These days, people don’t talk much about Biafra. Many probably have never even heard of it before, let alone know which continent it’s on and what happened there. During the 1960s, however, the name Biafra was a synonym for the horrors of famine and civil war, as much as the names Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Rwanda or Darfur are synonyms for atrocities committed during our generation. In 1967, the Igbo — a people in the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria who were Christianized by missionaries (like many areas in coastal Western Africa) — unilaterally declared their independence from Nigeria.
The Republic of Biafra was doomed from the start; its independence was recognized by only five countries* but Biafra became a battleground on which dying imperial powers and their tumultuous successors fought one of the last proxy wars. France, which officially denied any involvement, sent arms to Biafra via Gabon and the Ivory Coast. France and Portugal, which controlled the nearby islands of Sao Tome and Principe, assumed that they could benefit from the break-up of Nigeria, a former British colony. Britain which had major oil contracts with Nigeria decided to back the Nigerian government. Meanwhile, Soviet Union, South Africa and Rhodesia all saw the conflict as a chance to increase their influence in the region.
After initial setbacks, Nigerian Army blockaded Biafra, cutting off food supplies. Western food aid was refused by the Biafra government, paranoid that it would have been poisoned, and the route for food aid would have opened a gap in the Biafran defence. What happened over the next three years was tragic, because it was all too preventable. It took a long time for the West to see pictures of Biafra; during the first six months of the fighting, few photographers managed to penetrate anywhere near the front lines. Yet, slowly reporters and photographers arrived, making Biafra the world’s first media famine. But the world could only sit and wait as more than one million people perished, mostly from starvation. With the pictures such as that of a hauntingly emaciated albino boy, Don McCullin introduced the world to the sight of children with stick-thin limbs and grotesquely distended stomachs, characteristic of protein deficiency — images which are to become all too tragically familiar in subsequent decades as famines happened in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Sudan.
Biafra eventually collapsed. In 1970, its president, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu fled the country with just one $100 bill, all that was left of the massive £7m personal fortune; the remainder having been spent on food supplies and arms to protect his country. Biafra seems to have faded into history, its dubious claim to fame now being ‘Jello Biafra’, the stage name of American punk rocker Eric Reed who thought it was ironic to juxtapose the concepts of mass starvation in Africa and the nutritionally worthless junk food of the West.
*(Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia if you must know).