The radio networks covering Africa, mostly owned by governments and dedicated to the task of putting forward that government’s viewpoint, tended to orient their news coverage towards Nigeria. Strangely, the ‘experts’ on West Africa turned out to be wrong; the best coverage came from the ordinary reporters who described what they saw. Most of the senior veterans of the West African circuit plumped in the beginning for a quick victory for Lagos and were hopelessly misled. Reading back through the files of these correspondents’ dispatches can be amusing. In the early days the few, very few, who suggested the Nigeria–Biafra war was likely to be long and bloody, finally inconclusive and fraught with the most dangerous perspectives of international intervention and subsequent escalation, were loftily regarded as naïve fools or in love with the Ibos.
In subsequent months the West Africa veterans sometimes came near to gymnastics trying to explain away Nigeria’s failure to achieve a quick victory. Animus began to enter into the dispatches of the most sober writers, inevitably aimed against the presumptuous people who continued to resist the fate decided for them.
The reason is that senior correspondents of the Establishment oriented press tend to be too closely allied to the powers-that-be, from whom they get most of their information on the old-boy network. The Establishment of London and Lagos backed Nigeria heavily. The correspondents, circulating between Commonwealth Office and the right parties on one side, and between Chief Anthony Enahoro’s office and the cocktail bar of the Ikoyi Hotel further south, tended to believe what they were told rather than do a bit of leg-work in order to find out for themselves what was happening. Being constitutionally creatures of the status quo and not wishing to vacate their cosy existence on the fringes of the diplomatic galaxy, these gentlemen have given themselves to reports so one-sided as to suggest they sought rather selfjustification than a realistic appraisal of the situation. Two notable exceptions are Mr Walter Schwarz, the West Africa correspondent of the Guardian, and Mr Michael Leapman, Commonwealth correspondent of the Sun. Both correspondents showed that it was possible to write balanced and objective reports, and although neither came out wholly on one side or the other, both said things which, although no doubt their sincerely held view, could not have been pleasing to both sides simultaneously. Ironically, in view of the partisanship of others, both these correspondents are still persona grata in both countries.
One organ that has put up a remarkable record has been the External Service of the BBC, notably the Africa Service. Throughout the whole war listeners and some contributors to the Africa Service were astounded by the number and variety of the misrepresentations of the situation presented by these programmes. Editorial-type comments were liberally mixed with what were supposed to be factual news reports from Lagos, and within a short time most, white and black, living in Biafra and tuning in nightly to the BBC, became convinced there existed a strong pro-Nigerian bias in the coverage of the story.
Graphic accounts were related of things alleged to have happened in the heart of Biafra which had not happened, towns were described as having fallen to Nigerian troops long before the Nigerian soldiers actually entered them, and some far-fetched speculation was attempted apparently on the basis of little more than gossip or the over-optimistic hopes of the Nigerian authorities. For example, there was speculation after Colonel Ojukwu (a devout Roman Catholic) had gone into a week’s Lenten retreat in 1968 that he had fled the country or been the victim of a coup; and on another occasion an alleged popular demonstration in Umuahia in favour of Chou En-lai was described. Neither had a vestige of truth.
; The overall effect appeared to indicate to an uninformed listener that the Nigerian case was wholly right, while that of Biafra was wholly wrong, and more misleadingly for a listener elsewhere, that Biafra was permanently on the verge of imminent collapse. Throughout this time the reportage of the External Services fell consistently far short of the standard of journalism expected of the BBC and which indeed the BBC claims to be its own.
The effect was to cause widespread disgust among the Biafrans and equal disenchantment among the British living in the country. For the former at any rate the editorial attitude at Bush House towards Biafra was explained by the fact that the annual budget of the BBC External Services was not met by the British licence-payer, but by an ex gratia payment from the Treasury through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
One notable exception was the file of dispatches sent from Nigeria by Mr John Osman, the BBC Commonwealth Correspondent; a skilled and conscientious reporter, Mr Osman gave objective and balanced reports, and was subsequently expelled from Port Harcourt by Colonel Adekunle in a remarkable display of the latter’s violent temperament.
Of all British newspapers, indeed probably of all newspapers anywhere, the most consistent, fullest, fairest and most balanced coverage of both sides of the war came from The Times of London. It was the only newspaper that managed to keep up a consistently high reporting standard of factual news wherever and whenever it was possible to get it, and supplemented this by commissioning some very full and informative feature articles. One of the The Times staff reporters, Mr Michael Wolfers, seriously showed up by contrast the inability of some of his colleagues to file dispatches out of Lagos without becoming the mouthpiece of any Nigerian or British High Commission spokesman with something crass to say. Confining his reports to factual information about what was happening under his eyes in the Nigerian capital, and eschewing speculative guesses as to what might be happening four hundred miles away, Mr Wolfers turned in a file of copy during his sojourns in Lagos during 1969 that was in toto an object lesson of how foreign reporting should be done.
During February and March there was another of the periodic upsurges of parliamentary, public and press interest in Biafra from London, and this time the direct cause was a series of reports and articles commissioned by The Times from Mr Winston Churchill.
Armed with this commission, Mr Churchill went first to Nigeria, then Biafra. After returning from both visits, he told the author that after visiting Nigeria he had returned to London wholly convinced that Biafran civilian centres were not being bombed, and that the famine victim figures were being grossly exaggerated. These convictions, he said, had been primarily induced by assurances from the British High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir David Hunt, and the British Military Attache, Colonel Bob Scott. A few days in Biafra came as a jolt.
Mr Churchill, after witnessing the full extent of the famine caused by the blockade and seeing at first hand the terror tactics of the Nigerian Air Force, came to the view that nobody in official British circles had much idea of what was really going on. He was the first journalist to have the courage to say (in his first news report) that he was ‘ashamed’ to admit that he had fallen for the misinformation fed to him in Lagos.
Although there was nothing substantially new in Mr Churchill’s articles – the starvation and the terror bombing had been going on unremarked or disbelieved for months past – they nevertheless sparked off a spate of articles, letters and public concern in London, and gave added credence to the view hitherto held by a small handful of journalists in beleaguered isolation that warfare was not a feasible solution to the Nigeria–Biafra problem. They also triggered the first counter-attack from Fleet Street to the smearing by the British High Commission in Lagos and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London of individual journalists who had reported from Biafra what they saw and the conclusions they, and others from different countries, had reached.
In the wake of Mr Churchill’s articles, the same tactics were tried against him. In an editorial on 12 March, The Times complained of a ‘niggling campaign’ against Mr Churchill and concluded by condemning ‘an attempt to cover over the facts of starvation, bombing and death by resorting to personalities’.
The following day, in a letter to the editor of The Times, Mr Michael Leapman related how a Commonwealth Office official had taken the liberty of ringing the assistant editor of a provincial newspaper to warn him against believing what Mr Leapman, after three visits to Biafra and one to Nigeria, had got to say. Mr Leapman further intimated that he had heard the suggestion which had been put about that he had taken money from Ojukwu to write as he did.
After this point, character assassination of pressmen seems to have been dropped by the officials previously responsible, and the British Press was left alone to continue reporting the Nigeria–Biafra story as it saw fit – which by and large was factually.
On 28 June The Times published an editorial entitled ‘A Policy of Famine’. It was a strongly worded, closely argued but unreserved condemnation of the whole British Government policy towards the conflict. It went unanswered by any Government spokesman, and was indeed unanswerable. By the end of the year every major British newspaper with the sole exception of the Daily Telegraph had come out against British Government policy of sending arms to Lagos and thus assisting in the continuance of the war. But the weight of British Press opinion had no more effect on Mr Wilson and Mr Stewart than had the weight of Church opinion or the Labour Party Conference. Nevertheless it can fairly be said that whatever odium may have accrued to Britain through this policy, it was not the fault of the British Press, which had done its job, and all else it could do.
At long last the scale and the outlook of the Nigeria–Biafra war have aroused the disquiet not only of the humanitarian groups but of powerful governments who belatedly see the dangerous perspective ahead. They are coming to realize that the situation contains elements of peril not only for Biafra, but just as much for Nigeria and for the rest of West Africa.
Now the talk is all of a search for a peaceful solution, and those who in their time did their utmost to support the idea of a purely military solution are unconvincingly protesting they have been in favour of a negotiated peace all along.
So far as Biafra is concerned, their position is not complex. They have said since the start of the war that they viewed the problem as being a human one, and consequently not susceptible to a military solution but to a political one. Their offers of a ceasefire have been unrelenting, possibly because they have largely been on the receiving end of the war. But whatever their motivations, they are in favour of an end to hostilities and a negotiated peace.
It is in the mood of the Biafran people that one comes up against the main difficulty on that side. They left Nigeria possessed by three sentiments: a feeling of rejection, of mistrust of the Lagos Government, and of fear of extermination. To this has now been added a fourth emotion, more intractable, more profound, and consequently more dangerous. It is the emotion of hate, pure, keen and vengeful.
Some of those now talking of peace, notably in Whitehall, seem under the impression that nothing has changed over the previous eighteen months. On the contrary, everything has changed. It is not a question of the growth of the ‘army of penpushers’ into a redoubtable military machine, nor the recent access to large quantities of arms. It is the mood of the people who have watched their entire country shattered and despoiled, their children waste away and die, their young men cut down in thousands. Concessions one could have had at the start of the war, had a firm stand been taken and mediation offered, are no longer available. It is possible that in mid-summer 1967 one could have saved at least a Confederation of Nigeria with enough economic cooperation between the consenting partners to have offered all the economic advantages of the Federation. It is doubtful if this is now possible, at least in the short term. It is useless for men in charcoalgrey suits to talk of the benefits of a single, united, harmonious Nigeria and to express mystification that the Biafrans do not want it. Too much blood has flowed, too much misery has been caused and felt, too many lives have been thrown uselessly away, too many tears have been shed and too much bitterness engendered.
No one in Biafra now has any illusions about the behaviour of Biafrans if they ever again came to have military sway over any of their present persecutors. Nor does anyone believe that a Nigerian will be able to walk unarmed and unescorted among Biafrans for a very long time to come. The only possible consequence of a militarily enforced ‘unity’ now would be total military occupation apparently in perpetuity, with its own inevitable outcome of revolt and reprisal, bloodshed, flight into the bush, and famine. The incompatibility of the two peoples is now complete.
The voice of the Biafran people is the Consultative Assembly and the Advisory Council of Chiefs and Elders, and they are unanimous on that. Colonel Ojukwu cannot go against their wishes – or on that topic their demands – no matter how much vituperation is thrown at him for intransigence, obduracy and stubbornness.
On the Nigerian side the position is more complex. For the Nigerian people have no voice. Their newspapers, radios and television stations are either Government-controlled or edited by men who know that outspoken criticism of Government policy is not the best way to health. Dissenting intellectuals like Pete Enahoro and Tais Solarin are either in exile or, like Wole Soyinka, in prison. The Chiefs, usually the best spokesmen of grass roots opinion, are not consulted.
It is interesting to speculate what would happen if General Gowon were obliged to follow the counsels on his war policy of a Consultative Assembly which included strong representation of the farming community, the academic community, the trade unions, the commercial interests and the womenfolk; for all these groups are presently showing increasing restiveness at the war policy. But General Gowon can dispense with consultation; recently he felt able to use firearms against demonstrating cocoa farmers at Ibadan.
The result is that the people of Nigeria are muted, and their real views