The Biafra Story - Page 1


It is now more than thirty years since the last plane I took out of the besieged and crumbling enclave that Biafra had become in December 1969 lifted away from the tarmac at Uli airfield and turned its snout towards Libreville, Gabon.

It was a DC6, flown by a South African volunteer. It carried a hundred sick and dying black children, tended as they lay along the open floor by five nuns. Libreville would mean for them a hospital, careful nursing, nourishing milk and a chance of life. For the exhausted war correspondent in the tail, clutching the concluding tranche of a manuscript, it meant a long haul back to London after more than two years in the bush.

It is strange to read what I wrote all those years ago. With the marvellous gift of twenty-twenty hindsight, it is tempting to revise, re-edit and modernize the script; to temper the polemic, to mute the anger of the opinions.

Yet I have not done so, for I was then a deeply angry young man, and with cause. I had seen such misery, so much starvation and death, so much cruelty inflicted on small children; and I knew that behind it all were vain and cynical men, not a few in high office in London, who had closed their eyes, hearts and minds to the agony of those children rather than admit they might have made a mistake.

Biafra was a mistake; it should and need never have happened. But I have resisted the temptation to be wise after the event, preferring the philosophy of the Beaties’ song: let it be. In this prologue I will confine myself simply to describing how the book came to be written at all, and in the epilogue (briefly) to what happened after the collapse of final Biafran resistance.

The great bulk of the manuscript was written during January 1969 in a small caravan parked by a roadside in the town of Umuahia, which was then the Biafran capital. It was written in conditions of intense, sweaty heat, and the writing was frequently interrupted by air raids as Russian-supplied MiG fighters, flown by Egyptians on behalf of Nigeria, screamed across the township strafing and rocketing whatever they could. During these raids one had to dive into a slit trench and wait until they went away.

This first manuscript was finished, apart from two chapters, in the last days of January, and I returned with it to London. By then I had spent two extended periods inside Biafra as a war correspondent; the first for the BBC, from 10 July 1967 to 10 September; the second, as a freelance, from 18 February 1968 until the end of January 1969. During these two periods I had personally witnessed most of what is narrated in Part Two of this book.

On returning to London I dug into contemporary archives to finish the two unfinished chapters, ‘The Role of the British Government’, and ‘Refugees, Hunger and Help’. There were facts and figures for these two chapters that could not be obtained inside the Biafran enclave.

By early March 1969 I had finished the manuscript, which in those days brought the narrative up to the end of January 1969; obviously no further, since one could not see into the future. Accompanied by my agent, Bryan Hunt, I sought a publisher, and found him in Rob Hutchinson of Penguin Books.

The slim paperback was published on 26 June 1969 as a Penguin Special, with a print of 30,000 copies. In the interim I had returned to Biafra and made further notes which brought the narrative up to June 1969.

To my surprise, the book quickly sold out until copies were being unavailingly sought by those who wished to read it. Thus it was that in September Mr Hutchinson urged me to return again to Biafra and prepare for an addendum to the book, bringing the narrative even further up to date, to the end of 1969. The idea was for a reprint in the spring of 1970, or so I understood.

I returned therefore in October and stayed until the latter half of December, finally coming back to London in time for Christmas. Over the period up to 31 December I prepared an addendum to each of the chapters of the second part of the book, bringing the narrative to the end of 1969. In the interim, however, Mr Hutchinson had left Penguin to take up an academic post, a new man had taken his place, and in early January I was informed that a reprint was no longer intended.

But these addenda, covering the period from January

1969 until my plane lifted off from Uli for the last time three days before Christmas of the same year, are now included, and thus complete the story of Biafra.

In fact, Biafra finally collapsed, or was bludgeoned into submission by a tidal wave of military hardware, mainly supplied by Britain, on 10 January 1970. The Biafran leader, General Ojukwu, departed into exile in the Republic of the Ivory Coast, whose President Houphouet-Boigny gave him asylum. Being by then an out-of-work reporter, I tried my hand at novel-writing and jotted down a tale called The Day of the Jackal

The original Biafra Story of June 1969 was controversial at the time of publication; the issue of Biafra was emotive, public concern was widespread. As regards the facts one may say this: although on original publication the book was examined by experts on West Africa at the behest of those who disagreed with the book’s contents and wished to demolish it, the facts were never seriously contested. There are two errors of fact: one concerns a date which was wrong by twenty-four hours, the other an ambush at Abagana village where a typing error added an extra nought to the Nigerian casualties.

As for the opinions, on reflection I’ll stick with them. The passage of time may mellow viewpoints, or expediency may change them. But nothing can or ever will minimize the injustice and brutality perpetrated on the Biafran people, nor diminish the shamefulness of a British government’s frantic, albeit indirect, participation.

For better or worse, the story is the way I wrote it then. It does not say everything because one could not know everything. Other books have been written on the subject since 1970, which included more and better statistics, but they also include recollections by participants in the events, which I know to be different from what happened or what the participants said and thought at the time. Victors write history, and the Biafrans lost. Convenience changes opinions, and the memory of Biafra and what was done there remains inconvenient for many.

The following book therefore has this at least to recommend it: it remains the only contemporary narrative of Biafra from start to finish, written at the time and inside the Biafran enclave by a European eyewitness.

When I was a cub reporter on an English provincial newspaper, I came under the tutelage of a wonderful teacher, the chief reporter of the office. He impressed on me two maxims, ‘Get the facts right’, and ‘Tell it the way it was’. In the following pages I have tried to tell it the way it was.

On its original appearance it was roundly condemned in certain areas and by certain circles. All those who condemned it had one thing in common: they were all in positions of power and authority, to wit, the establishment, or firmly on the side of the establishment. That, to me, is its own commendation.


Hertfordshire, 2001


(Written at Umuahia, Biafra, January 1969)

This book is not a detached account; it seeks to explain what Biafra is, why its people decided to separate themselves from Nigeria, how they have reacted to what has been inflicted on them. I may be accused of presenting the Biafran case; this would not be without justification. It is the Biafra story, and it is told from the Biafran standpoint. Nevertheless, wherever possible I have sought to find corroborative evidence from other sources, notably those foreigners (largely British) who were in Biafra at the start of the war, and from those who stayed on like the magnificent group of Irish priests of the Holy Ghost Order in Dublin, or who came later, such as journalists, volunteers and relief workers.

Where views are expressed either the source is quoted or they are my own, and I will not attempt to hide the subjectivity of them. So far as I am concerned the disintegration of the Federation of Nigeria is not an accident of history but an inevitable consequence of it; the war that presently pits 14 million Biafrans against 34 million Nigerians is not a notable struggle but an exercise in futility; and the policy of the British Labour Government in supporting a military power clique in Lagos is not the expression of all those standards Britain is supposed to stand for, but a repudiation of them.

THE BIAFRA STORY is not a history in full detail of the present war; there is still too much that is not known, too many things that cannot yet be revealed, for any attempt to write the story of the war to be other than a patchy fabric.

Because it would be unreal to suppose that Biafra simply came into existence out of a vacuum on 30 May 1967,1 begin by briefly recounting the history of Nigeria before the breakaway. It is necessary to understand how Nigeria was formed by Britain out of irreconcilable peoples, how these peoples came to find that, following British rule, the differences among them, far from shrinking, became accentuated, and how the structure left behind by the British was finally unable to contain the explosive forces confined within it.

Frederick Forsyth


The Road to Partition

Nigeria and Biafra

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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