50 years on: Examining international solidarity with Biafra
Two and a half years. More than 2 million lives: On January 15, 1970, the civil war in Nigeria finally ended. It was fought with the weapon of hunger and shook people all over the world. At the time, many Germans spoke out against the civil war. Half a century later, calls for an independent Biafra are growing louder again. We take a look back 50 years on.
Members of the Igbo, a predominantly Christan population in Nigeria, proclaimed the indepdendent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. The region's nearly 14 million inhabitants celebrated their new state, but a year later, the first war since decolonization broke out. The name Biafra soon became synonymous with misery, hunger and death.
When Nigerian troops took the city of Port Harcourt in May 1968, the separate state of Biafra lost its only point of access to the sea. From that point on, those who were trapped relied on supplies dropped from the air. It was a clear victory for the Nigerian army. The insurgents under General Ojukwu's leadership were far inferior and poorly trained.
The Nigerian troops soon started a siege war, in which they tried to starve out the separatists. These so-called Biafra babies soon became known all over the world. The humanitarian catastrophe moved people to the extent that an unprecedented solidarity movement began. At its worst, up to 10,000 children and elderly people died every day in the summer of 1968.
The civil war over Biafra mobilized the public in Germany like no other previous African event. In August 1968, Biafran and German students began a five-day walk to Bonn. They demanded Biafra be recognized as a sovereign state. The flag with the rising sun (pictured above, right) became Biafra's national flag.
"As Germans, we should know what we are saying when we say the word genocide... because silence becomes complicit." Author Günter Grass was probably the most prominent speaker at a rally held in Hamburg in 1968 against the war in Biafra. His message hit a nerve in Germany: In the 1960s, people had started to deal with the past of World War II.
In Germany, bishops, parliamentarians and citizens' initiatives all got involved — the Evangelical Church Day in 1968 also focused on Biafra. Money and relief supplies were collected and flown to war-torn Biafra. Former German Air Force pilot Friedrich Herz initially trained in Biafra as a fighter pilot before flying against the Nigerian army.
In Hamburg, students Klaus Guerke and Tilman Zülch (pictured above) created the "Komitee Aktion Biafra-Hilfe." The organization received support from such diverse people as the Mayor of Berlin, Heinrich Albertz, writers Günter Grass and Luise Rinser and the Bishop of Münster, Heinrich Tenhumberg. The group later became the international NGO, the Society for Threatened Peoples.
Historian Golo Mann praised those who went to the aid of Biafra, although his comments were not always understood: "A war in which British 'imperialists' and Russian 'communists' pull together on the same rope of crime, in which a former colony is fighting for the supposed unity of its state against a tribe which is not even 'socialist' is quite uninteresting...all theory is indeed harmful!"
In London, protesters marched from the former Soviet embassy to the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street. They accused both the Soviet Union and Britain of supporting Nigeria's war against Biafra with by supplying weapons. Labor party politician Michael Barnes also spoke at a rally organized by the "Biafra Committee."
Many committed human rights activists were stunned by the lack of international engagement. They expressed their frustration in newspaper advertisements, in strong-worded appeals and even on posters bearing slogans such as "A for Auschwitz — B for Biafra." Well-known Germans like Erich Kästner (pictured above), Ernst Bloch, Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Martin Walser were just a few famous signatories.
French doctor Bernard Kouchner traveled to Biafra in 1968, where, as a part of the International Red Cross (IRC), he tried to provide medical aid to the population in need. Kouchner criticized the IRC's stance of not interfering in the politics of the warring parties. He went on to lay the foundations of the international NGO, "Doctors Without Borders."
Donations from all over the world kept the people of Biafra alive. Aid organizations and the IRC sent 7,350 aircraft loads containing 81,300 tons of food and medication. Despite the aid they received, Biafra had to surrender to Nigeria on January 15, 1970. But even today, the calls for an independent Biafra have not subsided.