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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Echos from a vanished nation

Whilst undertaking a major reorganization of my house and all the junk accumulated over many years, I have been constantly rediscovering little treasures at the bottom of boxes or at the back of seldom visited closets which have not seen the light of day for many years.

One of the most interesting items to emerge today was a pristine £1 note issued by the Bank of Biafra: a poignant reminder of a truly savage war which raged between the Nigerian Federal Government and Ibo Separatists from 1967 until 1970. I acquired the banknote during a trip I took to Nigeria in the late 1970’s with my grandfather. A business associate of my grandfather was a former Biafran soldier and gave it to me after we had a very interesting chat when we visited his home in Port Harcourt.

click for bigger image

The daily images of starving children with beri-beri during the dying days of the Biafran Republic was one of the first things I saw on television as a child which I recall having made a real impact on me. That was also what started both my fascination with Africa and my abiding cynicism towards it. I find objects like this bank note a fascinating bit of not-so-far-off history that one can hold in one’s hand and finding such things is one of the reasons I have always so enjoyed travelling.

10 comments to Echos from a vanished nation

  • I get the same feeling looking at old “Dominion of Canada” dollar bills.

    I understand the new People Democratic Republic of Bananada script is soon to be printed.

    It’ll commemorate the consumation of the one party state, with endless corruption scandals, boondoggles, and (quasi) monopoly news provider.

    What I really miss is the absence of a good juicy political sex scandal though. “Politician and Moose caught with beaver intern.” or something.

  • Never trust a country whose currency is pretty. They are spending their money on the wrong things.

  • Don’t leave stuff like that laying around. It belongs in your books. It stands a much better chance of not being forgotten and just blowing away, and every book worth having requires at least one bookmark.

  • Lucas Wiman

    I recently acquired a 250 dinar Iraqi note in a poker game (which was illegal, now that I think about it–we were gambling). In any case, the person I won it from was a soldier who had just been honorably discharged after several months of active duty in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan. He apparently had a lot of them, but an internet search caused something of a rumble at the table. A look at the exchange rate gave that this bill was worth over $750. The soldier initially thought he had been ripped off, but he was confused. Apparently people had been desparate to get rid of these bills for good American currency or solid goods–they were treated as essentially worthless. However, a bit more Googling solved the problem. It seems that this was the official Iraqi exchange rate (something like $3.16/dinar), but the street exchange rate was something like 16000 dinars/$.

    The bill is something I will hold on to for as long as it lasts, if only for the amusing picture of Saddam. It is very cheaply printed, on cheap paper. Folding it to put it in my wallet caused some fraying around the crease, and I fear that if I handle it much more it will disintegrate. A close inspection of it confirms that the color separation is off. What a great and mighty republic…

  • Amazing image! I’d never actually seen one of these things until now.

    Looking back at the history of Nigeria, I can’t help feeling that Awolowo made a gigantic mistake in siding with the Northern states rather than agreeing with Ojukwu’s desire to secede. A state so riven by so much ethnic discord simply can’t be expected to endure.

  • I also remember the pictures from Biafra, but I remember the ones on French TV that were extremely pro Biafran and pro white mercenary.

    In Jaques Foccart’s book “Foccart Parle” he explains that the French supported the Biafran war because they did not want a powerful english speaking African nation to emerge in ‘their’ part of west Africa.

    A similar thing seems to have happened in Rwanda, where they were perfectly happy to see the French speaking Hutus slaughter the Tutsis who were in danger of being liberated by the English speaking Tutsi rebels who’d learned the language during their exile in Uganda.

    Who knew, that for the French government speaking English is a death penalty offense?

  • I carry around a pair of 500 piastre notes, from South Vietnam. They were crackling new, in 1975 when one of the refugees I was working with at the time gave them to me: very pretty, orange notes, with a tiger on one side and a Saigon government building on the other. Should that government ever return, perhaps I may buy an ice cream, or tip a taxi driver with them….

  • Murel Bailey

    I used to work with an Igbo guy named Jude. He said that Biafran secession failed because their state was trying to take territory with petroleum resources with them.

    Sometimes when he wanted to shock people he’d talk about eating bugs during the famine. He was a remarkable character – not bitter at all, and quite eager to make someone else’s skin crawl with a shocking story.

  • runt

    I was in SE Nigeria a few years ago and I remember an Igbo woman (early 20s) asking if she looked fat. In my western way, I assured her she wasn’t – which was true. She was very disappointed with my attitude. Being fat is apparently something to be proud of in Igboland. Not sure if that has something to do with the famine.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    I have a Ukrainian 3-ruble “kupon” from 1992 in my wallet. This was just after the disintegration of the USSR, but before the other republics had their own currency. (I’ve also got some 1992 Latvian ruble currency.) At the time, there were about 100 rubles to one US$, which went down to a few thousand (IIRC) before the new Russian rubles came out a few years back.

    What was the oddest about the Ukrainian rubles is that there were black marketers offering to exchange their “kupony” for other people’s Russian rubles.