From early on, Israel perceived that Nigeria would be an important player in West African politics, and saw good relations with Lagos as an important foreign policy objective. Nigeria and Israel established a linkage in 1957. In 1960 Britain allowed the creation of an Israeli diplomatic mission in Lagos, and Israel made a $10 million loan to the Nigerian government. Israel also developed a cultural relation with the Igbos based on possible shared traditions. These moves represented a significant diplomatic success given the Muslim orientation of the northern-dominated government. Some northern leaders disapproved of contact with Israel and banned Israelis from Maiduguri and Sokoto.
Israel did not begin arms sales to Nigeria until after Aguyi-Ironsi came to power in January 1966. This was considered an opportune time to develop this relationship with the federal government. Ram Nirgad became Israeli ambassador to Nigeria in January. Thirty tons of mortar rounds were delivered in April.
The Eastern Region began seeking assistance from Israel in September 1966. Israel apparently turned down their requests repeatedly, although they may have put the Biafran representatives in contact with another arms dealer. In 1968, Israel began supplying the Federal Military Government with arms—about $500,000 worth, according to the US State Department. Meanwhile, as elsewhere, the situation in Biafra became publicised as a genocide. The Knesset publicly debated this issue on 17 and 22 July 1968, winning applause from the press for its sensitivity. Right-wing and left-wing political groups, and student activists, spoke for Biafra. In August 1968, the Israeli air force overtly sent twelve tons of food aid to a nearby site outside of Nigerian (Biafran) air space. Covertly, Mossad provided Biafra with $100,000 (through Zurich) and attempted an arms shipment. Soon after, Israel arranged to make clandestine weapons shipments to Biafra using Côte d’Ivoire transport planes.
Biafra appealed unsuccessfully for support from the Organisation of African Unity, which member states generally did not want to support internal secessionist movements,although they received the support of African countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.
From 1968 onward, the war fell into a form of stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control due to stiff resistance and major defeats in Abagana, Arochukwu, Oguta, Umuahia (Operation OAU), Onne, Ikot Ekpene, etc. But another Nigerian offensive from April to June 1968 began to close the ring around the Biafrans with further advances on the two northern fronts and the capture of Port Harcourt on 19 May 1968. The blockade of the surrounded Biafrans led to a humanitarian disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas.
The Biafran government reported that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world. Private groups in the US, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, responded. No one was ever held responsible for these killings.
In September 1968, the federal army planned what Gowon described as the “final offensive.” Initially the final offensive was neutralised by Biafran troops by the end of the year after several Nigerian troops were routed in Biafran ambushes. In the latter stages, a Southern FMG offensive managed to break through. However in 1969, the Biafrans launched several offensives against the Nigerians in their attempts to keep the Nigerians off-balance starting in March when the 14th Division of the Biafran army recaptured Owerri and moved towards Port Harcourt, but were halted just north of the city. In May 1969, Biafran commandos recaptured oil wells in Kwale. In July 1969, Biafran forces launched a major land offensive supported by foreign mercenary pilots continuing to fly in food, medical supplies and weapons. Most notable of the mercenaries was Swedish Count Carl Gustav von Rosen who led air attacks with five Malmö MFI-9 MiniCOIN small piston-engined aircraft, armed with rocket pods and machine guns. His Biafran Air Force consisted of three Swedes: von Rosen, Gunnar Haglund and Martin Lang. The other two pilots were Biafrans: Willy Murray-Bruce and Augustus Opke. From 22 May to 8 July 1969 von Rosen’s small force attacked Nigerian military airfields in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin City and Ughelli, destroying or damaging a number of Nigerian Air Force jets used to attack relief flights, including a few Mig-17’s and three of Nigeria’s six Ilyushin Il-28 bombers that were used to bomb Biafran villages and farms on a daily basis. Although the Biafran offensives of 1969 were a tactical success, the Nigerians soon recovered. The Biafran air attacks did disrupt the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force, but only for a few months.
In response to the Nigerian government using foreigners to lead some advances, the Biafran government also began hiring foreign mercenaries to extend the war. Only German born Rolf Steiner a Lt. Col. with the 4th Commandos, and Major Taffy Williams, a Welshman would remain for the duration. Nigeria deployed foreign air crafts, in the form of Soviet MiG 17 and Il 28 bombers.
The September massacres and subsequent Igbo withdrawal from northern Nigeria was the basis for the initial human rights petition to the UN to end genocide and provided a historical link to Biafran claims of genocide during the Nigerian civil war. Awareness of a mounting crisis rose in 1968. Information spread especially through religious networks, beginning with alerts from missionaries. It did not escape the notice of worldwide Christian organisations that the Biafrans were Christian and the northern Nigerians controlling the federal government were Muslim. The famine was as a result of the blockade that the Nigerian government had imposed on the Eastern region in the months leading up to secession.
Many volunteer bodies organised the Biafran airlift which provided blockade-breaking relief flights into Biafra, carrying food, medicines, and sometimes (according to some claims) weapons. More common was the claim that the arms-carrying aircraft would closely shadow aid aircraft, making it more difficult to distinguish between aid aircraft and military supply aircraft.
The American Community to Keep Biafra Alive stood apart from other organizations by quickly creating a broad strategy for pressuring the American government into taking a more active role in facilitating relief. Former Peace Corps volunteers who had recently returned from Nigeria and college students founded the American Committee in July 1968. The Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the Eastern Region ‘developed strong friendships and identified as Igbo which was prompted them to help the eastern region.
One of the interesting characters assisting Count Carl Gustav von Rosen was Lynn Garrison, an ex-RCAF fighter pilot. He introduced the Count to a Canadian method of dropping bagged supplies to remote areas in Canada without losing the contents. He showed how one sack of food could be placed inside a larger sack before the supply drop. When the package hit the ground the inner sack would rupture while the outer one kept the contents intact. With this method many tons of food were dropped to many Biafrans who would otherwise have died of starvation.
Bernard Kouchner was one of a number of French doctors who volunteered with the French Red Cross to work in hospitals and feeding centres in besieged Biafra. The Red Cross required volunteers to sign an agreement, which was seen by some (like Kouchner and his supporters) as being similar to a gag order, that was designed to maintain the organisation’s neutrality, whatever the circumstances. Kouchner and the other French doctors signed this agreement.
After entering the country, the volunteers, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the Nigerian army, and witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. Kouchner also witnessed these events, particularly the huge number of starving children, and when he returned to France, he publicly criticised the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behaviour. With the help of other French doctors, Kouchner put Biafra in the media spotlight and called for an international response to the situation. These doctors, led by Kouchner, concluded that a new aid organisation was needed that would ignore political/religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of victims. They formed le Comité de Lutte contre le Génocide au Biafra which in 1971 became Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
The crisis brought about a large increase in prominence and funding of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).[139