The War in Biafra


Not much remembered now, but once the name Biafra as much synonymous with horrors, famine, and war as the names Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Rwanda or Darfur. In 1967, the Igbo people in Biafra, the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria, declared their independence, initiating a three-year conflict.

Britain as the colonial power had drawn a line round three main ethnic groups and 400 or so smaller linguistic groups and created Nigeria. In the north, they governed the mainly-Muslim northerners and the Hausa-Fulani people indirectly through traditional rulers. In the south, the Igbo, christianized by the Catholic missionaries (like many ethnic groups in coastal parts of Africa) were governed directly and were favored by the colonial administration.

In 1960, the entire Nigeria was granted independence. Two years earlier, a Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, borrowing from Yeats, noted that “things fall apart”, in a novel of that name. He would be quickly proven right. In January 1966, the Igbos launched a military coup, the first of many Nigeria would endure in coming decades; six months later, a second coup was led by the northerners.

Finally Biafra seceded on May 30, 1967. At first, it had high promises, calling itself “first nation-state south of the Sahara” and its troops coming within 100 miles of the federal capital in August 1967. But soon, such gains were reversed. Biafra only had population of about 13 million, and the rump Nigeria had nearly three times as many people to draw upon. By year’s end, the Nigerians were occupying more than half of Biafra’s territory.

Biafra’s independence was recognized by only five countries but the war would became a battleground on which various 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.

Initially, the conflict enjoyed very little press coverage. As late as mid-July 1968, Jean Finois of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur was noting that the war was “too far away and too chaotic to interest publics in Europe.” By then, the war had been going on for nearly a year, and 200,000 combatants had already died. The very first photoessay on Biafra had appeared only a couple of months earlier in May 4, 1968 issue of Paris Match.

Gilles Caron and Floris de Bonneville were there to retrieve the body of Marc Auerbach, a fellow colleague of them at Gamma, a recently founded Parisian photojournalism agency, who died covering the war in Calabar in October 1967.

Gilles Caron’s black and white photographs followed life in the rebel army and showed soldiers being ordered to leave behind their wounded comrades because there was no time to care for them. Floris de Bonneville’s color photos showed of the aftermath of battle. The first photo in Paris Match essay showed shows a burning body in a jeep (belonging to wife of a colonel) and on the following page, a double-page spread of a road strewn with cars hit by a mortar blast.

Upon their return to France, de Bonneville who was also chief editor of Gamma Agency, worked with Caron to produce a book La Mort du Biafra which brought to fore horrible conditions unfolding in Biafra.

Caron went back twice to Biafra, hitching a ride with a plane carrying NGO packages in July 1968 to cover the oil production sites and the troops led by German mercenary Rolf Steiner and in November 1968, when he documented an attack led by European mercenaries. On November 30 1968, those photos appeared in Paris Match (‘Biafra: Final Mission’). A dramatic shot showed soldiers carrying a large white man across a river. The man, who had been shot in the stomach and heart, was Marc Goossens, a Belgian mercenary. When the soldiers reached the other side of the river, Goossens’ fellow mercenaries searched his pockets and found his last pay-check – 4,000 US dollars – and a photograph of his girlfriend back in Ostend (topmost photo).

Both sides relied heavily on 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).

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