Biafra and the Staircase Theory

Biafra was a short-lived state in eastern Nigeria that existed from 1967 to 1970. The name "Biafra" was derived from the Bight of Biafra, a bay in the Atlantic Ocean that forms the coastline of southeastern Nigeria.


The secessionist movement that led to the creation of Biafra was sparked by the perceived marginalization and discrimination of the Igbo people, who are the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria. The Igbo had been politically and economically marginalized by the Nigerian government and were subjected to discrimination and violence by other ethnic groups in Nigeria.


In May 1967, the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared the secession of the region from Nigeria, and the formation of the Republic of Biafra. The Nigerian government rejected the declaration and launched a military offensive against Biafra, triggering a civil war that lasted for three years.

The Biafran forces were initially successful in repelling the Nigerian army, but the conflict soon turned into a brutal and bloody war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, due to famine and disease. The Nigerian government's blockade of Biafra prevented humanitarian aid from reaching the population, leading to widespread starvation and malnutrition.


In January 1970, Biafra surrendered to the Nigerian government, and the war ended. The Igbo people faced further persecution and discrimination after the war, which led to a continued sense of marginalization and exclusion. Today, the Biafran secessionist movement has resurfaced, with some Igbo people still calling for the creation of an independent Biafra state.


According to Charles E. Ekpo, in a study in Peace & Conflict Studies Programme published by the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, “Explaining the Resurgence of Biafra Radicalisation and Nationalism in South-East Nigeria,” in recent times, there have been several secessionist movements in South East Nigeria. Their activities have gained enough momentum to attract the attention of the Nigerian state. However, such movements are often viewed through the lens of power politics, with little justification for challenging state sovereignty, and interests often concealed by hardened positions that allow the crisis to escalate.


This study analyzes the potential of secessionist group radicalization and their possible adoption of terror strategies against the Nigerian state. The researchers adopted the theories of Relative Deprivation and Horizontal Inequality as frameworks to analyze the marginalization of South East Nigerians. Additionally, the Staircase Radicalization theory was used to evaluate the progressive scale of secessionist activities and to determine the present threshold or the possibility of crossing the red line.


What is the Staircase Radicalization theory?


It’s just like it says on the tin: radicalization is envisioned as a staircase of progressive and incremental steps toward radicalization, especially in the context of political violence. It suggests that individuals or groups do not become radicalized overnight but instead go through a gradual process that leads them to adopt more extreme beliefs and behaviors over time.

According to this theory, radicalization occurs in stages or steps, with each step building on the previous one. These steps may include feelings of alienation or marginalization, exposure to radical ideologies, identification with a particular cause or group, and a willingness to use violence to achieve their objectives.


The theory also suggests that the final step in the staircase of radicalization is the adoption of terrorism as a strategy for achieving political goals. This is because terrorism represents the most extreme form of political violence and requires a high level of commitment and ideological conviction from its perpetrators.


In other words, when peaceful methods of conflict resolution are forestalled, then those whose political needs are not met will resort to greater and greater violence. 

I would also add that not all terrorism can be explained by oppression or denial of rights. The ideology of the group involved also determines how quickly it will leap to the justification of violence. The more innately authoritarian the ideology of the group, the more rapidly they will endorse violence.

However, more democratic societies should take longer to embrace terrorism. Elsewhere, Ekpo has argues that Igbo culture was a republican system:

The Igbo republican system reflected a political arrangement in which village heads, rather than persons who could be described as imperial overlords, presided over village assemblies. It was purely representative (Nkwuocha&Emeghara, 2013). At all levels, all adult males took active part in the decision making process; and women too were known to have taken part in various processes that resulted in important decision (Falola, 1989). Its egalitarian nature ensured that checks and balances were not abused and that government decisions did not run contrary to the aspirations of the electorates.

Although not a requirement of the Staircase theory per se, I would add that this is an example of the Democratic Peace Theory applied to domestic affairs.


My own interest in Biafra was initially sparked by the intensely intellectual and artistic traditions coming from Nigerian writers, such as Chinua Achebe. Of course, Nigeria is a more accessible part of Africa for an American to understand because it is part of the Anglosphere; Nigerian literature is now part of World English Literature, and includes some of the most beautiful English novels of the Twentieth Century.

There are several notable works of fiction set during the Biafran Civil War or War of Independence. Some of these include:


"Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - This novel follows the lives of four characters, including a professor, his lover, her twin sister, and a young houseboy, during the Biafran War. I recently watched a fairly good film adaptation of this book.


"There Was A Country" by Chinua Achebe - This memoir by the renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe recounts his personal experiences during the Biafran War.


"Season of Migration to the North" by Tayeb Salih - Although not set during the Biafran War specifically, this novel deals with themes of colonialism, independence, and cultural identity in post-independence Africa.


"The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma - This novel is set in Nigeria during the 1990s but deals with the aftermath of the Biafran War and the continued tensions between different ethnic groups in the country.