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Who Killed Biafra?

If we fail, the white man, who has been so surprised by our movement, the white man, who has entirely miscalculated every facet of this struggle, will have garnered a new range of knowledge about the potential of the black man and prepared himself to combat us should we ever again rear our ugly head. We owe it, therefore, to Africa not to fail. Africa needs a Biafra. Biafra is the breaking of the chains.

It is not enough just to fight the Nigerians or their friends. We have to fight as a starting point of the African revolution…. If the revolution fails, we do a disservice to our race. But…what really frightens the white man is this whole challenge to the direction of international economy…. This is the one black society that on its own can go out and seek raw materials, manufacture finished products and sell them with absolute equality in the open world market. Once this has been demonstrated, you will find that the basis of neo-colonialism has been removed; which is continued economic dominance.”

—C. O. Ojukwu,
at the Biafran People’s Seminar,
Umuahia, March 5, 1969


Now that Biafra has been defeated by Nigeria and its patrons, history is being rewritten in order to accommodate the interests of the victors. In fact, the defeat of Biafra is not a victory for the Nigerian people but for the neo-colonialists, whether Soviet or North-Atlantic. As Conor Cruise O’Brien has pointed out, it is Nigeria, not Biafra, which resembles Katanga. But statements emanating from the Great Powers would have us believe that the Biafrans were the aggressors against a liberal and well-intentioned Nigerian regime, that the nation was allied with the white supremacists, that it was a creature of the oil companies, that the war was a conspiracy by a clique of adventurers led by Ojukwu. These variations on a theme run from Moscow through Whitehall to the State Department and the editorial pages of The New York Times,1 and they echo in the pronouncements of General Gowon.

Moreover, Nigeria and its allies, misrepresenting the depth of the Biafran struggle in an effort to mitigate their own responsibility, have done everything in their power to underestimate the past suffering and the present condition of the Biafran people. In spite of the grim reports of correspondents who have penetrated the Ibo-heartland, the British government and the press in this country even now refuse to acknowledge the full extent of the human disaster in Biafra. A generation of children has either been starved to death or deprived of the protein necessary for normal mental and physical growth. A generation of young adults, among them the most talented and skilled in black Africa, has been stifled.

At whatever cost to the Biafrans, the Nigerian state must not be embarrassed. For example, the Nigerians have forbidden the use of the airstrip at Uli although, or perhaps because, it is situated in the most devastated area and could serve as the channel for large-scale, rapid relief where it is most needed. Uli has become a nonplace. In order to further the appearance of independence, the Nigerians have also barred Joint Church Aid, the efficient and humanitarian organization that did its best to supply Biafra with protein food and medicine during the war.

While Whitehall and the State Department collaborate in these empty rituals of sovereignty, their grandiose offers of aid stand little chance of reaching the affected areas in time to do much good because of poorly organized and indifferent Nigerian officials. This half-hearted Anglo-American humanitarianism masks the ruthlessness of a war which took two million lives (all but a tiny percentage of them Biafran), decimated the Ibo-speaking people, destroyed Biafran society, and ruined a national culture at the moment of its birth. It should be clear that supporters of Nigeria are eager to minimize the suffering that has taken place: the less the suffering, the shallower the struggle can be assumed to have been. That is the link between official humanitarianism and the politics of conquest.

Having insisted from the beginning that the plight of the Biafrans was exaggerated, the Russians, at least, avoid humanitarian gestures. They express disapproval of “interference in the internal affairs of Nigeria” but agree, nonetheless, that Soviet assistance during the war was, “more than any other single thing—more than all other things together,” responsible for the Nigerian victory,2 a “victory of progressive forces of the whole African continent over imperialism [represented by Biafra].”3 In the words of the Nigerian ambassador to Moscow, “the Soviet Union came out openly and honestly on the side of right, on the side of the federal government…there is something commendable, something great and something honorable in this attitude.”4 This view fits the self-interest of the Russians, and their self-interest commands their theory of current history. One now senses, with growing horror, that similar falsifications are being accepted in the West.

The representation of Biafra as a puppet of reactionary forces can be readily refuted by the facts. There is, first of all, the overwhelming reality of Biafra’s economic and military collapse. Obviously, as every visitor to Biafra has reported, external aid and support were tragically inadequate. Just how inadequate should be clear from the following:

Approximately half of Biafran arms were manufactured in Biafra by Biafrans, although this figure varied considerably during the course of the war. In the beginning of the war, apart from Nigerian army stocks on hand, almost all arms were locally made. There were no European experts on the scene, and the traditional smiths of Awka proved equal to the task. Toward the end of the war, the displacement of men and the loss of materials made the manufacture of arms virtually impossible. Biafra had on hand mines, armor plate, short-range mortars, ammunition for an idiosyncratic arsenal, and explosives. Scrap iron was the major local resource. They manufactured explosives from local stores of dynamite, supplemented by ingredients purchased in Europe, and built gun-boats for patrol of the Niger and the Niger basin. They secretly purchased electronic components from commercial companies in Europe and the United States, copied them wherever possible, and assembled them locally.

The remaining half of Biafran military supplies came from foreign sources. For the first eighteen months of the war, French arms comprised only 10 percent, half of which consisted of black market cash purchases made in France, presumably with the knowledge of the French government. A high proportion of these sales was sight unseen; and often, when the crates were broken open in Biafra, many of them turned out to be loaded with iron rods. In the last year of the war, however, French arms rose to about half of the foreign total. With francs from the Ivory Coast (which recognized Biafra), Biafra purchased from the government of Gabon (which also recognized Biafra) arms originally bought from the French government, and resold at cost. They were shipped to Libreville and flown to Biafra by French commercial pilots on chartered planes.

The French government made no sales, and extended no grants, directly to Biafra. Moreover, by indirectly selling arms for French francs, the French government profited from its former colonies. De Gaulle’s oratorical sympathy for Biafra, reinforced by the protests made by the President of the Ivory Coast, may have expressed his own appreciation of nationality, but, more significantly, he may have been stimulated by the possible deterioration of British influence in Nigeria and the chance of French access to the Biafran oil-fields. Still, French commercial investments in Nigeria did not seem to decline during the war, nor did Nigeria sever its connection with the Common Market. The Biafrans were well aware that French support was capricious. Last April, just before Umuahia (then the capital) fell, Ojukwu was disappointed but not surprised when the French failed to recognize his regime. At that critical moment, French arms had been reduced to a trickle.

Portugal supplied about one quarter of the foreign military supplies throughout the war, mostly small arms and ammunition, including some automatic weapons. These were strictly cash, commercial transactions. Most of these arms had initially been sold to the Portuguese government by Spain, which also supplied Nigeria directly via commercially registered flights from Madrid through Las Palmas to Lagos. The arms supplied by the Portuguese were flown into Biafra from Lisbon, on Biafran-owned or chartered transport planes. Among the dozen or so pilots involved, five were Biafran, the remainder were American, Rhodesian, South African, and Portuguese.

It is likely that Portugal sold arms to Biafra partly because she would be contributing to a war in black Africa, and thereby deflecting attention from her own atrocious colonial record. Biafra, however, made no economic or political alliance with the Portuguese. In their desperate effort to survive, the Biafrans bought arms from whatever sources they could, using (and paying for) facilities in Lisbon and São Tomé, which became strategic links between Europe and Africa.

But so far as Rhodesian and South African “aid” was concerned, there was none. The Rhodesian and South African commercial pilots were strictly private and well paid. Gowon has charged Rhodesia and South Africa with sympathy for Biafra, but he has no evidence for this except their hostility to England and the Soviet Union. In fact the governments of Rhodesia and South Africa did not condemn Nigeria. Gowon has conveniently forgotten that Balewa, the first Prime Minister of “independent” Nigeria, a Northerner, once expressed his “understanding” of the racist South African regime. And Kenneth Kaunda, who was to become the President of Zambia, attacked a Nigerian delegation for overlooking the racial situation in Rhodesia.

At the same time, Nigerian propaganda fails to mention the Czechs and Chinese as sources of arms for Biafra. For the first year of the war, Czech arms, about one quarter of the foreign supply, were purchased through black market traders, presumably with the knowledge of the Czech government. After the fall of Dubcek, in August 1968, this source dried up. Throughout the war small amounts of Chinese small arms and ammunition were made available via Tanzania.

The Scandanavian countries, on the other hand, supplied no arms, although half a dozen single-engined planes were purchased through private Swedish sympathizers, fitted with arms in France, and flown by Swedish pilots until they were replaced by Biafrans. For a very brief period during the early months of the war, no more than a dozen European mercenaries were active in Biafra; and these were subsequently expelled for insubordination and misbehavior toward their hosts.

This foreign military aid was obviously not only inadequate in itself but enormously outweighed by British and Soviet support of the Nigerian regime. Certainly no pattern of foreign dependence emerges from this picture. In that respect, and in every other, as we shall see, Biafra was indebted to no European power, received no grants, no cut prices. Indeed, after the first six months of the war, foreign investors in the secessionist area completely dissociated themselves from the Biafran regime.

  1. 1

    Eugene Black, former head of the World Bank, is a director of both The New York Times and Royal Dutch Shell, the largest petroleum investor in Nigeria.

  2. 2

    G. J. Kurubu at a press conference in Moscow, January 20.

  3. 3

    Moscow Radio, January 12.

  4. 4

    Kurubu, at the press conference of January 20.

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