The formal declaration of Biafra as an independent state on 30 May 1967 sparked uproar in Nigeria, this was to serve as a catalyst for a three-year war in a federal attempt to restore a united Nigeria. In July 1967 Yakubu Gowon, leader of the federal government, issued his Operational Code of Conduct for the Nigerian army in which he voiced the importance of minimising harm to civilians and aiming for a quick and decisive victory to regain Biafra.
However, during the course of the war, atrocities were committed against civilians,
particularly in the Midwest Region. Asaba, a small town with an estimated 5,500 inhabitants experienced a massacre of its civilians in the early months of the war. After the Biafran decision to invade the Midwest region, there was a fight for the region between the
contending forces. Among other atrocities in Asaba, occupying Nigerian troops looted
homes, and rounded up men and boys suspected of being Biafran sympathisers for execution. The Nigerian and British press played a notable role in ensuring that the events in Asaba remained under strict censorship for various respective reasons.
During the early months of the war, the domestic press pushed the narrative that the war was going well and was likely to end soon. Hence, from an international journalistic perspective, the war was originally regarded as a one-week story. The media assumption that the war would be short-lived, and in turn an easy federal victory, solidified an underestimation in the Biafran Army’s strength. Initially pro-unity, concern over oil was a fundamental reason behind Britain’s shift of position to an active supporter of the Federal Military Government (FMG) as they believed that small independent states would not offer the same economic favours as a united Nigeria. In contradiction, the Financial Times newspaper supported Biafran leader Ojukwu at the start of the war as the region was rich in oil reserves, thus prioritising economic concerns. The British “gamble” which revealed their underestimation of the strength of the Biafran army following the intense resistance from the Biafran army showed that their interests lay primarily in economic gains. This “gamble” consisted of Britain maintaining good relations with both Gowon, leader of the FMG, and Ojukwu, leader of Biafra, as the Biafrans were fighting much better than expected.
The censorship of the events in Asaba was a joint effort of both the Nigerian Federal Government and the British Government. Both counterparts had different motivations for enforcing this censorship. It was crucial for the British authorities to suppress the full extent of the incidents in Asaba due to a potential crisis within public relations, which was ensured by tight press control within Nigeria and preoccupied and docile international news media at the time. The federal government banned journalists’ access to fighting, which ensured that most of them were too far away from Asaba and consequently missed the most single worst civilian massacre by the FMG soldiers. Various newspaper companies took different stances on the war. Pro-government newspaper companies in Britain aided in assuring that public opinion remained unaware of the events in Asaba. For instance, during October the Daily Times reported only a few war-related stories, none of which mentioned any specifics on the ongoing military action. Similarly, the Daily Sketch obtained different forms of propaganda of a pro-government position painting the federal troops’ advance in the Midwest as “triumphant”. Further, there are British headlines and articles that suggest that they were in denial of the massacre of the Anioma people. The Daily Times mentioned the “calm” atmosphere in Asaba and claimed that many civilians were returning to “clean” their homes without acknowledging the looting from federal troops. The Observer initially adopted a pro-neutral position by Britain, but in August 1967 the editorial policies called for open support for the federal government. Journalist Colin Legum investigated alleged incidents in Asaba and Onitsha after the outcries of genocide in which he concluded that the word “genocide” was unjustifiable.
Britain’s actions contributed to creating the conditions that produced the massacres at Asaba and other areas of the Nigerian Midwest. Post Britain’s formal decision to remain in good relations with both leaders whilst maintaining a pro-FMG stance, an influential figure in ensuring that the British government supported the FMG was David Hunt, British High
Commissioner in Lagos who led the support for Gowon in Britain and was widely seen as
anti-Biafra. There is evidence that indicates that the British authorities were aware of the
situation in Asaba and had opportunities to intervene but did not. A confidential memo
from the West and General Africa Department (WGAD) expressed concerns on killings.
This implies that the British Government could have made a policy change and acted
against the FMG by minimising the selling of arms, but both Hunt’s pro-FMG position and
the threat to oil encouraged the lack of action.
Censorship within the Nigerian and British press was a plausible cause of the Asaba massacre as it ensured that the events that took place remained unnoticed. In Nigeria, strict press censorship measures prohibited domestic and international journalists to be present at the various war zones, Asaba being one of significance. Whereas within the British press, headlines and articles were obtained as a means of demeaning the extent of the atrocities in Asaba to maintain their public image, due to post-colonial relations. Furthermore, press censorship fostered a lack of international awareness in comparison to the economic blockade by the federal government that occurred later in the war which led to sufficient foreign aid.
Written by Claudia Efemini
Akinyemi, The British Press and the Nigerian Civil War
Bird and Ottanelli, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War
Forsyth, The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend
Nwaokocha, “Remember the massacre of civilians in Aniomaland during the Nigerian Civil War.”