Biafra by Don McCullin, 1968

These days, people don’t talk much about Biafra. Many probably have never even heard of it before, let alone know which continent it’s on and what happened there. During the 1960s, however, the name Biafra was a synonym for the horrors of famine and civil war, as much as the names such as Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Rwanda or Darfur are synonyms for horrors that took place during our generation.

In 1967, the Igbo people in Biafra, the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria, declared their independence, initiating a three-year conflict. The Igbo were Christianized by the Catholic missionaries (like many in coastal parts of Africa) and were favored by the British colonial administration, but the Hausa-Fulani people who ruled independent Nigeria were mostly Muslim.

The nascent Republic of Biafra was doomed from the start; its independence was recognized by only five countries [Footnote 1] but its indepedence struggle would became a battleground on which dying imperial powers fought a bruising proxy wars. France and Portugal, which controlled the nearby islands of Sao Tome and Principe, assumed that they could benefit from the break-up of Nigeria, a former British colony. Britain which had major oil contracts with Nigeria decided to back the Nigerian government. France, while officially denying any involvement, sent arms to Biafra via Gabon and the Ivory Coast. Meanwhile, Soviet Union, South Africa and Rhodesia all saw the conflict as a chance to increase their influence in the region. Via the Russians, Egyptian pilots were loaned to the Nigerian Army.

Both sides resorted to recruiting foreign mercenaries, men of extreme ruthlessness some of whom had been former Nazis or Hitler Youths. Groups of mercenaries hadn’t fought on opposite sides since the Carlist wars in Spain in the 19th century, and the fear of killing old friends sometimes led to stalemates, prolonging the civil war. More cynical commentators even noted that more decisive action from them might have meant an end to their monthly salaries (transferred into Swiss bank accounts).

Don McCullin remembered covering the war for the Sunday Times Magazine:

My French friend and I went on a special mission with the Biafran Army, who were crossing the Niger River to attack the Onitsha Bridge, which was held by the Nigerians. The Biafrans captured some prisoners and executed them in front of us, and then we had to flee from the battle. The Nigerians were hard on our heels and firing hundreds of mortar bombs in our direction. We were crashing through the jungle with thirty miles to clear to get back to the Niger River. It was a very bad day for us. Had the Nigerian Army caught up with us in our Vietnam camouflage jackets, they would have thought of us as mercenaries. Undoubtedly they would have shot us. There were good days and bad days.

I didn’t photograph the prisoners who were blindfolded and tied up. The commander, a really bad man, ordered them to be killed. I looked at my French friend and we just stood and watched it happen. It was terrible. I’d seen men executed before, and since, many times. It’s not a nice thing to have to remember. I have never photographed such a killing.

After initial setbacks, Nigerian Army began sea and land blockade of Biafra, cutting off food supplies. Western food aid was refused by the Biafra government, paranoid that it would have been poisoned, and the route for food aid would have opened a gap in the Biafran defence. What happened next was all the more tragic because it was all too preventable. 

It took a long time for the West to see pictures of Biafra; during the first six months of the fighting, few photographers managed to penetrate anywhere near the front lines. Yet, slowly reporters and photographers arrived, making Biafra the world’s first media famine. But the world could only sit and wait as more than one million people perished, mostly from starvation. 

Don McCullin recalled taking the topmost photo, and holding it back from the publication in the Sunday Times Magazine:

In the end, the story of the war in Biafra became the story of the terrible famine. There’s no worse death than death by starvation. I walked into a school complex in Biafra and found eight hundred children standing on their dying legs. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen.

Back in England there was a little, healthy McCullin family. I had my own psychology to deal with as I was standing in front of eight hundred dying children. A girl dropped dead in front of me. They rushed her into a grubby room and were pumping adrenalin into her throat, but it was a total waste of time. I saw scenes in that place you couldn’t imagine. It was very difficult for me.

In such a place people are thinking you’re bringing them something. In fact, you’re bringing them nothing when you have a Nikon F with some 35mm film in it. You’re bringing them no hope whatsoever.

One particular child was an albino. He fixed his eyes on me and I will never in a million years forget those eyes. I thought, ‘Don’t look at him, go somewhere else.’ I went around, and around, very distressed. Somebody touched my hand and I looked down and there he was, holding onto me. I thought I had to get away from him, but that I had to do it with some dignity. I put my hand in my pocket and found a barley sugar. I gave him the sweet. He went a short distance away and unwrapped it and was licking it. He was just licking it, looking at me. The other boys were trying to steal it from him. He was clutching an old discarded French corned beef tin and he’d completely eaten every last gram in that tin.

I haven’t printed the picture of him for many years. When I’m in the darkroom and that image is coming up, it’s as if he’s saying to you, ‘Hello! Hello, I’m back!’ I think it’s one of the worst pictures I’ve ever taken.

Biafra eventually collapsed. In 1970, its president, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu fled the country with just one $100 bill, all that was left of the massive £7m personal fortune; the remainder having been spent on food supplies and arms to protect his country. Biafra faded away into history, its last lingering claim to fame now being ‘Jello Biafra’, the stage name of American punk rocker Eric Reed who thought it was ironic to juxtapose the concepts of mass starvation in Africa and the nutritionally worthless junk food in the West. 

[Footnote 1: Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia].

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