Media and public opinion
Media and public relations played a central role in the war, due to their influence on morale at home and the dynamics of international involvement. Both sides relied heavily on external support.
Media campaigns focused on the plight of the Biafrans intensified internationally in the summer of 1968. By the Biafran leadership and then around the world, the pogroms and famine were classified as genocide and compared to the Holocaust; hypothetical Judaic origins of the Igbos were used to bolster comparisons with Jews in Germany. In the international press, Igbo refugee camps were compared to Nazi extermination camps.
Humanitarian appeals differed somewhat from place to place. In Britain, humanitarian aid used familiar discourses of imperial responsibility; in Ireland, advertisements appealed to shared Catholicism and experiences of civil war. Both of these appeals channeled older cultural values into support for the new model of international NGOs. In Israel, the Holocaust comparison was promoted, as was the theme of threat from hostile Muslim neighbors.
The Biafran war bombarded Western culture with the trope of the starving African child. The Biafran famine took media coverage of disaster to a new level, enabled by the proliferation of television sets. The televised disaster and the rising NGOs mutually enhanced each other; NGOs maintained their own communications networks and played a significant role in shaping news coverage.
Biafran elites studied Western propaganda techniques and released carefully constructed public communications in an intentional fashion. Biafran propagandists had the dual task of appealing to international public opinion, and maintaining morale and nationalist spirit domestically. Political cartoons were a preferred medium for publicising simple interpretations of the war. Biafra also used push polling to insinuate messages about Nigeria’s inherent bloodthirstiness. Novelist Chinua Achebe became a committed propagandist for Biafra, and one of its leading international advocates.
On 29 May 1969, Bruce Mayrock, a student at Columbia University, set himself ablaze at the premises of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, to protest the genocideagainst the nation and people of Biafra. He died of his injuries the following day.
Kwale oilfield incident
In May 1969 a company of Biafran commandos raided an oil field in Kwale and killed 11 Saipem workers and Agip technicians. They captured three Europeans unhurt and then at a nearby Okpai Field Development Biafran commandos surrounded and captured 15 more expatriate personnel. The captives included 14 Italians, 3 West Germans and one Lebanese. It was claimed that the foreigners were captured fighting alongside Nigerians against Biafran troops and that they assisted Nigerians in constructing roads to aid them in their operations against Biafra. They were tried by a Biafran court and sentenced to death.
This incident caused an international uproar. In the month that followed Pope Paul VI, the governments of Italy, UK and USA mounted concerted pressure on Biafra. On 4 June 1969, after receiving a personal direct mail from the Pope, Ojukwu pardoned the foreigners. They were released to the special envoys sent by the governments of Ivory Coast and Gabonand left Biafra.
End of the war
With increased British support, the Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans once again on 23 December 1969, with a major thrust by the 3rd Marine Commando Division. The division was commanded by Col. Olusegun Obasanjo (who later became president twice), which succeeded in splitting the Biafran enclave into two by the end of the year. The final Nigerian offensive, named “Operation Tail-Wind”, was launched on 7 January 1970 with the 3rd Marine Commando Division attacking, and supported by the 1st Infantry division to the north and the 2nd Infantry division to the south. The Biafran towns of Owerri fell on 9 January, and Uli on 11 January. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by plane to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to General Yakubu Gowon of the Federal Army on 13 January 1970. The surrender paper was signed on 14 January 1970 in Lagos and thus came the end of the civil war and renunciation of secession. The war finally ended a few days later, with the Nigerian forces advancing into the remaining Biafran-held territories, which was met with little resistance.
After the war, Gowon said, “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.”
Reckoning and legacy
Atrocities against Igbo
The war cost the Igbos a great deal in terms of lives, money and infrastructure. It has been estimated that up to three million people may have died due to the conflict, most from hunger and disease caused by Nigerian forces. More than two million people died from the famine imposed deliberately through blockade throughout the war. Lack of medicine also contributed. Thousands of people starved to death every day as the war progressed. (The International Committee of the Red Cross in September 1968 estimated 8,000–10,000 deaths from starvation each day.) The leader of a Nigerian peace conference delegation said in 1968 that “starvation is a legitimate weapon of war and we have every intention of using it against the rebels”. This stance is generally considered to reflect the policy of the Nigerian government. The federal Nigerian army is accused of further atrocities including deliberate bombing of civilians, mass slaughter with machine guns, and rape.
Ethnic Minorities in Biafra
Ethnic minorities (Ibibio, Ijaw, Ikwerre, Ogoni and others) made up approximately 40% of the Biafran population in 1966. The attitude of ethnic minorities in Biafra towards the conflict were initially divided early in the war, having suffered the same fate as Igbos in the North held the same fear and dread as Igbos. However, actions by Biafra authorities suggesting they favored the Igbo majority turned these attitudes negative. Great suspicion was directed towards ethnic minorities and opponents of Biafra, with ‘combing’ exercises conducted to sift these communities for saboteurs, or ‘sabo,’ as they were commonly branded. This brand was widely feared, as it generally resulted in death by the Biafran forces or even mobs. The accusations subjected entire communities to violence in the form of killings, rapes, kidnapping and internments in camps by Biafran forces.Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighter (BOFF) was a paramilitary organization set up by the civil defense group with instructions to suppress the enemy, and engaged in “combing” exercises in minority communities.