Most of the children being daily supported by relief food were already at the minimal level of subsistence, devoid of any physical reserves with which to sustain another prolonged period of starvation or protein-defìciency. Within a week the death toll started to creep back up again.
For the second time the missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, were faced with the agonizing choice: does one cut off from relief aid those children so badly diseased and debilitated that their chances of survival are remote, in order to make sure of saving the not-so-bad, or does one give first to the neediest in the knowledge that the others will soon have reached that stage as well? Both Church groups came to the same view – the food should be used curatively first, preventively second. The effect, with stocks running low and little more coming in, was to spread the available food so thin on the ground that a general and very widespread debilitation of the junior population soon set in.
From this point there was already virtually no distinction between refugee
s and non-refugees, such as could still be discerned during the autumn of 1968. By August 1969 almost all the children in the country were suffering from malnutrition in one form or another, and most of the adults as well. The lethargy and listlessness that accompany hunger and anaemia reappeared on a wide scale. The death toll started to climb again and by late July was estimated at over 1,000 per day. By the end of the year the resumed air bridge by JCA had helped to stem the tide again, although consensus estimates even by November put the death toll at a fairly steady 500 to 700 per day.
Slowly, it seemed, from 20 June onwards the JCA air bridge crept back to what it had been in May, although this time it was done without any publicity at all. Tonnages were never mentioned by the JCA authorities for fear of provoking yet more reprisals from the Lagos Government. It was not until October that the steady importations began to exceed in nightly total what the JCA had been bringing in during May. Compared with the combined JCA-Red Cross total, even this was just over half what the two organizations together had brought in, and well below the estimated minimum required.
Two factors, apart from Vigo Mollerup and Colonel Wiechmann, were instrumental in getting the demoralized pilots and crews flying again. One was the example set by the pilots of Africa Concern and the French Red Cross flying to Uli out of Libreville. Africa Concern, a private company founded in 1968 by Father Raymond Kennedy and based in Dublin, represented the Irish people’s contribution to Biafran aid and it flew its own lone operation with a DC-6 from the Gabonese capital. So did the French Red Cross which, although it had had a team attached to the International Red Cross, also ran its own one-plane shuttle from Libreville. Both the Belgian crew flying for Africa Concern and Commandant Morencey for the French Red Cross kept flying unperturbed throughout the whole crisis. Seeing they were continuing, the reaction of the pilots at São Tomé was. ‘If they can do it, why not we?’
The other factor was perhaps the same one that gave the Frenchman his confidence. Sitting out in the Bight of Biafra, just off the coast, were five Soviet ‘trawlers’, or spy-ships, blossoming radio aerials and radar scanners. It was possibly one of these that had reported the incoming flight of Captain Brown two weeks earlier in time for the MiG to ‘scramble’ to intercept. As the São Tomé pilots overflew this flotilla in the dusk, they observed sitting in the midst of it a French aircraft carrier with a deck-full of jet fighters.
The carrier had been on a routine courtesy call to Libreville when the trouble started. Without a word it quietly sailed from Libreville and anchored for two weeks between São Tomé and Biafra. The sight of it sitting there waiting (for what?) was immensely comforting for the relief pilots. Then on 20 June the MiGs suddenly stopped flying at night and strafing the airport. They never flew again against the JCA air bridge.
While this work of life-saving was quietly being done by the Churches, the headlines had switched to the problems of the International Red Cross. Having won hands down against the Red Cross, the Nigerian régime was in a position to dictate terms, which it did. These included the handing-over of the whole relief operation in Nigeria to the Nigerian Rehabilitation Commission. There were by this time 1,400 foreign workers under the sign of the Red Cross working among the war-stricken on the Nigerian side of the line.
The Red Cross, devoid of support from Britain or America, was forced to yield. Subsequently donations from outside for the relief work under Nigerian auspices predictably plummeted. Meanwhile the Red Cross timidly tried to negotiate for a resumption of their air bridge with Federal permission.
On Wednesday 25 June Chief Awolowo commented that starvation was a legitimate weapon and that he was opposed to the shipment of relief supplies to the secessionists.* The next day the Chief of Staff of the Army, Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina, was reported as saying, ‘Personally I would not feed somebody I am fighting.’†
It was significant that the remarks of these two men, the latter of whom particularly had more power to influence events in Nigerian than twenty General Gowons, went completely unremarked by the British Government and largely by the Press. On 6 July, after a meeting in the Foreign Office in London between Mr Maurice Foley, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, Mr Okoi Arikpo, Nigerian Foreign Affairs Commissioner, and Professor Jacques Freymond, acting President of the ICRC, the Foreign Office issued a statement claiming that ‘complete agreement’ had been reached between the three for a new Red Cross airlift by day of relief food to Biafra. The plan involved Red Cross planes flying from Lagos, to which all relief foods would be imported.
It was a particularly silly piece of mischief. Professor Freymond had flown home on the evening of 6 July and the first he learned of it was from the headlines in the British Press the next day, which reached Geneva about 9 a.m. There had been no joint communiqué the previous evening and the Foreign Office had acted entirely on its own. From Geneva the ICRC issued a vehement denial that there had been agreement between the three of them.
What there had been in fact was an Anglo–Nigerian plan which the Red Cross had agreed to transmit to General Ojukwu and the Biafran Government. The claim that without any consultation with the Biafrans the Red Cross had agreed to it severely compromised the Red Cross in its pending negotiations with the Biafrans.
This did not stop Mr Michael Stewart, speaking on 7 July in the House, putting the whole onus of whether or not the Biafran children got fed onto General Ojukwu, a ploy which by this time had become standard practice. In fact, the Biafrans, after considering the plan transmitted to them by the Red Cross, rejected it. The plan would have put the whole relief operation under Lagos’ sole control, without any proscription against taking advantage of the opening of Uli during daylight hours to mount an attack against this prime target under cover of the relief flights.
The Red Cross went back to square one and started on its own. On 19 June Dr Lindt had formally resigned in order to give the Red Cross negotiations a better chance of success.
On 1 July the new President of the International Committee of the Red Cross took office. He was M. Marcel Naville, a banker who had been on the Committee for several years, had been elected President some months previously, but could only be inaugurated on 1 July. That day in Geneva he gave a remarkably passionate and forthright press conference. He criticized the Nigerian régime as ‘insolent… showing a humanitarian the door like an unfaithful servant’. He lambasted the gun-merchants whose supplies of weapons had kept the war going, and without naming names suggested there was not enough oil in all Nigeria to make the detergent needed to cleanse the hands of the men responsible. Observers felt he was either a very rash man, or had foreknowledge of some powerful diplomatic backing that would enable him to win a showdown with the Lagos junta once and for all.
In the event the first judgement was the correct one and, unfortunately, besides his rashness, M. Naville showed he had little strength of character. In subsequent debate inside the committee, the more timid spirits won the day. The result was a communiqué stating that the ICRC would pursue the path of ‘strict legality’, which in the circumstances meant complete inertia.
A series of protracted and laborious negotiations began, while east of the Niger the children continued to die. On 8 July M. Naville himself headed the ICRC negotiating team to Lagos, pointedly cancelling a trip to London en route. He was soon back with nothing achieved, and the talks passed into the hands of M. Enrico Beniami, the senior ICRC delegate in Lagos. For weeks the talks got nowhere.
On 4 August the Red Cross did what it should have done at the outset. It produced its own compromise plan. This plan provided for Red Cross planes to take off from Cotonou in Dahomey, overfly Nigeria down a specific air corridor, deposit the relief food at Uli and return to Cotonou over Nigeria down another air corridor. Flights would be between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and would be protected. Cargo content would be verified during loading and just before take-off by a mixed commission including Nigerian staff, who might if they wished even accompany each flight to ensure there were not diversions.
This business of Nigerian representatives accompanying each flight to prove there was nothing of any remote military significance on board (ostensibly the Nigerians’ main complaint) was what Ojukwu had proposed in July 1968.
The plan was put to Ojukwu first. For him it contained certain risks, as his security advisers were quick to point out. Firstly, with daylight flights operating, the pressure on JCA to discontinue its ‘illegal’ night flights would be immense. If the night air bridge was dismantled and JCA joined in the daylight run, what would happen if the Lagos Government then unilaterally rescinded the agreement? Relief would be wholly cut off. Secondly, although the agreement specified that the flights and the airstrip should be inviolable between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., would anybody guarantee that no attack would be made by the Federal Air Force in contravention of the agreement? Such an attack, if made from a freighter with an especially heavy bomb, could wreck the airfield. Significantly no power, least of all those who screamed loudest about the integrity of the Federal regime, was prepared to consider such a guarantee.
Nevertheless, and despite opposition from within his own cabinet, Ojukwu decided to take a risk. On 29 August Biafra finally agreed to the plan. Delighted, the Red Cross took the plan to Lagos. At this point a bit of international backing for the Red Cross could have swung the issue in favour of their own compromise plan. None was forthcoming. The Federal régime objected to the plan unless certain changes were made. This was where the Red Cross made another of its major mistakes. It should have insisted the plan remain unchanged by either party. On 5 September Lagos agreed to the plan ‘in principle’ providing a few technical details could be worked out. On 14 September Lagos signed the agreement, with its own changes included in the text. The agreement was then shunted back to Ojukwu.
Any consumer organization will stress to its customers th
e importance of the small print on a legal document. The new agreement on daylight flights contained five extra paragraphs of small print, which substantially changed the spirit and letter of the original. Three may be mentioned.
One cut the flying time back to 5 p.m., cutting the possible flights per plane per day from two to one. Another specified that Lagos control tower could at any time call down any relief plane flying over Nigerian territory for supplementary inspection, after which the plane would have to go back to Cotonou still laden. The third specified that the agreement ‘should in no way prejudice military operations’ against Uli.
The last two conditions virtually undid the original agreement. The first left the day-to-day continuance of the relief operation to the sole discretion of the Federal government; the second exempted the actual airfield of Uli from inviolability from attack during relief flying hours. How the relief aircraft were supposed to land with Uli under jet attack was anybody’s guess.
On 11 September, however, another and more sinister document came into the hands of the ICRC in Geneva. It was a photostat copy of an order from the Commander of the Federal Air Force, Colonel Shittu Alao, instructing his base commanders at Enugu, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Benin to have their MiGs ‘patrol’ Uli during daylight hours, and if they were fired upon to go into the attack. This sent a shiver down the Committee’s collective spine.
It needed little imagination to foresee that patrolling jets overhead were bound to be fired at by some nervous gunner. What would they see on the ground? Long, inviting columns of Red Cross trucks lined up waiting for relief supplies, parked airplanes on the aprons, scores of European Red Cross staff. One of the advisers with experience of Biafra pointed out that not only would a MiG attack on such a target in broad daylight result in a bloodbath involving European personnel, but that the enraged Biafrans could turn on the Red Cross staff and vent their bitterness on them. In that event, the adviser told the Committee, the responsibility would devolve on Geneva.
It was almost with a sigh of relief that the Committee learned in late September that, thanks to the extra clauses, the Biafrans had refused the amended draft. There the matter rested until the end of 1969. The Churches continued flights by night, and, by the end of 1969, with a steadily expanded airlift and more planes expected, had brought their tonnage up from an original 150 tons a night in July to nearly 200 tons in December.