Biafra, the prototype

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 17-18.

Britain attracted international condemnation for continuing to supply Nigeria with weapons during the conflict. France and Portugal, which still held African colonial interests, supplied the Biafrans with weapons for quite cynical reasons of their own. Church agencies also mobilized their supporters in solidarity with the ‘Christian Igbo’, who were said to be facing genocide from the Muslims of northern Nigeria. Oxfam ran advertisements warning that ‘the price for a united Nigeria is likely to be millions of lives.’ Such fears had a rational basis since the Igbo had been victims of sectarian riots the year before their secession. But when Biafra finally surrendered in January 1970, the central government was noticeable conciliatory to its defeated foes. Civil servants and soldiers were reabsorbed into the Nigerian federal state and many of those who lost property had it restored. Nigeria’s president quoted Abraham Lincoln’s words about ‘binding up the nation’s wounds’ after the American civil war. The predictions of the political humanitarians, in other words, turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

Of course it is easy to be wise in hindsight, though from as early as September 1968 it was clear that Nigerian forces were not carrying out genocide in the areas they had overrun. The conflict was also marked by a willingness of aid agencies and the international media to collude in a skilful campaign by the Biafran political leaders who hired a PR company to promote their cause. The image of starving children would become an iconic symbol of the intervention. …

Most aid organizations now admit that the main effect of their efforts was to prolong the conflict by a further eighteen months and that they needed to ‘learn the lessons’ from their mistakes. If the business of humanitarian aid is to reduce human suffering, then actions that increase it should presumably be subject to some sort of sanction. Yet it is doubtful if any aid worker suffered disciplinary action for violating humanitarian principles over Biafra. On the contrary, it proved of enormous benefit to the careers of a number of individuals and the creed of political humanitarianism. In other words, Biafra became a prototype for future interventions.


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