The War in Biafra

Part II. The Famine

(continued from the previous post)

Eventually Federal Nigeria found an effective way to quell the rebellious Igbos, by inducing famine conditions inside Biafra. The Nigerian Army began sea and land blockade of Biafra, cutting off food supplies. By now, the media attention was well on the crisis, with reporters and photographers arriving steadily, making Biafra the world’s first media famine. But the outside world could only watch as more than one million people slowly starved. 

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. Kwashiorkor, the malnutrition caused by protein deficiency, was rife among children. The disease was nicknamed the ‘Harold Wilson Disease’, a mocking reference to the British Prime Minister and the aid he had given to Nigeria.

The media coverage peaked in the Spring of 1968. The first feature story that appeared in in Paris Match in early May 1968 did not include images of the victims of starvation (“Biafra: La Guerre Ignorée”) but soon images of skeletal children were on the covers of international news weeklies.

In UK, the Sun (a year before its takeover by Rupert Murdoch and becoming a tabloid) sounded one of the early alarms. In its June 12, 1968 issue, it called Biafra “The Land of No Hope” which photos by Ronald Burton. Inside the paper, Edinburgh-born Dr. Clyne Shepherd leading a hospital in Umuahia lamented, “We don’t take the hopeless cases. About a quarter of the children who come here are going to die anyway, so there is no point in taking them in.” With the bulk of Nigerian weaponry made in Britain, “It is difficult and embarrassing to be a Briton in Biafra just now. We are mighty unpopular,” the newspaper’s reporters noted.

For their cover on July 12, Life used an image of Biafran children by David Robison of the Transworld Features photo agency in a refugee camp. Robinson’s photo was also published in Paris Match to accompany Raymond Cartier’s article: “Cette guerre qui coutera au moins un million de morts”. (July 20, 1968).

Hubert Le Campion’s photo was on the cover of Stern (July 28, 1968). On 23rd August, 1968, Stuart Heydinger’s phoot was on the Daily Telegraph magazine. Epoca in Italy had Biafra on its cover twice (July 21, 1968; September 15, 1968). The French news magazine L’Express put the image of a Biafran baby on its front page (October 7, 1968) with the title “Biafra: La fin” being a play on words (the French word for hunger, “faim,” is pronounced the same as “fin”). Der Spiegel’s cover read: “Death Sentence for a People.” The Sunday Times Magazine had Don McCullin’s photos on the cover (1 June, 1969).

(More about Don McCullin’s work on Biafra here)

In World Press Photo Awards for 1968, two Biafran photos were honored. A picture of a Biafran Baby taken by the British war photographer Terence Spencer (below left0 came second in the main competition, and a series by the Dutch photographer Gérard Klijn, who worked for AP and the US photo agency Pictorial Parade, won the runners-up slot in the “photo stories” category. Klijn’s photos showed volunteers enlisting in the Biafran Army.

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.

The war was a turning point in the history of photojournalism, yet it remained a taboo in Nigeria, where many of the photos in this post were banned, and the war itself was not part of the school curriculum. The status of the Igbo within the Federal Nigeria also remained controversial.

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27 thoughts on “The War in Biafra

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