Evidence Of Anti-Igbo Pogrom And Eye Witness Accounts: Essays
Alms Dealers: Can You Provide Humanitarian Aid Without Facilitating Conflicts?
“There were meetings, committees, protests, demonstrations, riots, lobbies, sit-ins, fasts, vigils, collections, banners, public meetings, marches, letters sent to everybody in public life capable of influencing other opinion, sermons, lectures, films and donations,” wrote Frederick Forsyth, who reported from Biafra during much of the siege, and published a book about it before turning to fiction with “The Day of the Jackal.” “Young people volunteered to go out and try to help, doctors and nurses did go out to offer their services in an attempt to relieve the suffering. Others offered to take Biafran babies into their homes for the duration of the war; some volunteered to fly or fight for Biafra. The donors are known to have ranged from old-age pensioners to the boys at Eton College.” Forsyth was describing the British response, but the same things were happening across Europe, and in America as well.
Stick-limbed, balloon-bellied, ancient-eyed, the tiny, failing bodies of Biafra had become as heavy a presence on evening-news broadcasts as battlefield dispatches from Vietnam. The Americans who took to the streets to demand government action were often the same demonstrators who were protesting what their government was doing in Vietnam. Out of Vietnam and into Biafra—that was the message. Forsyth writes that the State Department was flooded with mail, as many as twenty-five thousand letters in one day. It got to where President Lyndon Johnson told his Undersecretary of State, “Just get those nigger babies off my TV set.”
That was Johnson’s way of authorizing humanitarian relief for Biafra, and his order was executed in the spirit in which it was given: stingily. According to Forsyth, by the war’s end, in 1970, Washington’s total expenditure on food aid for Biafra had been equivalent to “about three days of the cost of taking lives in Vietnam,” or “about twenty minutes of the Apollo Eleven flight.” But Forsyth, who was an unapologetic partisan of the Biafran cause, reserved his deepest contempt for the British government, which supported the Nigerian blockade. Even as Nigeria’s representative to abortive peace talks declared, “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it,” the Labour Government in London dismissed reports of Biafran starvation as enemy propaganda. Whitehall’s campaign against Biafra, Forsyth wrote, “rings a sinister bell in the minds of those who remember the small but noisy caucus of rather creepy gentlemen who in 1938 took it upon themselves to play devil’s advocate for Nazi Germany.”
The Holocaust was a constant reference for Biafra advocates. In this, they were assisted by Biafra’s secessionist government, which had a formidable propaganda department and a Swiss public-relations firm. The cameras made the historical association obvious: few had seen such images since the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Propelled by that memory, the Westerners who gave Biafra their money and their time (and, in some cases, their lives) believed that another genocide was imminent there, and the humanitarian relief operation they mounted was unprecedented in its scope and accomplishment.
In 1967, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian nongovernmental organization, had a total annual budget of just half a million dollars. A year later, the Red Cross was spending about a million and a half dollars a month in Biafra alone, and other N.G.O.s, secular and church-based (including Oxfam, Caritas, and Concern), were also growing exponentially in response to Biafra. The Red Cross ultimately withdrew from the Nigerian civil war in order to preserve its neutrality, but by then its absence hardly affected the scale of the operation. Biafra was inaccessible except by air, and by the fall of 1968 a humanitarian airlift had begun. The Biafran air bridge, as it was known, had no official support from any state. It was carried out entirely by N.G.O.s, and all the flying had to be done by night, as the planes were under constant fire from Nigerian forces. At its peak, in 1969, the mission delivered an average of two hundred and fifty metric tons of food a night. Only the Berlin airlift had ever moved more aid more efficiently, and that was an Air Force operation.
The air bridge was a heroic undertaking, and a stunning technical success for a rising humanitarian generation, eager to atone for the legacies of colonialism and for the inequities of the Cold War world order. In fact, the humanitarianism that emerged from Biafra—and its lawyerly twin, the human-rights lobby—is probably the most enduring legacy of the ferment of 1968 in global politics. Here was a non-ideological ideology of engagement that allowed one, a quarter of a century after Auschwitz, not to be a bystander, and, at the same time, not to be identified with power: to stand always with the victim, in solidarity, with clean hands—healing hands. The underlying ideas and principles weren’t new, but they came together in Biafra, and spread forth from there with a force that reflected a growing desire in the West (a desire that only intensified when the Berlin Wall was breached) to find a way to seek honor on the battlefield without having to kill for it.
Three decades later, in Sierra Leone, a Dutch journalist named Linda Polman squeezed into a bush taxi bound for Makeni, the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front rebels. In the previous decade, the R.U.F. had waged a guerrilla war of such extreme cruelty in the service of such incoherent politics that the mania seemed its own end. While the R.U.F. leadership, backed by President Charles Taylor, of Liberia, got rich off captured diamond mines, its Army, made up largely of abducted children, got stoned and sacked the land, raping and hacking limbs off citizens and burning homes and villages to the ground. But, in May, 2001, a truce had been signed, and by the time Polman arrived in Sierra Leone later that year the Blue Helmets of the United Nations were disarming and demobilizing the R.U.F. The business of war was giving way to the business of peace, and, in Makeni, Polman found that former rebel warlords—such self-named men as General Cut-Throat, Major Roadblock, Sergeant Rape Star, and Kill-Man No-Blood—had taken to calling their territories “humanitarian zones,” and identifying themselves as “humanitarian officers.” As one rebel turned peacenik, who went by the name Colonel Vandamme, explained, “The white men are soon gonna need drivers, security guards, and houses. We’re gonna provide them.”
Colonel Vandamme called aid workers “wives”—“because they care for people,” according to Polman, and also, presumably, because they are seen as fit objects of manipulation and exploitation. Speaking in the local pidgin, Vandamme told Polman, “Them N.G.O. wifes done reach already for come count how much sick and pikin [children] de na di area.” Vandamme saw opportunity in this census. “They’re my pikin and my sick,” he said. “Anyone who wants to count them has to pay me first.”
This was what Polman had come to Makeni to hear. The conventional wisdom was that Sierra Leone’s civil war had been pure insanity: tens of thousands dead, many more maimed or wounded, and half the population displaced—all for nothing. But Polman had heard it suggested that the R.U.F.’s rampages had followed from “a rational, calculated strategy.” The idea was that the extreme violence had been “a deliberate attempt to drive up the price of peace.” Sure enough, Polman met a rebel leader in Makeni, who told her, “We’d worked harder than anyone for peace, but we got almost nothing in return.” Addressing Polman as a stand-in for the international community, he elaborated, “You people looked the other way all those years. . . . There was nothing to stop for. Everything was broken, and you people weren’t here to fix it.”
In the end, he claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” The U.N.’s mission in Sierra Leone was per capita the most expensive humanitarian relief operation in the world at the time. The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.
Is this true? Do doped-up maniacs really go a-maiming in order to increase their country’s appeal in the eyes of international aid donors? Does the modern humanitarian-aid industry help create the kind of misery it is supposed to redress? That is the central contention of Polman’s new book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” (Metropolitan; $24), translated by the excellent Liz Waters. Three years after Polman’s visit to Makeni, the international Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone published testimony that described a meeting in the late nineteen-nineties at which rebels and government soldiers discussed their shared need for international attention. Amputations, they agreed, drew more press coverage than any other feature of the war. “When we started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us,” a T.R.C. witness said. The authors of the T.R.C. report remarked that “this seems to be a deranged way of addressing problems,” but at the same time they allowed that under the circumstances “it might be a plausible way of thinking.”
Polman puts it more provocatively. Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow horror, she argues, is “the logic of the humanitarian era.” Consider how Christian aid groups that set up “redemption” programs to buy the freedom of slaves in Sudan drove up the market incentives for slavers to take more captives. Consider how, in Ethiopia and Somalia during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, politically instigated, localized famines attracted the food aid that allowed governments to feed their own armies while they further destroyed and displaced targeted population groups. Consider how, in the early eighties, aid fortified fugitive Khmer Rouge killers in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, enabling them to visit another ten years of war, terror, and misery upon Cambodians; and how, in the mid-nineties, fugitive Rwandan génocidaires were succored in the same way by international humanitarians in border camps in eastern Congo, so that they have been able to continue their campaigns of extermination and rape to this day.
And then there’s what happened in Sierra Leone after the amputations brought the peace, which brought the U.N., which brought the money, which brought the N.G.O.s. All of them, as Polman tells it, wanted a piece of the amputee action. It got to the point where the armless and legless had piles of extra prosthetics in their huts and still went around with their stubs exposed to satisfy the demands of press and N.G.O. photographers, who brought yet more money and more aid. In the obscene circus of self-regarding charity that Polman sketches, vacationing American doctors turned up, sponsored by their churches, and performed life-threatening (sometimes life-taking) operations without proper aftercare, while other Americans persuaded amputee parents to give up amputee children for adoption in a manner that seemed to combine aspects of bribery and kidnapping. Officers of the new Sierra Leone government had only to put out a hand to catch some of the cascading aid money.
Polman might also have found more heartening anecdotes and balanced her account of humanitarianism run amok with tales of humanitarian success: lives salvaged, epidemics averted, families reunited. But in her view the good intentions of aid—and the good that aid does—are too often invoked as excuses for ignoring its ills. The corruptions of unchecked humanitarianism, after all, are hardly unique to Sierra Leone. Polman finds such moral hazard on display wherever aid workers are deployed. In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good.
“Yes, but, good grief, should we just do nothing at all then?” Max Chevalier, a sympathetic Dutchman who tended amputees in Freetown for the N.G.O. Handicap International, asked Polman. Chevalier made his argument by shearing away from the big political-historical picture to focus instead, as humanitarian fund-raising appeals do, on a single suffering individual—in this instance, a teen-age girl who had not only had a hand cut off by rebels but had then been forced to eat it. Chevalier wanted to know, “Are we supposed to simply walk away and abandon that girl?” Polman insists that conscience compels us to consider that option.
The godfather of modern humanitarianism was a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant, who happened, on June 24, 1859, to witness the Battle of Solferino, which pitted a Franco-Sardinian alliance against the Austrian Army in a struggle for control of Italy. Some three hundred thousand soldiers went at it that day, and Dunant was thunderstruck by the carnage of the combat. But what affected him more was the aftermath of the fight: the battlefield crawling with wounded soldiers, abandoned by their armies to languish, untended, in their gore and agony. Dunant helped organize local civilians to rescue, feed, bathe, and bandage the survivors. But the great good will of those who volunteered their aid could not make up for their incapacity and incompetence. Dunant returned to Switzerland brooding on the need to establish a standing, professionalized service for the provision of humanitarian relief. Before long, he founded the Red Cross, on three bedrock principles: impartiality, neutrality, and independence. In fund-raising letters, he described his scheme as both Christian and a good deal for countries going to war. “By reducing the number of cripples,” he wrote, “a saving would be effected in the expenses of a Government which has to provide pensions for disabled soldiers.”
Humanitarianism also had a godmother, as Linda Polman reminds us. She was Florence Nightingale, and she rejected the idea of the Red Cross from the outset. “I think its views most absurd just such as would originate in a little state like Geneva, which can never see war,” she said. Nightingale had served as a nurse in British military hospitals during the Crimean War, where nightmarish conditions—septic, sordid, and brutal—more often than not amounted to a death sentence for wounded soldiers of the Crown. So she was outraged by Dunant’s pitch. How could anyone who sought to reduce human suffering want to make war less costly? By easing the burden on war ministries, Nightingale argued, volunteer efforts could simply make waging war more attractive, and more probable.
It might appear that Dunant won the argument. His principles of unconditional humanitarianism got enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, earned him the first Nobel Peace Prize, and have stood as the industry standard ever since. But Dunant’s legacy has hardly made war less cruel. As humanitarian action has proliferated in the century since his death, so has the agony it is supposed to alleviate. When Dunant contemplated the horrors of Solferino, nearly all of the casualties were soldiers; today, the U.N. estimates that ninety per cent of war’s casualties are civilians. And Polman has come back from fifteen years of reporting in the places where aid workers ply their trade to tell us that Nightingale was right.
The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is, as Nightingale forewarned, that of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst—as the Red Cross demonstrated during the Second World War, when the organization offered its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.
“The Crisis Caravan” is the latest addition to a groaning shelf of books from the past fifteen years that examine the humanitarian-aid industry and its discontent. Polman leans heavily on the seminal critiques advanced in Alex de Waal’s “Famine Crimes” and Michael Maren’s “The Road to Hell”; on Fiona Terry’s mixture of lament and apologia for the misuse of aid, “Condemned to Repeat?”; and on David Rieff’s pessimistic meditation on humanitarian idealism, “A Bed for the Night.” All these authors are veteran aid workers, or, in Rieff’s case, a longtime humanitarian fellow-traveller. Polman carries no such baggage. She cannot be called disillusioned. In an earlier book, “We Did Nothing,” she offered a prosecutorial sketch of the pathetic record of U.N. peacekeeping missions. Then, as now, her method was less that of investigative reporting than the cumulative anecdotalism of travelogue pointed by polemic. Her style is brusque, hardboiled, with a satirist’s taste for gallows humor. Her basic stance is: J’accuse.
Polman takes aim at everything from the mixture of world-weary cynicism and entitled self-righteousness by which aid workers insulate themselves from their surroundings to the deeper decadence of a humanitarianism that paid war taxes of anywhere from fifteen per cent of the value of the aid it delivered (in Charles Taylor’s Liberia) to eighty per cent (on the turf of some Somali warlords), or that effectively provided the logistical infrastructure for ethnic cleansing (in Bosnia). She does not spare her colleagues in the press, either, describing how reporters are exploited by aid agencies to amplify crises in ways that boost fund-raising, and to present stories of suffering without political or historical context.
Journalists too often depend on aid workers—for transportation, lodging, food, and companionship as well as information—and Polman worries that they come away with a distorted view of natives as people who merely suffer or inflict suffering, and of white humanitarians as their only hope. Most damningly, she writes: “Confronted with humanitarian disasters, journalists who usually like to present themselves as objective outsiders suddenly become the disciples of aid workers. They accept uncritically the humanitarian aid agencies’ claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic skepticism.”
Maren and de Waal expose more thoroughly the ignoble economies that aid feeds off and creates: the competition for contracts, even for projects that everyone knows are ill-considered, the ways in which aid upends local markets for goods and services, fortifying war-makers and creating entirely new crises for their victims. Worst of all, de Waal argues, emergency aid weakens recipient governments, eroding their accountability and undermining their legitimacy. Polman works in a more populist vein. She is less patient in building her case—at times slapdash, at times flippant. But she is no less biting, and what she finds most galling about the humanitarian order is that it is accountable to no one. Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.
ince Biafra, humanitarianism has become the idea, and the practice, that dominates Western response to other people’s wars and natural disasters; of late, it has even become a dominant justification for Western war-making. Biafra was where many of the leaders of what de Waal calls the “humanitarian international” got their start, and the Biafra airlift provided the industry with its founding legend, “an unsurpassed effort in terms of logistical achievement and sheer physical courage,” de Waal writes. It is remembered as it was lived, as a cause célèbre—John Lennon and Jean-Paul Sartre both raised their fists for the Biafrans—and the food the West sent certainly did save lives. Yet a moral assessment of the Biafra operation is far from clear-cut.
After the secessionist government was finally forced to surrender and rejoin Nigeria, in 1970, the predicted genocidal massacres never materialized. Had it not been for the West’s charity, the Nigerian civil war surely would have ended much sooner. Against the lives that the airlifted aid saved must be weighed all those lives—tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands—that were lost to the extra year and a half of destruction. But the newborn humanitarian international hardly stopped to reflect on this fact. New crises beckoned—most immediately, in Bangladesh—and who can know in advance whether saving lives will cost even more lives? The crisis caravan rolled on. Its mood was triumphalist, and to a large degree it remains so.
Michael Maren stumbled into the aid industry in the nineteen-seventies by way of the Peace Corps. “In the post-Vietnam world, the Peace Corps offered us an opportunity to forge a different kind of relationship with the Third World, one based on respect,” he writes. But he soon began to wonder how respectful it is to send Western kids to tell the elders of ancient agrarian cultures how to feed themselves better. As he watched professional humanitarians chasing contracts to implement policies whose harm they plainly saw, he came to regard his colleagues as a new breed of mercenaries: soldiers of misfortune. Yet, David Rieff notes, “for better or worse, by the late 1980s humanitarianism had become the last coherent saving ideal.”
How is it that humanitarians so readily deflect accountability for the negative consequences of their actions? “Humanitarianism flourishes as an ethical response to emergencies not just because bad things happen in the world, but also because many people have lost faith in both economic development and political struggle as ways of trying to improve the human lot,” the social scientist Craig Calhoun observes in his contribution to a new volume of essays, “Contemporary States of Emergency,” edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Zone; $36.95). “Humanitarianism appeals to many who seek morally pure and immediately good ways of responding to suffering in the world.” Or, as the Harvard law professor David Kennedy writes in “The Dark Sides of Virtue” (2004), “Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be.”
Maren, who came to regard humanitarianism as every bit as damaging to its subjects as colonialism, and vastly more dishonest, takes a dimmer view: that we do not really care about those to whom we send aid, that our focus is our own virtue. He quotes these lines of the Somali poet Ali Dhux:
A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.
He works more tirelessly than even you,
But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever:
In May of 1996, in the hill town of Kitchanga in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo (then still called Zaire), I spent a night in a dank schoolroom that had been temporarily set up as an operating room by surgeons from the Dutch section of Médecins Sans Frontières. A few days earlier, a gang from the U.N.-sponsored refugee camps for Rwandan Hutus—camps that were controlled by the killers, physically, politically, economically—had massacred a group of Congolese Tutsis at a nearby monastery. Members of the M.S.F. team had been patching up some of the survivors. A man with a gaping gunshot wound writhed beneath the forceps of a Belarusian doctor, chanting quietly—“Ay, yay, yay, yay, yay, yay”—before crying out in Swahili, “Too much sorrow.”
Everyone knew that the Hutu génocidaires bullied and extorted aid workers, and filled their war chests with taxes collected on aid rations. Everybody knew, too, that these killers were now working their way into the surrounding Congolese territory to slaughter and drive out the local Tutsi population. (During my visit, they had even begun attacking N.G.O. vehicles.) In the literature of aid work, the U.N. border camps set up after the Rwandan genocide, and particularly the Goma camps, figure as the ultimate example of corrupted humanitarianism—of humanitarianism in the service of extreme inhumanity. It could only end badly, bloodily. That there would be another war because of the camps was obvious long before the war came.
Aid workers were afraid, and demoralized, and without faith in their work. In the early months of the crisis, in 1994, several leading aid agencies had withdrawn from the camps to protest being made the accomplices of génocidaires. But other organizations rushed to take over their contracts, and those who remained spoke of their mission as if it had been inscribed in stone at Mt. Sinai. They could not, they said, abandon the people in the camps. Of course, that’s exactly what the humanitarians did when the war came: they fled as the Rwandan Army swept in and drove the great mass of people in the camps home to Rwanda. Then the Army pursued those who remained, fighters and noncombatants, as they fled west across Congo. Tens of thousands were killed, massacres were reported—and this slaughter was the ultimate price of the camps, a price that is still being paid today by the Congolese people, who chafed under serial Rwandan occupations of their country, and continue now to be preyed upon by remnant Hutu Power forces.
Sadako Ogata, who ran the U.N. refugee agency in those years, and was responsible for all the camps in Congo, wrote her own self-exculpating book, “The Turbulent Decade,” in which she repeatedly falls back on the truism “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” She means that the solution must be political, but, coming from Ogata, this mantra also clearly means: no holding humanitarianism accountable for its consequences. One of Ogata’s top officers at the time said so more directly, when he summed up the humanitarian experience of the Hutu Power-controlled border camps and their aftermath with the extraordinary Nixonian formulation “Yes, mistakes were made, but we are not responsible.”
It is a wonder that the U.N. refugee chiefs’ spin escaped Linda Polman’s notice: it’s the sort of nonsense that gets her writerly pulse up. But Polman does effectively answer them. “As far as I’m aware,” she remarks, “no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone for complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes.”
Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed. When a mission ends in catastrophe, they write their own evaluations. And if there are investigations of the crimes that follow on their aid, the humanitarians get airbrushed out of the story. Polman’s suggestion that it should not be so is particularly timely just now, as a new U.N. report on atrocities in the Congo between 1993 and 2003 has revived the question of responsibility for the bloody aftermath of the camps. There can be no proper accounting of such a history as long as humanitarians continue to enjoy total impunity.
During my night at the schoolroom surgery in Kitchanga, the doctors told me about a teen-age boy who had been found naked except for a banana leaf, which he had plastered over the back of his head and shoulders. When the leaf fell away, the doctors saw that the boy’s neck had been chopped through to the bone. His head hung off to the side. I saw the boy in the morning. He was walking gingerly around the schoolyard. The doctors had reassembled him and stitched him back together. And he was not the only one they had saved. This was the humanitarian ideal in practice—pure and unambiguous. Such immense “small mercies” are to be found everywhere that humanitarians go, even at the scenes of their most disastrous interventions. What could be better than restoring a life like that? The sight of that sewed-up boy was as moving as the abuses of the humanitarian international were offensive. Then, later that day, the doctors I was travelling with told me that, to insure their own safety while they worked, they had to prove their neutrality by tending to génocidaires as well as to their victims. And I wondered: If these humanitarians weren’t here, would that boy have needed them?
By John Barth, Luigi Bianchi, Lawrence W. Chisolm, Ira S. Cohen, And Leslie A. Fiedler, et al.
The people of Biafra are being exterminated. The number of children already dead of starvation, the as yet uncounted infants whose brains have been damaged for life, a daily death rate in excess of 10,000—all these grim statistics have been growing steadily since last summer and the worst famine months have now arrived.
Governments and individuals have watched and talked, made token relief contributions to ease consciences, and then reverted to watching, taking, and waiting, waiting for the Biafrans to surrender or for the last Biafran to die. Once again our State Department has miscalculated the willpower of a people and ignored the principle of self-determination.
What might have been interpreted as a civil war a year and a half ago has clearly become, with the intervention of Britain, Russia, and other nations, a genuine international problem with awful implications for the future, a future in which nation-states may routinely aid each other in eliminating troublesome minorities. Any further protestations of non-involvement on the part of the United States must also be viewed as complicity in the act of genocide.
We urge you to devote your energies to furthering the following policies:
1) an immediate air-lift and air-drop of food and medicines to the famine areas of Biafra and Nigeria irrespective of national sovereignties and on a scale commensurate with our efforts in Berlin some years ago;
2) recognize Biafra diplomatically and defend publicly in every possible forum the right to survival of the Biafran people;
3) exert all possible pressure on Britain and the participants in the forthcoming Commonwealth talks for an arms embargo and an internationally policed ceasefire;
4) if the United Nations is truly incapable of dealing with a crisis like the Nigeria/Biafra war, insist upon the creation of entirely new channels for the mediation and resolution of similar conflicts in the future before they reach genocidal dimensions.
The realities of the Biafran situation are clear enough for anyone who has the courage to face them. Act now to avert the worst crime against humanity since World War II.
Luigi M. Bianchi
Lawrence W. Chisolm
Ira S. Cohen
Leslie A. Fiedler
Konrad von Moltke
Constantine A. Yeracaris
and many other faculty members
State University of New York
Britain and Biafra The Case For Genocide Examined
By Auberon Waugh, The Spectator
December 26, 1968
For as long as any Christian, liberal or human- itarian tradition survives, the year 1968 will be. remembered as the one in which a British government, for the first time in its history, was prepared to condone the mass starvation to , death of innocent civilians as a means of im- plementing one aspect of its peacetime foreign policy. Very few people in England have any awareness of the fact—like most Germans after the war, they will be able to say that they did not know what was being done in their name.
Although photographs of the atrocities being perpetrated in Biafra have appeared in most newspapers, the general impression given by the captions and news coverage is that the children are starving to death as the result of a famine brought about by the war. Not a single newspaper has seen fit to point out that the children are dying as the direct and in- tended result of a siege which is supported by the British government, by the official opposi- tion party and by very nearly every Common- wealth correspondent in Fleet Street.
It may be that the intelligent public has come to accept the sale of arms to Nigeria as one of those tough but necessary measures which are essential to national economic survival. The Government has not thought it necessary to underline that the last big arms agreement was accompanied by a U0 million interest-free loan to the Nigerian government (ostensibly for telephones) and that to all intents and purposes
we are giving these arms to the Nigerians. The only other justification which I have heard ad- vanced by ordinary people with " an awareness of what is happening is that if we do not support the Nigerians in their efforts to crush Biafran
nationhood and extinguish as many Ibos as are necessary for this purpose, then we shall lose our investments in Nigeria, variously estimated at between £200 million and £1.000 million.
Even if this consideration justified our corn- pllcity in the deliberate starvation to death of two million Africans who are not our enemies
(an alarming number of people on both the right and the left appears to think so) it ignores
the whole nature of western investment in the newly-independent third world. All investment in black Africa is in the lap of the gods to the extent that there is nothing in theory to prevent
a sovereign state from nationalising any assets it likes without compensation. What discour-
ages them from doing so is not sentimental regard for the old country, nor memories of happy cricket afternoons at Sandhurst and Eaton Hall, but the necessity of encouraging further investment.
Few Englishmen have even bothered to think out their attitudes to the war as far as this.
Because the fact has never been presented to
the British public, eNcept in these pages and in a few hastily contradicted letters to the
quality newspapers, nobody has had to think further. If they did, and if they accepted the doubtful proposition that the mass starvation of civilians is a permissible act of war (Article IV of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct
of war, 1949, expressly states that civilians may not be deliberately used as war targets for the purpose of winning a war) then they would
still have to decide what purpose is served by the present siege.
When I visited Biafra in July, I was told by Red Cross officials, by Dr Herman Middle- koop of the World Council of Churches, by the Catholic missionaries there and by secular relief workers that the most accurate estimate of current mortality would be 3,000 a day. Needless to say, I was not able to see anything like that number. When I visited Queen Eliza- beth Hospital, Umuahia, I saw about a hundred children who were beyond recovery, according to Dr Shepherd, the medical officer in charge. He said that if I had come on an out-patients day I would have seen nearer a thousand. That is the only contribution I can personally make to the evaluation of statistics, since everything else was hearsay—a missionary who said that he had buried ten children that day; Mr M. N. Nwaubani, in charge of the Orei Amaenyi refugee camp of 550 inmates, who said that twenty-eight of his charges had died, a fact of which he was not at all proud. It was only one of forty-two camps around Aba, and one shudders to think what has happened to them now.
But however unreliable the figures may be, and however reluctant one may be to believe them, they are the best available, and it is no defence merely to assert that they are exaggerated. Those who have the task of tending to the dying and burying the dead are in a far better position to make an estimate than anyone in Lagos, or than any mandarin in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After I left Biafra, the figure, according to the re- sponsible relief organisations, quickly rose to 5,000 a day until it has now reached the ap- palling level of 10,000 deaths a day inside un- occupied Biafra and 4,000 a day in the so-called 'liberated' territory. When existing stocks of seed-yams and cassavas have been eaten, star- vation will presumably be total. But even if one The Biafran Ministry of Information posters reproduced on this and succeeding pages were taken from the walls of Aba, Owerri and Ilmuahia earlier this year. decides, as nobody who has spoken to those responsible for collating the figures reasonably could decide, that they are propaganda- inspired—even then, if we divide the figures by ten, we are still left with the most hideous crime against humanity in which England has ever been involved. - .
If the original purpose of the siege was to make Biafra surrender, then August's 'final push' was an admission that this strategy had failed. The notion of a 'quick kill'—so enthu- siastically endorsed by Mr Nigel Fisher and others—ended in bloody and atrocious failure, as anybody who had ever spoken to a Biafran —even a Biafran nurse in an English hospital —could have told him it would. At no stage of the last twelve months in the present war have the Nigerians enjoyed an arms superiority of less than ten to one, and when I was there the ratio was probably much nearer a hundred to one, but if there is a single lesson to be learned from the decade and a half since Korea, it is surely that arms superiority is no effective guarantee against a determined enough, in- telligent enough or desperate enough enemy.
However, since the failure of the 'quick kill,' Nigeria has returned to a siege strategy. Possibly this siege is intended to last only as long as is necessary for the Nigerians to secure another massive arms build-up, but the indications are otherwise. A siege is far cheaper and less dangerous to the fragile structure of Nigerian unity. Anybody can now see that a siege has no hope of working (at any rate until three quarters of the Biafrans are dead) and anybody at all interested in the matter is now in a posi- tion to decide that the only logical intention behind the resumption of siege tactics is a genocidal one. Visitors to Nigeria invariably come away convinced that no such intention
exists, although- I am reluctant to believe that all Nigerians are so unintelligent that they
cannot see the inescapable consequence of their actions. Be that as it may, and whatever the intentions behind it, the effect is genocidal.
Genocide, in short, in the sense either of mass destruction of a race or deliberate annihilation of a national group has already occurred and is being continued into the new year with the positive support of the British government.
In the face of thioindisputable fact, the small but determined band of Nigerian propagandists
—in the former Commonwealth Relations Office, in journalism, and, since their earlier mistakes have committed them, in the Govern- ment—have been forced to adopt an alternative system of apologetics. It is best summed up in the words of Mr Tom Burns writing in a recent copy of the Tablet; although it is seldom so baldly stated nor with such bland self-assur- ance: 'if genocide is in question, it must be laid at the door of Colonel Ojukwu himself.'
It is not even necessary to strip this assertion of the irrelevant misinformation which usually accompanies it : that the Ibos planned to over- run the whole of Nigeria and then West Africa —probably the whole world; that they had always intended to secede; that minority tribes- men were forced by the Ibos to flee from the invading Nigerians at gun point; that Ibos plan a massacre of all the minority tribes in their area as soon as they win; that Biafra is a police state, the people drilled into submission by patently absurd forecasts of a massacre; that anybody evincing the slightest concern for them is a victim of diabolically clever propaganda from Markpress of Geneva. I shall try to deal with most of these points later on. The essential argument runs as follows: Biafra had no right to secede; rebels must be defeated; the Nigerians are therefore waging a just war; blockade is a permissible act of war; such suffering as follows from this must therefore be blamed upon the original wrongdoers, rather than upon the in- flicters of just punishment, or upon those who are taking such steps as are necessary to bring the wrongdoing to an end.
The argument, with minor variations, is one which has sustained those who, for whatever reason, are so anxious to see Nigeria win and Nigerian unity maintained that they are pre- pared to support actual genocide as a means to these ends. It can only be upheld if one is prepared to accept (1) that a people has no right whatever to determine its own nationhood, (2) that rebellion is so vile a crime that no punishment under the sun is too harsh for it (capital punishment is often described as the. supreme penalty, but genocide is surely a degree supremer), and (3) that the case against the Biafran people is so unanswerable, and our interest in the matter is so overriding that we have no alternative but to offer ourselves in the role of assistants to the executioner.
In fact one could reply to the argument by contradicting every single link in it. But if one descends to particulars, one is in danger of ignoring the moral depravity of the whole. Suffering must be blamed upon those who in- flict rather than those who endure it without succumbing; and its infliction would be even more indefensible if it were true that the Biafran people did not support their leaders, or had been misled into supporting them. If concepts like democracy, nationhood, community or society have any meaning a people must have the right to determine its own destiny. No crime is so vile that it justifies genocide, or even the mass starvation to death of civilians as its punishment, since these things are in themselves the ultimate crime against humanity, if not against God.
Yet this is the argument which has sustained a large part of official England in its support of our first experiment in genocide. At its worst, it presents itself as a kind of tough-talking, fifth-form realpolitik, as in the private conver- sation of at least one young Cabinet Minister, or as a petulant legalistic aggressiveness, as in the writing of Professor Bernard Crick. At its least depraved it presents itself as the profound, honest, moral conviction of such uninquiring people as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is not, of course, an argument which would count for anything with the ordinary man in the strict _since he does not share his leaders' dirigiste authoritarian outlook on life which would be prepared to inflict punishment on this scale for a recognised end; still less is it one that would appeal to the liberal tradition, or even to the Labour left. Nor, I might add, would the system of apologetics which has been devised for the groups be acceptable to the official classes, since they are in a position to know that it is founded on an untruth.
But for them there coexists a second, if mutually irreconcilable, system of apologetics. This second system of apologetics is easy to refute, but it is the one which has been most generally accepted in England. It holds that (I) the Nigerians do not want anyone in Biafra to starve, (2) they have offered a land corridor as the only effective way of getting food in, (3) Colonel Ojukwu has refused this offer, ostensibly because he claims to think that the food would be poisoned, actually because he is jealous of Biafran sovereignty and because he wants as many people as possible to starve to death for propaganda purposes.
Let us tackle these points in order. If the Nigerians do not want anyone in Biafra to starve, why do they institute a siege? Why do they regard any humanitarian efforts to break the blockade and bring in essential food and medical supplies as `an act of war'—I am quoting Major-General H. T. Alexander, the military observer and expert on genocide, re- nowned throughout the whole Commonwealth Office for his impartiality-1n that it increases the will of people to resist'? Tom Burns came back from an interview with Gowon more recently (Tablet, 7 December) with an identical message : `Food is the means to resistance: it is ammunition in this sense, and the mercy flights into rebel territory, whether they take arms or not, are looked upon as tantamount to gun running.' Lord Hunt, another good friend of Nigeria, was even more forthright in giving the lie to Mr Stewart's claim that the first difficulty in getting aid to Biafra was Colonel Ojukwu's refusal of a land corridor: `What are the facts which have continued to block the way to relief operations in Nigeria? The first is the fact of a state of siege. The siege has continued for several months, with the Ibos completely surrounded and cut off by land and by water . . . Brutal and inhuman though it is, the very essence of siege tactics is to reduce the defenders to physical conditions which they can no longer endure.'
Nobody who was aware (as the British government has been aware for the last eighteen months and Mr Michael Stewart has been aware for the same period) that the Nigerians were engaged in siege tactics could possibly have believed that they were prepared to allow a land corridor through their territory, to relieve the siege for as long as hostilities lasted. Nor were they. Yet this lie—which, of all the lies circulated by the former ow and repeated, parrot-like, by Messrs Stewart and Thomson in the House of Commons, is the one which most obviously could not be true—has achieved almost total acceptance in this country. The reason for this is probably that the English are reluctant to believe that their leaders are either as cynical or as villainous as the facts of the case might indicate, and are eager, to find an alternative villain.
I notice that in their more recent pronounce- ments, both Mr Stewart and Mr Colin Legum of the Observer have tended to play down this aspect. Only Lord Shepherd and Mr Roy Lewis of the Times (and, if you count him, Mr Russell of Galitzine, Chant, Russell, the public relations firm which, along with the ex-Commonwealth Office, conducts Nigerian propaganda in this country) continue to bat on. The plain truth, as all these gentlemen are in a position to know, is that when Dr Arikpo first made his offer in July of this year, he refused to countenance the Biafran stipulation that any such road would have to be demilitarised, and effectively demili- tarised, to prevent Nigerian troops from rushing through as soon as the Biafrans had built up the destroyed bridges and removed -the other obstacles which were preventing Nigerian access to their territory. Since then, Colonel Ojukwu has suggested two demilitarised routes—both from the south—which have been rejected as impracticable with no reasons given. The Nigerians have never been prepared even to discuss arrangements for demilitarising the route.
But one did not need to know this fact (al- though the Government knew it) to know that it was never conceivably possible that the Nigerians could have been serious in their offer of a relief route during a time of siege, that the only purpose of such an offer must have been as a propaganda device. Yet the British public—and the public here includes highly intelligent editors of newspapers, humane and wOrdly-wise opinion-formers—have seized upon this preposterous claim as the easiest way to avoid having a bad conscience over the de- liberate starvation to death of other people's children.
Before moving to the one system of apolo- getics which just might provide a justification for British policy, I should like to dispose of two minor systems, the first of which has been used successfully to lull the conscience of a large part of the English left, the second (by such skilled propagandists as Mr Legum) to befog the issue and convince us all that nothing is as simple as it might appear, and that we had better leave a disagreeable business like genocide to the experts. One would have thought thtlt such lively consciences as those apparently possessed by Mr Michael Foot and Mr Ben N%itaker, to name but two, would have been a trifle exercised by British support for a policy which threatens to exterminate the greater part of a whole race by starvation, and had already in all probability exterminated the equivalent in numbers of the entire- African child population of Rhodesia. Certainly, if it had been a Tory government pursuing this policy—as the Tories have given every indica- tion that they would try to do, if they were in power—the indignation of the Labour left would have brought the roof down. But Mr Foot has been completely silent and Mr Whitaker has even taken it upon himself to forward me one of the more conspicuously asinine circulars of the Nigerian propaganda effort (I had already received two copies), sug- gesting that the war was being fought to prevent the Ibos massacring minority tribesmen in Biafra.
No doubt there are many reasons why the left (with a, few honourable exceptions) have chosen
to ignore their government's continuing involve- ment in an act of genocide, but these reason are known only to God and themselves, and I would not presume to explore the tortuous reasoning of the left wing conscience. The initial reason why none of them took an in- terest in the matter was probably because of an analogy between Biafra and Katanga, pro- moted by the then cao—although never so blatantly as when Lord Shepherd had the nerve to suggest, in the House of Lords, that both Katanga and Biafra employed the same public relations agency. A threepenny telephone call ' would have assured him that this was a lie. Here is the argument which has reconciled the left to the extermination of the Biafrans: Colonel Ojukwu, like Moise Tshombe, was only interested in the mineral riches of the eastern region, and saw no reason why he should share them with the rest of Nigeria; for this reason his rebellion has been backed by western capi- talist interests, whose lackey he has become; furthermore, Iboland itself is a poor, farming area which could never be economically viable for the eight millions crowded into it. Proof of all this is supplied by the fact that Biafra started the war by invading Nigeria.
To start with the last lie, a glance back at any newspaper file will show that Nigeria attacked first on 6 July 1967; it was not until 9 August that Biafra retaliated by invading Nigerian territory. Iboland is the richest area of Nigeria in palm oil products and 66 per cent of Biafra's mineral oil wealth lies in Ibo- land (according to the Willink Commission's definition of Ibo territory). The erstwhile CRO has produced no evidence in support of its claim that western capitalist interests are aiding Biafra. My own information on the subject (for what it is worth) is that aid is arriving in more or less equal proportions from China, Tanzania, Gabon and the Ivory Coast, with very little indeed, if any, from France and none at all from Portugal, beyond the freedom to use air- ports at Lisbon, Bissau and• Sao Tome, and to buy arms in Lisbon if the Biafrans can find the money. Nigeria is being supported, as everyone knows, by Britain, Russia and, indirectly, by America.
Argument about Biafran intentions be- fore secession is bound to consist in a series of unsupported assertions which, by inviting 'contradictory assertions, might leave the _im- pression that the matter is an open one—which it isn't. Acceptance of the Tshombe-Ojukwu analogy must involve at least partial acceptance of the proposition that the two million Ibo refugees who poured into Biafra after the 1966 massacres were motivated by greed for the oil wealth to be found there, and I do not think this theory will stand up. Nor do I think that anyone who has read Conor Cruise O'Brien's excellent refutation of this theory in the Observer—he had a certain amount of ex- perience in Katanga, it will be remembered— could continue to believe in the analogy. The Biafrans have always expressed readiness to share the oil wealth : this was made clear in Article Five of the proclamation of 30 May 1967 setting up the Republic of Biafra.
Finally, before discussing the case advanced by, among others, Mr John Mackintosh, MP, which is the only conceivable acceptable argument for supporting the Nigerians in their atrocious war, I should like to nail a red herring dangled from time to time by Mr Legum, Sir Bernard Fergusson, Mr Tom Burns, Mr David Williams and others. The greatest weakness in She Biafran case, they say, is that none of the
non-Ibo tribes in Biafra wish to have anything to do with it. Visitors to Nigeria have spoken to typical minority-tribesmen-in-the-street who assured them that their first and only loyalty was to Lagos, that they detested the Ibos and would never voluntarily join an Ibo-dominated Biafra. When I was in Biafra I spoke to people who were introduced as typical minority-tribes- men-in-the-street (as well as to non-Ibo mem- bers of the Biafran Cabinet and High Corn- inand) who assured me of the diametric opposite. Perhaps none of us has ever spoken to a minority tribesman at all, but only to stooges put up by the respective governments. Clearly the only way to resolve the matter is to hold a uN-sponsored plebiscite, which the Biafran government has requested and the Nigerian government has refused. Until this is held, I suggest a truce on contradictory and unsupported assertions—at any rate among those who are more concerned with presenting the truth than with disseminating propaganda.
Mr John Mackintosh, I think, is such a one (although I made the same assumption about Mr Michael Stewart, and it proved a ghastly mistake). His case, reduced to its essentials— if I misrepresent him, no doubt he will correct me—goes like this: if the Biafran secession is allowed to occur, it will be followed not only by the attempted secession from Biafra of those minority tribes who are -unlikely to be content with Ibo domination, but also by a widespread secessionist movement throughout the whole of Nigeria, to be followed by the breakdown of all national identities in western Africa; these would be replaced by indeterminate and-hotly disputed tribal- areas, with rival tribes seeking to expel, dominate or massacre each other, and the resulting bloodshed, chaos and starvation would be far worse than anything necessary to prevent it by defeating Biafran secession. In other words, the Nigerian war against Biafra, together with such measures as are deemed necessary to bring it to a successful conclusion, must be regarded as the lesser of two evils.
In discussing this case, the actual figures of those already starved to death, and of those about to die, become of paramount importance for the first time. I have given my reasons for accepting the figures produced by the relief workers on the ground, inaccurate as they may be, in preference to those from any other source. If one follows these figures, day by day, and week by week, it is impossible to reach the conclusion that total civilian mortality to date
is .significantly under a million, and that the next month will bring anything much less than an additional two million dead.,'But even if one decides—for whatever reason, and on whatever evidence—that a reasonable margin of error would be 1,000 per cent, and reduces the total of actual deaths to 100,000, I would like to suggest that this number in itself is- sufficient to put the burden 'of proof very heavily indeed upon those who advocate our continued support of the war. We are con- fronted with the stark fact of genocide, as defined in the UN Convention, to which we are signatories (although Nigeria is one of the few remaining countries which are not) and unless it can be proved beyond any question of doubt that if these innocent people had not been starved to death a much greater number of even more innocent people would unavoidably have perished, then the argument falls. Nobody has yet proved this, and I very much doubt whether anything so speculative could ever be proved.
So we are left in the uncomfortable position of people who have just assisted in the star- vation to death .of anything up to a million civilians on spec, and are now preparing to starve up to another eight million out of an understandable reluctance to believe that we may have been wrong. Some three months— and perhaps half a million children—ago I addressed a plea to Mr Michael Stewart, whom I believed to be an honourable and humane man, pointing out the inevitable consequences of the course of action on which he was set, and reminding him of his promise given last June, to reconsider his course of action if it became apparent that it was the Nigerians' intention to proceed without mercy with the starvation of the Ibo people. He knows as well as I do the International Red Cross figure of 4,000 Biafrans a day who are now starv- ing to death 'inside so-called liberated' territory, and he knows even better than I do the details of Nigerian obstructionism—com- mandeering of Red Cross aircraft and relief `lorries for military purposes, impounding of relief material at the docks—which have con- tributed to bring this about. He knows that Biafran fears of genocide and massacre are not nearly as unreasonable as he claims to believe (Colonel Adekunle's pronouncement that he would shoot anything which moved in Biafra and anything, even if it did not move, when advancing into the Ibo heartland, has never been retracted). He knows that the Biafrans will 'never surrender so long as they have this fear, and yet he prefers to accept the bland assur- ances of military observers, conducted by Nigerian.officers, that no atrocities whatever have occurred—and apparently expects the -Biafrans to accept it, too. He knows that geno- cide is taking place and will continue to take place for as long as the blockade is enforced, and yet he stands up in the House of Commons and assures us that because the military obser- vers were unable to see anything improper, these charges can be dismissed. He has even blamed the Biafrans for their own murder.
My charge against the Cabinet is that it has continued to accept advice from Lagos, and from its advisers in London, with callous dis- regard for mounting evidence that it had con- sistently been, if not deliberately deceived, at least advised with such stupefying incompetence as to give rise to the reasonable suspicion that it had been deliberately deceived. I have been told (although I have not seen them) that there are letters in the possession of at least two charitable relief agencies, urging them to seed no aid whatever to Biafra until the war is over, and assuring them that the war would be over within four weeks of the letter's date.
The politicians have been sustained through- out by a hard core of Nigerian propagandists, but far more by the total indifference of the British people. There may be, as I suspect, a lingering and only half-articulate suspicion among the English that Africans are something slightly less than human beings; that in any case, they spend most of their time starving to death, and that it is no longer any concern of ours. The almost incredible bravery and resource of the Biafrans against the overwhelming odds can similarly be dismissed as the fanaticism of fuzzy-wuzzies, with which we are all well acquainted from our histories of the Sudanese wars. It may be that the Biafrans are the most highly intelligent and best-educated people of Africa, but who cares?
Nothing else can explain the eagerness with which people have seized upon the argument produced by Mr Frank Giles, foreign editor of the Sunday Times, who claimed in a leader-page article that it would be absurd to stop. arms supplies to the Nigerians, since we would derive no benefit from it, unless a 'moral thrill' can be described as a benefit. Of course, a Nazi soldier who refused to serve as prison guard in Belsen might have done little to help. the inmates, and would have derived no benefit from it except a 'moral thrill.' I make no apology for introducing Belsen, since the num- bers involved in Biafra are much greater, and the method of destruction is much the same, except that Belsen was more of an accident.
Just conceivably, our withdrawal of support from Nigeria, recognition of Biafra and massive assistance to the Biafrans would achieve noth- ing except to relieve, however belatedly, a little of the guilt we bear. On the other hand, our withdrawal of support, accompanied by that of the Commonwealth members of the OAU whom we influence, and that of the Americans, could well lead to some United Nations action. It is true that Russia would be left holding the ring in Lagos, but I suspect that Russia has a better chance of gaining control (how- ever temporarily, in either case) of a united Nigeria which wins the war than of a divided Nigeria which doesn't.
Before the war, the Russian embassy in Lagos was limited statutorily to twelve members, and in fact had only nine. By August of this year, the number had increased to forty-nine. After a Nigerian victory, reconstruction of the de- vastated country will be protracted and expen- sive. Britain's parlous economic position will enable her to make only a token contribution to it, and all the serious bidding will be between Russia, who already has a massive presence there, and America, who doesn't. So far as British influence is concerned, we have nothing significant to gain. While the reversal of our policy might not achieve anything, the con- tinuation of it can lead to nothing but disaster. Reversal might bring about that loose con- federation of states which is all we can hope to retrieve from the ghastly failure of our attempt to impose federation on yet another random area of Africa. But while the present policy continues, and while Africans continue to starve to death by their thousands every day as a direct result of the blockade which we support, I do not see how any Englishman who knows about it can allow himself to do nothing, without being implicated in the mass murder committed in our name.
By Bruce Fein, Huffington Post
April 01, 2016
Biafra, dominated by the great Igbo race, enjoyed sovereignty before Great Britain commenced exploitive colonial rule over Nigeria under the racist banner of Rudyard Kipling’s “the White Man’ burden.” Britain asserted authority over Biafra based on the tyrannical doctrine that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Berlin West Africa Conference, 1884-85, and the Berlin General Act symbolized colonial lawlessness by treating Africa as a carcass to be divided up among European vultures.
Restoration of Biafra’s sovereignty is justified under international law and practice—especially with the ongoing ethnic-inspired killings and persecutions of Biafans by Nigeria’s elected military dictator from the North touting sharia law, President Mohammdu Buhari.
Biafra’s sovereignty journey will require deft international diplomacy and the marshalling of widespread popular support from Biafrans and their resources. Power is never voluntarily surrendered. Rights ultimately are what you are willing to fight and die for.
Prior to British colonization in 1906, the great Igbo people to the East of Niger, numbering some 3 million, and their cognate tribes enjoyed decentralized self-government. They were not living in a state of nature. Their self-rule came by force of arms—not voluntarily.
In 1900, the British government assumed responsibility for the Royal Niger Company’s territories, and formed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, the Niger Coast Protectorate and the Lagos Colony Protectorate territories. 1913 witnessed the amalgamation of Nigeria into three administrative areas: the crown colony of Lagos and the Protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria.
In 1960, Britain ended its colonization of Nigeria without reference to the Igbo or any other peoples of Nigeria entitled to self-determination. The Nigeria Independence Act established Nigerian territorial boundaries not by popular referendum or other reliable manifestations of self-determination of peoples, but according to the Nigeria’s Orders in Council, 1954 to 1960. They reflected British selfish maneuvers to dominate Nigeria economically.
Britain’s failure to offer Biafrans the right to self-determination violated the United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples adopted on 14 December 1960. Paragraph 5 of the Declaration required that immediate steps be taken by the colonial power “to transfer all powers to the peoples of those [colonized] territories...in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire...in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.” The 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations emphasized that, “By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, all peoples have the right freely to determine without external interference their political status....”
The people of Biafra—recognized as distinct by British colonial authorities—were never provided an opportunity to vote for complete independence and freedom from the rest of Nigeria according to their freely expressed will and desire. They were never consulted on the subject when Nigeria became independent in 1960. Further, the 1960 Constitution of Nigeria was never approved by the people of Biafra in a referendum or otherwise. And neither has any subsequent Nigerian Constitution, including the current version decreed by a military dictator in 1999.
In sum, the British decolonized Nigeria in violation of international law by failing to transfer power to the peoples of Biafra in accordance with their freely expressed will.
That violation was not a technicality, but an affront to a fundamental human right. All governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Consent is required to legitimate authority and to forestall external subjugation, oppression, persecution, or even genocide fueled by tribal, sectarian, ethnic, or megalomaniacal ambitions or hatreds.
After independence from Britain, Nigeria soon became a charnel house for Biafrans. Deprived of their right to self-determination, they were left to the tender mercies of the Hausa-Fulani of the North and the Yoruba of the South in a unitary state unsuited for its diverse tribal, ethnic, and religious landscape. The gruesome 1967-1970 Biafran War was emblematic. Ethnic-based massacres of Biafrans and countless starving children who died as little more than skeletons was its grim face. The horrors suffered by Biafrans gave birth to the first modern international relief effort to lessen unspeakable misery.
At the war’s conclusion, Nigeria’s General Yakuba Gowon’s sloganeered, “No victor, no vanquished.” The words proved a cruel hoax. The Igbo were marginalized, persecuted as traitors, and subjected to a Northern political yolk. Under incumbent Nigerian elected military dictator Buhari, the repression of the Igbo have reached new heights featuring indiscriminate killings, torture, and detentions without trial.
Last March, for instance, 13 Biafrans were murdered and their corpses burnt to ashes and dumped in a burrow pit located in the area of Aba-Port Harcourt Road in Abia State by suspected Buhari agents. Last February, a team of Buhari’s Army, Navy, and Police and gunned down 22 Biafrans protesting Buhari’s detention of Biafan leader Prince Nnamdi Kanu.
A complete chronicle of Buhari’s horrors only would numb by repetition.
The point is that there is no political remedy for Biafra’s suffering—like an abused wife in a forced marriage—short of self-determination to regain its sovereignty that was illegally extinguished by the British and never surrendered after decolonization.
States born from longstanding repression of peoples by ruling authorities are part of the woof and warp of international law or custom. Think of Bangladesh, Namibia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Eritrea, and Kosovo.
The case for Biafran sovereignty is as strong or stronger as these precedents.
But to succeed, Biafrans will need to organize, unify, and make their case to the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the African Union, the European Union, and the United States.
If they do not all hang together, they might all come to hang separately.
By Okey Ndibe, Guernica Magazine
August 12, 2007
My first glimpse into the horror and beauty that lurk uneasily in the human heart came in the late 1960s courtesy of the Biafran War. Biafra was the name assumed by the seceding southern section of Nigeria. The war was preceded—in some ways precipitated—by the massacre of southeastern (mostly Christian) Igbo living in the predominantly northern parts of Nigeria.
Thinking back, I am amazed that war’s terrifying images have since taken on a somewhat muted quality. It requires sustained effort to recall the dread, the pangs of hunger, the crackle of gunfire that once made my heart pound. It all now seems an unthreatening fog.
As Nigeria hurtled towards war, my parents faced a difficult decision: to flee, or stay put. We lived in Yola, a sleepy, dusty town whose streets teemed with Muslims in flowing white babariga gowns. My father was then a postal clerk; my mother a teacher. In the end, my father insisted that Mother take us, their four children, and escape to safety in Amawbia, my father’s natal town. Mother pleaded with him to come away as well, but he would not budge. He was a federal civil servant, and the federal government had ordered all its employees to remain at their posts.
My mother didn’t cope well in Amawbia. In the absence of my father, she was a wispy and wilted figure. She despaired of ever seeing her husband alive again. Our relatives made gallant efforts to shield her, but news about the indiscriminate killings in the north still filtered to her. She lost her appetite. Day and night, she lay in bed in a kind of listless, paralyzing grief. She was given to bouts of impulsive, silent weeping.
Then one blazing afternoon, unheralded, my father materialized in Amawbia, stole back into our lives as if from the land of death itself.
“Eliza o! Eliza o!” a relative sang. “Get up! Your husband is back!”
At first, my mother feared that the returnee was some ghost come to mock her anguish. But, raising her head, she glimpsed a man who—for all the unaccustomed gauntness of his physique—was unquestionably the man she’d married. With a swiftness and energy that belied her enervation, she bolted up and dashed for him.
We would learn that my father’s decision to stay in Yola nearly cost him his life. He was at work when one day a mob arrived. Armed with cudgels, machetes and guns, they sang songs that curdled the blood. My father and his colleagues—many of them Igbo Christians—shut themselves inside the office. Huddled in a corner, they shook uncontrollably, reduced to frenzied prayers. One determined push and their assailants would have breached the barricades, poached and minced them, and made a bonfire of their bodies.
The Lamido of Adamawa, the area’s Muslim leader, arrived at the spot just in the nick. A man uninfected by the malignant thirst for blood, he vowed that no innocent person would be dealt death on his watch. He scolded the mob and shooed them away. Then he guided my father and his cowering colleagues into waiting vehicles and spirited them to the safety of his palace. In a couple of weeks, the wave of killings cooled off and the Lamido secured my father and the other quarry on the last ship to leave for the southeast.
Air raids became a terrifying staple of our lives. Nigerian military jets stole into our air space, then strafed with abandon. They flew low and at a furious speed. The ramp of their engines shook buildings and made the very earth quake.
“Cover! Everybody take cover!” the adults shouted and we’d scurry towards a huddle of banana trees or the nearest brush and lay face down.
Sometimes the jets dumped their deadly explosives on markets as surprised buyers and sellers dashed higgledy-piggledy. Sometimes the bombs detonated in houses. Sometimes it was cars trapped in traffic that were sprayed. In the aftermath, the cars became mangled metal, singed beyond recognition, the people in them charred to a horrid blackness. From our hiding spots, frozen with fright, we watched as the bombs tumbled from the sky, hideous metallic eggs shat by mammoth mindless birds.
One day, my siblings and I were out fetching firewood when an air strike began. We threw down our bundles of wood and cowered on the ground, gaping up. The jets tipped in the direction of our home and released a load. The awful boom of explosives deafened us. My stomach heaved; I was certain that our home had been hit. I pictured my parents in the rumble of smashed concrete and steel. We lay still until the staccato gunfire of Biafran soldiers startled the air, a futile gesture to repel the jets. Then we walked home in a daze, my legs rubbery, and found that the bombs had missed our home, but only narrowly. They had detonated at a nearby school.
At each temporary place of refuge, my parents tried to secure a small farmland. They sowed yam and cocoyam and also grew a variety of vegetables. We, the children, scrounged around for anything that was edible, relishing foods that in less stressful times would have made us retch.
One of my older cousins was good at making catapults, which we used to hunt lizards. We roasted them over fires of wood and dried brush and savored their soft meat. My cousin also set traps for rats. When his traps caught a squirrel or a rabbit, we felt providentially favored. Occasionally he would kill a tiny bird or two, and we would all stake out a claim on a piece of its meat.
While my family was constantly beset by hunger, we knew many others who had it worse. Biafra teemed with malnourished kids afflicted with kwashiorkor that gave them the forlorn air of the walking dead. Their hair was thin and discolored, heads big, eyes sunken, necks thin and scrawny, their skin wrinkly and sallow, stomachs distended, legs spindly.
Like other Biafrans, we depended on food and medicines donated by such international agencies as Catholic Relief and the Red Cross. Sometimes I accompanied my parents on trips to relief centers. The food queues, which snaked for what seemed like miles—a crush of men, women, children—offered less food than frustration as there was never enough to go round. One day, I saw a man crumble to the ground. Other men surrounded his limp body. As they removed him, my parents blocked my sight, an effete attempt to shield me from a tragedy I had already fully witnessed.
Some unscrupulous officers of the beleaguered Biafra diverted food to their homes. Bags of rice, beans and other foods, marked with a donor agency’s insignia, were not uncommon in markets. The betrayal pained my father. He railed by signing and distributing a petition against the Biafran officials who hoarded relief food or sold it for profit.
The petition drew the ire of the censured officials; the signatories were categorized as saboteurs. To be tagged a saboteur in Biafra was to be branded with a capital crime. A roundup was ordered. One afternoon, some grave-looking men arrived at our home. They snooped all over the house. They turned things over. They pulled out papers and pored over them, brows crinkled half in consternation, half in concentration. As they ransacked the house, they kept my father closely in view. Then they took him away.
Father was detained for several weeks. I don’t remember that our mother ever explained his absence. It was as if my father had died. And yet, since his disappearance was unspoken, it was as if he hadn’t.
Then one day, as quietly as he had exited, my father returned. For the first—and I believe last—time, I saw my father with a hirsute face. A man of steady habits, he shaved everyday of his adult life. His beard both fascinated and frightened me. It was as if my real father had been taken away and a different man had returned to us.
This image of my father so haunted me that, for many years afterwards, I flirted with the idea that I had dreamed it. It was only ten years ago, shortly after my father’s death, that I broached the subject with my mother. Yes, she confirmed, my father had been arrested during the war. And, yes, he’d come back wearing an unaccustomed beard.
Father owned a small transistor radio. It became the link between our war-torn space and the rest of the world. Every morning, as he shaved, my father tuned the radio to the British Broadcasting Corporation, which gave a more or less objective account of Biafra’s dwindling fortunes. It reported Biafra’s reverses, lost strongholds and captured soldiers as well as interviews with gloating Nigerian officials. Sometimes a Biafran official came on to refute accounts of lost ground and vow the Biafrans’ resolve to fight to the finish.
Feigning obliviousness, I always planted myself within earshot, then monitored my father’s face, hungry to gauge his response, the key to decoding the news. But his countenance remained inscrutable. Because he monitored the BBC while shaving, it was impossible to tell whether winces or tightening were from the scrape of a blade or the turn of the war.
At the end of the BBC broadcasts, my father twisted the knob to Radio Biafra, and then his emotions came on full display. Between interludes of martial music and heady war songs, the official mouthpiece gave exaggerated reports of the exploits of Biafran forces. They spoke about enemy soldiers “flushed out” or “wiped out” by gallant Biafran troops, of Nigerian soldiers surrendering. When an African country granted diplomatic recognition to Biafra, the development was described in superlative terms, sold as the beginning of a welter of such recognitions from powerful nations around the globe. “Yes! Yes!” my father would exclaim, buoyed by the diet of propaganda. How he must have detested it when the BBC disabused him, painted a patina of grey over Radio Biafra’s glossy canvas.
In January 1970, after enduring the 30-month siege, which claimed close to two million lives on both sides, Biafra buckled. We had emerged as part of the lucky, the undead. But though the war was over, I could intuit from my parents’ mien that the future was forbidden. It looked every bit as uncertain and ghastly as the past.
Our last refugee camp abutted a makeshift barrack for the victorious Nigerian army. Once each day, Nigerian soldiers distributed relief material—used clothes and blankets, tinned food, powdery milk, flour, oats, beans, rice, such like. There was never enough food or clothing to go around, which meant that brawn and grit decided who got food and who starved. Knuckles and elbows were thrown. Children, the elderly, the feeble did not fare well in the food scuffles. My father was the sole member of our family who stood a chance. On good days, he squeaked out a few supplies; on bad days, he returned empty handed. On foodless nights, we found it impossible to work up enthusiasm about the cessation of war. Then, the cry of “Happy survival!” with which refugees greeted one another sounded hollow, a cruel joke.
Despite the hazards, we, the children, daily thronged the food lines. We operated around the edges hoping that our doleful expressions would invite pity. Too young to grasp the bleakness, we did not know that pity, like sympathy, was a scarce commodity when people were famished.
One day I ventured to the food queue and stood a safe distance away watching the mayhem, silently praying that somebody might stir with pity and invite me to sneak into the front. As I daydreamed, a woman beckoned to me. I shyly went to her. She was beautiful and her face held a wide, warm smile.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Okey,” I volunteered, averting my eyes.
“Look at me,” she said gently. I looked up, shivering. “I like your eyes.” She paused, and I looked away again. “Will you be my husband?”
Almost ten at the time, I was aware of the woman’s beauty, and also of a vague stirring inside me. Seized by a mixture of flattery, shame and shyness, I used bare toes to scratch patterns on the ground.
“Do you want some food?” she asked.
I answered with the sheerest of nods.
She went off. My heart pounded as I awaited her return, at once expectant and afraid. Back in a few minutes, she handed me a plastic bag filled with beans and a few canned tomatoes. I wanted to say my thanks, but my voice was choked. “Here,” she said. “Open your hand.” She dropped ten shillings onto my palm.
I ran to our tent, flush with exhilaration. As I handed the food and coin to my astonished parents, I breathlessly told them about my strange benefactor, though I never said a word about her comments on my eyes or her playful marriage proposal. The woman had given us enough food to last for two or three days. The ten shillings was the first post-war Nigerian coin my family owned. In a way, we’d taken a step towards becoming once again “Nigerian.” She’d also made me aware that my eyes were beautiful, despite their having seen so much ugliness.
Each day, streams of men set out and trekked many miles to their hometowns. They were reconnoiterers, eager to assess the state of life to which they and their families would eventually return. They returned with blistered feet and harrowing stories.
Amawbia was less than 40 miles away. By bus, the trip was easy, but there were few buses and my parents couldn’t afford the fare anyway. One day a man who’d traveled there came to our tent to share what he’d seen. His was a narrative of woes, except in one detail: My parents’ home, the man reported, was intact. He believed that an officer of the Nigerian army had used my parents’ home as his private lodgings. My parents’ joy was checked only by their informer’s account of his own misfortunes. He’d found his own home destroyed. Eavesdropping on his report, I imagined our home as a mythical island of order and wholesomeness ringed by overgrown copse and shattered houses.
The next day my father trekked home. He wanted to confirm what he’d heard and to arrange for our return. But when he got back, my mother let out a shriek then shook her head in quiet sobs. My father arrived in Amawbia to a shocking sight. Our house had been razed; the fire still smoldered, a testament to its recentness. As my father stood and gazed in stupefaction, the truth dawned on him: Some envious returnee, no doubt intent on equalizing misery, had torched it. War had brought out the worst in someone.
My parents had absorbed the shock of other losses. There was the death of a beloved grandaunt to sickness and of a distant cousin to gunshot in the battlefield. There was the impairment of another cousin who lost a hand. There was the loss of irreplaceable photographs, among them the images of my grandparents and of my father as a soldier in Burma during WWII. There was the loss of documents, including copies of my father’s letters (a man of compulsive fastidiousness, my father had a life-long habit of keeping copies of every letter he wrote). But this loss of our home cut to the quick because it was inflicted not by the detested Nigerian soldier but by one of our own. By somebody who would remain anonymous but who might come around later to exchange pleasantries with us, even to bemoan with us the scars left by war.
At war’s end, the Nigerian government offered 20 pounds to each Biafran adult. We used part of the sum to pay the fare for our trip home. I was shaken at the sight of our house: The concrete walls stood sturdily, covered with soot, but the collapsed roof left a gaping hole. Blackened zinc lay all about the floor. We squatted for a few days at the makeshift abode of my father’s cousins. Helped by several relatives, my father nailed back some of the zinc over half of the roof. Then we moved in.
The roof leaked whenever it rained. At night, rain fell on our mats, compelling us to move from one spot to another. In the day, shafts of sunlight pierced through the holes. But it was in that disheveled home that we began to piece our lives together again. We began to put behind us the terrors we had just emerged from. We started learning what it means to repair an inhuman wound, what it takes to go from here to there.
In time, my father was absorbed back into the postal service. My mother returned to teaching. We went back to school. The school building had taken a direct hit, so classes were kept in the open air. Even so, our desire to learn remained strong. At the teacher’s prompting, we rent the air, shouted the alphabet and yelled multiplication tables.
Foreign Policy From Candidate To President: Richard Nixon And The Lesson Of Biafra
By Ron Doron, Not Even Past
December 05, 2016
On November 19, 2016, President Barack Obama, speaking on the transition of power to Donald Trump said “once you’re in the Oval Office … that has a way of shaping … and in some cases modifying your thinking.” The 2016 election will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most unconventional and even bizarre elections in American history. When Trump emerged victorious, he did so on a platform that promised to rethink virtually every aspect of American foreign policy, from free trade agreements to environmental treaties. Though the scope of Trump’s promises are unprecedented, his election was not the first time a candidate openly challenged U.S. foreign policy goals.
On September 8, 1968, Richard Nixon, then Republican candidate for president, issued a statement calling on the United States to take a central role in intervening in the Nigerian Civil War and the growing humanitarian catastrophe that was unfolding in secessionist Biafra. Titled “Nixon’s Call for American Action on Biafra,” the candidate called the Nigerian government’s war against Igbo secessionists a genocide and demanded that the United States take a leading role in stopping what he termed “the destruction of an entire people.” “While America is not the world’s policeman,” he declared, “let us at least act as the world’s conscience in this matter of life and death for millions.” (Kirk-Greene, 334-5). But the clarity of the candidate’s call to arms soon had to confront the realities of the office of President. The demands of America’s Vietnam-era foreign policy forced Nixon to abandon his personal sympathy for Biafra.
Many in the United States and in Nigeria and Biafra saw candidate Nixon’s statement as a call for active intervention in the war, which by the end of 1968 had turned increasingly in Nigeria’s favor. Nigeria’s civil war began when Biafra declared independence on May 30, 1967 after a protracted crisis that included two coups and ethnic violence that claimed the lives of thousands, mostly Igbo from Nigeria’s southeast. Though Biafra enjoyed several early successes, the war quickly turned into a protracted blockade against the Igbo heartland, with thousands of civilians dying every day from starvation and disease in the beleaguered enclave that Biafra had become.
To counter the military losses, the Biafran leadership embarked on a global public diplomacy drive spearheaded by MarkPress, a Swiss public relations firm owned by the American William Bernhard, calling the blockade and ensuing starvation genocide. MarkPress’ access to global media outlets helped the Biafrans garner significant attention in an already chaotic year in world history. The Tet offensive in February 1968 created a seismic shift in American support for the war in Vietnam, turning the majority of the population against it for the first time. This was followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy only two months apart; the latter’s occurring in the middle of a tumultuous election campaign. In Europe, student protests in Paris almost brought down Charles De Gaulle’s government, while a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August ended Alexander Dubcek’s “Prague Spring.” However, with nightly news broadcasting images of starving children directly into homes around the world, many groups rallied to the Biafran side, with protests in cities around the world and benefit concerts featuring Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez.
These efforts, however, had little effect on government policies, because the Nigerians and their allies in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), eager to prevent a repeat of the Katanga Crisis in Congo, blocked most deliberations on the war in the United Nations, insisting that the matter was an internal African one. Biafra, led by the eloquent and charismatic Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, sought to use the humanitarian crisis to create a global outcry that would force Nigeria to come to terms with the secessionists and guarantee Biafra’s independence. Failing that, Ojukwu hoped for internationally recognized relief corridors that would be protected from the Nigerian military. However, any large scale international intervention would require either a ceasefire or a demilitarized zone. For the Nigerians, led by General Yakubu Gowon, any agreement for relief was preconditioned on Biafra renouncing secession and the ending of the war. In fact, despite frenetic efforts at two hastily convened OAU peace conferences in May and August 1968, the sides could not agree on either an end to the war or on any agreement to address the humanitarian concerns.
In the United States, the Lyndon Johnson administration was inundated with demands to help Biafra but could do little but support relief efforts led by the Red Cross, Joint Church Aid and Caritas. Walt Rostow, Johnson’s National Security Advisor, summed up the administration’s effort by saying “we are doing everything we can, which is very little.” Nixon’s statement, coming from a candidate that most believed would win the election in November, gave hope to many on the Biafran side that a new American administration would take a more active role in helping the beleaguered secessionists. For Ojukwu and Biafra, Nixon the candidate was a friend and they hoped that President Nixon would continue to be one.
Though Nixon was personally sympathetic to Biafra, once he became president he could do very little to change the course of the conflict or to influence humanitarian efforts beyond what Johnson had done before him. In fact, like Johnson, Nixon attempted to assist in convening another round of peace talks, but, according to Nigerian historian George Obiozor, during a visit to London in February 1969, Nixon sacrificed his commitment to Biafra in order to secure British support for America in Vietnam. Nixon continued to personally support Biafra, despite his inability to translate it into policy. In one briefing document, he wrote in the margins “I hope Biafra survives!”
Candidate Nixon’s comments on Biafra showcase the limitations of a serious presidential candidate’s ability to transform foreign policy once they arrive in the White House. Many in Biafra hoped for a more interventionist United States and Nixon’s election gave hope for Biafra to hold out well into 1969, until it became clear that Nixon’s policy would closely mirror Johnson’s. When the war ended on January 15, 1970, the death toll, by most accounts, had reached a million people, most from the humanitarian crisis, and helped create organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières. Though the effects of Nixon’s 1968 comments cannot be quantified, his inability to translate them into policy illustrates the limitations of even the world’s most powerful executive.
Revisiting History: Presaging The Igbo Genocide
By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, The London Evening Post
December 8, 2011
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe looks back at the atrocious massacre of the Igbo people of Nigeria in the 1960s and is convinced that the British government was fully culpable. Britain today, he urges, needs to accept this fact and make the long-overdue restitution.
In his recently published book, ‘Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British’ (London: Viking, 2011), Jeremy Paxman allocates just 12 lines of the total 272-page study to British-occupied Nigeria. But the pithy commentary undoubtedly speaks volumes of the mindset of the occupation regime on the very eve of its presumed departure from Nigeria in October 1960. This is clearly a regime that is not prepared or willing to abandon the bounty harvest or lucre that is its Nigeria. Instead, it is exploring across a spectrum of strategies to subvert the goal of the restoration-of-independence movement for the peoples, which the Igbo had led since the 1940s.
Using archival material, Paxman presents the crux of the panoramic conversation on the subject in Lagos in January 1960 between James Robertson, the outgoing occupation governor, and visiting Prime Minister Harold Macmillan:
Macmillan: ‘Are the people fit for self-government?’
Robertson: ‘No, of course not.’
According to Paxman, James Robertson reckons that it would take ‘another 20 or 25 years’ for Nigeria to be ‘fit for self-government’. Interestingly, this is the same Robertson who had by the time of his Lagos meeting with Macmillan ‘concluded’ the ‘terms’ of the British ‘exit’ from Nigeria in ‘negotiations’ with the country’s restoration-of-independence movement – begun 15 years earlier and had been successively chaired by two previous occupation governors, including sessions scheduled and held in England. This is the same Robertson who had just rigged the December 1959 countrywide elections in Nigeria (part of the restoration-of-independence ‘package’) in favour of the Hausa-Fulani north region, Britain’s local clients, vehemently opposed to African independence – and, therefore, the British exit! (This northern Nigeria region has the unenviable accolade across the entire southern world of being home of one of the few peoples who wanted the occupation of their lands indefinitely by one of the pan-European powers of global conquest since the 15th century CE.) Furthermore, this is the same Robertson whose predecessor in Lagos had earlier rigged the countrywide census results – again in favour of Britain’s Hausa-Fulani north regional clients.
Macmillan then asks Robertson for his advice on the way forward for the British continuing occupation of Nigeria: ‘What do you recommend me to do?’ Robertson: ‘I recommend you give it to them at once.’
Really? What? Why? Doesn’t Robertson’s suggestion to his boss sound wholly contradictory to the tract that this conclave had trodden so far? Well, no, not really. Both prime minister and governor have no disagreement, whatsoever, on holding onto British ‘interests’ in Nigeria in perpetuity; they do not believe that they are necessarily bound by the ‘terms’ of the envisaged British ‘exit’ from Nigeria ‘negotiated’ since 1945 even though, ironically, these had largely preserved British ‘interests’, thanks to the veto-power that its Hausa-Fulani north region subalterns would exercise in the ‘new’ dispensation; most crucially, both men do not subscribe to the inalienable rights of Africans to recover their conquered lands.
It is the case, though, that if the British officials were to renege on their ‘exit’ from Nigeria at this 11th hour, they would have to contend with a serious crisis – at least in the short-medium term – right there on the ground in Nigeria: ‘The alternative [is] that most talented people [read: the Igbo and those others elsewhere in south Nigeria who demanded and supported the drive towards unfettered restoration-of-independence for the peoples] would become rebels and the British would spend the next two decades fighting to stave off what [is] inevitable, while incurring the opprobrium of the world’.
As the Lagos deliberations end, nine months before the designated British departure date, both prime minister and governor needn’t agonise too much over the future prospects of their country’s Nigeria stranglehold. After all, despite the ‘talented people’, Britain is aware that it holds the trump card to defend this stranglehold via its Hausa-Fulani clients. Twice in the previous 15 years (significantly, it should be noted, during the very years of British ‘negotiations’ of its ‘exit’ from Nigeria with the ‘talented people’), the clients organised and unleashed pogroms against Igbo people in the north-central town of Jos (1945) and northern city of Kano (1953). Hundreds of Igbo were murdered during these massacres and tens of thousands of pounds sterling worth of their property looted or destroyed. No perpetrators of these murders were ever apprehended or punished by the occupation regime.
Six-and-half years hence, from 29 May 1966, these same British clients would unleash the genocide against the Igbo people. During the course of 44 months, 3.1 million Igbo children, women and men are murdered in this foundational and most gruesome genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa. The Igbo and the world suddenly realise that those anti-Igbo pogroms carried out during the years of the Anglo-‘talented people’ in Nigeria doubtful restoration-of-independence negotiations were indeed ‘dress rehearsals’ for the 29 May 1966-12 January 1970 Igbo genocide.
Britain plays an instrumental role in the perpetration of the genocide – politically, diplomatically, and militarily. A new Harold the prime minister, this time Harold Wilson, has no qualms about the ‘opprobrium of the world’ considered by the other Harold during those January 1960 talks with occupation governor Robertson. Wilson’s reasons are obvious: the architecture of control and execution of mass violence in Nigeria have altered, somehow, since January 1960, and the forces on the ground spearheading the Igbo genocide are the trusted Hausa-Fulani subalterns of old and their since locally expanded allies – not Britain, directly; precisely, what Macmillan and Robertson had sought to avoid!
So, as the slaughter of the Igbo intensifies, particularly in those catastrophic months of 1968-1969, Harold Wilson is totally unfazed as he informs Clyde Ferguson (United States State Department special coordinator for relief to Biafra) that he, Harold Wilson, ‘would accept half a million dead Biafrans if that was what it took’ Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide. Such is the grotesquely expressed diminution of African life made by a supposedly leading politician of the world of the 1960s – barely 20 years after the deplorable perpetration of the Jewish genocide. As the final tally of the murder of the Igbo demonstrates, Harold Wilson probably had the perverted satisfaction of having his Nigerian subalterns perform far in excess of the prime minister’s grim target.
Jeremy Paxman, a senior journalist at the British Broadcasting Corporation who anchors the BBC2 ‘Newsnight’ programme, has a three-minute follow-up video where he explains why he has written ‘Empire’. Two reasons are quite striking: ‘Why did the British go out (sic) to conquer the world?'; ‘What did it do to them [the British, that is]?’ For the Igbo of south-west-central Africa, the savagery of that conquest is palpably incalculable. It is now clear that the contemporary British state cannot continue to ignore its responsibilities in embarking on a comprehensive re-examination of the history of its relationship with the Igbo people and make the long-overdue restitution.
By Emmanuel Onwubiko, Guardian Nigeria
July 26, 2001
Abuja—Dark memories of the Nigerian civil war echoed at the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa panel yesterday as Ohanaeze Ndigbo and the Arewa Consultative Forum engaged each other in a fierce dispute over the cause of the 1967-70 war.
Ohanaeze's presentation, which was articulated by Uche Chukwumerije, a former information minister, was hinged on a thesis that the North, working in concert with some other parts of the country, embarked on a deliberate programme to marginalise and exterminate the Igbo.
Ohanaeze said the 1966 coup was an expression of the anti-Igbo sentiment, explaining that the Igbo drew the ire of their persecutors because of their enterprise in all spheres human endeavour which led them to all areas of Nigeria.
But, Secretary to Arewa Forum, Col. Hammeed Ali disagreed when he hinted that the war was spurred by the 1966 coup which he said was an Igbo coup. He also tried to exonerate the North, saying Buhari's coup of December, 1983 was not a Northern coup.
Earlier, the Ohanaeze listed its major grouse as marginalisation.
According to the group, To help us understand our case on marginalisation and disempowerment, the petition defines this key concept. Marginalisation is purposeful denial of rights of some members of a given unit by some other members of the group who control the power of allocation of resources. Marginalisation must be understood as fundamentally different from marginality, which means loss of rights through self-inflicted under-development.
In all the realms of public endeavour, Ndi Ibgo have the requisite manpower and natural resources. But their rights to a fair share of Nigeria's resources have been consistently denied them by Federal authorities.
Continuing, the group stated that: It is necessary to emphasise the fundamental difference between Ndi Igbo's case of disempowerment and the new noisy national orchestra of marginalisation slogans most of which are raised to mock and trivialise our case. The distinctive difference is deliberate exclusion: ours is a case of deliberate exclusion of Ndi Igbo from common resources by a combination of ethnic groups which control the centre.
Indeed, the observed consistent pattern of discriminary and exclusionary responses of the Nigerian system to Ndi Igbo in the commanding heights of the polity suggests that our exclusion is not only deliberate but also malicious.
Ohaneze described marginalisation of the Igbo to mean the denial of right to life, right to means of livelihood, right to human dignity, right to freedom of movement, right to freedom from discrimination, right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria and other rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Tracing the alleged injustices against the Igbo before the civil war, he said The republican spirit of Ndi Igbo and their individual drive, expressing itself in a flair for fair competition in all spheres, encouraged them to exercise their citizenship rights all over Nigeria. The endeavours of Ndi Igbo, like those of other Nigerian citizens, were taking place in an atmosphere (so we thought) of brotherly debates and differences in our fledgling multi-ethnic democracy.
But Ndi Igbo soon began to notice sinister stains in the responses of some national leaders to their differences with Ndi Igbo. Public statements of leaders of ruling political groups in Northern and Western Nigeria began to betray a disposition to extermination or total expulsion of Ndi Igbo as their acceptable solution of what they now saw as Igbo problem. Speeches of Northern Nigeria Ministers, as recorded in Hansard of March, 1964, and the anti-Igbo incitements in a booklet, UPGAISM, published by Western Government (1965) portrayed the new mood.
The anti-Igbo mood, he further alleged, found a ready platform for explosion and used as a rallying cry to mobilise Northern Nigeria and some parts of the rest of the Federation to advance genocidal plot against Ndi Igbo. The fiction and falsehood of Igbo coup has long been admitted by some of the major actors in that episodes (example, Lt. Gen. T.Y Danjuma in Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970 edited by Major-General H.B. Momoh P.373).
According to Chukwumerije, the brewing genocidal mood served and in response to anti-Igbo incitements, Igbo citizens in Northern Nigeria were massacred in three waves of pogrom in most sadistic and inhuman methods that made Jewish holocaust appear like mercy killings. 50,000 Igbos were slaughtered. Some of the inhuman methods of slaughter were recorded in affidavits of eye witness.
He added: The massacres which evidently were well planned and co-ordinated by ruling authorities had the character of genocidal attacks on Ndi Igbo. The acquiescence of other ethnic groups in the rest of Nigeria emphasised the isolation and helplessness of Ndi Igbo. The insensitivity of the Federal Government and its failure to implement a peace agreement (the Aburi Accord) compounded the sense in security of Ndi Igbo. When the Federal Government proceeded with an economic blockage and ill-motivated balkanisation of Eastern Region, Ndi Igbo were left in no doubt that the genocidal plot had thickened. Eastern Nigeria was forced to declare the Republic of Biafra on May 29, 1967.
Ohanaeze continued: The petition offers a little, just little, glimpse into the enormity of the holocaust that forced us out of Nigeria - the masacre of Igbo women and children who were deceived into flocking to railway stations in search of passenger trains to take them home, forcible collection of Igbo female students from schools and herding of them into leper colonies, to be defiled by lepers; the slaughtering in the transit zone of Middle-Belt of Igbo refugees who managed to escape the wrath of far North; the refusal virtually all Nigerians to give protection to any Easterner; the active involvement of law-enforcement agencies in the pogroms; and the exodus of 2 million people in flight from a country that has rejected them and that has offered them nothing but a mass grave. Indeed the future of no future confronting Ndi Igbo at this time was symbolised by the fate of Igbo babies in the Kano railway holocaust.
On the atrocities during civil war (1967-1970), the Pan-Igbo group said:
A 30-month civil war ensued as a result of Nigeria's attempt to quell what she described as a civil war. The civil war..gave Nigeria a perfect excuse to cast Ndi Igbo in the role of treasonable felons and wreckers of the nation.
Nigeria's prosecution of the war violated all aspects of the Geneva Convention and all code of civilized behaviour. Indeed, the violations were carried out with so much glee and abandon that it was clear that the war was an earnest pursuit of the programme of ethnic cleansing begun in 1966.
The committee of International Jurists, foreign press and other Independent observers have also testified to this fact. Indeed, the international Committee on The Investigation of Crimes of Genocide whose investigation included interview of 1,082 people representing the two sides of the conflict concluded thus through its investigator (Dr. Mensah of Ghana); 'Finally, I am of the opinion that tin many of the cases cited to me hatred of the Biafrans (mainly Igbos) and a wish to exterminate them was a foremost motivational factor.'
Listed in the petition as methods through which the violations took place are:
the genocidal content of Nigeria's war slogans;
the use of starvation as an instrument of war;
the massacre of civilians in conquered areas;
the target of air attacks on concentrated civilian habitations;
rape, torture and dehumanization of Igbo women;
destruction of properties; animals and everything as in a scorched earth policy, and
torture and murder of war prisoners and civilians who surrendered. Over one million people, the petition added, died during the war through these atrocities.
On the atrocities and disempowerment immediately after the war (1970-1975), the apex Igbo group stated thus:
Nigeria's proclamation of a peace formula of three Rs (Reconciliation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction) turned out in practice to be a smokescreen behind which she continued the war against Ndi Igbo by other means. Besides the continuation of killings in the first three months after the end of the war, the new method was the strategy of disempowerment and strangulation in all areas of public endeavour.
The policy of economic disempowerment of the Igbo, alleged the group were:
federal government's vindictive enactment of the abandoned property law, and the consequent dispossession of Igbo property owners of their houses and plots in Rivers State as abandoned property, in a ploy to incite the Easterners against one another.
the impoverishment of all Ndi Igbo through payment of a flat paltry sum of £20 irrespective of individual savings at the end of the war,
the intentional timing of the enactment of the indigenisation decree at the height of total destruction of the purchasing power of Ndi Igbo;
the denial of the reconstruction of utilities, structures and infrastructure damaged during the war;
excision of oil petroleum-rich areas of Igbo land, and exclusion of other mineral deposits found in Igbo land from the benefits of operations of umbrella organisations like OMPADEC or its successor, NDDC;
mass dismissal of Igbo public servants;
continuation of starvation policy and rejection of aids from foreign aid/donors;
treatment of Igbos as social pariahs in all the states of Nigeria;
the exclusion of Ndi Igbo from the higher echelons of policy-making;
manipulation of census figures to reduce Igbo ethnic group to a minority status; and
Igbophobia as the basis of creating states. Categorising what it called atrocities and disempowerment between 1975 to date, Ohanaeze stated:
What would have been dismissed as unfortunate excesses of revengeful excitement in the flush of victory soon settled into a policy of marginalisation and disempowerment of Ndi Igbo. Successive governments maintained a disturbing continuity of a policy of strangulation of Ndi Igbo in spite of all rhetorics to the contrary. Public policy and practice since the mid-seventies to date have followed the same pattern.
In the political arena, observed pattern of appointments suggest that the Federal Government is decided that no Igbo man should be trusted with a key sensitive command position for a long while. In the public service, our share of federal employments is far below the constitutional stipulations of the constitution and the quota chart of the Federal Character Commission.
The history of the creation of states clearly suggests a policy of containment and siege, a policy designed to reduce the demographic leverage and financial strength of Ndi Igbo. Lastly, a new height in political disempowerment has been reached in the most blatant marginalisation by the present regime of President Obasanjo of South-East zone which gave it the second largest electoral support in the presidential democratic election of 1999.
In the social realm, the racial discrimination against Ndi Igbo continues to rage, unabated. The blood-chilling consistency in which Igbo citizens have always been scape goats of all bloody riots in Nigeria confirms that they enjoy less protection of the law than any other ethnic nationality in the republic.
Commending President Obasanjo, the group said there have been some positive developments since then, May 29, 1999.
Commenting on their prayers the group stated that it asked the panel to order payment of reparations and appropriate restitution as a healing balm not just to Ndi Igbo but to the nation.
Ohanaeze said the remedies sought include financial compensations for bereaved and humiliated families in respect of the murdered, the maimed, the raped and the dehumanised; financial compensation for wrong dismissals; financial compensations for the havoc of scorched earth policy; reversals of economic marginalisation policy, and restitutions where possible.
But financial and economic redresses can never adequately compensate psychological wounds. The deepest wound of Ndi Igbo is a haunting spectre of insecurity, hanging like a dark cloud over a persistent ugly objective reality that continues to feed on traditional prejudice. Periodic anti-Igbo riots continue to warn Ndi Igbo that Nigeria has learnt nothing and has forgotten nothing.
Our prayer therefore emphasises two requests as the key reliefs. One is a national apology. The other is an assurance of Ozoemena! - a national vow that violations of our human rights will never occur again. Indeed, the essence of all our prayers is summed in our relief.
Making suggestions on how to move the nation forward, the group asserted: Our Constitution must address more explicitly and unequivocally than it has done hitherto the foundation question of the character of our Federal union. Should Nigeria be a mosaic of self-reinforcing ethnic mini-sovereignties barely interacting horizontally but intensively engaged vertically in a cockpit fight for the largest loot from the centre? Or, a dynamic multi-ethnic community purposefully evolving towards the end state of healthy national integration? It is surprising that our utterances and actions have shown that this basic choice has not been made after 40 years of togetherness.
If our choice is a multi-ethnic nation, as forward-looking patriots should prefer, then the constitution should be supported with necessary institutional arrangements which should invest more energy and resources on three areas:
A people-oriented economic development plan based on social justice and equity;
A political system that protects the sovereignty of the people from the disorientation of free market forces;
A genuinely progressive national ideology that replaces the cent and hypocrisy of primordial irredentism with the civic values of a modern or purposefully modernising nation-state;
The Constitution should strengthen residency and citizenship rights vis- %GË† %@-vis aboriginal rights; and
Our criminal code must be revised to establish responsibility for instigated mob, arsons and pogroms in the guise of spontaneous communal riots. There must no longer be a hiding place for unknown soldiers and anonymous thugs. The law should devise a way of laying collective responsibility, especially in reparation and restitution, for arsons and massacres, on the host communities and organisations.
Besides, the group advised that Nigeria should settle for a system that encourages production, in place of consumption through a flat rule-of-the thumb approach that shares all sharable federal resources equally among the six zones only.
Ohanaeze dismissed insinuations that their petition was basically complaining of marginalisation saying: We conclude our Petition by emphasising once again the point that our case is fundamental to the growth of political democracy and civil society in Nigeria. It is deeper than 'marginalisation' as currently misused. We tender this Petition with faith and trepidation.
Earlier, Oputa had summoned a former Comptroller of Prisons in River State, E.E Nkang to appear on September 23 to tell the commission where the remains of the Ogoni nine executed alongside Ken-Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995 were kept. This summons was at the instance of Femi Falana who represented MOSOP.
The panel will today continue hearing the Ohanaeze petition.
A journalist with Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Yusuf Jibo was summoned by the panel to explain why he produced and showed a programme considered unsavoury by Ohanaeze.
A spectacular scenario that was created yesterday was the physical presence of an array of the nation's choicest dignitaries like Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), Alhaji Gambo Jimeta, Gen. Haruna, Alhaji Isah Funtua, Dr. Joe Nwaorgu, even as a galaxy of Senior Advocates like Chief Tony Mogbo (SAN); Joe Gadzama (SAN) and Chief O. J. J Okocha (SAN) was present.
Diverse groups that were colourfully decked also created a carnival - like atmosphere, during and after the emotionally charged session during which Colonel Ali was jeered and booed at.
Col. Ali, also a former military administrator of Kaduna State during the Abacha regime and a member of the Ogoni Special Military Tribunal which tried and convicted the Ogoni nine led by Dr. Ken Saro-Wiwa faulted the response he filed in to the commission challenging the position of the Ohanaeze because, in his words, I did not read most of the authorities cited in the written submission of the Arewa Forum.
Amid jeering, Ali stated that the military men plotted coups in the past with loyal officers from the same background.
But when the Ohanaeze legal representative, Chief Tony Mogbo (SAN) sought to know his opinion on the 1966, 1990, and 1983 coups, Ali said: my lord the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup, that of 1990 led by Orkah was a Delta coup while that of 11983 was basically a Buhari coup and not a northern coup.
A major dramatic scenario was played up when Col. Ali (rtd) admitted that; my lord, in making our submission, we cited some quotations from some authors, but we only took what we wanted from them and considered the rest of the same quotation factitious.
Some other lawyers who appeared in the session were Mr. R. F. Godwin for the River State government summoned as a witness in the Ohanaeze petition even as Mr. Yahaya Mohammed and Prof. Auwalu Yadudu appeared for Arewa Consultative Forum whose chairman M. D. Yusuf was present at yesterday's session.
Other lawyers included Mr. Sebastine Hon for the Joint Action Committee on the Middle Belt, Nuhu Ribadu, for the Commissioner of Police Kano State and Yisa A. N for General Wushishi and General I. B. Babangida.
Chukwumerije and Col. Ben Gbulie, two witnesses for Ohanaeze will also finish their cross examination session to be conducted by lawyers representing the respondents in the matter today. Chukwumerije was partly cross examined by counsel to Arewa yesterday.
Meanwhile, barring unforeseen impediments, the seemingly intractable feud between Shell Petroleum Development Company and the Ogoni would be resolved on September 12 at a tripartite meeting between the feuding parties, Federal and River State government.
This reconciliatory tone was struck at a peace parley initiated yesterday in Abuja by the Oputa panel.
By Mark Curtis, Mark Curtis
February 13, 2007
The formerly secret files on the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s show very clear British complicity in the Nigerian government’s aggression against the region of Biafra, where an independence movement was struggling to secede from Nigeria. This brutal civil war resulted in between one and three million deaths; it also significantly helped shape modern Nigeria, and not least the division of oil revenues between the central government and the regions and people.
Background to civil war
For those in Britain old enough to remember the war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, ‘Biafra’ probably still conjures up images of starving children – the result of the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government in Lagos to defeat the secession of the eastern region, Biafra. For Biafrans themselves, the period was one of immense suffering – it is still not known how many died at this time as a direct result of the war and the blockade, but it is believed to be at least one million and as high as three million.
For those seeking to understand Britain’s role in the world, there is now an important side of the Biafran story to add – British complicity in the slaughter. The declassified files show that the then Wilson government backed the Nigerian government all the way, arming its aggression and apologising for its actions. It is one of the sorrier stories in British foreign policy, though by no means unusual.
The immediate background to the war was a complex one of tensions and violence between Nigeria’s regions and ethnic groups, especially between those from the east and the north. In January 1966 army officers had attempted to seize power and the conspirators, most of whom were Ibos (from the East) assassinated several leading political figures as well as officers of northern origin. Army commander Major General Ironsi, also an Ibo, intervened to restore discipline in the army, suspended the constitution, banned political parties, formed a Federal Military Government (FMG) and appointed military governors to each of Nigeria’s regions.
Ironsi’s decree in March 1966, which abolished the Nigerian federation and unified the federal and regional civil services, was perceived by many not as an effort to establish a unitary government but as a plot by the Ibo to dominate Nigeria. Troops of northern origin, who dominated the Nigerian infantry, became increasingly restive and fighting broke out between them and Ibo soldiers in garrisons in the south. In June, mobs in northern cities, aided by local officials, carried out a pogrom against resident Ibos, massacring several hundred people and destroying Ibo-owned property.
It was in this context that in July 1966 northern officers staged a countercoup during which Ironsi and other Ibo officers were killed. Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon emerged as leader. The aim of the coup was both to take revenge on the Ibos for the coup in January but also to promote the secession of the north, although Gowon soon pulled back from calling explicitly for this. Gowon named himself as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and head of the military government, which was rejected by the military governor in the eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, who claimed, with some justification, that the Gowon regime was illegitimate.
Throughout late 1966 and 1967 the tempo of violence increased. In September 1966 attacks on Ibos in the north were renewed with unprecedented ferocity, stirred up, eastern region officials believed, by northern political leaders. Reports circulated that troops from the northern region had participated in the massacres. The estimated number of deaths ranged from 10,000 to as high as 30,000. More than one million Ibos returned to the eastern region in fear.
In January 1967 the military leaders met in Aburi, Ghana. By this time the eastern region under Ojukwu was threatening secession. Many of Ojukwu’s eastern colleagues were now arguing that the massacres the previous September showed that the country could not be reunited amicably. In a last minute effort at Aburi to hold Nigeria together, an accord was agreed that provided for a loose confederation of regions. Gowon issued a decree implementing the Aburi agreement and even the northern region now favoured the formation of a multistate federation. The federal civil service, however, vigorously opposed the Aburi agreement and sought to scupper it.
Ojukwu and Gowon then disputed what exactly had been agreed at Aburi, especially after the Federal Military Government (FMG) issued a further decree in March which was seen by Ojukwu as reneging on the FMG’s commitment at Aburi to give the eastern region greater autonomy. The new decree gave the federal government the right to declare a state of emergency in any region and to ensure that any regional government could not undermine the executive authority of the federal government. Ojukwu then gave an ultimatum to Gowon that the eastern region would begin implementing its understanding of the Aburi agreement, providing for greater regional autonomy, by 31 March.
While Biafra was threatening to secede and declare an independent state, the FMG imposed sanctions against it to bring it into line. On 26 May the eastern region consultative assembly voted to secede from Nigeria and the following day Gowon declared a state of emergency throughout the country, banned political activity and announced a decree restoring full powers to the FMG. Also announced was a decree dividing the country into twelve states, including six in the north and three in the east.
On 30 May 1967 Biafra declared independence and on 7 July the FMG began operations to defeat it. It lasted until January 1970 as an extremely well-equipped Nigerian federal army of over 85,000 men supplied by Britain, the Soviet Union and few others, took on a volunteer Biafran army, much of whose equipment initially came from captured Nigerian supplies and which only later was able to procure relatively small quantities of arms from outside.
The background is therefore very complex and it remains far from clear cut as to where the ‘blame’ lay for the failure of peaceful negotiations and the resort to war. It does appear, however, that the FMG did go back on its agreement at Aburi on the extent of regional autonomy it was prepared to offer the easterners. Before they began to back the FMG unequivocally once war began, British officials had previously recognised the legitimacy of some of Ojukwu’s claims. The High British Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, had told Gowon in November 1966, for example, that the September 1966 massacres of the Ibos in the north ‘changed the relationship between the regions and made it impossible for eastern Nigerians to associate with northerners on the same basis as in the past’. The issue was one of basic ‘law and order and physical safety throughout the federation’. He told Gowon that the FMG had to go ‘a considerable distance to meet the views of Colonel Ojukwu’.
British officials also recognised that the Aburi agreements were ‘extremely woolly on many important points and lend themselves to infinite arguments over interpretation’. By end January 1967 Cumming-Bruce was saying that both Gowon and Ojuwku were ‘seriously at fault and they share responsibility for poisoning of atmosphere [sic]’.
Then there was the wider question of whether it was legitimate for a region to secede and whether Biafra should have been allowed to establish its independence. Again, a lot of complex issues are involved. British officials feared that if Biafra were to secede many other regions in Africa would too, threatening ‘stability’ across the whole of the continent. Most of the great powers, including the US and Soviet Union, shared this view largely for the same reason.
Yet there appears to be no reason why Biafra, with its 15 million people, could not have established a viable, independent state. Biafrans argued that they were a people with a distinctive language and culture, that they were Christian as opposed to the Muslim communities lumped into the Nigeria federal state, which had, after all, been a colonial creation. In fact, Biafra was also one of the most developed regions in Africa with a high density of roads, schools, hospitals and factories. The struggle for an independent state certainly appeared to have the support of the majority of Biafrans, whose sense of nationhood deepened throughout the war as enormous sacrifices were made to contribute to the war effort.
What is crystal clear is that the wishes of the Biafrans were never a major concern of British planners; what they wanted, or what Nigerians elsewhere in the federation wanted, was simply not an issue for Whitehall. There is simply no reference in the government files, that I have seen, to this being a consideration. The priorities for London were maintaining the unity of Nigeria for geo-political interests and protecting British oil interests. This meant that Gowon’s FMG was backed right from the start. But the files also reveal astonishing levels of connivance with the FMG’s aggression.
Nigerian aggression, British support
British interests are very clearly revealed in the declassified files. ‘Our direct interests are trade and investment, including an important stake by Shell/BP in the eastern Region. There are nearly 20,000 British nationals in Nigeria, for whose welfare we are of course specially [sic] concerned’, the Foreign Office noted a few days before the outbreak of the war. Shell/BP’s investments amounted to around £200 million, with other British investment in Nigeria accounting for a further £90 million. It was then partly owned by the British government, and the largest producer of oil which provided most of Nigeria’s export earnings. Most of this oil was in the eastern region.
Commonwealth Minister George Thomas wrote in August 1967 that: ‘The sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations’.
Thomas further outlined the primary reason why Britain was so keen to preserve Nigerian unity, noting that ‘our only direct interest in the maintenance of the federation is that Nigeria has been developed as an economic unit and any disruption of this would have adverse effects on trade and development’. If Nigeria were to break up, he added: ‘We cannot expect that economic cooperation between the component parts of what was Nigeria, particularly between the East and the West, will necessarily enable development and trade to proceed at the same level as they would have done in a unified Nigeria; nor can we now count on the Shell/BP oil concession being regained on the same terms as in the past if the East and the mid-West assume full control of their own economies’.
Ojukwu initially tried to get Shell/BP to pay royalties to the Biafran government rather than the FMG. The oil companies, after giving the Biafrans a small token payment, eventually refused and Ojuwku responded by sequestering Shell’s property and installations, forbidding Shell to do any further business and ordering all its staff out. They ‘have much to lose if the FMG do not achieve the expected victory’, George Thomas noted in August 1967. A key British aim throughout the war was to secure the lifting of the blockade which Gowon imposed on the east and which stopped oil exports.
In the run-up to Gowon’s declaration of war, Britain had made it clear to the FMG that it completely supported Nigerian unity. George Thomas had told the Nigerian High Commissioner in London at the end of April 1967, for example, that ‘the Federal government had our sympathy and our full support’ but said that he hoped the use of force against the east could be avoided. On 28 May Gowon, having just declared a state of emergency, explicitly told Britain’s Defence Attache that the FMG was likely to ‘mount an invasion from the north’. Gowon asked whether Britain would provide fighter cover for the attack and naval support to reinforce the blockade of Eastern ports; the Defence Attache replied that both were out of the question.
By the time Gowon ordered military action in early July, therefore, Britain had refused Nigerian requests to be militarily involved and had urged Gowon to seek a ‘peaceful’ solution. However, the Wilson government had also assured Gowon of British support for Nigerian unity at a time when military preparations were taking place. And Britain had also made no signs that it might cut off, or reduce, arms supplies if a military campaign were launched.
The new High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir David Hunt, wrote in a memo to London on 12 June that the ‘only way… of preserving unity [sic] of Nigeria is to remove Ojukwu by force’. He said that Ojukwu was committed to remaining the ruler of an independent state and that British interests lay in firmly supporting the FMG.
Before going to war, Gowon began what was to become a two and half year long shopping list of arms that the FMG wanted from Britain. On 1 July he asked Britain for jet fighter/bomber aircraft, six fast boats and 24 anti-aircraft guns. ‘We want to help the Federal Government in any way we can’, British officials noted. However, Britain rejected supplying the aircraft, fearing that they would publicly demonstrate direct British intervention in the war and, at this stage, also rejected supplying the boats. London did, however, agree to supply the anti-aircraft guns and to provide training courses to use them.
The Deputy High Commissioner in Enugu, Biafra’s main city, noted that the supply of these anti-aircraft guns and their ammunition would be seen as British backing for the FMG and also that they were not entirely defensive weapons anyway since ‘they could also take on an offensive role if mounted in an invasion fleet’. Nevertheless, the government’s news department was instructed to stress the ‘defensive nature of these weapons’ when pressed but generally to avoid publicity on their export from Britain. High Commissioner Hunt said that ‘it would be better to use civil aircraft’ to deliver these guns and secured agreement from the Nigerians that ‘there would be no publicity’ in supplying them.
Faced with Gowon’s complaints about Britain not supplying more arms, Wilson also agreed in mid-July to supply the FMG with the fast patrol boats. This was done in the knowledge that they would help the FMG maintain the blockade against Biafra. Wilson wrote to Gowon saying that ‘we have demonstrated in many ways our support for your government as the legal government of Nigeria and our refusal to recognise the secessionists’. He also told him that Britain does ‘not intend to put any obstacle in the way’ of orders for ‘reasonable quantities of military material of types similar to those you have obtained here in the past’. Gowon replied saying that ‘I have taken note of your concurrence for the usual purchases of arms supplies to continue and will take advantage of what is available now and others when necessary’.
By early August Biafran forces had made major gains against the FMG and had invaded the mid-West region. Commonwealth Minister George Thomas noted that ‘the chances of a clear-cut military decision being achieved by either side now look rather distant’. Rather, ‘we are now faced with the probability of an escalating and increasingly disorderly war, with both sides shopping around for arms’. In this situation, he raised the option of Britain launching a peace offensive and halting all arms supplies. But this was rejected by David Hunt in Lagos and others since it would cause ‘great resentment’ on the part of the FMG against the British government and be regarded as a ‘hostile act’. Instead, the government decided to continue the flow of arms and ammunition of types previously supplied by Britain but to continue to refuse supplies of ‘sophisticated equipment’ like aircraft and tanks.
The decision to continue arms exports was taken when it had already become clear in the behaviour of the Nigerian forces that any weapons supplied would be likely to be used against civilians. It was also at a time when Commonwealth Secretary General Arnold Smith was making renewed attempts to push for peace negotiations after having been rebuffed by Gowon in a visit to Lagos in early July.
By early November 1967 the FMG had pushed back the Biafrans and captured Enugu; British officials were now reporting that the FMG had ‘a clear military advantage’. Now that our side seemed like winning, talk of reducing arms to them disappeared; George Thomas now said that ‘it seems to me that British interests would now be served by a quick FMG victory’. He recommended that the arms export policy be ‘relaxed’ and to supply Lagos with items that ‘have importance in increasing their ability to achieve a quicker victory’. This meant ‘reasonable quantities’ of equipment such as mortars and ‘infantry weapons generally’, though not aircraft or other ‘sophisticated’ equipment.
On 23 November 1967 the Cabinet agreed that ‘a quick Federal military victory’ provided the best hope for ‘an early end to the fighting’. By early December, Commonwealth Secretary George Thomson noted that the ‘lack of supplies and ammunition is one of things that are holding operations up’. He said that Britain should agree to the FMG’s recent shopping list since ‘a favourable response to this request ought to give us every chance of establishing ourselves again as the main supplier of the Nigerian forces after the war’. If the war ended soon, the Nigerian economy will start expanding and ‘there should be valuable business to be done’. Also: ‘Anything that we now do to assist the FMG should help our oil companies to re-establish and expand their activities in Nigeria after the war, and, more generally should help our commercial and political relationship with postwar Nigeria’.
He ended by saying he hoped Britain could supply armoured cars since they ‘have proved of especial value in the type of fighting that is going on in Nigeria and the FMG are most impressed with the Saladins and Ferrets’ previously supplied by Britain.
As a result Britain supplied six Saladin armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 30 Saracen APCs along with 2,000 machine guns for them, anti-tank guns and 9 million rounds of ammunition. Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, wrote that he hoped these supplies will encourage the Nigerians ‘to look to the United Kingdom for their future purchases of defence equipment’. By the end of the year Britain had also approved the export of 1,050 bayonets, 700 grenades, 1,950 rifles with grenade launchers, 15,000 lbs of explosives and two helicopters.
In the first half of the following year, 1968, Britain approved the export of 15 million rounds of ammunition, 21,000 mortar bombs, 42,500 Howtizer rounds, 12 Oerlikon guns, 3 Bofors guns, 500 submachine guns, 12 Saladins with guns and spare parts, 30 Saracens and spare parts, 800 bayonets, 4,000 rifles and two other helicopters. At the same time Wilson was constantly reassuring Gowon of British support for a united Nigeria, saying in April 1968 that ‘I think we can fairly claim that we have not wavered in this support throughout the civil war’.
These massive arms exports were being secretly supplied – indeed, massively stepped up – at a time when one could read about the actions of the recipients in the newspapers. After the Biafran withdrawal from the mid-west in September 1967 a series of massacres started against Ibo residents. The New York Times reported that over 5,000 had been killed in various towns of the mid west. About 1,000 Ibos were killed in Benin city by local people with the acquiescence of the federal forces, the New York Review noted in December 1967. Around 700 Ibo males were lined up and shot in the town of Asaba, the Observer reported in January 1968. According to eyewitnesses the Nigerian commander ordered the execution of every Ibo male over the age of ten.
Nigerian officials informed the British government that the arms were ‘important to them, but not vital’. More important than the actual arms ‘was the policy of the British government in supporting the FMG’.
This support was now taking place amid public and parliamentary pressure for a halt to British arms to Lagos, with 70 Labour MPs, for example, filing a motion for such an embargo in May 1968. Yet the real extent of arms supplied by Britain was concealed from the public.
Throughout 1967 and 1968, Ministers had been telling parliament that Britain was essentially neutral in the conflict in that it was not interfering in the internal affairs of Nigeria but simply continuing to supply arms to Nigeria on the same basis as before the war. As the declassified files, referred to above, show, this was simply a lie. For example, Wilson told the House on 16 May 1968 that: ’We have continued the supply… of arms by private manufacturers in this country exactly on the basis that it has been in the past, but there has been no special provision for the needs of the war’.
One British file at this time – mid-1968 – refers to deaths of between 70,000-100,000 by now as ‘realistic’. The Red Cross was estimating around 600,000 refugees in Biafra alone and was trying to arrange desperately needed supplies to meet needs, estimated at around 30 tons a day.
Humanitarian suffering, especially starvation, was severe as a result of the FMG’s blockade of Biafra. Pictures of starving and malnourished children went around the world. The FMG was widely seen as indulging in atrocities and attacks against civilians, including apparently indiscriminate air strikes, in an increasingly brutal war in which civilians were the chief victims.
The files show that Wilson told Gowon on several occasions in private letters that he had successfully fended off public and parliamentary criticism in Britain, in order to continue to support the FMG – clearly showing where the government’s priorities and sympathies lay. As in Vietnam at the same time, Wilson was not going to be deflected by mere public opposition from backing ongoing aggression by key allies, whatever the level of atrocities and casualties.
With federal forces in control by mid-year of Port Harcourt, the most important southern coastal city, British officials noted that ‘having gone this far in supporting the FMG, it would be a pity to throw away the credit we have built up with them just when they seem to have the upper hand’. Britain could not halt the supply of arms since ‘apart from other considerations, such an outcome would seriously put at risk about £200m of British investments in non-Biafra Nigeria’, George Thomson explained to Harold Wilson.
It was also at this point that British officials sought to counter widespread opposition to the Nigerian government by conniving with it to improve the ‘presentation’ of its policies – another example of Britain’s past ‘information operations’ described in earlier chapters. Britain urged the FMG to convince the outside world that it was not engaged in genocide or a policy of massacre and to make public statements on the need for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to Biafra.
High Commissioner Hunt suggested to Gowon that the federal air force be used for ‘psychological warfare’ and to drop leaflets over the Ibo towns which would help the FMG score a ‘propaganda point’. Officials noted that their support for the FMG was under attack and that ‘our ability to sustain it… depends very much on implementing enlightened and humane federal policies and securing public recognition for them’. What was needed was ‘good and well-presented Nigerian policies which permit that support to continue’. Wilson therefore urged a senior Nigerian government official, Chief Enahoro, ‘to make a greater effort to ensure that their case did not go by default’.
The files indicate that these ‘presentational’ issues were much more important to British officials than any actual suffering of the Biafrans themselves. London never did anything significant to press the FMG. British officials ruled out threatening to cut off, or reduce, arms exports to force the FMG to change policies. The issue that most concerned the government at the time was that it would be forced to withdraw or reduce its support for Gowon in the face of public pressure. This, therefore, had to be countered, and the FMG needed to make greater efforts.
By mid-1968 British officials had still had no contacts with Ojukwu and other Biafran leaders; offers from the latter had been refused. So supportive was Wilson of the FMG that he even asked the Nigerians in advance whether they would have ‘any difficulties’ if a British official met a Biafran representative. Chief Enahoro replied that this would be acceptable provided the contacts were ‘strictly private and had no formal character’.
In early August FMG forces had retaken the whole of the southeastern and Rivers states and the easterners were now confined to a small enclave, blockaded from the outside world. Commonwealth Minister Lord Shepherd minuted Harold Wilson saying, that 14 months since Biafran secession: ‘Our support for the FMG finds us in the position in which we are on comparatively good terms with the side which is in an overwhelmingly advantageous position… It is important, therefore, that we should not be manoeuvred by pressure of opinion inspired by Ojukwu’s publicity, into abandoning at this late stage all the advantages which our policy so far seemed likely to bring us’. The same month, the Red Cross estimated 2-3 million people ‘in dire need’ and a similar number were facing shortages of food and medical aid.
Wilson did not succomb to public pressure. The following month he told Gowon that: ‘The British government for their part have steadfastly maintained their policy of support for Federal Nigeria and have resisted all suggestions in parliament and in the press for a change in that policy, particularly in regard to arms supplies’. The Foreign Office argued that ‘the whole of our investments in Nigeria and particularly our oil interests in the south east and the mid-west will be at risk if we change our policy of support for the federal government’.
In November, Lord Brockway and his committee for peace in Nigeria met Wilson and urged him to halt arms sales and to press for a ceasefire, estimating that there could be two million deaths from starvation and disease by the end of the year. Wilson not only rebuffed this plea; the files reveal that two days later he agreed to supply Nigeria with aircraft for the first time in a covert deal.
The Nigerians had been pressing Britain to supply several jet aircraft, specifically to attack the runways used by Biafran forces (and which also needed to be used to deliver humanitarian aid). Wilson said that Britain could not supply these directly but there were such aircraft in South Yemen and Sudan previously supplied by Britain. The Nigerians, he said, should procure the aircraft from them which ‘would not directly involve the British government’. The company to deal with in those two countries was Airwork Limited, which was later to be again used by the British government to conceal its involvement in its covert dirty war in Yemen. The British government also agreed to put the Nigerians in touch with ‘suitable pilots’.
British arms supplies were stepped up again in November. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said the Nigerians could have 5 million more rounds of ammunition, 40,000 more mortar bombs and 2,000 rifles. ‘You may tell Gowon’, Stewart instructed High Commissioner Hunt in Lagos, ‘that we are certainly ready to consider a further application’ to supply similar arms in the future as well. He concluded: ‘if there is anything else for ground warfare which you… think they need and which would help speed up the end of the fighting, please let us know and we will consider urgently whether we can supply it’.
Other supplies agreed in November following meetings with the Nigerians included six Saladins and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for them, and stepped up monthly supplies of ammunition, amounting to a total of 15 million rounds additional to those already agreed. It was recognised by the Defence Minister that ‘the scale of the UK supply of small arms ammunition to Nigeria in recent months has been and will continue to be on a vast scale’. The recent deal meant that Britain was supplying 36 million rounds of ammunition in the last few months alone. Britain’s ‘willingness to supply very large quantities of ammunition’, Lord Shepherd noted, ‘meant drawing on the British army’s own supplies’.
At the same time the Foreign Office was instructing its missions around the world to lie about the extent of this arms supply. It sent a ‘guidance’ memo to various diplomatic posts on 22 November saying that ‘we wish to discourage suggestions’ that the Nigerians, in their recent meetings with British officials, were seeking ‘to negotiate a massive arms deal’. Rather, ‘our policy of supplying in reasonable quantities arms of the kind traditionally supplied’ to Nigeria ‘will be maintained but no change in the recent pattern of supplies is to be expected’. So great is the culture of lying at the Foreign Office, it appears that policy is even to keep its own officials in the dark.
By the end of 1968 Britain had sold Nigeria £9 million worth of arms, £6 million of which was spent on small arms. A quarter of Nigeria’s supplies (by value) had come from the Soviet Union, also taking advantage of the war for its own benefit and trying no doubt to secure an opening into Nigeria provided by this opportunity. British officials consistently justified their arms supply by saying that if they stopped, the Russians would fill the gap. It was Britain’s oil interests, however, that was the dominating factor in Whitehall planners’ reasoning.
By the last two months of 1968, with hundreds of thousands dead by now, the fighting had reached a stalemate. The FMG had taken all Biafran territory apart from a small enclave within it consisting of 3 million people in an area the size of Kent. Biafrans were now dependent on two airstrips for outside supplies which were limited by both Gowon’s and Ojukwu’s refusals to allow sufficient numbers of aircraft to land. Humanitarian agencies were continuing calls for a ceasefire as suffering, especially starvation, had reached crisis proportions. ‘We shall continue to maintain our present policy, despite these heavy pressures on us’, Wilson told Gowon in November. Foreign Secretary Stewart instructed Lord Shepherd, on a visit to Lagos, to tell Gowon of the extraordinary steps Britain was taking to support him. Gowon should realise, Stewart said, that opposition to British policy ‘cuts right across the normal political or party divisions in the country and is especially strong in the various churches’. He also interestingly said that ‘similar feeling is also expressed within the Cabinet itself’ – such was the extremely thin base on which British support for the FMG was being provided. (One wonders about similar memos being written by Tony Blair to George Bush in 2003).
The Wilson government was keen to present itself as engaged in the search for peace – the files show that officials did so knowing that without appearing to be active they would not have been able to justify their support for the FMG. British government activity in peace negotiations invariably sought to avoid the involvement of the United Nations and was intended to support the FMG to maintain a united Nigeria and to achieve a solution on its terms only.
In public, British statements consistently blamed only the Biafrans, not the FMG, for obstructing peace negotiations and the delivery of humanitarian aid. On the latter, there were numerous proposals and counter-proposals made by both sides on the issue of night or dayflights, and river or land routes into Biafra, which obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of suffering people. The FMG feared that the Biafrans would use the cover of humanitarian aid supplies to slip in arms deliveries; while the Biafrans believed the FMG would poison the supplies. There is no doubt that Ojukwu and the Biafran leadership were partly responsible for the failure to deliver adequate humanitarian aid, yet so were the FMG. Starvation of the Biafrans was no accident or simply a by-product of the war; it was a deliberate part of the FMG’s war policy.
Several memos by British officials that reached Wilson and other ministers painted a more accurate picture than the one pushed in public. These said that it was as least as much the FMG that were to blame as the Biafrans. Yet this never upset British policy to side unequivocally with Gowon’s FMG.
In March 1969 Wilson gave a public interview and lied that ‘we continue to supply on a limited scale arms – not bombs, not aircraft – to the government of Nigeria because we have always been their suppliers’. Not only was this untrue as a result of the agreements late the previous year; on the very same day as this interview, the government approved the export of 19 million rounds of ammunition, 10,000 grenades and 39,000 mortar bombs – bombs, that is, that Wilson had said Britain was not supplying at all, still less on a vast scale.
A day before the Wilson interview, a Foreign Office official had written that ‘we have over the last few months agreed to supply large quantities of arms and ammunition’ to Nigeria ‘to assist them in finishing the war in the absence of any further [peace] negotiations’. He also noted that ‘we have flown small arms ammunition to Nigeria… using Manston airport in Kent without attracting unfavourable press comment’.
It was therefore perhaps no surprise that Gowon could write to Wilson in April saying that ‘of all the governments in the Western world, yours has remained the only one that has openly maintained its policy of arms supplies to my government’. France, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, had all announced a halt while the US continued its policy of not supplying arms to either side.
Two senior British RAF officers secretly visited Nigeria in August 1969 to advise the Nigerians on ‘how they could better prosecute the air war’. The main British interest, the files make clear, was to provide better protection of the oil installations, but the brief for the two officers stated that this impression should not be given to the Nigerians. The officers subsequently advised the Nigerians on a variety of tactics on ‘neutralisation of the rebel airstrips’. It was understood that destruction of the airstrips would put them out of use for daylight humanitarian relief flights. It is not clear whether such advice was put into action.
Britain armed the federal government all the way. In December 1969, just before the FMG’s final push that crushed the Biafrans, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart was calling for stepping up military assistance including the supply of more armoured cars. These supplies by Britain, he wrote, ‘have undoubtedly been the most effective weapons in the ground war and have spear-headed all the major federal advances’.
Biafran resistance ended by mid January 1970. Wilson then sent another message to Gowon saying that ‘your army has won a decisive victory’ and has achieved ‘your great aim of preserving the unity and integrity of Nigeria’, adding: ‘As you know I and my colleagues have believed all along that you were right and we have never wavered in our support for you, your government and you policy, despite the violent attacks which have been made on us at times in parliament and in the press as well as overseas’.
The Deputy High Commissioner in Lagos added: ‘There is genuine gratitude (as indeed there should be) for what Britain has done and is still doing for this country, and in particular for Her Majesty’s Government’s courage in literally sticking to their guns over Biafra’.
The toll of the war was counted in a report for the British High Commission at the end of the month. It referred to a relief agency report estimating 1 1/2-2 million people were being fed with food relief supplies, around 700,000 of whom were refugees in camps dependent entirely on food aid. Three million refugees were crowded into a 2,500 square kilometre enclave in which not only food but medicine, housing and clothing were in short supply. The Biafran economy was shattered, cities were in ruins and schools, hospitals and transport facilities destroyed.
Andrew Vachss: Hot Biafran Nights, Interview
In his 20-year-old law practice, those enemies are child molesters. In his political life, ditto: He's currently fighting for tougher federal child abuse enforcement through the CARE Act, a law that would punish states that give people who commit incest an easier time than those who rape kids they're not related to.
While Vachss' legal practice and public crusades draw plenty of attention, he's most famous for his tooth-chipping crime fiction. His novels—cold and dark, informed by the wolfpack morality of the underworld—take mystery readers coddled by Agatha Christie tea 'n' crumpets fantasies on an icy death trip to a place Vachss calls The Zero. He knows it well. Besides hounding molesters through the courts, Vachss has investigated syphillis transmission, run the toughest juvenile prison in Massachusetts and logged a stint as a field worker for the New York City Department of Family Services. Perhaps his roughest assignment, however, came as the '60s bled into the '70s and a corner of Africa tore itself to gory shreds. When the Ibo ethnic group attempted to secede from Nigeria, the federal forces of that country attacked. The fledgling Republic of Biafra suffocated under a blockade aided and abetted by the Western powers, who weren't anxious to see a reliable partner in neocolonialism shatter into quarrelsome—potentially Red-friendly—mini-states.
Perhaps a million people died; starved, shot, raped, bombed, killed with fire and disease. As the slaughter reached its climax, Andrew Vachss, just a few years out of college, ventured to Africa to see if he could help.
Thirty years later, Vachss discusses this little-talked about experience in the heart of darkness.
Mumblage: Why did you go to Africa?
Vachss: You've seen clips about Rwanda?
Mumblage: Of course.
Vachss: Okay. So you know what happens when two tribes decide that each one has to be exterminated. The British left Nigeria only in 1960. When they left, there were two essential tribes there, Ibos and Hausas. The Ibos were sort of the civil service class, the governing class, and the Hausas were not. As soon as the British left, they decided maybe they should be.
Mumblage: So this was a situation the British created?
Vachss: I can blame the British for a lot of things, but tribalism in Africa? If there had been no colonialism, I think there wouldn't have been tribal warfare, because Africans are essentially not territory-takers. It's Europeans who take territory. If you have an agrarian society, what good does it do you to take territory? Unless you have a fairly commerical or industrial base, more land isn't going to do you any good. So historically, you might be correct.
But these were tribal hatreds that were ancient, so they used any weapon at all, including fire and disease. Landlocking the country, blocking food from coming in. This was the first time Red Cross planes were shot out of the sky, the first time they refused to let relief workers in. Starvation became a weapon of war. So everytime you'd turn on the TV, you'd see nothing but footage of kids dying, starving to death with huge distended bellies and and just bones ... people couldn't stand it.
Nobody talked about the United States intervening, because there was something else going on at the time, called Vietnam.
So a group of foundations, like Save the Children, that had UN consultant status, needed somebody to penetrate the war zone and try to determine two things: One was whether, if you contributed a dollar in America, it would buy a dollar's worth of food in Biafra, not seven cents of food and 93 cents of fundraising. Second was to find a route to get the food in. It was tricky, because you can only fly in so much food. Airplanes are just not designed for that.
My qualification for that job was being nuts enough to do it. And I did. It was a long haul—I had to go to Lisbon and meet with some shadowy people and be sent to Geneva and meet with even shadowier people. These were whose faces literally did not come out of the shadows when they spoke. And then we went to Angola, which was not exactly a quiet place at the time, and then we went back across the equator to a little island called Sao Tome. And from there you got in any way you could, and there was only one way in. You waited until it got dark, you got into a plane, you went over and they shot at you and you either got in or you didn't.
Once I got there, I realized it was too late.
I mean, I wasn't on the ground for 30 seconds before I realized it was too late. You could never have gotten enough food in there, unless the fighting stopped that day. While I was there, I got some really wonderful malaria. I mean, all I remember is, we were pushing a jeep up a hill and there was shooting, and then I woke up seven days later. It really knocked me out. They had to evacuate me.
I saw every kind of death, every kind of mass death, you could ever want to see. A generation of children disappeared.
Mumblage: And to this day—do you fly a lot?
Vachss: Yes. Okay. To this day, every time you go to the airport, I can name one airport that'll be on the prohibited list. One airport that the United States government will say is not safe.
Vachss: You got it. It hasn't changed. They're still doing business the same way they did then. They're still killing people in the public square who dissent, killing anyone who's opposed. Nothing's changed. And you ask yourself, we've intervened in all these other countries, but we'd never go in there. Why? Well, they've got oil. We'll always make exceptions for those countries with oil.