Humanitarian Action: The Joint Church Aid and Health Care Intervention in the Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970

By Omaka, Arua Oko | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Humanitarian Action: The Joint Church Aid and Health Care Intervention in the Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970


Omaka, Arua Oko, Canadian Journal of History


1. Introduction

On May 30, 1967, the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, made a broadcast, declaring the Eastern Region with its continental shelf and territorial waters to be an independent state called the Republic of Biafra. (2) The secession of Eastern Nigeria had its roots mainly in ethnic and regional animosities between the people of Northern Nigeria and those of Eastern Nigeria. (3) The declaration of the independence of Biafra came after two military coups in January and July 1966 and the subsequent killing of thousands of Eastern Nigerians resident in Northern Nigeria and some parts of Western Nigeria. While the January 15, 1966 coup led mainly by people of Eastern Nigerian origin was believed to be a revolution against a corrupt civilian regime, the July 1966 coup was a reprisal attack against people of Eastern Nigeria by Northern Nigerian soldiers. Six weeks after the declaration of Biafra's independence, the war broke out.

The Federal Government of Nigeria interpreted the declaration of Biafra's independence as a rebellion (4) and tried to prevent the secession by imposing a blockade on Biafra. And, to quell the "rebellion," Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's Military Head of State, declared what he described as a "police action" against Biafra. The "police action" was meant to be short disciplinary action against the "rebellious" Biafra, but it turned out to be the beginning of a thirty-month war that resulted in a colossal humanitarian disaster. The rigorous enforcement of the blockade by Nigerian military forces created an acute food shortage, and the lack of protein-rich foods in particular (mainly meat from Northern Nigeria and fish from the Nordic countries) took a heavy toll on the population's health, with children and nursing mothers suffering the most. In response to the crisis, various humanitarian groups from Europe and North America began to intervene, and it was in this context that Protestant and Catholic churches from thirty-three countries created Joint Church Aid (JCA), an emergency relief organization that aimed to provide health care aid to famine-stricken civilians in Biafra. (5) By the time the humanitarian relief operations got under way in September 1968, nearly a million people had reportedly died as a result of starvation, malnutrition, and diseases. (6)

Although at the time of the war observers described this humanitarian crisis as "one of the world's most urgent problems," there has been little historical scholarship on the international humanitarian aid that went to Biafra during the conflict. (7) Most scholars of the war still treat the humanitarian aspects of the war as a footnote, making them appear less important than other issues related to the conflict. With the notable exceptions of Joseph Thomson's American Policy and African Famine and Reverend Tony Byrne's Airlift to Biafra, studies of this topic mention the JCA's humanitarian operation only in passing. (8) As a consequence, the role of the world churches in that operation has remained virtually unexplored. This neglect can be attributed to the fact that humanitarian studies is an emerging field within the historical profession.

In addition to being informed by oral interviews conducted in Nigeria and Canada, this study uses largely unexamined archival sources and newspapers to explore the formation of the JCA as a humanitarian organization and investigates how health care aid in Biafra was organized. It also assesses the impact of the JCA's humanitarian aid. As I hope to explain, the JCA's health care aid was limited to minimal care due to a lack of essential medications, equipment, food, and epidemiological expertise. Despite the many challenges it faced, however, the organization demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to providing food and medical aid and ultimately alleviated the suffering of over eight million Biafran civilians.

This article contributes to the scholarship on humanitarian aid by demonstrating that humanitarian aid can be given without creating a relationship of long-term dependency between recipients and donor agencies. …

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