“The Secession of Biafra is no ordinary act of rebellion. The Ibo people have been forced (our italics) out of the Federation by the terrible massacre of 30,000 of their people in the North and by the uncertainty as to whether this overcrowded and vigorous people can in the future find secure citizenship and opportunity outside their boundaries.” This was the view of Dame Margery Perham, one of the leading authorities on African affairs, in her letter to the Times of 7th September, 1967. It is a view which one can have no difficulty in accepting in the light of the facts which have been catalogued in this paper. The secession of Biafra was only affected when it became apparent that the Federal Government was adamant in refusing to understand, or perhaps was merely unable to understand, the fears and aspirations of the 14 million people of the Eastern Region. There can be little dispute that the creation of the Sovereign Republic of Biafra was an act of self-preservation prompted by the actions of her former partners in the Nigerian Federation. It is important that this point should be emphasised in the light of the comparison which has been made between Biafra and Katanga.
The analogy of the Katanga/Congo affair, fails to have any significant relevance to the Nigeria/Biafra case for several reasons.
- Biafra’s secession was not fostered by any external agency as was the case with Katanga c.p., the role played by the Europeans with interests in the Union Miniere group of companies.
- There is no evidence to suggest that secession was affected from motives of greed, e.g. so as to enable Biafrans to enjoy exclusively the profits to be derived from the old Eastern Region’s oil resources. Unlike Katanga, East Nigeria had a tradition of willingness to enjoy its resources with the other members of the Federation. Indeed it was the refusal of the Federal Government to grant Eastern Nigeria its due share of Federal revenues that was an immediate factor in bringing the divorce to a head. Moreover, if one takes into account the traumas suffered by the Eastern Government, by Eastern military personnel and by the Eastern Community at large in the affairs of May, July and September/October 1966, the influence of economic motives in bringing about the secession of Eastern Nigeria from the Federation cannot have been significant.
- The secession was involuntary in so far as Biafra was compelled by force of circumstances to dissociate itself from the rest of Nigeria, an outcome which was beyond the imagination of the East Nigerian elite prior to 29th July, 1966. Katanga’s secession was the culmination of a long tradition of selfish separatism, and was both voluntary and unprovoked.
On the 27th May, 1967, in the course of his speech announcing the new 12-State Federation, Gowon had declared:
“I am therefore proclaiming a State of Emergency with immediate effect. I have assumed full powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and Head of the Federal Military Government for the short period (our italics) necessary to carry through the measures which are now urgently required.”
Immediately the old sanctions were tightened up and fresh ones introduced in an attempt to cripple the East economically. During the month of June, with hostile Northern troops massing on Biafra’s Northern borders and the Southern coast under blockade, it became ominously clear that the Federal Government was preparing to launch a military attack on Biafra. When hostilities did finally break out on 6th July, 1967, the Federal attack was euphemistically described by Gowon as a “police action” designed to bring the “rebel clique” to heel. This task, it was announced, would take little more than a fortnight to complete. However, having regard to such factors as the limited forces of the adversaries; the vast and difficult terrain on which the war would have to be fought; the onerous climatic conditions; and, above all, the resolve and determination of the Biafrans to resist any further threat to their life and happiness, Gowon’s estimation of the task before him was, and has subsequently been proved to be, to say the least, rather naive. At the time of writing, the war has just entered its seventh month, and despite a great superiority of arms on land, sea and air the Federal forces show no sign of breaking Biafra’s resistance.
To the impartial observer it appeared that the Federal Government’s understanding of the situation was far from complete not only because they believed they were faced with the mere task of bringing a few rebellious Ibos to justice, but also because they assumed that the “minority” elements in Biafran society were strongly opposed to Ojukwu’s government.
Walter Schwarz writing in the Guardian (7th December, 1967) tends to enforce this view: “A big disappointment for the Federal side has been lack of progress in the non-Ibo parts of Biafra. The assumed reluctance of the non-Ibos (a third of Biafrans) to secede with Ojukwu is seen in Lagos as a main justification for fighting the war. However, after five months, federal troops have not managed to capture even these non-Ibo areas.”
As yet no satisfactory evidence has been produced (discounting, of course. Federal propaganda) that the minorities within Biafra oppose Ojukwu’s Government. Indeed all the available evidence seems to establish the contrary. The detailed list of over 200 officers and other ranks who were massacred by Northern troops in the 29th July, 1966, coup reveals a high proportion of non-Ibo Easterners as well as many Ibos. These facts alone provide a basis for Eastern unity. Members of minorities serve with the Biafran forces and Government at all levels. And that Ojukwu is faced with no significant disaffection is evident from the fact that no uprising of Rivers people against the Biafran Government took place when the Federal troops landed at Bonny. Indeed there have been admissions from Federal spokesmen (Hassan Katsina included) that resistance amongst the local population in Ogoja, constitutes a grave security problem.
However, military victory, by one side or by the other, must be discounted as a lasting means of settling the problems of Nigeria. Only a negotiated settlement is likely to be a permanent one. Every observer who has witnessed Biafra at war has reported the conviction of Biafrans at every level of society that they are fighting a patriotic war for individual and national survival and that they are prepared to fight to the last. It is a most serious indictment of the British press that scarcely any of these observers have been British. Indeed, at the time of writing, no British correspondent has visited Biafra (unless it be in the wake of Federal troops) since Freddie Forsythe of the B.B.C. left in September.
In those few instances where foreign correspondents have been permitted to follow Federal troops into Biafra their reports have been consistent in establishing the desertion of Ibo townships and villages by their inhabitants. There are also persistent reports of massacres of the civilian population taking place everywhere Ibo civilians remained in their homes. There would indeed seem to be ample evidence to support the observation that any military success by the Federal army will leave Nigeria with only the soil of Biafra to rule over.
To the Biafran, the onslaught of Federal troops signals the extension to his own home of the 1966 massacres in the North. The idea of a Federation, with its inherent principles of equality and mutual respect between the peoples comprising it; of unrestricted movement throughout its territories, with the right to set up home or business anywhere within its boundaries, is a concept which died in October 1966. It is a concept which today is not only vacuous but fraught with a deadly irony.
That the Nigeria/Biafra war is a human tragedy cannot be doubted: thousands of innocent lives have been lost. And that certain foreign governments must share a great deal of blame
for encouraging, through their myopic policies, a protraction of the war, is also beyond dispute.
Both the British and Soviet governments have proferred aid and comfort to the Federal Government in its assault upon Biafra. Her Majesty’s Government has given every assistance to the Federal Government short of openly assuming belligerent status and has thus, with others, materially contributed to an extension of the slaughter of Commonwealth citizens. [“The bulk of the weapons in the hands of the Federal Forces have come from Britain.” Sir David Hunt, Kaduna. B.B.C. Monitoring Services, 23rd January, 1968.] It has, at the same time, probably sealed the fate of every British-owned installation which was standing in Biafra at the outbreak of war. The Biafran economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo, interviewed recently by the Financial Times (9th January, 1968) put the value of war damage to industrial installations in Biafra at £100 million, listing in detail the industries destroyed.
The act of supplying what were oddly described as “defensive” arms to the Federal Government has seriously detracted from the neutral position which Her Majesty’s Government is being strongly and repeatedly urged to adopt towards the disputants in this conflict. The role of the British Government has been particularly deplorable and short-sighted in view of the fact that of all external agencies it may well have been in a position, had it not sacrificed its neutrality, to exercise a vital pacifying influence on the combatants. Her Majesty’s Government have chosen to ignore a general consensus of opinion in Britain, amongst those who wish to arrest Nigeria’s act of self-immolation, that Britain should maintain a strict neutrality in this conflict. Only in such circumstances can there be any hope of our contributing to a settlement of the dispute through mediation. Amongst others, this would seem to be the view of the parliamentary Conservative and Liberal Parties, of the Church of England, of the Methodists and of the Church of Scotland. It was therefore particularly sad to note the reports appearing in the Guardian, The Times and the Daily Telegraph on the 3rd January, 1968, to the effect that the British Government had resumed its sale of arms to the Federal Government.
It is now time for everyone concerned by this senseless and savage slaughter to exert all possible pressure on those in a position to influence the combatants, the Organisation for African Unity, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations Organisation and the British Government.
In bringing such pressure to bear, realism and justice dictate that no lasting settlement can be achieved at the expense of Biafran sovereignty. Biafra must be recognised by Nigeria and the international community at large, for no surrender can humanly be expected of her people for reasons of self-preservation alone. They are fighting for their very existence and cannot in such circumstances be expected to renounce their autonomy.
When the basic freedoms and the very lives of millions are at stake, arbitrarily imposed colonial boundaries must not be allowed to prevail.
World opinion must demand that the Lagos Government withdraw their troops from Biafra, accept this new nation’s existence and be prepared to negotiate the closest form of economic union possible after the bloodshed.
To encourage this process it is incumbent upon all those countries at present supplying armaments to cease supplies forthwith.
Let those who live in dread of “balkanisation”, those who detest the thought of any readjustments to the international community, remember that national unity is a condition precedent to international unity. Public opinion should not hesitate to make it known that where human lives are being lost in the thousands humanity must take precedence over diploma niceties and superficial self-interest.
LISTEN TO AUDIO RECORDING: BIAFRA THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE – PART 7