that the war transformed all aspects of Nigeria’s relationship with the law, especially as he lacks the evidentiary support to make a compelling case for that of the thesis, and without it, his ideas shine through in a more focused way.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of this work, like many on the Nigerian Civil War, is that the war itself does not feature in the narrative, except in allusions. This is not a critique of Daly’s work in particular but more of the state of the literature of the Nigerian Civil War, and African postcolonial conflicts in general. In Daly’s work, the war exists as a nebulous background that is omnipresent and pushes against society but is never overtly engaged with. In one instance, Daly discusses the issue of bribery and forgery in the issuance of travel passes when a civilian was given a forged pass to travel outside of Umuahia in October 1968, shortly after the Nigerian 3rd Division failed in its assault on the city. However, Biafra’s attitudes toward civilian movement was largely shaped by political considerations during the war, with the government wishing to avoid panicked responses. This policy was applied with an alarming lack of consistency that no doubt fueled the forging of passes to escape the danger areas. Early in the war, during the federal capture of Enugu, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu armed a battalion of civil defense personnel with farm tools and sent them to engage the Nigerian troops, only to see them flee in terror as soon as they made contact with the much better armed enemy. In Port Harcourt in May 1968, the government banned civilians from fleeing the city in an effort to boost the defense efforts. This act fueled not only the forging of passes but also a vigilante search for those attempting to flee, with or without permission. Adding a military dimension to the legal history of this issue, as well as many others, would have made the work engage more intimately with the fact that Biafra’s legal and societal stresses were the result of an everchanging and increasingly desperate military situation.
Daly’s fieldwork in Nigeria and his inspiring prose make this work an important addition to the growing literature of Nigeria’s tumultuous civil war, and the book’s few shortcomings do not detract from its importance. Indeed, this work should serve as a call for other scholars to examine how the legal system across the continent and beyond dealt with societal stresses and conflicts and the scars they left in their wake.
. Douglas Anthony, "'Resourceful and Progressive Blackmen': Modernity and Race in Biafra, 1967-70," Journal of African History 51, no. 1 (2010): 41-61.
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Roy Doron. Review of Daly, Samuel Fury Childs, A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War.
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