Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Fine Line Between War and Crime

Samuel Fury Childs Daly

As a historian and a reader, I am always attracted to questions that I don’t understand intuitively. Why people go to war is one of them. How lawyers and judges think is another. In A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War, I use law to describe what warfare does to ethics, behaviors, and norms. The book tells the story of the short-lived Republic of Biafra and the war of secession it fought against Nigeria from 1967 to 1970, primarily through court cases and oral history. Rich with intrigue and detail, Biafra’s scattered legal records provide a new angle on the war. Many are brutal accounts of will and endurance, and they cast light on the shadowy ways that people live in wartime. Military history helps us see how ordinary people live through wars, and legal history shows us how the forces unleashed by war can rage long after a conflict ends.

In Nigeria, the war created a potent mix of fraud and violence. Nearly anyone with an email account will be familiar with Nigerian advance-fee fraud, in which spurious “princes” or deposed political figures ask a stranger for money in exchange for some larger reward down the road. I argue that this form of fraud, which is known as “419” after the section of the Nigerian criminal code prohibiting it, emerged from the crucible of the Nigerian Civil War. Armed crime flourished too, as the boundary between martial violence and violent crime vanished. During the war, deception and armed violence were unavoidable features of life on and around the battlefield. Espionage, misinformation, and violence were tools that both the Nigerian and Biafran militaries used, and civilians used those same tools to survive the dangerous circumstances created by the fighting. Both sides tacitly tolerated the things they did to get by. After the war, the survival techniques that people had turned to – wielding arms to feed themselves, forging passes to move freely – did not disappear. Once the war was over, they became acts of “crime.” Fraud and armed robbery came to be stubbornly associated with Nigeria, tarnishing its reputation abroad, and making its citizens the targets of suspicion. Nigerians still carry the burden of that reputation today.

Nigeria still bears wounds from the war. Sitting in his darkened office packed with a career’s worth of paper, half-drowned out by generators and traffic in the busy center of Port Harcourt, a lawyer who had practiced in Biafra spent an afternoon telling me about everything that had gone wrong in Nigeria in the fifty years since the war’s end. Frustrated, he abruptly ended our interview by asking me a question. “So what is to be done? When Chernyshevsky asked that question Russia was under the tsar in a state of feudalism. When Lenin asked it fifty years later things were just as bad. We in Nigeria live here in conditions that are worse than either. So what is to be done? I do not think you will have an answer.” I had no answer for him at the time, and I still do not. Nonetheless, I think there is something to be learned from Biafra. I wrote this book to describe the Nigeria-Biafra War, which is an important chapter in African history. But I also wrote it to make a larger point: the heat of battle makes the line between “combat” and “crime” melt away. It is hard to redraw that line once it is gone.

A History of the Republic of Biafra by Samuel Fury Childs Daly
A History of the Republic of Biafra by Samuel Fury Childs Daly

About The Author

Samuel Fury Childs Daly

Samuel Fury Childs Daly is an Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, History, and International Comparative Studies at Duke University. He is currently writin...

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