At the Estate Sports Club in the southeastern Nigerian city of Onitsha, men troop up to the open-air bar and order a bottle of “Oh Mpa,” the local name for SABMiller Plc’s Hero beer.
Oh Mpa means “Oh Father” in Igbo, the language of the area, and is widely regarded as referring to the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who led a failed attempt to secede from Nigeria in the 1960s and set up an independent nation of Biafra that sparked a 30-month civil war. With its Hero bottles bearing the rising sun that appeared on the Biafran flag, SABMiller is tapping into the area’s nationalism.
“While Ojukwu was alive, he was addressed as the hero of the Igbo race,” Okwudili Otti, a 54-year-old machine-parts importer, said as he sipped a Hero Lager in a group of middle-aged men sitting on plastic chairs and watching a soccer match on wall-mounted television screens. “He was given that respect.”
Ojukwu died in November 2011 at the age of 78, and memories of him and the stillborn Biafra republic remain strong among the Igbo, one the three biggest ethnic groups in Nigeria numbering more than 40 million.
It’s not simply nostalgia that SABMiller is appealing to today, said Emeka Uzoatu, a 51-year-old seller of agricultural tools and chainsaws and writer in Onitsha, a bustling market town on the eastern bank of the Niger River.
“It’s not really the older people who drink Hero, it’s the younger ones,” he said at his office on Port Harcourt Road. “They didn’t experience Biafra and they like to hear about it.”
While London-based SABMiller says the presentation of Hero beer carries no political motivation, it’s aiming to create a “local feel” for its beverage.
“Hero was developed as a result of deep local consumer insight and positive associations with the Igbo tribe,” the company said in a March 13 e-mailed response to questions. “There is no historic or political motivation behind the brand and it is in no way designed to represent a political view.”
The civil war broke out in May 1967 following a coup the previous year led by mainly Igbo junior officers against a government dominated by northern Muslims. The mutineers murdered Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and northern Premier Ahmadu Bello. That prompted a revenge coup six months later and the massacre of tens of thousands of ethnic Igbos across northern Nigeria.
Ojukwu, then military governor of the region, declared the Republic of Biafra independent in May 1967, taking along the country’s nascent crude production in the Niger River delta. A 30-month civil war ensued as the federal government fought to bring Biafra and the oil fields back into the fold with the backing of U.K. and the former Soviet Union. Nigeria is currently Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping 2.1 million barrels per day in March, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
By its end in 1970, more than 1 million people had died in the violence and famine. In its aftermath, the national government was dominated by mainly northern military dictators for all but four years until the return of civilian rule in 1999. While the current leader, Goodluck Jonathan, hails from the southeast, he’s an ethnic Ijaw. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was Nigeria’s first president when the office was largely ceremonial.
The dream of nationhood for the Igbos has been commemorated in books such as Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and was made into a film starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The war has also featured in the writings of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J.P. Clark.
A giant statue of Ojukwu in military uniform with a rifle slung over his shoulder stands at the driveway leading to SABMiller’s brewery in Onitsha, the Anambra state’s biggest city with more than one million people.
The statue was erected by former Anambra state governor Peter Obi, who’s a member of the political party Ojukwu set up in 2003, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, or APGA. Onitsha is also a stronghold of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, which has been campaigning for peaceful secession of the East since 1999.
In response to robust demand for Hero Lager and other drinks, SABMiller plans to invest $110 million to triple its output capacity at the 18-month-old Onitsha brewery to 2.1 million hectoliters a year, the company said in a statement on Jan. 23.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with about 170 million people, is the continent’s second-largest beer market after South Africa, growing at an annual volume of 6 percent, according to SABMiller.
The company, which has brewing or beverage interests in 32 African countries, entered the Nigerian market in 2009 with the purchase of controlling interests in Pabod Breweries, based in the southern oil hub of Port Harcourt. It later bought International Breweries Plc, which is based in the southwestern town of Ilesh.
SABMiller is competing in Africa’s top oil producer with rivals including Diageo Plc, which has sold more Guinness in Nigeria than in the beer’s native Ireland since 2007, and Heineken NV, which controls Nigeria Breweries Plc, the country’s biggest brewer.
While the two biggest brewers in Nigeria, Heineken BV’s unit Nigerian Breweries Plc and Diageo Plc’s Guinness Nigeria Plc, have experienced slower growth because of higher fuel prices and depressed consumer income since 2012, SABMiller is pushing lower-cost products, according to industry analysts. Hero is as much as 40 percent cheaper than rival lagers.
“SABMiller’s approach of going down the price ladder widened their revenue base given the subdued state of consumer incomes over the last two years,” said Adewale Okunriboye, an analyst covering the industry at Lagos-based Assets Resource Management Ltd.
In Onitsha, Nigerian Breweries last year bought Life Breweries Ltd., and is pushing the Life beer brand to compete with Hero.
“Regional tastes, loyalties and traditions may inspire the growth of regional brands which the big brewers will eventually have to embrace to remain competitive,” Efemena Esalomi, analyst at Lagos-based Vetiva Capital Management Ltd.
Otti, dressed in a polo shirt and shorts, appeared to agree with that analysis.
“We needed a beer brand that we could trust, that we could call our own,” Otti said as he raised his glass to his lips for a gulp. “This is ours; ours is ours!”