From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 16-17.
The Biafran war, which began in 1967, lasted two and a half years and cost over a million lives. As Alex de Waal noted in Famine Crimes, ‘an entire generation of NGO relief workers was moulded by Biafra and several agencies were either born from the relief operation or forever changed by it.’ From early on it became apparent that the Igbo nationalists who had tried to secede from Nigeria were hopelessly outgunned and had no chance of military success. Within a year they had lost all their major towns and strategic facilities to the much larger Nigerian army. All that was left was a small heartland ‘crowded with refugees, short on food, running out of ammunition, its funds all but finished’. At this stage, the decision of its leaders to reject all attempts at international mediation and fight on showed a combination of raw courage and obstinacy that greatly exacerbated the suffering of their own people.
What enabled this act of wilful defiance was an extraordinary outpouring of international sympathy as Biafra became the cause celebre of western Europe. A massive private relief operation began, the logistics of which were comparable to the Berlin airlift. Aid workers took enormous personal risks to bring in food and medical supplies, making up to forty flights a night to Biafra’s one make-shift runway. However, the Biafra intervention is also now widely recognized, in humanitarian circles at least, as a huge political error. The Igbo leadership used it to raise money to keep the war going by effectively taxing the NGOs who were delivering supplies. They turned down the offer of a supervised ‘land corridor’, realizing how dramatic the night flights had become. The flights were also used as cover for bringing in weapons along the same route, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.