Exactly 50 years ago the national borders of post-colonial Africa experienced their first seismic shock. Nigeria – vast, quarrelsome and ethnically heterogeneous – threatened to split up under the pressure of tribal and other tensions, and the May 1967 secession of Biafra created diplomatic and political aftershocks. They involved not only some of the major European nations but also – unexpectedly – Ireland.
Initially the events attracted little attention: it was a small war in a far-away country between non-white people. Two factors, however, combined to change this.
One was oil. The territory of the breakaway “sovereign and independent” Republic of Biafra, as it was baptised by its new president, the former military governor of eastern Nigeria Odumegwu Ojukwu, included huge oil deposits, probably among the most valuable then known to exist in Africa.
Nigeria’s federal military government, established in 1966 after a series of military coups, regarded these resources as vital: so did British oil companies, who were engaged in exploiting them, and their rivals in French oil companies.
The threat of famine, combined with an independence struggle, had an almost irresistible political and emotional impact on Irish public opinion
The stage was set, effectively, not only for conflict over the national control of resources, but for a proxy war involving two former colonial powers.
The second factor was religion – not any of the African religions of the region, but Christianity, and specifically, in the case of Biafra, Catholicism. Since the early 20th century, Irish Catholic missionaries in particular had made eastern Nigeria (coterminous with the newly created Biafra) a core pays de mission.
In 1967, many of these missionaries – seeing historical parallels between Biafra and the Irish independence struggle – adopted the Biafran cause with great commitment and skill, and began to canvass Irish public opinion for support.
Even at that, it took almost a year before Irish media began to respond. At that point Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby sent me out to report on a situation that was beginning to attract enormous Irish interest. I was only the second English-speaking reporter to visit Biafra (the first had been Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times); and later Frederick Forsyth and others became powerful advocates for the Biafran cause.
The political and diplomatic tensions also increased. In January 1968, just before I went out, Kevin McCourt, then director general of RTÉ, after seeking advice from the department of external affairs, intervened to prevent an RTÉ team (which had got as far as Lisbon) from travelling further.
At this stage, the federal Nigerian authorities had consciously adopted a strategy that would recur half a century later in the Middle East conflict: starvation. As one of the federal government leaders said at the time: “I don’t see why we should feed our enemies in order for them to fight harder.”
The threat of famine, combined with an independence struggle, had an almost irresistible political and emotional impact on Irish public opinion, which became hugely supportive of the regular airlifts, via the off-shore Portuguese island of São Tomé, of food and medical supplies to the beleaguered infant republic.
At this remove, it is somewhat embarrassing to have to admit that these factors largely conditioned much of Irish reporting at that time – including my own – to the detriment of any analysis of the geo-politics of oil that were involved.
In the circumstances, many of our articles focused on the ethnic aspects of the problem, and the 35-year-old Biafran leader, when I interviewed him, placed enormous emphasis on these.
If either of us had dived for cover, the other would have followed
He was an accomplished public speaker, and the bushy black beard which framed his young face contributed to his impressive, pleasantly Mephistophelian aura, as he spoke with obvious determination, even passion, about his desire to spare Biafra the ethnic and tribal tensions which had riven the rest of the country.
Afterwards, as we sat on his balcony, both of us became aware of a low, distant, jet engine note in the sky. Each of us knew what it meant. Biafra did not have an air force: the only planes in the sky were Russian MiGs piloted by Egyptian mercenaries, which regularly attacked Biafran targets.
Ojukwu and I looked at each other. Nothing was said, but I suspect that the same thought was going through each of our minds. If either of us had dived for cover, the other would have followed. He didn’t make a move. My courage draining rapidly into my boots, I stayed too, and stuttered to the end of the interview.
Communications with Dublin were almost non-existent. I later learned that Gageby would inquire occasionally at the morning news conferences whether anyone had heard from me, adding – political incorrectly – “Has he, perhaps, been eaten?”
The diplomatic situation was increasingly delicate, for there were also many Irish missionaries in the federal part of Nigeria, and their safety (not to mention that of those in Biafra as it was overrun by federal forces) was a real concern.
That this situation was satisfactorily managed from an Irish point of view was due in no small measure to the intelligence and immense diplomatic skills of our then ambassador in Lagos, Paul Keating (a cousin of Justin Keating, later a Labour Party minister), who briefed me confidentially.
The secession and the civil war ended in January 1970, and Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, although he was allowed back 13 years later, following an official pardon, to play a not insignificant part in Nigeria’s return to democracy.
Before he died in 2011, Ojukwu also paid a brief visit to Ireland to meet some of his old friends, not least members of the Holy Ghost order (now the Spiritans) who had been, and still are, closely associated with the Igbo people of the eastern provinces.
After Ojukwu’s death in November 2011, the Nigerian Army honoured him with a funeral parade, but some of the old wounds have not quite healed.
In 1995, the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the federal government for his pro-Biafran activism against the international oil companies. And a rebel radio station still broadcasts propaganda to the Biafran diaspora from a makeshift studio in a London suburb.