The Looting of Igbo Culture: the Nigerian Civil War and the Forgotten Southeast

The relentless violence in northeast Nigeria continues unabated with the twin challenges of Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) heaping misery upon millions of people. Despite the constant efforts of the Nigerian Army the death toll continues to rise, with 20 soldiers and 40 civilians killed in the latest ISWAP attack a couple of weeks ago.

A village burnt by ISWAP militants in northeast Nigeria

At the same time, the de-securitisation of Borno state – the focal point for violence in the northeast of the country – has made ordinary villagers more susceptible to traditional threats such as cattle rustling, a recent incident resulting in a staggering 81 deaths.

Whilst the jihadist onslaught understandably captures much of the national and international attention regarding Nigeria, the country’s southeast has remained, on the whole, mercifully quiet. This is the land of the Igbo people, approximately 35 million Christians with a fraught recent past.

Prior to European colonisation, the Igbo had lived in autonomous local communities in what is today southeast Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. As was typical of European administrations in Africa, the Igbo lands were amalgamated into a more conveniently unified colonial state, regardless of traditional structures or inter-ethnic relationships.

A rich culture and history was gradually eroded – although by no means eliminated – first by the slave trade and then by British rule, with local Warrant Chiefs appointed to ensure loyalty to the colonial state. Christianity was introduced by British missionaries and European ideals of education and society impressed upon the Igbo population.

Igbo women in traditional dress, early 20th century

Nigerian independence in 1960 only solidified a distinct ethnic, cultural and religious divide between the Igbo people and their enforced brethren. Ethnic violence began to take hold, particularly in the north of the country where the Igbo were viciously persecuted by the Muslim majority, often with the backing of the federal government.

In 1967, the Igbo and their allies seceded and declared the Republic of Biafra in the country’s southeast. Two-and-a-half years of brutal civil war followed, with up to 100,000 military casualties. To compound matters, the federal government – with British backing – blockaded food shipments into the the nascent state; maybe 3 million people, most of them children, died of starvation, with millions more displaced as refugees. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered and the Igbo once more found themselves a part of Nigeria.

The territory of the short-lived Republic of Biafra

The discontent between the Christian south and Muslim north still persists, though some common cause has been found in fighting the demonic foe of Boko Haram and their deadly affiliates. The Igbo form just a part of this reeling population, yet in times of desperation they have arguably achieved greater  unity than they historically possessed, and have recaptured their cultural heritage.

But recapturing and retaining this heritage requires international support. Christie’s auction house has come under fire from a prominent art historian who has claimed that two wooden objects set to go on sale were looted from Igbo shrines during the civil war. Countless other priceless artefacts suffered the same fate.

The objects in question: representations of Igbo deities

Unfortunately, as we know, such looting flourishes in times of strife. Indeed, Facebook has recently had to ban the sale of looted antiquities on its platforms, with many objects pillaged from the war zones of North Africa and the Middle East. It is likely that similar events are occurring in northeast Nigeria today.

The Igbo have not fallen silent and many still see the future of their people separate to the Nigerian state. But the memory of bloodshed lingers long, even more than half-a-century after the civil war ended. On Biafra’s surrender, the government declared a policy of “no victor, no vanquished”; i.e. be quiet, go back to normal and, whatever you do, don’t reflect on the past.

A starving Igbo woman during the civil war

How can the Igbo fail to reflect, to look on their past without a sense of burning injustice? Starting with the slave-raiders, through British annexation and colonisation, the pains of de-colonisation and population displacement, ethnic persecution and civil war; it has been a long and painful road and, whilst the northeast of the country burns, the government in Abuja would do well to remember the discontent of the southeast.

As would the international community, who screamed in collective horror at the Biafra blockade of the late 1960s but has now forgotten the civil war and its legacy. As too would reputable auction houses, whose reputations will hopefully suffer immeasurably should they steal a cultural legacy they have no right to take.

Panama Warning to Mad Maduro: Venezuelan President Should Fear US Intervention

On 20th December 1989, US troops launched a swift and merciless invasion of the Central American state of Panama in a bid to oust and arrest the country’s renegade leader, General Manual Noriega. Over 500 Panamanians were killed and, after holing up in the Vatican embassy for 11 days, Noriega surrendered on 3rd January 1990.

US troops in Panama City, December 1989

For decades Noriega had proven a useful ally to Washington as head of Panama’s military intelligence during the Cold War. He provided vital information to the CIA and was a conduit for weapons, cash and equipment being channelled by the US to anti-communist forces throughout Latin America.

Noriega was also a massive drug trafficker, a fact the CIA conveniently ignored such were his intelligence credentials. After all, the Americans had got into bed with a whole host of other unsavoury characters during the course of the Cold War, Latin America proving a hotbed for communist revolt. So what was one more?

Having become de facto ruler of Panama in 1981 following the suspicious death in a plane crash of his former benefactor Omar Torrijos, Noriega ramped up his drug dealing and money laundering escapades. Panama’s proximity to the Colombian border, his control over the military and connections with the US gave him an almost unassailable advantage over his competitors.

Yet Noriega pushed his luck too far, and as the Cold War drew to a close and his usefulness dissipated, it became increasingly difficult for Washington to overlook his fatal flaws. The invasion of late 1989 had been months in the planning and Noriega would spend the rest of his life incarcerated or under house arrest. He died in 2017.

Noriega surrenders to the DEA

In the past week 19 of the victims of the Panamanian invasion were exhumed to try and confirm their identity. Many locals argue that the death toll far exceeds the official total of 514 and that the 20,000 rampaging US troops that turned Panama City into a warzone acted with unchecked impunity.

Not too far away from Panama lies the failing state of Venezuela, somehow still in the hands of the despotic Nicolas Maduro, another leader pushing his luck when it comes to the potential for a US intervention. Since succeeding the populist Hugo Chavez, Maduro has destroyed Venezuela from the inside, the country’s oil wealth squandered by a man unbelievably uncaring of his people’s misery.

Maduro, too, is propping up his rule and the critical support of the armed forces through engaging in drug trafficking. In April this year, the US indicted Maduro and 14 close cadres with drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, corruption and money laundering, a similar list to the one they threw at Noriega. The president has continued unabated, however, seemingly confident that the US wouldn’t dare invade.

The DEA has offered a $15m reward for information that leads to Maduro’s arrest or conviction

Certainly, with a population of close to 30 million spread across over 900,000 square kilometres of harsh terrain, Venezuela would offer a very different challenge to US forces than Panama did (current population approximately 4 million). With backing from China, Russia and Iran added into the mix, Maduro has also become a useful (if ultimately) expendable proxy for the revisionist states seeking to undermine US power.

Perhaps out of all of Donald Trump’s deranged proclamations and ideas, a military intervention in Venezuela could attract significant international support and at least be justified on a moral level. Whilst the president purportedly labelled the idea of an invasion of Caracas as ‘cool’, according to John Bolton’s incendiary new book, it is undoubtedly a step that will have been seriously considered by American military planners.

With people starving and denied access to medical treatment, in the midst of a pandemic that has seen their asylum routes into Colombia and Brazil closed off, the scale of horror being suffered by the Venezuelan people remains unknown.

Starving children eat from rubbish dumps in Maracaibo

A descent into civil war is not unimaginable should Maduro’s drug money run out, or his military backers lose patience. With cartels and criminal gangs still a major presence in neighbouring countries, potentially strengthening their grip on territory and personnel during the cornoavirus outbreak, who knows what carnage could be unleashed if Venezuela fails completely.

The days of American military intervention in Latin America may seem to be a relic of the Cold War. But the call for decisive action on the Venezuela issue will only grow louder as the plight of its people worsens. What will it take for the president to give the green light and send his special forces south once more?