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GENERAL

The Nigeria-Biafra War (13) Trying to Seize the Initiative… Year 1969

Culled from “Nigeria
Too Hard to Hold,”
By Prof. Peter Okorie
(Copies available at Assumpta
Bookshop Owerri, OCS Building,
IMSU. Cost N3000. Contact:
07036465863, 08037061402)

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The Nigeria-Biafra War (6) More Tough Fighting – Year 1968

High Morale      

To say that morale was high in the beginning of the year 1969 would be putting it modestly. There were several reasons for Biafrans to feel upbeat then. There was in the enclave the feeling that the people had survived the worst the enemy could throw into battle. One of the popular Biafran war songs assumed more contemporary relevance: 

 Biafra, win the war

Armoured car, shelling machine, heavy artillery

None of them can defeat us

Biafra win the war…

A major source of the optimism was that international sympathy was growing in favour of Biafrans, not just among private individuals, but also by governments. Biafrans knew that if they received enough military aid, they would recapture the lost territories. The projection of recapturing the southern cities looked realistic considering the calibre of world powers that were becoming increasingly pro-Biafra. On July 31, 1968 the French Council of Ministers released a statement of approbation in support of Biafra thus:

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 inter-national procedures.

Though this statement fell short of a full recognition of Biafra, there was the optimism that it was very close; ‘quarter-to’, in Nigerian popular parlance. Also, Richard Nixon had just won the US Presidential election and was poised to be sworn in on January 20, 1969 as the 37th President of the United States. It was hoped he would be able to nudge the US policy towards a strong pro-Biafran stance. Such a strong support, even if not military, would soften British support for the Federal forces which would in turn make the Nigerians to take peace talks seriously. In a campaign speech on September 10, 1968, Richard Nixon made this observation:

Until now efforts to relieve the Biafran people have been thwarted by the desire of the central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Ibo (sic) people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But genocide is what is taking place right now – and starvation is the grim reaper. This is not the time to stand on ceremony, or to ‘go through channels’ or to observe the diplomatic niceties. The destruction of an entire people is an immoral objective even in the most moral of wars. It can never be justified; it can never be condoned. 

Another major World Power, China, had also started voicing strong pro-Biafra comments. In September 1968, the New China News Agency declared as follows:  

United States and British imperialism and the Soviet revisionist ruling clique have committed towering crimes in the past year or more in supporting the military government of the Nigerian Federation in its massacre of Biafran people.

In response to this morale boosting Chinese release, Ojukwu replied Chairman Mao Tse-Tung of China thus:

 It is with great pleasure that on behalf of myself, the Government and people of Biafra, I am writing this letter to express our deep gratitude to you personally and to our dear comrades in China.

…In this infernal struggle against imperialist forces, the people of Biafra are consoled by the knowledge of the shining example of the Chinese people’s struggle under Chairman Mao’s able leadership against American imperialism and later against Soviet revisionism.

…Inspired by such noble example, and strenghtened by the moral and other supports of all progressive people, Biafra will continue to resist till such a time that imperialist forces and their agents are routed. 

Intensive diplomatic activities by Biafra were also going on to rally international assistance. A Biafran diplomatic delegation led by Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani and Mr. Chukwuma Azikiwe met Dr. Francois Duvalier, President of Haiti, at the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince in February, 1969. Following that visit, on March 22, 1969, Biafra secured full diplomatic recognition from Haiti – the first and only of such outside Africa. The Haitian recognition did not come as a complete surprise considering that very large numbers of former Igbo slaves in America were resettled in Haiti. There is a saying in Haiti: Nou se Igbo, a Creole (pidgin language) version of the French Nous sommes Igbo (we are Igbo). The motto on the Haitian traditional coat of arms is L’union fait la force (French). Translated to English, the motto reads: Union makes strength, which is same as a foremost Igbo motto: Igwe bu ike (unity is strength). The year 1804 was the year the Haitian Revolution (1796-1804) finally defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. The revolution was initially led by Toussaint Louventure, a former slave and the first black General of the French Army, and later by Jean-Jacques Dessalines who declared Haiti’s sovereignty on 1st January, 1804. Haiti remains the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt. This bit of history is necessary here because in the speech that gave reasons for recognising Biafra, the Haitian President said something like: We shall never forget the Biafrans, whose fathers played a critical role in the epic of 1804. Thus the Haitian recognition was highly significant, and in a way reminded Biafrans then that they can also be free like Haiti.    

Apart from diplomatic activity at the governmental level, private individuals were also at work. Leading international thinkers were paying private visits to Biafra to see things for themselves. One of them, Auberon Waugh, after his visit, wrote a devastating book on Harold Wilson’s duplicitous policy. He also named his newborn child Biafra Waugh. Another visitor, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a moving essay: ‘Biafra: A People Betrayed’. He cried for weeks after visiting Biafra. In his words: ‘I found myself crying so hard I was barking like a dog.’ Cornor Bruise O’Brien, Geoffrey Hill, Douglas Killam, Stanley Diamond and many other literary giants visited. Stanley Diamond, a world-renowned anthropologist became an ‘intellectual Biafran warrior. He played a crucial role in uniting American and Canadian intellectuals’ response to the plight of Biafra. Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his article ‘Biafra Revisited’ published in The New York Review of Books of May 22, 1969 was convinced that the survival of Biafra would be ‘a victory for African courage, endurance, and skill and an opportunity for the further development of African creativity.’    

There was therefore no doubt that by 1969, pro-Biafran sympathy had reached a peak. Some other countries like South Africa, Portugal and Czechoslovakia (before the Russian invasion) were discretely helping. Portugal allowed Biafra the use of its airport in Sao Tome, which was then a Portuguese colony. But unknown to the Biafran public then, the mounting pro-Biafran sympathy did not necessarily result in corresponding influx into Biafra of guns and ammunition. Biafra still hardly had enough weapons to sustain the war, let alone to win it. The Biafran leader, who had all the facts, in an interview with Philip de Craene of the Paris-based newspaper Le Monde on April 13, 1969, put it this way:

 We have been fighting this war, using a very marginal budget. For every pound sterling we spend in this war I am absolutely certain that Nigeria spends twenty, and this has its effect. Also, we had and we still have a certain amount of money. Remember that Biafrans are the travelers of West Africa, and foreign exchange is not so foreign to us. There is no Biafran, except in Nigeria, who does not contribute to this war. We have received odd amounts from certain individuals. There have been financial discussions, sometimes for a debt, sometimes for a credit.

 If France were really helping, I think by now the war situation would have been very different. France, right now, is giving only moral support. As soon as General de Gaulle makes a statement, the world jerks to a halt. When that statement affects small powers or small countries, then it is not just a pause, it has significant effect. The specter of French help is one factor that frightens Nigeria. Nigeria fears what could happen should this moral support be translated to physical support. When it does it will be to our own advantage and we are doing everything to induce the change.

But Biafran gratitude to France and admiration for the President Charles de Gaulle, cannot be so easily quantified in writing. In an after-dinner speech in honour of visiting French Deputies – Mr. Offroy and Mr. Marette – Ojukwu summed it up thus that Thursday evening of March 6, 1969 in Umuahia:

 At a time when we were written off as a people dead, a forgotten past, the French people rose and said: No, these are human beings, they therefore have human rights. This is the way I understand your great leader’s statement. He has told the world that we too are human beings, that these are men who have their own rights as men. We are grateful. You have, of course, seen the effect that declaration (President Charles de Gaulle’s statement) had on the whole situation.49     Back to the fighting. The year 1969 was the most promising for Biafra, at least up to end of October. The Biafran defenders, with little at their disposal, had fought gallantly to keep the invaders at bay in all sectors. The year 1969 would always be remembered by those in the Biafran enclave for some key events and epic battles: the revival of the Biafran Airforce, improvements in home-made weapons, the fall of Umuahia, the recapture of Owerri, the battle at Awlaw, Ahiara Declaration, and the collapse of Biafra’s 12 Division at Aba.

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