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1969: Nigeria bans Red Cross aid to Biafra

Millions of people face starvation because Nigeria has banned night flights of food aid to Biafra, a breakaway state at war with federal Nigeria.

The Nigerian Federal Government has taken charge of relief operations on both sides of the front line and in doing so has stopped the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from co-ordinating aid to starving civilians.

General Yakubu Gowon, leader of Federal Nigeria, refuses to recognise Biafra which declared independence in May 1967.

His forces have managed to shrink the rebel state to one-tenth of its original size, cutting it off from seaports and other supply lines. Food aid can only brought in from the air.

Nigerian Information Commissioner Chief Anthony Enaharo told representatives of relief organisations in Nigeria's capital, Lagos, that only "authorised relief operators" would be allowed to take in "permissible relief items" for fear of any supplies getting into the hands of Biafran troops.

This means all relief supplies will be inspected by armed forces before being allowed on to Biafra and then only between 0800 and 1700 local time.


"There are three million people who are going to starve to death in the next few weeks unless something is done."

Jeremy Thorpe, Liberal Party leader

Acting president of the ICRC, Jacques Freymond, said the world must put pressure on Nigeria to allow his organisation to carry out its humanitarian mission.

In London, more than 80 backbench MPs signed an all-party motion urging the British Government to take action towards resuming the relief operation and to stop selling arms to Nigeria.

The Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, said representatives in Lagos would try to mediate between the ICRC and the Nigerian Government.

Yesterday, Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe said he had written to the head of the United Nations, U Thant, asking him to organise a major relief effort with the Red Cross.

He said he was making his appeal independently of the British Government whose involvement in the Nigerian civil war was "immoral".

He told the Times newspaper: "There are three million people who are going to starve to death in the next few weeks unless something is done."

Biafra, under Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, is made up of the former Eastern Region of Nigeria mainly inhabited by Igbo, or Ibo, people.

In September 1966 thousands of the Igbo minority in the Northern Region were massacred by the majority Hausa who resented their relative prosperity.

As a result, a million Igbo refugees settled in the Eastern Region and expelled non-Igbos.

In Context
Two weeks later the Nigerian leader, General Gowon, bowed to international pressure and allowed the Red Cross to airlift urgent medical supplies to Biafra. But they still refused to allow food to be airlifted in unless it was on their terms.

Biafran forces were finally beaten by the federal troops and in January 1970 the state of Biafra ceased to exist.

Rebel leader Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast.

There were reports that federal troops went on the rampage in Biafra, killing and raping en masse.

Lord Hunt, Britain's special envoy to the territory said those accounts were exaggerated and that thousands of refugees were coming home looking "in no way undernourished".

Pictures of starving children shown in the Western media told a different story and it is estimated at least 500,000 - possibly millions - of people died of starvation and disease as a result of the war in Biafra.

Rebel leader General Odumegwu Ojukwu returned to Nigeria in 1983.

Since 1999 when civilian rule was re-established, Nigeria is once more in danger of breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines as militant groups are allowed to express their frustrations more freely - and with increasing violence.


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