Book Review: The Biafra Story

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Biafra cost Frederick Forsyth his job as a BBC correspondent and his career as a journalist. He wrote the Biafra Story as an angry young man infused with a sense of mission: to put the case of the nascent east Nigerian state before the world. In this he succeeded.

 

The reviewer first encountered Forsyth as the novelist he subsequently became, enjoying his Day of the Jackal and other works of fiction. Then in his teens, he would note the Biafra Story as the single entry under non fiction. What was this Biafra?

As Forsyth tells it, Nigeria was an ill-starred state from the outset, and with its diverse peoples, some extremely hostile to others, was on course for trouble long before independence in 1960. He argues the country should have been organised as a loose confederation or a cluster of independent states. But a federal system was preferred.

Talk of secession was old hat in the Nigeria of the late 1960s, but until then it had always been the north that had talked about breaking away, usually – Forsyth has it – for tribal, religious or racist reasons, the later related to jealousy towards the commercially and otherwise successful Ibo people. The trouble was (and is – for the north is today again talking about breaking away) that Nigeria`s wealth – oil – lies under its south east corner – Biafra. It shortly occurred to them that breakaway without control of the oil was financially foolish. Forsyth is certain that the government of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had a key role to play in conveying this view and he takes a dim view of his government throughout.

1966 was a bad year for Nigeria. A series of ever-bloodier coups marred the year, leading to a series of pogroms against the Ibo in which at least 30,000 people were massacred, mostly in the “strangers` quarters (ghettos) where they were concentrated in the north. Gradually the Ibo realised they were not wanted (alive) by their fellow countrymen, a hard blow for a people who the author portray as standard-bearers for Nigerian unity.         

July 1966 was a particularly bad. Coup leader General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was murdered by northern officers and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Gowon, his chief of staff. Colonel Ojukwu, Ironsi`s governor for the south-east demurred in recognising Gowon`s rule, and so, in Forsyth`s telling the rest of Nigeria broke away from the south east. In the wake of the pogroms, Ojukwu,   egged on by his people had little choice but to turn de facto to de jure by declaring the south east independent under the rubric “The Republic of Biafra.”

Gowon and his backers could not let this stand and fighting commenced on July 6, 1967 – a month after the end of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Conventional wisdom was that this war would be no longer and that the Biafrans would fold. This was not to be. The war dragged on for years, eventually petering out in January 1970, when the Biafrans, starved of food and arms and tired beyond endurance, surrendered.

    

Frederick Forsyth

The Biafra Story

Pen & Sword Military

London

Updated Edition



2001