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A Short History of Biafra and Nigeria: Background information when reading Half of a Yellow Sun

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Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie X
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2007, 528 pages

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A Short History of Biafra and Nigeria

This article relates to Half of a Yellow Sun

Print Review

Located on the west coast of Africa, Nigeria (map) is the most populous country in Africa (~122 million in an area about double that of California).  It became a state in 1960 when it declared its independence from Britain. In 1966 a series of coups and counter coups started that continued until 1999 (other than for a short lived "second republic" from 1979-1983) when democracy was regained.

It was believed that the January 1966 coup was initiated by Igbo officers (the Igbo or Ibo are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa constituting about 17% of Nigeria's population), as a result, in September of the same year there were mass killings of migrant Igbo living in northern Nigeria. In response to this, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria (home to about 11 million Igbo) declared the region an independent state. Initially, Nigeria responded with an economic blockade, which was followed up with military force in July 1967. By 1970, Biafra was in a state of economic and military collapse and Ojukwu fled the country, leaving Biafra to be re-incorporated into Nigeria. It is estimated that 2-3 million people died during the conflict, mostly through starvation and illness.

Biafra was officially recognized by only a few countries, but a larger number provided assistance to them during the war.  France, Rhodesia and South Africa provided covert military assistance; the Portugese islands of Sau Tomé and Príncipe (relatively close to the coast of Biafra/Nigeria) were key to the humanitarian relief efforts; and Israel (who recognized Biafra as a sovereign state) gave Biafra the arms it captured during the 1967 "Six-Day War".

Nigeria contains at least 250 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own customs and languages (the official language is English) which continues to lead to ethnic tensions. The coastal city of Lagos used to be the capital and remains the largest city in the country, but in 1991 the purpose built city of Abuja, in the center of the country, was made the capital; however Abuja remains largely undeveloped with many of the government buildings still in Lagos.

Despite some irregularities, the April 2003 elections marked the first civilian transfer of power in Nigeria's history, and the administration made efforts to diversify the economy away from overdependence on oil production (20% of GDP and 95% of foreign exchange).  Umaru Yar'Adua, of the People's Democratic Party, was elected President in the 2007 general election, which was condemned by local and foreign observers, who alleged widespread vote-rigging.

Ethnic violence continues to plague the oil producing Niger Delta region (Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers but few Nigerians benefit from the oil wealth) and inter-religious relations and inadequate infrastructure remain significant issues.

In recent years the government has begun to implement the market-orientated reforms required for it to be eligible for relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and in November 2005 the Paris Club* agreed to eliminate $30 billion of Nigerian dept (out of a total of $37 billion in external debt); but first Nigeria must repay about $12 billion in arrears to its bilateral creditors (as of April 2006 it had paid back 4.6 bn.)

*The Paris Club is an informal group of financial officials from 19 of the world's richest countries, which provides financial services to indebted countries and their creditors. Founded in 1956 to handle crisis talks between Argentina and its creditors, it meets every six weeks in Paris.

This "beyond the book article" relates to Half of a Yellow Sun. It originally ran in September 2006 and has been updated for the September 2007 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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