The Biafra Story - Page 40

Occasionally, however, evidence of intent does come to light, not from individual firebrands but from senior politicians, officials or government-controlled propaganda media on the Federal side.

Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, 21 December 1967: ‘Unfortunately this [Gowon’s] enlightenment at the top level does not penetrate very deep: a Lagos police officer was quoted last month as saying that “the Ibos must be considerably reduced in number”.’* George T. Orick in The World Game of Patronization: ‘Biafran civilians are aware that upwards of 10,000 non-combatants have recently been slaughtered by Federal troops in the combat areas: they experience little confusion therefore when they compare federal broadcasts from Lagos promising safety to the somewhat more realistic broadcasts from Radio Kaduna in the Northern capital, discussing the final solution of the Ibo problem and dolefully listing names of Ibo leaders marked for execution. If the truculent Biafrans show no signs of giving up it is because they at least know they are literally fighting for their lives.’

The theme-song of Radio Kaduna, government-controlled, is a chant in Hausa, which when translated reads: ‘Let us go and crush them. We will pillage their property, rape their womenfolk, kill off their menfolk and leave them uselessly weeping. We will complete the pogrom of 1966.’

Edmund C. Schwarzenbach, Swiss Review of Africa, February 1968:

A conversation with one of the most impressive ministers provided significant insight into the political aims of the Federal Government… . The Minister discussed the question of the reintegration of the Ibos in the future state… . The War aim, and solution properly speaking of the entire problem, he said, was ‘to discriminate against the Ibos in the future in their own interest’. Such discrimination would include above all the detachment of those oil-rich territories in the Eastern Region which were not inhabited by Ibos at the start of the colonial period (1900), on the lines of the projected twelve-state plan. In addition the Ibos’ freedom of movement would be restricted, to prevent their renewed penetration into other parts of the country… . Leaving any access to the sea to the Ibos, the Minister declared, was quite out of the question.

Reference to ‘the projected twelve-state plan’ indicates that this interview must have taken place before the East broke away from Nigeria. Since the start of the war a senior Canadian correspondent told the author: ‘I was having a talk to Enahoro the other week and asked him whether Ibos would ever be allowed to move around Nigeria after the war. He replied, “Well the army boys tell me they do not intend to let more than 50,000 Ibos live outside the East Central State ever again”.’

An interesting comparison may be made with the Germans’ treatment of the Jews during the Hitler period. The Nazi plan for the Jews of Germany was not a single-stage plan but three-fold: first, discriminatory legislation, denial of job opportunity and civic rights, accompanied by wide-scale harassment, pillage and brutalization; second, the uprooting of the ghettoes and all Jewish communities and the transference of those communities for resettlement in the eastern areas of the Reich; third, the Final Solution through forced labour for those capable, and extinction for those not.

In the Biafran experience the first two stages of this kind of plan have already been completed, the eastern resettlement area being in effect the homeland of the Ibos and their associated fellow-Easterners. The difference from their point of view is that they then imported arms and started to defend themselves, to the manifest outrage of their persecutors. But even the most sober and disinterested foreigners inside Biafra have long since lost any doubts about their chances of survival as a distinct ethnic group under Nigerian military occupation.

It would be presumptuous for a writer to arrogate to himself the functions either of an inquiry or of a court. The evidence quoted above, indeed all the evidence available, is still only the tip of the iceberg. Before any complete picture could emerge it would need the efforts of a professional team of fact-finders in the framework of an independent tribunal of inquiry; this mass of documentation would then have to be studied by a panel of legal experts before a worthwhile judgement could be pronounced, and even that might only establish the existence of a prima facie case.

But even at this stage certain points can be made with absolute certainty. First, whatever has been done, the Nigerian Military Government and its Head, the Supreme Commander, cannot escape responsibility in law.

Second, prima facie cases already exist against individual Nigerian Army commanders for instigation of, or responsibility for, distinct and numerous cases of mass murder over and above the requirements of war.

Third, the charge of genocide is too big for the world authority vested by the signatories of the Convention in the United Nations to be required to wait for a post factum inquiry, or none at all. If the Convention is to rate it as anything other than a useless piece of paper, a reasonable suspicion of genocide must suffice to bring investigation. This reasonable suspicion has been established months ago; and the United Nations is in breach of its own sworn word, embodied in Article One, so long as it continues to refuse to investigate.

Lastly, whatever the Nigerians have done, the British Government of Mr Harold Wilson has voluntarily made itself a total accomplice. As of December 1968 there can be no further question of neutrality, or active neutrality, or ignorance, or a helping hand to a friendly government. The involvement is absolute.

The Spectator magazine, not normally given to wild hyperbole, said in an editorial on 31 May 1968: ‘For the first time in our history Britain has become an active accomplice in the deliberate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, whose only crime is that of belonging to a proscribed nation: in short, an accomplice to genocide. And the British people, together with a supine Opposition, have averted their eyes and let the Government pursue its shameful way without hindrance.’

* New York Review.


The Role of the Press

By and large the press of the world has given fair coverage to the Nigeria–Biafra war. It took some time for the story, in journalistic terms, to get off the ground.

At the start of the war there was a brisk flurry of activity, with journalists hopping into Biafra for a week. But at that time it was regarded as a one-week story. Besides, African wars are not easy subjects to ‘sell’ to a Foreign Editor, for these men know that by and large their readership has become satiated with violence in Africa. The overwhelming majority of the world’s mass communication media are dominated by the white races; they produce the bulk of the newspapers, the magazines, the radio shows and the television programmes, and they are largely produced for the consumption of the white races.

The press in Asia and Southern America is still parochial, relying for the comparatively little foreign news it carries on the international news agencies. In Africa newspapers as Europe and North America know them hardly exist, and dissemination of news depends largely on radio, with the big transmitters of Britain, America, Egypt, Russia and China dominating the ether, and each of them producing their own Government’s version of events.

In the spring of 1968 the war was still to most people in Western Europe and North America a forgotten affair. There ha

d been some articles, very few assessments in depth, and the occasional running of the story for a week in a single publication, a sure sign that the newspaper had a correspondent there for a week and did not wish to waste his fare. But the story had certainly not hit any national consciousness nor stirred any popular reaction outside Nigeria.

Then in mid-April four reporters from Britain’s top newspapers came on a visit. They were William Norris of The Times, Walter Partington of the Daily Express, Richard Hall of the Guardian and Norman Kirkham of the Daily Telegraph. They were present at the bombing of Aba by an Ilyushin 28 of the Nigerian Air Force, a raid in which over eighty people were killed and nearly a hundred wounded. The sudden, savage violence in the hot and peaceful lunch hour, the sight of an ordinary street turned into a charnel house within seconds, the prospect of shattered bodies, affected the reporters deeply. All four wrote extremely graphic accounts of the raid, and two left no doubt through the tone of their dispatches what they thought about it. In Britain these accounts were responsible for the first wave of public consciousness.

In mid-May an article by myself appeared in the Sunday Times and caused some small interest. It was the result of ten weeks spent with the Biafran Army, often the Commando units who probed behind the Nigerian lines on hit-and-run raids, and the experience had given me the opportunity of seeing at first hand what kind of treatment was being accorded to the Ibo civilian population by the Nigerian Army. The description of what I had seen was subsequently and bitterly denied in Lagos by General Gowon, but has since become only one of several eyewitness accounts of foreigners of what goes on.

The big break came in June. In that month the Commonwealth correspondent of the Sun, Mr Michael Leapman, was touring Biafra, and the first signs of starvation and malnutrition among the child population were becoming noticeable in large numbers. Mr Leapman spotted the story and the Sun blew it across several pages for quite a few days in succession. Biafra was on the headlines at last. The rest followed. Suddenly Biafrans lobbying for support in London for the Biafran cause were being listened to. More insistent questions were raised in Parliament, not only about the possibility of relief aid to Biafra, but about British arms shipments to Nigeria.

The wind blew a gale. Journalists started flocking into Biafra, partly to report the plight of the children, partly to scout for other ‘angles’. What they wrote shook the conscience of the world. Western Europe became interested about two months after Britain. Protests were raised by most major opinion-forming organs from the Iron Curtain to Galway Bay.

By the autumn thousands of Britons and Europeans were working for Biafra, a country they had never seen and whose people they had in all probability never met. They collected money, demonstrated, paraded, performed hunger strikes, paid for full-page newspaper advertisements, toured, lectured, appealed, lobbied parliamentarians, called for action.

The British Government was forced to answer more and more hostile questions, twice to debate the issue before the House, issue denials, promises, explanations, donations. Despite assurances first that in the event of another major attack or more ‘unnecessary deaths’ in Biafra Britain would be forced to ‘more than reconsider her policy’ and later more assurances that it was really in the Biafrans’ interest to be the victims of a ‘quick kill’ policy after all, Parliament remained unconvinced.

Elsewhere Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Holland announced they would send no more arms to Nigeria and cancelled existing orders. Italy slipped out quietly without a word. America said it had never sent any at all (which was not true) and France and West Germany said neither had they (which was true).

In Basle, Switzerland, anti-British-Government protests forced cancellation of British Week, in Downing Street windows were broken in protest. Still the press coverage flowed in, and still it was lapped up. Looking back, it is odd to think that, despite the efforts of the Biafran publicists and lobbyists on their own behalf, this translation of the Biafra affair from a forgotten bush-war into an international issue was basically caused by a typewriter and a strip of celluloid, used many times over. It showed the enormous power of the press to influence opinion when its organs are used in concert. The coverage was largely fair. Some was over-effusive, some inaccurate on questions of fact, some slushy, some vituperative. Mostly the reporters stated the facts and let the editorial writers pound out the superlatives, which is the way it should be.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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