50 YEARS AGO — Biafran leader General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu addressing a world press conference in Ivory Coast:
Three days ago I left the Republic of Biafra with certain members of my Cabinet as a result of a decision taken by that Cabinet in the interest of our people’s survival.
Since my departure, events have moved with such breathless speed that friends and foe alike have been left not only bewildered but confused.
It is therefore necessary for me to address these words to the international press in order to keep the records right, and in pursuit of the object of my leaving the Republic of Biafra.
It is necessary in order to understand events that have led to the drama of the past few days to look back at the origin of our conflict and conduct in this war.
Biafra, once the eastern region of Nigeria, was one of three sovereignties that banded together to form the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Three of the reasons which made the sovereignties bind themselves together were:
1. Mutual protection of life and property – hence the fundamental human rights entrenched in our constitution and the arrangements made for the joint control of the police.
2. Security against external and internal threats -hence the responsibility of the central Government for defence.
3. The promotion of international trade and good relations with foreign countries – hence the assignment of exclusive responsibility to the central Government.
During the course of our first experiment in nationhood it was clear that the Federal Organization had neither the will nor the desire to maintain that unity of purpose for which the Federation was founded.
In 1966 it became clear that the central authority was unable and unwilling to fulfil the terms for which it was established.
Right under her nose the people of Eastern Nigeria, now Biafrans, were subjected to such acts of barbarism, such atrocities that gave clear indication of a genocide that was to come.
The people of Biafra, in full consultation and believing that the only guarantee for security lay in the resumption of the sovereignty, mandated me to proclaim their territory the sovereign and independent Republic of Biafra, and to take up arms if need be to protect the lives and property of our people, and the independence was thus proclaimed.
On July 6, 1967, the Federal forces crossed the boundaries of Biafra and attacked her defenceless populace.
Our people, in the face of such aggression, had no alternative but to defend themselves as best they could. The war that ensued has continued from that day with unabated fury until today when we find that, because of certain limitations, we are no longer able to offer formal military resistance to the Nigerian aggressors.
For three years we have fought against overwhelming odds.
Our conduct of the war has contrasted sharply with that of the Nigerian hordes.
We were always aware of our limitation, and therefore have never discontinued our efforts for peace and a negotiated settlement.
We had relied on the conscience of the world to respect the rights of our people to self-determination and security. We have been frustrated by an international conspiracy against the interest of the African. Yet, believing in the justice of our cause and the ultimate triumph of truth over falsehood, outnumbered and outgunned, we have grimly held back the unrelenting enemy for three grueling years with our bare hands.
Nigeria began her recent final offensive against Biafra in October 1969 after months of preparations, which included the starvation of our entire populace to such sub-human level that the movement of enemy troops through our territory became a mere formality. For months we cried to an unsympathetic world, pointing out the danger of a total blockade and siege warfare at this stage of world civilization. In answer to that cry our people were further subjected to more deprivation by the drastic reduction of relief supplies, not only to the menfolk but to our women and children, to the aged and the very young, to the old and the infirm.
By the end of November the Biafra armed forces were no longer able to feed themselves; our civil populace were neither able to feed themselves nor the army. Yet over 30 months our gallant and heroic forces maintained their positions in the sheer hope of a miraculous respite. In the first week of January, the Nigerian forces, by a fast military move, took control of the last areas from where we had any possibility of obtaining food. In quick succession demoralization set in, threatening national disintegration and bringing in its wake confusion and mass exodus.
I gathered together at Owerri during the night of January 8, 1970, those members of my Cabinet who could be contacted to review the situation. At that meeting I presented in firm and clear terms the grim hopelessness of continued formal military resistance.
I informed the Cabinet that my primary duty in the circumstances was to seek the protection of our exhausted people and to save the leadership of our heroic republic. I therefore offered to go out of Biafra myself in search of peace.
I decided personally to lead any delegation in order to give it maximum effect and to speed up matters in order to save the lives of our people and preserve the concept of Biafra.
I did this knowing that whilst I live Biafra lives.
If I am no more, it would be only a matter of time for the noble concept to be swept into oblivion.
I chose for the delegation the following persons: Dr. M.I. Ọkpara, my political adviser; Mr. N.U. Akpan, my chief secretary; Major-general Madiebo, the commander of my army.
In the fluid and uncertain military circumstances the Cabinet considered it advisable and reasonable that families of envoys in or going abroad should be sent out.
My last hours in Biafra before my departure were spent in close consultation with Major-general Philip Effiong, whom I had appointed to administer the Government in my absence, and his last request to me was to take out his family and to maintain them under my protection. I agreed.
Since the departure of the delegation from Biafra, we have remained faithful to our mandate. We have made contacts with friends and men of goodwill. We have spared no efforts to mobilize all forces in an effort to take food into Biafra on a gigantic scale.
We have taken steps to alert the world to the real fears of genocide at the hands of the Nigerians.
Nigeria’s continuing efforts have always been directed at domesticating the conflict in order to apply the final solution to the Biafran problem away from the glare of an inquisitive world.
From all indications it is clear that Nigeria will not feed our people. They have said so often enough, and their past records clearly underline this fact.
There is no food whatsoever in Biafra and unless food can get into Biafran mouths in the next 72 hours it will be too late.
Nigeria’s insistence to control the distribution of relief is both to ensure that Biafrans get no such relief, and also to shut out outsiders who might witness and expose the enormous crimes she plans to commit against our people.
Nigeria throughout this war has distinguished herself for a lack of control over her armed forces. It is therefore most unlikely that, flushed with an intoxication of unexpected military victory, she will be able to exercise any measure of control on her forces now on the rampage.
In any case Nigeria’s aim is to destroy the elite of Biafra. The only possible way of preventing such a catastrophe is by interposing between the contesting forces some neutral force to prevent a genocide that would make 1939-45 Europe mere child’s play. We have always believed in the futility of this war.
We have always maintained that this war will solve no problems. If this carnage must stop, Nigerian leaders and their friends must borrow a leaf from the lessons of the last world war, where it was found that a permanent settlement could only emerge from an honourable peace.
Immediate efforts should therefore be directed towards early negotiations for peace without exacting full tribute of conquest. Only in this way can peace which the whole world desires have any chance. I therefore appeal to all governments and international organizations, countries and churches of the world, men and women of goodwill, to both our friends and enemies, in the interest of humanity to come forward to assist and protect the lives and talents of Biafra, to relieve the starvation and wasteful death now the only companion of our exhausted people.
I implore the world to rise to this desperate need, to mount all possible pressures on Nigeria to ensure that food gets to my people.
I would like to conclude this statement with a solemn declaration, emphasizing again the point I have repeatedly made in this appeal to the governments of the world to save my people from extermination.
The sole motive behind Nigeria’s determination to draw an iron curtain over Biafra and exclude international observers, relief agencies, journalists whom they have not carefully picked themselves, is to make sure that the atrocities they will certainly carry out in Biafra is unseen and unreported in the world press.
Once they have sealed off Biafra from the gaze of mankind, I hesitate to contemplate the fate of the Biafran leadership, the trained manpower, the scientists and professionals whom they would liquidate as planned before the world can interfere.
Genocide, I repeat, is not an internal affair of Nigeria, and it is the clear duty of those powers who have armed and helped Nigeria to gain victory over Biafra to step in and persuade Gowon to allow international agencies and observers to enter Biafra to feed the hungry, to heal the sick and to save a whole people from complete annihilation.
If they fail to persuade Nigeria to open her doors to these agencies, then, their declarations of humanitarian aid to Nigeria becomes mere propaganda.
I repeat: the aims of Nigeria are genocidal – the test that the contrary is the case is her willingness to admit humanitarian agencies whom Gowon has now openly declared he will exclude.
As a people we have endured as only giants endure. We have fought as heroes fight. We have dared as only gods dare. We are disillusioned by the world’s insensitivity to the plight of our people.
Yet because our cause is just we believe we have not lost the war, only that the battlefield has changed.
We are convinced that Biafra will survive.
Biafra was born out of the blood of innocents slaughtered in Nigeria during the pogroms of 1966. Biafra will ever live, not as a dream but as the crystallization of the cherished hopes of a people who see in the establishment of this territory a last hope for peace and security.
Biafra cannot be destroyed be mere force of arms.
May I take this opportunity to thank all those persons and organizations that have sacrificed that we might live – that we assure them that their sacrifice will not be in vain.
Biafra lives. The struggle continues. Long live the Republic of Biafra.
–Published by the Biafran Information Agency in Geneva and reproduced by The Times, 16 January 1970