Episode 87: Nigeria’s Civil War & The Origins of American Humanitarian Interventions

Host: Samantha Rose Rubino, UT School of Law
Guest: Brian McNeil, Fellow, Institute for Historical Studies, UT-Austin

Humanitarian intervention has become such an accepted part of international relations, and our news headlines are full of stories about humanitarian efforts from the Balkans in the 1990s to Syria today. But it wasn’t always the case – the concept of humanitarian intervention originates at a specific time and place, as today’s guest explains.

Brian McNeil specializes in history of United States foreign relations, and is currently revising his book manuscript titled, Frontiers of Need: the Nigerian Civil War and the Origins of American Humanitarian Intervention, the subject of this episode.

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Nigeria’s Civil War and the Orgins of American Humanitarian Interventions

Welcome back I’m your host, Samantha Rubino, a PhD student with the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Humanitarianism is very much in the news today and to talk with us about the history of it, is Dr. Brian McNeil, a post doctoral fellow in the Institute for Historical Studies at UT Austin. Dr. McNeil specializes in the United States and the World and is currently revising his book manuscript entitled, Frontiers of Need: the Nigerian Civil War and the Origins of American Humanitarian Intervention.

Why don’t you start off by first telling us a little bit about the Nigerian Civil War?

First, I think it’s important to understand the context of Nigeria itself. Nigeria was the most important country in Sub Saharan Africa during the 1960s. Depending on the count which we looked at, about 1 out of every 5 Africans were in Nigeria. And within the United States, and particularly within the Kennedy administration, Nigeria was seen as relatively stable, moderate, and western leaning. In fact, Edward Hamilton, who served under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said Nigeria was the hope, if there was the hope in Africa. But underneath the surface of Nigeria, there were ethnic tensions and they were simmering throughout the entire period throughout the 1960s, but they really boiled over in 1966 when there were two coups that rocked the country. They were unable to resolve these issues and on May 30th 1967, Biafra seceded, and the interesting thing is no one cared. In fact, Charles L. Sanders, who was a journalist for Jet magazine called the war a war between blacks no one cares about. Now no one cared about it despite the fact that Biafra tried to take their cause to the international press and to the international arena and tried to get people to support their cause through public relations firms, but again, it had no effect. Biafrans even brought journalists in to try to get good press and present their nation as a strong modern nation state, but again, nothing happened. In fact, Allen Hart, who was a British journalist who worked for an international television network, he recalled during his visit to Biafra that it was a complete waste of time. He said, we saw nothing worth seeing, and as he was about to board his plane back to Lisbon he was frustrated, he was exhausted, he met an Irish Catholic priest named Kevin Donaghy, and Kevin Donaghy pulled Hart aside and whispered to his ear, he said you haven’t seen anything, there is a tremendous human tragedy happening out here, please stay, please come with me. Hart followed Donaghy to the bush and found the story that everyone had been looking for. He said “it was through the holy ghost’s father that I was introduced to the reality and the horror and the nightmare of Biafra.” And it was it was an awful scene, starving women with deflated breasts who were trying to feed their children, who were little more than bones with flesh that seemed to be stretched to its limit. The disease was called Kwashiorkor, which in the Ga language of Ghana meant disease of the deposed child. These people, and there were millions of them, needed a huge injection of food, especially protein if they were to survive the war.

What was the response to the humanitarian crisis in the United States?

It really happened on two levels. The first one was on the local domestic level, and over two hundred organizations formed across the country. These organizations varied from just a small group of high school students creating an organization within their school trying to raise money to send perhaps to the international committee of the Red Cross, and then also went to more larger national organizations like the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive, which was an organization formed in New York City by a group of ex Peace Corps volunteers and college students. Now the Johnson administration response was to do what it had been doing before which was stay non-involved, different from neutrality. Neutrality was that there were two independents sovereign states fighting and they do not recognize either of them. Instead what Johnson said was we’re staying non-involved. We don’t recognize Biafra in any sort of way. We support Nigeria but we’re not getting involved, but this humanitarian crisis changed everything. In fact, Edward Hamilton who wrote a note to Dean Rusk, who was the Secretary of State, he said because of the humanitarian crisis the slate has been wiped clean. That was where the Johnson administration was, and in fact it sold 8 relief airplanes to humanitarian organizations in response to this domestic pressure. That was in December 1968. In January 1969 you have a new president come into office, Richard M. Nixon, and he was widely seen as being sympathetic to the Biafra cause. He called it a genocide, for example, during the campaign, but when he became president, he followed the same strategy that Johnson did, separating politics from relief, separating the war from humanitarianism. And one of the ways you could see this really happening and manifesting itself was through the appointment of Clarence Ferguson as a special coordinator for relief to civilian victims of the Nigerian Civil War. Clarence Ferguson knew nothing about Nigeria. He really knew nothing about humanitarianism, but what he did have going for him was that he was an African American Republican, who Nixon thought he would be able to use to gain support among the African American community. So that’s where he was — in relief, in trying to make something happen, and Clarence Ferguson really embodied that kind of dual strategy of separating politics from relief.

Was the United States able to have a big impact on humanitarianism or do you see a shift from what we saw in the late ’60s to humanitarianism today?

Yes and no. I think the first answer is yes, they did. The United States provided more aid than any other country. In fact, it was about 3/4 of the total aid in terms of dollar, in terms relief tonnage of food that was sent into Biafra, so undoubtedly the United States had an impact on the relief effort, but at the same time if you look at the underlying problem here, this issue of sovereignty and trying to get relief into Biafra against the will of the Nigerian government and the Biafran government, it becomes a lot more difficult to see that actual impact happening. So they were unable to solve this impact, because in fact, what they found, was that you could not separate relief from politics. They were entwined, and so until they found a way to actually deal with both of those at the same time, it’s what under secretary of state Nicholas Katzenbach called the Gordian Knot, the Nigerian Civil War, they were not going to be able to solve the problem, and besides, even if the United States wanted to do something, there were events that took over that made it really difficult to happen. In early 1969, Ferguson thought that he was making roads into actually making changes in the humanitarian situation, but for example, when a Swedish Count led a group of fighters on a mission to bomb Nigeria in May 1969, that really changed everything for humanitarianism.

So you said a Swedish Count bombed Nigeria, so you’re going to have to tell me a little bit more about this.

Right, so his name was Carl Gustaf von Rosen, and I think he truly is the most interesting man in the world. if you look at him and his family tree, he has roots that are so deep, and branches that go so wide, that someone like Mikhael Blomkvist would have difficulty understanding what’s really going on. His family, obviously, came from an aristocratic background. His father was one of the first persons to adopt the swastika as a family emblem. This is before it had the connotations and connections to the Nazi party, just as an interesting aside. He led efforts to feed Jews during the Second World War. He helped fight against the Italians, supporting the Ethiopians, during the Italian invasion of Abyssinia during the 1930s, but during the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, was where he really made a name for himself. He first supported humanitarian relief, delivered humanitarian relief, but what he soon found was that humanitarian relief was not enough, and that he need to actively support the creation of a separate Biafran state. So that’s what led him to want to support Biafra by bombing the Nigerian army.

I can only imagine that caused more problems. What was the Nigerian response?

Yeah, so the Nigerians response was quick and furious. it did not make a distinction between what von Rosen was doing and what the ICRC, or the Red Cross was doing. One month after, the Nigerian military attacked a Red Cross plane and shot it down, and you can imagine, again, for the Nixon administration this was a difficult problem because its principle partner on humanitarianism was the ICRC. Now the Red Cross was having difficulties with itself. You had two separate factions within the Red Cross. One was supporting what they called revolutionary humanitarianism, which meant forget what the Nigerian government says, just go support relief no matter what. And the other side says, no, we need to stick to the traditional principles of the Red Cross, of respecting state sovereignty, so that was the first issue that the Nixon administration had to confront, reconciling these internal divisions within the Red Cross. And then after doing that it had to reconcile the Red Cross with both Nigeria and Biafra. The Nixon administration through Ferguson, had to get both parties to agree to allow the Red Cross to continue its operations. Now this was never accomplished through the war, so from June 1969 until when the war ended in January 1970, the Red Cross ceased its operations, so despite the best efforts of the United States the war reached an end before an agreement with both sides could be reached.

What are the legacies of the Nigerian war, particularly, we see things happening in Syria, and trying to figure out whether we should’ve intervened, what could you tell us about the legacy of the Nigerian Civil War and how that could play into issues today?

I think first we need to understand what came before it, what are the principles embodied within humanitarianism and the humanitarian sector and there are traditionally three, three different values. The first is impartiality, the second one independence, and the third one, neutrality. Now these were principles that the humanitarian sector claimed to adhere to. It didn’t always do that. You can just look at something like independence, where humanitarian organizations claimed to be independent of nation states, but the situation on the ground is that NGOs are often and always beholden to its donors. In the United States, for example, is one of the largest donors to humanitarian organizations, and this is especially true in the twentieth century, when the American government became more and more involved in humanitarian affairs. I mean, how independent could an organization like American Red Cross really be.

So if we look at these three principles, they all came under attack during the Nigerian Civil War. And so what it did was the Nigerian Civil War led to some gut checks for many prominent humanitarian organizations in regard to these principles. One of the cherished ideas that hits on all three of those principles was respect for state sovereignty, which means that an organization was not going to deliver humanitarian aid without consent of the nation state. So during the Nigerian Civil War, the Red Cross was not going to deliver aid to Biafra unless it had the agreement from the Nigerian government to do so. But it doesn’t take much inquiry to see that state sovereignty had been violated before, but what the Nigerian Civil War did was put into context and really put a spotlight on the right to interfere in the sovereign affairs of other states. What Biafra did was bring the right to interfere and humanitarian intervention into sharp focus, especially within a post colonial context, and perhaps for the first time, a host of people across the western world coalesced the idea of the necessity of intervention in the face of a humanitarian crisis,. In today’s parlance that is known as the right to protect or “R2P” which is an outgrowth of what happened during the Nigerian Civil War.

And I think you can see it too in the organizations that emerged from the Nigerian Civil War. The most famous of course is Médecins Sans Frontières, my French is horrible so I’ll call them MSF, or Doctors Without Borders. MSF grew out of a group of French doctors who were in Biafra, saw what was going on, and they wanted to speak out, but weren’t allowed to because they were part of the ICRC structure. So what these French doctors did in conjunction with their work in Biafra, and then in Bangladesh in 1971, was create a new organization, which ignored all pretenses to neutrality, and said one of their principle aims was not to recognize was not to recognize the independence or impartiality in the face of humanitarian disaster, but to bear witness and to speak out against those who were perpetrating humanitarian disasters. And other organizations too, like Oxfam for example, changed in response to the Nigerian Civil War, by disclaiming any ideas of neutrality.

But what I’m really interested in is how states responded to the call for humanitarian action, and I think you could see this working in a few different ways. For me, looking at the United States response, it illuminates a lot of the changing circumstances in the 1960s, and I think one of the most important is how they used humanitarianism, how did the first Johnson and the Nixon administration use it. What you see is that this wasn’t an international project, but rather a domestic one. It was one in which they were using humanitarianism, not to fulfill international aims, but to meet domestic ends at home. So it wasn’t an international project, it was a domestic one, and that’s how humanitarian aid was being used principally during the Nigerian Civil War.

But I think there’s something perhaps even more interesting, is how secessionist movements and how movements within what’s called then the Third World, what we may call now the developing world, were using humanitarian aid. And this is something Philip Gourevitch talks about in his article in The New Yorker, called “The Alms Dealers,” when he looks at how humanitarian crises became a way to legitimize struggles, and to use humanitarian aid to then gain international support for their causes, and that’s certainly what happened during the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra, which could not get any sort of play in the international press for its own call for self determination, only got that recognition after it became a humanitarian crisis. It was only after Biafra became synonymous with humanitarianism that people in the western world began to see it a possibility for an independent nation state. So that is one of the major legacies I would say, in looking at humanitarianism in the Nigerian Civil War as a way to legitimize political projects.



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