Decolonizing the Story of Humanitarianism: The Case of the Biafra War

By Cilas Kemedjio

On May 30, 1967, Lieutenant-colonel Chukwumeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the South Eastern Region’s military governor, proclaimed the Republic of Biafra at a champagne party in the city of Ennugu, the first capital of the secessionist region. On January 9, 1970, Ojukwu handed over to Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong; then fled and was granted asylum in Côte d’Ivoire. The Republic of Biafra would formally come to an end with the surrender of its military leader in Lagos. For the millions fleeing for their safety, the Republic of Biafra was a legitimate defense against aggression. Seen from the point of view of persecuted Igbos and citizens from the Eastern Region, Biafra was a humanitarian citadel designed to shield its beleaguered residents from the abuses they suffered in Nigeria. However, from Lagos—then the capital of the Nigerian Federation–the proclamation of the Republic of Biafra represented an abusive and unjustified rupture of the national compact. It constituted an insurrection against the authority of the central government and national sovereignty. The war by the Federal government was therefore a deployment of legitimate violence to subdue the rebels and reestablish the authority of the State and its internationally recognized boundaries. Whether we agree or not with these competing ethico-legal doctrines, we must acknowledge that this war was a devastating human tragedy for the people who lived in Biafra.

The January 1970 issue of Time Magazine extensively covered “the end of the rebellion” (the title of the cover story) with a long article on “The Secession that Failed” (19-24). The sheer power of numbers conveys the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster of the Nigerian civil war, otherwise known as the Biafra war: “One of the most devastating civil wars in modern history. At the outset, Biafra’s people numbered 12 million—about two-thirds of them Ibos, the rest belonging to minority tribes. The secessionist territory covered nearly 30,000 sq. mi. and included some of Nigeria’s richest land. At the close of the war, 3,500,000 people were squeezed into a devastated area of 1500 sq. mi. As many as 2,000,000 Biafrans, many of them children, had perished. The greatest majority had cruelly and slowly starved to death. Another 1,250,000 Biafrans, reduced to skeletons for lack of food, many die before aid can reach—even though at least 24000 tons of food, enough to feed 4,000,000 people for a month, is stockpiled not far from the war zone (18).”

The above passage captures the essence of the Biafran tragedy, the futility of the war, and the attendant problems that came out of this sad episode. One of the most enduring legacies of Biafra could be said to be the morbid representation of the suffering and helpless black body in need of humanitarian redemption. How did the humanitarian citadel eventually become a living hell for populations in search for a sanctuary? In other terms, what caused the Biafran leadership to depart from the initial humanitarian objective of safeguarding lives and to become obsessed with warfare to the point of committing atrocities or human rights violations against presumed traitors? Why did the Military government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria deliberately sacrifice millions of lives on the altar of national sovereignty? And finally why did humanitarian agents embrace the Biafra cause to the extent of risking being assimilated to political and/or military allies of the Republic of Biafra? In order to satisfactory address these questions, we must be aware of the pitfalls of conflating politics and strategic interests with humanitarian interventions. The politicization and militarization of humanitarian interventions relieved the Biafran leadership of its essential responsibility to ensure the welfare of the people it claimed to represent. The moral indignation blinded humanitarian agents with an absolutist moral rectitude to the point of becoming enablers of the very suffering they sought to relieve. They failed to critically assess all the causes of suffering, including the unintended consequences of the very aid they were providing on the continuation of the conflict. The Federal Military Government defended an absolutist regiment of national sovereignty that included the starving and bombing of the citizens it claimed to represent. This indifference to the lives of people Nigeria led to the infamous kwashiorkor babies whose images drove the humanitarian mobilization.

In her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) confronts issues that arise in a black family around the impeding arrival of the check representing the patriarch’s death insurance. Asagai, the Nigerian character who is a student in the United States, asks the following question to Beneatha, the dead man’s daughter, whose dream of becoming a physician hinges on the check: “Then, isn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?” I borrow from Hansberry’s observation and ask if there isn’t something wrong when the fate of an entire community depends on images of starving and emaciated children? That’s the trouble with emergency humanitarianism. That’s the trouble with the Biafra War, credited to be the foundational moment of this pathetic, if pathologic representation of the African body as emaciated and in need of the redeeming intervention of Western compassionate agents.

I argue that the colonization of the Biafra tragedy was made possible through the process of translating this tragedy into a parlance best and only understood by the Western Imagination. I see in this conversion or translation undertaking an indigenization process. Exotic realities of the suffering in Eastern Nigeria are explained for the natives of the West. This is an indigenization process, though it may be in reverse of what the missionaries and colonial administrators bent on remaking Africa in the image of the West used to do. It is my contention that the process of indigenization of the Biafran war into the Western imagination requires an obliteration of what is specific—understood here as local, Nigerian, African–about this tragedy. The tragedy is rendered transparent through its conversion into languages, vocabularies, and grammars that are readily understood and read by the Western imagination. What’s lost in this process are the local dynamics, tensions, misunderstandings and hopes that shaped the war. I am not claiming that the Biafran tragedy was unique or totally resistant to existing paradigms of conflict interpretation. I am even less attempting to make a case for what may be termed, for lack of a better expression, Biafra exceptionalism. I am simply stating that, by making this tragedy translucent to the vocabularies shaped by recent European history, the media, humanitarian agents, and the Biafra leadership failed to make this suffering meaningful for the very people who live through it. I am registering my concerns within the spirit of Richard Wright’s letter to his friend Kwame Nkrumah, then Leader of Government Business in the Gold Coast. Richard Wright, the African-American writer, warned Kwame Nkrumah about this ethical inflation in a letter that appeared in Black Power: Make no mistake, Kwame, they are going to come at you with words about democracy; you are going to be pinned to the wall and warned about decency, plump-faced men will mumble academic phrases about «sound» development; gentlemen of the cloth will speak unctuously of values and standards; in short, a barrage of concentrated arguments will be hurled at you to persuade you to temper the pace and drive your movement. […] There will be no way to avoid a degree of suffering, of trial, of tribulation; suffering comes to all people, but you have within your power the means to make this suffering of your people meaningful, to redeem whatever stresses and strains may come. None but Africans can perform this for Africa.  (6, Richard Wright, Letter to Kwame Nkrumah in Black Power 1954)

We should therefore inquire, as Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie suggests in Half and a Yellow Sun, if “starvation aided [more than] the careers of photographers,” humanitarian agents, and politicians. In this narrative, agency is structurally tilted toward the donor, the compassionate, that, is, to what Weiss refers to as “forces of redemption,” (Weiss 2008). As a consequence of this uneven distribution of agency, distressed populations, receivers of the humanitarian gift, become debtors of gratitude. This debt of gratitude robs them of their human dignity. This indebtedness does not proceed from any malicious intent or any will to obliterate the agency of distressed communities. It forms the very meaning of the humanitarian gift. Controversies over the genocidal nature of the Biafran tragedy reflect in part this uncritical imposition of Western legal and theoretical frameworks on African realities. In a different context, I have argued against the malediction, or curse, of theory, an intellectual exercise that refers to the uses of (mostly western) theoretical concepts in the analysis of African culture and experience (Kemedjio 1999).

The assimilation of the Biafran tragedy into languages readily readable by the Western Imagination became possible through the visualization of emaciated bodies of children. The emaciated African black body, from then on, became the paradigmatic archive for the representation of the dispossessed in need of the redeeming intervention of the humanitarian savior.

The visualization of distressed Biafran bodies unleashed the moral indignation of Western readers and audiences. This moral indignation in turn led to the massive humanitarian compassion that certainly saved thousands if not million of lives. Therefore, my argument is not, and will never be about the incredible contributions of ordinary women and men, from those giving selflessly to humanitarian agents who sometimes risked their lives to give desperate human beings in Biafra the opportunity to survive. However, it is critical, for the reader concerned with both the history and the practices of humanitarian interventions in Africa, to demand that the story of Biafra be moved from the moral indignation to a critical indignation as Luc Bolstanki would argue in Distant Suffering. Morality, Media and Politics (1999). Scholars and commentators tend to agree that the legacies of the Biafra war have been instrumental in the transformation of the humanitarian movement (Barnett/Weiss 2008, FEaron 2008, Troubé 2008).

How have these legacies been meaningful to the people who live through this nightmare and their descendants? The student of Africa must and should bring these questions to bear in the study of the Biafra war in general and the humanitarian intervention in particular. Relocating the Biafra tragedy within the genealogies of the abused black body offers an opportunity to detect how old colonial stereotypes may have shaped the visual representation of the humanitarian emergency.