The 11-pointed star beams yellow, orange, and red, and from its place upon a dark green background, the pull is irresistible — especially since it calls from the label of a green, 60-centiliter bottle containing alcohol. That sun, which rose but never glowed for too long, means a lot to Mitchel Emeka, a manager with a transport and logistics company in Lagos. “Not like I am too keen about Biafra,” says Emeka, referring to the state that broke away from Nigeria in a secession attempt in 1967. “But seeing the rising sun on it, and learning that it is brewed in the [southeastern] town of Onitsha, hooked me.”
This beer, Hero Lager, is consumed around Nigeria, where bargoers and those drinking at backyard parties down it mostly from bottles, enjoying its hoppy and slightly bitter taste. Perhaps more important than its social function, though, is the fact that Hero Lager has become an inspirational symbol in Nigeria since it was launched in 2012, tapping into positive associations with the southeast region’s loyalties, struggles, traditions, and tastes — a beer for locals, by locals. According to Lagos-based beer industry analyst David Masifon, the brand enjoys a certain “‘this is our own’ factor, which makes other brands seem alien,” he says. What helps it even further is its “association with Igbo culture and nationalist sentiments, [which] played a key role in helping the brand usurp pre-existing brands in the East.”
At another bar in the southeastern town of Nsukka, photo and video journalist Alphonsus Ogili had just finished a bottle of Hero Lager. “When I look at this bottle it reminds me of our heroes that fought for Biafra, especially Ojukwu,” he says. Across plastic tables on the bar, Hero rested alongside other drinks. “The war has ended, but another war is here with us — demands for self-determination are still there.”
In May 1967, seven years after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, military officer Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the Eastern Region’s secession from the rest of the country. The move was in response to a series of military coups that fueled ethnic rivalries and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Igbo people; Ojukwu’s breakaway region was deemed the Republic of Biafra. Ojukwu’s act led to a bloody civil war that lasted until January 1970 and resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million people in the eastern region, primarily from starvation, fighting, and disease.
The war’s outcome nonetheless, Ojukwu was widely seen as a regional hero for daring to challenge the federal government: Throughout his life, in much of Southeast Nigeria, Ojukwu was celebrated for standing up for the country’s southeastern region and its predominantly Igbo population. (Ojukwu went into exile after the war ended, but returned 1982 when former president Shehu Shagari granted him an unconditional pardon.)
When Ojukwu died November 2011 at the age of 78, his casket, covered in a Nigerian flag, was flown around the country and to his birthplace, Zungeru in northern Nigeria. He was buried in March 2012 in his hometown of Nnewi with full military honors. Former president Goodluck Jonathan and his wife, Nigerian author and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings, and other governors and politicians were among the crowd at his funeral, which took place about 20 kilometers away from Onitsha — a city that happened to be home to a burgeoning brewery.
In February 2011, London-based beer giant SAB Miller Plc (now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev) invested an initial $100 million to build a brewery in Onitsha, the commercial hub of the southeastern state of Anambra. The brewery would officially open in August 2012, on the banks of the 4,100-kilometer Niger River, and coming in the wake of Ojukwu’s burial, the brewery christened its flagship beer “Hero.” The heroic branding was hammered home even further with a label featuring a rising sun, a reference to Biafra’s flag, a horizontal tricolor of red, black, and green with a rising sun in the middle.
Given the timing and symbolism, Igbos believed that “Hero” referred to Ojukwu and almost immediately nicknamed the beer “Oh Mpa,” which in Igbo means “Oh my father,” in honor of the secessionist leader. It sold for 150 naira (roughly 90 cents then), below the price of major beers dominating the market. It was common to hear people asking their friends and relatives, “Have you had Oh Mpa?”
“Hero made people literally mad when it came into the market,” Emeka says of the craze. “This is because the beer was made in our region, by our people for our people.”
His friend, Chidiebere Kalu, chimes in. “When it came, it was a mania,” Kalu, an aspiring musician, says. “It gave us a sense of belonging; this is our own. Drinking it felt like you’re playing a role in Igbo struggle.” The beer quickly became popular in local pubs, bars, restaurants, lounges, clubs, and inns throughout Igboland.
According to Igboke Onyebuchi, project manager of Advocacy Partnership for Good Governance in Enugu, a city in the southeast, the brewery has savvy to allude to the fallen leader. “The brewer localized the brand and it gave the people a sense of ownership,” he says. “The brand has a common story with our history and struggle; we find ourselves and our cause in Hero Lager.”
As more Igbos accepted the brand, demand forced the producer to invest an extra $110 million to increase its Onitsha brewery’s capacity, expanding it from 700,000 to 2.1 million hectoliters in 2014.
That sense is still strong today. Almost 50 years after Biafra surrendered, calls for independence have only grown louder with each passing decade. People in the region say they are marginalized and punished for trying to secede. Several secessionist groups have emerged since 1999, including the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM), and, more recently, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which started in 2014 and has huge support among young generations of Igbos.
Renewed demands for self-determination — often in the form of peaceful protests and hoisting of the Biafran flag — have led to killings, torture, arrests, and detention. Massob’s leader, Ralph Uwazuruike, was detained and later released on several occasions. In October 2015, Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra and a charismatic leader of the IPOB who has a dual British and Nigerian citizenship, was arrested on treason charges before being released “on medical grounds” in April 2017. In September 2017, the Nigerian military declared IPOB a terrorist organization and raided Kanu’s home. His month-long disappearance fuelled more anger. A video of him praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was widely shared online a month later, confirming he was safe and out of the country.
On a recent sweltering Tuesday afternoon in Onitsha, Radio Biafra aired on a cable-powered TV at a roadside bar and store in the Awada neighborhood. A phone-in program came on around 1:40 p.m., just after the Biafran anthem played. The presenter talked about “senseless killings” in Nigeria, calling the country a “mess.” Three of the five men in the bar were drinking Hero Lager.
“When Biafra comes, we are going to have a direction of our own,” a man in the bar says, a bottle of Hero resting between his legs. The bar’s owner says she sells up to 20 plastic beer crates of Hero, at 12 bottles a crate, per week.
For Hero, maintaining its reputation among consumers requires becoming immersed in what makes them tick: Hero retains a strong presence in local cultural celebrations. “Everything about their advertising is usually promoting Igbo culture,” says Onyeka Okoro, who manages Favor Royal Bar in Enugu. “Hero is giving the other beer drinks a big gap in our bar: Nka bu nke Anyi [this is our own].”
“The first time we brought Hero here three years ago and hung a banner to announce the arrival, many Igbo people filled our bar,” says Obinna Eze, manager of a bar in the Yaba district of Lagos. Eze adds that he sells about 60 Hero beer crates per week, up from about 40 crates in 2016.
For the brewer, the race to remain in the consumer’s consciousness is an ever-evolving triangle in which innovation and aggressive marketing hold sway. In May 2018, Hero Lager was knighted with a new “red cap” crown cork to mimic the red cap worn by respected chiefs and elders in Igboland, which serves as a symbol of respect, achievement, and social recognition. It was during this event that the Obi of Onitsha, the city’s traditional leader, bestowed the beer with the title “Mmanya ejiri mara Igbo.” Literally translated, this means “the beer that identifies Igbos.”
For several decades, Nigeria’s beer market has thrived on an oligopolistic structure in which Heineken’s Nigerian Breweries (NB Plc) holds more than 60 percent of the market share and London-headquartered Diageo Group’s Guinness Nigeria controls over 25 percent, according to United Capital Plc, a Lagos-based financial and investment advisory. The makers of Hero Lager, Intafact Breweries, came third, with 7.3 percent share.
In late 2016, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, acquired SABMiller for over $100 billion. With the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch InBev became a majority shareholder in SABMiller’s subsidiaries in Nigeria, and later merged them into International Breweries Plc, making it Nigeria’s third-largest brewer with a combined capacity of 5.7 million hectoliters. In 2018, International Breweries completed a new $250 million plant in the southwestern town of Sagamu, its largest in the continent outside South Africa. International Breweries now has four plants across Nigeria, and offers a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages including Budweiser, Hero Lager, Castle Lite, Grandmalt, Stella Artois, and Eagle Stout.
Investment in the local beer industry remains attractive thanks to Nigeria’s growing population — about 200 million inhabitants and rising — coupled with an expanding middle class, rapid urbanization, and a currently low beer consumption per capita of 11 liters a year.
Proving that it understands its market — and in a play to stay regionally relevant — Hero’s brewery recently launched a campaign called “Echefula” — which roughly translates to “Never Forget Your Identity” — to promote cultural heritage and values, and to push for more appreciation of cultural traditions, a consideration that’s top of mind for many Nigerians: Recently, Igbo rappers Tobechukwu Ejiofor (known as IllBliss) and Owoh Chimaobi Chrismathner (Zoro) released an eponymous single extolling Igbo cultural traditions and exhorting listeners not to forget their cultural identity.
Since August, the campaign’s banners have sprawled across pedestrian bridges on the expressway in Onitsha and on walls in Enugu. Billboards loom large over streets in Onitsha, Enugu, Asaba, and on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital Abuja; a towering billboard with “NEVER FORGET YOUR IDENTITY” and #ECHEFULA written on it sits on the bank of the Niger River, adjacent to the brewery where Hero is made. There’s no better time to start a campaign like this, especially with older generations lamenting that younger people are losing touch with Igbo traditional culture and its language.
Hero’s brewer took the Echefula campaign a step further by introducing The People’s Hero, a 10-week reality TV show to celebrate the “richness and beauty” of the Igbo ethnic group, Tolulope Adedeji, marketing director at International Breweries Plc, told Lagos’s national newspaper, The Nation.
Auditions were held in the southeastern cities of Owerri and Enugu to select some 20 contestants out of a pool of about 2,000. They would engage in singing, acting, dancing, and spoken-word poetry to help judges rate their understanding of Igbo culture. A total prize of 10 million naira (around $28,000) has been earmarked for the winner and two runners-up.
Though competition continues to increase and Hero battles for dominance with other cheaper beers, its affinity with the culture and the Igbo cause still makes it a favorite.
“Everything about Hero Lager reminds me of home,” says transport and logistics manager Emeka, who is from the town of Nsukka. “I am drinking it now and will continue to take it always.”
Linus Unah is a Nigerian journalist who mainly writes about global health, conflict, conservation/environment, and development.
Adetona Omokanye is a documentary photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Fact-checked by Claire Bryan