Starve a rebellious nation to death

Several well-known and much appreciated mercenaries fought in the ranks of the Biafran army. Among them there were count Carl Gustaf von Rosen and the Polish flying ace and the No. 303 Squadron RAF commander, Jan Zumbach. It was them to build Biafran “air forces”, which was successfully making the Nigerians’ life a misery.

Christopher Ejike Ago was a teenager when the war in Biafra began. Like many other he passed a two-day training and was sent to the front. He knew he wasn’t well prepared, but he had the feeling that he was participating in something big. The inhabitants of Biafra wanted to fight for independence.

The whole region was engaged in the war effort, so were the whole people irrespective of sex and age. But how does one fight when hunger is looking into their eyes and the army has no weapons. Ago remembers the overpowering felling of hunger that made the Biafran soldiers catch and eat mice. He also recollects the last year of the war when his unit was still running away from the Nigerian army.

“Somewhere in the middle of the war the Biafrans made some dramatic successes that gave us hope that we might hold the Nigerians until at least some help from outside came” – said Ago in an interview for the BBC. – “By late 1969, all hope was lost”.

Felix Nwankwo Oragwu, a physics lecturer at the Biafran University was one of the people who designed weapons for the country… “When the war started, there was not a single weapon... anywhere throughout Biafra. No gun, no bomb, no nothing” – he recalled to the BBC.

Oragwu was head of a team which supported the Biafran army in terms of technology. Their greatest achievement was to devise a rocket launcher “Ogbunigwe”. It is thanks to this weapon that the Biafrans prevailed so many times. “Without us, the war would have lasted only about 30 hours”, Oragwu added.

For Europeans the war in Biafra is simply yet another ethnic conflict on African soil. Meanwhile for the people in Biafra it was a genocide. The first crime of genocide committed by blacks against blacks. Biafra hasn’t healed its wounds to this day. In Nigeria, one of the most powerful countries in Africa it is better not to mention those events at all.

More than an ethnic conflict

Nigeria was a British colony. It gained independence in 1960 – a year that was hailed the “Year of Africa” for the reason that many countries of the Black Continent became emancipated from colonial rule.

Like other countries Nigeria was facing numerous problems. Next to the economic ones there were ethnic, religious divisions as well as discontent of some ethnic groups with borderlines.

Nigeria is inhabited by about 225 million people. Among there are as many as 250 ethnic groups of which almost each has a unique language and can pride itself on its own tradition.

The four largest groups are Hausa and Fulani to the north, Yoruba to the west and Igbo (Ibo) to the south. The major difference between is religion. Many of the Yoruba profess traditional cults, some converted to Islam, other became Christian. Hausa and Fulani are majoritarily Sunni Muslims though a number of them professes Shiism. Igbo are Christian belonging mainly to protestant churches. About 10% of all Christians are Catholics.
Odumegwu Ojukwu became president of Biafra. Pictured: him speaking in the parliament in Bialystok in July 1967. Photo Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Just like people in other African countries, the Nigerians were incapable of taking their chance. Oil deposits in Nigeria could make it a world power. But it didn’t happen so. Particular interests and caring for “their people” – be it a family, clan, or ethnic group – resulted in a situation where members of different tribes couldn’t come to terms. Conflicts broke out ceaselessly though for some time they were managed to be overcome.

In 1963, a wave of strikes began in the capital city of Lagos and swept the country. People were protesting against the omnipresent poverty. Eventually, the army resolved to take control of the situation and oust the corrupt government from power. In January 1966 a plot was hatched. The assassins, originating mostly form the Igbo tribe, killed the prime minister. Aguyi Ironsi took the power but his rule didn’t last long. The coup carried out by Christian Igbo caused a serious concern in the Muslim north.

Not later by much the army from the north staged another coup and overthrew Ironsi. Now, it was Yakub Gowon to take the power. There had been unrest in Nigeria. Hausa and Fulani were taking their revenge on the Igbo for trying to take control over the whole country. They were accused of attempts to completely marginalize Muslims. In some place it came to pogroms of the Christian community of Igbo. Up to 100 thousand people were killed in the following weeks. The Igbo were forced to flee down south.

The displaced people were supported by the governor of Eastern Province (i.e. future Biafra), the charismatic colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was worried that the sudden influx of huge numbers of internally displaced people would further upset the situation in his region.

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At last the South and the North came to talks. The negotiations were held in Ghana and they ended up in signing an agreement. Both parties consented to a administrative reform for instance. Nigeria was divided into 12 provinces. It seemed that the crisis had been overcome.

After having returned to Nigeria, however, the federal government withdrew from the deal and unilaterally announced the creation of several new provinces. The hitherto Eastern Province was divided into three parts, which encountered a sharp reaction from the former governor of Odumegwu Ojukwu and all its inhabitants. Such a break-up had the effect that the authorities and people of the Eastern Province completely lost control of the crude oil extracted there. Lagos was taking control of raw materials.

The South's sense of separateness from the North had been extremely strong since Nigeria’s declaration of independence. After the failed coup and revenge from the North, the people the Eastern Province felt increasingly alienated. Odumegwu Ojukwu, who on May 30, 1967 proclaimed Biafra's independence understood these sentiments very well.

Almost a country

The name Biafra comes from the Bay of Biafra which is part of the Gulf of Guinea. Enugu became the capital of the country. The most important city for its economy was Port Harcourt, and the main scientific hub – Nsukka, where the University of Biafra was opened. The state established its own central bank and issued its currency. Biafra had a surface area of 77,000 square kilometers and a population of 13.5 million. Odumegwu Ojukwu became president of Biafra.

Who was the man all Biafra fell in love with? Jan Zumbach, an airman from the No 303 Squadron of the Battle of Britain, who fought in Biafra as a mercenary described his first meeting with Ojkuwu as follows:

“Ojukwu came to meet me in the hall of his residence. His round, tired face showed at once the signs of the energy typical of statesmen, friendly but firm. He shook my hand politely and apologized that the meeting was taking place at such an unusual time. However, he could not afford to put off the pleasure of getting to know ... this famous Mister Brown, who delivered the first plane of my future air force (...). I have always had a crush on such tireless people. I took to the host at first sight. The dream was gone immediately. Ojukwu kept me until 3 AM and told me about the heartbreqaking situation in his country. His prophetic objectivity made a strong impression on me” wrote Zumbach in his autobiography “Mister Brown” (“Ostatnia walka”).

The leader of Biafra impressed Zumbach with knowledge, intelligence and composure. Ojukwu knew both the possibilities and weaknesses of his country and believed that his countrymen were able not only to win the war, but also to create a strong and stable state. After all, they had no shortage of money (thanks to crude oil).
Infographics by Anna Tybel-Chmielewska /TVP
From the beginning, Biafra relied on what today we would call good PR. The authorities of this secessionist state understood that their survival depended largely on international support. Biafrans presented themselves as victims of the Nigerian government and as people persecuted because of their religion and culture. Also during the war, it became extremely important to adequately present their successes. The Biafran authorities did this lesson very well.

To a certain extent, foreign countries understood what was the Biafrans’ point. Usually, such secessions do not receive any international recognition. In this case, it was different. Biafra was formally recognized by Gabon, Haiti, Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zambia (there are relatively few African countries on this list, but we have to remember that in 1967 not all countries were already independent). Some countries, though they didn't officially recognize Biafra, provided assistance. These included France, Spain, Portugal, Norway Rhodesia, South Africa and the Vatican. Even Pope Paul VI became personally involved in Biafra's cause.

The greatest support among all countries was provided by France, which was interested in expanding its influence throughout West Africa. Meanwhile Great Britain, standing for the territorial integrity of its former colony and thus opposing any independence aspirations of any ethnic group came to the aid of the authorities in Lagos.

Initially, the Lagos government was not particularly concerned with Biafra's secession. Police troops were sent to deal with the rebels. However, the authorities miscalculated. Odumegwu Ojukwu, who headed Biafra, had the support of the entire society. People were really ready to die for the independence of their country. It is not easy to pacify a dozen million Biafrans. Biafra knew she had to expect a long war. The Lagos government was yet to find that out.

Mass killer

The Biafran War of 1967-1970 sometimes boils down to the issue of raw materials only. The fact is that crude oil was already at that time Nigeria's primary export resource, and the entire process of its extraction was an extremely important branch of the economy, but even so, it is difficult to argue that the Byzantine war was only about raw materials.

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Nigeria attacked Biafra on July 6, 1967. The first attack was repelled. Biafran troops even went on the offensive. In August, they entered the territory of Nigeria. The war on the shores of the Bay of Biafra wasn’t profitable for the United States or the Soviet Union, which both preferred to maintain peace in this section of the world. Both powers supported Lagos in this game, which was also the cause of Biafra's final defeat.

The authorities in Lagos were sending more units to Biafra which advanced successfully, albeit slowly. On October 4, 1967, government troops captured Biafra's capital, Enugu. Operation “Tiger Claw” began, which was aimed at seizing the ports of Biafra. The offensive, however, did not go as well as expected. So the Nigerian government decided to break the secessionists' resistance differently – by starvation. Biafra had been blocked. Both export and import of goods became impossible. It was only a matter of time that people went hungry.

Although the situation was becoming increasingly dramatic, in September 1968 the Biafranians achieved an important military successes, taking their capital from the hands of the Nigerians. Their goal was primarily to break the blockade, which would allow the supply of food and weapons.

Biafra was poorly prepared for the war. She did not have enough weapons, and many of the soldiers underwent only a few days of training before going to the front. However, the will to fight was enormous. In addition, their own scientists and engineers were used to design weapons. There was not enough money to buy modern equipment, so the Biafranians opted for innovation.

The weapon that became a symbol of this war was a rocket launcher called “ogbunigwe”, which, loosely translated, means “mass killer”. A whole arsenal of small arms was also designed (e.g. something like Molotov cocktails or anti-personnel mines) and even armored vehicles. These were the so-called “Red devils”, vehicles designed on the basis of tractors or construction machinery.

A Swedish count and a Polish flying ace

Several well-known and much appreciated mercenaries fought in the ranks of the Biafran army. Among them there were count Carl Gustaf von Rosen and the Polish flying ace and the No. 303 Squadron RAF commander, Jan Zumbach. It was them to build Biafran “air forces”, which was successfully making the Nigerians’ life a misery.

Carl Gustaf von Rosen was born in Sweden in 1909, he came from an aristocratic family. Interested in aviation since his youth, he chose the life of an adventurer over a quiet life of affluence. Von Rosen was involved in what he considered righteous from the early age.

In 1935 he helped the Ethiopians during the war against Italy. Four years later, he flew aircraft of the Finnish Armed Forces during the Winter War, fighting the Soviets. After World War II, he returned to Ethiopia, where he helped in creating its air force.

In 1968 he became interested in the fate of Biafra. With his own money, he bought five small planes, repainted them in military colors and delivered to the militant Biafranians. On the spot, he organized a squadron of pilots, bringing to Biafra capable mercenary pilots from all over the world. Von Rosen's men performed some spectacular actions, destroying several Nigerian MiG-17 fighters and Il-28 bombers.
Jan Zumbach (to the left) with lieutenant Eugeniusz Horbaczewski from the No. 303 Squadron. 1942. Photo. CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
Jan Zumbach, who became famous during the Second World War as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, did not return to communist Poland after the end of the WW II. He settled in the West. He ran his own restaurant and club in Paris, and whenever the opportunity arose, he returned to flying, because he was unable to abandon the adrenaline-filled life. He brokered the purchase of aircraft, was a mercenary, ran a transport company, and even ... smuggled gold and diamonds. And, just as von Rosen, he went where he believed people were fighting for a good cause.

Thus, Zumbach landed in Katanga, and in 1967 in Biafra, where he co-organized military aviation. He wrote about his adventure with Biafra:

“Four days bedore [i.e. June 6, 1967 – editorial note] Nigeria launched a full-scale war to reclaim the rebellious little province of Biafra, which had the audacity to challenge it by proclaiming independence. When in June I found myself in Enugu, the capital of the Secession, all I knew was that the small nation was in danger of extermination. I also knew that the small, rebellious state of Biafra was relatively rich thanks to crude oil, that is to say: money paid by Shell and BE. I also knew that this wealth enabled it to recruit military aid abroad. But at the time when I landed my B-26 on the Enugu airport runway, the Nigerian-Biafran conflict was limited to jungle skirmishes. At least I thought so. So my antediluvian bomber was doing transport tasks” .

Jan Zumbach had fought in the Biafran “air Force”, which he built from scratch, for three years. He only had a fleet of old, often rundown military planes or civilian machines that were hastily converted into combat aircraft.

Despite many difficulties Biafra was facing, Zumbach emphasized its uniqueness and extraordinary ambition of the people he chose to stand by. The Biaphans knew what they were fighting for and why, for them it was a war of be or not to be. The Polish ace of aviation did not regret even one minute spent in the Bay of Biafra.

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The blockade of the country, which began already in the second half of 1967, soon caused famine. And it was hunger that was treated by Nigeria as one of the weapons. About half a million people died by starvation during the Bifran War. Another half a million were killed as a result of military operations, bombing and executions.

There were almost no provisions in Biafra, and those that were left did not last long for over 13 million people. Children felt the hunger most. Diseases began to spread among the youngest, including kwashiorkor (a disease caused by drastic protein and vitamin deficiencies). People born at that time still struggle with numerous diseases that begin with malnutrition in the first months of life.

It was this war that made a starving child a symbol of Africa for many people around the world. Pictures of babies with distended bellies made headlines. The Nigerian authorities faced criticism, but the Biafra blockade continued.

Missionaries who had been working in Nigeria for many years began to inform the world about the tragedy of Biafra. The case attracted the interest of, among others, French physician and later French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. On his initiative, a year later, the organization Doctors Without Borders was established, which was to help those in need, regardless of where they lived and what the situation in their country looked like.

You mustn’t speak out loud

In January 1970, government forces went on the offensive with an operation nickanmed “Wind in the Back”. Biafra's defeat was bound to happen. Odumegwu Ojukwu left the country for fear of being killed by the Nigerians. He found refuge in the Ivory Coast. On January 14, Ojukwu's successor, Philip Effiong, began negotiations with the government in Lagos. The Biafranians were forced to accept their defeat. Biafra authorities agreed to have their country incorporated back to Nigeria.
Confession of a soldier during the wR. Biafra, 1969. Photo Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Once more, let’s give the floor to Zumbach: “In the coming months, the Biafrans, despite the air bridge operating from Abidjan - I had nothing to do with organizing it - no longer had anything to give their children to eat. The Nigerians received Czech L-29 planes, piloted by Egyptians; they ultimately settled the outcome of the Biafran war. Masses of well-armed Nigerian troops literally flooded the wealthy eastern province, ruined by ill-considered, fraudulent purchases of war equipment and betrayed. Meanwhile, the oil companies reached an agreement with the Nigerian government (…). It was the end for the Biafrans” .

In former Biafra, the memory of the war is still very much alive. However, the central authorities don’t mention it and hardly teach about it. Young people learn about the events from years ago from their parents and grandparents. However, despite this peculiar censorship, the Igbo did not forget about their heritage. New organizations are constantly emerging to cherish the memory of Biafra's short-lived independence.

– Anna Szczepańska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: It was the war in Biafra that made a starving child a symbol of Africa for many people around the world. Photo Romano Cagnoni / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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