Chuck Ahlgren, Nigeria 4 (1962-1964)


While in Nigeria (1962-64), first at Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, and then at the University of Nsukka, I saw signs of increasing ethnic and religious tensions and political wrangling (notably over the contentious 1962 census), but nothing of a magnitude to suggest the fearful sequence of events that was to occur just a few years later.  Since my Peace Corps group (Nigeria IV) finished in the summer of 1964, I had no personal experience with the war.  However, it was impossible for any onye oche who had lived among the Igbo people not to be deeply affected by the conflict.

From 1964-67, I was a graduate student in African studies.  I followed closely the events in Nigeria, and was surprised and appalled by them…first the coup by junior officers in January, 1966 resulting in the deaths of Balewa, Akintola, and Ahmadu Bello, and then the countercoup in July of that year and the pogrom (Operation Araba) against Igbos in the north.

In the summer of 1966, I visited the Nigeria XXIII training program at Morehouse in Atlanta.  To my surprise I found that the prospective volunteers seemed unaware of the bloody events unfolding in Nigeria or the increasingly violent and unstable environment they were about to enter. This may have been a reflection of Washington’s slowness in recognizing the seriousness of the situation and the possibility that the Federation might break up.

Biafra seceded on May 30, 1967 and the war broke out in June.  That fall I joined the Foreign Service and started work in the Refugee Office of the State Department.  My duties didn’t involve Africa, but as the reports of appalling famine came in, I sought out senior State Department African Bureau officials, some of whom I had known in Nigeria (Bob Smith, the officer in charge of Nigerian affairs, had been Consul in Enugu  and Ambassador  Joseph Palmer II was now Assistant Secretary for Africa) to see what they were doing, and if more could be done.  I found these men anguishing over the situation, but unable to deviate from the official  U.S.position  (much influenced by Britain), which  was to support Nigerian unity.  Behind the scenes, they made strenuous but futile efforts to broker a peace and to get Lagos to allow more humanitarian assistance into Biafra. (Much of the diplomatic correspondence on the Johnson and Nixon/Ford administrations’ Biafran policies is now available on the web at )

In the fall of 1968 I was reassigned to Chicago.  One Nigerian RPCV asked me to join her in testifying on Biafra to Congress, but the State Department would not permit this.  Another asked me to assist a party of Biafran students who got out on a returning relief flight and came to Chicago under the auspices of the National Student Association.  I contacted local media personalities such as Phil Donahue and Mike Royco on their behalf, but without much success:  Africans fighting and dying did not generate even the modest level of public concern and interest in the 1960s, in the midst of Vietnam and the civil rights struggles, that they do today.

When I returned to Washington for reassignment in January of 1970, the Biafran War was over.  I learned then that many of my former students at Nsukka and Orlu had been killed.  Nsukka, which fell to Federal troops in the first week of the war, was occupied throughout.  Orlu had been the center of the Biafran relief effort.  The missionaries I worked with at Bishop Shanahan stayed throughout the war, but when Biafra fell they were expelled and the school closed for a long time.

Now, some forty years later, the cultural and religious tensions that bedeviled Nigeria in the 1960s seem not to have abated in the least; if anything they have been aggravated by the intervening decades of corruption, population growth, and environmental degradation.  The old Eastern Region is rife with militant and separatist movements, both among the minority ethnic groups and the Igbos.  Perhaps most disturbing is the persistence of secessionist sentiment among the Igbo, many of whom are supporters of MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra).

Thus the specter of the Biafran War continues to hover over Nigeria.   Many in the East, particularly the young who have no memory of the war, are restive under the thumb of the North.  The North, on the other hand, is no more willing to relinquish the East’s oil wealth than it was in the 1960s.    The coming election in April could, therefore, open up the old fissures in Nigerian unity and, should the army again seize power, set back once more the country’s democratic prospects.    To quote Yogi Berra: déjà vu all over again.  I can’t help but indulge in a little counterfactual history and ask:  if the United States had sided with Biafra in the 1960s could Biafra have won  independence?  If it had, would Nigeria and Nigerians be any worse off today?