Civil War and United States Humanitarianism in Nigeria

Written by Jack Bennett.

Humanitarian intervention has become an accepted part of international relations, with global current affairs and news headlines from the Balkans in the 1990s to the current crisis in Syria and the Middle East. The origins of humanitarianism can be traced back to the Civil War which erupted in Nigeria in the decades following decolonisation and independence. 

During the 1960s, Nigeria was of huge importance to Africa. Population estimates suggest that 20% of the entire continent resided in the country. From the perspective of the United States and the Kennedy administration, Nigeria was seen as stable, moderate and in support of western ideological values in this Cold War geo-political climate. For instance, Edward Hamilton, who served in both Kennedy and Johnson’s administrations saw in Nigeria hope for Africa as a whole. However, underneath the surface of Nigeria, there were ethnic tensions which simmered throughout the 1960s, that boiled over in 1966 with two coups that rocked the country. Tensions were unresolved, leading to the secession of Biafra on May 30th 1967. Interestingly, this conflict seemingly fell under the radar of international politics, with Charles L. Sanders of the magazine Jet contemporaneously declaring it a war no one cared about. Nevertheless, Biafrans attempted to elicit international support for their cause through the global press and public relations initiatives, but to no avail. Even propagandistic journalism was endorsed to generate international attention for Biafra but this once again went unnoticed. For example, the British television journalist Allen Hart saw his own visit to Biafra as a waste of time, stating that we saw nothing worth seeing. Exhausted and frustrated, prior to departure back to Lisbon, the Irish Catholic priest Kevin Donaghy revealed to Hart the true extent of human tragedy gripping Nigeria. It was through this journey into the bush that Hart said: “it was through the holy ghost’s father that I was introduced to the reality and the horror and the nightmare of Biafra.” The scene that met Hart was one of starvation, malnutrition, disease and death – on an unprecedented scale, affecting millions during this time of conflict. 

The response of the United States to this humanitarian crisis came in the form of two levels. Firstly, that of the general population, with the formation of over two hundred organisations across the country, including: the actions of school students; and national initiatives such as the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive – formed in New York City by ex-Peace Corps Volunteers and students. Secondly, the U.S. government under President Johnson’s administration maintained a position of non-involvement. This humanitarian crisis, however, was to change everything. In response to domestic pressure, the Johnson administration sold eight relief airplanes to humanitarian organisations in December 1968. Edward Hamilton, in fact, wrote to the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk declaring that, because of the humanitarian crisis the slate had been wiped clean, allowing for greater U.S. involvement. By January 1969, Richard Nixon became President who was seen as sympathetic to the Biafra cause, declaring it an act of genocide during his election campaign. Upon assuming office however, Nixon assumed the same strategy as Johnson, separating politics from relief and the war from humanitarianism. This was most clearly manifested through the appointment of Clarence Ferguson as a special coordinator for relief to civilian victims of the Nigerian Civil War, who came to represent the duality of public humanitarian support and U.S. foreign policy objectives. 

The impact of the United States on humanitarianism is an area of continual debate. With perspectives ranging from the critical, declaring it an act of neo-colonial interventionism, to the more optimistic view of actions pertaining to greater political, economic and social stability and security. During the Nigerian Civil War, the U.S. provided more aid than any other country, accounting for around 75% of the total in terms of funding and tonnage of food sent to Biafra. At the same time, the problem of sovereignty was raised, and the issue of providing humanitarian relief against the will of the Nigerian government and the Biafran government. This revealed that politics could not in fact be separated from relief but were intimately interwoven, a gordian knot which had to be dealt with simultaneously. Furthermore, events took over that further impeded efforts to unravel this complex situation. In early 1969, Ferguson felt he was making clear progress to resolving this problem, but in May of that year a Swedish Count conducted a bombing mission on Nigeria that fundamentally altered the humanitarian landscape in Nigeria. 

Carl Gustaf von Rosen was of aristocratic descent, he led efforts to support the Jews during the Second World War; and fought against the Italians in support of Ethiopia during the invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s. But during the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s he truly rose to prominence. First in support of humanitarian relief, von Rosen soon realised that this was not enough, instead he pursued actively supporting the creation of an independent Biafran state and it was this that led him to enact a bombing campaign of the Nigerian army in 1969. In response, Nigeria retaliated quickly, furiously and violently; not making any distinction between the militarised efforts of von Rosen and the relief initiatives of the Red Cross. One month after the attack, the Nigerian army shot down a Red Cross plane. This brought a major difficulty to the desk of Richard Nixon; as the United States principal partner in humanitarianism was the Red Cross. Concomitantly, the Red Cross was facing its own challenges at this time. Divided into two separate factions, with one supporting revolutionary humanitarianism – providing relief support regardless of the diplomatic position of the Nigerian government; and the other upholding the principles of the Red Cross in respecting state sovereignty. Nixon, therefore, was in a dual position of reconciliation, both between the Red Cross factions and with the Red Cross and Nigeria itself. The task fell to Ferguson to coordinate this agreement in order to allow humanitarian relief operations to continue. However, this was never accomplished, so from June 1969 through to the end of the war in January 1970, the Red Cross ceased operation, with the war concluding with an established agreement. 

The Nigerian Civil War and humanitarian intervention left important legacies for similar international actions during the remainder of the twentieth century. Humanitarianism is founded upon three central principles: impartiality, independence and neutrality. These founding tenants can be seen to have been manipulated and digressed throughout the history of global relief efforts. The very notion of independence from nation states is skewed by the reliance of these non-governmental organisations on diplomatic donations and economic support. In particular the clear inextricability of the U.S. government from the American Red Cross during this period. All three principles were challenged during the Nigerian Civil War, forcing humanitarian organisations into a process of self-assessment and respect for state sovereignty. During the Civil War, the Red Cross declared that it would not deliver aid to Biafra without an agreement with the Nigerian government which permitted such intervention. Prior to the Civil War, in a number of different relief episodes around the world, state sovereignty had been breached. However, the Nigerian Civil War spotlighted these potential transgressions more forcefully. Biafra brought interventionist humanitarianism into sharp focus, within the landscape of post-colonial politics, producing a greater consensus on the requirement for intervention in a time of crisis. Today’s humanitarian right to protect is an outgrowth of the controversy surrounding the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. Similarly, this change in approach is demonstrated through the organisations which emerged in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War; in particular, the Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in 1971. This organisation grew from the French doctors present in Biafra and the experiences they had, as well as further experiences in Bangladesh in 1971, becoming an entity which ignored all pretenses of neutrality, not recognising independence or impartiality at a time of crisis, rather bearing witness and speaking out on those who perpetrated such crises. 

The response of states to humanitarian action is of huge interest and assumed a number of facets in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. The response of the United States illuminates the changing circumstances of the 1960s and the use of humanitarianism, under successive administrations. What is revealed is not an international project, but a domestic one. One in which humanitarianism was used not to fulfil international aims but to meet the domestic demands, pressures and movements. Additionally, secessionist movements and movements within developing countries and their utilisation of humanitarian aid is extremely enlightening. For example, Gourevitch explored how humanitarian crises became a way to legitimise struggles and the use of aid to then gain international support for these causes; something which most clearly took place during the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra, which failed to amass international support independently at the outset of the conflict, only achieved greater recognition after it was declared a humanitarian crisis by the international community. Therefore, humanitarianism, in the aftermath of Nigeria has since become a means of political legitimation.


Draper, Michael I. Shadows : Airlift and Airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967–1970.

Heerten, Lasse; Moses, A. Dirk (2014). “The Nigeria–Biafra war: postcolonial conflict and the question of genocide”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 169–203.

O’Sullivan, Kevin (2014). “Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 299–315.

Stevenson, John Allen. “Capitol Gains: How Foreign Military Intervention and the Elite Quest for International Recognition Cause Mass Killing in New States”. Political science PhD dissertation, accepted at University of Chicago, December 2014.

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