Biafra Relief Heroes:
remembering–in the words of those who were there…

An account of heroism on the one hand, and politics over humanity on the other.

Biafra is a history which Nigeria will never successfully rewrite, nor the silence of the world erase. There simply are too many witnesses, and they will not remain quiet…

Biafra was the beginning

by Hugh McCullum

In Africa, it seems the rules are different for the rich white world or perhaps it’s just that our consciences don’t relate to the suffering of black people. Stanley Burke, 1968.

What I have come to realize as the root of it all, however, is the fundamental indifference of the world community to the plight of seven to eight million black Africans in a tiny country that had no strategic or resource value to any world power. Romeo Dallaire, 2003.

Thirty-five years ago the world was forced to deal for the first time with the brutal realities of mass genocide when the people of Eastern Nigeria opted for self-determination. Ten years ago the world once again found itself facing the horrendous bloodshed of another genocide when Rwanda burst into civil war and ethnic killing. In neither case did the countries of the world collectively or individually rise to the occasion as they are supposed to under the Charter of the United Nations.

While the circumstances are somewhat different the parallels are striking. In each case, the indifference or calculated behaviour of the west led to vast suffering and loss of life.

Biafra was a lesson unlearned despite the heroic efforts of churches, NGOs and some politicians of principle. Will the same be true of Rwanda despite the words of General Dallaire thirty-five years later?

That Canada and Canadians should find themselves at the forefront of a desperate response to a major humanitarian disaster is another parallel between these two historic events.

The Jesus Christ Airline

It was officially called Jointchurchaid (JCA) but the daredevil pilots called it the Jesus Christ Airline with a swagger of pride and hint of awe. For almost two amazing years, JCA kept a small, breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war. It flew 5, 314 extremely dangerous missions, carrying 60,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid and saved millions of lives.

The lumbering DC-6s and temperamental Super Constellations flew at night from the island of Sao Tome off the coast of West Africa into a tiny airstrip carved from the dense bush without lights, skimming blind over the trees at 2,000 feet to avoid the guns and fighters of the enemy. At its peak, Uli “airport” – really just a widened road – was the busiest in all of Africa, handling up to 50 flights a night, and each flight broke some international law.

Each of the old planes had its own JCA logo – two fishes, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. But each had its own name, the best known in Canada was Canairelief whose four ‘Super Connies’ were an integral part of JCA, but there was also Nordchurchaid (from Europe) and the Holy Ghost Airline (run by the Irish Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers).

And JCA soon became the darling of the media, attracting journalists like author Frederick Forsyth who made his name as a reporter in Biafra and the CBC’s Stanley Burke. For the first time in history, famine and starvation and humanitarian response were seen nightly on world television.

“Uli ‘airport’ was the busiest in all of Africa, handling up to 50 flights a night, and each flight broke some international law… It was all put together by a bunch of church people and humanitarians who refused to be bound by old mission, old diplomacy…”

It was all put together by a bunch of church people and humanitarians who refused to be bound by old mission, old diplomacy, old colonialism, the power of big oil and the secrecy of murderous bush wars.

And it was all very controversial with ramifications reaching into this century.

Humanitarian relief: Canada says no; churches say yes

It is 35 years since the independent state of Biafra collapsed, ending one of the most audacious and activist leadership roles ever played by international and ecumenical churches. On Jan. 12, 1970, the military head of state, General Odumegwu Ojukwu flew out of Uli on the last relief flight, Biafra collapsed and the then Eastern Region of Nigeria was returned to that troubled and fractious country.

Canairelief made its first flight on Jan. 23, 1969 and its final trip on Jan 11, 1970. It completed 670 flights and delivered 11,000 tons of desperately needed food and medical supplies into the blockaded state of Biafra. Churches, relief groups and a few volunteer agencies including an historic ecumenical alliance of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations bombarded Ottawa and raised the flag of famine. From the beginning, the indomitable and capable Ted Johnson was at the centre of it all and he made 10 harrowing and dangerous trips into Biafra.

Four Canairelief crew members were killed when one of the Super Constellations crashed at Uli. A second plane was destroyed when it was bombed on the ground during the 20 minutes or so it took Biafran workers to unload the relief supplies for Caritas and the World Council of Churches, which ran the more than 2,000 feeding centres. JCA lost 25 pilots and crew to the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade. The Nigerian military government of the day refused steadfastly to allow relief flights or any other form of humanitarian aid into Biafra. Despite JCA’s best efforts, it is estimated some 2 million Biafrans starved to death.

“Despite JCA’s best efforts, it is estimated some two million Biafrans starved to death. The world was shocked as stark pictures appeared on their television screens”

The world was shocked as stark pictures appeared for almost the first time on their television screens of stick thin children with the swollen bellies and sparse rust-coloured hair that symptomizes kwashiokor, the body’s painful protein-deficiency that killed children in their thousands. In April and May of 1994 the world watched as men, women and children were hacked to death in their thousands in Rwanda.

Biafra was a nightmare for the international community, especially for Britain, France and – given the almost single-handed initiatives of Presbyterian leader Ted Johnson – Canada. The response of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (“where’s Biafra?”) and External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp was “shameful”, according to the Toronto Star of Feb. 21, 1969, usually a Liberal Party mouthpiece.

Johnson was unrelenting. He led a delegation of church leaders to Ottawa asking for help for starving Biafrans and was refused. With that rebuff came Canairelief, supported without government money of any kind by Jewish leaders, the Roman Catholic church and the major Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian, United and Anglican churches especially.

Twice the church leaders went back to ask for transport planes or money. Twice more in 1968 they were refused. In addition Johnson and his team went the political route and arranged for two MPs – Tory David MacDonald, a United Church minister, and Andrew Brewin, an NDP Anglican – to fly into Biafra on Canairelief on a fact-finding mission. Their report, Canada and the Biafran Tragedy became a book (James Lewis and Samuel Publishers, Toronto, 1970) and recommended that Canada use its position to prod the UN into negotiating a ceasefire, participate in relief operations, push to have Nigerian civil rights violations under the Charter enforced and give money for humanitarian relief. They got a flat ‘no’ from Sharp and U. Thant, then UN secretary-general, both more worried about the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s specious unity, than the millions of starving Biafrans.

Ottawa did send three Hercules freighters as part of an International Committee of the Red Cross relief effort. In an act of incredible incompetence or political venality two went to Lagos and one to Sao Tome. Lagos impounded the two planes in Nigeria and never let them off the ground while the Sao Tome aircraft was sent back home after another ICRC plane was shot down by the Nigerians.

“Compare this exercise in futility with the achievement of the churches,” the Toronto Star editorialized. “just four weeks after being turned down by Ottawa, Canairelief bought a Super Constellation [from Nordair which used the huge four-engined freighters to service the Dewline] for $108,000 and in less than a month it had 28 flights into Biafra.” And the reason?

“They are not as timid as the Red Cross and the corridors of External Affairs.” By flying into Biafra, the ICRC and Canada argued they would be “recognizing” the breakaway state, thus annoying the undemocratic military dictatorship of General Yakubu Gowan. Ted Johnson argued that saving the lives of millions of men, women and children had a higher moral imperative than maintaining good diplomatic relationships with Nigeria, whose soldiers, along with British neo-colonial officials were terrified that the nation would split into many more parts than just Biafra.

“Johnson argued that saving the lives of millions of men, women and children had a higher moral imperative than maintaining good diplomatic relationships with Nigeria.”

At the same time that Canada was maintaining its timorous posture with Nigeria, several other countries including Germany, Sweden and the U.S. refused to officially stand by and allow millions to starve.

Nation states or self-determination: what price?

The story of Biafra is also a story of the times: a story of church leaders who believed the church belonged in the midst of God’s world; a story of a peoples’ right to self-determination; a story of tribalism, colonialism and the influence of first world development in the third world.

Biafra’s breakaway from Nigeria on May 30, 1967 was a crushing, if inevitable, blow to Africa’s most populous country and perhaps an even greater blow to the policies of British neo-colonialism. It was the beginning of a seemingly endless round of rebellion, bloody coups, military dictatorships, appalling corruption and ethnic and religious strife. From its independence from Britain on Oct. 1, 1960, loudly hailed from within and without as a model for Africa of a happy and harmonious state, Nigeria became a state of chaos caused by colonial attempts to forcibly merge three distinct regions into one federal state.

Nigeria’s chaos

Nigeria sprawls over 993,774 sq km with an estimated 125 million people of enormous ethnic diversity. In the southwest are the Yoruba with a long history of developed kingdoms. In the southeastern region, which would become Biafra, lived a variety of peoples, the most prominent being the Ibo, or Igbo as they are known today. The North proper was the land of the Hausa, Kanuri and the Fulani who are Muslims.

The easterners quickly assimilated with the Yorubas and into British forms of development while the North, opposed to modernization, was open territory for the adaptable and resourceful Ibos who ran the trains, the civil service and small businesses. By 1966, an estimated 1,300,000 Ibos were living in the Northern Region and another 500,000 lived in the West. Ibos really made Nigeria run fairly efficiently in the early days of independence but, being Christian and modern, they were segregated from the northern Muslims.

Nigeria was exceptionally rich in natural resources. Immensely valuable oil and natural gas resources were discovered, mostly in the Eastern Region.

National government and administration had been largely in the hands of the colonial power, Britain. Unlike other parts of Africa, Nigeria did not fight a unified liberation struggle but has been struggling for the last 44 years for its unity. Independence brought intense rivalries and a mounting volume of corruption and nepotism. The year 1966 was a disaster for the Ibo who occupied much of the civil service posts and a commanding position in commerce. Scathingly referred to in the Muslim north as the “black Jews of Africa”, although they were about 90 percent Christian, as many as 40-50,000 were slaughtered in pogroms in 1966 and some 2 million fled for their lives back to their Eastern Region homeland, after their property and homes were destroyed. A huge refugee crisis faced the nation. It was ironic because Easterners had always been the strongest supporters of national unity.

The blockade of Biafra and starvation

Although Ojukwu was military governor in the Eastern Region and a Sandhurst classmate of Gowon’s, relations between the East and the Central government deteriorated until meetings were no longer possible and Eastern leaders were pressing for secession. On May 30, 1966 Eastern Nigeria proclaimed itself the independent state of Biafra and declared a state of emergency. The central government imposed a naval blockade and fighting began between the east and the rest of Nigeria. After some initial victories Biafra, which started with a population of 12 million, two-thirds of them Ibos, lost all its cities including the oil centre of Port Harcourt and the capital, Enugu. Soon 5 million people were squeezed into a tiny oval-shaped enclave of 2,000 sq km around the market town of Umuahia. Gowon boasted that war would be over in two weeks.

The war in fact turned into a bloody and bitter one. It was a low tech struggle where Biafran soldiers were chronically short of supplies, going into major battles with 10 bullets each. The Nigerians, heavily armed by Britain and Russia, odd allies in that Cold War period, withheld food supplies openly stating that food was a legitimate weapon of war. As the Biafrans were pushed back from the best agricultural land into their own barren heartland, and as the crops and stores fell into the hands of the Nigerian soldiers starvation and famine appeared, flapping their wings like the vultures that hovered over the feeding centres and refugee camps. Casualties were huge among the civilians. Yet somehow Biafran morale remained high despite the fact that their military campaign had gone irretrievably wrong.

For the first time in history and just by accident, the mass media zeroed in on an African humanitarian disaster. New technology and a new generation of young, bright, media-savvy church people and NGOs made this possible. As happened again in Rwanda thirty-five years later, it was all too often and easily dismissed as a consequence of tribalism. White governments in Britain, America and Canada, as well as Europe, could not comprehend. “There are forces let loose in Biafra, wrote the London Sunday Times Magazine, one of the papers most sympathetic to the Biafran cause, “that white men cannot understand.”

“For the first time in history and just by accident, the mass media zeroed in on an African humanitarian disaster. New technology and a new generation of young, bright, media-savvy church people and NGOs made this possible.”

But the large European and British oil companies with billions of dollars of investment in Nigerian-Biafran oil could understand it all too well. Companies like Gulf, Mobil, Texaco and Standard, and participants like Britain, Holland, France and Italy knew that 75 percent of Nigeria’s oil was in the secessionist state. Some of them began to threaten Gowon’s government that they could get a better deal with Biafra. Nigeria was furious but also frightened. Who was going to get the oil revenues? In the complex diplomatic negotiations, the posture of the oil companies would be decisive in determining who would eat and who would starve, who would get guns from racist Rhodesia and communist USSR and oil-hungry France and who would be defenseless. Nigeria had to prove it was still the powerhouse of Africa, “the working democracy with a sound economy, a free press and a moderate pro-Western government” that Time magazine once described it as.

Could Biafra, with only four African countries recognizing it officially, display “effective sovereignty”? It was the same size as some of the Gulf states, just a platform for oilrigs. But Lagos did begin to win its war of starvation, and secession was very costly for the oil companies. The British government was irrevocably committed to federal Nigeria and all the pipelines and storage facilities were home again in federal territory when Port Harcourt fell.

But Biafra couldn’t simply give up. It wasn’t just the stubborn arrogance of the Ibos, nor the megalomaniac bravado of Ojukwu, there was that genuine fear on the part of all Easterners that the massacres of 1966 would resume. Surrender under the military’s new Federal structure would mean accepting the division of Biafra into three parts – with the Ibos crowded into a single section containing almost no oil at all. After the massacres of the North and the atrocities of the war, the Ibos saw it as the end of their people.

Making peace, feeding the starving

During all this time, the Presbyterian Church, because of its long connection with the people on both sides of the war played a unique role in trying to bring humanitarian aid to the suffering and a healing ministry to the whole desperate situation. In 1969, Johnson outlined three lines of activity for the church:

seek to maintain fellowship and support to our Christian brethren and particularly our fellow Presbyterians on both sides;
engage in a vigorous role in relief work on both sides; and
try to promote a peaceful settlement by maintaining contact and conversation on both sides with colleagues who are high in government responsibilities.
“Look, for a long time, I was pretty much a one-Nigerian man,” he told The Globe and Mail’s Betty Lee in a 1968 interview. “Now I believe that if Lagos insists on trying to impose a military solution on the Biafrans, they’ll end up with nothing but a mass graveyard and concentration camps. There will be no such thing as what the British want – a quick kill. The Biafrans are fighting a peoples’ war.”

Lee questioned Johnson on his role as a propagandist.

“That isn’t true. About the only public relations was that which got around the world by word of mouth and by the mass media telling the world about the horrors being perpetrated against civilians. I helped a few journalists get into Biafra but they told their own story, not mine. The real story of Biafra was told to Canadians by David MacDonald and Andrew Brewin, both MPs. We couldn’t get humanitarian relief funds from the government so we went out and raised the money ourselves. I suppose that could be called ‘deliberate public relations’ but none of the journalists or politicians or church people who went to Biafra exaggerated the situation. I checked it out time and again with responsible doctors who had been in Eastern Nigeria for years and there’s no doubt that 6,000 people – mainly children and women – were dying daily during the summer.”

Stephen Lewis, who is now waging a high-profile struggle to stem Africa’s HIV/Aids pandemic, also went to Biafra and described the situation in 1968: “The Canadian people and the churches were magnificent in their concern over Biafra. The government was anti-human.”

Three meals a week

In 1969 this reporter jumped, literally, from the cargo bays of a DC-6 and was hustled into a dugout in the rich red earth of Biafra for formal customs and immigration procedures. Bombs landed nearby, the Russian Ilyushin bomber, flown by Egyptians for the Nigerian federal forces and known to all as “The Intruder” was trying to bomb the airlift. With our passports duly stamped, we were hustled into the black African night for an immediate meeting with Biafran officials and a briefing; then to an abandoned plantation house where the moon shone through a bullet-holed roof. Early the next morning we awoke to the low drone of wailing children and the all-pervasive smell of death. It never goes away. It stays strong in the memory.

In April 1994, it was the same story as the RCAF Hercules flying between Nairobi and Kigali during the Rwanda genocide hugs the treetops to avoid radar and heat-seeking missiles. Suddenly it is on the ground, engines roaring, a tense loadmaster says ‘out you go we’re off the ground in 10 minutes’. Two journalists run for the bombed out French-built terminal and are waved to an APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) into which we fall, literally, into the arms of a charming Ghanian brigadier wearing a blue helmet, Brigadier Henry Anidoho. As the APC pushed through the corpse-littered streets of the city, the knot of anxiety grows and the sense of chaos almost overwhelms the stench of death. There is no sign of the world community here – except these few brave blue helmets on whom, with Rwanda, the world has turned its back. Just as it did in Biafra.

“There is no sign of the world community here – except these few brave blue helmets on whom, with Rwanda, the world has turned its back. Just as it did in Biafra.”

Years earlier in Biafra it was in a village called Atani, a market which the day before had been strafed by the Russian MiG fighter jets, flown by Egyptians for the Nigerian air force. Cannon shells had burst in the middle of the market. A line of bullets traced their way down the middle of thatched huts. Bodies still lay by the side of dirt tracks. It was no military installation. The feeding station and sick bay run by the World Council of Churches was a long, low shed where 300 children mostly inert, lay on the earth floor on straw mats. Their hair was red, their bellies swollen; their skin scaly and limbs like bent twigs. Eyes stared blankly from hollow sockets. The low moaning sound that had greeted the first morning was louder. The children were in constant pain. They were being fed, when it was available, high protein food and milk, a few drops of fish oil flown in on the Jesus Christ Airline and Canairelief. These were the innocents. They had made no war, their bodies were ravaged by starvation and their parents were worse. Refugees for two or three years, they were getting three meals a week and they were dying, in the bush under thatch quietly by the side of road. There was not an animal to be seen, they had long ago been eaten. Lizards were a protein treat. Wander off the roads and into the bush almost anywhere in Biafra and the sight of starving people soon became one of the most harrowing sights visitors would see.

The churches were accused of manufacturing these horrendous images to raise money to keep Ojukwu in power. The brutal fact, Johnson told me, was that these and millions more children were innocent victims of an international power play for political influence in Africa and a struggle for control of one of the world’s great oil reserves.

The courage of the pilots, the Biafran relief workers who could unload a Super Constellation’s 15 tons of aid in 20 minutes in the darkness, and the missionaries and medical staff who were inside Biafra, was incredible.

In the end international politics and commerce won out. Biafra collapsed.

History repeating

The humanitarian disasters have grown in magnitude in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World and emergency relief pioneered by the Jesus Christ Airline and people like Ted Johnson has now become big business. Violence-jaded viewers watch the repetition of Biafra endlessly on their television screens and the comment by Stanley Burke that our society and churches suffer from “compassion fatigue” becomes more incisive daily. Governments still spend less than half of one percent (Canada) on third world development aid. Arms merchants and mercenaries get rich protecting transnational resources from the people that own them.

In addition, since Biafra, Africa has been blighted by similar wars in Angola, both Congos, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea … and Rwanda. Today, the Great Lakes region, which includes Rwanda, is still mired in a seemingly intractable war. As General Dallaire notes, “From the Rwandan exodus in 1994 until genocide broke out once again in 2003, it has been estimated that four million human beings have died in the Congo and the Great Lakes region… and, once again, only when the television cameras of the world captured the event were nations embarrassed into sending a half-hearted temporary mission to try and stop the killing.”

“If we believe that all humans are human, then how are we going to prove it? It can only be proven through our actions.”

This kind of response forces Dallaire to the same conclusion about how white people in the developed world view black people in Africa that Burke reached in the 1960s. However, like those who funded or flew for Jesus Christ Airline in Biafra, Dallaire is not without hope or a way forward: “The only conclusion I can reach is that we are in desperate need of a transfusion of humanity. If we believe that all humans are human, then how are we going to prove it? It can only be proven through our actions.”