The Art of Resistance

Time February 09, 1968
The 8,500,000 Ibo tribesmen in the secessionist state of Biafra are proving as adept at the business of defending their homeland as they have always been at trade and commerce. That is the impression brought back last week by Western newsmen who flew into the Biafran city of Port Harcourt in a darkened plane to get their first look at Nigeria's rebellious state. Though Biafra hired a Hollywood public relations man to organize the trip, TIME Correspondent Friedel Ungeheuer, who went along, learned enough on his own by moving around the country, talking with Biafrans and Europeans and interviewing Biafra's leader, Lieut. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, to reach a few surprising conclusions. He found that the Ibo—the region's majority tribe—are not only vigorously and successfully resisting invading federal Nigerian troops, but are maintaining high morale and a surprising amount of normalcy while doing so.

Speedboat Raids. Around Port Harcourt in the south, Biafrans have kept at bay Nigerian troops, who are 25 miles down the channel on Bonny Island. They have mounted gun batteries and trip-wire mines around the channel to discourage a waterborne assault, even venture out in speedboats for raids on Bonny. Biafran guerrillas sneak into their occupied capital of Enugu at night to harry the federal garrison, are battling with rusty Dane guns and cutlasses against a federal division along the Niger River. The Biafrans have also prevented another invasion force dug into the port town of Calabar from crossing a channel and taking the town of Oron. Federal MIG fighters, flown mostly by Egyptian and other mercenary pilots, rarely hit much of strategic value with their bombs; since they do not risk flying low enough to ensure accuracy, stray bombs at times land on hospitals and schools.

Though its coasts are blockaded, Biafra is in no immediate danger of economic collapse. It grows all the yams, bananas, rice and other vegetables that it needs to prevent hunger, is at work trying to make up for a scarcity of salt by distilling it from sea water. Almost every night, privately owned Super Constellations fly badly needed medicines, along with arms and ammunition, from Lisbon into Port Harcourt. Biafra is unable to sell any of its oil and its refineries are virtually shut down. But breweries and cigarette plants are producing at normal levels, and factories that are not short of material are working part time.

Bulging with Bank Notes. The Ibo have adjusted to the war remarkably well. In the bush, villagers have taken into their families thousands of Ibo fleeing from other regions of Nigeria and from Biafran towns threatened with capture. Wholly new and hidden villages have sprung up near occupied towns. At roadblocks around the country, highschool girls in "Long Live Biafra" T-shirts help militiamen check passing cars. Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion Dick Tiger, an Ibo, has toured the interior villages, advising militia officers on how to whip their inexperienced recruits into fighting trim.

One of the most furious battles of the inconclusive war was fought on the financial front. When the federal government, seeking to prevent Biafra from using Nigerian money to buy arms abroad, called in all its old bank notes and replaced them with a new currency, Biafrans hurriedly tried to ship millions of Nigerian pounds in their possession to Switzerland in order to sell them for other negotiable currencies. The government of Togo impounded one DC-7 bulging with Nigerian bank notes from Biafra when it made an emergency landing in that nearby West African country, and last week the Biafrans were forced to begin issuing their own currency.

Maze of Forests. The federal government, led by Major General Yakubu Gowon, has vowed to finish off Biafra by March 31. Biafra's Ojukwu says that the federal government is "like an elephant trying to fight billions of ants," hopes that it will eventually tire of its attempt to subdue his people. Ensconced in an area about the size of South Carolina, the Biafrans look as though they can hold out for quite some time to come in their maze of thick forests, mangrove swamps, rivers and winding waterways. Already, federal officers are beginning to admit that they may not defeat Biafra by the end of March, when seasonal rains will make the unkind terrain even more unsuitable for combat.

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