Starvation Was The Policy


383 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $22.95.
Reviewed by Colin Campbell

ANYONE who has followed the huge international aid operations that have been mounted in recent years in Ethiopia, Cambodia and other devastated countries must have noticed that these efforts keep running into technical and political obstacles, and that they raise other issues as well. Shipments of food and medicine always seem to arrive in such places too late. There aren't enough planes or trucks to deliver the stuff. Dozens of different aid agencies leap into the act, and it's only a matter of time before they start disagreeing passionately over just what the problem is and how to deal with it.

Fortunately, these emergencies have generated a few important case studies, and one can read about the all-too-human world of several big emergency aid operations in appalling detail. Now ''The Brutality of Nations'' by Dan Jacobs has appeared, dealing with the emergency in Biafra, the short-lived Ibo tribal state that seceded from Nigeria in 1967. Biafra soon found itself at war with Nigerian federal troops, surrounded and cut off from reliable food supplies. Perhaps two million people died of hunger and related diseases between 1968 and 1970. But the book's real theme is horrifying in another way, and is summed up in a long subtitle on the jacket: ''How, in pursuit of political objectives in the Nigerian Civil War, a number of great and small nations, including Britain and the United States, worked to prevent supplies of food and medicine from reaching the starving children of rebel Biafra.'' Mr. Jacobs, a former speechwriter for Hubert Humphrey and other public figures, worked in 1968 as a consultant and spokesman for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, one of many relief agencies that found themselves frustrated time and again in their efforts to get supplies to Biafra. He finally quit his job in the firm belief that U Thant, then Secretary General of the United Nations, was obstructing aid. Mr. Jacobs subsequently became director of a group called the Committee for Nigeria-Biafra Relief, which tried unsuccessfully to get a relief effort started that would ferry supplies by helicopter from aircraft carriers off the Nigerian coast. So he was pretty much in the thick of things during the crisis. He has also done a good deal of research since then. Continued on next page He has come up with considerable evidence that Britain especially, but also several other crucial actors - including the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross, which was supposed to be coordinating the relief effort - accepted the Nigerian argument that the civil war was an internal matter. They and a lot of small countries that wanted to preserve the principle of national sovereignty all believed that emergency aid to Biafra could not legally be supplied if the Government authorities in Lagos did not want it supplied. And the authorities in Lagos did not. THERE are several points at which Mr. Jacobs's complicated moral and political story seems softer than it should, depending more on circumstantial evidence or on unattributed quotations than on solid facts or documents. And yet the general theme of the tale is very hard to deny. Whatever their sympathies for the tortured and dying Biafrans, too many powerful players in the drama were ruled by other considerations than the Biafrans' lives. Washington, like London, had no intention of alienating Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, or of crossing the Organization of African Unity, which also backed Nigeria. The United Nations and others threw up their hands.

The Nigerians were therefore free to crush the Biafrans as they chose. Nigeria's head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, ''seemed a genuinely humanitarian man,'' Mr. Jacobs writes, but General Gowon may have been exceptional. More significant from the Biafrans' viewpoint was the attitude of a Nigerian colonel named Benjamin Adekunle, who was forever telling reporters that aid for Biafra was ''humanitarian rubbish.'' ''If children must die first, then that is too bad, just too bad,'' the colonel once said.

The war was very cruel, and federal troops did not hesitate to shoot up emergency relief operations. As Jean Mayer, the American nutritionist, wrote in 1969 after a trip to Biafra: ''Every major hospital has been bombed and strafed, even though all had large crosses on the roof, and even though many were far from towns, crossroads or any other legitimate target. At present, red crosses are being camouflaged. . . .'' Dr. Mayer appealed to his former Harvard colleague Henry Kissinger to urge the new Nixon Administration to take more vigorous steps. But despite President Nixon's interest in the Biafrans' plight, his Administration never overturned the State Department's basic policy.

The Biafrans, meanwhile, rejected proposals that would have opened a land corridor into their enclave; they feared that the Nigerians would use it to invade. Biafra also rejected plans that would have let the Nigerians inspect food shipments, so that no arms slipped through; the Biafrans said they feared being poisoned by their tribal enemies.

Under conditions like these it is amazing that any aid at all reached Biafra, but it did. In the latter half of 1968, the International Committee of the Red Cross (which Mr. Jacobs suspects was chosen by Britain to coordinate the relief because it seemed unlikely to enter Biafra without Nigeria's permission), under tremendous European public pressure, organized an ''illegal'' airlift that flew by night, when Nigeria's fighters were unable to shoot the planes down. By now, some 8,000 to 12,000 starving Biafrans were dying each day. The airlift at its peak flew in daily shipments of several hundred tons. But in June 1969, a Nigerian fighter downed a relief plane, and American diplomats informed the Red Cross that the Nigerian Air Force had acquired a night-fighting ability and planned to shoot down relief flights as well as Biafran planes and suppliers of Biafran arms. That was the end of the Red Cross airlift. Joint Church Aid, an umbrella organization for 33 church relief agencies, continued to fly at night, but Biafra grew steadily hungrier, and in January 1970 its soldiers ''laid down their rifles and faded away,'' Mr. Jacobs writes. ''Biafra collapsed. The policy of starvation had succeeded.'' MR. JACOBS is a believer in the potential of international law and the enforcement of the Geneva Conventions against genocide and the victimization of civilians. I hope his belief is justified and that the human rights movement will someday have much more force. In the meantime, I am impressed with the power of words and pictures - of timely news accounts and perhaps also of angry histories like ''The Brutality of Nations'' - to help mobilize the world's richest people into helping a few million of the world's sorriest victims. WHO WAS TO BLAME?

Dan Jacobs began writing ''The Brutality of Nations'' shortly after the end of the Biafran war in January 1970. He was angry at the behavior of the governments involved and moved by a tragedy in which some two million people - mostly children -starved. He was then working for UNICEF. Disturbed because he felt the United Nations was hindering aid, Mr. Jacobs left the organization and headed a citizens' group that tried, unsuccessfully, to get supplies to the beleaguered Biafrans. He also knew what few others knew. ''The one piece of information I had that the general public did not have and that enabled me to write was that the top level of the relief agencies and the governments all knew it was the Nigerian Government that was blocking the aid,'' Mr. Jacobs said during a telephone conversation from his apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. ''It was deliberate propaganda to mislead the humanitarian campaigns for Biafra. I was in the inner group. I wasn't misled.''

One of the lessons he learned from his research, he said, was that the top figures in government - in this case particularly the British, who from the start backed the Nigerians at the expense of the Biafrans - pay too little attention to the formation of policy. ''It is the problem of the structures of governments. They leave policy making too long at the working level. These men who had direct responsibility at the top level finally adopted the propaganda line. It became internalized. And they came to believe it.'' JANE PERLEZ


Anonymous said…
I read the book and I think it was quite revealing. Jacobs did a good job.
Anonymous said…
I haven't read the book but your article is revealing enough. The western government should be ashamed. Describe the devil and I will show you who is the devil.


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