Afro-Pessimism and the Question of Biafran Nationalism

January 13, 2024
16 mins read

and the Question of Biafran Nationalism


Daniel Chukwuemeka



Saturday, March 9, 2019.


Perhaps the adoption of Afro-pessimism ‚Äď by intellectuals
– as a critical method in the evaluation of African nationalism, is to use it
as a theory to articulate alternative perspectives. On the one hand, those some considered as Black fundamentalists adopted
the term as a way to acknowledge the power, robustness and the radical nature
of the African imagination. Some proponents of Afro-pessimism have used it to
articulate the subject-position of abandonment, abjection, distancing, dread,
and doubt, in response to the enduring legacies of
colonialism. These include the view that dismantling white supremacy would mean demolishing much of
the social and political institutions of the modern world.


in international relations, Afro-pessimism is a
Western construct regarding the ongoing depiction of Africa and Africans in
Western media in terms of extreme poverty and backwardness by reflecting
Eurocentric images and rhetoric. As Noah Bassil noted in ‚ÄėThe Roots of
Afropessimism: The British Invention of the ‚ÄúDark Continent‚ÄĚ‚Äô, the
media tend to use such rhetoric to victimize and exoticize Africa for its ongoing
struggles with poverty and lack of modern development. The victimization
is then visible in the humanitarian and development projects, which
sometimes use the language of ‚Äėsaving‚Äô
African people from such humanitarian disasters. I argue that, drawing from the
Biafran quest for separate national entity from Nigeria as representative of
the first example of Afro-pessimism stated above, the second version of
Afro-pessimism which defends the merits of white supremacy can be a positive contrivance
atoning for its ugly past deeds if only it would‚ÄĒnot merely establish
humanitarian aids in Africa, but instead‚ÄĒsupport indigenous African nationhood,
since the bane of African politics and economy is ethnic conflicts in the
nation-states occasioned by colonialism.



Can anything good ever come out of Africa? This is a
question which many, including Africans at home and abroad, grapple with
whenever they discuss the state of affairs in Africa. But Africa is not a
country. Despite the shared historical experience of its people, it is a vast
continent with countries of diverse cultures and development index. Where I
come from, Nigeria, for instance, afro-pessimism permeates the sentiments of
most middle and lower class citizens regarding a possible redemption of the
country from the shackles of underdevelopment.

I have lived all the 29 years of my life so far in
Nigeria, where I was born and raised. But I currently live in the UK as an
academic. Prior to this, I lived in Germany, where I worked as part of an
editorial team creating an Oxford English-Igbo bilingual dictionary. Even
before my first six months contract was extended by my employer in Germany,
friends and family in Nigeria and a few others in the West (but especially
those in Nigeria) had insisted, advised, and begged that I should ‚Äėfind a way‚Äô
to remain ‚Äėthere‚Äô (Germany) after the expiration of my contract. ‚ÄėFind yourself
a casual job, even if menial‚Äô, one of them opined, ‚Äėinstead of returning to
Nigeria’. This is apparently one of their subtle ways of expressing
hopelessness in the Nigerian system. But I am not ignorant of the sources of
their frustrations.

In early March, this year, I was introduced to
Afro-pessimism by the keynote speaker at a conference on ‚ÄėUrban Walking‚Äô which
I was attending at Friedrich-Schiller-University in the small German city of Jena. I had finished my
presentation on negotiating cultural memory through urban noise in Teju Cole’s
novel, Open City in which I, among
other submissions, asserted that New York City today was built and developed by
the ruins, blood and sweat of the black slaves. I remember this because while
he approached me after my presentation, the keynote speaker, David Kishik of
Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, had emphasized the need for my
theorizing on the concept of Blackness to consider a certain Afro-pessimist
angle, that is, (and I suppose that was what he meant because our meeting was
very short and interrupted by the conference proceedings) one that will take a
nuanced and ambivalent position toward the subject and therefore strike a
balance between emphasizing the historical trauma of slavery and colonialism
and a critique of problems of contemporary African governance. Later I would
find Manthia Diawara’s In Search of
Africa, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My
Father’s House, and Achille Mbembe’s On
the Postcolony as critical testaments buttressing this perspective.

Before being prompted by Professor Kishik to take a
critical stand on Afro-pessimism, my position had always been that it was a
dormant discourse that is at best a consequence of Eurocentrism: that notion
that Africans are incapable of self-rule and need to be saved from themselves,
at least for the sake of humanity, read as the white man’s burden. But while I
dismissed such stance, which proceeds from an obvious invalidation of the historical
relevance of the African experience, I am not unaware of the fact that
apologists of organized violence against colonized societies such as the German
philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, justify the state of things in
Africa by totally berating the continent in the most callous terms.

If Hegel’s position was obsolete, so to say, since it
was made in the beginning of the nineteenth century, today we can still find
Western writers and journalists who make pessimistic comments concerning
Africa‚Äôs future. (Wafulo Okumo, in ‚ÄėAfro-Pessimism and African Leadership‚Äô
reminds us that the futurist author, Paul Kennedy pronounced in 1983 that
Africa‚Äôs future was ‚Äėextraordinarily gloomy‚Äô; journalists such as Blaine
Harden, in ‚ÄėAfrica‚ÄĒDispatches from a Fragile Continent‚Äô, David Lamb, in The Africans, Keith Richburg, in Out of America, and Peter Marnham, in Dispatches from Africa, ‚Äėbrazenly
painted Africa in dreary terms: unbridled corruption, state brutality, severe
underdevelopment and general desolation‚Äô. Also Robert D. Kaplan, in ‚ÄėThe Coming
Anarchy‚Äô declared that Africa is ‚Äėat the edge of the abyss‚Äô; and in its June
16, 1997 issue devoted to the theme, ‚ÄėAfrica is Dying‚Äô, The New Republic contested that what is happening to Africa ‚Äėis
nothing less than Africa’s exit from international society’.)

However, even as some Africans have themselves become
afro-pessimists in the above guise of thought, not all western observers of
Africa have completely written it off as a hopeless case. Therefore, while
Michael Chege, an African scholar at the center for African Studies of the
University of Florida had predicted that Africa is the only region in the world
where poverty and political violence are likely to increase in the opening
years of the twenty-first century, and as the likes of Jean-Francois Bayart
(author of Criminalization of the State
in Africa) and Patrick Chabal (author of Africa Works: Disorders as Politician Instrument) incessantly make
reference to the distressed and dysfunctional state of affairs in Africa, the
Western journalist, Blaine Harden, proposes that Africa could possibly be
rescued under a special programme such as a Marshall Plan, though a scheme
which critics such as Henry Hazlitt (in his book, Will Dollars Save the World?) and Ludwig von Mises, and which also
the historical revisionist Walter LaFeber have largely and effortlessly proven
to have had insignificant contributions in the economic recovery of Western
Europe, and ultimately a scheme which is unacceptable to the proposal of this paper
in relation to the African situation.



Outside the scope of academic theorizing, and
especially in the new media world of contemporary art, photography and news
reporting, Afro-pessimism is often blamed as the idea behind the performance of
Africa to the world in the form of what has come to be known as poverty-porn. Many
African scholars have condemned the lackluster and monotonous representation of
African realities in the media and art, especially by the West and a few other
African writers.

Africa has very serious leadership problems, which
have over time culminated in rendering it impoverished and underdeveloped. As
Teju Cole would say, ‚ÄėLagos is shit: people really suffer, so we are not going
to paint a picture that makes it look rosy. But, on the other hand, when you
acknowledge that Lagos is shit but it’s our Lagos, and we take care of each
other a little bit, that‚Äôs also largely a relief‚Äô. Then he added, ‚ÄėIf you do
something that has many layers and some people just have a tag-line to describe
it, then they are not talking about you. They are talking about themselves’.
The story of Africa has ‚Äėmany layers‚Äô and it will be quite preposterous for one
to reduce a whole continent to an obscure entity. I agree with Teju Cole that
such accounts of Africa are grossly uninformed and unbalanced, and seem to say
something about the gratuitous feeling which Frank B Wilderson says accompanies
the violence against the Black race, whose only request from humanity is for recognition
and incorporation.

The ambivalence of Afro-pessimism, even without its
theorizing aspects, does not condone undue sentimentalism. Providing only a
positive image of Africa to the world is not the forte of academics and leaders
of thought. Such is rather the calling of advertising agencies. The role of
intellectuals in this area is instead to fashion out a different environment
where a discourse on Africa devoid of representational prejudice would thrive.
This will therefore require a redefinition of the African epistemology on
Afro-pessimism in order to fashion out one that will, according to Enwezor
Okwui, be premised on ‚Äėthe recognition of the complexity of each situation,
seeing and writing about what is at hand in any given context as part of a
larger world and not merely as a series of disjointed, fragmentary narratives’.

There is need, therefore, for us to move away, as
proposed by Mohammed Ibrahim in a 2015 interview with France 24, from
Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism‚ÄĒboth which are a general branding of Africa
sometimes as a basket case and other times as the new frontier of economic
development‚ÄĒto Afro-realism: the need to look at what is going on, the
realities on ground. Ibrahim pointed out how much a misnomer it is to stick one
label to a continent of 54 countries, noting that countries such as Mauritius,
Namibia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and some other African countries are
moving forward. But he did not hesitate to also mention the systemic failure in
other African countries such as South Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria.

Mohammed Ibrahim’s realistic view of Africa comes with
one suggestion for an easier management and administration of African
countries: a more ‚Äėhomogenous population‚Äô in order to make governance easy, as
in the case of Namibia, since this will ensure a relaxation of political
tensions that are usually fuelled by religious and ethnic diversity and
competition.  I argue that Nigeria’s
large population and diversity, going by this index, does not contribute
positively to its governance and development.



In the spirit of specificity, Nigeria’s national
stories of debilitation can be addressed from the perspective of re-examination
of its national foundation. So instead of propagating Afro-pessimism (the subject-position of abandonment,
abjection, distancing, dread, and doubt in response to the massive, unending
consequences and historical upsets of
colonialism) or Afro-optimism (acknowledgement of the power and vivacity of the
pliability and radical imagination of Nigerians without addressing fundamental
national questions), we need a more viable middle ground, Afro-realism, one
that will draw the above elements of Afro-optimism in order to take to task the
reassessment of the factors that prompt its counterpart‚ÄĒAfro-pessimism. Thus
instead of providing Nigerians with humanitarian and development aids, (sometimes
using the language of ‚Äėsaving‚Äô
African people from humanitarian disasters‚ÄĒfinancial aids, such as from World
Bank and IMF, that African leaders end up looting, returning their nations’
developmental index to ground zero with increase in poverty and national
debts), the West can perhaps support indigenous African nationhood, since the
bane of African politics and economy is ethnic and religious conflicts in the
nation-states occasioned by colonialism. This instance of
Afro-realism that aims to dismantle the colonial
foundation of the Nigerian heterogeneous nationhood is exemplified in the
Biafran struggle for a separate nation state in Nigeria.

In Think Again, Marina Ottaway argues, with
very detailed and compelling points, that ethnic and cultural communities need
to be recognised as independent nation states, with her research interest in
politics of development centred in particular on Africa, the Balkans and the
Middle East. She identified the root cause of the underdevelopment of the many
failed states in the Global South when she declared that ‚ÄėMost of today‚Äôs
collapsed states, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, are a product of colonial
nation building. The greater the difference between the pre-colonial political
entities and what the colonial powers tried to impose, the higher the rate of
failure’ (17). Sadly, this is the case with Nigeria.

Biafran nationalism is
not going to be the first of its kind, as could be gleaned from the teachings
of Marina Ottaway:

Nationalism gave rise to most European countries that
exist today. The theory was that each nation, embodying a shared community of
culture and blood, was entitled to its own state… This brand of nationalism
led to the reunification of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871 and to the
break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918. This process of nation building was
successful where governments were relatively capable, where powerful states
decided to make room for new entrants, and where the population of new states
was not deeply divided. (17)

The Nigerian
population today is deeply divided along ethnic lines. And this invariably
results in its government (which is helplessly incapable of running a state)
being ridiculously divisive in policy making and implementation.

Two means of nation
building, according to Ottaway, are through wars and intervention of the
international community:

The most successful nations, including the United
States and the countries of Europe, were built by war. These countries achieved
statehood because they developed the administrative capacity to mobilize
resources and to extract the revenue they needed to fight wars. Some countries
have been created not by their own efforts but by the decisions made by the
international community. The Balkans offer unfortunate examples of states
cobbled together from pieces of defunct empires. Many African countries exist
because colonial powers chose to grant them independence… Such countries have
been called quasi states‚ÄĒentities that exist legally because they are recognised
internationally but that hardly function as states in practice because they do
not have governments capable of controlling their territory. (18)

Nigeria is therefore
a quasi state. The Nigerian-Biafran civil war of 1967‚ÄĒ1970 failed to determine what
could have been an ideal Nigerian nation-state: one that could have existed as
today’s United Kingdom (with England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as
its independent ethnic nationalities) or as a confederal state (such as we have
in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Serbia and Montenegro), or a dissolved state
(such as the case with the former USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Sudan).
Having lost the opportunity to create a viable nation-state through the war,
Nigeria, with its fragile national unity that has never looked sustainable
since after the civil war, had to rely on the other form of nation building
which all colonised groups were bequeathed with. In fact, the fragile national
unity of Nigeria is sustained by the hegemony of British colonialism. And many
historians of the Biafran civil war have asserted that the Nigerian government
received military assistance in crushing the Biafran rebellion. But there can
hardly be a true peace among any group where justice is trampled on, for the pursuit
of peace in the absence of justice will always end in wasting human lives to protect
what must have been a fraudulent agreement.

Therefore, today’s
realities point to the fact that the British colonial design of a one Nigeria
is a colossal failure. Afro-realists must look towards questioning that
colonial foundation as the starting point of any feasible form of nation
building. Because the defeat in the war did not succeed in quenching the Igbo
nationalism and quest for a separate ethnic nationality, neither was it capable
of truly uniting Nigeria towards a common national consciousness and identity
for growth and development.



It usually amuses me each
time a young Nigerian argues that it is intellectual laziness to finger the
British colonialism as the plague currently holding Nigeria down. I have always
maintained that such dismissive point of view is an ignorant and shallow
articulation of the nuances of the conundrum that is Nigeria, because I see
clearly how it fails to acknowledge the intellectual dishonesty and
irresponsibility in its rather romantic, disoriented claims. For me, what is
actually an exercise in intellectual laziness is the tendency to outright dismiss
the creation of Nigeria itself, the aims and objectives around it, by the
British, as insignificant in the discourse of the trouble with present day

Nigeria is like a
house with a very faulty foundation. It will never withstand soil vibration from
political seismic activity. The founders of Nigeria (not Ahmadu Bello and
Nnamdi Azikiwe or Obafemi Awolowo, please. We need to stop indulging in
historical ignorance and self-deceit.), the British colonial administrators,
neglected the breaks in seams among the ethnic panels that make up the entity,
and thus disregarded the need to lay a very strong foundation with an enduring
identity for what Nigeria is and for what it means to be a Nigerian. The early
post-independence Nigerian leaders mentioned above, on the other hand, failed
to go back to the historical and philosophical and even anthropological
laboratory to test the factors needed to draw up concrete and tenacious
principles of what consists a Nigerian identity in order to solidify the faulty
foundation they were already left with by the British. They failed to see the
necessity to‚ÄĒsince they decided to accept the new artificially contrived nation-state
in the late 50s‚ÄĒforge a binding force, a national ideal to live and die for,
and a creed to abide by, for a strong cohesion capable of erasing doubts and
suspicion among the ethnic groups, for an easy economic growth and development,
peace and progress.

I may be too blunt in
declaring that those who we refer to as the Nigerian founding fathers,
mentioned above, were too laid back in profiling and redefining the young
nation handed over to them (in the guise of ‚Äėindependence‚Äô), but I will
unapologetically insist that the British colonial legacy of a one Nigeria is
what is stagnating the country till today. So when I claim that colonialism is
Nigeria’s chief problem, and one mentions other colonised countries who are progressing
today, I would like to invite them to desist from such intellectual laziness by
going further in details to analyse the local peculiarities of the nations being

Homogeneity will
greatly favour many groups of people that make up Nigeria, because it ensures
reduction‚ÄĒor even a gradual process that can lead to a possible non existence‚ÄĒof
ethno-religious conflicts and other generic clashes of interest. If this is not
realisable as circumstances might show, only a return to regional government
will salvage Nigeria today and set it up for a reversal of the British colonial
fraudulent foundation it has inherited.

We will therefore
continue looking forward to a day Nigeria will have, in large numbers, leaders
who will be fed up with the cosmetic surgery that is the country’s current administration.
Leaders with vision, who will think long term and therefore support and vote
for regional government. Until then, we can only just be MANAGING (in) Nigeria.

The Afro-pessimists
who seem to specialise in doling out financial aids to the corrupt Nigerian
leaders and the Afro-optimists who still have faith in the Nigerian human
capital should, if at all they are sincere enough, lend their voice in the call
for a referendum to be recognised and held by the Nigerian government to enable
the country’s different ethnic nationalities determine whether to accept or opt
out of the Nigerian project or remain a part of the union wielding a high level
of regional autonomy.¬

Main Picture: The city of Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria. Image: courtesy of Wikipedia –¬†By Nwabu2010 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,¬†This article was originally presented as an
academic paper at the ‚ÄėNations and Nationalisms: Theories, Practices and
Methods‚Äô International Postgraduate Conference, Loughborough University, UK.¬

Daniel Chukwuemeka is a PhD candidate at the
University of Bristol. His thesis links e-fraud economy with colonial and
postcolonial economics using literary and cultural representations of the
subject in contemporary Nigerian texts. He lives in Bristol.

Afro-Pessimism and the Question of Biafran Nationalism

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