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Over the course of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70), many people in the secessionist Republic of Biafra resorted to forgery, confidence scams, and other forms of fraud to survive the dire conditions created by Nigeria's blockade. Forgery of passes and other documents, fraudulent commercial transactions, and elaborate schemes involving impersonation and racketeering became common in Biafra, intensifying as the Biafran government's ability to enforce the law diminished. Using long-neglected legal records from Biafra's courts and tribunals, this study traces the process by which deception emerged as a practice of survival in wartime Biafra – a process with important implications for the growth of fraud (known as ‘419’ after the relevant section of the Nigerian criminal code) in reintegrated postwar Nigeria.



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Research for this article was supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Mellon Foundation, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. I am thankful for comments by the anonymous reviewers of The Journal of African History, along with Gregory Mann, Mamadou Diouf, Golda Kosi Onyeneho, and Vivian Chenxue Lu. Author's email:



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1 Nigerian National Archives, Enugu (NNAE) MINJUST 116/1/8, The State v. Arnold Akpan, 18 Nov. 1969. Names of criminal defendants have been changed to protect anonymity.

2 Imo State High Court, Owerri, uncatalogued collection, ‘Return of cases to registry from Anambra State’, 1 Feb. 1991.

3 Readers today may know 419 as a form of Nigerian advance-fee fraud conducted primarily over email. As this article will demonstrate, the body of fraudulent practices encompassed by that term is in fact much older than the Internet.

4 On crime as it relates to corruption in earlier periods, see Ochonu, M., Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression (Athens, OH, 2009); Smith, M. G., Government in Zazzau, 1800–1950 (London, 1960); Ottenberg, S., ‘Local government and the law in southern Nigeria’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 2:1 (1967), 2643 . Measuring the scale of crime quantitatively is difficult, but see Global Witness Report, ‘International Thief Thief’ (2010); Ellis, S. and Shaw, M., ‘Does organized crime exist in Africa?’, African Affairs, 114:457 (2015), 505–29.

5 See Osaghae, E., Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence (Bloomington, 1998); Ellis, S., This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime (London, 2016).

6 White, L., Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015), 17 .

7 Aside from some cases preserved in the Nigerian National Archives in Enugu, most of what remains of Biafra's legal record is found in the storerooms of provincial courthouses and the personal archives of lawyers who practiced there. This material is not only scattered but also endangered by neglect. The incompleteness of this record makes it impossible to analyze the incidence of fraud quantitatively. The present approach interprets these cases individually, identifying patterns in jurisprudence where possible.

8 This dynamic has analogues elsewhere. For example, Charles Tilly found a similar nexus between war and crime in Western Europe after the Second World War. Tilly, C., ‘War making and state making as organized crime’, in Evans, P., Rueschemeyer, D., and Skocpol, T. (eds.), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge, 1985), 169–87.

9 Many, but far from all, of these people were Igbo. It is important to note that ‘Biafran’ was not coterminous with the ethnic category ‘Igbo’, and both terms concealed considerable internal diversity.

10 In a vast literature, see, for example, Madiebo, A., The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War (Enugu, 1980); Obasanjo, O., My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967–1970 (Ibadan, 1980); Alabi-Isama, G., The Tragedy of Victory: On-the-Spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre (Ibadan, 2013). Since the war was politically sensitive in Nigeria under military rule, fiction became one of the primary ways in which Nigerian intellectuals could publicly reckon with Biafra's legacy. Among many works, see Achebe, C., Girls at War and Other Stories (London, 1972), Emecheta, B., Destination Biafra (London, 1994); Adichie, C. Ngozi, Half of a Yellow Sun (New York, 2006).

11 See, for example, Cronje, S., The World and Nigeria: The Diplomatic History of the Biafran War, 1967–1970 (London, 1972); Sargent, D., A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (Oxford, 2015), 68100 .

12 Biafra's internal history is most vividly told in memoirs and biographies, including Akpan, N., The Struggle for Secession, 1966–1970: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War (London, 1971); Sampson, E., Evergreen Memories of Sir Louis Mbanefo (Lagos, 2002); Onyegbula, G., The Memoirs of the Nigerian-Biafran Bureaucrat: An Account of Life in Biafra and Within Nigeria (Ibadan, 2005).

13 Interview with Jerome H. C. Okolo, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (an honorific equivalent to Queen's Counsel, hereafter SAN), Enugu, 17 Sept. 2014.

14 In this respect, this project speaks to the important theoretical literature on how postcolonial states govern and the ways in which they pursue or internalize criminal acts. See Comaroff, J. and J. Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (Chicago, 2006); Mbembe, A., On the Postcolony (Berkeley, 2001); Piot, C., Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War (Chicago, 2010).

15 Bayart, J., The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (Cambridge, 2009 [orig. pub. 1993]), 41 ; Chabal, P. and Daloz, J., Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford, 1999), 95 .

16 Siollun, M., Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture 1966–1976 (New York, 2009); Watts, M., State, Oil, and Agriculture in Nigeria (Berkeley, 1987).

17 Ayatse, J., Cultism in Nigerian Educational Institutions (Makurdi, 2005).

18 Peterson, K., Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative Life in Nigeria (Durham, 2014).

19 Tamuno, T., ‘Trends in policy: the police and prisons’, in Tamuno, T. and Atanda, J. A. (eds.), Nigeria Since Independence: The First Twenty-Five Years, Volume IV (Ibadan, 1989), 92 .

20 Though the forms of crime he described are more diffuse than that term suggests. See Ellis, This Present Darkness, 215–30.

21 Apter, A., The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (Chicago, 2005).

22 Smith, D. Jordan, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria (Princeton, 2008).

23 Pierce, S., Moral Economies of Corruption: State Formation and Political Culture in Nigeria (Durham, 2016). Writing from different genres but asking related questions are Nwaubani, A., I Do Not Come to You By Chance (New York, 2009); Newell, S., The Forger's Tale: The Search for Odeziaku (Athens, 2006).

24 Smith, A Culture of Corruption, 226.

25 See, for example, Nigerian National Archives, Ibadan, CWC 1–5, ‘Nigerian Pogrom 1966’, Biafran Directorate of Propaganda (1967).

26 The cases discussed here are from both the common law courts and the Special Tribunal of Biafra, a tribunal established under Biafra's emergency measures with wide jurisdiction for acts of ‘subversion’ – a loosely defined offense which could include virtually any criminal or seditious act.

27 See, for example, a case involving acts of forgery and misconduct by a bank clerk, ESHC uncatalogued collection, Harrison Ofonda Amadi v. African Continental Bank, Limited, 28 June 1967.

28 ESHC uncatalogued collection, The State v. Kenneth Oji, 12 June 1969.

29 On the creative, reinventive current in Biafran official ideology, see Anthony, D., ‘“Resourceful and progressive blackmen”: modernity and race in Biafra, 1967–1970’, The Journal of African History, 51 (2010), 4161 .

30 Interview with Jerome H. C. Okolo, SAN, Enugu, 17 Sept. 2014.

31 For fictionalized treatments of this dynamic, see Iyayi, F., Violence (London, 1979); and Ekwensi, C., Survive the Peace (London, 1976).

32 NNAE BCA 1/1/15, Oscar Oti and two others v. The State, 2 Feb. 1968.

33 NNAE MINJUST 116/1/6, The State v. Catherine Nwabunike, 10 Apr. 1969.

34 In the large literature on claim-making in colonial courts, see Mann, K. and Roberts, R. (eds.), Law in Colonial Africa (Portsmouth, 1991); Pierce, S., Farmers and the State in Colonial Kano: Land Tenure and the Legal Imagination (Bloomington, 2005); Ibhawoh, B., Imperial Justice: Africans in Empire's Court (Oxford, 2013).

35 Interview with A. M. O. Onukaogu, Umuahia, 9 Mar. 2015; interview with Barrister Mike Onwuzunike, Enugu, 14 Sept. 2014. This protective capacity of passes suggests that Biafrans conceived of them differently than the history of other pass regimes in Africa, like apartheid South Africa or Kenya under the kipande system, might lead one to expect.

36 A large literature demonstrates how regimes of documentation can substantiate (or challenge) claims to sovereignty. See Howland, D. and White, L., The State of Sovereignty: Territories, Laws, Populations (Bloomington, 2008); Kafka, B., The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (Cambridge, 2012).

37 Interview with Ejike O. Ume, SAN, Onitsha, 12 Mar. 2015.

38 On the history of Igbos in Nigerian administration, see Anthony, D., Poison and Medicine: Ethnicity, Power, and Violence in a Nigerian City, 1966 to 1986 (Portsmouth, 2002); Harneit-Sievers, A., Constructions of Belonging: Igbo Communities and the Nigerian State in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, NY 2006).

39 Interview with A. M. O. Onukaogu, Umuahia, 9 Mar. 2015.

40 The Biafran government called those who had fled from other parts of the Nigerian Federation ‘refugees’ in order to underscore Biafra's status as a separate nation-state.

41 Protective documents and objects have long history in eastern Nigeria, and one that predates colonial administration. See Dike, K., Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885 (Oxford, 1956), 66 ; Nwokeji, U., The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World (New York, 2010), 164, n. 24.

42 It is not clear how successful this endeavor was. National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK) FCO 38/287, Sir David Hunt to Commonwealth Office, 9 Aug. 1968.

43 NNAE MINJUST 117/1/8, The State v. Benson Isaac Jaja, 10 Apr. 1969.

44 NNAE MINJUST 117/1/8, The State v. Benson Isaac Jaja, 10 Apr. 1969.

45 Interview with Barrister Mike Onwuzunike, Enugu, 14 Sept. 2014.

46 Interview with Ejike O. Ume, SAN, Onitsha, 12 Mar. 2015.

47 The production of passes and other documents by Biafran village militias and civil defense organizations illustrates this ambiguity. Although few of these cases were taken to court, civil defense committees routinely complained that the passes they issued to members were not honored by soldiers, tax collectors, and policemen. They took great umbrage at being accused of forgery by the central government, and considered their passes and documents to be as real as ones ‘issued by Biafran head of state Ojukwu himself’, as one commander complained. National War Museum, Umuahia (NWM) uncatalogued collection, ‘Umuobom Civil Defence Committee Minute Book’, 1968–9.

48 NNAE MINJUST 117/1/7, The State v. Joseph Nwabueze, 10 Mar. 1969.

49 NNAE MINJUST 117/1/6, The State v. Casimir Ige, 19 Feb. 1969.

50 On wartime trade, largely conducted by women, see Harneit-Sievers, A. (ed.), A Social History of the Nigerian Civil War: Perspectives from Below (Hamburg, 1997); Chukwu, G., ‘Biafran women under fire: strategies in organising local and trans-border trade during the Nigerian Civil War’, in Osaghae, E., Onwudiwe, E., and Suberu, R. (eds.), The Nigerian Civil War and its Aftermath (Ibadan, 2002); and Uchendu, E., Women and Conflict in the Nigerian Civil War (Trenton, 2007).

51 See, for example, NNAE MINJUST 117/1/3, The State v. Ohalete Chijioke, 17 Dec. 1968.

52 Biafra Sun, 8 June 1967, p. 8.

53 NAUK FCO 65/231, Record of Mr. Foley's meeting with Ambassador Ferguson on Friday, 21 November, 1969.

54 Interview with anonymous former barrister, Enugu, Mar. 2015.

55 Biafra Sun, 14 July 1967, p. 1.

56 Biafra Sun, 4 Aug. 1967, p. 5.

57 See, for example, NNAE BCA 1/2/35, Kalu Njoku and Ekea Udensi v. Ukwu Eme and four others, 13 July 1968; ESHC uncatalogued collection, The State v. Luck Ume, 11 Oct. 1969.

58 NNAE BCA 1/1/45, Bank of West Africa, Ltd., Uyo v. Effiong Okon Eyo, 24 June 1968.

59 Interview with anonymous former officer, Enugu, Sept. 2014.

60 Judges in the postwar East Central State were acutely aware of the relationship between the war and the growth of fraud. Some took notice of it in their decisions. See, for example, ESHC uncatalogued collection, The State v. Levi Okoro (alias Young Negro), David Onwuachu and Matilda Elekwa, 2 Aug. 1971.

61 Interview with Kola Babalola, SAN, Port Harcourt, 5 Mar. 2015.

* Research for this article was supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Mellon Foundation, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. I am thankful for comments by the anonymous reviewers of The Journal of African History, along with Gregory Mann, Mamadou Diouf, Golda Kosi Onyeneho, and Vivian Chenxue Lu. Author's email:


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