International Dimensions of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 -70):
A Deconstruction of France's Involvement
Lambert Ibe & Patrick Okpalaeke
In this issue of Africa Update, Lambert Ibe and Patrick Okpalaeke
explore various aspects of international politics with respect to
the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 - 1970. In a previous article,
(Vol. XXVI. Issue 4. Fall 2019), the scholars explored
Nigerian - Portuguese relations. They pointed out that Sao Tome,
then aPortuguese colony, was used as a base by the Biafran
secessionists, and that the Portuguese were driven by their desire
to prolong their occupation of African colonies.
French nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara region, 13 February 1960,
with the explosivepower of 70 kilotons, were a major source of
conflict between France and Nigeria,the only African state to cut
ties with France in protest. French support of Biafra
was another source of anxiety. The authors of this article
We thank Lambert Ibe and Patrick Okpalaeke for their
scholarly contribution to this issue of " Africa Update."
Professor Gloria Emeagwali
International Dimensions of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70):
A Deconstruction of France’s Involvement
Lambert Okechukwu Ibe
Patrick Chukwudike Okpalaeke
Department of History &International Studies
University of Uyo, Nigeria
Studies have shown that warring states often seek and receive various forms of assistances from other states within the international community (Levey, 2014; Lockyer, 2017; SIPRI, 1980; Heerten and Moses, 2014) . The Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) depicts a similar scenario when both Nigeria and Biafra revealed their respective contacts with various governmental and non-governmental bodies in their bid to secure some advantages over the other, for possible victory (de St. Jorre, 1976). France was one of those countries that got entangled in the Civil War, and this has continued to stimulate scholarly debates.
France found herself meddling in the Civil War when it first took sides with Biafra (source). Early on, France had had skirmishes with Nigeria over test of atomic bomb in the Saharan Desert (Griffin, 2015), which Nigeria perceived as a threat to the collective interest of all independent African states. Franco-Nigeria affairs, an aspect of international relations, left so much to be desired within the context of international relations. The argument leans more on events that occurred between both countries, especially after Nigeria’s independence. For a balanced analytical view, this article considers France and Nigeria as two sovereign states capable of expressing their national interest within the international system, at least in theoretical terms. Moreover, both Nigeria and France are subjects of international law, which grants equality to all sovereign states.
The equality of sovereign states does not take into account years a state has existed, neither does it consider the geographical location, size, landmarks, population, region, wealth, or any other variables. However, these factors and many others are core indices when discussing international politics. The argument by George Orwell in Animal Farm that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” is indeed evidence among states within the milieu of international political arena. Hence, one could say that all sovereign states are equal but some are more equal than others are. Therefore, while equality is desirable, is it very much not achievable (Fukuyama, 2012)?
In practical terms, France has an edge over Nigeria in international politics because of France’s privilege as one of the countries with veto powers in the United Nation Security Council (UNSC), along with wealth, technology, political experience, among others. Thus, those indices proved vital for France during her involvement in post-colonial African conflicts. This article shows how those indices reflected in France’s involvement during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. Moreso, the question of testing the atomic bomb, severance of diplomatic relations, France’s support for Biafra, among others are explored..
Deconstructing the Asymmetric Postures of Two States
The Nigeria - Biafra War was not just a domestic affair for Nigerians alone, but took an international dimension (Stremlau, 1977) in which many states, covertly or overtly involved themselves for one reason of the other. A major aspect of the international dimension of the Civil War was the support the French government accorded Biafra. At this juncture, it is worthwhile to explore how a state that Nigeria had severed diplomatic relations with earlier on, would come to render assistance to a seceding side from Nigeria.
Many studies on Franco- Nigeria relations give the impression of two states that were yoked by conflicting interests in Africa, most especially from the dawn of the 1960s. Akinterinwa (2007) alludes that France is the sixth immediate neighbour to Nigeria. His arrival at such a statement came after careful examination that shows France’s keen interest on every important event that happens in Africa. Moreover, Nigeria’s Afrocentric policy (liberating all African states from colonialism) further threatened France’s policies in post-independent Africa. Ate (1992) gives an insight into French reliance on Africa thus:
One would have to be very ingenious not to understand that France cannot remain insensitive to the destiny of a Continent (Africa) which supplies her with 100 percent of her Uranium, 100 percent of her Cobalt, 72 percent of her Manganese, 55 percent of her Chrome, 33 percent of her Iron, 25 percent of her Lead…
The fear of losing solid mineral resources and other resources made France see Nigeria as a major threat standing in between France and her defunct colonies. Consequently, Nigeria’s leadership position in Africa only brought scars in her relations with France when Nigeria severed diplomatic ties with France due to French testing of an atomic bomb in the Sahara Desert (Griffin, 2015). At the time Nigeria severed diplomatic relations with France, Nigeria was barely a year old as an independent state, while France had been in the scene of international politics for centuries.
Nigeria’s disposition towards France sent a signal that if left unchecked, Nigeria would become a major obstacle to France’s interest in Africa. Therefore, as one way to frustrate Nigeria’s superiority in Africa, France, as leverage, aligned with Biafra during the Civil War. Such international politics was not unexpected in the light of real politik. The nature of international politics, among other things, includes but is not limited to:
- Constant suspicion in virtually every single activity;
- National interest (permanent), and not friendship (temporary);
- There exists constant struggle for power that makes it possible for powerful countries to always have their way, while the less powerful states merely have their say.
In light of the foregoing, the position of Morgenthau and Thompson (2012) proves paramount for clearer understanding of international politicking in the context of realism: Morgenthau and Thompson espouse that:
International politics… is a struggle for power, whatever the ultimate aim of international politics, power is always the immediate aim… whenever they (statesmen) strive to realize their goal by means of international politics, [and] they do so by striving for power.
However, during the Civil War, as Nigeria struggled to maintain the country as one, France was all-out to rip it apart.
Furthermore, to be able to understand what made France to test a bomb in the Sahara, one would have to understand some issues in French colonial policies as it would enable a better understanding. In discussing French colonial policies, Ward (1966:316) among other things observes the following:
(i) France centralized its government in Africa and exercised strong control over all her colonies;
(ii) France created the impression that her territories in Africa were part of France;
(iii) The people of French colonies were French people outside France;
- The colonial people were supposed to do everything like French people since they were taken to be French people;
- The French system of direct administration made it possible for them to have a firsthand touch with Africans, giving them the opportunity to manipulate them with ease;
- In accordance with the discretion of the French government, peoples of French colonial territories were allowed to work in France.
Eze (1984:15) lends his voice to this when he states that:
Colonial conquest of Africa was followed by the creation of institutional structures and the legal and administrative basis to aid the completion of imperialist exploitation. Thus, certain laws and concepts of French jurisprudence were transplanted into Africa. The philosophy underlying French colonialism was that of political and cultural assimilation.
Given the above, French colonial policies created out of Africa French people who were to remain subject of the French government until such a time that independence (both political and economic) would be granted. It therefore followed that a colonial master certainly had the right to do with his colonial territory whatsoever that was considered to be in line with national interest. In addition, since most countries of the West that colonized Africa were members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it means they have enormous power to dictate the trends and patterns of world politics, way above the reach of Nigeria. The implication is that NATO’s support for France would scarcely be met with stiff opposition in world politics, most especially from African countries. Arguably, such an assurance might have encouraged France to go ahead and test the atomic bomb in the Sahara Desert. Regrettably, Nigeria was the only country that severed diplomatic relations with France based on the Saharan incident. Not even Ghana or Ethiopia could muster the courage and support Nigeria in her action against France. The entire continent of Africa left Nigeria to do the dirty job alone while they sat back and observed.
Akinteriwa (1990:280) discusses how Nigeria emerged as the only state to have severed diplomatic relations with France over the bomb. Akinteriwa espouses thus:
…The Casablanca Conference of 4-7 January 1961 encouraged Africa states to break (diplomatic) relations with France, but no one did except Nigeria who was not an attendee of the Conference. Impliedly, there was no direct or open extra-Nigeria support for breaking off the relations with the Elysee government… Nigeria was left alone to face the [her] ordeal with France.
Nigeria’s warning to France over the testing of atomic bomb in the Saharan Desert began long before Nigeria’s independence and continued after Nigeria had been declared independent by her erstwhile colonial master. However, considering the fact that Nigeria was a new state and had just emerged from colonialism, her warnings were never taken seriously by France.
Nigerian Civil War: Origins and Nature
The Nigerian Civil War years remains the most difficult epoch in the chequered history of Nigeria. The war marked the most gruesome moments that Nigeria as a nation had ever experienced since 1914. The forceful amalgamation of separate ethnic groups with divergent views and background from different regions was enough “excitement” to cause feelings of distrust among the people lingering even after Nigeria secured independence in 1960 (Obasanjo, 1980:2). The historical, cultural, religious and developmental differences of the various peoples were not considered as an integral factor prior to the amalgamation exercise. Regrettably, the colonial administration employed these differences inherent in the various societies to strengthen its hold on Nigeria, rather than give to the people a safe abode for their mutual coexistence after independence (Fawole, 2018:23).
Expectedly, a divided house in the Nigerian polity did not only usher in very strained relations among the different ethnic groups, but it was a breeding ground for sentiment of all kinds to strive unabatedly. This idea logically flowed, thus converting the first coup to an ethnic plot after it was accepted at first as a heroic act that was meant to save the nation from the firm grip of some Nigerians who held the country in their control to satisfy their selfish and callous appetite (Ademoyega, 1981:114). The situation Nigeria found itself in, under the first administration, was one that had the capacity of disintegrating the country - as was lamented by one of the coup plotters, Emmanuel Ifeajuna (Ademoyega, 1982:72). Nevertheless, Ifeajuna’s view was shared by Nigerians who equally thought that Nigeria was deserving of that coup in order to restore normalcy in the land, given the myriad of issues such as the 1964 election crisis, the protracted Tiv riots, nepotism, corruption, avarice, among others (Siollun, 2009:55-56) that had characterized the first six years of the country’s nascent independence.
Moreso, there was the notion that the decay in the political system was extreme. Such notion found justification in the rot that plagued the nation’s politics, which was exemplified by extreme rivalries, and cutthroat struggles that led the then civilian government to keep inviting the military to calm uprisings (Nwankwo, 1988:10). With the establishment of the idea that the coup was an ethnic strategy employed by the Igbo to establish hegemony against others, it was more difficult to manage the affairs without recourse to sentiment. Addressing the first coup as an Igbo coup became more correct when one takes into consideration the number of casualties and the persons that assumed office of leadership after the coup had ended. To upturn “Igbo Hegemony,” a counter coup became a necessary means for mostly northern officers of the Nigeria Army (Madiebo, 1980: 63).
The assumption of office of a Northerner who was not the most senior officer in the Nigerian military further generated a serious conflict that paved way for more differences. The differences generated by this issue and others, posed serious challenges to the nation, and with the failure of various frameworks at all level to resolve them, Nigeria was launched into a Civil War (Effiong, 2000: 175). To define the particular point where France surfaced as a problematic factor in Nigerian politics, within the purview of the Civil War, is sacrosanct. First, the Nigerian Civil War did not go on as a struggle for power alone, if that was a factor at all. The uncertainties in the country were sources for disenchantment and disillusionment, thus compelling a section of the country to desire succession from the entity the British colonial government built during colonial rule. In a bid to stop the secessionist movement, the war became an important tool in Nigeria politics. The war could be seen as something that came up primarily to stop secession of the old Eastern region known as Biafra (Ezeani, 2014:39). Nevertheless, the French government and its citizens were accused of supporting the secessionist movement against Nigeria’s national interest.
France: (C)overtly in Support of Biafra
France’s role in Nigeria’s Civil War was no doubt enormous and critical. Substantiating the foregoing, Joe Garba succinctly argues thus:
There is scarcely any area of our external relations, whether in Africa or in Europe, where we do not line up against the interference of the French. From the time of the French nuclear test in the Salara in 1961, we have had the constant challenge of the French factor… France has at every turn frustrated Nigeria’s attempts to draw close to her Francophone neighbours (Garba, 1991:229).
Therefore, it becomes delusional for anyone to try to disassociate Nigeria - France relations within the milieu of international politics. For many countries, Nigeria possessed a hegemonic statute within West Africa (Ede, 1986:176). The manner in which the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact was visited with an abrupt termination was enough cause for worry for countries who hitherto thought they were the determining forces of international politics (Ojo, 1990:256). Moreover, the severance of diplomatic relations with France came as a factor to condition Franco-Nigeria relations (Nweke, 1986:285). Nonetheless, Nigeria saw justification in her action, which was heavily supported by the Parliament (Akindele, 1990:167).
The foregoing circumstances propelled France to take side with Biafra during the Civil War years, though in a covert operation. There have been tight debates on whether France officially supported Biafra or not. First, on 31 July 1968, the French government “officially declared its support for the separatist province of Biafra.” (Griffin, 2015) “France, however, categorically refused to officially recognize Biafra, a possibility President Charles de Gualle ruled out as early as 14 December 1968,” (Griffin, 2015) same day he told Jacques Forcart that “We must support Biafra. Nigeria will fall apart one point or another, and we must choose a side without delay” (Griffin, 2015). Phillip Effiong noted that Ojukwu masterminded what was reported as French recognition for Biafra to help Biafra attract recognition from other countries around the world (Effiong, 2000:174). Achebe supported the views of Philip Effiong by asserting that a Franco-Biafra relationship was exaggerated by the Biafrans and others. Biafra’s aim for acting in that line was to create an enabling structure to build further support. To accord Biafra recognition as an independent state was the only thing France did not do for Biafra since France was in total support of Biafra, knowing that Biafra held the key for Nigeria to be weakened in the arena of international politics.
In addition, support from Gabon and Ivory Coast to Biafra were in line with French design, though they might have added their own design to that which was already prepared by France. In light of the foregone, Amaiwo argues that these countries, Gabon and Ivory Coast, recognized Biafra based on France’s influence (1990:307) . It is therefore questionable how Nigeria could sever diplomatic relations with these African countries, yet maintain diplomatic ties with France, the chief architect.
It is important to x-ray French role in the conflict so that one can appreciate the fact that among other things, French support for Biafra was only short of according Biafra full recognition as an independent state. Achebe illuminates us on the extent and degree of France’s support for Biafra when he remarks:
The government of France considers that the bloodshed and suffering endured for over a year by the population of Biafra demonstrate their will to assert themselves as a people. Faithful to its principles, the French government therefore considers that the present conflict should be solved on the basis of the right of peoples to self-determination and should include the setting in motion of appropriate international procedures (Achebe, 2012:101).
The fact that France supported Biafra with arms and ammunitions is not in doubt. Large arms shipments from France got to Biafra through Ivory Coast and Gabon, which were French colonies and still loyal to France (Achebe, 2012:100). Ivory Coast Both further demonstrated the depth of French support for Biafra when she granted Ojukwu asylum after the end of the war.
Olusegun Obasanjo had argued that French support for Biafra was a major reason why Nigeria was unable to defeat Biafra sooner (Obasanjo 1980:54). This is even when France’s support for the Biafran side was difficult to substantiate given the double standard displayed by France. As earlier stated, France had openly denied that it granted support to Biafra, yet covertly supplied her with weapons and other forms of military assistance (Griffin, 2015; Stremlau, 1977). Feeling discouraged and attempting to back out as her efforts were not yielding results, the President of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, persuaded France not to give up her effort on Biafra. As a matter of importance, France accepted and continued her support project for Biafra. French President, Charles de Gaulle was not sincere when he argued that the Nigerian crisis could not be resolved with military might because he had already prefigured how to assist Biafra against Nigeria. It was France’s plan for Gabon and Ivory Coast to recognize Biafra, and necessary efforts were made to ensure that more countries buy the idea. Nonetheless, one particular President, of one African country did not give in to French overtures on the Biafran game (Obasanjo, 1980:151-152).
Still, on French support for Biafra, the French government supported Ojukwu and encouraged him to collect royalties from oil companies (Diamond, 1970; Ojukwu, 1968). A case in point was the encounter between Biafra and Shell-B.P. Ojukwu and his men, with the support of France, arrested and detained the manager of Shell-B.P, demanding that the royalties be paid to them. Although Shell claimed they did not pay any money to the Biafrans, the manager was released after two days (Obasanjo, 1980:45).
In the light of the above analysis, it becomes difficult to dismiss the fact that France supported Biafra during the Civil War. While France continued to meddle in the war, she never considered the cost of property, and lives lost. France never envisaged a scenario whereby the Nigerian Civil War could be resolved via diplomatic channels, otherwise, the French government would have made sincere and frantic efforts to establish a mediation platform where both warring parties (Nigeria and Biafra) should have met and possibly sheath their sword. Unfortunately, nothing of such was reported as long as the war lasted. If France actually contributed to the anguish and horror Nigeria passed through during the years of the Civil War, then it was almost ‘unjust’ for Nigeria to sever diplomatic relations with other countries, while maintaining same with France. Following French support for Biafra, Nigerian Newspapers rolled out different comments as espoused by the public on several issues relating to Nigeria, France, Biafra and the severance or non-severance of diplomatic relations.
Through the Lens of the Print Media
Several local and international newspapers wasted no time in reporting the extent of French involvement in the Nigerian Civil War. For the Nigeria print media community, there was nothing to trivialize, as the truth had to be told openly and with immediate effect where and whenever necessary. From 1968, when French role became glaring in the course of the war, reports about it started to trickle in. For instance, Kunle Animashuan, a reporter based in London, did not delay to take one of the first significant shots. Animashuan’s report has it that the position of France in the Nigerian Civil War was in the favour of the rebels, as noticed with utter dismay in London. Apart from the anticipated notion that the rebels (Biafra) might soon give in, they wouldl only appear stronger with support from such a major world power (France) and this would not only prolong the war but also encourage the rebels to maintain their stand, thereby making it difficult for the Addis Ababa meeting to bring the expected peace. Thus, the intransigent attitude of the rebels was mainly occasioned by French backing (Animashaun, 1968:12).
Secondly, The Sun, a British newspaper described French involvement as mischievous. It further argued that if France actually believed that the crisis could be resolved based on self-determination, she would have suggested that long ago and spared others the headache they had gone through. A clear testimony of what French support brought about was Biafra’s unwillingness to negotiate after Mr. Christopher Mojekwu’s peace proposals. French support further stiffened the rebels and made them unwilling to compromise. In addition, London Daily Express reported that Britain was expressing fear over France’s position and that Charles De Gaulle, then French President might send troops and arm supplies to the rebels at Ojukwu’s demand. This newspaper went on to state that France had already set aside some military personnel that might be sent to fight for Biafra if Ojukwu should place the request. Britain was unhappy with French disposition so much so that there were reports of a possible confrontation between them (The Sun, 1968). From the various reports of these British newspapers as seen from Kunle Animashaun’s write-up, it is obvious that French support for Biafra was nothing of a secret, yet Nigeria still did not sever relations with France. Nevertheless, Britain, which is another country altogether, expressed much dissatisfaction on that note.
The Morning Post of 7 August 1968 captured the views of Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Britain, Brigadier B.O. Ogundipe, in different perspectives. Ogundipe warned that Nigeria would nullify any agreement between France and Biafra, especially one that had given France concession on mineral resources within the Nigerian territory held under Biafra’s influence at the time of the war. In other words, anything ceded to France by the Biafran side in the course of the Civil War would be considered as null and void in due time. There was enormous distinction between French interests as projected by some French people and the position of the government. The right to explore mineral resources in the East was ceded to Britain by the Nigerian government and Biafra cannot could not alter it. The thoughts of the High Commissioner are summed up thus:
…France has not officially recognized the so-called state of “Biafra” there is reason to believe that she will attempt to influence some African states to do so and that we are about to witness a diplomatic offensive intended to legalize the existence of a breakaway state… under the pretext of humanitarian condition. There is irrefutable documentary evidence that the “Biafrans” had ceded full and exclusive concession rights to a French group to exploit fasten Nigeria’s oil, coal, uranium, Columbite, Ore, tin, and gold…the federal government is the only competent authority to grant such concessions (Morning Post, 1968:1).
The New Nigerian newspaper of 18 November 1968 evidentially reported French aid to the rebels. This report was in tandem with a U.S Weekly Magazine that exposed the various categories of dealings between the rebels and France. The rebels enjoyed French arms and ammunition in larger quantities. French soldiers, it was also reported, were training men from the Biafran side. Most of the French veteran soldiers of Algeria and Congo wars later worked with the rebels. Moreso, France sponsored shipments to the rebels through Lisbon (Portugal) down to Ivory Coast, then to Libreville in Gabon, from where it finally landed in the rebels’ territory. Perhaps these long routes were aimed at deceiving the public of what France was actually doing. However, this was an open-secret as most countries, including Nigeria, knew that the Libreville Airport in Gabon was one of the rebels’ ammunitions depots, guarded by French soldiers (New Nigerian, 1968:1).
Importantly, New Nigerian newspaper dated 30 January 1969 quoted the military administrator of North Eastern State, Col. Musa Usman, as saying that any attempt by any group of people or government to assist the rebels would amount to a plan to prolong the war and that would constitute an anti-humanitarian act. This comment came up when the French consul for Northern State, Mr. P. Vermeil visited Col. Usman. The governor was quick to point out that the Federal Government of Nigeria was not out to punish the people of the rebel-held areas, but the picture painted by some humanitarian organizations made it look as if a genocide was going on in Nigeria. Col. Usman asked the consul to persuade the rebels to stop the secession ambition and accept the supply channel from the Federal Government. The consul spoke as one who realized his country‘s position in the case and agreed that such inter-governmental relations would help douse the tension so far generated by the war. Relating this visit to the situation in Nigeria then, the consul acknowledged, though not directly, the harm his country’s support for Biafra caused (New Nigeria, 1969:7).
The Daily Sketch of 30 October 1968 presented its readers the situation in East central state (the rebel-held territory). According to its reports, France deployed more arms and mercenaries to the rebels in the last few weeks preceding the date of that paper publication than she had done for a very long while. Supplies to the rebels came in at night and the amount of night flights in the rebel-held areas had increased so much. During this period, it was alleged that flights brought in more arms when compared to the amount of food and medical supplies they carried.
Despite the foregoing newspapers’ reports, the French Government strongly denied having any knowledge of arms supply to the rebels. The truth remains that the French Government was only denying those allegations in order not to appear bad in the eyes of those who were against her actions. Rebels’ agents in Europe were in the habit of claiming that they had received enough arms, and those arms were new and sophisticated (Daily Sketch, 1968). With the evidence so far linking France to the rebels’ arms, it was difficult for France to be exonerated from it. Thus, while the Nigerian Government was not unaware of the harm being caused by France’s assistance to Biafra, Nigeria still maintained diplomatic relations with France.
At one point, the Nigerian government thought she could make France change her mind and possibly turn her support to Nigeria, when France was invited to come and see things for herself in Nigeria. In that wise, four French parliamentarians visited Nigeria for a tour around the country (Daily Sketch, 1969). Nigeria, nevertheless, was wary of the fact that Biafran propaganda could hijack the position of the French men. A tour that was aimed at exposing France to first-hand knowledge of happenings in Nigeria was to cover the following:
- The accommodation of Ndi Igbo back to Nigeria;
- Whether there was genocide against the Igbo in the course of trying to bring them back to Nigeria;
- If the determination of the Nigerian Government to keep the country one was strong enough;
- To consider if religious bias was a factor in the war (Daily Sketch, 1969:5).
Conversely, when Chad, in 1968 experienced an uprising, France swiftly initiated a peace process. France never suggested the option of self-determination, nor supported any sides to secede, but adopted the position of one united front. But in Nigeria’s case, France intentionally took side with Biafra as a way to undermine Nigeria’s unity – a source of her relevance in Africa international space. Thus, a 1968 Morning Post newspaper argued that France did not approach the Nigerian issue with utmost sincerity. If France had done that, she would have seen reasons with the Federal Government as to why the unity of Nigeria must be preserved. Taking the argument further, the Morning Post requested that France should support the Nigerian government to ‘crush’ what was left of the rebels (Morning Post, 1968:1), irrespective of French denials of her support for Biafra.
That notwithstanding, the more the French government strove to conceal her tacit support, the more her c(overt) plans for Biafra were unpacked. Going beyond the Gaullist orientation on sovereignty and self-determination, there was also the Anglo-France dimension to the whole picture. Philosophically, France was accused of punishing Nigeria for the ‘sins’ of the British government. For a long time, France had watched with anger, the tactical penetration of the British into some former French colonies. The Nigeria Civil War, therefore, offered France an opportunity to get back at the British government, of which in reality, Nigeria became the victim. In spite of all these, Nigeria maintained her relations with France irrespective of France’s meddling in the war years. Ademolekun provides insight into why Nigeria maintained diplomatic ties with France:
Although the evidence adduced are heavily weighted against the French, I still support those who have argued that we should continue to show diplomatic sophistication and maturity by maintaining diplomatic relations with France. And as to the specific question of whether we should continue to accept French scholarships, my answer is unequally in the affirmative…To shame France and save the African Continent from her evil machinations, we have only one tax to perform-we must keep Nigeria one (Ademolekun, 1969:5)
On the bases of such submission, it becomes quite difficult to untangle why Nigeria kept diplomatic ties, even when Nigeria reported that rebels (including Biafra) in Africa got arms from France. This report was a response to a statement credited to De Gaulle on 9 September 1969 during a conference in Paris. De Gaulle had argued that federation might not be a good solution for political problems particularly in Africa. His views were on the grounds of states with multi-cultural and multi-linguistic peopling and the challenges of ethnic wars ravaging the African continent. For De Gaulle, the experiences of Canada, Cyprus, Malaysia, Nigeria and Rhodesia spoke volumes of his idea as he saw no reason why Igbo with a predominantly Christian population should be forced to remain in an artificial federation against their will (Morning Post, 1970).
The Anglo-French debate during the Nigerian Civil War was a major cause of concern during the Western European Union meeting of foreign ministers. In that meeting, what France did for the rebels was exposed, but France was also quick to accuse Britain of assisting the Federal Government of Nigeria in several ways, which included sending of weapons and mercenaries (de St. Jorre, 1972). France further argued that her assistance to Biafra was purely humanitarian which was occasioned by the hardship suffered by the people. The British government, however, argued that while British supply of arms to the Nigerian government was based on agreement, France was being dishonest on her part (Morning Post, 1970) - discovering about 800 French troops flown to the rebel-held territory from Gabon with several arms made for the Biafran side. This did not only prolong the Civil War but also paved the way for Nigerian soldiers to fight French mercenaries, a statement made by the Third Marine Commander of the Nigeria Army, Colonel Adekunle Benjamin (Daily Times, 1968).
Nigerians React to France’s Support to Biafra
Nigerians reacted differently to the allegation that France was rendering support to Biafra. Most of these expressions, captured in the Daily Time of 2 January 1969, sat at the intersection of diplomatic ties, and the need to hastily defeat Biafra. First, Wole Arowolo was of the opinion that Nigeria should not sever diplomatic relations but must curtail her relations with France in several ways possible. He felt that Nigerian acceptance of scholarship offered by France was very disdainful. In other words, Nigeria should not have accepted it at all. French executives should be made to show their support for Nigeria, and should not do anything to favour Biafra. Second, Bola Adekoya argued that though to break diplomatic ties is the strongest protest a nation could express, that might not be effective owing to the fact that France is by far stronger than Nigeria. His position was that Nigeria should increase surveillance in order to destroy pirate aircrafts, prevent Biafra from getting arms and finally defeating them for the last time.
Third, Olukayode Fasheke was extremely mild in his opinion. He acknowledged the fact that France has acted in a way that is inimical to Nigeria’s national interest, yet Nigeria should not sever diplomatic relations or ask French businesspersons to vacate the country. However, Nigeria should relate with France with utmost maturity and tact. Bayo Owolabi, on the other hand, made suggestions directed to the rebels rather than to France. Owolabi’s remarks that French support for the rebels does not entail severing diplomatic relations or closing down French business in Nigeria, rather the rebels should be crushed at all cost.
In addition, Funso, K. argued that diplomatic relations should be maintained but at a very loose level. French nationals in Nigeria should be under surveillance so that they did not act as spies. Funso Okutuga’s view was that Nigeria should not break diplomatic relations despite French and De Gaulle’s postures. Eyos, O. rather suggested that Nigeria break up diplomatic relations with France, nationalize their companies and send their citizens back to France, as Nigerians in France would be called back after the war. Temisa viewed the breaking of diplomatic relations as very important since Nigeria’s territorial integrity, that was at stake, was greater than any commercial gains which Nigeria’s association with France promised.
In addition, Bayo Ekpo argued that Nigeria’s delay in severing diplomatic relations was synonymous with maintaining relations with a country who was at war with it. It was wrong to allow French citizens to move about freely in Nigeria as they could have acted as spies for the rebels. Nigeria had only one patriotic option -t o sever relations with France. Dayo Agbede’s opinion was that Nigeria end diplomatic relations with France adding that it was a mistake to have accepted the French scholarship in this manner: “The French attitude to Nigeria is like that of a host who entertains his guest in a room upstairs and set fire on the house from below.”
The Nigerian Government’s biggest reaction towards the covert or overt support of France to Biafra was its intense protest. The protest of the Nigerian Government was an indirect call to the international community to prevail over France against her support for Biafra. The international community recognized Nigerian agitation against pro-Biafran sentiment ignited by France- on the grounds that Nigeria was a united country and the war was a civil strife. Thus, the Nigerian Government sought support from different countries in a bid to end the war, saying that French assistance for Biafra was an act responsible for prolonging the sufferings of Nigeria (New Nigeria, 1969:7) and must be averted forthwith.
At the international level, the dilemma to address the issue was centered on how to first reconcile the conflicting interests of states who have interest in the Nigerian Civil War. France was certain that Russia and Britain were in favour of the Nigerian Government. She could not take side with them considering the fact that her interest lies in Biafra-held areas, and the Biafra people were in pain (Africa Confidential, 1967). Sequel to this, the French Government was of the view that it was only granting assistance to a suffering people who have the right to self-determination. This, therefore, constituted no offence whatsoever, whether by the standard of international law or that of national interest.
As stated earlier, the most effective diplomatic measure Nigeria employed during the war was to host a four-man committee from the French parliament (Daily Sketch, 1969). As at the time of this visitation-cum-inspection, the Nigerian Government had already established the fact that the French government was supporting Biafra. By implication, an important question emerged from this event. Why did the Nigerian Government host French parliamentarians who were supporters of Biafra? The following will suffice as answers:
- The Nigerian Government as at that time realized the eminence of French support for Biafra, thus considering that if nothing was done to placate France, she would continue her support for Biafra, and that might eventually lead to secession.
- Ostensibly, to host French parliamentarians at such a time was a means to placate them towards Nigeria’s view and to halt their support for Biafra.
- The importance of Biafra as part of her territories was a subject that Nigeria could not compromise.
Now, it is necessary to observe the task of the French parliamentarians. They obviously among other things reflected on whether there was preparedness to have the Igbo back into Nigeria; whether there was evidence of genocide; whether there was strong enough determination on the part of Nigeria to keep their country strong and united; whether the much-talked-about religious bias existed. When they found answers to these questions, they would be in a position to convince fellow Frenchmen, generally, and Charles de Gaulle, in particular, whether the “Self-determination for Ibos” being pursued by de Gaulle was misconceived, misguided and irrelevant in the present circumstance.
Conclusion: A Civil Strife with International Diplomatic Dimension
A civil strife that demanded “police action” would go for another two years, six months, one week, and two days (Aaronson, 2013). Even at loggerheads, the conflict still provided channels for diplomatic relations (Aburi Accord) between the Nigerian government and Biafra (de St. Jorre, 1972:91-98). The International community was not left out of the Civil War as countries such as France found themselves entangled in the Nigerian Civil War. It is from this angle that the war went beyond a conflict of two parties, and became an international affair. The fact that France provided support to Biafra on limited scale propelled the Nigerian Government to protest French actions before the International community, but later went ahead to hold consultations with France, when Nigeria played host to French parliamentarians while the strife was still on as a way to placate the French Government into giving up whatsoever support France had for Biafra.
Hosting the French parliamentarians by extension also implied that the Nigerian Government saw the difficulty of achieving victory over Biafra, and the possibility of Biafra emerging as an independent state as far as France continued providing support for Biafra. During the war, international diplomatic efforts were centred on Nigeria, even when the majority of the states (i.e. France, Britain, Russia) involved were also engaged in a conflict of interest. This speaks volume of the greed associated with the West. France, wittingly or unwittingly, became one of the third parties in the Nigerian Civil War conflict as a means to addressing her vital national interest. France’s interest stood at the crossroad of disintegrating Nigeria, reducing her influence in African politics and rendering whatever was left incapacitated, as that would ensure France continued to have a hitch-free operation among most of her former and existing colonies in Africa. These interests of France obviously were in contrast to Nigeria’s foreign policy posture – liberating all African states and fighting against neo-colonialism.
Before the war, Nigeria, severed diplomatic ties with France over French tests of an atomic bomb in the Sahara; an act Nigeria considered as a violation of the dignity of the African people. Nonetheless, the same Nigeria failed to sever diplomatic ties with France, even when pieces of evidence underscored the fact that Biafra was getting military and logistic support from France. Engaging in international diplomatic intercourse, Nigeria would rather sever ties with African countries – Gabon, Zambia, Tanzania, and Ivory Coast – for taking sides with Biafra (Kunle, 1900:306). The severance of diplomatic ties with the four countries contradicted Nigeria’s foreign policy of Afro-centrism. Notably, two out of the four states were former French colonies, which by the very nature of dependency and international politics were tied to the apron strings of the French government.
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