Biafra and the Birth of the ‘New Humanitarianism’

The birth of the modern human rights-based ‘solidarity’ movement has often been located in NGO responses to the Biafran famine in 1968. The famine resulted from the independence war fought by Igbo secessionists of the state of Biafra in south-eastern Nigeria against the federal government. The secessionist struggle received no diplomatic support from the West, the Soviet bloc or other African states, which were concerned over the destabilising effects of questioning state borders. Within a few months the dominance of the government forces and the lack of outside aid had doomed the struggle to failure. As Alex de Waal notes, it was only by accident that Biafra became a cause célèbre for the human rights movement. The international attention stemmed from the famine becoming news through the publication of photographs of severely malnourished children. As Frederick Forsyth, at that time a journalist, recalled:

Quite suddenly, we’d touched a nerve. Nobody in this country at that time had ever seen children looking like that. The last time the Brits had seen anything like that must have been the Belsen pictures … People who couldn’t fathom the political complexities of the war could easily grasp the wrong in a picture of a child dying of starvation.

The media coverage of the first African famine to become headline news led to accusations that the British government’s arms shipments to the Nigerian leadership and lack of support for the Biafrans was making it complicit in genocide by starvation. The lack of UN or outside government relief for the secessionists enabled the humanitarian aid effort to be monopolised, for the first time, by the NGOs. Biafra was the ICRC‘s first large-scale relief operation and Oxfam‘s second field operation. The first real test for non-governmental humanitarian organisations resulted in a split between the Red Cross and major NGOs over the nature of humanitarian action. Oxfam broke its commitment not to act unilaterally and took an openly partisan approach claiming that ‘the price of a united Nigeria is likely to be millions of lives’. Several international NGOs followed, arguing that breaking from the ICRC position of non-criticism was the only ethical way of assisting the population because if the Biafran people lost the struggle for secession they would face systematic massacre by federal forces.

The NGOs and the church-funded campaigns became the main propagandists and source of international support for the Biafran struggle. The Joint Church Airlift supplied aid and attempted to establish a Biafran air force, against Nigerian government opposition. This led to a federal ban on outside aid flights. The ICRC did not engage in any publicity and accepted the federal government’s ban on aid flights. This position was condemned by the more interventionist and partisan aid NGOs. A leading critic was French doctor Bernard Kouchner, who declared that their silence over Biafra made its workers ‘accomplices in the systematic massacre of a population’.

The Biafran war was not only notable for the creation of the new committed and increasingly invasive ethics of human rights intervention. It also set a much more worrying marker for the future of ‘new humanitarian’ rights-based interventionism. The war was already over when the famine became news, and the international interest was immediately used to rekindle the struggle. Speaking later, Paddy Davies of the Biafran Propaganda Secretariat explained:

Biafra realised that this was an angle they could play on. It had tried the political emancipation of oppressed people, it had tried the religious angle … but the pictures of starving children and women, dying children … touched everybody, it cut across the range of people’s beliefs.

For the Biafran government, the provision of aid was secondary to the propaganda and international standing gained from the aid agencies siding with the war aims of the secessionists. Internationalising the struggle put pressure on the Nigerian regime and enabled the Biafran leadership to prolong the war. The aid agencies took on trust the claims of the Biafran government, and its public relations firm Markpress, regarding genocide and ‘thousands dying daily’ and according to Oxfam’s official history ‘they fell for it, hook, line and sinker’. The secessionist line forwarded by Kouchner and other agencies, that the Biafran people would be faced with systematic massacre by federal troops if they lost the war, turned out to be unsubstantiated. In fact, de Waal notes that even as the international relief operation was being massively expanded there was already a large amount of evidence that there would be no genocide. In the large areas of Biafran territory taken over by the federal government there had been no government massacres.

In 1971 Bernard Kouchner established Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which has since symbolised the ‘new humanitarian’ cause. There are two ‘solidarity’ principles, which were developed out of the Biafra experience and have since become central to the new rights-based humanitarianism. First, the ‘freedom of criticism’ or ‘denunciation’…. Second, the ‘subsidiarity of sovereignty’ or the ‘right of intervention’, the ‘sans frontières’ of the MSF movement. [inline reference citations removed]

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 29-31

Even needs-based, rather than rights-based, humanitarian NGOs who profess neutrality are forced to take sides.

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2 Comments

Filed under Africa, NGOs

2 responses to “Biafra and the Birth of the ‘New Humanitarianism’

  1. ikenna

    Thank you for bringing up the Biafra issue. The struggle for independent is still on. please visit http://www.radiobiafraonline.com, http://www.biafraland.com or any other pro-Biafra websites.

  2. Emeka

    The Biafran issue is again were I see justice denied, and little or no investigation conducted about what actually happened during this time of war, that claimed the lives of over 3 million people.

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