Daily Archives: 5 January 2021

Path to War in Biafra, 1966-67

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Penguin, 2015), Kindle pp. 163-165:

After August 1966, relations between the pretty traumatized Ibos of the east and the federal government in Lagos deteriorated. In London the mandarins of the Commonwealth Office and later the Foreign Office quickly showed a passionate favoritism toward the federal regime, stoked by the resident high commissioner. British governments do not habitually show such adoration of military dictatorships, but this was an exception that stunned even Jim Parker.

Sir David Hunt quite liked Africans, so long as they showed him respectful deference. Colonel Gowon apparently did. When the high commissioner entered his office at Dodan Barracks, he would leap to his feet, slap on his cap, and throw up a quivering salute. Just once, as the crisis became deeper and deeper, David Hunt came east to visit Ojukwu in Enugu, and quickly developed a passionate loathing for the Ibo leader.

Emeka Ojukwu did indeed rise as his visitor entered the room, but in the manner of one welcoming a guest to his country home. He did not throw up a salute. It quickly became plain he was the sort of African, meaning black man, that the former Greek don Hunt could not stand. Emeka was a British public schoolboy, an MA of Oxford, once a first-class wing three-quarter for the college rugby team, and almost a Blue, an award earned for competition at the highest level. His voice was a relaxed drawl. He showed no deference. Jim Parker, who told me this, was standing a few feet away. Hunt and Ojukwu detested each other on sight, something that was made clear in my London briefing.

Early in his time as governor of the Eastern Region, Ojukwu tried, against all the prevailing wisdom elsewhere, to reinstitute a form of democracy. He formed three bodies to advise him; one was the Constituent Assembly, mainly the professional class, doctors, lawyers, graduates. Second was the Council of Chiefs and Elders, vital in an African society, where age and experience at clan level are revered. Third, surprising to Western eyes, was the Market Mammies Association.

Jim Parker explained to me that Ibo society is almost a matriarchy. In contrast to women in the north, Ibo women are hugely important and influential. The market was the core of every village and city zone. The mammies ran them and knew everything there was to know about the mood on the streets. These were the forces urging Ojukwu to pull eastern Nigeria out of the federal republic.

The public mood was not aggression but fear. Radio broadcasts out of the north threatened that the Hausa were preparing to come south and “finish the job.” Most Ibos believed these threats, the more so as neither federal nor northern government would close them down.

But the real secession point was eventually compensation. Ojukwu had about 1.8 million refugees, all penniless. They had fled, leaving everything behind. At the one single meeting that might have saved the day, at Aburi, in Ghana, Gowon had conceded a withholding of federal oil taxes as an income stream to cope with the crisis. After Aburi, Gowon returned to Lagos and, under pressure, reneged on the lot.

British official sources in Lagos and London briefed the British media that Ojukwu had been grossly unfair to Gowon. He had turned up fully briefed and was simply smarter. That sort of behavior, journalists were told, was obviously unacceptable. After that, the path slid downhill to May 30 and formal secession, and on July 6 to war.

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