We recently began an academic exposé on secularism in Africa. A recommended case for the secular studies in Africa is Nigeria. Nigeria officially emerged at the dawn of the 60s as an independent nation, after decades of being administered as a British colony. In 1967, a civil war broke out between the nation and its Eastern region. The region was seeking secession. The Eastern region was the indigenous homeland of the Igbo ethnic group and sub groups. They had established a country on their indigenous part of the country, and named it Biafra. The country had ministries, a civil service sector and a bank. There is a lot written about the war already, although the Biafran struggle is not given due attention in the secular studies. In Ahiara Declaration, the Biafrans identified their cause as a Black self-determination struggle against racism, White economic imperialism and Arab-Muslim expansionism. One of the first things Biafrans did upon establishing their country was to create a bank. In the piece below, the author examines the bank notes of Biafra. We have included pictures to the vital reading, to facilitate a visual understanding. The author also covers the financial challenges that the nascent nation faced during the course of the war, when Biafrans fought for their self-determination while being totally blockaded and ferociously bombed by the Nigerian army.
The Bank Notes of Biafra
First published in the
International Bank Note Society Journal
Volume 36, No.4, 1997
This edition has been updated.
There would be very few collectors of world bank notes who have not come across one or more of the bank notes issued by the secessionist state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. Because the notes are very common there is a tendency amongst collectors to ignore them. However they are an intriguing set of notes and will provide a collector with a complete set of a ‘country’ for an affordable price.
Many collectors will be familiar with the events of the Nigerian civil war, and equally there will be many younger collectors who have little or no memory of the events. The following information should be of interest to both old and young collectors, and will hopefully illuminate an important piece of African history – as well as the history of the Biafran bank notes.
Nigeria was for many years a British colony, but in 1960 it became an independent Federation of three regions – Northern, Western, and Eastern. (After independence, a fourth region – the Mid-west – was created.) Several years later, in 1963, Nigeria became a republic, but it was being plagued by power struggles; and, like so many modern African nations, these power struggles centred around ethnic groups. There are a number of ethnic groups in Nigeria with no group being a clear majority, however the Northern region was dominated by the Hausa, the Western by the Yoruba, and the Eastern by the Ibo (or Igbo).
Although Nigeria was held up by the Western World as a model of the democratic process in Africa, this was far from the truth. Power was being concentrated in the hands of a few factions in each region, and nationally there was a great deal of political jockeying between the major ethnic groups – particularly the northern Hausa against the southern Yoruba and Ibo. The machinations of the various political elements caused Nigeria to lurch from one political crisis to another in the early years of nationhood. However, matters became critical in January 1966 when a number of junior army officers attempted a coup. While the coup was unsuccessful, it resulted in the deaths of the Prime Minister of Nigeria, the Premiers of the Northern and Western Regions, the federal Minister of Finance, and a number of senior army officers.
Not surprisingly, the coup generated a deal of confusion and animosity across Nigeria, ultimately resulting in violence. Because many of the officers involved in the coup were Ibos, and because the Premiers of the Eastern and Mid-West Region (who were both Ibos) remained unharmed in the coup, it led many to believe that the coup was promoted by the Ibos. Riots, which broke out in several parts of the country, thus found Ibos as the targets of violence.
In an effort to take firm control of the country, General Ironsi was appointed by the Nigerian cabinet to head a federal military government. General Ironsi (an Ibo) managed to stabilize the situation, and one of his first acts was to appoint military governors to the four regions – with the most important appointment being that of Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to govern the Eastern Region. When many Ibos decided to forsake their homes and businesses, and flee the violence in various parts of Nigeria to return to their homelands, it was Lieut.-Col. Ojukwu who advised them to return to their homes and businesses, assuring them that peace would be returned under the new government.
While peace and order were steadily re-established by the Military Government, the stability was being undermined by the desire of the Northern Region to secede from the Federation. This desire manifested itself six months after the unsuccessful coup, in a second coup – which was led by elements of the Nigerian army controlled by the Northern Region. The second coup was successful, and resulted in northern officers taking control of the country and forming a new government – led by General Gowon. The coup also resulted in General Ironsi being murdered, and hundreds of Ibo officers and soldiers being rounded up by their northern counterparts and shot. These overt actions by the new government precipitated massacres of Ibo civilians throughout Nigeria (but particularly in the Northern region), with estimates of the total killed ranging from thirty to fifty thousand. The massacres, not surprisingly, created much fear amongst the Ibos living outside the Eastern Region, and in the weeks following the massacres (September 1966) some two million Ibos gave up their homes and businesses to seek refuge in their eastern homelands.
It is believed that the Northern Region undertook the coup with the main aim of secession, however British diplomats in Lagos (the Nigerian capital) convinced the new leaders that they should seek unity under ‘one Nigeria’. Having alienated the Ibos, the future of a united Nigeria was looking slim, particularly as those in the Eastern Region refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new government.
In the Eastern Region, from the time of the massacres, there arose a strong movement amongst the Ibos to break away from the federation. The leaders of this movement were close to the Military Governor, and from late 1966 it seems that plans were being put in place for the Eastern Region to secede. When the federal government offered to appease those in the east, their efforts were rejected, and although a lot of effort was made in trying to bring about a reconciliation, it appeared that those in the east were not willing to come to a compromise.
In January 1967 the Eastern Region began impounding the rolling stock of the Nigerian Railways and seizing goods at Port Harcourt that were the property of federal authorities. It appeared that the Eastern Region was forcing the hand of the central government – so in an effort to coerce them back under federal control, Lagos began to impose an economic blockade. From April 1967 payments to federal-owned concerns (and employees) were stopped, import licenses to the region were with-held, and all foreign exchange standing in credit of the regional government was seized.
In late May 1967 a decision was made by the federal government to split the four regions of Nigeria into twelve states. This action and the preceding blockade were the necessary catalysts that those in the east were looking for to show their hand. So, on 30 May 1967, the Eastern Region was declared an independent republic by Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu. The name given to the new state was ‘The Republic of Biafra’, the republic taking its name from the Bight of Biafra, on which it had its coast.
However, Nigeria saw the Biafrans as rebels who were seizing control of the Eastern Region, and determined that force was necessary to bring the recalcitrant state back under the control of the central government. Certain that no great force would be required to subdue the rebel government, the Nigerians prepared for what they referred to as a ‘police action’. After some months of preparation, the federal government launched their first offensive against ‘Biafra’ on 6 July 1967, and the Nigerian civil war began.
The war continued for two and a half years, with Biafra finally capitulating on 15 January 1970. Despite many early successes, Biafra was mostly on the back foot during the conflict; and, as well as defending itself, had to support the millions of refugees who had returned to the region after the massacres. During the war Biafra reported terrific atrocities by the Nigerians against her people, and reports of starvation which cost hundreds of thousands of Biafran lives became widespread. The Biafran conflict is well documented, with many works addressing the struggle from both sides. What is less well documented, are the many aspects of the administration of the war-torn state – aspects such as the establishment of the Bank of Biafra and the issue of the Biafran bank notes.
The Bank of Biafra
After the declaration of independence, one of the new Republic’s first concerns was to establish the infrastructure of the new state. Essentially, most of the institutions required for running the new republic existed as part of the Nigerian government’s administration for the Eastern region. So it was merely a matter of changing the line of authority to the Military Governor of Biafra, rather than to the relevant Minister in the Nigerian government. Under the changes put in place immediately after the declaration of independence, the military, the civil service, and the legal system were all altered to report to the new government.
One of the first institutions to be created by the republican government was the Bank of Biafra, which was accomplished under ‘Decree No. 3 of 1967’ (also known as the ‘Bank of Biafra Decree, 1967’). Under this decree the functions of the bank were established:
‘The Bank shall carry out all the central banking functions in the Republic including the administration of foreign exchange and the management of the public debt of the Republic.’
Under this decree the bank was to be administered by a board consisting of a Governor and not less than four Directors, who were to be appointed by the Military Governor. The Governor of the Bank seems to have been Sylvester U. Uqoh (as deciphered from the signature on the Biafran bank notes), but the identity of any directors remains a mystery.
The Bank of Biafra Decree also stated that all property held in the republic by the Central Bank of Nigeria was to be transferred to the Bank of Biafra. One of the more interesting assets of the Central Bank that was specifically seized was its currency. Paragraph 8 of the decree states:
‘Currency notes and coins of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall remain legal tender in the Republic of Biafra until such further day as the Military Governor may specify.’
Paragraph 9 of the decree then states:
‘The Bank shall maintain existing parity of the Nigerian pound.’
Under the decree, the central office of the Bank of Biafra was to be in Enugu, which was the capital of the Republic. However Enugu was one of the first casualties of the war, and the administrative centre of Biafra was moved to several locations (including Aba, Umuahia and Orlu) during the course of the war. The headquarters of the Bank of Biafra were known to be located in Port Harcourt in early 1968, but the town fell to federal troops on 19 May of that year, and the headquarters of the Bank were probably relocated several times due to the fluctuating fortunes of the Republic.
Under a separate decree – ‘Decree No.4 of 1967’ (also known as the ‘Banking Decree, 1967’) – the Banking Act of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was adapted to suit the requirements of the Republic of Biafra. With these two decrees the financial framework of the Bank of Biafra was established, but there was still a more important problem to be faced – that of financing the war.
When Biafra declared its independence, it was drastically short of equipment to fight the war, despite the declarations of Lieut.-Col. Ojukwu. Equipment had to be bought quickly, and (of course) had to be paid for. To purchase military equipment on the open market, Biafra had to have foreign exchange, and the efforts of the Biafrans to obtain this foreign exchange were quite exhaustive and quite varied.
Contemporary reports claim that many individuals presented their savings in local and foreign currency to the government so that weapons could be bought; later, gold and jewels were donated as contributions to the war effort. Money was also being raised from outside the republic. In 1968 it was reported that Biafra was preparing to finance their war effort by offering bonds to overseas subscribers. Unissued copies of ten year bonds for the value of one thousand pounds, dated 15 June 1969 and offered through the London agents of the Republic of Biafra, are extant and show that this method of financing was attempted – although it is not known how many bonds were actually issued.
Another external source of revenue that was rumoured to have come to the Biafrans, was an advance of six million pounds against the promise of mineral rights. According to documents illustrated in the Daily Times (Lagos) on 9 August 1967, the mineral rights – for columbite ore, uranium, coal, tin concentrates, natural oil, and gold ore – were ceded to the ‘Rot(h)schild Bros Bank’ for a period of ten years. However, most commentators on the war discounted these claims as Nigerian propaganda, seeking to discredit both Ojukwu and the French.
During the war, a number of international relief agencies were delivering food and medicine to the war-ravaged Republic. Following the end of the war, federal sources claimed that they had found evidence of the Biafrans asking the relief agencies to pay landing fees (in foreign exchange), for the use of their air-strips. This desperate method of raising foreign exchange supposedly lasted only a brief period of time.
By far the most important strategy of the Biafrans in their quest for foreign exchange, was the conversion of their holdings of Nigerian currency. There have been differing reports as to the amount of Nigerian currency in circulation at the time of secession, but when Nigeria’s Finance Commissioner announced on 30 December 1967 that the new Nigerian notes would replace the current notes in circulation between 3 January and 22 January 1968, he also stated that some £37 million had been seized by the rebels in the east. The Biafrans, on the other hand, claimed that by the end of January 1968 they had collected more than £53 million. However, yet another estimate stated that £30 million were circulating in Biafra at the point of secession, with further reserves of £40 million being held in the bank vaults of the Central Bank in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Whatever the actual amount was, following secession large amounts of currency were quickly taken to Europe where they were added to a further £6 million that had been transferred prior to secession, and steps were taken to convert these Nigerian bank notes into foreign exchange.
Reports exist that the Biafran government approached the Rothschild Bank – either shortly after the outbreak of war, or at least by the end of 1967 – in an effort to transform their holdings of Nigerian currency. The reports indicate that Rothschild was prepared to pay twelve shillings and sixpence in British currency for each Nigerian pound. (From other reports in the press at the time, this appeared to be the general rate available for the notes. The official exchange rate at the beginning of 1968 was one Nigerian pound to one pound three shillings and four pence sterling – making the Rothschild offer approximately half its real value.) While the Biafrans seem to have rejected this offer, it is likely that some conversion did take place (though not necessarily through Rothschild) – as Gen. Ojukwu stated in February 1969:
‘We have been fighting the war with Nigerian foreign exchange, plus of course, what we converted or what we acquired earlier on.’ (Ojukwu, 1969)
The reference to ‘what we acquired earlier on’, possibly refers to a windfall to the Biafrans in 1967. In August of that year, just after war had broken out, the Biafrans made a bold assault on the Mid-West region, and meeting little opposition moved to within 120 miles of Lagos. Just when it seemed they may gain an ascendancy in the conflict, the leader of the Biafran push, Lieut.-Col. Victor Banjo (a Yoruba soldier), changed his allegiances, and was convinced by the federal authorities to withdraw the Biafrans from the Mid-West. Moreover, he was commissioned to take part in a plan to assassinate Ojukwu and topple the Biafran regime – a plan that was later uncovered and which cost Banjo his life. However when Lieut.-Col. Banjo had ordered the withdrawal of the Biafran troops from the Mid-Western city of Benin in mid-September, the retreating forces had taken with them some two million pounds in Nigerian currency, taken from bank vaults in Benin. (The vaults had held twelve million pounds, and the other ten million pounds were left untouched, it seems there was just too much money for the retreating forces to carry.)
It is probable that the two million Nigerian pounds captured in Benin were used by the Biafrans to finance their war effort. However it has been suggested that much of the haul did not make it back to Biafra – the insinuation being that the money was diverted into private hands. It has also been suggested that the money ultimately fell into the hands of Nigerian soldiers who failed to declare their discovery. The £2 million (all in £1 notes) were believed to have been taken by the Biafrans to a bank in Asaba during their retreat from Benin, but when Asaba was captured by the Nigerians the vaults were empty – or at least that is what the military reported to the Central Bank of Nigeria. Notes from the missing cache of one pound notes from Benin started appearing in Lagos in October (just two months after they had been seized) and doubt remains as to whether they were brought back to Lagos by Nigerian soldiers, or by speculators in Nigerian currency who may have bought them at a discount from the Biafrans.
Nigeria had quickly become aware of the movement of currency from Biafra to Europe and its conversion into foreign exchange. In an effort to curb the flow, the federal government issued a decree in June stating that Nigerian currency exported from Nigeria (including the rebel held Eastern Region) after 21 August 1967, would not be redeemed by the Nigerian Government. Not only was Nigeria taking steps to halt the flow of currency from Biafra, steps were also being taken to introduce a new series of bank notes which would be unavailable to the Biafrans. Once the new notes were introduced, the federal government could stop redeeming notes of their current issue, and by that process make the Biafran holdings worthless – consequently, the Biafran holdings were forced to be sold at a discount. It was generally reported that the notes were being sold at discounts of over 40% their face value. There were of course many stories of enterprising Nigerians who were buying the Biafran holdings in Europe at a discounted rate, and shipping them back to Nigeria where their full value could be obtained. Intermittent reports continued to appear in the international press in late 1967 and early 1968 of foreign nationals attempting to smuggle Nigerian currency into Nigeria.
When the Nigerian government announced that the old currency would no longer be legal tender after 22 January 1968, there were frantic efforts by the Biafrans to exchange their holdings. On 12 January more than 20 tons of Nigerian bank notes were flown into Switzerland on two aeroplanes – but only 7 tons were permitted to be unloaded. Because 13 tons of the notes arrived in an aircraft registered in Rhodesia, a country with which Switzerland had no diplomatic relations, the Swiss authorities refused to let the cargo be unloaded and the aircraft was forced to continue to Lisbon.
On 22 January, seven suitcases filled with Nigerian currency worth £252,000 were discovered at London Airport after one of the suitcases split open. The cases were due to be loaded on a flight to Accra in Ghana. Two days earlier an aeroplane carrying £7 million of Nigerian currency was seized at Lomé in Togo. The notes were reported to be on transfer from the Banque Populaire Suisse in Basle to a bank in Ibadan (in Nigeria), but were handed over to the Nigerian government by the Togolese authorities. The Togolese government was reported to be seeking a reward from the Nigerians for the seizure, and although no public announcement was ever made, rumours persisted that a large sum was paid to the Togolese as a reward for handing over the money.
The first bank note issue
Most commentators on Biafra’s bank notes report that the first issue occurred immediately after the declaration of independence – but this is not correct. Although reports had appeared in the international press as early as June 1967 that Biafra intended to issue its own bank notes, it was not until 1968 that the first bank notes were introduced. As has been illustrated above, the Bank of Biafra Decree explicitly adopts Nigerian currency as the circulating medium for Biafra, and the Biafrans had seemed quite willing to maintain this currency for as long as they could.
Prior to the war, Ojukwu had expressed the desire for a loose association of states which would include the Nigerian regions (as separate states) and its neighbours such as Togo and Dahomey (Benin). One of the barriers to this loose association would have been the different currencies, but Ojukwu did not see this as an insurmountable problem, and his subsequent desire to retain the Nigerian currency for Biafra may be ascribed to his desire to retain a single unit of currency in a confederation of states (which is what he hoped his secession would bring). On the other hand, the retention of Nigerian currency may simply have been to provide a recognised circulating medium, and to provide some legitimacy to Biafra’s use of Nigerian currency in purchasing foreign exchange.
When the Nigerians announced that they would no longer redeem bank notes exported from Nigeria after August 1967, the Biafrans worked quickly to gather bank notes remaining in circulation so that they could be converted into precious foreign exchange. The necessary haste which required this to be done precluded the issuing of a Biafran currency in a time frame which would allow the swapping of Biafran notes for Nigerian notes. Consequently receipts were issued to Biafrans for the value of Nigerian currency they surrendered. When Nigeria announced the introduction of their new note issue was to be on 3 January 1968, the Biafrans were still collecting Nigerian notes. Despite the advance warnings given by Lagos, and the dubious manner in which the Biafrans were raising revenue with Nigerian currency, the Biafran Government looked upon the Nigerian announcement as a heinous action. Comments made in a speech by General Ojukwu in February 1969 (a year after the events), reflect the public despair that was expressed at the Nigerian decree (although Ojukwu himself could not have been surprised):
‘The government has long been aware of the terrible experiences of our people over the issue of currency. The present difficulties started when early last year  Nigeria, on the advice of Whitehall, suddenly decided on its wicked and diabolical plan to dispossess our people of their wealth by means of the notorious currency switch. We had to do something quickly to save the near-disastrous situation. New currency was introduced. With the short time at our disposal, we could only produce notes in denominations of £1 and 5/-; we could not produce coins. We had to arrange and conclude the exercise in a hurry. The production of our currency notes could not be of the highest quality.’ (Ojukwu, 1969)
From Ojukwu’s speech it appears that the emergency issue was prepared in a short period of time, although the need for an alternate currency would have dated from the time when Nigerian notes were first withdrawn from circulation. Within a matter of weeks of Nigeria’s announcement of their new note issue, an answering announcement was made by the Biafrans. On 27 January 1968 Gen. Ojukwu declared to the 7th Session of the Consultative Assembly and Council of Chiefs and Elders:
‘Fellow countrymen, I am happy to announce to you that I have today signed a decree introducing Biafran currency notes which will be the legal tender throughout the Republic of Biafra. By that same decree, Nigeria currency notes will cease to be legal tender in Biafra. Our new currency notes, along with our new postage stamps, will be issued to the public on January 29, 1968.’ (Ojukwu, 1969)
Despite Ojukwu’s official speech on 27 January and an announcement to the international press on 30 January on the introduction of the new bank notes, there is some lingering doubt as to the official versions of events (which can sometimes be misleading, especially when recorded some time after the events). There is the possibility that the Biafran currency was actually introduced earlier than stated, for in an interview at Umuahia on 18 January 1968, Gen. Ojukwu made the following comment:
‘I understand that some women in the villages said that if this money [during the recall of Nigerian currency for Biafran currency] was wanted for the war they did not mind; the government should take it all.’ (Ojukwu, 1969)
The italics in the above quotation is an editorial comment added to the interview for the publication of Ojukwu’s book, and it could not be correct if the Biafran currency was introduced some ten days after the interview. The editorial comment is therefore either incorrect (the recall may have been for the interim receipts), or the currency was issued earlier than Ojukwu stated; and one source does give the date of issue as 10 January. Whatever the exact date of issue, the quote above does show that, following Nigeria’s announcement of their new note issue, Biafra continued to collect as many Nigerian notes as possible before the notes could no longer be redeemed. This is supported by a statement by Dr. Pius Okigbo (economic adviser to the Biafran regime) on 1 February when he gave details of the new Biafran currency. It was in this statement that Dr. Okigbo said that the Biafrans had collected £53 million in the three weeks since Nigeria’s announcement that the notes would no longer be legal tender after 22 January.
Another discrepancy in official versions lies in the date of the declaration whereby Nigerian notes were no longer to be legal tender. Ojukwu’s speech dates the declaration at 27 January 1968 (the date of the announcement of Biafra’s new currency), whereas his ‘Diary of Events’ dates it at 22 January (the same day that the old Nigerian notes were no longer accepted by the Central Bank of Nigeria).
Records of the introduction of Biafran currency, which might confirm the dates in question, are few and far between. This is due to two main reasons – firstly, such a matter becomes of secondary importance in the struggle of a war-torn country, and secondly, it appears that Ojukwu played his hand on this matter quite close to his chest. All details of foreign exchange and currency were handled by Ojukwu and a clique of personal supporters – not by any part of the Biafran Civil Service.
Currency itself seems to have been a subject close to Ojukwu (or one of his advisers), as we find the following clause in instructions sent to the delegates of the Eastern Region who were negotiating with Nigeria prior to secession.
‘The question of central banking and coinage is something which must be very carefully looked into. I am worried by the news that the Federal Government, because of shortage of funds for its services, has authorised the printing of a large quantity of unbacked notes for circulation. Such a unilateral inflationary decision could damage the economy of the component parts. I shall send to the conference, when the time comes, economic experts who will advise on detailed arrangements with a view to safeguarding our future in this respect.’ (Akpan, 1972)
It is most likely that when the time came to organise the first issue of Biafran notes, Ojukwu played a significant role. Unfortunately he was later to suffer a problem far removed from the over-issue he suspected Nigeria of planning – he was to face empty bank vaults and the lack of a circulating medium. (This occurrence being due to insufficient Biafran notes being delivered to replace the Nigerian currency, which had been extracted from circulation.)
Realising that their activities had led to a greatly reduced amount of money in circulation, the Biafrans prepared to replace the Nigerian currency, with this endeavour resulting in the first Biafran note issue. There were only two denominations in the first issue (five shillings and one pound), and according to Dr. Okigbo in his statement of 1 February the reason for this was the desire for the Biafrans to deflate their economy – although the reality would appear to be insufficient planning. Realising that the currency was unlikely to be accepted outside Biafra, Dr. Okigbo also stated that the lack of international acceptance and an according exchange rate was immaterial since the currency was intended only for circulation in Biafra. The two notes of the first series have a common front, although they are different sizes and different colours. To the left of each note is a rising sun with a palm tree in the foreground, the value of the note is in a disc to the right, and the remaining areas of the note are covered with patterns imitating intaglio engine-work (i.e. lines drawn by a geometric lathe). There is also the usual text associated with any bank note – the name of the country, ‘Republic of Biafra’; the name of the bank, ‘Bank of Biafra’; the ‘promise to pay on demand the sum of …’; and the value of the note, e.g. ‘five shillings’. The notes are signed by the ‘Governor’ and a ‘Director’ of the Bank of Biafra.
On the back of the 5-shilling note is a picture of four Ibo girls, and surrounding the value of the note to the left is a ‘manilla’. Manillas are a type of primitive money that were in use in Nigeria for hundreds of years. Constructed from copper bars they form an incomplete circle (or oval) having lobes at the ends and are often described as bracelets or armlets. Their use was very popular amongst the Ibos until recent times and they were only demonetised during the 1940’s.
The back of the 1-pound note carries the Biafran coat of arms above a wreath (constructed of two sprigs of unidentified leaves), and a ceremonial spear behind the disc in which the value of the note is held. The spear (which appears to the left of the 1-pound’s back) is called an ‘Alo’ amongst the Ibo people. It is regarded as a sceptre of power and authority, being carried by Ozo titled men, and as well as its symbolic importance it was also used as a weapon when necessary. (Titled men are part of traditional societies or brotherhoods.)
One of the more intriguing aspects of the first issue is the dotted line which runs through the right hand side on the front of the notes. At first it appears to be a ‘Morse code’ security thread, but the marks are in fact printed on the front of the notes. If this is intended to imitate a Morse code thread, then one can only wonder what the Morse characters are meant to spell. Depending on which direction the code is read, the marks on the 5–shilling notes can be decoded as:
‘E T E M N E N I R’ or ‘R I A E A M E T E’
and on the 1-pound:
‘M T E M N E N I W’ or ‘G I A E A M E T M’
(The leading and trailing codes may be truncated, and these particular letters may not be correct.)
It is interesting that such an attempt has been made to produce this quasi-security device, as another very simple security device is absent – that of non-fluorescing paper. Nearly all bank notes are printed on paper which does not fluoresce under ultra-violet light, and the use of fluorescing paper for these notes points very much to it being an emergency issue. (Most types of paper have a high timber pulp content, and are treated with agents which brighten the paper and produce a surface which fluoresces under ultra-violet light. Security printers usually use paper, particularly paper with high linen and cotton content, which is not treated in such a manner.)
Of the various symbols used in the design of the Biafran bank notes (both issues), several were very important. Like any new nation, Biafra was keen to be identified with its own national symbols, and for this new republic these were primarily their coat of arms, the rising sun, and the palm tree – all being used extensively on Biafran national instruments.
– The coat of arms used by Biafra was derived from the coat of arms granted to the Eastern Region of Nigeria in 1960. The difference being that the Eastern Region’s arms had supporters of a leopard (on the left) and a man carrying a spear – an ‘Alo’ – (on the right), whereas the Biafran arms had two leopards supporting the shield. The shield contains the rising sun, plus three manillas linked together over an area divided into three parts, which are properly coloured red, black, and green. (These were also the colours of the Biafran flag – three horizontal bars of red, black, and green, with the rising sun in the centre of the black band). Above the shield is an eagle clutching a tusk or horn, and representations of the eagle appeared on a number of Biafran coins.
– Taken from their coat of arms, the rising sun became the dominant symbol of Biafra. It appeared on their flag, their coins and bank notes, on military insignia, and it gave rise to the title of their national anthem, Land of the Rising Sun.
– The palm tree was important because of its economic significance to Biafra – next to oil, products from the palm trees were the most valuable exports from the region prior to the new republic being declared. In addition, the depiction of a single palm tree had been the dominant feature on the bank notes of the West African Currency Board from 1916 to 1951, and gave a visual reminder of the notes of that era. (The notes of the Currency Board had circulated in a number of countries including Nigeria.)
The 1968 Biafran bank note issue was not only an emergency issue, it also faced the trials and tribulations of the country it was serving – many of the notes not making it to Biafra. In his ‘Diary of Events’ Gen. Ojukwu makes the following entry:
‘August 13 : The Hank Wharton Plot, hatched by British government and American CIA to sabotage Biafra and help Nigeria to carry through her ‘final thrust’ into Biafran heartland. Cargoes of arms and ammunition bought by Biafra are dumped into the sea during airflight. Tons of new Biafran currency are dumped into the sea, to create artificial scarcity in the Republic.’ (Ojukwu, 1969).
Hank Wharton was an American transport operator who had come to an arrangement with the Biafrans to fly arms twice weekly from Lisbon (Portugal) to Biafra. During Nigeria’s ‘final thrust’ of August 1968 (which proved not so final), Wharton’s planes did not arrive when needed. According to one version, the planes broke down while flying in their cargo, and jettisoned the much needed supply of weapons, and evidently other cargo such as the Biafran bank notes, before returning to Lisbon. Another version states that one plane was forced to jettison much of its cargo, including over half the bank notes it was carrying, into the Atlantic while flying along the coast. The plane was then unable to land in Biafra and had to land in Sao Tome. Another of Wharton’s planes had been destroyed mysteriously in Bissau (in Portuguese Guinea) shortly before this, and another had been impounded in Athens, leading the Biafrans to believe that Wharton had been ‘got at’ by the CIA and the British (who were also working amongst African nations in an effort to stop assistance to the struggling republic). Wharton was subsequently fired and a new supply route established.
The blockades imposed on Biafra by Nigeria and her allies started to take their toll, and it would seem that the loss of the of bank notes through Hank Wharton’s ‘treachery’ was one of the more telling blows. In his ‘Diary of Events’ for 1 September 1968, Gen. Ojukwu again records – ‘Acute shortage of currency due to Hank Wharton’s Plot.’ In the Biafran towns and cities the shortage of money was one of the many problems people faced. Banks would go for days without opening because there was no money for withdrawals, and when some was available it was rationed – people being allowed to withdraw no more than one pound a day. Of course the shortage of money was not due simply to the loss of the notes carried by Wharton’s plane, it was due mainly to the near-total withdrawal of Nigerian notes without the Biafran substitute being available.
Although the Central Bank of Nigeria had declared that the old Nigerian currency would no longer be exchanged after 22 January 1968, the trade in old Nigerian bank notes continued well into 1968. It appears that the authorities in Lagos would not release the new Nigerian bank notes in those areas of the Eastern Region which had been liberated from the Biafran ‘rebels’, for fear that a bank full off the new notes may be captured in a counter-offensive. Consequently there were three currencies circulating in Nigeria – new Nigerian notes in the West and North, Biafran notes in the areas controlled by the ‘rebels’ and old Nigerian notes in those areas of the East which had been liberated by the Nigerians. Because the old Nigerian notes continued to be accepted in certain areas, the value of the old Nigerian currency was not entirely worthless. During the later half of 1968 the Central Bank of Nigeria announced they would exchange up to £30 per person and £500 for commercial enterprises in old Nigerian and Biafran currencies. However in the case of the individual no more than £10 of the £30 could be made up with Biafran notes and in the case of the commercial enterprises the limit was £100. Should any individual or enterprise wish to surrender a greater amount than the stated limits, then this would be done so long as the requests were registered with the exchange control authorities. While the continued acceptance of old Nigerian notes encouraged the continued activities by smugglers, by January 1969 the old Nigerian Pound had become almost unacceptable on the black market, worth only the merest fraction of its face value.
The second bank note issue
Aware not only of the shortage of currency, but also of the poor quality of the notes and lack of denominations, preparations were made for the introduction of a new series of notes. It is not known exactly when these notes were introduced, but it was probably around February 1969, as Gen. Ojukwu announced the following in a speech to the Consultative Assembly and Council of Chiefs and Elders on 10 February:
‘I am happy to announce to you that we have now been able to produce real Biafran currency of the highest quality. The new currency notes are of the wide range of £10, £5, £1, 10/–and 5/-.’ (Ojukwu, 1969)
While each of the notes of the second issue have a degree of common design on their front, each denomination is distinct in its layout. The common features are the rising sun (now a much smaller representation), the palm tree, the names of the Republic and the Bank, a white disc to the right of the note, and patterns imitating engine work surrounding the note.
The back of the 5-shilling note is very similar to the first issue, with the picture of the four Ibo girls and the manilla being used in the same manner. The back of the 10-shilling note uses the manilla in the same manner as the 5-shilling note (enclosing the value of the note in a white disc) and has a picture of an oil refinery – possibly the one at Port Harcourt. (Although the refinery, if that is what it is, may well have been the one built by the Biafrans at Uzoakoli following their loss of access to Port Harcourt and the coast.) The 1-pound note is again dominated on the back by the coat of arms, but lacks the ‘Alo’ (spear) of the first issue.
However the ‘Alo’ makes its reappearance on the back of the 5-pound note, this time having a white disc with the coat of arms laying over its shaft. Also on the back of the 5-pound note is a picture of a woman weaving on a hand loom. The 10-pound note has a male carver depicted on its back, as well as having the coat of arms in a white disc to the left.
The notes of the second series are printed on non-fluorescing paper embedded with red and blue fibres. The use of this paper is the dominant security feature of the issue, however there is a very interesting attempt to use an early form of ‘micro printing’ on all notes of this series. The front of each note has a coloured pattern (around the outside of the central design) which contains very small print repeating the words ‘Bank of Biafra’ followed by the denomination of the note – e.g. the 5-shilling note repeats ‘Bank of Biafra Five Shillings’. The small print appears as continuous lines, however the print is made less easy to detect by being overlaid with a pattern of lines – the pattern being different on each denomination.
With such an interesting attempt at ‘micro printing’ it would be pleasing to know where the notes were printed, but the printer of each issue is a mystery. Beresiner and Narbeth (in The Story of Paper Money) claim that the notes were printed in Portugal and Switzerland, and this seems to be a reasonable proposition. Only several countries recognised Biafra during its secession – Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, and Haiti – while a number of other governments expressed support for the Biafrans, amongst these being the French, Rhodesian, South African, and Portuguese. Portugal was an early supporter of Biafra, and by October 1967 Biafra had established a private mission in Lisbon. As a supporter of the Biafrans, Portugal would seem a likely place for producing one or both series of notes, and Hank Wharton is known to have been flying from Lisbon when he dumped the cargo of Biafran notes at sea. This possibility is further enhanced by the knowledge that the Biafran postage stamps were printed by the Portuguese State Security Printers in Lisbon. The postage stamps were reportedly released on 5 February 1968 (which varies by a week from the date announced by Ojukwu of 29 January) and it would not be difficult to conjecture that the postage stamps and the bank notes were printed by the same printer for release at the same time.
From January 1968, a Swiss public relations company, ‘Markpress’ of Geneva, looked after various interests of the Biafran government, operating the ‘Biafran Overseas Press Division’ and providing access for journalists to Biafra. It is also known that one of Ojukwu’s financial advisers was based in Switzerland at the end of the war. These Swiss connections support the argument of one or more issues being printed in Switzerland.
In addition, Biafra was reported to have bought many of its armaments in Geneva and Lisbon – reinforcing the probability that one or both of these cities may have provided printing presses for the notes. Because of the early support by Portugal and the later connection with ‘Markpress’, one could conjecture that the first series was printed in Portugal and the second in Switzerland.
While not known for certain how many notes were produced for circulation in Biafra, a reasonable estimate can be made by extrapolating the number of notes prepared for each known serial number prefix. For the first series, there are only two known serial number prefixes, while for the second series there are four prefixes. Each prefix has ten million numbers, there fore the number of notes prepared for this issue are estimated to be:
5s. A/O & A/P 20 million
£1 A/A to A/D 40 million
There were many more notes prepared for the second issue of notes with the serial number prefixes being distinct for each denomination. The prefixes commenced with a letter that was assigned to the denomination, followed by a second letter that cycled through the alphabet from ‘A’ to ‘Z’; although the letters ‘I’ and ‘O’ were not used due to their similarity with the numerals one and zero. The two letter serial number were followed by a seven digit number. However, the first numeral in the serial number for all notes of the second issue is always zero. Thus, only six digits are used and this means that only one million notes were prepared for each prefix, and not the ten million that would be initially supposed. The known prefixes and the number of notes issued is summarized as follows:
5s. MA to MZ (except MI & MO) 24 million
NA to NR (except NI & NO) 16 million
Total 5s. 40 million
10s. GA to GW (except GI & GO) 19 million
£1 BA to BZ (except BI & BO) 24 million
CA to CZ (except CI & CO) 24 million
DA to DX (except DI & DO) 22 million
Total £1 70 million
£5 WA to WF 6 million
£10 ZA to ZC 3 million
The total value of each series printed, based on the numbers extrapolated above, was £50 million for the first issue and £148.5 million for the second issue, making a total of £198.5 million. Many of these notes were not delivered to Biafra, but it is not known how many were successfully conveyed to their destination and how many remained in storage at their point of production. However, at the end of the conflict it was estimated that between £115 and £140 million in Biafran currency was in circulation, indicating that a large proportion of the currency was delivered into circulation. While this amount may seem large, it must be remembered that Biafra had a population of 14 million, and the amount in circulation would equate to £10 per person at the most optimistic estimate.
Although Biafra had made a concerted effort to produce the second series of higher quality bank notes, it would appear that their circulation was limited. By the time the notes were introduced in 1969, the country controlled by the Biafran forces had been reduced to a circular area approximately 85 miles across (roughly 5,000 square miles) and all consumables had long been sold. When a foreign journalist, Michael Mok of ‘Life’ magazine, asked a nun working with the Biafrans whether he could make a cash donation to help the starving children, he was told that cash would be useless, as there was nothing left to buy in Biafra. This may have been one of the reasons why so many Biafran notes remained in Europe undelivered – they were a cargo that could bring little practical purpose.
At the end of the civil war there was a critical shortage of the new Nigerian currency, which retarded efforts to replace the currency in circulation in the east. The Central Bank began recalling the Biafran currency and the old Nigerian currency in the war-torn region but, because of the shortage of new Nigerian notes, only receipts were issued to those who surrendered the notes; although during this period of recall it was unclear what rate of exchange would be made for the Biafran notes. Rumours as to what value the Central Bank of Nigeria would place on the Biafran notes became widespread, with many believing one rumour that twenty Biafran pounds would be given the value of one Nigerian pound. Many impatient people surrendered their Biafran notes to speculators who were purchasing them at fifty Biafran pounds to one Nigerian pound. Ultimately the speculators got ‘burnt’, as the Central bank decided that there would be no exchange of Biafran currency for Nigerian currency, deciding instead to pay a flat rate of twenty Nigerian pounds to each depositor of Biafran or old Nigerian currency with the Central Bank.
It is not known what happened to the Biafran currency that was surrendered, but it was almost certainly destroyed. In addition to the notes that circulated in Biafra, and those which were dumped into the sea (first series), there were also thousands of undelivered notes that survived the war. These undelivered notes were sold into the collector market once they became unusable, and were sold in such numbers that the market became flooded. The sale of the notes had begun in September 1968 when agents of the Biafran government in Geneva offered sets of the second series of Biafran bank notes for sale to ‘collectors and others’ at the price of £20 10s (sterling) per set. It is not known whether the sets were sold at the behest of the Biafrans, or by their agents in an effort to recoup unpaid costs. As the situation in Biafra deteriorated it would appear that the sale of notes escalated and it is probable that some of the larger dealers of coins and bank notes offered to take large amounts of the notes.
The sale of undelivered notes included remainders as well as notes in issued form. Remainders are available only for the second series (with the apparent exception of the 10-shilling note which has not been positively recorded), and can be recognised by the lack of serial numbers – which are to be found (if present) in the top right and bottom left on the front of the notes.
No matter in what form the notes are found (the remainders are now getting scarce), the notes of Biafra offer an interesting piece of history – a piece of African history, and a piece of bank note history. So next time you come across one of these notes, don’t reject them out of hand – collecting bank notes doesn’t have to revolve around scarce notes, and this series proves that cheap notes can be just as intriguing as their expensive counterparts.
– Akpan, Ntieyong U. (1972) The Struggle for Secession, 1966-1970, Frank Cass, London.
– Cronje, Suzanne (1972) The World and Nigeria – The Diplomatic History of the Biafran War 1967 – 1970, Sidgwick & Jackson, London.
– Beresiner, Yasha & Narbeth, Colin (1973) The Story of Paper Money, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
– Einzig, Paul (1949) Primitive Money, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London.
– Forsyth, Frederick (1977) The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth.
– Keesing’s Publications Limited Keesing’s Contemporary Archives – Volume No.XVI 1967-1968 – London
– Mezu, S. Okechukwu (1971) Behind the Rising Sun, Heinemann, London.
– Mok, Michael (1969) Biafra Journal, Time-Life Books, New York.
– Niven, Rex (1970) The War of Nigerian Unity 1967-1970, Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Ltd, Lagos.
– Ojukwu, C. Odumegwu (1969) Biafra – Selected Speeches and Random Thoughts, Harper & Rowe, New York.
– Pick Publishing Corporation (1970) Pick’s Currency Year Book – 1969, New York.
– Pick Publishing Corporation (1971) Pick’s Currency Year Book – 1970, New York.
– Steiner, Rolf (1978) The Last Adventurer, Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
– Waugh, Auberon & Cronje, Suzanne (1969) Biafra – Britain’s Shame, Michael Joseph, London.
– Europa Year Book (1968) Europa Publications, London.
– The Secession that Failed Time Magazine, January 26 1970, pages 18-24.
– The Times newspaper – London, United Kingdom
(The references in brackets refer to the page number and column location of the relevant article.)
1967 – October 25 (25g); May 29 (1e); June 9 (7d)
1968 – January 3 (5d); January 23 (1e); January 26 (4g); January 30 (4h); April 17 (10f); June 20 (4h)
1969 – September 26 (6h)
– The New York Times newspaper – New York, U.S.A.
(The references in brackets refer to the page and column number of the relevant article.)
1967 – May 31 (14:4); December 31 (10:1)
1968 – January 16 (17:7); May 2 (3:7); September 8 (Section 2, 40:5)
1970 – January 27 (14:3)
© Peter Symes 1997 & 2003
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