Biafra starvation: US takes sides with no one, blames both Gowon and Ojukwu

by Stanley Azuakola

It appears that the controversial memoir released by renowned author, Chinua Achebe, There was a Country, which has sparked a heated debate between the Igbos and Yorubas, with each group lining up behind their respective heroes, might be a good thing. It is ironic that fourty-three years after the civil war, Nigerians are probably more knowledgeable about what happened in the American civil war than the one which happened on home soil. But thanks to Achebe’s memoir, secrets are being revealed.

One of such, is the revelation by a secret US dispatch detailing the war, which claims that both the Nigerian military ruler, Yakubu Gowon, and the secessionist leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu are to blame for the deaths of hundreds of thousands through starvation, as it was deadly politicking between the duo which led to the deaths.

The memo, which was from Edward Hamilton, a staff of the US National Security Council provides insight into the deadly war from the American perspective.

Download the full US memo

Premium Times which obtained the memo, has a story on it, excerpts of which is written below:

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.

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.

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