Nigeria and Biafra

On July 7, 1967, when the Nigerian civil war began, the censors of the federal military government stamped out all use of the phrase “civil war" in news dispatches going overseas. The Nigerians insisted their invasion of Biafra was a “police action.”Major General Yakubu Gowon, the federal military commander, told diplomats the job would be clone in six weeks. His army would march into Biaira, string up Colonel C. Odumegwu Ojukwu “and his rebel gang,”and end secession. “Our orders are to get Ojukwu,”a government spokesman said at a news conference the day after the war began. “If we get him today, that’s it.”

Now, more than two years later, the Nigerian government has neither captured Ojukwu nor ended secession. More than one million people, mostly Biafrans of the Ibo tribe, have died in the horror. There is no talk of police action now. The Nigerians have dropped pretense. They look on the Ibos of Biafra as a hated enemy people whose secession must be destroyed militarily even if it means destroying them. The specter of millions of starving children fails to dissuade the Nigerians. “All is fair in war,” Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the vice chairman of Nigeria’s federal executive council, told newsmen recently, “and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat, only to fight us harder.”

Believing the teachings of their Christian missionaries too well, the Biafrans are convinced God and the world will save them. Intensely romantic and religious, they have swallowed whole those primary school stories of small, ancient peoples who somehow managed to survive the oppression of evil might. They try to brim with confidence.

Two weeks before Biafra lost its vital city of Port Harcourt last year, Biafran newspapers, broadsheets printed on the pages of old school lesson books, proclaimed the “great victory of Port Harcourt.” It was a great victory, the Biafrans reasoned, because Port Harcourt had not yet fallen. Although Enugu, the old capital, was captured by the Nigerians more than eighteen months ago, the Biafran Ministry of Information still labels its publications as printed in Enugu, telephone operators still talk about placing calls through Enugu, and banks still claim to refer accounts to their main offices in Enugu.

An unreal atmosphere pervades federal Nigeria as well, but for a different reason. Lagos in wartime depresses a visitor who remembers it from the old days: too many impolite and overbearing soldiers annoy civilians with searches and checks, the shops lack their usual bounty of foreign goods, the Ibos who left the Lagos government have taken its efficiency with them, the nightclubs are less fun without the aggressive, energetic Ibo high-life dancers. But, in the main, Lagos hardly senses it is at war. The battling and the bloodshed and the bombing and the starvation are far away.

Many Nigerians are convinced that the stories of starvation in Biafra have been exaggerated by a hostile international press. Even when persuaded the stories may be true, Nigerians have little sympathy. African life has hardened Africans to confine their concern to calamities within their own tribe.

Nigerians are less concerned about the war’s victims—in theory, their fellow countrymen—than about the government’s failure to end the war. By Nigerian calculations, Biafra should have been destroyed long ago. Nigerian frustration has been swelled even more by the federal government’s awareness that many outsiders have refused to accept its case for destroying Biafra.

Nigeria’s public relations falter because its main argument is weak while its secondary argument, though honest and vital, is too complicated for most outsiders to understand. In general, Nigerians, supported by their friends in the British government and the U.S. State Department, contend that a large, united Nigeria is somehow sacrosanct. Its breakup, the argument goes, would trigger secessionist movements throughout Africa, leading to an even greater balkanization than exists now. Since growth depends on large economic units, a splintered Nigeria and a splintered Africa would cripple any chances of economic development.

Paper unity

The argument ignores history, for the territory of Nigeria, far from sacrosanct, was a European creation administered as a single unit by the British only since 1914 and even then united only on paper. The British actually administered it as three separate regions most of the time. Moreover, it is doubtful whether other secessionist movements will base their strategy on the success or failure of Biafra. In Africa, tribal passions usually overwhelm logic. As for economic logic, a good case can be made that Biafra, had it gone on without war, might have emerged as the strongest economic unit in Africa.

Nigeria’s more telling argument centers on its minority tribes. The old clichés about Nigeria always described a country of 56 million run by three tribes—the 13,500,000 Hausa-Fulanis in the North, the 13 million Yorubas in the West, and the 8 million Ibos in the East. No other tribe counted in politics. But now, under the new federal structure that has broken the power of the old regions, Nigeria’s 21,500,000 people of small, minority tribes have power at the center. Gowon, for example, is an Angas tribesman from the North, and some of his top advisers come from the minority middle belt of the North and from the small tribes in the Midwest.

If Biafra succeeds, the rest of Nigeria will probably split into at least two other parts. The small tribes then would lose their power at the center, and become weak and perhaps oppressed tribes in the new states run by the big tribes. That is a persuasive argument for keeping Nigeria whole, though it is doubtful that preserving the new strength of the minorities is worth the cost of killing more than a million Ibos.

Almost all the world powers have enmeshed themselves in the civil war. Britain and Russia have armed the federal military, while France has armed the Biafrans. The United States has encouraged and bolstered federal rulers, while the Catholic Church has done the same for its enemies. Portugal has made its airports and communication lines available to Biafra.

Russian involvement has been the most interesting, though far from the most decisive. After the British refused a federal request for planes, the Russians sold Mig’s and Ilyushins to Nigeria in exchange for cash and cocoa. It seemed like an easy way to curry favor with a major African country. But the Russian planes have been used to bomb Biafran civilians, embarrassing the Russians, and Russian dividends for Nigeria have been slight so far. The Nigerians are far more attentive to the counsel of their British mentors than to that of the Russians.

On the battleground, the federal armies have succeeded in reducing Biafra to a tenth of its original size, to an area that is even smaller than the traditional heartland of the Ibo people. For most of the first two years, the Nigerians managed to move forward steadily on the strength of their larger army (Nigerian troops outnumber the Biafrans 85,000 to 30,000), their plentiful supply of British rifles, armored cars, and artillery, and their Russian jets that strafe and rocket ground troops.

The advance, however, was slow. The Nigerians would stop a few miles from a Biafran town, wait for a new supply of ammunition, and then bombard the town with artillery and armored-car cannon. When the firepower terrorized the Biafrans enough, they would withdraw, taking everything with them. A few days later, the Nigerians, firing incessantly, would march into the empty town.

In the last months of 1968, most outsiders believed that the Nigerians, continuing these tactics, would soon overrun all the towns of Biafra and end the war. But, though they lost their second capital of Umuahia, the Biafrans resisted the final push and, in fact, recaptured one of their main towns, Owerri, in April, 1969.

Au secours

Why did the Biafran fortunes change? Hemmed into their traditional tribal heartland, the Biafrans discovered enormous will, not only in fighting ability but in their capacity to accept punishment and hang on. In a sense, the Biafrans no longer had any place to run. Persuaded that surrender meant annihilation, they stood their ground.

But this spirit would have meant little without arms. The French took care of that, shipping in arms by night flights from Gabon, one of the four African countries that have recognized Biafra. The French likely acted because they wanted to embarrass the British, break up the English-speaking giant of West Africa, keep an eye on Biafran oil, and put themselves on the side of a popular, humanitarian cause. The French action came late in the war, but it was soon enough to help avert defeat for the Biafrans.

The Biafrans also staved off defeat because the Nigerians extended their supply lines too far. This error was compounded by the failure of the three Nigerian divisions to keep in touch with each other. Major General H. T. Alexander, the British officer who headed an international observer team in Nigeria in early 1969, has said that “the divisional commanders operate rather like warlords in their respective spheres of influence.”

The present stalemate mirrors a truth about the war. Neither side can win it by force of arms. The federal troops, even if they succeed in overrunning all the towns of Biafra, will have a hollow victory: an occupying army in a hostile territory, harassed by guerrilla warfare and sabotage. But the Biafrans have little hope of military victory themselves. Even if they do recapture some towns, the chances are slight that they will ever push the Nigerians off most of their original territory. At best, a military solution or stalemate would leave them crowded into an unviable enclave.

With the stalemate, guns have given way to hunger as the main weapon of war. The Nigerian blockade has succeeded in wreaking mass starvation and malnutrition on besieged Biafra. In fact, photographs of black children with swollen bellies, stick arms, and woeful eyes have become the symbol of the Nigerian civil war to the rest of the world. The International Red Cross has estimated that a million and a half Biafrans have died of hunger and malnutrition, and that as many more may die in the next few months unless Nigeria allows the Red Cross to resume its relief flights. These figures may be inflated by a charitable organization intent on dramatizing its role, but hunger and disease, on a monstrous scale, have been the main legacies of the war.

The horror has persuaded a few people within Biafra and a few more outside that the time has come for Ojukwu to face reality, renounce secession, and save his people. Ojukwu has rejected this. He and other Biafran leaders believe independence and security are worth the loss. It is a belief based on intense distrust of the federal Nigerian tribes and on the conviction that surrender would mean the massacre of the educated Ibo class and the subjugation of the rest.

Furthermore, the Biafrans have played on their calamity for all its political worth. Ojukwu knows that the hunger of his people draws worldwide sympathy. This sympathy forces other countries, in the name of humanitarian pity, to take actions that, in the long run, could help keep Biafra independent. All the shipments of relief supplies, all the demands for a cease-fire, all the calls for negotiations are political dividends for Biafra.

Relief puts the federal military government of Nigeria in a dilemma. By paying for landing fees, salaries, living expenses, and other costs with foreign exchange at inflated Biafran prices, the relief organizations and missionaries have become a financial buttress for Biafra. The relief agencies also provide foreign exchange by buying Biafran-produced food for distribution to refugee camps. In a report for Britain’s Fabian Society, Professor Kennedy Lindsay of the University of the West Indies estimates the total relief and missionary contribution to Biafra at $10.5 million in 1968—the largest amount Biafra received from any single source. Relief flights have also bolstered Biafra by flying in journalists and foreign sympathizers as passengers, who later publicize Biafra’s cause and plight. In addition, flights carrying arms have slipped into Biafra at the same time as flights carrying relief supplies. All this persuades the federal government that relief has stiffened Biafran resistance to its military forces.

In a sense, the federal government ought to accept these disadvantages of relief flights into Biafra. As Chief Anthony Enahoro, the federal Commissioner of Information, has put it, “In the peculiar circumstances of our civil war, the federal government realizes that it is necessary to demonstrate to the Ibos that the federal forces are not fighting them as a people.” Since the government’s stated aim is a harmonious postwar Nigerian nation, it must accept limitations to its method of waging war, just as the stated war aims of the United States prevent it from using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Actually, the federal government behaves as if there are few restrictions on its ways of waging war. It is intent on destroying an enemy, not seducing it. Pressed by its chief arms supplier, Britain, the Nigerians allowed relief flights in the first place in 1968 only because they expected the war to end soon. Enahoro’s conciliatory words last June came a few weeks after the Nigerians had shot down a Red Cross relief plane. In fact, Enahoro, in the same speech, announced that the Nigerian government woidd replace the International Red Cross as the coordinator of relief to Biafra, knowing full well that this would drastically reduce relief to Biafra.


The Nigerians and Biafrans have met numerous times in various places in hopes of negotiating a settlement that would end the war, but all the conferences have collapsed. These conferences—in London, Kampala, Niamey, Addis Ababa, and Monrovia—have been ruled more by fancy than realism.

The Nigerians have arrived confident of their military victory, ready to negotiate the surrender of the Biafrans. The negotiators, usually led by Chief Enahoro, have proclaimed sympathy for the Biafrans and promised a magnanimous approach. But the Nigerian generosity would be the generosity of a General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The Biafrans would have to surrender first.

The Biafrans, on the other hand, have arrived at the conferences contemptuous of talk that they were losing the war. Basically, the Biafrans have wanted a peace conference to produce a cease-fire that could be prolonged enough for Biafra’s independence to be gradually accepted by other nations.

Until these attitudes change, peace seems unlikely. The Nigerians and their powerful foreign supporters must be made to realize that a military victory is both unlikely and pointless. Even if Nigeria defeated Biafra, the new union would be so divided by tribal hatreds that it could hardly stay together very long. In the same way, the Biafrans must be made to realize that independence, which might come to them after years of stalemate and starvation, would hardly be worth the great loss of life.

The most plausible compromise is a weak union or confederation of Nigeria in which Biafra has a special autonomous status, including the right to maintain its own army. Biafra might accept this now, though it is doubtful that the federal government of Nigeria would. Ironically, if such a compromise did end the war, it would represent a solution that both sides probably could have had in 1967 without any fighting at all. But that, of course, is the irony of most wars.