Re­port­ing from Bi­afra, 50 years ago, on a con­flict that hasn’t quite ended

A vet­eran ‘Ir­ish Times’ re­porter re­calls an as­sign­ment in post-colo­nial Africa in May 1967

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - John Hor­gan


xactly 50 years ago the na­tional bor­ders of post-colo­nial Africa ex­pe­ri­enced their first seis­mic shock. Nige­ria – vast, quar­rel­some and eth­ni­cally het­ero­ge­neous – threat­ened to split up un­der the pres­sure of tribal and other ten­sions, and the May 1967 se­ces­sion of Bi­afra cre­ated diplo­matic and po­lit­i­cal af­ter­shocks. They in­volved not only some of the ma­jor Euro­pean na­tions but also – un­ex­pect­edly – Ire­land.

Ini­tially the events at­tracted lit­tle at­ten­tion: it was a small war in a far-away coun­try be­tween non-white peo­ple. Two fac­tors, how­ever, com­bined to change this.

One was oil. The ter­ri­tory of the break­away “sov­er­eign and in­de­pen­dent” Repub­lic of Bi­afra, as it was bap­tised by its new pres­i­dent, the for­mer mil­i­tary gov­er­nor of eastern Nige­ria Odumegwu Ojukwu, in­cluded huge oil de­posits, prob­a­bly among the most valu­able then known to ex­ist in Africa. Nige- ria’s fed­eral mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, es­tab­lished in 1966 af­ter a se­ries of mil­i­tary coups, re­garded th­ese re­sources as vi­tal: so did Bri­tish oil com­pa­nies, who were en­gaged in ex­ploit­ing them, and their ri­vals in French oil com­pa­nies.

The stage was set, ef­fec­tively, not only for con­flict over the na­tional con­trol of re­sources, but for a proxy war in­volv­ing two for­mer colo­nial pow­ers.

The sec­ond fac­tor was re­li­gion – not any of the African re­li­gions of the re­gion, but Chris­tian­ity, and specif­i­cally, in the case of Bi­afra, Catholi­cism. Since the early 20th cen­tury, Ir­ish Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies in par­tic­u­lar had made eastern Nige­ria (coter­mi­nous with the newly cre­ated Bi­afra) a core pays de mis­sion.

In 1967, many of th­ese mis­sion­ar­ies – see­ing his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels be­tween Bi­afra and the Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence strug­gle – adopted the Bi­afran cause with great com­mit­ment and skill, and be­gan to can­vass Ir­ish pub­lic opin­ion for sup­port.

Ir­ish in­ter­est

Even at that, it took al­most a year be­fore Ir­ish media be­gan to re­spond. At that point Ir­ish Times edi­tor Dou­glas Gageby sent me out to re­port on a sit­u­a­tion that was be­gin­ning to at­tract enor­mous Ir­ish in­ter­est. I was only the sec­ond English-speak­ing re­porter to visit Bi­afra (the first had been Har- ri­son Sal­is­bury of the New York Times); and later Fred­er­ick Forsyth and oth­ers be­came pow­er­ful ad­vo­cates for the Bi­afran cause.

The po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic ten­sions also in­creased. In Jan­uary 1968, just be­fore I went out, Kevin McCourt, then di­rec­tor gen­eral of RTÉ, af­ter seek­ing ad­vice from the depart­ment of ex­ter­nal af­fairs, in­ter­vened to pre­vent an RTÉ team (which had got as far as Lis­bon) from trav­el­ling fur­ther.

At this stage, the fed­eral Nige­rian au­thor- ities had con­sciously adopted a strat­egy that would re­cur half a cen­tury later in the Mid­dle East con­flict: star­va­tion. As one of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment lead­ers said at the time: “I don’t see why we should feed our en­e­mies in or­der for them to fight harder.”

The threat of famine, com­bined with an in­de­pen­dence strug­gle, had an al­most ir­re­sistible po­lit­i­cal and emo­tional im­pact on Ir­ish pub­lic opin­ion, which be­came hugely sup­port­ive of the reg­u­lar air­lifts, via the off-shore Por­tuguese is­land of São Tomé, of food and med­i­cal sup­plies to the be­lea­guered in­fant repub­lic.

At this re­move, it is some­what em­bar­rass­ing to have to ad­mit that th­ese fac­tors largely con­di­tioned much of Ir­ish re­port­ing at that time – in­clud­ing my own – to the detri­ment of any anal­y­sis of the geo-politics of oil that were in­volved.

In the cir­cum­stances, many of our ar­ti­cles fo­cused on the eth­nic as­pects of the prob­lem, and the 35-year-old Bi­afran leader, when I in­ter­viewed him, placed enor­mous em­pha­sis on th­ese.

He was an ac­com­plished pub­lic speaker, and the bushy beard which framed his face con­trib­uted to his im­pres­sive, pleas­antly Mephistophe­lian aura, as he spoke with ob­vi­ous de­ter­mi­na­tion about his de­sire to spare Bi­afra the eth­nic and tribal ten­sions which had riven the rest of the coun­try.

Af­ter­wards, as we sat on his bal­cony, both of us be­came aware of a low, dis­tant, jet en­gine note in the sky. Each of us knew what it meant. Bi­afra did not have an air force: the only planes in the sky were Rus­sian MiGs pi­loted by Egyp­tian mer­ce­nar­ies, which reg­u­larly at­tacked Bi­afran tar­gets.

Ojukwu and I looked at each other. Noth­ing was said, but I sus­pect that the same thought was go­ing through each of our minds. If ei­ther of us had dived for cover, the other would have fol­lowed. He didn’t make a move. My courage drain­ing rapidly into my boots, I stayed too, and stut­tered to the end of the in­ter­view.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Dublin were al­most non-ex­is­tent. I later learned that Gageby would in­quire oc­ca­sion­ally at the morn­ing news con­fer­ences whether any­one had heard from me, adding – po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rectly – “Has he, per­haps, been eaten?”

The diplo­matic sit­u­a­tion was in­creas­ingly del­i­cate, for there were also many Ir­ish mis­sion­ar­ies in the fed­eral part of Nige­ria, and their safety ( not to men­tion that of those in Bi­afra as it was over­run by fed­eral forces) was a real con­cern.

That this sit­u­a­tion was sat­is­fac­to­rily man­aged from an Ir­ish point of view was due in no small mea­sure to the in­tel­li­gence and im­mense diplo­matic skills of our then am­bas­sador in La­gos, Paul Keat­ing, who briefed me con­fi­den­tially.

The se­ces­sion and the civil war ended in Jan­uary 1970, and Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, although he was al­lowed back 13 years later, fol­low­ing an of­fi­cial par­don, to play a not in­signif­i­cant part in Nige­ria’s re­turn to democ­racy.

Be­fore he died in 2011, Ojukwu also paid a brief visit to Ire­land to meet some of his old friends, not least mem­bers of the Holy Ghost or­der (now the Spir­i­tans) who had been, and still are, closely as­so­ci­ated with the Igbo peo­ple of the eastern prov­inces.

Af­ter Ojukwu’s death in Novem­ber 2011, the Nige­rian Army hon­oured him with a funeral pa­rade, but some of the old wounds have not quite healed.

In 1995, the Nige­rian writer and ac­tivist Ken Saro-Wiwa was ex­e­cuted by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for his pro-Bi­afran ac­tivism against the in­ter­na­tional oil com­pa­nies. And a rebel ra­dio sta­tion still broad­casts pro­pa­ganda to the Bi­afran di­as­pora from a makeshift stu­dio in a Lon­don sub­urb.

Ini­tially the events at­tracted lit­tle at­ten­tion: it was a small war in a far-away coun­try be­tween non-white peo­ple

Lieu­tenant Colonel Okumegwu Ojukwu, in July, 1967. PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY Threat of famine

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