Who Cares About Biafra Anyway? Jeffrey D. Blum 1969

(This is another story about Biafra. We all know about Biafra–it’s where a million people have starved to death in the past six months. One million people. Think about that for a minute. There are almost five thousand Harvard undergraduates. If each one of us died two hundred times, that would be almost a million deaths. Almost, but not quite. Yes, we all know about Biafra.)

THE UNITED STATES government never meaningfully recognized that the Biafran situation existed until this month. The government had not even breathed the possibility of official U.S. recognition of Biafra as a nation, predominantly as a result of the archaic “one-Nigeria” policy which America inherited from Britain and has guided State Department attitudes toward West Africa for years.

Earlier this month the State Department sent a six-man fact-finding mission to examine the needs of both Nigeria and Biafra and to make recommendations to the U.S. government about the necessary forms and amount of possible aid. Senator Charles E. Goodell (R.-N.Y.), accompanied by his administrative assistant–Charles W. Dunn–was in charge of the mission’s diplomatic aspects.

Four experts on African problems, led by Jean Mayer, professor of Nutrition at the School of Public Health, also treked to Biafra. They made detailed studies of the supplies and health of both sides of the conflict, but they concentrated on Biafra because of the huge gaps in America’s knowledge of the situation there due to the lack of diplomatic links with that area. Mayer said “At least this (the mission) means the State Department realizes that Biafra will probably survive for at least the immediate future.”

The Mission has prepared a 36-page report, edited by Mayer, which calls for an immediate ceasefire as the only way to provide adequate food and medical supplies, a halt of the atrocities being committed against Biafran civilians, and a huge increase in the amount of relief supplies. The report blasts the United States and the United Nations, except UNICEF, for their failure to aid the Biafrans. In a foreward to the report, Sen. Goodell states “It was our purpose to fill America’s factual void” on Biafra. “May these findings bestir the world’s leaders to prevent an indirect form of genocide.”

Right now, with the report still at the printer’s, it’s a moot point whether or not America will carry out the report’s recommendations. Chances are good when you consider that Goodell is a leading Republican and that Nixon seemed to smile at the Mission’s purposes. On the debit side is the influence of Great Britain, who, along with the Russians, are arming the Nigerians. No matter what the State Department does with the report, or doesn’t do, if this report of starvation doesn’t stir well-fed America, perhaps, as E. E. Cummings once suggested, we’d better “Burry the Statue of Liberty because it begins to stink like hell.”

BEFORE the civil war, Biafra differed from most developing nations because it had a good supply of food and water, and sound public health policies with many physicians, nurses, hospitals, and clinics. Following the slaughter of 40,000 Ibos in 1966, about two million Ibos and other minority groups left their positions throughout Nigeria and fled to Biafra. Additional refugees continue to pour into Biafra to avoid capture by the Nigerian troops who have gained a reputation for slaughtering whole villages.

While Biafra originally encompassed 29,000 square miles, present boundaries now enclose only about one-fourth of that area. This remaining territory is totally landlocked and does not contain the former Biafra’s most fertile land. The Mission asserts that somewhere between eight and nine million Biafrans live in this area, although many previous estimates have been as low as four million.

THE PREVAILING shortage of foods is likely to reach famine proportions during the next few months. Before the war Biafra was not only self-sufficient in food production, but the area exported some items to the rest of Nigeria. Proteins, however, have always been a problem, with 80 per cent coming from northern Nigeria and Europe. The land, sea, and air blockade imposed on this area by the Nigerians early in 1967, even before Biafra declared its independence, cut off normal food sources of proteins.

Diversion of able-bodied Biafrans to defense has weakened further Biafra’s agricultural output. Dislocation of markets and transportation snafus have spurred inflation to astronomical heights.

To remedy the situation as best as possible, Biafra has established an Emergency Food Production Program, aimed at the total mobilization of all available resources for increased food production. To expand production, a special unit of males between the ages of 12 and 35 who are not in military service receive farming training. Their goal is to clear 100 acres for agricultural use in each village.

The smuggling of food from Nige- rian-held territory into Biafra has been discouraged severely by both armies. Only a trickle of food reaches Biafra from this route anyway, but some of the smuggled food was found to contain poisonous ingredients. Deliberate poisoning of food supplies was suspected first in 1967 when several deaths were thought to be caused by toxic foods. Of 1487 samples of salt–the principal item being smuggled in–which were tested by Biafrans during the last part of 1968, 20 samples contained toxic quantities of arsenic and 50 contained cyanide.

Mayer said that several samples collected by the Mission which could not have been “fixed” by the Biafrans were submitted to the Food and Drug Administration upon the group’s return. “The samples contained arsenic, the Administration confirmed the Biafran reports.” Mayer said.

Right now there are outright starvation conditions among the refugees. Acute protein deficiency is widespread among all Biafrans. The Mission’s members reports that, they never saw one child in satisfactory nutritional condition in any of the camps they visited. Mass feedings must be made under the most difficult of situations: distribution centers and refugee camps are bombed and strafed if any large numbers of people are visible in the daylight. Red Cross insignias are singled out for special attention by Nigerian bombers. Mayer saw one European engaged in working on the Biafran side of the war front carry 117 dying children in his truck to a hospital in a single night.

“WHILE visiting several hospitals,” Mayer reports, “we saw children on the floor between the beds, along the outside corridors, and often two or ore to each bed. There was not one well nourished child among the 80 seen in one 20-bed ward. Particularly disturbing to witness was one small girl with the arm in a cast, the victim of a bombing attack, who refused to come out from beneath her bed, afraid of the bombs. Children as young as 16 months of age were observed running into bunkers when they heard the first warning shots before the bombs fall.”

Severe malnutrition underlies all other Biafrian diseases. Severe anemia is widespread among children and pregnant women. Infectious diseases, including meales especially, hit hardest at the very young and the elderly. Tuberculosis, malaria, and dysentery also are prevalent. Hospitals are not only consistently bombed, but airplanes come in low and strafe the fleeing patients and staff.

Before the war, Biafrans, particularly the Ibos, had stood out among inhabitants of West Africa in literacy, youths admitted to universities, and general respect for learning. Many observers believe that the Ibos’ high level of education, coupled with the extremely high number of managerial and professional posts they occupied, generated intense envy among the Nigerians. Now there is next to no formal education going on among the Biafrans. The University has closed completely. Only here and there through the area a number of primary schools hold classes in the forest so that the leaves will hide the children from enemy aircraft.

The Biafrian Mission Recommends:

1) The fundamental action needed to alleviate suffering in the Nigerian civil war is an immediate ceasefire, for this is the only way that food and medical relief can be adequately provided. 2) The atrocities being inflicted upon Biafrian civilians must be halted. 3) The Biafrans need a greatly expanded tonnage of relief supplies, especially food. To accomplish this,, in addition to the relief plane flights, a sea or land corridor must be opened up under international control. Only this method would be able to furnish Biafrans with the six to eight thousand tons of relief supplies needed each week.

The Mission also made suggestions in the following specific areas:

* Health — The already existing campaign for vaccination against measles and smallpox should be widened so as to include more than 50 per cent of the population and health education plans should be instituted to spread information into the more remote areas.

* Agriculture — Relief supplies — insecticides, seeds, baby chicks, tools, etc.–should be made available to the Land Army, Biafra’s farmers’ corps.

* Education — Bombing of schools should be stopped so that children can use school buildings, as well as to avert the carrying out of intellectual genocide against the next generation.

* Transportation — In order to insure the adequate distribution of relief supplies, tires and spare parts for cars and trucks should be supplied when required along with lubricants, gas, and vehicle repair tools.

The Mission expressed deep dismay over the United States’ and the United Nations’–except UNICEF–low level of involvement in the Biafrian crisis. The Mission proposes, in effect, four steps for the U.S. to take: 1) to play a more active role as a mediator in the negotiations leading to a cease fire and expanded relief. 2) To station in Biafra some medical and nutritional personnel to report possible solutions to the President. 3) To send a relief coordinator to Biafra who would work with voluntary agencies and with the Biafran physicians. 4) For this and similar situations which could arise in the future, the President should designate a Relief Advisor to work in a voluntary capacity as his consultant on problems of international relief.

Mayer would not comment on whether the report would hasten U.S. recognition of Biafra. However, he did observe that “arriving at some sort of accommodation is made easier by the fact that about four African states have recognized Biafra and France has made gestures that have enhanced Biafra’s dignity as a nation.” He added that the Biafrians’ situation was similar to the Isrealis. Both countries are heavily intellectual groups set upon by less educated peoples who have superior numbers. “To borrow a phrase, the highly-civilized have been bombed back into living in caves,” Mayer added. He pointed to the Biafrans’ skill in setting up petroleum distilleries from scratch. “They are very inventive, and experiment constantly to find out how best to use their resources.”

Mayer blasted the British — who, along with the Russians, arm Nigeria–for their “clumsy, heavy-handed role in this conflict.” He said he hoped President Nixon would convince Harold Wilson that Britain’s policies in West Africa should be drastically changed.

THE ONE aspect of the situation which impressed the Mission most was the Biafrans’ good spirits in the5Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1969/2/25/who-cares-about-biafra-anyway-pithis/

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