“We Are from Biafra”. Igbo Students in the USSR during the Civil War in Nigeria, 1967-1970

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Abstract

Drawing on the Russian archival documents the article examines the Soviet policy towards Igbo students who studied in the USSR during the civil war in Nigeria (1967-1970). They sided the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra, Eastern Nigeria, seceded from Nigeria in May 1967. The USSR supported the territorial integrity of Nigeria, provided military and other assistance for the Federal Government in its confrontation with Biafra. However, the Soviet authorities took neutrality in the conflict between Nigerian Embassy in Moscow and Igbo students. They did not expel students at the requests of the Embassy as “accomplices of the separatists” investigating each case carefully, did not hinder the activity of the Biafrian fellowship. Since the dissemination of Biafrian propagandists’ production was banned in the USSR, they tried to reach the Soviet audience through appeals from Igbo students who studied in the USSR. The appeals did not include the main issues of Biafrian propaganda to the West: accusations of the Federal Government of the Igbo genocide by Nazi methods and the portrayal of the civil war as a religious conflict - a jihad of the Muslim North against the Igbo as the largest and most organized Christian community in Nigeria. The dominant thesis was about the nature of the civil war as a struggle of the “socialist” East, Biafra, against the “feudal-capitalist” North, the central government. The students appealed the Soviet officials to recognize publicly the legitimacy of the Biafrians’ aspirations for self-determination, to stop supplying arms to the Federal Government and to mediate in a peaceful settlement. There were no responses to the appeals, and they were not made public. Based on archival documents, the author established that the Soviet leadership reasonably feared that Biafra would become the fiefdom of the main geopolitical rivals - the United States and Great Britain. To prevent this USSR entered into an alliance with the federals. The calculation was to enhance the Soviet influence throughout Nigeria, albeit with a “reactionary” government, rather than support the “progressive” breakaway Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) and receive nothing.

About the authors

Sergey V. Mazov

Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences

Author for correspondence.
Email: s.mazov@mail.ru
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6502-751X

PhD in History, Dr. of Sc. (History), Principal Research Fellow, Centre for African Studies

Moscow, Russian Federation

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