On May 26th, 1967 Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Nigeria region, in a rebellion against the federal government of Nigeria, decided “to declare at the earliest practicable date, Eastern Nigeria a free, sovereign and independent state by name and title of the Republic of Biafra” . This was a decisive step in the civil war that raged in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970 and claimed the lives of more than a million Nigerians . The war can be said to have begun with a succession of two military coups in January and July 1966 which led to rising tensions between the different regions of Nigeria, and notably between its military leaders : lieutenant-colonel Yakubu Gowon in the North and Ojukwu in the East . When Gowon became the new head of state after the July 1966 military coup Okujuwu did not recognize his leadership, and expressed the fears felt, by many of the Igbo ethnic group, of Northern domination of their region. This was confirmed when between 7.000 and 50.000 Igbo people were murdered between September and October 1967 and both sides failed to reach an agreement as illustrated with the Aburi Agreement failure . The conflict rapidly turned into an armed civil war. This presented a clear challenge for the emergent state, facing issues of self-determination and secession. In addition, this conflict had significant international implications and became “Africa's most internationalized war” in the 1960s. Secession only becomes legitimate once it has received recognition by the international community. In the case of the attempt to establish and independent Biafra, only four African countries recognised the claim for self-determination: Tanzania, Zambia, the Ivory Coast and Gabon. These four countries however challenged the standard position of most African states, and that adopted by the Organisation of African Unity, of prioritizing non-intereference in Nigeria's internal affairs. What were the mechanics behind these decisions? Why did only four countries recognise Biafra? Should more have done so? I will try to answer these questions concentrating first on the failure of the OAU in mediating the conflict, then on the reasons behind the choices of recognition or condemnation of the Biafra state by different African leaders. Finally, considering the condemnation of the Biafra genocide by the rest of the world, I will reflect upon whether or not African leaders should have recognized Biafra, and what this would have changed.
The most reactive international organisation to the Nigerian conflict was the Organisation of African Unity, as it was directly concerned with political unrest in its member states. Despite this will to intervene, we will see however that the OAU, still a young organisation, failed to mediate the conflict properly. As early as July 1967, African leaders commented the Nigerian conflict and expressed their desire to see it dealt with “regionally”, as can be seen with President Nyerere's insistence on “preventing the United Nations or the big powers from intervening in Nigeria” . The 4th Annual Summit of the OAU in Kinshasa beginning on the 10th of September 1967 was marked by the conflict in Nigeria. However, not only was this institution young and unstable, Nigeria held strong influence within it. Menaces against decisions that threatened to “wreck the already shaky foundation on which the OAU now rests” on Radio Nigeria, explicitly refered to Nigeria's power to block the development of the organisation. The Biafran case challenged two founding principles of the OAU, namely: the principle of non-interference and respect of post-colonial borders , which greatly compromised possible support towards the Biafran cause. Chief Awolowo, the highest-ranking civilian in Nigeria was to head the Nigerian delegation at the Kinshasa Summit, and knew the power of “state sovereignty” as an authoritive argument. As he expressed, “We would not be pilloried. Every one of the members had its own skeleton in the closet and we would not hesitate to raise it. No one had the right to question the internal affairs of another state.”
Finally Awolowo agreed to the creation of a Consultative Committe, made up of 6 member states with Emperor Selassie of Ethiopia as chairman whose role was to mediate the conflict. The terms of the resolution instauring the Consultative Committe clearly bent towards Nigerian support, as seen with the condemnation of secession in the resolution. Furthermore, the members of the committe, of which only Ghana was sympathetic to the Biafran cause, clearly advantaged the Nigerian side. Despite urgency of situation, the next meeting of the committee was constantly delayed, due notably to Nigerian military advances, and three important operations: liberating the midwest, capturing Biafran capital of Enugu, and controlling the Cameroon frontier . The military objectives of the Federal government seemed to have priority over the conciliation effort. This led to strong criticism from the international community and embarassment about the OAU initiative. Finally the resolve not to consult Ojukwu illustrated the lack of “conciliation”effort. As denounced by Radio Biafra after the Kinshasa Summit “By deciding to consult only one party to the dispute, the mission demonstrated its lack of objectivity and doomed itself to failure.” The OAU response to the crisis, i.e the creation of the Consultative Committee, seemd thus to have been a biased one, clearly indicating support for the Nigerian case. There have been several inconsistencies in the position held by the OAU, notably concerning the idea that the conflict was an internal affair. Straight from the start, there were ties between both sides with external countries. Britain and Russia provided supplies to the Federal Governement, whereas Portugal and France offered respectively a base for communication and arms and relief supplies to Biafra . The fear of further international involvement was one of the reasons that pushed the OAU to take a leading position in supervising the conflict. This contradiction between a sanctified respect for state sovereignty and the reality was also relevant in the Committee's actions. After confirming that secession was an internal matter for the Nigerian state, the committee condemned secession in its defining resolution. Pronouncing itself on such a matter is contradictory with the claim that it was an internal matter . The debate around the establishement of 12 states within Nigeria, and the reference to “Decree No. 14 of 1967” illustrates the participation of the OAU community on administrative matters, which clearly contrasts with the notion of non-interference on which it is built. Not only is there some hypocrisy in the use of the principles such as state sovereignty, the OAU also interpreted conditions of interference loosely. Whereas Article 3 of the OAU Charter forbids member states from intervening in one another's affairs, no mention is made of intervention by the OAU as an organisation . In cases of domestic affairs, tied to international issues, such as the Biafran case, the OAU should intervene neutrally and take responsibility, or risk being characterized of an “African ostricht” . As put by Fredereick Forsyth: “The organization that prides itseld on being the repository of the conscience of Africa washed its hands of the biggest conscientious issue of the continent.”
Having established the failure of the OAU to bring the two sides of the conflict to negotiate, the African Countries and members of the OAU faced a difficult choice: act against the general will of the OAU and recognize Biafra, or respect the decision taken by the consultative committee to let Nigeria continue its war on Biafra. After establishing the reasons behind the recognition by four countries: Tanzania (13th of April), Gabon (8th of May), Ivory Coast () and Zambia (20th May) , of Biafra, I will concentrate on the rationale behind the rest of the African countries' refusal to condone the secessionist movement.
Nyerere's decision to recognize Biafra has been described as “The wrong thing for the right reasons” . The Tanzanian leader did not act because of a deep belief in Biafra's right to self-determination, but rather to influence the Nigerian federal government into ending the conflict. The four countries presented very different backgrounds, both Anglophone and Francophone, East and West Africa and the four state leaders were known to hold strongly opposed ideological views . They shared however the desire to see the violence stop and the “enthronement of morality in human, in intra-national and inter-African relations.” Although the countries still hoped for Nigerian unity , they hoped recognition would unblock the diplomatic field. Furthermore, they were deceived by the OAU's attitude to conflict. There already was some mistrust of federations by Gabon and the Ivory Coast. The former had disengaged itself from the Federation of French Equatorial Africa, whereas the latter positioned itself against the Federation of French West Africa . Mistrust of the OAU as a federation as a provider of justice was strong, and thus the two countries did not fear opposing its recommendations. The Ivory Coast leader, Houphouet-Boigny, also denounced the attitude of member states which blindly followed the decisions of the OAU, ignoring their moral responsibilities. According to Stremlau, there were three ways in which OAU support of the federal government impeded recognition. First it comforted pro-Nigerian non- African powers in their position, second it offered an excuse for countries who did not want to get involved, and finally it isolated countries which believed the Biafra cause to be just . However many countries truly believed in the righteousness of the OAU, and saw the attitude of the four countries as an act of treason, against the whole of the OAU community. This can be seen with the strong condemnation of the four countries at the Algiers Summit in 1968. The opening speech by Algerian President Houari Boumedienne set the tone by denouncing “the plot against Nigeria” . This was echoed by the prime minister of Swaziland's qualification of the four countries' recognition as a “stab in the back” of the Consultative Committee. There was thus criticism about the manner adopted by the four countries to allow recognition. The fact the OAU adopted a pro-federal position was clearly a factor in many states' refusal to recognize Biafra. The fear of secession itself heavily weighed on African countries' decisions. As described by St Jorre “'Secession' was a dirty word in the African vocabulary, implying big power interference, economic exploitation and white mercenaries.” Furthermore secession was seen as a cause for the balkanization of states. In the case of Nigeria, there persisted a risk of “kaleidoscopic changes” and the destruction of the federation, because of its different regions. In a context of a search for legitimacy , post-colonial African countries could hardly risk accepting secession, as it would represent a challenge to the newly established principle of state authority. This was the case for every African country, and fear of Biafra setting 'precedent' in Africa led many to refuse to recognize the state. Threats of secessionist movements prevailed in several OAU member states. As the first Summit to deal with the Nigerian Civil War was held in Congo, the threat of secessionist movements was ever present with the memories of the Katanga movement, and the present issue of the Bukavu region in the East . This was the case for many African leaders, as for example President Obote of Uganda who had to fight secessionist movement of the Baganda . Many leaders prioritized national integrity in the case of the Nigerian conflict.
In the light of different considerations behind the African leaders' choices, we can now wonder whether more heads of state should have recognized Biafra, based on the legitimacy of the Biafra cause, and evaluate what purpose such recognition would have served. According to the traditional characteristics for secession such as: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states Biafra did not present a valid candidature for independence. With regard to population, Eastern Nigeria was not a homogeneous bloc, and the Ibo majority only represented about 64% of the population in 1963 . There was however delimitation between the Eastern region of Nigeria and the other regions established in 1939, and the first gained significant importance during the 1966 crisis, during which it was seen as “the significant operative unit and was viewed as such by the rest of the country.” However, in terms of capacity to enter into relations with other states, Biafra lacked credibility, with only 3 diplomatic missions in Africa, and 7 information offices overseas . In support of the legitimacy of Biafra's claim to independence one may mention the profound belief in self-determination which was a founding principle of Nigeria itself. Indeed, there seemed to be some possibility for secession in the Eastern Memorandum of September 1966 and several statements led the Eastern leaders to think that not only would secession be tolerated, it might even be adopted by other Nigerian regions . This was the case of both Northern and Western regions, which announced their desire for secession if Biafra should come into existence. This can be seen from the statements made by the Western Leaders of Thought, in May 1967 that: “If any Region secedes, the Federation as we know it shall cease to exist and Western Nigerias shall automatically become independent and sovereign.” This desire for secession in the case of the creation of the Biafra state was also expressed by Awolowo at the same Ibadan Conference. Furthermore, riots in the North in September 1966 have partly been attributed to secessionist claims, as a reaction to a federation in which the North would risk domination . Although Biafra failed to meet certain exepectations for a secessionist state, it did present legitimacy in that it represented a strong region, in a federation of important regional differences.
The main argument for secession however was the threat for the Ibo population to remain in the federation. In a similar way to the Palestinian case, and the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, Biafra was a case in which different ethnic groups could not co-exist . The case for ethnic tensions in Nigeria had already been made. The beginning of the Civil War began with a regional division with strong roots in ethnic rivalries. As mentioned in the introduction between 7000 and 50000 had died prior to the civil war which led to a massive flight of the population towards the East, searching for protection. Furthermore, the war tactics of blockading Biafra to wear it down, at the expense of civilian populations, caused many casualties. “Far more than the bullets, starvation led to the death of thousands” . These images of starving women and children were, or should have been, an important tool in the “Golden Age of Biafran Propaganda.” A Directorate of Propaganda was established as a political tool . The aim of this was twofold. Not only did it serve to unifiy the Eastern Population behind the Biafra cause by creating a constantly threatening enemy, it was also an efficient way to gather international support. Although at first Okujuwu presented Biafra as an independent, viable force, to justifiy secession, the combat was rapidly redefined as one against the threat of genocide. By mid 1968 Biafra finally began to make the news in Europe and America, notably through the Swiss agency “Markpress News Feature Services”. Images and accounts of atrocities in Biafra travelled the world, and had a strong impact on Western countries and this led to “Biafra's remarkable success in attracting substantial nongovernmental assistance from Europe and North America” notably with Christian associations (p.375 in Strmalu) . The threat of genocide was not acknowledged by many members of the OAU however, who on the contrary believed the Igbo were to blame for the civil war. The Igbo's responsibility for orchestrating the January coup of 1966, which then led to the July counter coup and its consequences, has been seen as the root of the conflict . Furthermore, the African leaders believed starvation and massacres were to be blamed on Ojukwu, who by stopping the call for secession could end the suffering of his people . Although this seems biased as a statement, there certainly was proof that massacres were going on both sides of the conflict, and that Eastern Minorities tremendously suffered, challenging the notion of a genocide led against a target population: the Ibo people . The Federal government thus could not be accused of leading a policy of cultural and racial destruction, and it would have been displaced for other African heads of state to itnervene in that matter. As expressed by the President of Mali at the Algiers Summit “Which African country here has not placed some limitations on human rights and the rights of its own minorities and opposition groups?” Here again the principle of non-intervention is applied, because of member countries' own issues. This was also true at OAU level, whose charter lacks any mention of human rights , strongly insisting on the duty to defend the “sovereignty, territorial intergrity, and independence of its member states.” We have thus seen that Biafra, presenting certain fallacies in its claim to independence, had to rely on its insistance on the threat posed to the Igbo within the Nigerian federation. Not compelled to recognize Biafra by legal standards, the decision was one of evaluation of the conflict. In the context of war, and in view of conflicts on the ground, most African countries judged there was no justification for the accusations of genocide.
Having established that the countries evaluated the principle of state sovereignty and non-interference prevailed, we can now wonder whether they should have done so in order to force the two sides to come to an agreement. As seen in the first part of the essay, the OAU can be said to have failed in its conciliatory mission, and the diplomatic tool seemed to have been left aside in trying to end the conflict. By evaluating the failure of the four recognitions of Biafra, we can wonder whether the recognition by more states would have been effective. Although the four countries to recognize Biafra did so with the aim to develop diplomatic exchanges and end the military battle, their action had the opposite effect. As expressed by the Biafran Diplomat Ralph Uwechue “It is a lamentable irony that rather than bring the war to an end and so terminate the sufferings of the Biafran masses, recognition provoked an intensification of both..” The Biafran side, strenghtened by recognition, adopted an intransigeant stand in negotiations, whereas the federal government increased military pressure . One direct failure of recognition was a diplomatic one, as no other state decided to recognise Biafra as a consequence. With the OAU presenting a united front against he four powers, the four countries had little influence. The lack of lobbying power was reinforced by the fact only the Zambian President Kaunda was present, amongst the heads of state at the Algiers Summit . The recognition of Biafra by more countries could have offered the opportunity for Biafra to legitimately defend its cause in negotiating. Here again, recognition might not have been the best tool to unblock the diplomatic situation, but it could have offered an opportunity for the two sides to reach an agreement. The refusal by so many countries to recognize Biafra meant that the lack of neutrality obvious in the OAU's consultative committee was not denounced. The decision made by many African heads of state, of not recognising the secessionist state, although condemnable in the light of the thousands of deaths, can however be understood when considering the internal struggles in many countries. However, the lack of critical mediating of the OAU can be seen as a major failure. Within this context, recognition of Biafra could have been developed in order to influence the OAU.