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  • The Biafran struggle of Africa

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Discuss everything regarding the new Biafra to come in this section.
 #489  by Onyekachukwu
 Sun Dec 24, 2017 3:06 pm
Mark Wallace

Biafrans made an attempt, from 1967-70, to break away from Nigeria and set up their own state. Following Nigerian independence in 1960, religious, ethnic and political divisions and even pogroms drove a wedge between the Southern region that would call itself Biafra and the rest of the country. When the split eventually came, the Nigerian Federal Government responded through a tight blockade, including on food and aid, and a sustained assault. Biafra, which began outgunned and outnumbered, held out for far longer than most expected, and the war raged on.

The militaries of both sides committed atrocities, and most famously the Biafran civilian population starved in the full view of the world’s media. Up to two million Biafrans starved to death – a policy which the Nigerian Federal Government pursued quite openly, with one representative saying: “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it”. Long before the charity appeals of the 1980s, it was the war in Biafra which first brought the image of starving African children, bellies distended, to the newspapers and TV bulletins of the West.

As in Yemen, Britain chose a side. And just as in Yemen, Britain sold weapons to its pre-existing ally: Nigeria. We wanted the continued supply of Nigerian oil, we wanted Nigerian markets for our exports, and most of all we wanted Nigeria and the wider region not to fall into the hands of the Soviets.

Unusually for a Cold War proxy conflict, the USSR was not on the other side this time; it, too, was backing the Nigerian Federal Government. One of the UK’s fears was that if London withdrew its support for Nigeria, the Soviets would step into the gap and potentially turn West Africa into a hotbed of communism. Also in the back of Whitehall’s mind was the ongoing tussle over Rhodesia – the UK did not want the recognition of breakaway republics to become a trend.

As the photographs and footage of starving people flooded out of the conflict zone, the pressure grew on Harold Wilson. Students protested, and questions were asked in Parliament. Frederick Forsyth, then a war correspondent, not yet an author of bestsellers, quit his job at the BBC in protest at the Corporation’s decision not to cover what he viewed as a “particularly British cock-up”, and went to report direct from Biafra (his first book was The Biafra Story, an account of the conflict). The Sun campaigned to save Biafran civilians, while the Foreign Office accused Fleet Street of “sensational reporting”. In The Spectator, Auberon Waugh wrote that this was “the most hideous crime against humanity in which England has ever been involved”, and amounted to “mass murder committed in our name”.

What was the outcome, and are there lessons that might be learned for Britain’s policy towards Yemen?

In the short-term, the UK just about got what it wanted. The Soviets didn’t take over Nigeria. The oil continued to flow. No precedent on breakaway republics was established. The cost, however, was huge – millions of innocents died, and many millions more watched on as the UK bluntly ignored its moral obligations. That was a gross bargain, but one which the Wilson government persisted in pursuing and from which Britain did arguably receive some dividend, albeit meagre.

The case for making such a bloody bargain with the Saudis over Yemen is normally the same as the justification given for complicity in their other atrocities: that we would very much like their business, and that we would very much not like their position to be supplanted by Iran or by someone else worse than the current rulers of either Tehran or Riyadh.
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