Biafra: Britain's Shame by Auberon Waugh & Suzanne Cronjé (1969)
When I was a kid my dad would admonish me for leaving food on my plate. “There are starving Biafrans,” he would say, and for the longest time I had no idea what he meant. I just assumed “Biafra” was a corruption of “Africa” that he had made up to be funny.
Biafra was in fact a real place, a country that tried to break away from Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. That was at the same time as the Vietnam War, which tends to overshadow it in our historical memory. Like Vietnam, Biafra was one of the first conflicts to play out on the television. Almost 2 million civilians—many of them children—starved to death before the eyes of the world. Do you know that crude stereotype of “Africa” as a dark continent filled with bony-ribbed, pot-bellied children gazing vacantly towards charity workers? Media coverage of Biafra likely has something to do with that.
Two journalists, Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Cronjé, saw these dire conditions play out firsthand. Based on their investigations, they became convinced that Britain—though formally neutral in the war—had permitted its escalation as a matter of self-interest. Biafra: Britain’s Shame is their exposé. Its format is rather strange and rushed, no doubt due to the urgency of the ongoing war. It is a collection of articles, each written more to persuade than to inform, having overall a rather faded and far-away impression, like all out-of-date news has. Though this book is of limited importance as a history of Biafra, it nonetheless remains a fascinating time capsule into the public discourse of a now relatively forgotten conflict.
Biafra is located in eastern Nigeria at the delta of the Niger river. It is the second most densely populated region in Africa, after the Nile. The people here were traditionally of the Igbo ethnic group. They lived in small tribal units known as Ummunas, with administrative tasks carried out by councils “presided over by senior men who held office by virtue of their personal ability as much as age or lineage.” (23)
Northern Nigeria, however, was a feudalistic region, consisting of several Hausa emirates with societies based on Maliki Islam. When the British arrived they tapped into these pre-existing political systems, administering through the local emirs in a policy known as “Indirect Rule.” Preservation of the emirates entailed the preservation of Islam, thus Christian missionaries were forbidden from going to the north; as they were the ones who brought British education, this meant new ideas never really took hold in the north—at least not the way they did in the south. Surveying the country’s ethnic groups in 1957, the Willink Commission noted that “the northern region has remained behind the protective wall of the Colonial government as an Islamic society, singularly unaffected by change in the rest of the world.”
During the colonial period a disparity grew in the levels of development between north and south. Southern Nigeria (including Biafra) was one of the few British colonies able to sustain itself, with import tariffs totalling £1.5 million per year. Northern tariffs were only £0.3 million per year. As international pressure mounted for Britain to grant her colonies independence, it became clear that the existence of a federal Nigeria would require the subsidisation of the north with the wealth of the south. Inequality also exacerbated ethnic tensions. When the British withdrew in 1960, the Igbo, having much higher levels of education, tended to be the ones filling in the top echelons of the military and government. They were also a more mobile and urban people, with thousands migrating out of the overpopulated Niger Delta to search for work in the cities of the north and the east.
The nascent republic lasted only six years. It ended with the assassination of all its major political leaders in the northern and federal governments by a conspiracy by Igbo soldiers. This prompted Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, head of the army, to dissolve the constitution and assume power. Despite neutralising the coup, Aguiyi-Ironsi—an Igbo—was suspected of being in on the plot. Northern colonels doubted whether he would ever relinquish power. They killed him and replaced him with Yakubu Gowon, a Christian northerner from a minority ethnic group, to stitch the nation back together. At the same time a wave of pogroms—some of them coordinated by Hausa soldiers—saw the deaths of tens of thousands of Igbos in the north. Millions of refugees streamed into Biafra, where military governor Odumegwu Ojukwu, unable to feed them, faced an imminent humanitarian crisis.
Ojukwu and Gowon met at Aburi to negotiate the terms of a new Nigeria. The northerners, wary of Igbo domination, wanted to divide the east into several river states. This would have deprived the Igbo of majority rule over the regions containing Nigeria’s oil wealth. The refugees, on the other hand, wanted to return to their homes in the north under guarantees of security and fair treatment. By the end of the conference, both sides had agreed to a Nigerian confederation, but then Gowon unexpectedly reneged on the deal. It is still not entirely clear what happened today; in addition to whatever differences of interpretation remained, the British and Americans had apparently encouraged Gowon not to go through with it (Cronjé says this was related to Dr. Eni Njoku, Vice-Chancellor of Lagos University, by Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, the British High Commissioner).
A looser form of government might have saved Nigeria from the civil war. Why didn’t Britain support the Aburi accord? As a matter of principle, they didn’t want to encourage secession, regionalism, or tribalism. The unity and integrity of the Nigerian nation was at hand. Though Auberon Waugh points out that neither Nigeria nor Biafra had a constitutional basis in the First Republic, it is the case that Nigeria wanted one state with a central government, while the existence of an independent or autonomous Biafra implied the possibility of parallel governments.
Above all, Britain was interested in Nigeria’s oil reserves. Most of these were located on the Biafran coast, where foreign companies extracted them. This was a significant percentage of Britain’s oil imports. The price of oil had also just seen a sudden spike due to the Suez crisis. Faced with an independent Biafra or a unitary Nigeria, the latter seemed a better choice for securing Britain’s oil interests. Later, once the federal army had captured the coast and encircled Biafra, Britain’s formal neutrality shifted into covert support for Nigeria, which included the secret sale of arms to the Nigerian army and the broadcasting of pro-Nigerian views on the BBC.
The Nigerian blockade resulted in millions of Biafrans starving to death—thousands per day. Attempts to relieve the crisis—such as the establishment of a land corridor—were scuppered by Nigeria, who argued that food relief would only prolong the siege, which was anyways a perfectly legitimate form of warfare. Britain supported this position. Both countries believed that Biafra would fall in a matter of months; therefore, argued those within the British government, the swiftest, most humane way to end the war would be to back Nigeria for a “quick kill”; this was also the rationalisation for why they didn’t try to alleviate the famine through international channels.
Biafra held out for almost two years, far longer than anyone expected. Its biggest problem was simply the lack of food. To feed its soldiers, the Biafran government offered seeds to farmers, for which they took 50% of the harvest. They were also helped by a major humanitarian effort to airlift supplies past the blockade. The airlift was opposed by the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations. Its major backers were the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, who arranged for enthusiastic volunteers to fly supplies in from Portuguese Africa. One of those pilots, the Swedish aristocrat Carl von Rosen, even purchased and armed a few light aircraft, establishing an implausible—almost comical—yet somehow effective Biafran airforce.
Yet alone on the world stage, outnumbered and outgunned, facing critical shortages of food and weapons, Biafra simply had no way to win the war. Through sheer force, Nigeria brought the region back into the fold. New states were carved out of Biafra; Nigeria remained a military dictatorship. Its embattled path to democracy has seen five coups since 1960, the last one happening in 1993. Today Biafra is only the rallying cry for a few small secessionist groups; for everyone else, the name merely invokes the distant memory of a terrible famine during a forgotten war.