Relief, Reconciliation, Reconstruction

Time Monday, February 02, 1970

THE lights came on again in Lagos last week, ending a 30-month blackout imposed to protect the Nigerian capital from Biafran bombers that never appeared. Unaccustomed to the brightness, bats swooped screeching out of trees to seek darkness elsewhere, and pedestrians stepped neatly over rain ditches they had fallen into during the war. Only half the lights went on again, however; there was not enough power available to light the rest. Plainly, peacetime conditions would not be restored with the mere flick of a switch.

Building Up Jerusalem. That was all too evident in the area of what had been Biafra, where 12 million people had sought to establish a state independent of Nigeria and its 45 million other inhabitants. Nigerian Leader Yakubu Gowon had pledged his victorious government to a program of reconciliation rather than recrimination toward the secessionists. Because of ineptitude and the war's unexpectedly sudden end, which caught relief agencies unprepared, Gowon's peace program flicked on only at half strength. Feeding programs broke down, medical supplies went undelivered and there were countless incidents of rape and looting.

No evidence could be seen of the deliberate genocide against which Biafra's General Odumegwu Ojukwu had warned before he hastily departed from his collapsing nation three weeks ago. Nigerian leaders, for the most part, made genuine efforts to see that Biafra's Ibo tribesmen were cared for. Nigerian money was rushed in to replace worthless Biafran currency, Ibo civil servants were rehired and their 30-month defection listed as "leave of absence without pay." Gowon, wearing a flowing blue African robe instead of a general's uniform, led a thanksgiving service at Lagos' Anglican cathedral. He selected and read the lesson of the service from the second chapter of Nehemiah: "Then I said unto them, ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. Come and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem that we be no more a reproach."

Foreign observers, after cursory checks of Gowon's Jerusalem, returned to Lagos with airily optimistic progress reports. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, after two days in Lagos and none in Biafra, said unqualifiedly that "there is no hint, even the remotest evidence of violence by the Nigerian Federal forces." Henrik Beer, secretary general of the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, doubted that there had ever been wholesale starvation in Biafra. But hunger remained a very real threat. Gowon adamantly refused to let relief groups use Uli airstrip, a symbol of Biafran resistance. One result of his decision was that many of the 3,500,000 people in Biafra were going hun gry. According to some estimates by churchmen and physicians, as many as 1,000,000 Biafrans were on the verge of starvation. Ignoring pleas to stay put, perhaps 1,000,000 refugees choked the enclave's wreckage-strewn roads.

As for violence, the optimistic reports seemed true enough, although Brigadier General John Drewry, senior Canadian on the four-nation international observers' team that is monitoring the war zone for atrocities, made an astonishing statement. "I do not consider it serious," the Daily Telegraph of London quoted him as saying about reports of widespread rape, "until ten women are raped in the same place at the same time."

Officers of Colonel Olu Obasanjo's 3rd Marine Division were less complacent. They said they had been forced to shoot some of their men for rape and looting. Refugees reported that young girls were fading into the bush to escape "conscription," their euphemism for rape. Concerned, Nigerian authorities prepared to relieve the commandos with the "cooler" 1st Division.

No Miracles. Reports of the commandos' behavior flashed worldwide through dispatches from 80 correspondents who flew into the area on an inspection trip (see following story). Their stories so angered Nigerian officials that the newsmen were detained at Port Harcourt for two days until diplomatic protests freed them. Later, at a press conference, Gowon defended his troops: "We don't expect miracles. Is anyone willing to say there is not misbehavior in their own armies?

Haven't things been happening in Viet Nam?" At the same time, acknowledging that the situation was grimmer than he had anticipated, Gowon increased relief funds from $17 million to $45 million. He also agreed to accept additional assistance from other nations—with the proviso that Nigeria continue to direct all operations. The U.S., which had already dispatched three portable hospitals and 26 Jeeps, also promised a fleet of relief planes, portable generators, blankets and hospital lamps. Britain sent 25 doctors and 50 nurses; Russia supplied the lead contingent of what will be a 60-doctor party. Remembering Friends. The crisis is likely to last at least two more months. Only then is Nigeria likely to begin enjoying some of the benefits of a restored peace. Economically, the situation is bright. Oilfields and refineries in the Biafran enclave are already being checked for damage and restored to production; once they are, Nigeria expects total revenues to reach $1 billion by 1975. Shortly before the war ended, Gowon said: "Our friends will not be forgotten." As a result, the Soviet Union and Britain, the chief suppliers of arms to the federal forces, will reap some benefits. Moscow already has 500 aircraft, arms and machinery technicians in Nigeria, and a Soviet-Nigerian trading company was recently organized to sell Russian-built cars and trucks. A $150 million Soviet-built steel plant may soon be started. In the Lagos government's view, the Russians deserve everything they are getting. "I would give Russia more credit than any other single country," Nigerian Ambassador to Moscow George J. Kurubu said last week.

The U.S., which did not recognize Biafra but encouraged relief efforts to aid its starving people, is in a less solid position. Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who begins a ten-nation African tour in February, will be coolly received in Lagos. Said the Morning Post: "No, sir, Rogers is not welcome." But Nigerian officials later insisted that Rogers would be a welcome guest.

No Politics in Exile. One person who has no future in peacetime Nigeria, or perhaps anywhere in Africa, is Ojukwu. After he fled the country, reports placed him in Lisbon, Paris, Geneva, Lusaka, Dar es Salaam, Libreville, São Tomé and Port-au-Prince. According to the story that emerged last week, Ojukwu was flown out of Uli to Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast. At the Abidjan airport, he transferred to an executive jet belonging to Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny and was flown 250 miles to the President's summer palace at Yamoussoukro, which is guarded by a pool of crocodiles. Ojukwu had hoped to establish a government in exile, but Houphouet-Boigny coldly informed him that there were to be no government, no political activities and no statements to the press out of Yamoussoukro. Perhaps it was just as well, for Ojukwu supporters are as scarce as food in his former enclave nowadays. An elderly Ibo, gaunt from hunger and weary from walking, was typical. Pausing on the road near Owerri and staring at the desolation around him, he said slowly: "It's Ojukwu's fault. All of it."



BIAFRA: The Fall of Aba

Evidence Of Anti-Igbo Pogrom And Eye Witness Accounts: Essays

Benjamin Adekunle Shooting at Everything

Fleas versus Falcons over Biafra