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The Nigeria–Biafra war: postcolonial conflict and the question of genocide

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The Nigeria–Biafra war that raged between 1967 and 1970 made headlines around the world, above all for the major famine in the secessionist enclave of Biafra, and prompted a major international relief. It was a genuinely global event. Yet by the late 1970s, it was seldom talked about outside Nigeria. Since then, it barely features in scholarly and popular accounts of the period. The conflict is also virtually entirely absent from the field of genocide studies, which began to form in the closing decades of the twentieth century. However, in recent years, scholarly interest in the conflict is increasing, write Lasse Heerten  and A. Dirk Moses in Journal of Genocide Research 

Volume 16, 2014.Excerpt:

The Nigeria–Biafra war that raged between 1967 and 1970 made headlines around the world, above all for the major famine caused by the Nigerian state’s (federal military government, FMG) blockade of the self-proclaimed separatist Republic of Biafra in the country’s east. The crisis drove prominent academics and journalists to mobilize public opinion, prompted a major international relief operation to bring supplies to starving civilians and exercised the minds of statesmen and -women from the great powers to the UN.1 It was a genuinely global event. Whether in its estimated one to three million deaths,2 its implications for secessionist movements and political stability in Africa, its role as a crucible of contemporary humanitarianism or subject matter for famous African novelists, the war was widely regarded as a watershed in the postcolonial global order. Throughout the 1970s, scholars published energetically on the multifarious issues raised by the conflict, often comparing it with the bloody but successful secession of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from Pakistan in 1971.3 And yet, at least internationally, it was largely forgotten by the end of the decade, overtaken by the grotesque events in Cambodia and elsewhere.4

For the field of genocide studies, the war is relevant in four ways. In the first place, famine was intrinsic to the war’s operational unfolding, and accusations of genocide were elemental to the Biafran propaganda campaign, prompting an international debate about the application of the term. Second, two of the field’s prominent figures—Robert Melson and Leo Kuper—observed the war as scholars of Africa and drew formative conclusions about the nature of genocide that effectively excluded the conflict from the canon of twentieth-century genocides; it is no accident that this journal has never published an article on the subject. Thirdly, just as many defeated Igbo claimed that their genocidal experience was denied during the war, so they have campaigned since then for its recognition and effective canonization in the field and popular consciousness.5 Finally, genocide studies have recently taken colonial and international ‘turns’ that draw attention to the (post)colonial, imperial and global contexts in which genocidal violence is embedded.6

In historiography more broadly, scholars working on postwar humanitarianism have rediscovered the Nigeria–Biafra war, using western-based archives of civil society organizations, states, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva (ICRC).7 Many are now focusing on the 1970s as the ‘breakthrough’ decade for human rights and humanitarianism, and the global concern about the war features as part of this research agenda.8 The visual component of the global moment called ‘Biafra’ is also an important object of inquiry.9 Still others are interested in the norms that guide the foreign policies of states in debates about humanitarian intervention in which Biafra figures as a divisive case study.10 Recently, the Nigeria–Biafra war is beginning to rate a mention in surveys of postcolonial Africa.11

That the subject of Biafra and genocide is in the air is also indicated by the publication of Chinua Achebe’s blend of memoir and history, There was a country: a personal history of Biafra, a few months before he died in March 2013, two years after the death of the wartime Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The famous novelist had worked for the Biafran cause during the war, and the genocide issue appears throughout the book. Commenting on Achebe’s views, another famous Nigerian author, Wole Solyinka, whose imprisonment during the war by the FMG is recorded in The man died (1971), concurred that Biafrans had indeed been victims of genocide even though he did not support the Biafran secession.12 Literary signs of a renewed interest in the conflict were also discernible before the publication of the late Achebe’s last book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a yellow sun, a novel about the travails of a Biafran family during the war, won a major literary prize in 2007 and is now the subject of a British-Nigerian co-produced motion picture.13 The recent excision of the southern Sudan from the Republic Sudan also reawakened interest in the Nigeria–Biafra war by drawing attention to the stability of postcolonial Africa’s borders and the possibility of secession.14 These discussions tied in with a longer debate about postcolonial self-determination, in which the Eritrean national movement, leading to the state’s independence from the Ethiopian federation in 1991, also featured prominently.15 The rise of the northern Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram also raised questions about Nigerian federalism and the legacy of the Nigeria–Biafra war.16

This resurgence of memorizations of the conflict in the literary and cultural sphere dovetails with the currently growing interest in issues of trauma and memory raised by the conflict. Nigerian scholars in particular have started working on its multiple legacies, as many of whom are personally affected by the conflict’s consequences. If anything, memories of the war have recently gained in relevance in Nigerian politics, as underlined by the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a south-eastern Nigerian secessionist movement founded in 1999.17 Despite the growth of public and scholarly interest, however, sound and comprehensive, primary source-based accounts of the history of the civil war are still lacking.18

Intrinsic to the conflicting perceptions of the war was the ‘politics of naming’.22 There is a considerable semantic and political difference between labelling the conflict as an insurgency, as the FMG initially did, as a civil war or as genocide.23

 An understanding of the conflict as genocidal was principally promoted by the Biafrans and their supporters; these claims have become elemental to Biafran constructions of national identity. Had the secessionists achieved their revolutionary project of national self-determination, we would probably call the conflict the Biafran war of liberation.24 However, since Nigeria was, and remained, the recognized political entity within which the war was fought, the designation as ‘Nigerian civil war’ gained the most currency, at least in the Anglophone world.25 In this special issue of the journal, we primarily use the term ‘Nigeria–Biafra war’ to reflect that these were the two warring parties. Even if Biafra never became a recognized state in international law and politics, the internationalization of the conflict turned it into a recognized term for contemporaries around the globe. Moreover, for many living in the secessionist state, ‘Biafra’ began to signify the political entity within which they lived—and with which many identified—and still do.26

This special issue does not purport to offer comprehensive coverage of the war. Had we more time and space, we would in particular have wished to include contributions dealing in more detail with the prelude to the civil war and the 1966 massacres against Igbos in northern Nigeria, with the military, social and gender dimensions of the conflict, its traumatic legacies, and further case studies on the war’s international and diplomatic history (the French, Russian and Chinese cases are notable absences here). As it stands, this collection of articles represents current historiography’s focus on the conflict’s international history and legacy.27

The Nigeria–Biafra war: Evolution and course of events

As a unified territory, Nigeria had been created in 1914 through the amalgamation of Britain’s colonial possessions in the region. After independence in 1960, Nigeria had been widely considered one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising postcolonial states. The potential for development seemed boundless in the democracy of roughly 45 million people, where large amounts of high-quality oil reserves had been discovered shortly before the end of colonial rule.28 Two British legacies, however, combined to impair the evolution of a stable political system and social relations; colonial rule divided the population along ethnic lines, but incorporated the groups thus defined in a centrally governed federal state.29 The territorial and ethnic borders that marked Nigerian colonial society were still in place when the country achieved independence. Established as a federal state, postcolonial Nigeria was split into three main regions, each dominated by one or two ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west, and Igbos in the east. Hundreds of other ethnic minorities of different size made up the rest of the population. In 1963, the federation was separated into four states when the multi-ethnic Midwestern State was carved out of parts of the Western Region. Partly parallel with these political borders, what many perceived as a religious divide cut through the territory: the south was predominantly Christian, whereas the north was widely Islamic dominated.30

The optimism of decolonization had begun to crumble by the mid 1960s. Paradoxically, the growing participatory options for the population weakened the postcolonial democracy. At the regional level, a system of patronage was created along ethnic lines. At the national level, the three ‘mega-tribes’ competed for state resources that had become increasingly lucrative thanks to the revenues from oil and other commodities.31 A deepening rift severed the north and the southern regions. The Eastern Region, geographically in the country’s southeast, was increasingly isolated in particular. In all regions politicians feared the possible domination of their counterparts from other parts of the country. Federal and national elections developed into fiercely fought battles for power; ballot rigging and other forms of manipulation were omnipresent.32

In January 1966, an Igbo-dominated putsch by a group of army officers initiated a series of coups and counter-coups that led to the installation of military rule.33 The first coup was forestalled, but only after the rebellious officers killed a number of high-ranking officials, among them Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, one of the principle figures in the northern leadership. The remaining rump cabinet transferred power over the state into the hands of the highest-ranking officer, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, general commanding officer of the Nigerian army. The new head of state and most of his advisors were Igbo. Many in the north considered Ironsi’s government as a continuation of the southern-instigated coup and, in the last days of July 1966, he was captured and killed in a counter-coup by a group of northern officers and soldiers. The remaining officers selected Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the new head of state. The coup d’état was a success, except in the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region, where military governor general Ojukwu remained in power.34

Repeated outbursts of violence between June and October 1966 peaked in massacres against Igbos living in the Sabon Gari, the ‘foreigners’ quarters’ of northern Nigerian towns. According to estimates, these riots claimed the lives of tens of thousands. Whether representatives of the Nigerian state systematically organized the killings remains disputed. At the very least, the Nigerian government failed to halt the riots.35 This violence drove a stream of more than a million refugees to the Eastern Region, the ‘homeland’ of the Igbos’ diasporic community. The massacres were one of the key events in the unfolding of the civil war. Amidst rampant fears among the Igbos in particular, the Eastern Region began to call for more autonomy.36 Ever since the end of colonialism had become imaginable, the leaderships of all regions had at times pondered secession.37 Now, after failed negotiations, this dramatic step was finally taken. On 30 May 1967, the east’s political leadership around Ojukwu declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra, named after the Bight of Biafra, a bay on the country’s Atlantic coast. Hostilities erupted a few weeks later. On 6 July, the Nigeria–Biafra war began with the advance of federal troops into secessionist territory.38

The military power of both sides was limited because of a lack of funds, personnel, discipline and education. The federal army was still better equipped even though the secessionist forces comprised a large part of the former Nigerian officer corps, which had been dominated by Igbo.39 Despite a number of spectacular offensives from both sides, for the most part the military situation was a stalemate.40 The FMG’s major strategic advantage was not its military force, but its diplomatic status: internationally recognized statehood. That the FMG could argue that it was a sovereign government facing an ‘insurgency’ was decisive. Foreign governments, in particular most of those organized in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), considered the conflict an internal matter. The regional organization principally responsible for mediation thus ensured that no step was taken that might be interpreted as recognizing the Biafran government. The latter, in turn, soon rejected any OAU intervention.41

Nigeria’s secured diplomatic status was also crucial for the most significant development in the war’s early stages: the FMG’s decision to blockade the secessionist state. To cut off Biafra’s lines of communication with the outside world, air and sea ports were blockaded, foreign currency transactions banned, incoming mail and telecommunication blocked and international business obstructed. Even with its limited resources, Nigeria was able to organize a successful blockade without gaping holes or long interruptions—mostly because other governments or companies were ready to acquiesce to Lagos’ handling of the matter.42 Moreover, as a recognized government, the Gowon regime did not meet any substantial difficulties in obtaining weapons on international markets. Due to their ‘rebel’ status, by contrast, the Biafrans were forced to use black market channels to buy arms. The secessionists’ efforts were also hampered by Nigeria’s overnight change of currency in early 1968 that rendered worthless millions of Nigerian pound notes in the Biafran treasury.43

The most important third party to the conflict was the UK. As the former colonial power, Whitehall had usually supplied the federal army with weaponry. Even so, Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) initially wavered in its decision about which side to support, leading the FMG to turn to the Soviet Union. Moscow, hoping to gain a foothold in a major West African state, began to supply the federal side with arms.44 Now afraid of losing its influence, London began to dispatch arms deliveries.45 Nigeria’s oil—most of which lay within Biafran territory—played a significant role in the evolution of Whitehall’s policy line. When war broke out in Nigeria, London was concerned about its oil supply as Arab states had limited their oil shipments to states supporting Israel after the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt. Despite initial leanings towards Biafra, most oil companies preferred to continue dealing with the federal government, and soon HMG followed suit, firmly opting for a federal solution, not least because it expected that this would keep the oil flowing out of Nigeria.46 The British position also effectively determined the policy of the Cold War superpower across the Atlantic. To secure their transatlantic ‘special relationship’, the US government, in particular the state department, followed the British line, although it did not supply arms to the FMG.47

Realizing their slim chances on the battlefield, the Biafran leadership moved the conflict into the propaganda domain.48 The situation did not look promising for Biafra’s propagandists in the international sphere, either. Governments of the global south were particularly hesitant. As many of them faced separatist movements at home, they were adamantly opposed to what they understood as illegitimate secession rather than the legitimate exercise of the Biafrans’ right to self-determination. As Brad Simpson argues in this volume, the Biafran campaign showcased the ambivalence about how the postcolonial international system dealt with self-determination projects, and left an equally ambivalent legacy. Since its inception in 1963 in the wake of the Congo crisis and the attempted secession of Katanga, the OAU’s guiding principle was the rejection of separatism. With the defence of postcolonial sovereignty deeply ingrained into its fabric, the Biafran campaign fell on deaf ears in African inter-governmental circles with only a few exceptions.49

Accordingly, despite the secessionists’ intensive efforts, the conflict did not engender much international interest during the first year of fighting. Even though casualties were substantial from the outset. Throughout the conflict, federal aircraft shelled towns and other targets on Biafran territory, frequently inflicting numerous civilian casualties. Despite such recurrent risks, the population in the warzone was particularly threatened in moments of instability produced by military advances and setbacks. In August 1967, Biafran forces launched a major offensive, crossed the Niger and marched through the midwestern state towards Lagos. Failing to capitalize on the momentum, the Biafrans came to a halt about 100 km east of the capital and then withdrew after federal forces retaliated. Violence against civilians broke out in border towns that experienced double occupation. Ethnic minorities in Asaba, for example, considered themselves relatives of the Igbos and were treated as sympathizers of the ‘rebels’; they became victims of massacres and rape by federal soldiers. As S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli show in this theme issue, the memory of the Asaba massacres is still alive although the Nigerian state has repressed publication of the terrible events and its commemoration. For many in Asaba, the memory of the massacre remains painful and stands in the way of inter-ethnic reconciliation.50

Despite Nigeria’s efforts to suppress reports about such events, the deepening humanitarian crisis of the Biafran population thrust the conflict into the international spotlight. By the end of the year, the first signs were discernible that Biafra would be threatened by a serious food shortage; the Biafran population was heading for a famine that could cost hundreds of thousands of human lives. In the first half of 1968, ever more religious groups and humanitarian organizations were alerted to the event, due in large measure to the presence of western missionaries. These religious ties were conduits for the transnational networks through which the conflict would be turned into an object of international humanitarian concern. For many Christian clerics and laypeople, the war seemed to be a cosmic drama fought between a vulnerable Christian Biafra and a northern Muslim-dominated federal Nigeria.51 In early May 1968, Biafra’s principal port town and remaining access to the sea, Port Harcourt, fell to federal forces. The secessionist state was turned into a landlocked enclave. With federal forces tightening the noose around the secessionist territory, the shrinking Biafran enclave soon encompassed only the heart of Igboland. At the same time, this territory had to absorb increasing numbers of people fleeing federal offensives. After a year of fighting, the rump state was overpopulated, its people impoverished, lacking supplies, food and medicine.52

The growing international interest in the conflict generated by the humanitarian crisis became a major factor of change in political and military terms, seemingly representing a political gain for Biafra. In April 1968, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania recognized the secessionist state, citing humanitarian concerns as the grounds for this decision. Gabon, Ivory Coast and Zambia followed in the ensuing months, and a year later ‘Papa Doc’ Chevalier’s Haiti. On morally ambiguous grounds, the Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal, and the South African and Rhodesian apartheid regimes clandestinely supported the Biafran secessionists as well, ostensibly to weaken one of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest states.53 The De Gaulle government also backed Biafra. In Paris, postcolonial power politics conjoined with efforts to ride the wave of domestic humanitarian concern. France delivered arms to Biafra, mostly channelled through Houphouët-Boigny’s Ivory Coast. Projecting its postcolonial power through the ties of Françafrique, Paris aimed to weaken Nigeria, not only for its close British ties but also because it was the largest and potentially most powerful state in France’s principal sphere of influence in west Africa.54 To a lesser degree, Beijing a few years into the Sino-Soviet split, also supported Biafra, partly to oppose Russia.55 The airlifts of aid of Biafra, partly used for humanitarian purposes and partly for military purposes, prevented Biafra’s fall for some months.56

These various sources were not enough to tip the scale in favour of the secessionists. The military standoff remained for another eighteen months after the increase of international interest in mid 1968. Breakthrough attempts were orchestrated by both sides. They invariably failed, at least until late 1969. By then, Nigerian strategic adjustments and changes in the military leadership ensured a successful final onslaught on the Biafran enclave.57 In early 1970, Ojukwu and some of his followers fled to the Ivory Coast. After two and a half years of fighting, the remaining secessionist regime surrendered on 15 January 1970.58

The relief operation, representations of humanitarian crisis and ‘third world’ suffering

In the summer of 1968, contemporaries around the globe witnessed the emergence of a new ‘third world’ icon: the ‘Biafran babies’. Readers and audiences in the west in particular were confronted with photographs of starving children in the secessionist Republic of Biafra, which made headlines for months.59 For various commentators, the Biafran crisis marks the onset of a new age of humanitarian catastrophe broadcast by modern media. According to Michael Ignatieff, the ‘age of televised disaster’ began with the Biafran war.60 As the ‘first major disaster that was brought into the living rooms of the world by television … [it] challenged indifference to faraway suffering’, explained Aengus Finucane, a founder of the Irish NGO Africa Concern.61 The war was the first postcolonial conflict to engender a transnational wave of humanitarian concern. International and non-governmental organizations, principally the ICRC and a number of religious organizations under the umbrella of Joint Church Aid, founded to address the crisis, organized airlifts to bring relief supplies into Biafra.62 ‘Biafra committees’ emerged across the west, raised funds for the humanitarian operation and lobbied governments and international organizations to intensify their relief efforts.63

Some of these committees evolved into NGOs that now feature in the prominent non-governmental sector of human rights politics. The most well-known example is the French Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The NGO developed from the Comité de Lutte contre le Génocide au Biafra, formed by a group of young French Red Cross volunteers during the conflict, which, in 1971, joined forces with the medical journal Tonus to send medical personnel to famine and civil war-ridden East Pakistan—a re-run of Biafra, as many at the time thought.64 Making use of the channels of the mass media age, this new breed of activists believed in what became known as témoignage, the outspoken public disclosure of what humanitarians and journalists had witnessed in the field, the standard accounts explain. Accordingly, these ardent believers in the humanitarian cause had to break ranks with the organization that stood for humanitarian idealism since its inception a century before: the ICRC. Biafra, a new era, the age of sans-frontiérisme, had begun.65

The alleged rift between outspoken French doctors and an overly cautious ICRC has turned into a myth of origins of this new movement.66 However, as Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps deftly shows in her contribution to this volume, these conflicts were not only due to diverging principals, but also to different realms of experience. It was an entirely different matter whether these events were analysed from a Genevan office or witnessed in a Biafran hospital. The humanitarian workers in the field directly experienced the situation but lacked the general picture of international policy experts; both perspectives had their shortcomings. The former were often willing to decry what they perceived as genocide. Staff in the ICRC headquarters were, contrary to what MSF mythology would have us believe, not entirely reluctant to speak out against atrocities reported by their staff. Policy considerations of non-partisanship and often simply communications mismanagement impeded their public expression. Even so, ICRC structures allowed for some leeway. The humanitarian international organization was not as clearly bound to the principal of nation-state sovereignty as the UN, for instance. Far from denouncing genocide, the ‘world organization’ even partook in the international observer mission put up by London and Lagos to counter Biafran genocide allegations.67

The Biafran crisis was also connected to wider changes in the relief sector. In particular, it resulted in a massive spending increase through state funds and public donations, leading to the growth and proliferation of NGOs. As suggested by Kevin O’Sullivan’s sensitive line of argument in his article here, the conflict accordingly needs to be situated within complex sets of historical change and continuity.68 O’Sullivan’s contribution also helps to inscribe the visual landscape of the Biafran crisis into longer strands of images of and paternalistic relationships with the ‘third world’—and their connection with transformations in humanitarian politics. As he argues, in the aid operation for Biafra, ‘imperial responsibilities and care for far-off communities’ were repackaged for a postcolonial era: ‘The vision of an inclusive “common humanity” the NGOs espoused was in practice rooted in a very western understanding of humanitarian responsibilities and a very western image of the third world’.69

O’Sullivan also shows that humanitarian representations of the conflict led to a ‘flattening out [of] the complexity of Biafran and Nigerian society in favour of the moral imperative of humanitarian aid’.70 However, despite the dominant tendency to de-politicize understandings of the conflict, some of Biafra’s international supporters formulated their activism along overtly political lines. As Brian McNeil shows, members of one of the biggest ad hoc organizations that came to life during the Biafran crisis—the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive—spoke out not only against genocide but also for Biafran self-determination. His close reading of the sources shows how intimately intertwined the notions of genocide and self-determination became in the committee’s perception of the crisis. For them, any negation of a Biafran state amounted to genocide.71 The spheres of a self-proclaimed apolitical moral concern and politics were much more blurred than many advocates of humanitarian intervention at the time would have admitted. Accordingly, Biafra needs to be situated within the complex histories of humanitarianism, ideas about sovereignty, genocide, human rights and the right to self-determination, as well as the rise of NGOs in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Biafra, Holocaust analogies and the history of genocide

After the 1966 massacres, allegations of genocide against federal Nigeria—in particular casting Muslims as ‘savages’—became the core of secessionist propaganda. Biafra’s campaign aimed at its own population and at possible allies abroad. The Biafran leadership was confronted with the task of uniting the heterogeneous peoples of the secessionist state: the nation of ‘Biafra’ still had to be turned into an imaginable community.72 Only roughly half of the 14 million inhabitants were Igbo, the rest belonging to different ethnic minorities. Roy Doron’s detailed study of Biafran propaganda reconstructs how this message was formulated and tightly controlled by strict guidelines. In particular, political cartoons—reproduced in Doron’s article—played a crucial role in disseminating this message to a largely illiterate population.73 Some foreign commentators observed this fear of genocide to be authentically experienced, as Joseph C. McKenna wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1969: ‘Unable now to feel secure away from their native soil, the Ibos saw themselves as the target of genocide. The trauma induced by the September [1966] riots, coming on the heels of the violence in May and July, cannot be overestimated. Secession had become almost inevitable’.74

Further elevating the genocide reproaches, the eastern (later the Biafran) leadership frequently made comparisons to the Holocaust to draw attention to their cause.75 This analogy originated in ethnological genealogies that cast the Igbos as the ‘Jews of Africa’, even as one of Israel’s ‘lost tribes’. The Biafran leadership drew on this representation that many eastern Nigerians had adopted as their self-perception. This analogy, combined with the genocide charge, was used by the leadership to secure the support of the population, and to build loyalty to Biafra by emphasizing the threat from a common enemy. The ‘Jews of Africa’ envisioned their state like an ‘African Israel’, a new nation born of genocidal violence.76

Soon, the growing cast of Biafra’s supporters around the globe adopted this rhetoric, further elaborating it in the process. After the publication of images of starving Biafran children in the western media, analogies and comparisons with the Holocaust abounded internationally. Biafran refugee camps were described as ‘the camp of Belsen at its liberation’, ‘Mauthausens of famine’ or as a ‘Buchenwald for children’.77 Auschwitz, the most well-known site of mass annihilation, was repeatedly referenced, although the camps liberated by western allied troops were more frequently invoked. Photos of them had circulated in western media since 1945. The connections between Biafra and the Holocaust were also a product of representation strategies. Biafran propagandists and many of the secessionists’ sympathizers around the globe tried hard to secure what they deemed the ‘right’ interpretation of the ‘facts’.78 To a large degree, the connection between the humanitarian crisis in Biafra and the Holocaust was made on a visual level, at least in the eyes of western observers. Contemporaries were reminded of the photos of the liberation of the camps, which they increasingly understood as denoting genocide, by the images of emaciated civil war victims.79

A symbiotic relationship of identification developed with Jewish activists and organizations, as it did for Bernard Kouchner, the figure-head of sans-frontiérisme whose grandfather was killed in Auschwitz.80 These networks were vital for the establishment and coordination of transnational Biafra protest. Biafran linkages to Jews during the Holocaust were extended to contemporary Israelis. As Zach Levey demonstrates here, Biafrans identified closely with Israel as a similarly beleaguered modernizing nation surrounded by backward, Muslim neighbours. Inspiringly, it had won a stunning victory against them in the Six Days War in 1967. Biafran leader Ojukwu announced that, ‘Like the Jews … we saw in the birth of our young Republic the gateway to freedom and survival’. Many Israelis reciprocated, viewing the Biafrans in similar terms and pressuring their government to aid the secessionist struggle in various ways. They thought genocide was taking place.81

For many in post-fascist West Germany, the genocidal past was an obligation to act in the present. Günter Grass felt it was a particular responsibility of his fellow countrymen to react:

As Germans, we should know what we say when we use the word ‘genocide’. This biggest of all crimes weighs heavily on the past of our people. Not moralizing condescension, but the knowledge of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belsen obligates us to speak out publicly against the culprits and accessories of the genocide in Biafra … [S]ilence—we had to learn that as well—turns into complicity.82

Many West German commentators agreed that ‘after Auschwitz, to which Biafra had been rightfully likened’, the Federal Republic of Germany bore ‘a special responsibility’.83

This responsibility was not West Germany’s alone, as many felt. Bishop Heinrich Tenhumberg, head of the Roman Catholic Church’s liaison office with the Bonn government, explained that the ‘principle of non-intervention is outdated in our time when the protection of fundamental human rights is at stake’. ‘Civilized states’ cannot remain passive in a world after Auschwitz given that modern communication technology automatically transformed internal conflicts into international crises.84 The international community of states would need to react, the weekly magazine Der Spiegel argued as well. The UN has ‘defined what is happening in Biafra as criminally liable. The Nazi genocide of the Jews prompted the world organisation in 1946 [sic] to declare genocide an international crime’. Yet the organization lacked the instruments to enforce this norm in practice. Without an international court, ‘the genocide allegations against Nigeria would have to be judged by a Nigerian court’, commentators pointed out. The UN Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of Genocide (UNCG) remained toothless.85 In view of Biafra, the lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust was to create international norms to prevent similar crimes in the present and the future.

The associations with the Holocaust became especially virulent in the UK. As Karen Smith notes in her article, because of the entanglements with the former British colony, discussions about the Nigeria–Biafra war had been particularly intensive in Britain. By summer 1968, Harold Wilson’s Labour government had come under heavy rhetorical fire.86 Wilson’s critics in the Biafra lobby, in the press and in the two houses of the parliament accused Whitehall of complicity in genocide. In Biafra story (1969), which sold out in weeks, the staunchly pro-Biafran journalist and later author of bestselling crime novels Frederick Forsyth explained that Britain was culpable of supporting Nigeria’s genocidal persecution of the Biafrans that resembled the treatment of the Jews in the Second World War.87 Auberon Waugh argued that the ‘mass starvation to death of innocent civilians’ was ‘the most hideous crime against humanity in which England has ever been involved’.88 Wilson was taken aback by the criticism, and in his memoirs expressed grudging admiration for the Biafran propaganda, writing that it ‘secured a degree of moral control over Western broadcasting systems, with a success unparalleled in the history of communications in modern democratic societies’.89

So far, genocide studies scholars have not delved very deeply into the significance of the ideas of genocide and the Holocaust for the perception of other conflicts.90 Scholars in the field have devoted more energy to identifying genocides in the past than analysing what historical effects their notions of genocide has had in the decades since its inception.91 The Biafran case, which, according to a relatively widespread consensus, did not constitute genocide, hardly features in this literature, as we detail below. The conflict is also seldom commented upon in the vast historiography on the cultural memory of the Holocaust and its legacies.92 Genocide allegations during the Nigeria–Biafra war—if mentioned at all—tend to be disregarded as irrelevant by arguing that they merely underline the weakness of genocide as a political and legal idea.93 The salience of the cultural memory of the Holocaust in the internationalization of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra underlines that genocide studies should develop new methods to incorporate a diverse set of conflicts—even those that many nowadays would not understand to have constituted genocide, if only because many contemporaries thought they did.

Biafra and the founding assumptions of genocide studies

The field of genocide studies did not exist during the Nigeria–Biafra war. It started to crystallize only in the early 1980s and consolidated and developed in the 2000s, spurred by the wars of Yugoslav secession and the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Its effective founders were academics and graduate students at the time of the Biafra conflict, however, who reflected on it in the later 1970s and 1980s as they debated definitions of genocide for social scientific research rather than for strictly legal purposes. In many ways, they were rowing against the tide, as these were also the decades when the Holocaust came into public and academic prominence as a supposedly singular or unique event. Engaging in comparative genocide studies, as the emerging field called itself, could be seen as heretical. Helen Fein recalls that her presentation about different national responses to Jewish persecution during the Holocaust, which included a comparison with the Armenian genocide, at the First International Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust in 1975 was regarded as ‘radical’ because ‘the dominant position was that the Holocaust was unique, noncomparable and to some, non-explicable as a historical event—viewed as a mystifying or transcendent event’. This was a position that the sober sociologist Fein could not share, despite her personal commitment to Holocaust research.94 As late as 1992, Robert Melson felt compelled to preface his Revolution and genocide with the statement that the book’s pairing of the Holocaust and Armenian genocide ‘does not spring from a desire to trivialize the Holocaust by spuriously universalizing human suffering and denying its unique and perhaps unfathomable characteristics’.

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