BIAFRA: The Secession that Failed
THE five hollow-eyed travelers who stepped warily from a Nigerian Airways plane at Lagos Airport one night last week had the fugitive look of men on the run. They were driven to the Federal Palace Hotel through deserted streets heavy with the stifling heat of Africa's dry season. Next morning, after a fitful sleep, they were escorted to the Dodan military barracks in a suburb of the Nigerian capital. There, in the first formal surrender ceremonies to end a military conflict since World War II, Biafra's Major General Philip Effiong signed a document ending the bitter 31-month civil war that has raged between Nigeria and its breakaway Eastern Region.
Said Effiong, in a simple act of fealty to Major General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's head of state and commander of its armed forces: "We are firm, we are loyal Nigerian citizens, and we accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. The Republic of Biafra ceases to exist." His voice sounded tired. When he finished, Gowon embraced him.
Biafra had ceased to exist two days before Effiong's formal surrender. With federal troops advancing on all fronts, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, 36, Biafra's leader, realized that he had lost. With his family, three aides, three tons of luggage and his white Mercedes-Benz staff car, Ojukwu caught one of the last flights out of the beleaguered airstrip at Uli. The refugees were loaded aboard a Superconstellation that took off for a destination that had still not been disclosed a full week later; various reports placed Ojukwu in Lisbon; Libreville, capital of Gabon; and the Ivory Coast. His flight left Effiong in command of a crumbling region, desperately short of food and medicine and totally shorn of the will to continue its doomed rebellion.
The conflict that ended with such stunning swiftness was the first big modern war waged in Black Africa since the continent's colonies began receiving their independence. It was also one of the most devastating civil wars in modern history. At the outset, Biafra's people numbered 12 million—about two-thirds of them Ibo, the rest belonging to minority tribes (as does Effiong, who is an Ibibio). The secessionist territory covered nearly 30,000 sq. mi. and included some of Nigeria's richest land. At the close of the war, 3,500,000 people were squeezed into a devastated area of 1,500 sq. mi. As many as 2,000,000 Biafrans, many of them children, had perished. The great majority had cruelly and slowly starved to death. Another 1,250,000 Biafrans, reduced to skeletons for lack of food, may die before aid can reach them—even though at least 24,000 tons of food, enough to feed 4,000,000 people for a month, is stockpiled not far from the war zone.
In the end, it was hunger that probably did most to defeat Biafra's long-suffering defenders. On orders from Ojukwu, ammunition enjoyed priority over food shipments to Uli. Consequently, his troops had ample ammo in the war's last days, but they had been eating so poorly throughout the autumn that they simply lacked the strength to fight. Under intense pressure from federal forces, Biafra's two best divisions crumpled. The Nigerians sliced the rebel territory in two.
The thrusting Nigerian advance created havoc. Biafran civilians piled pots, pans, clothing, radios and washtubs atop their heads and fled before the federal troops. One priest who flew out shortly afterward saw evacuees from a Biafran hospital hobbling down a road with intravenous needles still stuck in their arms and glucose bottles held aloft so the fluid could drip down. "The roads were choked with people," another priest recalled. "I could see terror in their faces." The exodus reminded him of an Ibo proverb: "A man who is running for his life never gets tired." But some did; they sat down along the road and never rose. Then the vultures swooped in, swiftly and silently.
The Nigerians were less affected. Even so, in addition to battle casualties their economy was battered by a war that at its climax was costing the government $1,000,000 a day. "There are no victors in a civil war," B. A. Clark, the Deputy Secretary for Nigeria's External Affairs Ministry, said sadly last week. "Not when the people you have been fighting were classmates or your friends or the man that used to work at the next desk or maybe even your cousin. All wars are bad, but civil wars are hideous."
Compounding the horror of Biafra was the moral ambiguity that enveloped it from the first. Great powers and small became involved in the conflict, frequently for questionable reasons. The Soviet Union, eager to regain a foothold in Black Africa, delivered arms to help crush a rebellion that Moscow would, in another context, have hastened to hail as a "just war of national liberation." Britain, worried about African balkanization, Soviet influence and its own oil interests, supplied weapons to the Nigerians. The British were also concerned with preserving a state that its colonial officers had nursed to nationhood.
France's Charles de Gaulle, fearful that a too powerful Nigeria would serve as an irresistible example for such former French colonies as Niger and Chad, backed the Biafrans; he might also have been hoping that a secessionist victory would give France a crack at the immense oil reserves in the Niger Delta. The Biafrans were also supported by South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal, all obviously interested in preventing a united Nigeria from realizing its potential as the most powerful state in all of Black Africa. Black-ruled African nations, worried about the effect of the rebellion on their own disparate tribes (see box following page), were overwhelmingly pro-Nigeria. Officially, the U.S. took no sides, but it irritated the Nigerian government by undertaking an airlift of public and private food supplies to keep Biafrans alive.
The Uses of Starvation
In the end, it was difficult if not impossible for an impartial observer to support either side without reservation. Those who rejected Biafra's secession as a perilous example for the rest of Africa were nonetheless appalled by the widespread misery and starvation inflicted on its people. Those who saw Biafra's breakaway as an unexceptionable attempt to achieve self-determination found it difficult to explain why the Ijaws, Efiks, Ibibios and other minorities under Ojukwu's rule seemed so unhappy —or why Ojukwu, in the early days of the war, tried to seize territory with non-Ibo majorities. In the long months of bickering over how relief supplies should be distributed to the starving women and children of Biafra, neither Gowon nor Ojukwu looked good. Gowon was accused of using starvation as a weapon to force Biafra into submission, Ojukwu of using it as a public-relations gimmick to win sympathy for his people. In retrospect, it is difficult to refute either charge completely.
During the chaotic days of Biafra's collapse and surrender, many nations and international organizations moved hastily in an effort to repair the damage and help the victims. In Washington, for example, President Nixon used the White House hot line twice last week to talk to Britain's Prime Minister Harold Wilson about aiding the defeated rebels. The East Bloc countries, however, withheld compassion. The Polish press insisted that Western relief activities were "gross interference in Nigeria's internal affairs."
Gowon seemed to agree. To punish those who had aided Biafra during the war, he barred any aid from several agencies and nations. "Let them keep their blood money," he declared angrily. "Let them keep their bloody relief supplies." Nigeria's chief was particularly annoyed with Pope Paul VI, who told a crowd in St. Peter's Square that "the victory of arms may carry with it the killing of numberless people. There are those who actually fear a kind of genocide." Gowon, whose tactics for three years have been designed to limit casualties, bristled at the reference to "genocide." In the streets of Lagos, student demonstrators appeared with placards recommending THE HOTTEST PARTS OF HELL FOR THE POPE.
Judging by initial reports from the collapsed Biafran pocket, the sword of genocide was a lesser threat than the strangling knot of slow starvation. Some Biafrans, according to relief workers, had not eaten for eight days before the capitulation. Afterward, they fled into the bush, where there was nothing to chew on but butterflies. Even so, Gowon allowed no aid without approval from Lagos. "Nigeria will do this itself," he said firmly.
Despite what appears to be misguided chauvinism on the relief issue, Gowon seemed prepared to behave as a generous victor in other respects. To the Ibos in general, he said: "We know that most of you were dragged into this. May I welcome you back into the fold?" The general called for three days of prayer and pleaded with the remainder of Nigeria's 53 million people not to reject the Ibo rebels. "Let us join hands to build a truly united and great nation," he said.
His forgiveness, however, was withheld from one Biafran. Referring to Ojukwu during an interview with Britain's Independent Television News, Gowon fairly gloated: "How are the mighty fallen and in such a cowardly way." He added: "I hope his conscience will allow him to rest. God knows! Will those who have supported Ojukwu allow him to get away with what he's done—to his people, to Nigeria, to Africa?"
What Ojukwu's secession has done to Nigeria and the continent at large may not be immediately apparent. But its impact on his people is already clear. The Ibos, who once predominated in Biafra, may never completely regain the elite position in Nigeria they held before war. Astute, aggressive and generally well educated, the Ibos were called the "Jews of Africa" by envious neighbors long before independence, though most are in fact Catholics.
The Ibos are bright, industrious and crafty. Ojukwu's father, for example, parlayed one battered truck into a transportation empire, a knighthood from Britain and enough money to send his son to preparatory school at Epsom and college at Oxford. Other Ibos, spreading out from their homeland in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, became tradesmen, technicians, professionals and civil servants. Like the Jews of Central Europe, the Chinese in a host of Asian countries, and the Indians in East Africa, they tended to dominate commerce and culture while living among strangers. They infuriated other tribes by their drive and arrogance, and by passing along jobs and other plums to fellow Ibos.
In January 1966, Ibo officers, restive under the North's domination of the army and government, precipitated a crisis. In a military coup, they took over the government and assassinated Sir
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria's Moslem Prime Minister. They also killed the Sardauna of Sokoto, the most respected emir in the North, and a score of Northern officers. Seven months later, avenging Northern officers staged a countercoup, killing some hundreds of high-ranking Ibo army men. Emboldened, the Moslem Hausas of the North launched a pogrom against Ibos. Crowds descended on the sabon garris (strangers' quarters), where the Ibos lived. In a frenzy of murder and rape, they killed as many as 30,000. Frightened Ibos by the millions retreated hastily into the sanctuary of their homeland.
Though the countercoup restored power to the Hausas, their choice to lead the government was Yakubu Gowon, who is both a Christian and a member of a minority tribe (see box following page). Gowon tried to stop the pogroms. At the same time, he firmly limited Ibo power by regrouping Nigeria's four regions (North, East, West and Midwest) into twelve smaller units. The Ibo East was gerrymandered into three states, two of which had non-Ibo majorities. The move also deprived the Ibos of control over much of the oil that was making Nigeria rich. Ojukwu, who at the time was Military Governor of the Eastern Region, defied Gowon. On May 30, 1967, at a champagne party in the Eastern capital of Enugu, he announced the creation of the state of Biafra, which drew its name from the bay off the Atlantic Ocean that cuts into the Nigerian coast. The proud Ibos composed a national anthem—"Land of the rising sun we love and cherish, beloved home, land of brave heroes"—and dug in to defend their homeland.
Ojukwu badly wanted recognition from other African nations, but only four—Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia—obliged him. Outside Africa, support was even harder to find. In August 1968, at Charles de Gaulle's instigation, the French government announced that "the present conflict must be resolved on the basis of the right of people to govern themselves." But France never formally recognized Biafra while supplying it for war. During the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, Richard Nixon urged Washington to "speak out against this senseless tragedy and act to prevent the destruction of a whole people by starvation." Ojukwu looked on the speech as a sign that Nixon would reverse U.S. policy and recognize Biafra. When Nixon did not come through, Ojukwu concluded that the new President had merely been scratching around for headlines.
The only other nation that recognized Biafra during its short lifetime was Haiti. TIME Correspondent James Wilde recalls that officials there dissolved into laughter when Ojukwu read them the cable signed "President for Life Duvalier." They began to chant in derision, "President for Life, President for Life." Champagne was broken out, and the group got gloriously drunk toasting Haiti's President for Life.
At the outset, Biafra fared well militarily. Ibos had been the backbone of the Nigerian army; their departure for home after the 1967 pogrom deprived Gowon of half his officer corps and three-quarters of the army's administrative force. Gowon had to replace the secessionists while building his army from a peacetime force of only 7,000 to an eventual total of 180,000. Five weeks passed before Gowon proceeded cautiously to battle by dispatching eight battalions against Biafra. The results were discouraging. Nigerian soldiers refused to fight at night because they were afraid of juju (evil spirits). Regardless of the size of the force opposing them, they would not advance more than a mile at a time without laying down an artillery barrage. Ojukwu, meanwhile, was building his army to a high of 40,000.
The Biafrans made the first important moves of the war. Boiling out of their enclave, they captured Benin, capital of the neighboring Midwest. By early 1968, however, the difference in troop strength began to be felt. Federal forces won one of the most important battles of the war by taking the key shipping center of Calabar and Port Harcourt, with its airport, harbor and oil installations. For the remainder of the fight, Biafra was a landlocked island. Apart from radios, its sole contact with the world was a 75-ft.-wide strip of highway at Uli that had been converted into an airstrip with the code name Annabelle.
"Genocide" at Uli
Cut off from the sea, Ojukwu faced an overwhelming problem: how to feed a nation of 7,000,000 by air. A consortium of Catholic and Protestant relief agencies organized an air force of lumbering four-engine propeller airplanes to supply Biafra despite protests from Gowon that they were prolonging the war and violating Nigerian airspace.
The well-paid Western pilots who flew into Uli for relief agencies did so at night to avoid marauding MIG-17s and Ilyushin-28 bombers, supplied to Nigeria by the Russians and flown by Egyptian pilots. Food planes from the Portuguese island of Sao Tome, Red Cross flights and gunrunners from Libreville in Gabon circled over the airstrip only briefly, then dropped swiftly through the African darkness for bumpy landings during the ten seconds in which the runway lights were flipped on by a camouflaged control tower. A Nigerian night fighter nicknamed "Genocide" tried to pick them off as they landed; occasionally he was successful. All told, ten cargo planes were shot down or crashed during the 31 months of the war and 25 crewmen were killed. Many are buried in a neat churchyard near Uli.
The planes that ducked into Uli carried either food or ammunition; anything else that Biafrans needed was put together from supplies on hand. A resourceful government agency known as the Research and Production Directorate was staffed with Ph.D.s educated in U.S. and British universities. They dreamed up portable oil refineries, homemade antitank rockets, drugs and a highly effective land mine made from cooking utensils and christened "the Ojukwu kettle." Nothing went to waste. One visitor to the hungry country grimly realized that he had seen neither a rat nor a dog anywhere.
Last year, with fresh troops and new supplies, Ojukwu briefly went over to the offensive. By August, seven-eighths of Biafra's former territory had been recovered, including Owerri, where 1,900 Nigerian troops were killed. But the optimism created by such military feats was soon dimmed by the specter of renewed starvation. In parts of Biafra's enclave two-thirds of the population suffered from malnutrition. As many as 1,000 children died in a single day; they were buried at night by lamplight in mass graves.
The Code of Kipling
Crippled ex-soldiers roamed from feeding station to feeding station, begging scraps. An Irish nun recalled last week that "two of the poor lost souls dropped dead from hunger right where the children were finishing their one real meal of the week." Remembered Father Kevin Doheny of his parish at Okpala: "We'd get some kids back to what seemed like perfect health. They'd be playing around the parish grounds, then suddenly one of them would drop dead. Their hearts had been softened and weakened by starvation." Hunger on the ground was soon compounded by terror from the air as the Nigerians stepped up daylight attacks on markets and other civilian centers. "One of our nuns was killed in September," says Father Doheny. "A MIG fighter made two passes, strafing her as she walked along the road."
With pressure increasing on his weakened troops, Ojukwu might better have shifted to guerrilla warfare. But the Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School graduate did not choose to make the change. The general was a prisoner of classic British tactics. His outgunned, understrength soldiers were mowed down in pointless mass attacks. "If he had read Mao rather than General Sir Douglas Haig, he might have won," wrote Correspondent Wilde. "In fact, it was the code of Kipling that influenced the conduct of the war on both sides. Until the very end, Effiong looked like a British staff general—a polished Sam Browne belt, a sword for ceremonial occasions and a chauffeur-driven, khaki-colored English Humber car bearing a general's flag. His officers were similarly indoctrinated—mustaches, swagger sticks, batmen, officers' messes."
As the situation deteriorated, Biafra's "land of brave heroes" looked less and less desirable to its citizens. Many of them deserted through gaps in the battleline to take their chances with the Nigerians. By the end of the war, there were more Ibos living outside Biafra than inside. Many of them went to work for the central government, reinforcing Gowon's claim that the battle with Biafra was not a tribal war at all but one of jurisdiction. Ibos now preside over the Nigerian national railways, the electricity commission and the federal manpower commission. The most prominent Ibo is probably Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria's first President, who sided with Ojukwu at the beginning and then went over to Gowon because he thought the war had become futile. Azikiwe, who has been living in London, returned home last week to assure fellow
Ibos that "all is now well and safe." Gowon had promised a "final offensive" so frequently that it became a Biafran joke. But last October, with fresh shipments of Soviet arms, Nigeria's 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions began to mount the attack that ended the war. Until this coordinated offensive, the three federal divisions had always struck one at a time, enabling Ojukwu to shift Biafran troops back and forth to meet them. In this campaign, 120,000 Nigerians attacked simultaneously for the first time in the war. Preceded by British armored cars that pushed aside feeble Biafran roadblocks, the Nigerians covered as much as eleven miles a day and threatened at last to split Biafra into pieces.
As recently as two weeks ago, Ojukwu was still directing the war from a heavily camouflaged lodge in a small village near Owerri, with no indication that he foresaw the debacle approaching. He followed a schedule that began at 8 a.m. and often continued until 3:30 a.m. —"I have not been much of a sleeper since I was a child." He pinned his hopes for Biafra's survival on domestic disorders in Nigeria. "Nigeria is a free-for-all," he said. "Gowon's only asset is that he can get British support." Bitterly, Ojukwu described the battles around him as "Mr. Wilson's war for African oil."
Ojukwu was betting that the centrifugal forces of tribal, religious and economic rivalry would tear Nigeria apart in time to save Biafra. But his men ran out of food before that debatable historical process could run its course. Thousands of them faded into the bush, shed their uniforms and, clad only in shorts, melted into streams of refugees. The Nigerians overran Owerri, the last remaining city of any size (250,-000) in Biafra. Then they pressed on toward Uli with their 122-mm. Soviet cannon, shelling the strip from a range of 13 miles.
The Last Message
Shortly before Owerri fell, Ojukwu held an all-night Cabinet meeting at which it was decided that he should leave Biafra, ostensibly to seek help elsewhere, actually to facilitate the surrender. Ojukwu later claimed that the decision was his; in Lagos, there were contrary reports that Effiong and other dissenters had forced Ojukwu to go. In any case, Ojukwu departed with bank accounts in London and Zurich to cushion the blow. With Ojukwu gone, Effiong broadcast a call for a cease-fire over a mobile radio transmitter. "Our people are now disillusioned," he said, "and those elements of the old government regime who have made negotiations and reconciliations impossible have voluntarily removed themselves from our midst."
At Uli airstrip by that time, half the runway lights and some of the runway itself had been knocked out by Nigerian guns. The control tower began to wave off flights; they dropped from 17 a day to three, and soon were discontinued. The last pilots to get in with dried fish and other food had to unload their own planes because workers had fled. Often food moved from Uli was brought back because distribution centers had been overrun. The last telex message from Biafra to Markpress, a Geneva public relations firm that has handled the Biafra account with skill, said tersely: "Despite widespread rumors to the contrary, the airstrip at Uli is functioning normally." Next day it fell and with it the nation that it had kept barely alive for so long.
Reconciliation and Repair
Mopping up last week, the Nigerians moved quickly to restore order and save survivors. Radio Biafra, which had played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and native drum calls in its final hours, gave way to a soothing female announcer for Radio Nigeria. "Wherever you are," she said repeatedly, "General Gowon wants you to be calm and remain where you are so that relief can reach you." To prove that it is sincerely trying to avoid reprisals, the government replaced the victorious troops with an occupation force of policemen. Ibos who belonged to the police force before the war were invited to come out of the bush and return to duty. Gowon even named an Ibo, Ukpabi-Asika, to administer the occupied territory until normal civilian government is restored. Asika, a graduate of U.C.L.A. and professor of political science at Ibadan University, voiced optimism that the occupation would succeed and that Biafran soldiers would not turn to warfare. "I'm pretty confident," he told TIME Correspondents Roland Flamini and John Blashill, "that the Ibos will learn to live again with the rest of Nigeria. After all, more than half the Ibos are already living in government territory." Eventually, Gowon may name an Ibo Governor of the East Central State. A possible non-Ibo choice is Effiong.
The rebel region—and the rest of Nigeria—face a formidable job of reconstruction. Throughout the country, imports are down and food prices up by as much as 100%. The East is a shambles of blown-up bridges, shattered buildings and dynamited roads. Only two months remain in which to get the battered Ibos under shelter before the rainy season commences in March. The government will not only have to find shelter for the ex-Biafrans in a hurry, but jobs as well. It is likely to be some time before they venture from their own depleted territory to the shops and schools they once ran elsewhere. "An Ibo would be out of his mind to show up in Hausa towns like Kano, Kaduna or Sokoto," one diplomat in Lagos said last week. "They don't want him there." Gowon also must find jobs for 130,000 or more demobilized Nigerian soldiers, some of whom are already wandering the streets of Lagos, stopping automobiles and bullying drivers for money or wine.
Gowon's top-priority problems are to feed the Biafrans and to prove that he will not countenance another bloody tribal slaughter. Ojukwu, in a statement written from his mysterious exile and distributed by Markpress, expressed doubt that his old rival had any intention of aiding the Ibo people. "Nigeria's insistence to control the distribution of relief," he said, "is both to ensure that Biafrans get no such relief and also to shut out outsiders who might witness and expose the enormous crimes she plans to commit against our people." Ojukwu notwithstanding, Gowon seems sincere enough; it remains to be seen whether he can move the relief supplies in time and keep isolated army units from running wild.
Beyond that, Gowon's most urgent task is to correct the constitutional inadequacies that led to the rebellion. To accommodate regional interests and give more power to Nigeria's many minority tribes, Gowon is thinking of increasing the number of states from twelve to 16 or more. The move could reshape Nigeria's politics by shifting emphasis from tribes to political parties. If the parties became strong enough, they might finally suppress the Northern-dominated military cliques that have been running the country for most of the decade since independence. Such a move would be timely. More and more Nigerians complain openly about corruption among army officers and their inordinate love of "dash" or bribes. "What happened in Biafra could have happened in maybe seven of the twelve states," a disgruntled Yoruba said last week.
Gowon's biggest asset in his attempts to transform Nigeria is the country's wealth. Despite the civil war, its economic prospects are probably the best of any Black African nation. Nigeria is already Black Africa's biggest oil producer. Output, now that the war is ending, should reach a record million barrels daily this year and revenues of $1 billion a year by 1975. Oil has also given Gowon a remarkable degree of independence in foreign affairs, despite the fact that he had to turn to Russia and other politically minded suppliers for weapons. Gowon made cash-on-the-barrelhead payments for all his war purchases; now he is in debt to no foreign nation.
For all that, the fact that Biafra has failed does not necessarily mean that Nigeria will succeed. Yakubu Gowon understands; not long after he came to power in 1966 he despaired of ever overcoming the divisive forces that were rending Nigeria. "There is no basis for unity," he said then. But he has since come to believe otherwise. His efforts to transform that conviction into reality could become an example—or an epitaph—for all of Black Africa's struggling states.