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 to criticize his hosts. Finally he said that the system, though “paternalist,” was probably all right for the São Tomé people, who were living in the nineteenth century, or maybe the eighteenth. As for him, he was homesick and wanted to get back to Biafra as soon as possible. Without any self-consciousness or heroics he made it clear that the idea of living at peace under any kind of colonialism, as compared with having to fight for independence, was not even a temptation for him.
The Joint Church Aid relief flights from São Tomé to the improvised air strip at Uli in Biafra are operated, on alternate nights, by the World Council of Churches and by the Catholic organization, Caritas Internationalis. We had a reasonable claim to be permitted to use these flights: Stanley Diamond and I are both trustees of the American Biafra Relief Services Foundation, which has raised over two million dollars for relief and rehabilitation in Biafra. Part of the object of our journey was to see the use which the Biafran Committee, which operated the various medical and other projects sponsored by the Foundation, was making of the funds and supplies.
We were, however, also known as sympathizers with Biafra’s political claim to a separate existence, and the World Council people, one of whom did not conceal his perhaps understandable distaste for semi-political cargo, could not find room for us on “their night.” Finally we went in, in a C97, along with ten tons of salt, on a Caritas flight, the night of the 2,000th relief flight from São Tomé. Between twenty-five and thirty flights a night (and sometimes more) were being operated, carrying about 250 tons of food and medical supplies each night.
Each pilot did two or three flights a night; only the “two-flight” ones carried passengers. The pilots coming off duty were celebrating the 2,000 in modest quantities of Portuguese champagne. They had earned it; the strain of flying the São Tomé-Uli run regularly must be considerable. Apart from the occasional hazards of Nigerian bombing and anti-aircraft fire (and that of Biafran anti-aircraft mistaking its target) there is the permanent and probably more serious hazard of having to use a very busy “airport”—which is little more than a stretch of road—with the use of lights kept to the barest minimum. Uli is receiving not only from São Tomé but also from Cotonou, Santa Isabel, and Libreville. At the busiest hours, landings and takeoffs seem to occur in uninterrupted series, while an unbroken line of lightless Biafran trucks moves up to receive the cargoes and take them away. The speed, efficiency, and order of this improvised and delicate operation are really astonishing.
Our own flight was uneventful, if salty. We were met by our host, Dr. Fabian Udekwu, formerly Professor of Surgery at Ibadan and organizer of the Biafran Relief Services Association, who took us in his car the two-hour journey to the provincial capital, Umuahia. He was already a refugee twice over; once from Ibadan, after the murder of General Ironsi, later from northern Biafra after the entry of Federal troops. He had just thought himself on the verge of becoming a refugee for the third time; the fall of Umuahia, where he worked, had been feared. What principally distressed him about that was the thought of having to abandon Queen Elizabeth hospital in Umuahia, with the new extensions which he had just made with the help of the Foundation: “It would have been a sword through my heart,” he said. The Biafran forces had repelled the Nigerian drive, recaptured the village of Uzuakoli sixteen miles west of Umuahia, and seized some armored vehicles.
The battle of Umuahia had been fought on Good Friday: this was Easter Sunday morning; for the moment Umuahia seemed safe. (After we left, Umuahia fell, on April 24; the hospital is now in Nigerian hands.) It was about three in the morning. In several places files of women with burdens on their heads were moving along the sides of the road. Some women, Dr. Udekwu said, preferred to go to market early these days: the bombing. He talked of other things: of his years of surgical work in Chicago, at the Cook County Hospital; the experience he had acquired there with gun-shot wounds was now of service to him. He spoke of Harold Wilson, in tones of wonder: “That man sits in London and says he knows what’s best for me! And he’s never even been here!”
Biafra, when we saw it by day, had a very different aspect from that which we had seen on our previous visit, in September 1967. It was not (as we had feared) that there were many visible signs of famine. The terrible conditions of August and September 1968—when people, mainly children, were dying of malnutrition at the rate of between five and six thousand a day—have been checked, as a result of the relief airlift. At present, relief workers estimate that perhaps one hundred people die in this way each day, mainly in the immediate war zone. We saw the reddish hair and other signs of the kwashiorkor disease among children (caused by protein deficiency) rather more often, but not startlingly more often, than one sees such cases in West Africa in peacetime. Otherwise the people we saw (outside the hospitals), including most of the children, looked fairly well fed, (though appearances may be deceptive).
Even an appearance of relatively good health is an astounding, though precarious achievement. There are now more than 700,000 people living in schools that have been converted into refugee camps, and a far greater number of refugees—estimated by the Biafra Rehabilitation Commission at about 5 million—have been absorbed in the villages, under the extraordinarily elastic hospitality of the “extended family” relationship, or at the request of the Biafran government. The food airlifted to Uli by the Church organizations and Red Cross is collected by Biafran trucks nightly and carried to the camps and to the over-populated villages. In every village a nutritional clinic or feeding center has been set up, administered by the village under the sponsorship of one of the relief agencies: the relief agencies supply the protein for the refugees, while the carbohydrates, fats, and vegetables are supplied by the host villages. In addition every available source of local protein is tapped: villagers and refugees alike eat rats, mice, lizards, snails, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Famine—as Biafra knew it in 1968—is being held at bay for the moment, but only just. Most camp-dwellers have only one meal a day, and many refugees still receive less than 1200 calories a day.2 Many relief workers fear that the “protein famine” of 1968 may be followed in 1969 by an even more disastrous carbohydrate famine, before which an airlift would be powerless because of the bulk of the supplies required.
Biafran doctors and scientists—a very important and influential group of people in wartime Biafra—do not fully share the apprehensions of the foreign relief workers. They believe that the Biafran people themselves, through the “Land Army” and the more and more intensive cultivation of their soil—of which we saw evidence everywhere, along the country roads and on every available patch of ground in the town of Umuahia itself—not only can remain self-sufficient in carbohydrates but can in time become less dependent on outside aid in protein also.
They believe for example that Biafra can re-establish its poultry industry; if the relief agencies will provide the necessary day-old chicks and seed corn, the Biafrans think they can do the rest. Outside relief workers—some of them at least—are skeptical about this claim. They may be right; I am incompetent to express an opinion on this question. The Biafran doctors and scientists with whom I spoke were as qualified and as visibly competent and dedicated as the relief-workers, and it would be their own people who would suffer if they were wrong. Is it possible that the old European reluctance to admit that Africans have any capacity to look after their own affairs may be at work here unconsciously—despite the tangible proofs of ingenuity which the Biafrans have given?
One would think that people who have proved their ability to produce their own petrol and keep a road-transport and distribution system running efficiently under conditions of staggering difficulty might also know how to raise chickens. Yet one also hesitates to discount the opinion of people without whose efforts famine would actually be raging throughout Biafra now. The Biafrans are deeply conscious of this, and their differences of opinion with some relief workers are moderately and discreetly expressed. Nor can the “carbohydrate famine” danger be dismissed as unreal, in conditions where an area already as densely populated as the Nile valley has had to accommodate an influx of refugees doubling its original population.
The Goodell Report took the danger of a carbohydrate famine extremely seriously, and predicted a shortage of 730 calories per person per day during the four-month period April-July 1969. It may be that the Biafrans are under-estimating the danger, in their entirely unprecedented situation. Their commitment to their cause might tend to have this effect: it is possible also that the element of ingenuity in the Biafran character may be accompanied by an excessive optimism about what ingenuity may accomplish.
The phrase “the Biafran character” may surprise, Biafra being such a new entity. I use “Biafran” about people who regard themselves as Biafrans, and about these only. Most of these people, but not all, are Ibos; the non-Ibos among them may not all be friendly to the Ibos—some of them speak sourly, in the presence of Ibos and otherwise, about Ibo attitudes to minorities in the past—but they share common values with Ibos and tend to pride themselves on the same qualities: egalitarian manners, thirst for education, commercial enterprise, self-reliance, and technical ingenuity. Hostile critics—who dominate Nigeria outside Biafra—would add arrogance, unscrupulousness, and rapacity to the list of Biafran characteristics, but generally admit the more positive qualities—as making the negative ones all the more dangerous. However it may be assessed, “the Biafran character” is a real thing.3
I do not know how many, among the “minority peoples”—Ibibio, Efik, Ijaw, and others—regard themselves as Biafrans. There are certainly a good many—as Biafrans themselves admit—fighting on the other side. In the present Biafran territory, among the educated “elite”—in whose company visitors to Biafra are likely to find themselves most of the time—the proportion of minority people is high, and their Biafran sentiment strong. It is hard to guess the proportion among the population generally, but there are certainly many non-Ibos among the non-elite. One member of the party with which we traveled was “a minority,” and several times greeted people from his own village—people obviously not belonging to the Establishment—in the villages through which we passed; if this was a staged performance the people involved were consummate actors, and planted with a verisimilitude attainable only by a director of genius.
The Goodell Report estimates that 40 percent of the minority groups belonging to areas now occupied by Federal troops are now in Biafran-held territory. Neither the figure nor the exact reasons for this particular movement of population would be easy to verify at present. In any case the only ultimately satisfactory solution to this vexed question of minority allegiance seems to be that proposed by Colonel Ojukwu: an internationally supervised plebiscite among the various communities (after the cessation of hostilities) on the question of whether they want to belong to Nigeria or Biafra.
The change which struck me most, between Year One and Year Two, was in the relation of “popular” to “elite” elements. In the period after the fall of the Mid-West, and just before the fall of Enugu, there were signs everywhere of a sort of Jacobin spirit, combining exacerbated patriotism with intense suspicion of treachery: a suspicion directed in particular at Biafrans with official credentials. Mixed groups of police, soldiers, and militia then manned the innumerable road-blocks, with little regard for rank among their own number. They had no respect for official cars, and a disconcerting spontaneity in the manipulation of lethal weapons.
With respect to crisis, Easter 1969 was a comparable period: once again the capital was in imminent danger of falling. But the atmosphere was very different. Along the main roads, the road-blocks, considerably less frequent, were manned by disciplined police: along the side roads by civil defense workers, also disciplined: everywhere, when Dr. Udekwu gave his credentials (“State House”) he was greeted in a friendly or respectful manner. There was no trace of vigilantism.
I record the change as a fact. How is it to be interpreted? Does it imply a decline in popular support for the Biafran cause? One European woman I talked to, who knew the villages through her relief work, was inclined to think so. Women in particular, she thought, were war-weary: recently, for the first time, she had heard the question asked: Might not the price be too high? She admitted, however, that support for Colonel Ojukwu continued strong: this seemed to qualify the question about the price.
My own observation, limited as it was, suggested that the people continued to support the cause and the war no less strongly than before, though in a different mood. For about forty miles, during a journey from near Awka to Umuahia, we had to follow behind a military convoy of five trucks. In every village we passed through, the people greeted the soldiers, sometimes cheering them, more often exchanging chaff; there were laughter and smiles. At a hospital, one of our group produced a tape recorder and the walking wounded—about twenty-five of them—gathered round to sing the war songs of Biafra. They were very young; they had been in action with their light weapons, short of ammunition, against a heavily armed, copiously supplied, and vastly more numerous enemy. They would soon be going back into action, under the same conditions. It would have been hard not to be moved and impressed by their singing.
The mood had changed. The soldiers and people had suffered greatly. Senator Goodell’s Biafra Study Mission estimated that about 1 1/2 million people died in Biafra in the twelve months ending February 1969, “from famine and associated causes of death.” Many of the survivors—the nearly 6 million refugees estimated by the Biafran Rehabilitation Commission—have lost almost everything they possessed. All are suffering from acute shortage of almost all commodities, from extremely high prices, and from numerous other privations, including a two-year hiatus in education. The daily air-raids, although they have caused far fewer deaths than hunger and disease have caused, add considerably to the nervous strain, as they are entirely indiscriminate and may strike anywhere in any village, at any daylight hour. Figures of military casualties are hard to obtain, but the hospitals are full of badly wounded soldiers.
It was not surprising that the exuberance of 1967 had gone. But the suspicion so prevalent in that period had gone too. It seemed to me that the people had greater confidence in their leaders; no doubt it was clear that anyone who wished to “sell out” would probably have done so already. The people also seemed to know what they were up against: a long war if they were to be able to survive as a nation. The new mood, as far as we could analyze it, seemed to be one of chastened determination.
When we got back from Awka to Umuahia on Easter Monday evening, we found that the compound in which we had been staying—a former agricultural research station a few miles from Umuahia—had been strafed in our absence by four Migs. One of the houses hit had been that of our host, Dr. Udekwu (who had accompanied us on our trip). A projectile had gone through his bedroom, and under his bed, at a level of about six inches from the floor, leaving a hole six inches in diameter in both walls. It had passed through a cupboard, destroying two tins of Vim, a detergent. He told us that when he was at home on such occasions it was under his bed that he habitually took cover. We told him we had saved his life, through the necessity of escorting us. He refused to be grateful, being too angry about his Vim.
The compound attacked in this way by low-flying aircraft is not near any military target.
When we met Colonel Ojukwu on the morning of Easter Tuesday, we found him calmer and apparently more confident than when we had met him last in Enugu eighteen months before. Yet his analysis of the situation was a forbidding one. Militarily, the vast disproportion between the equipment of his troops and that of the Nigerians had been lessened, but only slightly. The Biafrans for the moment had adequate ammunition for their rifles and light automatic weapons. They had no heavy weapons, other than certain home-made devices; no armored cars other than a few which they had captured from the enemy; no military aircraft at all. Their enemies were well provided by Britain and the Soviet Union with all these resources.
Nor did Colonel Ojukwu underestimate the fighting spirit of Federal troops. “Hausa troops,” he said, “would always die rather than surrender.” Mixed groups of Hausa, Yoruba, and people from the Rivers state had fought tenaciously, especially, we gathered, in defense of Owerri, where they had been encircled. (Owerri held out for some time after this, but its recapture by Biafran forces was confirmed by foreign correspondents on 27 April. It is a more important center than Umuahia, captured by Federal troops a few days before.) It was true that certain groups—he mentioned the Tivs—had been virtually eliminated from the fight, true also that the Biafran soldiers, fighting in defense of their homeland, were superior to their adversaries, man for man. He thought that this would show itself even more clearly if, instead of having to defend fixed positions like Umuahia, they were fighting a fully guerrilla war in the bush. But he agreed that the loss of Umuahia would be a heavy blow for political rather than military reasons.
Politically, he thought it would be folly to put much trust either in the hope of any imminent crack in the coalition of other Nigerian peoples against Biafra, or in the Organization for African Unity and its then approaching Monrovia Conference. The coalition might break down some day, but the only safe assumption was that it would hold together for the present. Among the OAU states there was a good deal of popular sympathy with Biafra but—apart from the Arab and Islamic factors—several governments which might otherwise be helpful were under economic pressure from Britain and sometimes elsewhere to support the Lagos position. He would send a delegation to Monrovia, so that Biafra’s case would not go unstated, but he would not go there himself. He hoped for some new recognitions in addition to the four African states which already recognize Biafra—Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia—yet he was obviously not counting on numerous or quick conversions.
In most respects, the picture presented by Colonel Ojukwu could hardly have been bleaker. His confidence, obvious in his demeanor, was based on his conviction of the unity, tenacity, and ingenuity of his people defending their heartland. He thought it would be a long war and that the institutions and ideology necessary to sustain it to a successful conclusion had not yet fully emerged. He spoke of what he called “the Biafran revolution” and said that the present Biafran government had evolved, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, into a civilian government of which he was a part. Now, when he spoke of the soldiers, he said he never quite knew whether to say “we” or “they.” I noticed that his tone, when he said the word “civilian,” altogether lacked that professional note of contempt which so many African officers have acquired from their instructors. (This account of Colonel Ojukwu’s conversation is the record of the impressions of an attentive listener: although Colonel Ojukwu knew that we would be writing about our visit we were not interviewing him as journalists and took no notes.)
What is the future of the Biafrans of today if their territory is completely over-run by Federal troops? What form could a Biafran state take if Biafrans successfully hold off the Federal troops? Which result—Federal victory or Biafran survival—is desirable from the point of view of African independence and development?
As regards the first question, I found that the fears of total genocide—the systematic obliteration of all Ibos and minority peoples taking “the Ibo side”—which were horribly real in 1967—had to some extent diminished. Under certain commanders and in certain places—at Calabar, for example, under Benjamin Adekunle—Federal troops had engaged in systematic genocide; in other places, other commanders had refrained from this. Biafrans now know that large numbers of Ibos are at least surviving—for the present anyway—under Federal rule. Present fears are less dramatic than in the past, but equally real and pervasive. Surrender would put Biafrans at the mercy of people who had massacred their brothers both in the North and in various places inside the Eastern Region. Though few are even willing to speculate on what might happen if Biafra were completely overrun, some feel that the present relatively restrained treatment of Ibos remaining in many occupied areas may be influenced by the present relatively high level of international concern about the situation, and Nigeria’s need to retain British support and not alienate the United States. Federal victory, removing or greatly weakening these protective factors, would create a new situation in which mass murder might easily be repeated—e.g., in the form of collective reprisals after individual acts of resistance.
But even on the most favorable hypothesis Biafrans consider themselves doomed, if defeated, to a life of second- or third-class citizenship in a state in which their energies and capacities would be denied proportionate outlets. “They would tell us to shut up,” said one educated Biafran. He said he would rather die than have to shut up when he was told. His past record proved that he meant what he said.
An elite attitude? Perhaps; but it would be unwise to assume that it does not go much deeper. The gap between an educated African and the members of his extended family in the villages is sometimes exaggerated by European observers, and the use of the term “African elite” as a device for ignoring and expunging the opinions of Africans who happen not to be more uneducated than ourselves is rather too frequent among us, especially on the Left. (In practice it means that all Africans can be ignored as the opinion of the uneducated is necessarily uninformed.) In the case of Biafra, there can be no doubt that discrimination against Ibos in education and employment would be felt as a social and economic injury not to the elite only but to all the villages. It is not altogether surprising, then, that even relieved of some of their fears of imminent mass genocide, the Biafrans still feel they are engaged in a struggle for survival as the kind of people they are.
The question of what form a generally recognized Biafran state might take depends of course on whether a Federal government can eventually be obliged, either by stalemate and exhaustion or by a tilt of the military situation in favor of Biafra—e.g., as a result of a French decision to supply military aid on a considerable scale instead of the present thin trickle of light arms and ammunition—to accept the existence of any Biafran stale. In this event, Colonel Ojukwu’s proposal for international supervised plebescites in the minority areas would become relevant. If both sides were prepared to implement this in good faith, and to agree to the necessary movements of population—including the return of the Ibo-speaking population which formed the majority in Port Harcourt—then this could provide a hopeful basis for a stable solution. With Port Harcourt under its control. Biafra would be able to receive supplies by ship. Both sides, after a protracted experience of the vicissitudes of war, might well take care to avoid a new outbreak. On the other hand, Nigeria’s acceptance of a landlocked Biafra, within something like the present military periphery, could only provide a breathing space: it is clear that if Biafrans saw what they considered a favorable opportunity for recovering Port Harcourt and access to the sea, they would run great risks to take it.
If Federal claims about the allegiance of minority peoples are correct, the plebiscites would cause Biafra to lose large areas of the former Eastern Region, including much of the oil-rich territory. A settlement on plebiscitary lines, whether with a fully independent Biafra or under some form of confederal arrangement, would be a genuine compromise between the original Biafran claims and the original Nigerian position. The exact nature of the difficulties which might be involved in carrying it out cannot be predicted in advance of the results of the plebescites, but it should be possible to combine Biafran access to Port Harcourt with the principle of minority self-determination. Should the plebiscites result in a “Biafran vote” in the Ibo heartland, and in Port Harcourt, with a “Nigerian vote” in a territory separating Port Harcourt from the heartland, it should be possible to meet the difficulty through a scheme of compensated resettlement of population, moving pro-Biafrans from Nigerian territory, and vice versa, and linking Port Harcourt territorially with the heartland. Large-scale resettlements of villages have been carried out quite smoothly elsewhere in Africa—e.g., in Ghana in the Volta resettlement program. It is not of great significance that the new movements of people would be across a political line still to be created, since by definition any communities affected would be remaining in (or moving into) the political entity in which they felt they belonged.
To many observers—including the present writer—such an outcome seems far more desirable than either the continuation of the war or the subjugation of all of Biafra by the Federal forces. There are also many, however, who sincerely consider such a result unthinkable in principle, since it would involve the recognition of a secession and undermine the integrity of African states. Thus a friend of mine—at present teaching in an East African University—writes in part as follows:
As for Ojukwu, I don’t any more support secession in Nigeria than I would in the USA: (a) it won’t work and (b) it isn’t progressive. The future lies with nations, not tribes, and the longer people think otherwise the longer they serve to perpetuate the injury [of colonialism and white supremacism].
“The future lies with nations, not tribes….” Perhaps. But is Nigeria a nation? And are the Biafrans—as defined in the earlier part of this essay—a tribe? Are even the Ibo-speaking peoples—all 9 million of them—to be tagged as a tribe, politically fit only for amalgamation in a nationhood which they must be deemed to share with those who have massacred them? By what standards are strips of territory, like Dahomey and Togo (one of which is represented in the other by the French), to be considered nations worthy of condemning the concept of nationhood for which Biafrans have fought for nearly two years? In what way has Cameroun, whose national anthem includes the stirring line, “Peu à peu nous sortons de la sauvagerie,” yet earned the right to be regarded as a nation?
The answer of course is that colonization, followed by de-colonization, has resulted in certain political entities and no others. It is hoped that it is in conformity with these entities, and not otherwise, that the sense of nationhood will develop. This is reasonable as a hope and as a goal. It is also true that in fact a sense of nationhood, transcending tribal divisions, has often arisen and developed within the old colonial frontiers against the old colonial rulers. It is also entirely reasonable and legitimate that the new states should resist attempts by the former metropolitan power, or other outside interests, to manipulate their territories and resources, by re-annexing them under a secessionist front, as happened in Katanga.
But what happens when the attempt to build a nation within the old colonial frontiers visibly and tragically breaks down as it did in Nigeria? What happens when a numerous, spirited, and gifted people, finding by grim experience that its members cannot live in security throughout the territory of which it is supposed to be a part, takes its destiny into its own hands? Must we say that because the aspirations of this people are not reconcilable with the territorial system sanctioned at Berlin, and its extensions under de-colonization, this people must be defined as a tribe and crushed in the name of nationhood? Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania at any rate do not think so.
“We accepted the boundaries we inherited from colonialism,” said the Government of Tanzania in recognizing the Republic of Biafra,
and within them we each worked out for ourselves the constitutional and other arrangements which we felt to be appropriate to the most essential function of a state—that is the safeguarding of life and liberty for its inhabitants…. But when the machinery of the state, and the powers of the Government, are turned against a whole group of the society on grounds of racial, tribal, or religious prejudice, then the victims have the right to take back the powers they have surrendered, and to defend themselves…. In such a case the people have the right to create another instrument for their protection—in other words, to create another state.
The curious thing is that those who most insist on the sacrosanct character of the present “national territories” are often the most acutely aware that many of the “nations” which they champion are in fact gliding rapidly not toward nationhood, but from a neo-colonial into a paleo-colonial condition. My anti-Biafran friend refers to the African country in which he finds himself at present as “the most repressive, aggressive and depressive place I’ve known.” His wife details what he means, describing the returning arrogance of white supremacists. I myself saw this tendency at work immediately after my departure from Biafra when I landed in Cotonou, the capital of the independent and sovereign state of Dahomey. There, in the bar of the Croix du Sud Hotel—clientele entirely white at the time—a customer addressed the barman as follows: “Come on, Felix, you mess of a black ass, where’s your sister?” Eight years or so ago, when “independence” was new, his white companions would have shushed him and hurried him home; this time they just laughed; it was “all right now.” There are some African countries where such conduct would be inconceivable because Africans are really, and not merely nominally, running their own affairs.
One of these is certainly Biafra. Indeed in all tropical Africa, Biafra is probably the clearest case of a country where Africans, and only Africans, are in charge. It is strange and sad that people who are sincerely and passionately devoted to the cause of Africa should recognize the numerous Dahomey-type façades and deny recognition to a genuinely heroic African independence struggle occurring before their eyes in Biafra. They not merely admit, of course, but strongly affirm the need for revolutionary change in the African states, but stipulate that such change must occur within the present boundaries: revolution is good but secession is bad. Yet there is really no more—indeed there is considerably less—reason to suppose that the forces of change will be more respectful of African boundaries than they have been of European ones. It is not to be expected that indigenous forces making for change will everywhere and always be confined within the boundaries which were laid down, without any regard for any indigenous forces at all, at Berlin and in other European capitals.
Biafra could almost certainly survive were it not for the relatively large military support given by Britain and the Soviet Union to Lagos as compared with the thin trickle of arms Biafra has managed to secure from elsewhere. Thus the subjugation of Biafra, if it should occur, would be yet another achievement of external technology and fire-power on African soil, and not in any way a vindication of the internal coherence of an African state. It would also provide the occasion for a smothering of African creativity and talent on a scale and in a manner never attempted by colonial powers directly. The survival of Biafra on the other hand would be a victory for African courage, endurance, and skill, and an opportunity for the further development of African creativity.
An end to fund-raising for Biafran relief is among the demands of Negro student demonstrators at the Samuel J. Tilden High School in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
Asked why the demonstrators opposed aid to starving children of the secessionist province of Nigeria, a member of the school’s Afro-American club explained:
“We black nationalists support Nigeria.”
—New York Times, April 24, 1969
In Biafra at Easter I had seen young Africans, probably about the same age as those who demonstrated at the Tilden High School, preparing to go back to the front and singing the war songs of their black nation: Biafra. The news item, combined with this experience, forced me to think about the reasons why Biafra seems to be either invisible or obnoxious to so many black Americans (though by no means to all).
It was not the first time the question had occurred to me. Now it presented itself more insistently. Because of past experiences of my own, it was mainly by way of “the Katanga parallel” that black American suspicion or hostility in relation to Biafra had reached me: “You were against the secession of Katanga. Why are you for the secession of Biafra?” I have tried to explain that the cases were not parallel. Katanga had been a case of foreign intervention, not of genuine secession, as the chronology made clear:
10th July, 1960: seizure of Elisabethville, capital of Katanga, by Belgian paratroops.
11th July, 1960: Moïse Tshombe in the presence of the Belgian paratroop commander, Major Weber, declares the “independence” of Katanga.
The Katangese “patriots” were almost all Europeans and the pro-Katanga blacks were their employees. In any case the secession of Katanga was never anything but a maneuver for the recapture of the resources of the whole of the Congo: “We must rebuild the Congo, starting from Elisabethville,” as Baron Rothschild said.
The Biafra case was entirely different. The element of military intervention by the former metropolitan power in support of secession was absent. The former metropolitan power was in fact supplying the armament for the destruction of Biafra. The movement for Biafran independence was a spontaneous movement representing more than 9 million Africans. Local European interests came down strongly against it. The British oil interests—the local equivalent to Katanga’s Union Minière—did nothing to instigate secession, and opposed it even before Biafra declared the nationalization of its oil resources. Neo-colonialism is quite impartial about slogans, methods, principles, and doctrines, and uses whatever serves its turn: support for temporary “secession” in Katanga and for “unity” in Nigeria sounded different but served the same purpose: European capitalist control over the resources of Africa. The British Government in 1961 had considered the use of force against Katanga “unthinkable.” From 1967 to 1969 the British Government—a different one but animated by the same desire to protect British financial interests—supported the use of force against Biafra and supplied the Lagos Government with the means to destroy Biafra.
Black students would listen politely to this line of argument, and even take it into consideration, but they were seldom convinced. The reasons for the anti-Biafran feeling lay deeper than the “Katanga parallel,” though they were related to it. The Tilden student demonstrator put it in a nutshell when he said: “We black nationalists support Nigeria.” He quite simply and naturally saw Nigeria as a black nation: one of the largest and most populous of black nations, and for long one of the most admired. The attainment of independence by the African states had been an important factor in the resurgence of black America. These states were called “nations” and anything that put the nationhood of any of them in question seemed to belittle the achievement of independence. The idea that nationhood in Africa might have to assert itself in other ways than within the frontiers of colonization and de-colonization opened up too long and confusing a perspective to be readily acceptable.
The simple fact that Nigeria is no more a nation than Austria/Hungary or the Ottoman Empire—those “prison-houses of peoples”—is hard to assimilate, because the idea of the sovereignty, solidity, and full nationhood of the existing African states—not of some putative future ones—has been felt as a vitally necessary element in the morale of black Americans in their struggle against a white racist society. The Nigerian civil war evokes images of that depressing Africa of “warring tribes” from which the old slavers, in their more moralistic moments, used to claim to have rescued the blacks of America.
This situation causes many blacks to be highly suspicious of the motives of white sympathy with Biafra, and much less suspicious about the motives for the materially far more significant white support for Nigeria. There is a suspicion that white sympathy with Biafra is a mask for anti-black feelings, hostility to the existence of black states, pleasure in thinking of oneself as Lady Bountiful and in having “them” depend on “us” as against “their own kind,” concentration of interest on a spectacle of “African savagery” in the conduct of the Federal troops, and so on. I do not myself believe that elements of this kind enter to any significant degree into the motives of those who are in any way really active in helping or supporting Biafra. I do not doubt however that all of these kinds of schadenfreude are present among the reactions of white audiences generally to news and pictures of the war in Nigeria. In any case it is impossible for most blacks, knowing what they do of the white society in which they live, to imagine that white sympathy for Biafra could be anything other than hypocritical and loaded with hostility.
There are other factors at work, reinforcing the basic impulse to resist something which is felt as a threat to black nationhood. There are for example the “Moslem” and “Portuguese” factors. For Black Muslims, of course, the Biafrans are just brainwashed Christians, predictably ranged against the twin forces of Islam and black nationality. In this quarter the Biafran case may not even be argued. Muhammad Speaks recently (11th and 18th April) carried a long article based on a tape-recorded interview with the present writer in which it carefully and accurately printed everything of any significance I had said, except what I had to say about Biafra.
But the Moslem factor in the Biafran conflict may well affect more black Americans than those who belong to the nation of Islam. The Moslem “image” is a powerful one and if it has captivated many romantically minded Europeans it is not surprising that it should appeal to many black Americans, through its association with indigenous dignity and imperviousness to Europeanization. The negative side of the Arab impact on sub-Saharan Africa is little known, and white references to it are suspect—quite legitimately indeed: the pretext invoked by Leopold II for grabbing the Congo was “liberation” from the Arab slave trade.
The Portuguese factor is for some a clincher. Since the Portuguese, the oppressors of Angola and Mozambique, the last unrepentantly and openly colonialist power, are “supporting” Biafra, can anyone doubt that African nationalists should support Nigeria? Portuguese support appears in practice to be limited to allowing Biafran planes to use facilities in Portuguese-held territory, Bissau and São Tomé. This Portuguese “assistance”—provided I believe on a commercial basis—is in no way comparable, as a practical element in the military situation, to the copious flow of military supplies from Britain and the Soviet Union to Lagos. São Tomé is important as a source of civilian relief, not of arms.
Nor indeed is French aid to Biafra—consisting so far of a trickle of small arms and ammunition—comparable with the Soviet military aircraft and British armored cars and artillery—and now, it seems, tanks—which are available to Lagos. But the British and Soviet supplies become invisible, as they go to what is thought of as a black nation, while the French and Portuguese aid seems disproportionately important because it is seen as aid for secession and “tribalism.” The habit of referring to the Ibo-speaking peoples—more numerous than many European nations, including my own—as “a tribe” does them immense harm. Once Nigeria is seen as a nation and Biafra as a tribe, the verdict against Biafra is delivered with certainty, as at the Tilden High School.
We all tend to think in analogies and stereotypes about situations of which we have no direct experience. The white grid of analogies and stereotypes about Africa has served to promote racist arrogance among whites inside and outside Africa. Now another historically formed grid—powerfully affected by the necessity of dismantling the white one—stands between many black Americans and a realization of what Biafra means.
The Biafrans have been trying to break this grid down, and the recent visit to this country of Chinua Achebe, probably the most distinguished living African novelist, must have made a significant impression. Of the two best-known writers of the old Nigeria—and perhaps of all Africa—one, Achebe, is a convinced Biafran patriot, and the other, the playwright Wole Soyinka (a Yoruba), is a prisoner in Northern Nigeria, after having sought to bring about a cease-fire. No one seriously interested in African literature, in its relation to African social and political life, can have failed to ponder the meaning of the choices and fates of these two men.
The war continues with varying fortunes. Federal hopes that the fall of Umuahia might mean the end of Biafran resistance were dashed by the Biafran recapture of Owerri a few days later. The attitudes of black Americans as well as of others may change as the realities of Biafra’s stubborn fight become more clear. It would help if representatives of black organizations in this country—not just Negroes chosen by the American government—would visit both Biafra and Nigeria, on a fact-finding mission.4 If they did so the most skeptical would, I believe, soon see where it is that the flame of African independence burns most brightly, and why it is that Biafrans and their friends believe that the name of Odumegwu Ojukwu deserves to stand in African history with that of Patrice Lumumba as a symbol of African endurance, courage, and patriotism.
May 22, 1969
See New York Review, December 21, 1967. ↩
I am indebted here to two reports, available only in mimeographed form—”History of the Relief Programme to Biafra,” by Rev. Anthony Byrne (São Tomé, 10 December, 1968) and “Biafran Refugees: Problems of Disease, Prevention and Medical Care” by Dr. Chukuedu Nwokolo (Biafran Rehabilitation Commission, January, 1969)—as well as to the report of Senator Goodell’s Biafra Study Mission (United States Congressional Record: Senate, 25 February, 1969). The Goodell report contains a detailed study of the relief situation and much other information. It should be read by all concerned with the question of Biafra. ↩
I do not mean by this that, even among those who “choose Biafra,” all inter-ethnic suspicions have disappeared. A paper, “Tribalism in Biafra: Symptoms and Cures,” read by Professor Eyo B. E. Ndem at a seminar at Government College, Umuahia, on 29th March, 1969, discusses with considerable frankness anti-Ibo attitudes prevalent among minority groups both “before the revolution” and “lying dormant” since then. Professor Ndem is himself a member of a minority group, and is a convinced Biafran. His view is that although “group-hate in Biafra” never reached the destructive intensity which it reached “in Nigeria,” it remains a danger and needs to be combated by various conscious efforts including the encouragement of inter-marriage (which already takes place among some groups, e.g., Ibos and Ibibio in Calabar). ↩
I tried myself to visit Nigeria as well as Biafra but it was made plain to me that I would not be a particularly welcome visitor. As what I wished to visit in Nigeria was not so much Lagos as the Federally held area of the old Eastern Region, I needed assurances of Nigerian official cooperation. These were not forthcoming either from Nigerian diplomats here or from Chief Enahoro, who was here at the time. ↩