At the peak of Nigeria’s civil war in 1968, as hundreds of thousands starved to death in Biafra, it was deadly politicking between the conflict’s two key figures-Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu- that kept food out of the region, escalating the death toll, a secret U.S. dispatch detailing the war says.
The document says disagreement on shipments between Mr. Gowon and Mr. Ojukwu, were more to blame for the failure of relief materials reaching dying children, women and men desperately in need of food.
The confidential cable, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, provides a rare insight into one of the most fatal angle of the war, as narrated by a superpower that regarded itself neutral in the conflict but which seemed to have sympathy for Biafra.
The disclosures came as the nation recalls devastating details of the conflict that killed millions; a recollection shovelled into national consciousness by foremost writer, Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country.
Mr. Achebe’s portrayal of the late leader of the defunct Western region, Obafemi Awolowo, as the mastermind of Nigeria’s policy of blocking food shipments to Biafra, ignited a week of fierce verbal exchanges between the Igbos and the Yorubas.
But in part, the U.S. account offers a sharp contrast to Mr. Achebe’s position, blaming instead, war-time military ruler, Mr. Gowon, and secessionist leader, Mr. Ojukwu, for the imbroglio.
Mr. Gowon, the cable said, discontinued air shipments to the Eastern region despite pressure from the United States and the Red Cross, fearing transport airplanes were being used to convey arms to Biafra.
Initial shipments by the Red Cross, suspected to be pro-Biafra at the time, had delivered 16 to 20 tons of food a night in a lone DC–4, feeding an estimated 850,000 people in Biafra three meals per week, the memo said.
But the Gowon-led military government barred the airlifting, which originated from Sao Tome and Principe, a Portuguese colony at the time. Portugal was amongst the few European nations that backed Biafra.
The Nigerian side, the cable written from the United States said, was however willing to allow land shipment, and would offer air permit only on guarantees they will not be abused for arms shipment.
Those were conditions Mr. Ojukwu refused to accept, even while thousands of his people, including children, were starving to death.
The former Biafran leader also rejected food shipments sent by road fearing they might be poisoned, and that such route might open an advance corridor for federal government troops, the dispatch adds.
The Red Cross too, would not implement any relief operation without the explicit approval of both sides.
While all these happened, at least 400 to 600 died a day from starvation, the document stated.
“All of this is happening in the shadow of what is pretty clearly a buildup for a new federal offensive designed to take the 10,000 square miles still held by the rebels,” the memo said.
“There are also mounting reports on increased Biafran military activity, allegedly (though probably falsely) led by French officers. If either or both sides take the offensive, the relief problem becomes almost impossible,” it warned, adding that the US needed to take “a strong go at the Feds (federal government) on this point, but their answer is a forbidding “The other side has left us little choice.”
The “other side” mentioned in the document, appears to refer to Mr. Ojukwu’s Biafra, which, more concerned with winning the war, refused to accept the conditions spelt out by the Nigerian government for delivering food to the troubled region.