Through the Imperial Lens the Role of Portugal in the Nigeria-Biafra War

By Omaka, Arua Oko | Journal of Global South Studies, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Through the Imperial Lens the Role of Portugal in the Nigeria-Biafra War


Omaka, Arua Oko, Journal of Global South Studies


INTRODUCTION

The Eastern Region seceded from the Nigerian federation in May 1967 after the political crises that led to the massacre of members of the Eastern Region living in northern and western Nigeria. (1) Leaders of the Eastern Region considered secession to be the only way to guarantee the safety of life and property of their people. (2) The Nigerian government interpreted the secession of Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) as a rebellion and decided to preserve the unity of Nigeria by taking military actions against Biafra. (3) The government's attempt to crush the Biafran "rebellion" led to the outbreak of a war that lasted from July 1967 to January 1970. The Nigeria-Biafra War attracted the interest and attention of European and Asian powers for a variety of reasons. The British were interested in a united Nigeria, for example, because of their huge economic investment in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, while the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) got involved in the conflict in order to open a major wedge into the capitalist region of West Africa that had previously been closed to it. France provided both arms and humanitarian aid for Biafra on the grounds that Biafra had the right to self-determination. (4) Although France emphasized humanitarian concerns as its reason for supporting Biafra, it also hoped that the independence of Biafra would help weaken British influence in the West African subregion. China, in contrast, provided Biafrans with arms because they saw them as freedom fighters struggling against imperialism and Russia's growing influence in Nigeria. (5) The Scandinavian countries collectively provided humanitarian aid for Biafra but discretely avoided any form of political involvement.

The USSR succeeded in penetrating the Nigerian government by quickly supplying arms and technical expertise to Nigeria. The effect of the Russian arms intervention in Nigeria was to seal the fate of Biafra, as the western powers believed that they could not afford to allow Russia to come between them and the Nigerian government, regardless of public opinion and the sympathy for Biafra in Britain and America. Britain, which was initially reluctant to supply arms to the Nigerian government, later did so when it became obvious that it was losing its traditional prestige and influence in Nigeria because of the Soviet arms intervention there. Britain and the United States could have saved Biafra if they wanted, but humanitarian considerations were secondary to Cold War calculations in western diplomacy regarding Africa. The intersection of the British and Soviet interests in the conflict led to a massive supply of arms to the Nigerian government.

Interestingly, Portugal had no clear interest in the conflict. In their seminal article "The Nigeria-Biafra War: Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide," Lasse Heerten and A. Dirk Moses argue that the Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal and the South African and Pdiodesian apartheid regimes secretly supported Biafra on morally ambiguous grounds, presumably to weaken Nigeria. (6) Nigerian political scientist Josiah Elaigwu has speculated that Portugal might have supported Biafra because a fragmented Nigeria would have provided a distraction from the mounting pressure it was experiencing to end its colonial regime in Africa. (7) Portugal certainly played a strategic role by providing the main link between Biafra and the outside world. John Stremlau, a prominent scholar of the Nigeria-Biafra War, noted that church groups and Biafrans dealt with the Portuguese on a commercial basis. (8) Given that there had been no previous relationship between Portugal and the seceding part of Nigeria, it was difficult to explain Portugal's strange friendship with Biafra and to discern what interest was served by its support for Biafra.

Biafrans used Portugal and some of its colonies in Africa--Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome--as organizing centers and supply routes for arms and equipment. …

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