The tragedy of Biafra….
In my review of the year of my birth I have a number of choices to make as to which events I cover, there are some, such as the so-called Prague Spring which require pages of words to cover it properly although there might be smaller, significant moments which can be looked at to mark such an historic event. 1968 was a huge year for so many reasons and the major events which took place usually came about as a result of months and years of neglect, abuse and anger. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King to name but three. All of these events continue, quite rightly to receive coverage in today’s press, social media and published word but how often are we reminded of the human catastrophe that was Biafra?
I must admit that until I became aware of the work of the legendary photojournalist Don McCullin about ten years ago, I was not familiar with the tragedy but McCullin’s images hit a nerve and reminded me in the cruellest way possible how easily forgotten the desperate lives of the poorest in our shared world are and how we categorise human suffering and death relative to wealth and skin colour. In McCullin’s autobiography he recalls going to Biafra ‘after hearing reports a woman had reached Iboland with the severed head of a child in a bowl you would normally eat your rice meal from’. It was a torturous assignment for the photographer; ‘My mind was assaulted with every kind of affliction that starving children can suffer’
The Republic of Biafra was a short-lived collection of states in Eastern Nigeria, formed in 1967 it suffered two and a half years of brutal civil war before its demise at the beginning of 1970. Made up from more than half a dozen ethnic groups within Nigeria which itself had seen independence from Britain in 1960, they were generally split between the largely Muslim population of the north and the Christians in the south. The emergence of the new African states was not without consequences and by 1966 two successive military coups threw the country into chaos.
What ensued was a collection of inadequately self-governing regions at odds with one another and the creation of Biafra was a result of the Eastern region failing to back and join the federal government which, by then, was beginning to reap the rewards of the country’s oil reserves. Biafra never stood a chance, poor from the moment of its creation it was no military match for the Nigerian forces and the stranglehold forced on them by the federal government saw some two million Biafrans die from starvation. The ratio of fire power was never less than 10-1 in the favour of the Nigerians and it was the British who largely turned a blind eye to the suffering in favour of lucrative arms deals with the Nigerian government. Indeed, no country of significance offered any official help to the Biafrans who were starving to death in a siege which created the resulting genocide. Well aware of the consequences of inaction, the Wilson Labour government along with many others stood by and watched the horrors unfold. Britain, as a recent colonial ruler was better placed than anyone to understand the effects of loss of rule and division between the neighbouring factions and the near total inability of the Biafrans to defend themselves from the Nigerians. Images like those of McCullin’s in which mothers cradled their starving children were published around the world and yet the response from the United Nations was toothless and reprehensible.
By 1968 Wilson’s government pressured both Oxfam and the International Red Cross to stop all of their aid to Biafra, BBC coverage of the war was prohibited and Wilson’s support of BP/Shell’s considerable investments in the eastern section and future trade deals with the Nigerian government trumped any human suffering. Such was his allegiance with the Nigerians, Wilson asked them if it would be problematic for one of his officials to talk with the Biafran government. The Nigerian response was one of agreement on condition it was done in secrecy with no formal basis. How quickly the role of colonial power can change.
And so the Biafran civilians suffered at an enormous rate and cost, the limited medical facilities were overran by hundreds and thousands of casualties from the fighting, malnutrition and dysentery. It was a disaster and a deeply shameful episode in Britain’s post-war history and a reminder how little regard the poorest in our society are given in the face of a trade deal. I would urge anyone to seek out McCullin’s Biafra portfolio, it affected him deeply and his images offer the clearest explanation as to why.
Categories: 1968-A Review