Secessionist Biafra lost a war that divided Nigeria. But songs aimed at motivating troops in a lost cause have given the Igbo group a lasting heritage.
Biafran army volunteers train with rifle-sized sticks, Owerri, Nigeria, 1 August 1968 (AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)
Songs can provide harmless entertainment, but during war they can inspire patriotic fervor and inject nationalistic propaganda into people’s lives.
Music conveyed a nationalistic agenda during the Biafran War, a brutal civil conflict inside Nigeria that pitted government troops against rebels from a secessionist state in the eastern part of the African country dominated by the Igbo ethnic group.
During the war from July 1967 to January 1970, an estimated 100,000 soldiers were killed and between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died of starvation from a campaign that many Biafrans and outside observers said amounted to genocide.
Atrocities stemming from the conflict between mostly Christian Igbos and largely Muslim Nigerian troops spurred efforts by numerous non-governmental organizations to ship aid to Biafra and led to the eventual creation of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
During the war, the Igbo people incorporated patriotic elements into music in an effort to strengthen a new Biafran identity and justify the state’s short-lived claim to independence.
Starving Biafran children, Port Harcourt, Nigeria,
22 January 1970 (AP Photo/Dennis Lee Royle)
The origin of Biafran war songs is no mystery. The music “grew out of the prevailing circumstances of the time” and was inspired by the war and tension between Nigeria and Biafra, Ogonna Aku, a professor of music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, wrote in her book African Languages and Cultures.
Some of the songs were newly composed, others were reworked versions of older tunes. The songs were not accompanied by instruments, according to Aku.
‘We must defend our lives or we shall perish.’
Nigerian author and professor Okey Ndibe, who is of Igbo ethnicity and lived through the war as a child, said the songs were used to praise “the ingenuity of people” while proclaiming “the unjustness of the enemies.”
Since there was very little food or weapons for Biafrans, “parents and young adults often [sang] their willingness to die at home” to boost morale and to articulate national consciousness despite the hard times, Ndibe said in a telephone interview.
The songs served as propaganda by capturing Biafrans’ hatred towards their enemies, as well as their suffering, anger and frustration with forced separation from their families, Aku said.
Consider the national anthem of Biafra:
Land of the rising sun, we love and cherish,
Beloved homeland of our brave heroes;
We must defend our lives or we shall perish.
We shall protect our hearts from all our foes;
But if the price is death for all we hold dear,
Then let us die without a shred of fear.
In evoking the “land of the rising sun,” the song aimed to stir hope among Biafrans. The words demarcated Biafrans from Nigerians by saying “we shall protect our hearts from all our foes.”
By arousing the collective consciousness of Biafrans as well as their hostility against Nigerians, the songs strengthened an emerging national identity.
Take another song, one that focused on the forced separation of couples during the war (translation by Ogonna Aku):
I was going to battle
And my baby kept crying…
Dear baby, should I run away from battle?
Dear baby, should I run away?
Who would shoot the gun
If I run away?
Despite the pain of separation, the narrator evokes his paramount duty to the Biafran homeland.
Songs helped define Biafra’s heritage.
By appealing to nationalistic sentiment, the songs steeled Biafrans for a conflict that they ended up losing and which some experts said was doomed from the start, given the disparity in military assets between Nigerian and Biafran forces.
Despite the outcome, the songs continue to echo through Igbo culture.
“No matter their perceived value, Biafran war songs, these ‘soft tools of war,’ still sustained soldiers and civilians on the roads and along the moving front line of this three-year conflict and continue impacting those who once sang them, as proved by the number of those included in post-war narratives,” Francoise Ugochukwu of The Open University wrote in 2012.
Ndibe said the songs continued to define Igbo culture even after the war. Ironically, numerous musical groups emerged among Igbos after the war, helping Biafrans to “reintegrate into Nigeria as more people recognized the creativity of the Igbos,” he said.
And so songs from Biafra created during a lost military cause survive today on platforms such as YouTube that did not even exist at the time of the bloody conflict.
(An earlier version of this story said the civil war started in May 1967, whereas — as an alert reader pointed out — it began in July. We have corrected the date.)
Miki Yang is a student at Miss Porter’s School in the U.S. state of Connecticut. She is one of the co-founders of the Globricks Chinese Program in Connecticut. Yang speaks Mandarin, English, the Szechuan dialect and Spanish. She enjoys photography, writing, squash and golf.