Biafra Revisited

On Easter Sunday I paid my second visit to Biafra. The first visit had been eighteen months before, in the third month of the Nigerian war, September 1967.1 Then we had come in overland, by Land Rover from Mamfe in Cameroun, to Calabar: we—then as now I traveled with Stanley Diamond, Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York—had interviewed the Biafran leader Colonel Ojukwu in Enugu, and had visited Port Harcourt and Onitsha, where we crossed the Niger Bridge into the section of the Mid-West region then held by Biafran forces. Enugu fell within a few days of our visit; shortly afterward the land route of access was cut. Biafran forces evacuated the Mid-West and destroyed the Niger Bridge. Later Onitsha fell, after a stubborn defense. In the South Port Harcourt and Calabar were lost. What is left of Biafra, territorially, is now accessible only by air.

We traveled there by way of Lisbon, Angola, and the Portugese island of São Tomé. The jet flight from Lisbon to Luanda takes nine hours: Portuguese Airlines must fly around the bulge of Africa, instead of taking the much shorter trans-Saharan route. The flight from Luanda to São Tomé takes two hours, in a twin-propeller Fokker, which makes the journey only once a week, if weather conditions are suitable. In this approach one gains a sense of Biafra’s isolation, not merely physical but political. The Portuguese lifeline is itself under pressure of boycott, and its use, vitally indispensable as it is, entails political disadvantage for the Biafrans. It’s a lifeline to whose existence the states of the Organization for African Unity are opposed in principle.

The level of prosperity in Portuguese São Tomé is perceptibly higher than on any part of the West African continental coast. Military and police are not nearly as conspicuous here as we saw them to be in Angola, nor are there any other signs of an emergency. Profound peace appears to reign here; even the boasts of an inter-racial society are not without all foundation. We watched the Good Friday procession in which about a thousand of the faithful followed, with candles in their hands, the coffin of Christ and the statue of his mourning mother. The crowd was made up of both blacks and whites, and many shades in between. It would be only too easy for a paleo-colonialist to draw a moving contrast between this apparent peace and harmony and the horrors which two kinds of independence have brought to nearby Nigeria. (To be effective the contrast would have to be confined, on the Portuguese side, to São Tomé: the names of Angola and Mozambique carry with them the reminder of the horrors of persistence in colonialism.)

In a little São Tomé restaurant we asked a young Biafran, who had been living in São Tomé for three months, what he thought of the Portuguese system. He showed signs of embarrassment at the question: he was hardly in a position…

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