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History of the Biafran war and how it all started.

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Known as the ‘Giant of Africa,’ Nigeria stretches across the continent like a patchwork quilt, sewn together from dozens of historically independent religious, ethnic and linguistic subgroups, all vying for political representation and control. After achieving independence in 1960, the infant nation struggled to maintain a fragile peace as members of the Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic group dominated the North and Christian-Animist Igbo and Yarubo divided the resource-rich South.

Then in 1966, a series of military coups resulted in the execution of Nigeria’s political leaders and the rise of a new government ruled by the northern military leader, Supreme Commander Yakubu Gowon. The coup incited months of rioting and reprisals as northern fighters targeted Igbo army officers and roving mobs slaughtered tens of thousands of Igbo civilians. Those Igbo who survived fled to their former homes in the southeast, carrying tales of governmental violence and betrayal with them.

In response to the massacres, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu established an independent Republic of Biafra for the Igbo people on May 30th, 1967. War began on the 6th of June and lasted three bloody years, sparking a massive humanitarian crisis as thousands of Nigerians starved to death or perished from preventable diseases.

The tragedy sparked international outrage and an outpouring of concern. In the following interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning February 1993, William Haven North, who was serving as the Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Director for Central and West Africa Affairs, describes the logistical hurdles he had to overcome as AID frantically responded to the crisis.

“The most extraordinary outcry”

NORTH: When I returned to Washington in the summer of 1966, the civil war had just started and was beginning to build up. The relief crisis was becoming a major issue. There was the major foreign policy question of defining the strategy of how we maintained our relationships with the Nigerian Federal government and Biafra….

Biafra had declared its “independence” in May 1967 following months of negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute. Americans including many USAID personnel were evacuated from Enugu [capital of Biafra] in October 1967.

The first appeal for relief was announced in November 1967 by the Nigerian Red Cross with a committee to coordinate the work of voluntary agencies and in December 1967, USAID authorized Catholic Relief Service to make the first allocation of food assistance. From that time on until the early months of 1970, the disruption of masses of people in the Eastern Region grew in scale and intensity as a consequence of the Federal Government’s blockade of Biafra and the gradual military encirclement and squeezing of the Biafran territory by Federal troops.

And with this disruption came the most extraordinary outcry in Europe and the U.S. to provide relief to those, particularly within Biafra, who were suffering and dying from famine and disease. I don’t believe there has been anything quite like the breadth and depth of feeling about a crisis of this kind before or since….

The Biafrans had been very effective in getting a public relations group to tell their story. This was one of the first times we had anything of that kind on television other than Vietnam. There were great fears about famine and possible genocide. Both the facts about the numbers at risk as could be determined and the propaganda distortions stimulated a massive pressure to do something. The public sympathies were largely with the Biafrans, although the U.S. Government policy initially was more supportive of the Nigerian Federal Government.

Over this period, essentially from 1966-70, I experienced four years of probably the most frantic and intense pressures one can experience. While I was involved from the outset, I was appointed USAID’s coordinator of relief operations with a working group of specialists in food assistance, health, logistics, and legal matters.

This took place in November 1968 when the USAID disaster assistance office reached the limits of its resources and legal mandate (disasters were only to last 60 days at that time and rehabilitation 90 days). My job was to coordinate in Washington the full range of relief activities for both sides of the conflict funded by USAID and liaise with the State Department and private groups.

In October 1968, I, along with Stephen Tripp, USAID Disaster Relief Coordinator, and Ed Marks, USAID Coordinator in London and subsequently in Nigeria, traveled throughout the federally held territory in the Eastern Region (we were not allowed to enter Biafra) to survey relief requirements…. We prepared a lengthy report on the conditions in the war area, the requirements for food and other aid, and alternative logistic plans, particularly addressing the question of deliveries within Biafra.

We also prepared a brief report addressed to Assistant Secretary Palmer which he could use in his meeting with General Gowon [Head of the Federal Military Government in Nigeria, 1966-1975, at right] in an effort to persuade Gowon about the seriousness of the relief needs in the area.

It was a carefully balanced presentation of some graphic descriptions of the desperate circumstances of starving people (which Gowon claimed could not be true) with a positive tone about some improvements resulting from Government relief efforts (so as not to offend government sensitivities).

The aim was to increase Federal Government cooperation in addressing the humanitarian crisis in the area and restrain the excesses of military operations….

In November 1968 following this review of the relief situation, my working group and I prepared a report to the Assistant Administrator for Africa and Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. I recommended “a reexamination of the overall approach to the Nigerian dilemma. Nothing short of a cease-fire and negotiations with both sides giving higher priority to human well-being will halt the worsening starvation and tragedy for an estimated 5-6 million in Biafra and about 2 million in Federal areas.”

Initially under President Johnson the U.S. policy had been “one Nigeria.” We would not support any attempt to split up the country. Then Nixon became President in 1969 and the word “one Nigeria” was dropped.

Because of the tremendous public support for Biafra, U. S. policy became more ambivalent about Biafra’s secession and the principle of “one Nigeria” and the uncertainties about the outcome of the war. I believe that Nixon was somewhat partial to the Ibos [also known as Igbos] but largely wanted to do whatever was necessary “to get the issue off my back

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Biafran Giant of Africa Igbo Nigeria Yakubu Gowon.


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