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).

9 thoughts on “Biafra

  1. Ojukwu actually still made it well out of it, not only relatively:

    Today, Chief Emeka Ojukwu enjoys the role of elder statesman, living in comfort in the former Biafran capital, Enugu.

    Forgiven by the Nigerian authorities in the early 1980s, he admits to no remorse for the events of the civil war.

    “At 33 I reacted as a brilliant 33 year old,” he says. “At 66 it is my hope that if I had to face this I should also confront it as a brilliant 66 year old.

    “Responsibility for what went on – how can I feel responsible in a situation in which I put myself out and saved the people from genocide? No, I don’t feel responsible at all. I did the best I could.”

    For the men who fought for the Biafran cause, defeat has been followed by 30 years of humiliation. The wounded veterans line up in their wheelchairs alongside the main roads in Enugu, begging for money from passers-by.

    Men like former Sergeant Michael Okafo believe they are being punished for fighting on the losing side.

    He wants food, he wants to educate his children and he wants shelter. He wants to be treated like any other Nigerian.

  2. For me it was the first time I saw real poverty and starving children in my living room as a child …. I remember that picture well.

    Good post

  3. My first reaction was that the boy in the foreground had Kwashiorkor, which can depigment the skin. The fact that he’s albino makes the photo all the more tragic, given the horrible fate of albinos in some parts of Africa today.

  4. It embarrasses me profoundly.

    I logged to look at the website with a cup of coffee and toasted muffin with butter in hand.

  5. he was not responsible for the war . 100 thousand ibos were killed in the north , so the biafrans decided to secede and appointed him to do trhe job .

  6. 🙂

    Estuve leyendo tu artículo y hay cuantiosas cosas que no conocía que me has aclarado, esta maravilloso..
    te quería devolver el espacio que dedicaste,
    con unas infinitas gracias, por instruir a gente como yo jujuju.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s