The following Memorandum from the American Jewish
Congress was written 49 years ago. Today, the Leader of the Biafran people,
Nnamdi Kanu, after being falsely imprisoned in Kuje Prison by the Federal
Government of Nigeria, for crimes which have not yet been articulated, was
again denied his lawful constitutional rights (yes, Nigeria has a constitution.) That is because this
British/Nigerian dual citizen held since October of 2015 along with and many
others, advocate freedom for Biafra from Nigeria. At the previous court hearing, the judge
proclaimed that Kanu would be tried in a secret, masked trial according to
Sharia Law. 70 million Biafrans, comprised of Igbo, Ijaw and
many other tribes of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) seek only their
freedom from ongoing slaughter by President Muhammadu Buhari, a war
criminal and Hausa Islamist. Please tune in to Radio Biafra for up to
date news on this fluid breaking news and reaction to the stalling of Nnamdi
Kanu's court case. Today, on twitter, I have called
upon the Chairman of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, a fellow Child of Holocaust Survivors, as Biafrans are, to update the
Memorandum from 1968. I have also offered to act as an American/Israeli liaison
to the Biafran people.
To: Chapter and Division Presidents
From: Phil Baum Director
I am pleased to enclose a comprehensive memorandum outlining the background and present status in Nigeria/Biafra. This memorandum was prepared by the staff of the Commission on International Affairs because of numerous requests for information about the origin, extent and implications of the Biafran conflict.
COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Why This War? 3
A. Indigenous Differences Among the Peoples of Nigeria 3
B. Conflicts During the Colonial Era 6
C. Conflicts Since Independence 8
D. The Ironsi Take-Over 11
E. The Counter-Coup and the Mass Killings 13
Biafran Secession and the Beginning of the Military Phase 15
The Progress of the Campaign 16
The Conflicting Claims 18
A, The Case for Nigeria 18
B. The Case for Biafra 20
Is There Genocide? 22
The Position of the Major Powers 25
B. Soviet Union 26
D. France 29
E. China 30
The Position of African States 31
OAU Attempts to Resolve the Conflict 31
The Attitudes of Private American Groups 33
A. The American Left 33
B. American Negro Organizations 33
C. Statements by Jewish Groups 36
Efforts of Church, Religious and Relief Organizations 38
Further Steps 40
In September of this year, the International Committee of the Bed Cross reported that 8-10,000 people were starving to death each day as the result of this war, and. that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.
( N.Y. Post, Sept. 28, 1968) On October 31, a relief worker for the World Council of Churches reported that 25,000 people would die each day if the war continued for another month. This means that if the present situation is allowed to continue, 6,000,000 people will have died by next summer. ( N.Y. Times, Oct. 31, 1968)
Similarly, the Biafran case demonstrates the paralysis of existing international institutions when it comes to mobilizing effective and swift relief. It is evident that the international community still has not forged mechanisms adequately responsive to imperative human need. Finally, the absence of sustained protest over the immense loss of life in Biafra indicates the urgent necessity for broadening the base of public interest. There has been an almost palpable public silence on this issue. This silence has characterized even some who in other circumstances have paraded a seeming concern over any spilling of blood and any taking of life. There apparently exists, in many places, an occasional and opportunistic sense of compassion, allowed to be expressed only when consonant with some overriding political purpose. Left to itself this intermittent sentiment clearly will not do much to prevent the genocide which is imminent in Biafra.
Mobilization of public opinion in part has been impeded by a lack of readily available information about the details of the conflict and its background. This memorandum is prepared in the hope of providing
A. Indigenous differences among the peoples of Nigeria
The causes of the Nigerian Biafran war—which Nigerians describe as a civil war and Biafrans, a war between two nations—are exceedingly complex. More than fifty years ago, Great Britain artificially carved an area out of West Africa containing hundreds of different groups and arbitrarily unified it, calling it Nigeria. Although the area contained many different groups, three were predominant: the Hausa-Fulani, which formed about 65% of the peoples in the northern part of the territory; the Yoruba, which formed about 75% of the population in the southwestern part; and the Ibo, which formed between 60-65% of the population in the southeast
Each of these groups was so distinctive politically, religiously, culturally, and socially, as to constitute what in Europe in most circumstances would be thought of as a separate nation. The profound differences between them account, in a large sense, for the disintegration of the Nigerian Federation during the past several years.
The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by an autocratic, conservative Islamic hierarchy
The Yoruba political system in the southwest, like that of the Hausa-Fulani, also consisted of a series of monarchs. The Yoruba monarchs, however, were less autocratic than those in the North, and the political and social system of the Yoruba accordingly allowed for greater upward mobility based on acquired rather than inherited wealth and title.
The Ibo in the southeast, in contrast to the two other groups, lived in some six hundred autonomous, democratically-organized vi1lages. Decisions among the Ibo were made by a general assembly in which every man could participate.
The different political systems among these three peoples produced highly divergent sets of customs and values. The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through their village head who was designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be obeyed without question. This highly centralized and authoritarian political system elevated to positions of leadership persons willing to be subservient and loyal to superiors—the same virtues required by Islam for eternal salvation. One of the chief functions of the traditional political system was to maintain the Islamic religion. Hostility to economic and social innovation was therefore deeply rooted.
In contrast to the Hausa-Fulani, the Ibo often participated directly in the decisions which affected their lives. They had a lively awareness of the political system and regarded it as an instrument for
These tradition-derived differences were perpetuated and, perhaps, even enhanced by the British system of colonial rule in Nigeria. In the North, the British found it convenient to rule indirectly through the Emirs, thus perpetuating rather than changing the indigenous authoritarian political system. As a concomitant of this system, Christian missionaries were excluded from the North, and the area thus remained virtually closed to Western education and influence. During the ensuing years, the Northern Emirs, thus were able to maintain traditional political and religious institutions, while limiting social change. As a result, the North, at the time of independence in 1960, was by far the most underdeveloped area in Nigeria with a literacy rate of 2% as compared to 16% in the East and 18% in the West (literacy in Arabic script, learned in connection with religious education, was higher).
In the South, and particularly in the Yoruba areas, the British were able to establish themselves more firmly and Christian missionaries rapidly introduced Western forms of education. Consequently, the Yoruba were the first group in Nigeria to become significantly modernized and they provided the first African civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and other technicians and professionals.
The political division of Nigeria during the colonial period into three regions—North, West and East—exacerbated the already well-developed economic, political, and social competition among
Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups—the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Ibo respectively—formed political parties that were largely regional and tribal in character: the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG): and the National Conference of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the East. Although these parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up, the present disintegration of Nigeria results, largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe. To simplify matters, we will refer to them here as the Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo-based; or Northern, Western and Eastern parties.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s the Ibo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence for Britain They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organized into several small states so that the conservative and backward North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, however, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernized elites in the South, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. As a condition for accepting independence, they demanded that the country continue to be divided into three regions with the North having a clear majority. Ibo and Yoruba leaders, anxious to obtain an independent country at all cost, accepted the Northern demands.
Nigeria finally achieved independence in October 1960 and appeared, for a while, to have a bright political and economic future. When no one party received a majority in the pre-independence elections, a Northern-Eastern coalition was formed which afforded the country political stability. Meanwhile the gross national product continued to move steadily upward and soon Nigeria, with some 55 million people constituting the most populous nation in Africa, developed a reputation as the showcase of democracy and economic stability on the continent.
This stability was short-lived. Within a few years, explosive forces always present covertly, began to surface. Since 1962, Nigeria has been rocked by widespread violence, internal disorder, and now by a savage civil war,. This violence reflects, in essence, Northern attempts to maintain control of the country in the face of increasingly intense opposition from the South and particularly from the Ibo peoples. Within a period of three years—from 1962-1965—the Northern-dominated Federal Government instigated a split in the Yoruba party which rendered the Action Group virtually ineffective; invalidated a nation-wide census which reportedly showed the two Southern regions to have outstripped the North; and blatantly rigged two elections in order to perpetuate their control of the country and of the Western Region which they gained after rendering the Action Group ineffective. 1
The split of the Yoruba-based party was instigated by the North because its leader, Chief Obofemi Awolowo, favored unremitting
1. Audrey R. Chapman, “Civil War in
Thereafter the Federal government moved more decisively to consolidate its strength. Claiming to have uncovered a plan for a military coup the Northern-dominated Federal government arrested Awolowo and sentenced him to ten years in prison. Similarly in 1962 the Federal government arbitrarily moved to invalidate a national census which in terms of their interests came up with the wrong results. Although the exact findings of the 1962 census never were officially published, its results reportedly demonstrated that the two regions of the South had outstripped the North in total population.2 This was an extremely sensitive matter as the census was to be the basis for apportioning seats in the Federal Parliament. Until then the North had been assigned a sure majority. At any rate, the Federal Government conducted a new census the results of which were predictably favorable to Northern interests, They were announced in early 1964: North, 29.7 million; East, 12.3 million; West, 10.2 million; Mid-West, 2.5 million (this region was newly created in 1963); and the Federal Territory of Lagos, 675,000.
The national elections of December 1964, in which these coalitions were to meet for the first time, was, perhaps, the immediate cause of Nigeria’s disintegration. Basically, it was alleged that the party representing Southern elements was not allowed to compete in the North and the Northern-controlled Western region. According to one report, 4,000 of its members were arrested including 40 nominees for the Federal Parliaments.3 The party thereupon demanded a postponement of the elections and a thorough investigation. Prime Minister Balewa, a Northern Muslim, refused. The party then responded with a boycott of the elections and an announcement that it would not recognize any government based upon its results. Consequently only 20% of the electorate participated in the 1964 vote as opposed to 80% in 1959. In effect, a large segment of the people had withdrawn legitimacy from the government. Nigerian unity appeared to have been shattered. Only intensive negotiations between Federal and regional leaders leading to agreement on a “broadly-based” government averted a crisis—however temporarily. The underlying problem of sectionalism, corruption and illegal practices remained.
The following year elections again were blatantly rigged, this time in the Western Region. Thousands of illegal ballots were found in the possession of government officials. Impartial observers
D. The Ironsi Take-Over
At the outset, General Ironsi faced a major dilemma. Could he and should he punish the instigators of the coup for assassinating the Federal Prime Minister, and the Premiers of the Western and Northern Regions? He had to bear in mind especially that the latter had been Islam’s revered religious leader and was generally acknowledged to be the power behind the Prime Minister himself. The Northern rank-and-file of the army were bitterly resentful over these murders, as well as the death of many Northern officers. However if Ironsi punished the young officers who had staged the coup, he would probably alienate the Ibo officers who formed about one-third of his officer corps, plus the whole southern intelligenstia who were fed up with the conservative, Northern-dominated and corrupt Federal Government.
Ironsi chose instead to attempt to heal the rifts in the army and country by instituting badly needed reforms. In May 1966, as part of this program, he abolished the Federal structure of government. But this proved his undoing. Many politicians and bureaucrats with vested interests in a Nigeria divided into regions vigorously opposed this move. They chose to see it as a bald attempt to consolidate Nigeria under Ibo domination. To support their suspicions, they pointed to the fact that almost all the officers who staged the coup leading to the Ironsi government were Ibos. Further, the politicians and officers killed in the coup
Following the Ironsi take-over, ousted Hausa-Fulani bureaucrats, politicians and religious leaders, began to focus upon Ibos living in the North as responsible for all the problems that were beginning to face the North—from rising prices to the declining power of the Northern Region in the Federal Government. Two days after the Ironsi proclamation of a unified governmental structure, these elements organized riots in
several Northern cities resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Ibos and the forced exodus of thousands of others.5 This massacre fed upon the long-standing resentment of Ibos based upon their rapid accumulation of wealth and education.
The idea of an Ibo take-over of the country gradually gained more and more credence and led to further unrest in an already disgruntled army, On July 29, 1966 Northern soldiers staged counter-coup, killing Ironsi, and about 400 Ibo officers. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, announced as new head of the government, immediately restored the federal structure yielding to the demands of the Northern politicians.
Many members of the Ibo elite who had occupied prominent positions coder Ironsi viewed this new coup as a re-establishment of Northern authoritarian control over Nigeria. They and the progressive Yorubas and others who had joined with them had not been able freely to compete for: power under the old regime. Now, their high hopes for reconstruction and modernization after the Ironsi coup were suddenly
dashed by a counter-coup scarcely half a year later, These frustrations were transformed into deep hatred and fear by the ruthless slaughter of hundreds of Ibos living in the North and of Ibo officers in the army,
Many Ibos fled to the Eastern Region convinced that only secession would afford them security as well as the opportunity to develop a politically coherent and economically vibrant nation. Half-formed notions about secession were transformed into grim determination after a veritable pogrom erupted in the North in September 1966, resulting in the slaughter of from 5,000 to 30,000 Ibos and other Easterners, depending upon the reports one reads. Nigerians claim that this massacre followed the killing of hundreds of Northerners resident in the East. Biafran supporters argue it was caused by Northern anger over a decision to break up the North into several smaller states, made by a constitutional conference arranged by General Gowon.
In any case, this mass slaughter left a deep scar on the Ibo people. Ibo leaders called for the return of all Ibos to their ancestral homeland and began serious preparations for secession. A January 1967 conference of leaders from all regions failed to produce lasting agreement on decentralization of the country. At that point, civil servants, teachers, newspaper reporters, university students and military officers—all disillusioned with the results of Independence—further galvanized public opinion for secession. A definite step was taken in March when the Government of the Eastern Region announced that all revenues collected on behalf of the Federal Government would be paid to the Treasury of the Eastern Region. The Federal Government, it was alleged, had refused to pay the salaries of refugee civil servants forced to flee their areas of employment,
and the East now had some 2 million refugees whose displacement from other parts of Nigeria was “irreversible.” Moreover, the Federal Government, it was alleged had refused to pay the East its statutory share of revenues for months.6
Faced with virtual secession, Colonel Gowon finally attempted to deal with grievances about Northern domination and also to appeal to minorities throughout Nigeria. He proposed that the Northern Region be broken up into six states, the East into three, and the West into two. The new states would coincide, to a large extent, with natural ethnic divisions. Notably, the East would be divided in such a way that the oil reserves would be located in states without an Ibo majority.
During June and July, the Conference sent its director, Mr. Theodore B. Brown, to consult with African leaders in Nigeria. On October 30, the Conference sent another cablegram to Lt. General Gowon which stated: “As the war goes in Nigeria, Americans of African descent become increasingly alarmed at the mounting bloodshed and misery. We offer again our hand in friendship in any effort to bring the bloodshed to an immediate end...We hope that the six heads of the Organization of African Unity will be able to undertake their mission as soon as possible.”
Negro signatories to this cablegram included James Farmer, chairman, National Advisory Board, Congress of Racial Equality; Dorothy Height, president, National Council of Negro Women; A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and
Randolph Institute; and Roy Wilkins, executive director, National Associat:ion for the Advancement of Colored People.
In addition, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP issued the following statement: “The need for feeding the starving millions transcends all military arid political considerations. It is to be devoutly wished that all parties concerned will summarily end the food blockade as they increase their efforts to negotiate a lasting peace.”
It has been suggested that the lack of a sustained and effective response to the Biafran tragedy reflects a general cultural phenomenon which in general is willing to accord greater sanctity to political purpose than to human life.
Although as is noted below Jewish organizations have recently become actively engaged in relief efforts, few of them have found occasion to issue formal pronouncements on the present conflict. It is noteworthy however that the World Jewish Congress at its last meeting of its Governing Council in Geneva on July 8, 1968, adopted the following resolution:
“The World Jewish Congress records its deep distress at the unspeakable human suffering caused by the conflict over Biafra. This tragic situation imposes an inescapable obligation on the nations of the world community to take urgent steps to help to bring this conflict to an end. Accordingly, we express the earnest hope that the appropriate organs of the United Nations will take the necessary measures to organize a cease fire and to alleviate the hunger and suffering which is taking a toll of uncounted
“The Jewish people everywhere has watched with growing anguish the unspeakable horrors which have disfigured the conflict over Biafra and the incalculable toll of human suffering which it has exacted.
In the name of an immemorial tradition which has never wavered through all the prejudices of our own history, in affirming that the rights of human life and. personality are sacred, we feel impelled to call upon the protagonists to transfer their conflict from the battlefield to the conference table, and to seek peaceful solutions of their differences without delay.
We support wholeheartedly the African statesmen who, in the service alike of humanity and the cause of African Unity, have striven with so much dedication for a cease-fire through which succour can be brought to save the defenceless victims of the war who can still be saved.
It is imperative that every effort should be made, and without delay, to mobilize help which is today a matter of life and death for many thousands of innocent civilians. I am confident that Jews everywhere will rally to the help of the agencies, national and international which have undertaken to discharge what is our common human obligation.
I urge all Jewish communities and representative organisations affiliated to the World Jewish Congress to take an active part in supporting the work of relief and
rehabilitation either in close association with bodies already active in the field or, where necessary, to create committees for the purpose of mobilizing the
support of their members.”
On October 2, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the coordinating body for major national and local Jewish community organizations in the United States, called on the American government to take the lead in organizing a massive airlift of food, medical supplies and other necessities to Biafra. The NRAC further urged the United States to raise the matter at the United Nations, with a view to providing effective humanitarian relief under international auspices.
Strenuous efforts have been under way for many months by a wide group of humanitarian and religious groups to airlift food and medical supplies into Biafra. These organizations include the International Red Cross, Caritas, Church World Service (representing Protestant organizations), Catholic Relief Service, the World Council of Churches and the American Jewish Emergency Effort for Biafran Relief. The latter organization comprises a broad assembly of major national American Jewish organizations. While these efforts have been carried out in most instances with great energy and zeal, they are, almost by their very nature, inadequate to meet a challenge of this dimension.
The major road block at this moment appears to be the provision of adequate transportation. Recent reports indicate that 15 to 20 planes are landing at Biafra each night. This breaks down to 10-12 from Sao Tome (through the coordination of the Committee of International Church Relief, involving the World Council of Churches, Caritas, Nordchurchaid, German, Dutch, Swiss churches etc.); 6-8 from Fernando Po, mainly ICRC; and 3-4 from Libreville, Gabon, mainly French. Major arms and ammunition flights emanate from Gabon as well and are reported as amounting from 20-30 tons a day. The Ivory Coast also is involved in the shipment of supplies..
The present airlift brings into Biafra 150-180 tons of relief materials a day—a distressingly small amount in terms of the size of the need. If no cease-fire is reached by the end of December, Dr. Herman Middlekoop, now secretary of the Christian Council in Biafra estimates that 3,000 tons a day will be needed to save the Biafran population from
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Until now the major problem has-been the unavailability of protein-rich food and this diet deficiency has exacted its greatest toll among growing children and young adults. Early in December 1968, Middlekoop estimated that Biafra’s staple supply of carbohydrates—yams and cassava—would run out by the end of the month. He predicted that thereafter a general famine will set in resulting in the deaths of millions of adults as well as children. In addition, Dr. Middlekoop has broadcast an urgent appeal for various drugs and. especially for large stores of measles vaccine for the immediate inoculation of an estimated 2,000,000 children.
On the other hand, it is reported that tons of food and medical supplies now lie idle in Nigerian warehouses Red. Cross officials attribute difficulties of distribution to heavy rains, impassable roads, blown-up bridges, requisition of available transportation for military purposes, military intervention and. plain inefficiency.
Distribution of supplies seems somewhat better in the Mid-Western State and in the northern parts of the former Eastern Region now under Federal control, and quite poor in Calabar and. the coastal areas. In the former areas, suffering is largely confined to refugee camps and hospitals, although there are other areas of overcrowding and disease. In Calabar and the coastal region, the death rate is extremely high, perhaps because of greater interference by the Nigerian military. Since September the IEC and UNICEF have been able to transport to these areas only about twelve tons of supplies each day.
Despite the good intention and diligent efforts of many private organizations throughout the world it is increasingly apparent that these groups alone cannot begin to do the job necessary to preserve life in the distressed areas of Biafra. Although private organizations have been reluctant to approach governments because of their unwillingness to engage in actions that might be represented as political, the hard truth is that the massive assistance indispensable to save lives realistically can come only from government sources. This does not mean that private assistance should not be continued or that energetic efforts to solicit private contributions should not be made, It is noteworthy, however, that until now American private relief efforts combined have produced only an estimated 5 million dollars while the United States alone, as noted earlier, has already extended 18 million dollars relief and is reported to be ready to commit an additional 20 million dollars. The relative size of the sums is a sufficient explanation of the emerging consensus that it is necessary to apply to government agencies if any large numbers of human lives are to be salvaged..
Even more sobering is the view of many observers that even large-scale governmental assistance at this stage will he ineffectual unless carried out within the context of a cease-fire. They point out that the effective distribution of supplies and the necessary rehabilitation of the land cannot proceed in the midst of active conflict and that realistically the only way to prevent the anticipated enormous human losses is for both sides immediately to accept a stand-still cease fire.
Many Americans moreover are circumspect about recommending a policy of intervention in the affairs of other governments, even in the form of a cease-fire. They are reluctant to recommend any position which arguably implicates our government in the settlement or determination of the political affairs of governments far from our shores. They allege that this applies with special force in the case of a controversy on the continent of Africa in which other African States remain unwilling to become involved or even to recommend a cease-fire because of the possible political connotations.
Since in our own lifetime a share of the world Jewry was itself victimized by genocide, it might be expected that Jews especially would be responsive to the present danger in Biafra. At the same time however some Jewish spokesmen have cautioned against a disproportionate expression of Jewish interest. They warn that Jewish concern might be misconstrued as deriving principally from the fact that a large percentage of the Nigerians are followers of Islam and that the principal
Critics of Biafra observe that the loss of human life is directly attributable to the separationist attempt and that if, indeed, the saving of life is paramount, the simplest and sanest method would be for Biafra to abandon its secessionist campaign and thus forestall any further taking of life. By the same logic Nigerian authorities warn against further intensive campaigns for relief, however humanely motivated. They insist that these efforts can only extend the conflict and thus enhance the ultimate loss of life.
This proposition has a certain plausibility and merit. But it is the kind of argument that applies in any armed conflict. Obviously, in any war if one side were to capitulate and surrender, the loss of life would come to a halt. To apply these same strictures to the
The argument in a sense can also be turned around. Biafra at the present time occupies only 1/6 of the original Eastern zone. The amount of physical territory the secessionists retain has been sharply reduced. A standstill cease fire therefore will not entail any large sacrifice of land or sovereignty by Nigeria. The small enclave remaining in the hands of Biafran forces would not seriously detract from Nigerian unity. This fact coupled with the universally conceded prospect of a long, bitter, indefinite and costly stalemate in the field may operate to make Nigerian authorities more amenable to a world-wide demand for a cease-fire. The Nigerian government now occupies so large a share of former Ibo territory as to be able to
Obviously concurrent with political efforts both by our own government and by international agencies to stop the war, more immediate efforts to provide emergency relief both private and governmental must continue. Every means must be used to avoid the imminent starvation. History suggests that every age has its own time of moral trial. It is perhaps not too much to believe that Biafra fulfills that role for this generation.