BORN TO SERVE: The biography of Dr. Akanu Ibiam
by D. C. Nwafor.
Growing Refugee Problems.
Christians against Christians....
For the Biafrans, a growing source of anxiety, even worse than the shortage of arms, was Gowon’s indiscriminate bombardment of Biafran villages and planned destruction of farmland all of which worsened Biafra’s refugee problems. From the middle of May, 1968, the desperate plight of these refugees aroused the increasing concern and indignation of the international Christian community. From the World Council of Churches (Sir Francis was one of their six presidents), inquiries went out to General Odumegwu Ojukwu, expressing fears that Sir Francis had been killed. Ojukwu promptly passed on the information to Sir Francis. Ibiam who had hitherto resisted all pressure to go abroad now flew out of Biafra - partly to reassure his Christian friends of his safety. More importantly, he took the opportunity to visit Christian organizations in Europe to explain the Biafran side of the conflict and to request for food, drugs and other medical supplies for the increasing number of displaced people civilians. Since France had been accused by Gowon of supplying arms to Biafra - and many Biafrans wished she did- Ibiam studiedly avoided Paris in order not to add to the speculations. Ibiam’s accounts of the tragedy in Biafra were given wide publicity in Europe and aroused a lot of concern which resulted in increased relief assistance to the civilian population. His journey took him to the 4th Assembly of the WCC in Upsalla Sweden.
Lady Ibiam also flew out to a job as a matron in an old peoples home in Scotland. Eventually, she settled in a House in Brattlen, some 5 kilometers out of Basle, which had been rented by the Church in Germany for the Ibiams. The house became an operational campaign base for Sir Francis' relief supplies for Biafra’s starving people.
Relief For Victims of the Civil War
Starvation as everyone knows, can be a most effective weapon of warfare (It is a moot point whether it is legitimate weapon). It was therefore inevitable that the belligerent in the Nigerian Civil war should open a front within the relief organizations who concern themselves with food and medical supplies for the victims of war. One of such points was at the WCC’s Upsalla Assembly of July 1968.
The World Council of Churches, Caritas Internationalis and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were often denounced by the Nigerian Government for not channeling their supplies to Biafra through Lagos. But on issue of relief, the Church Aid Organizations proved less susceptible to political pressure than the ICRC. For, as Dr Eugene Carson Blake, General Secretary of the WCC Pointed out, the rules of the World Council of Churches laid down that where there is a Christian Council, the WCC would work through it. where there is no Christian council we work with the Churches. Therefore, the Council has worked through member Churches in the Eastern Region.
The Government in Lagos had been unhappy with the state of affairs where relief was reaching Biafra via Fernando Po or the Cameroons. Eventually, it succeeded in cutting off supplies from [Biafra] through political pressure on Ahmadu Ahidjo of the Cameroons.
The Fourth Assembly of WCC Meeting in Upsalla, Sweden in July, 1968, considered the problem of relief supplies to the victims of the conflict, and witnessed disagreements between Christians on both sides of the conflict.
One of the delegates, Dr Getachew Haile (Ethiopian orthodox church) had earlier expressed surprise at the large number of advisers present in the assembly and asked what their function was - who was to be advised?
Amongst the many advisers was Bola Ige, Adviser, Church of the Province of West Africa. The Nigerian delegates included Mr P.T. Odumosu, Methodist Church of Nigeria - Rt. Rev. I.O.S. Okusanya, Church of the Province of West Africa while Dr. Akanu Ibiam who had by now renounced his knighthood was there in his own right as a president of the WCC.
When on the 15th July 1968, the WCC’s Division of Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Services presented its ‘statement on the war relief,’ Dr Ibiam asked leave 'to voice his deep gratitude for the food and medical supplies being sent to victims of the war. But he also raised some political dust, when in his well-known, outspoken candor he said that: 'Biafra was defending herself against Nigeria which was the aggressor.' But it would appear that to some advisers, the issue of starving children was as nothing compared with the 'territorial integrity of Nigeria.'
Mr Bola Ige, Adviser, protested on the wording of a resolution whose aim was to enable the relief organizations to go ahead immediately with efforts to deliver the much needed supplies to the victims of the war.
Speaking 'with the greatest sense of responsibility', Bola Ige declared that 'If the statement were passed in its present form (referring to the entity called Biafra), the National Christian Council of Nigeria would find it difficult to believe that it came from the WCC'. The Nigerian Christian Council had written protesting against the use of name Biafra in correspondence. 'If', he continued, 'the WCC has no respect for the Nigerian Christian Council, this is the time to say it'.
Bola Ige pointed out that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had affirmed the individuality of the Nigerian nation and had refused to countenance the so-called Biafra. 'The all African Conference of Churches', he went on, 'had also concerned itself with relief without referring to any entity called Biafra.' (Dr. Ibiam was one of its four presidents).
'I would like to say', Bola Ige continued, 'that we appreciate the fact that people are willing to contribute drugs and food to relieve suffering and we want this to continue, but not at the expense of the sovereignty of our nation.... The resolution talks about moving supplies from Fernando Po. We have not been told that it is impossible to move supplies from Lagos. There is talk of mercy corridors. Everyone knows that the Nigerian Government has announced corridors by land and by air. I beg of you in the name of Christ and the Christians in Nigeria, including those who are suffering, to realize that any statements which refers to an entity called Biafra will be totally unacceptable to Nigeria'.
Dr Ibiam listened to Bola Ige with dismay. 'My mind', he said, 'flashed back to a strange meeting with Bola, during my early days as adviser to the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Col Odumegwu Ojukwu'. 'It was in the wake of organized killings of Eastern Nigerians residents in the North. Refugees streamed in their thousands to the East. Bola, the emissary, called on me for exploratory talks on what he termed 'SOUTHERN SOLIDARITY'.
'Yes, southern solidarity, observed very well', he continued, 'but mind you, I talk straight'.
There was a few pleasantries and Bola took his leave adding that he would be back soon. He never came back. Indeed, Dr Ibiam never heard from him again until that submission to the 4th (Upsalla) assembly of the World Council of Churches. This time around, Bola Ige, now adviser, Church of the Province of West Africa, was talking on the politics of starvation in Biafra.
What the highly articulate Christian, Bola Ige, did not say, but every one knew all too well, was that the Government of General Odumegwu Ojukwu, which enjoyed the support of millions of Biafran Christians, had expressed grave concern and fear about General Gowon's 'mercy corridors'.
Dr. Payne's negotiating skill, finally lead to a resolution which appeared acceptable to both sides. As Dr. Payne said 'We are trying to find a form of words in the hope that we can feed some starving people and would not be accused of being unfair or taking political stand.'
Dr. Ibiam now redoubled his efforts to find relief for Biafra's starving population. It must not be supposed that Dr. Ibiam received with open arms on his mission for Biafra. Far from it!
As Dr. Wildbolz wrote:
'But the officials of the WCC (Geneva), his missionary friends of Basle Mission and business people of some firms of Basle operating in Nigeria kept clear of him. The earlier days when Dr. Ibiam had entertained them in Nigeria were forgotten. Those people did not visit him nor did they invite him...! It appeared to me as being very mean and unfriendly.'
'So Dr. Ibiam and his wife lived a lonely life during those weeks and months. He showed openly his solidarity with his people. His wife - a Yoruba from the West (of Nigeria), shared his commitment fully.'
This would sound very unbelievable to most ears but with the slightest knowledge of the Ibiam household, one would agree that they share and hold the same views on issues.
Armed with the non-offensive resolution, the way became clear for the WCC in association with the other agencies in the Joint Church Aid to mount what has proved to be one of the most massive relief operations since the World War II.
In a joint statement on 16th August, 1968, the relief organization (International Red Cross, UNICEF, World Council of Churches, and CARITAS) pointed out thus:
'The conflict which concerned not hundred of thousands but millions of people was the greatest emergency it had handled since the 2nd World War.'
THEIR REQUEST FOR AN AIR CORRIDOR FOR DAYLIGHT RELIEF FLIGHTS.
Earlier, on the 5th of June 1967, a relief DC-7 had been shot down in Eket by Nigeria Air Force, putting a stop to ICRC flights from Cotonou. But the Church Organizations were not that readily deterred. At the meeting in Sandefjord, Norway, on the 9th of December, 1968, they decided to continue their nightly air lift relief into Uli air strip in Biafra.
Wars bring forth the worst as well as the best attributes in man. The nightly air lift of relief into Biafra showed humanity at its most compassionate.
Biafra's only link with the outside world was its airstrips - particularly the airstrip at Uli, code named 'Annabelle'. Relief flights reached Anabelle from Cotonou (Dahomey), Santa Isabelle (Fernando Po) and the Portuguese Island of SAO TOME. The nightly relief flights from SAO TOME started in April, 1968 largely under the auspices of the Joint Church Aid (JCA) and also the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) which chartered aircraft, often at great cost, from whatever available source. The aircraft included DC-65, C-46 and a fleet of Super Constellation owned by the German - American entrepreneur Hank Warton. Later, four giant c-97 Stratofreighters were acquired from the US Government bringing the total number of available aircraft to fifteen.
The pilots had to evade radar controlled anti-aircraft batteries as they flew over Nigerian held coastal districts of Biafra. Over Uli airstrip itself, they had to evade Ilyushin-28 bombers which regularly patrolled the airspace for some four hours on most nights until 11:00pm. 'Intruders', as the twin jets were often called, did more harm by often holding up the landing of these vital relief flights that through their 500 pounders.
An interruption of these nightly flights occurred in mid August, 1968, partly as a result of bad weather, but also as a result of anti-aircraft fire. This suspension was broken when a Swedish Red Cross DC-7 relief flight landed at Uli. Its pilot was the legendary Swedish pilot Count Carl Gustaf Von, Rosen, aged 59. A senior pilot with the Swedish Charter Firm Trans Air Sweden, Von Rosen had started his career of mercy mission in support of the underdog when, in 1935, he landed a Heinkel Air Ambulance behind Italian Lines in Ethiopia during the Italian invasion of that country. During the Russian invasion of Finland, he signed up as a lieutenant in the Finnish Air Force. He was to opt dramatically for service with the Biafra Air Force in the wake of indiscriminate air raids on the civilian population of Biafra.
In spite of opposition and threats by the Nigerian Government the Church Relief Organization stepped up their airlift of relief in an attempt to match the growing starvation in Biafra. Starving Biafran children were flown out in their thousands to feeding camps in Gabon. On 9th December, 1968, Joint Church Aid decided at a meeting in Sandefjord, Norway, to continue their interrupted nightly airlift of relief to Uli from Sao Tome.
On 5th June, 1969, a Nigerian MIG, shot down a clearly marked Swedish Red Cross Relief DC-7 over Eket in South Eastern Nigeria. Its crew of four lost their lives and the ICRC on June 10 announced the suspension of its relief flights from Cotonou and Santa Isabelle.
With great daring the JCA continued their nightly relief flights, undeterred neither by that incident, nor indeed by the loss of several more of its pilots and crew. Reiterating the WCC's position on these relief flights on 12th December, 1969, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, General Secretary of the WCC said: - 'The WCC is committed to continuous help to all people who suffer. Neither the complication of such help nor criticisms from whatever source will make us give up this concern'. Indeed, JCA made, all told, 5000 relief flights though 17 of its pilots were killed in the process.
In other story of air raids of civilian targets in Biafra is far less edifying.
The most comprehensive of these reports on deliberate air strikes on the civilian population of Biafra came from Mr Winston Churchill, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. They were published in the 'Times' of London during the first week of March, 1969. 'It is clear', said Mr Winston Churchill, 'that the Egyptian pilots hired by the Federal Government regard all of Biafra as a free bomb Zone'.
In a raid on Ozu-Abam market in full session, Mr Churchill and Mr Llyod Garrison of New York Times reported an area of more that 10,000 sq. yards was devastated. In the 'Times" London report of February 26, 1969, these journalists said that the bombs either 'high explosive incendiary or possibly phosphorus'.
The present author, working at Abiriba Hospital - the same hospital established by Dr Ibiam in 1936...... a few miles away from Ozu-Abam, received 100 survivors of that air raid. Most of them were severely burned to survive and died not so long after arrival.