Authors: Chinua Achebe
Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa
A son’s arrival
is the crescent moon
too new too soon to lodge
the man’s returning. His
feast of reincarnation
must await the moon’s
ripening at the naming
ceremony of his
The Nightmare Begins
May the twenty-sixth saw an emergency meeting of Ojukwu’s special Advisory Committee
of Chiefs and Elders in Enugu. The consensus was building across his cabinet that
secession was the only viable path. “On May 27, the Consultative Assembly mandated
Colonel Ojukwu to declare, at the earliest practicable date, Eastern Nigeria a free
sovereign and independent state by the name and title of the Republic of Biafra.”
It is crucial to note that the decision of an entire people, the Igbo people, to leave
Nigeria, did not come from Ojukwu alone but was informed by the desires of the people
and mandated by a body that contained some of the most distinguished Nigerians in
history: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s, former governor-general and first ceremonial
president; Dr. Michael I. Okpara and Sir Francis Ibiam, former premier and governor
of Eastern Nigeria, respectively; and Supreme Court justice Sir Louis Mbanefo. Others
included: the educator Dr. Alvan Ikoku; first republic minister Mr. K. O. Mbadiwe;
as well as Mr. N. U. Akpan; Mr. Joseph Echeruo; Ekukinam-Bassey; Chief Samuel Mbakwe;
Chief Jerome Udoji; and Chief Margaret Ekpo.
In a speech to the nation on May 27, 1967, Gowon responded to Ojukwu’s “assault on
Nigeria’s unity and blatant revenue appropriation,” as the federal government saw
it, by calling a state of emergency and dividing the nation into twelve states.
The official position from the federal government was that the creation of new states
was an important move to foster unity and stability in Nigeria. Many suspect a more
Machiavellian scheme at work here.
Gowon, understanding inter-ethnic rivalry, suspected that dividing the East into
four states, landlocking the Igbos into the East Central State and isolating the oil-producing
areas of Nigeria outside Igbo land, would weaken secessionist sentiments in the region
and empower minority groups that lived in oil-producing regions to stand up to what
they had already dreaded for years—the prospects of Igbo domination
On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu, citing a variety of malevolent acts directed at the mainly
Igbo Easterners—such as the pogrom that claimed over thirty thousand lives; the federal
government’s failure to ensure the safety of Easterners in the presence of organized
genocide; and the direct incrimination of the government in the murders of its own
citizens—proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria, with
the full backing of the Eastern House Constituent Assembly.
By taking this action Ojukwu had committed us to full-blown war. Nigeria would never
be the same again.
The Nigeria-Biafra War
To fully comprehend some of the competing positions during the Nigeria-Biafra War,
it may be useful to begin with an examination of the local and international response
Beginning with the January 15, 1966, coup d’état, through the countercoup (staged
mainly by Northern Nigerian officers, who murdered 185 Igbo officers
) and the massacre of thirty thousand Igbos and Easterners in pogroms that started
in May 1966 and occurred over four months—the events of those months left millions
of other future Biafrans and me feeling terrified. As we fled “home” to Eastern Nigeria
to escape all manner of atrocities that were being inflicted upon us and our families
in different parts of Nigeria, we saw ourselves as victims. When we noticed that the
federal government of Nigeria did not respond to our call to end the pogroms, we concluded
that a government that failed to safeguard the lives of its citizens has no claim
to their allegiance and must be ready to accept that the victims deserve the right
to seek their safety in other ways—including secession.
Nigeria’s position on Biafra, as I understand it, was hinged on the premise that if
Biafra was allowed to secede then a number of other ethnic nationalities within Nigeria
would follow suit.
The Nigerian government, therefore, had to block Biafra’s secession to prevent the
dissolution of Nigeria.
OLE OF THE
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) attempted to facilitate a number of “peace
meetings” throughout the conflict. The umbrella body of sovereign African nations
lacked credibility in this effort, in my opinion, as it harbored a strong One Nigeria
bias from the very beginning of the war. The OAU’s initial attempts to bring about
peace talks—with meetings slated for Kampala, the capital of Uganda, in May 1968,
and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (at the OAU headquarters), in July 1968—were ineffectual,
and quickly disintegrated into fiascos of confusion.
Facing international pressure and ridicule for failing to mediate effectively between
the two warring parties,
the OAU’s consultative committee, which was made up of diplomats from Liberia, Ghana,
Niger, Ethiopia, the Congo, and Camaroon, quickly re-sent invitations to the heads
of state of Nigeria and Biafra—Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Ojukwu—for talks in Niamey,
the capital of Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbor.
The summit, from what I later learned, became a case of “sliding doors,” with Gowon
arriving and meeting with OAU principals ahead of the visit by Ojukwu. This treatment,
meant to avoid confrontation, created the opposite effect and played no small part
in diminishing the possible results that the first president of the Republic of Niger,
Hamani Diori, was attempting to moderate. Professor Eni Njoku, the chief negotiator
from Biafra, gallantly attempted to salvage what was left of that Nigeria-Biafra summit.
He arranged a meeting with the leader of the Mid-West Region government’s delegation,
Chief Anthony Enahoro, that closed in an impasse.
Ojukwu saw an opportunity to speak to a world audience at the next summit and agreed
to attend; it was planned for August in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. He treated
the gathered delegates to a speech of over two hours in length, and made the case
for Biafran independence. He pointed out the great irony of the conflict, one that
most of us in Biafra were already aware of: Having spearheaded the fight for Nigerian
independence, Biafrans were later driven out by the rest of Nigeria, which waged war
with the secessionist republic to conserve the very sovereignty of a nation (Nigeria)
within whose walls Biafrans did not feel free, safe, or desired.
In my opinion, Gowon’s absence at these meetings was telling, because it clearly suggested
that he had a different agenda. This suspicion would be confirmed by his announcement
of a surge in the Nigerian offensive that would increase exponentially the numbers
dying and starving to death in the coming months.
Most African countries adhered to the doctrines of the Organization of African Unity,
which supported Nigeria for the same reasons espoused by the great powers: “[A]llowing
Biafra to secede would result in the destabilization of the entire continent.”
There were a few prominent nations in Africa that openly declared support for the
Biafran cause for humanitarian, ethical, and moral reasons. Tanzania’s Nyerere, one
of the few survivors of the cold war tussle on the continent and a towering African
statesman of the era, saw Biafra’s attempts to secede through the lens of “the Jews
seeking a homeland following the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe.”
President Julius Nyerere was the first African head of state to recognize Biafra.
His statement was published by the government printer in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es
Salam, on April 13, 1968. The day we heard that Tanzania had recognized Biafra “was
a fantastic day.” I remember it vividly. “I was sitting in my home with my wife; we
were feeling very depressed, I don’t know why, then suddenly somebody ran in and told
us [the good news], and we said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ because we [did not believe him].
And then we heard [the same news] on the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], and
my wife rushed up” to tell me. She was so elated and
said she was going to teach in Tanzania. Soon after that the streets were filled with
people dancing and singing. For the first time in months you found dancing again,
and the radio was playing Tanzanian music. People were reassured again that there
was justice in the world, because we were already becoming quite cynical about the
outside world, saying, “Don’t imagine anyone would come to your rescue—they know you’re
right, but it doesn’t pay, so they won’t do anything.” We were more or less persuaded
that we would have to fight on our own. [Nyerere’s] gesture meant nothing in military
or material terms but it assured us—the effect it had on us—was electric.
Other African leaders—Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, and Ivory Coast’s
Houphouët-Boigny—also officially recognized Biafra. I later learned that Boigny was
ideologically opposed to large African states and helped develop France’s well-planned
decolonization policy in West Africa during his days as a parliamentarian in Paris.
Boigny could have very well convinced a sympathetic Charles de Gaulle to support
Biafra in order to achieve this ideological vision. Whatever his agenda was, it was
to Houphouët-Boigny’s Ivory Coast that Ojukwu would escape after the fall of Biafra
in January 1970.
There were other attempts to garner recognition for secessionist Biafra beyond the
African continent, including wide international ones. Those who followed our story
were aware of the shared history between Biafra and several Caribbean nations, where
descendants of former Igbo slaves now lived. That historical connection was employed
by Biafran emissaries with some success. Biafra’s diplomatic delegation, led by Dr.
Okechukwu Ikejiani and Mr. Chukwuma Azikiwe, met with Dr. François Duvalier, president
of Haiti, at the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince in February 1969. Following
that visit, on March 22, 1969, Biafra secured the only non-African full diplomatic
recognition—from the Haitian people.
The Triangle Game: The UK, France, and the United States
Great Britain’s official response to the conflict, we were told, was predicated upon
the fact that as our “former colonial master,” she would not stand for the breakup
of one of her prized colonies, especially one she had worked hard to develop. Michael
Leapman’s report in
in 1998 uncovers a far more cynical attitude. This paragraph confirmed what a number
of us in Biafra already suspected about Harold Wilson’s government:
Cabinet papers for , just released, show how the decision to continue arming
Nigeria was not based on arguments for or against secession, or on the interests of
its people, but on backing the likely winner. It is a case study in realpolitik. As
one Commonwealth Office briefing document to the prime minister put it: “The sole
immediate British interest is to bring the [Nigerian] economy back to a condition
in which our substantial trade and investment can be further developed.”
The BBC’s Rick Fountain, in a story on Monday, January 3, 2000, called “Secret Papers
Reveal Biafra Intrigue,” confirms that oil interests and competition between Britain,
France, and the United States played a far more important role than the “unified Nigeria”
At first Biafra was successful and this alarmed Britain, the former colonial power,
anxious for its big oil holdings. It also interested the Soviet Union which saw a
chance to increase its influence in West Africa. Both sent arms to boost the federal
military government, under General Yakubu Gowon.
But France, the other big former colonial power in the region, also took a hand. . . .
Although Paris repeatedly denied arming the Biafrans, the newly released papers reveal
intelligence reports showing that very large weapon shipments were reaching Biafra
via two neighboring Francophone states, Ivory Coast and Gabon. The UK intelligence
services warned that Soviet penetration was growing but that this did not much trouble
Paris. The British reports say the French objective “appears to be the breakup of
Nigeria, which threatens, by its size and potential, to overshadow France’s client
Francophone states in West Africa.”
I was aware from my contacts in England that many Britons were not pleased with the
unsolicited leadership role Harold Wilson’s government was playing in the bloody conflict
in their former African colony. Emotional antipathy among the British public grew
sufficiently as the conflict progressed to threaten the British Labor government’s
reelection chances. British journalists, writers, and intellectuals found the situation
appalling as well. “The Times of London complain[ed] that Britain’s Nigerian policy
is a failure. . . . [T]here is a serious loss of touch in the conduct of British foreign
Harold Wilson’s government soon found itself awash in a public relations nightmare
at home and abroad.
Wilson personally accused Ojukwu of attempting to garner sympathy by exploiting the
casualties of a war to which his government was supplying arms!
The bombing of civilian targets in Biafra by the Nigerian air force made the evening
news and appeared in the major newspapers in Great Britain and “stirred a hornet’s
nest” of outrage from the British people. Things were so tense that British dockworkers
reportedly refused to load ships with British arms heading for Lagos, protesting that
they were being used to kill “Biafran babies.”
By the time the Nigerian air force shot down a Swedish Red Cross plane carrying humanitarian
supplies and medicines to the sick and dying in Biafra, killing all aboard, there
was, understandably, an “outbreak of public anguish” in Britain. That distress grew
even worse shortly after this, with the awful news that the International Red Cross’s
director, Dr. August Lindt, and his aides were detained for nearly sixteen hours following
their arrival in Lagos for a tour of humanitarian relief sites in Biafra and talks
with Nigerian government officials.
Across the English Channel, there was uplifting news. On July 31, 1968, Biafran diplomacy
reached a milestone when the French Council of Ministers released a statement of approbation
in support of Biafra, though it fell short of a full recognition of the secessionist
The Government [of France] considers that the bloodshed and suffering endured for
over a year by the population of Biafra demonstrate their will to assert themselves
as a people. Faithful to its principles, the French Government therefore considers
that the present conflict should be solved on the basis of the right of peoples to
self-determination and should include the setting in motion of appropriate international
There was great excitement about this news in Biafra. Charles de Gaulle was a widely
respected European leader who fought the Nazis valiantly during World War II from
his base in Africa. I personally hoped that de Gaulle’s extensive knowledge of the
continent’s history and political affairs would result in a sophisticated response
to the crisis. I was encouraged when I heard that he was toying with the possibility
of an outright statement of recognition of the Republic of Biafra. Also buoyed by
this news, the Biafran head of state, Ojukwu, sent emissaries to Paris to lobby for
full French credence, which we all mistakenly assumed was in the bag, but also for
de Gaulle to help persuade the United States government to support the Biafran cause.
I discovered later that Jacques Foccart—described as “the most powerful man in the
fifth republic” by eminent French journalist Pierre Péan—was the chief architect of
French policy on the African continent. It was Foccart, I understand, who convinced
the French parliament and de Gaulle to respond forcefully to the humanitarian disaster
De Gaulle needed little persuasion. It was well-known that he bore a deep resentment
of the British for what he saw as their unhelpful role in the French resistance (
La Résistance française
) during World War II. Foccart, in his memoirs, informs us that Paris increased this
Anglo-French rivalry by making aggressive diplomatic inroads into Ghana (a former
British colony, which was surrounded by the former French colonies Benin, Togo, Burkina
Faso, and Ivory Coast).
Some Africanists believe that the Gaullist objective seemed to be to neutralize Ghana
and diminish Nigeria as a regional power, and thereby contract Great Britain’s sphere
of influence in West Africa.
There were other French interests that later came to light: Paris wanted the French
oil company Elf Aquitaine (which had a smaller market share in Nigeria’s oil industry)
to have a greater footprint in the West African region consistent with Jacques Foccart’s
vision of French dominance.
Whatever French motivations might have been, we were grateful in Biafra to be receiving
The United States of America was officially “neutral” during the conflict, which meant
that it overtly supported neither the Nigerians nor the Biafrans.
Those of us who wanted a more aggressive pro-Biafra stance from America, particularly
on humanitarian grounds, were deeply disappointed, to put it mildly. Covertly, however,
it was alleged that Washington under President Lyndon Johnson, before he left office
in January 1968, was aiding the Nigerian war effort, in cooperation with the British.
His government also had a number of run-ins with Biafran authorities over the role
of the International Red Cross, America’s chief humanitarian organ for getting relief
to the needy in Biafra, particularly after Gowon and his government imposed a blockade.
Several months into the conflict, however, the Nixon administration, initially toeing
the Johnson administration’s line of “neutral engagement in support of a one Nigeria,”
took a more proactive role and called for the cessation of hostilities. It was the
government of the much maligned Richard Nixon that raised concerns about Nigerian
military strategy and levied the charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide against
the Nigerian forces. Despite what some of us saw as a cynical disinterest on the part
of the American government, the American people were characteristically generous and
magnanimous in spirit; they sent millions of humanitarian dollars to ease the suffering
of the innocent caught between the belligerents.
The leaders of the African American civil rights community were understandably horrified
by the breakdown in law and order in Nigeria. The black intelligentsia—colleagues
of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks—were scholars of the nonviolence movement. On
several occasions they came out forcefully against all forms of ferocity during the
Nigeria-Biafra conflict, reacting with dismay at the magnitude of the human suffering
in Biafra. They sent numerous forms of communication both to Ojukwu and Gowon to put
an end to the bloody civil war. They were particularly appalled by the widespread
hunger and starvation of Biafrans and by the millions of stranded refugees, all of
which they reiterated was “unacceptable to civilized world opinion.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was particularly
critical of the brutality of the conflict. The leader of the influential civil rights
group, Roy Wilkins, implored the Nigerians especially to be more humane in their treatment
of the Biafrans. He made a moral argument to end the food blockade by reminding Gowon
that the need to save the lives of the thousands starving daily “outweighed any military
or political considerations.”
My admiration of the African American civil rights community was due not only to
their moral positions on racial equality and the quest for peaceful coexistence of
all peoples, but also on their arbitration during the Biafran struggle—an intervention
that brought succor to millions and helped place a moral lens on the atrocities taking
place in my homeland.
The Soviet Union had no significant presence in the region prior to 1966 but progressively
took greater interest in Nigerian affairs after the Aguiyi-Ironsi coup d’état and
the emergence of Nigeria as an important oil exporter. The initial neutrality of the
USSR’s Western rivals, including Britain and the United States in particular, I gather,
provided an opening for the Soviets to send MiG fighters and technical assistance
to the Nigerians, thereby including the region in the cold war theater.
There were other reasons for the ever-growing Soviet presence in Nigeria in 1969.
The Soviets had announced their intention to expand their bilateral trade agreements
with Nigeria to include military and economic assistance. They had their eyes on a
truly large prize: a contract to build one of the largest steel mills in all of Africa,
at a cost of a then astonishing $120 million.
That steel investment later became the Ajaokuta Steel Mill in northern Nigeria—the
poster child of corruption and white elephant projects in Africa—that went on to gulp
over $4.6 billion of the Nigerian taxpayers’ money although very little steel was
The Portuguese, it should be made clear, had a more nebulous role with regard to Biafra.
Portugal did not overtly back one side over the other during the conflict, which generated
a great deal of talk and speculation. The extent of the Biafran relationship with
Portugal was quite simply one that said, We will support you quietly. . . . Your planes
can land in our territory—São Tomé. Rajat Neogy of
magazine probed to find out from me whether there was more to our relationship. My
position at the time was understandably passionate:
I am not interested in what motives Portugal may have. If the devil himself had offered
his air facilities we would have taken it, and I would have supported it. Portugal
was very clever when it realized we were about to be exterminated, and said, “You
can land at my airport,” and that, as far as I know, is the extent of Biafran association
with Portugal. Portugal has not given us any arms. We buy arms on the black market.
What we cannot get elsewhere, we try and make.
The Chinese entered the contest late, albeit on the side of the Biafrans. Reports
of Chinese technical and military assistance have been widely cited. Nevertheless,
all told, the callous interference of the great powers led to great despair and a
prolongation of the tragedy.