Nigeria From 1966-1970: The American Files Are Not From Heaven (1)

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema


My unquenchable interest in how and why Nigeria stopped turning between 1966 and 1970 was ignited when I saw information about classified U.S. files on the Nigerian civil war in my e-box, sent by Then I saw the cover pages of ‘The News’ magazine at the newsstand. They were on the same subject and were in a trilogy (February 25, March 4 and 11 2013 editions). Hooked, I bought, read and kept the second and third issues. With the first part already in my email I have the entire collection.

I must be candid: Damola Awoyokun, the author, though a professional engineer, taught many historians, journalists and other researchers their jobs. He sought for the man behind the mask in his bid to uncover aspects of that cloudy phase of Nigeria’s evolution. I commend his efforts.

In the prologue of his book ‘The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story’ Frederick Forsyth wrote that, as a rookie reporter, he learnt two maxims from his superior, namely: ‘Get the facts right’ and ‘Tell it the way it was.’ By virtue of his editorship of PWC-Review and body of online and print work, Awoyokun may be called a journalist. So did he get the facts on Nigeria from 1966 to 1970 right? Did he tell it the way it was?

When I logged into the thirteenth edition of the online Nigerian literary magazine, Sentinel Nigeria ( and saw his essay ‘Achebe and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent’ which essentially compressed the points he made in ‘The News’ in elegant prose, I concluded that while everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, it is another matter when opinion is passed off as fact or presented as if sacrosanct. Awoyokun took Chinua Achebe’s last book ‘There was a country’ to the garbage dump in the third part of his trilogy and the online essay. No issues with that as far as I am concerned. The late literary lord anticipated a ‘war’ when he brought out the book.

But my concern is that Awoyokun may be getting a whole lot of people misinformed and miseducated; that, far from helping Nigerians and their friends on both sides of the divide come to terms with that unhappy history and heal its wounds, he may be opening fresh and ghastly sores. Above all, to paraphrase Achebe’s ‘The Education of a British-Protected Child,’ he is giving the world a one-sided portrait of the elephant. Thus it is vital the other side of the story be told.

Before I go on, some caveats. I am unrepentantly Igbo and will stand up for my ethnic identity, but I strongly believe that non-Igbo have the right to exist and have their God-given being. Two: Biafra was the only option for survival for an overwhelming majority of Eastern Nigerians from 1967-1970. But Biafra was no paradise and its leaders were no saints, though they did what they had to. Three: my booklet (of which this article is a part) does not address all the contradictions thrown up by Awoyokun. A sequel will address other aspects. Four: where criticisms of the Biafran side are apt, I will not hide them. Finally, nobody; neither Awoyokun, nor the Americans or the British, nor I can tell the whole story. Insofar as late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu never published his memoirs and Yakubu Gowon remains silent, a lacuna remains.

The 21,000 pages of secret American dispatches on the Nigerian civil war are useful sources of information on that period of our history. They provide perhaps unknown insights and illumination. But they must be regarded with caution.

In international relations, states act from definite positions and interests. These may be articulated. But no state or even non-state actor navigates global relations out of a sense of altruism. Anyone studying these State Department records on the conflict would do well to ask: where were the Americans coming from? What was their position on the war? Their national, economic, strategic, and, yes, humanitarian interests?

A little background on American-Nigerian relations in the 1960s is apt. We can see how USA perceived Nigeria and other newly independent African states in page 160 of ‘Diplomatic Soldiering’ by General Joseph Nanven Garba, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister from 1975-1978:

‘Ever since the United States ‘‘discovered’’ Africa or more accurately, was forced by the rush of African States to independence to discover it, there have been competing views among American policy-makers about how to treat this far-off continent about which they know little. For the Eisenhower administration it was relatively simple to deal with African problems-they were simple extensions of the United States’ relations with its European allies, the colonial powers. Divergent voices, what few there were, only in the academic community, with one lone case on the Capitol Hill, Senator John F. Kennedy on the single subject of Algerian Independence.

‘Once Kennedy became President, however, and African nations were flooding into the world community, competing voices emerged within the government. In the State Department ‘‘Europeanists’’ (American diplomats and officials who regarded African states as extensions of their ex-colonial masters) quarrelled with the ‘‘Africanists’’ (those who sought to understand African situations in African terms ), and over their debate hung the Cold War which not only strengthened the ‘‘Europeanists’’ hand, but also shrank the importance of African issues since for most Americans, problems between the United States and Soviet Union were literally of life and death.’

This quote is significant. By the dawn of African independence USA knew next to nothing about the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, and preferred to see issues affecting African states within the context of the Cold War. In Uncle Sam’s eyes they were appendages of European allies like Britain.

But Nigeria was an African jewel and the USA would be damned if it did not enjoy the glow of this vast state modelled after Britain, Uncle Sam’s special ally. Being firmly in the pro-Western orbit as a result of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s policies, never mind the official declaration of non-alignment, Nigeria established one of its first embassies in Washington D.C. USA sponsored Nigeria’s membership into the United Nations on 7 October 1960. Commercial links developed and USA established her largest African United States Agency for International Development office in the country. Many Nigerians of a certain age still remember the vibrant activities and members of the United States Peace Corps in the country.

Following the 1966 massacres of Eastern Nigerians and subsequent developments, America’s policy towards Nigeria more or less followed the British path. Hence the British High Commissioner and the American Ambassador persuaded the July 29 1966 coup plotters to keep Nigeria united, though under their control.

The outbreak of the war had a decisive impact on U.S. policy towards Nigeria. First, USA maintained its relations with Nigeria. In the words of Frederick Forsyth: ‘…the Government of the United States, guided by the…hand of the State Department, remained steadfast in its support of Nigeria regardless of the cost in lives involved in the war.’ (‘The Biafran Story’ p.236). Given that the defunct Soviet Union was making incursions into Nigeria within this period when its regime needed all the support it could get in its war of unity, the official American position makes sense. Control of Nigeria’s oilfields was also factored in. Though some sources argue that USA was aloof towards Nigeria, actions of the American government do not lend credence to this position, especially during the various peace talks to resolve the conflict when USA backed

Nigeria. The American government used its influence to compel other African states who were considering recognizing Biafra after Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Gabon did to do a rethink. (See ‘Diplomatic Soldiering’ p.162 and ‘The Biafran Story’ pp.244-245).

But unlike Britain, America’s support for Nigeria was delicate and complicated. The average American, because of the media beaming Biafran hunger right into his home, developed pro-Biafran sympathies. As Garba put it: ‘Public opinion in the United States, not understanding the intention of the Federal Government, rallied with a loud humanitarian cry to the secessionist movement. Many Nigerians became convinced that Americans were not interested in the survival of their country.’ (p.163). The American public, against the wishes of their officials, moved for the successful relief operations that brought sccour to many Biafrans.

But bleeding hearts do not determine foreign policy. Because USA is a democracy, its people kept the government on its toes on Biafra. As Forsyth put it: ‘The real hero of the American contribution was…the ordinary American citizen, millions of John Does scattered throughout the fifty states whom the professional manipulators of power in government would so dearly love to be able to forget. They refused to be forgotten. One day the State Department received 25,000 letters about Biafra and the officials were worried sick.’ (p.240).

American policymakers knew that ultimately what mattered were Uncle Sam’s interests. Which country best served them: a tottering Biafra or a rampaging Nigeria? In spite of brave words from leaders like Presidential candidate Richard Nixon that genocide would not be condoned, American policy went pro-Nigeria when and where it mattered.

Given the Cold War which was red-hot at that time; given the Vietnam war in which USA’s Asian muscles were being crippled thus necessitating the building of new sinews elsewhere; given the perennial instability in the Middle East occasioned by the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict and the implications for oil supplies to America; given USA’s ignorance about the localized factors and developments that shattered Africa’s jewel just six years after independence; given that it was far more easier for Uncle Sam to see Nigeria through British eyes, it makes sense to study whatever the U.S. State Department released or will release on the civil war with circumspection.


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