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Legal Status of the Biafra, Then & Now

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Organization of Emerging African States
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Biafra declared independence on 30 May 1967 and was forcibly terminated on 12 January 1970 through military conquest by Nigeria after a genocide of one million people. Biafra was diplomatically recognized by five diverse nations: Tanzania, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Haiti. Others like The Holy See and some International Governmental Organizations maintained informal relations with Biafran government. Biafra is often compared in legal treatises to the failed state of Katanga, which attempted to devolve from the Belgian Congo in 1960. While the case shares some similarities, there are many differences, the main one being at no time did any sovereign state ever recognize Katanga. Biafra therefore is no Katanga and is unique. The Biafran people like other victims of genocide such as the Jews and Armenians have recovered over the past two generations and now seek justice, freedom and recompense from the Nigerian oppressors.

The historic Biafran Republic lacked much in the way of international recognition and had virtually no allies. Biafra incurred the enmity of the major world powers of the time, the former colonial power Great Britain, and even the ire of Organization of African Unity. But Biafra did most certainly meet the test of statehood under the criteria of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: population, government, the ability to enter in foreign relations, and control of territory. Nonetheless, almost all international law sources try to categorize Biafra as a footnote and a failed attempt at secession or rebellion rather than a recognized state that once existed and was brutally conquered. This is surely a case of the victors and former colonial powers writing the legal history to raise the hurdle for national self-determination in Africa and with the vested interest to maintain the status quo of fantastically corrupt African countries like Nigeria. In fact, Biafra was the first African post-colonial state in that it was not based on some former administrative unit of imperialism.

There are many examples of states that are de facto governments yet unrecognized. Somaliland is one example having met all Montevideo criteria since 1991 but lacking the recognition of even a single nation. Somaliland is a self-declared state but the lack of international recognition hampers its ability to become a full member of the community of nation states. In Ukraine, there are the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics, which like Biafra broke away from a repressive federal state, but these too are unrecognized. There are also examples of current and past states recognized by only a single government; today's Northern Cyprus by Turkey, Tibet prior to its annexation to China in 1951 diplomatically acknowledged only by Mongolia, and the notorious apartheid Bantustans acknowledged only by South Africa.

On the other hand, there are states like Biafra that were recognized by a minority of other states: Taiwan (Republic of China in Exile) by give or take two dozen countries and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are currently recognized by five and six UN-member states respectively. More famously the German Democratic Republic had recognition withheld for decades by West Germany and its allies. Similarly, Mongolia was unrecognized 1940-1960 by allies of the Republic of China.

Biafra was recognized by four African states and Haiti, a small minority of the world's states yet more than a single state and therefore significant. Recognition of Biafra was not based solely on kinship, ideology or politics. In the words of the Haitian President Duvalier: "The Recognition which the Government of the Republic of Haiti solemnly gives to the Republic of Biafra is based upon the cardinal principle of its foreign policy, namely the indefeasible right of peoples and governments to decide freely of their destiny. This recognition of the Republic of Biafra as a free and sovereign state is in keeping in line with my doctrine of government to participate in the defence of oppressed states and peoples."

The Exile Government

It should be noted that the Biafran President Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was not captured but instead went into to exile in the Ivory Coast. From there indeed the trail does go cold for a while especially as Ojukwu accepted a pardon from the Nigerian government in 1982. MASSOB (the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra), a non-violent movement, was formed, in 1999 as a catalyst to reinvigorate Biafra and is still a flickering flame today hampered much by a lack of unity among bickering pro Biafran organizations and its own foibles.

The next chapter definitively begins in 2007 in Washington, DC with the Biafra Declaration declaring a government in exile. Signed by Emmanuel Enekwechi, PhD and Oguchi Nkwocha, MD, the declaration clarifies the purpose of the government in exile and reaffirms the independence of Biafra. The definitive goals and purposes of the government are clearly delineated:

Secure the Freedom and Liberty of Biafra and its peoples;

Represent the Sovereignty and Interests of Biafra throughout the world;

Engage in international relationships and diplomacy with Governments, States, Nations and Organizations;

Organize for the security of the peoples, properties and land of Biafrans;

Obtain diplomatic recognition for the Sovereign State of Biafra;

Organize the negotiation of trade and other economic activities on behalf of the peoples of Biafra.

It is not unusual for there to be a period of years between exile and the declaration of an exile government. The de facto Republik of Serbian Krajina went into exile in 1997 and the exile government was declared in 2005, and in the case of the East Turkistan Republic the gap is far longer, with exile in 1949 and declaration only in 2004.

A legitimate exile government is one that flows from a recognized state as opposed to a so-called exile government that is in reality a liberation movement. A secondary route to legitimacy occurs as in the case of Western Sahara when a liberation movement is thought to express the will of its people to self determination and is recognized internationally. Governments however are generally reluctant to confer any legitimacy to exile governments that lacked any authority before exile.

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Dr. Jonathan Levy PhD is an attorney, solicitor, barrister and advocate in the US and Commonwealth and has practiced extensively before UN organizations, the African Union, international tribunals, and in the courts of several countries. He is (more...)

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