At the peak of Nigeria’s civil war in 1968, as hundreds of thousands starved to death in Biafra, it was deadly politicking between the conflict’s two key figures-Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu- that kept food out of the region, escalating the death toll, a secret U.S. dispatch detailing the war says.
The document says disagreement on shipments between Mr. Gowon and Mr. Ojukwu, were more to blame for the failure of relief materials reaching dying children, women and men desperately in need of food.
The confidential cable, obtained by Premium Times, provides a rare insight into one of the most fatal angle of the war, as narrated by a superpower that regarded itself neutral in the conflict but which seemed to have sympathy for Biafra.
The disclosures came as the nation recalls devastating details of the conflict that killed millions; a recollection shovelled into national consciousness by foremost writer, Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country.
Mr. Achebe’s portrayal of the late leader of the defunct Western region, Obafemi Awolowo, as the mastermind of Nigeria’s policy of blocking food shipments to Biafra, ignited a week of fierce verbal exchanges between the Igbos and the Yorubas.
But in part, the U.S. account offers a sharp contrast to Mr. Achebe’s position, blaming instead, war-time military ruler, Mr. Gowon, and secessionist leader, Mr. Ojukwu, for the imbroglio.
Mr. Gowon, the cable said, discontinued air shipments to the Eastern region despite pressure from the United States and the Red Cross, fearing transport airplanes were being used to convey arms to Biafra.
Initial shipments by the Red Cross, suspected to be pro-Biafra at the time, had delivered 16 to 20 tons of food a night in a lone DC–4, feeding an estimated 850,000 people in Biafra three meals per week, the memo said.
But the Gowon-led military government barred the airlifting, which originated from Sao Tome and Principe, a Portuguese colony at the time. Portugal was amongst the few European nations that backed Biafra.
The Nigerian side, the cable written from the United States said, was however willing to allow land shipment, and would offer air permit only on guarantees they will not be abused for arms shipment.
Those were conditions Mr. Ojukwu refused to accept, even while thousands of his people, including children, were starving to death.
The former Biafran leader also rejected food shipments sent by road fearing they might be poisoned, and that such route might open an advance corridor for federal government troops, the dispatch adds.
The Red Cross too, would not implement any relief operation without the explicit approval of both sides.
While all these happened, at least 400 to 600 died a day from starvation, the document stated.
“All of this is happening in the shadow of what is pretty clearly a buildup for a new federal offensive designed to take the 10,000 square miles still held by the rebels,” the memo said.
“There are also mounting reports on increased Biafran military activity, allegedly (though probably falsely) led by French officers. If either or both sides take the offensive, the relief problem becomes almost impossible,” it warned, adding that the US needed to take “a strong go at the Feds (federal government) on this point, but their answer is a forbidding “The other side has left us little choice.”
The “other side” mentioned in the document, appears to refer to Mr. Ojukwu’s Biafra, which, more concerned with winning the war, refused to accept the conditions spelt out by the Nigerian government for delivering food to the troubled region.
The details dated August 12, 1968 was sent by Edward Hamilton of the US National Security Council Staff to a Special Assistant to the then US president, Lyndon Johnson.
They appear to have been compiled from diplomatic filings and media reports which surged with the discovery of children dying of starvation on the Biafran side.
The document formed part of confidential U.S. State Department central files on Biafra-Nigeria, between 1967 and 1969.
Since becoming public last week, Mr. Achebe’s war memoir has stirred some of the most rabid sentiments since the war ended in 1970.
The award-winning writer’s criticisms of Mr. Awolowo’s role in the war, has put Mr. Achebe up for blistering criticisms from Mr. Awolowo’s supporters, mainly fellow Yorubas; while mainly Igbo have also attacked the Yorubas, while siding with Mr. Achebe, a kinsman.
Somehow, in his 1983 electioneering remark, republished recently in the heat of Mr. Achebe’s allegations, Mr. Awolowo admitted initiating the food policy, but said it was targeted at Biafra’s fighting personnel to help bring the war to a quick close.
The U.S. memo speaks of a diverse section of influences that leveraged Mr. Gowon’s decisions and the role of the international community in the conflict.
It speaks of the possibility of a rare agreement between Mr. Ojukwu and Mr. Gowon to allow relief through a designated airstrip succeeding, “although Gowon is under immense pressure from his hawks-which include almost the entire Hausa population- not to allow any relief, particularly any which involved air traffic into Biafra.”
The document referred to a frustrating showing of former colonialist, Britain, acting “as though they have decided that the only solution is a military solution imposed by Gowon.”
It spoke of France as “actively pro-Biafran,” the defunct Organization for African Unity, OAU, as “pro-Nigerian” while Russia was “largely disinterested and identify with the Nigerians to the degree that they are interested.”
The Pope made “strong statements” but was largely powerless, it said.
At the time the memo was compiled, a meeting of the OAU was being held at the group’s Ethiopian capital, Addis Abbaba, where the country’s former leader, Haile Selassie, attempted a go at a truce on the relief issue, separate from the political wrangling between the warring sides.
For all that happened, it was the frustrating relief failing that was more disturbing particularly to the American population, whose opinions the cable says, was “pro-Biafran.”
Even so, the cable found that the US mission in Lagos was “too sensitive to the feelings of the federal government to have done much pushing” on Mr. Gowon for a fresh commitment on opening a relief corridor.
But the US policy overall, the memo said, was stimulating the Red Cross to serve as the international cover for a relief operation; asking both sides to agree to a settlement, or at least to a relief agreement; offering help necessary to make a relief operation work; and asking Mr. Gowon to “dramatize the fact” that it is not the federal government that is keeping the food out of Biafra.