Author:Omaka, Arua Oko


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. Portugal reached an understanding with the Biafran government that enabled it to use Lisbon and Portugal's colonies in Africa as transit routes. The Nigerian government, which wanted a quick military victory and to preserve the unity of the country, naturally interpreted Portugal's agreement with Biafra as an unfriendly act that helped prolong the conflict. (9) Without Portuguese assistance, Biafra would have capitulated earlier than it did. The Nigerian government considered reporting Portugal to the United Nations but chose not to do so for political reasons. Raising Portugal's complicity with Biafra at the United Nations would have further internationalized the conflict, thwarting the chances of achieving the quick military victory the Nigerian government desperately wanted.

This article advances the discourses and interpretations of the international politics of the Nigeria-Biafra War by arguing that Portuguese imperial policy in Africa largely influenced its role in the Nigeria-Biafra War. The war broke out at a time when the entire African continent was undergoing decolonization and Portugal was under pressure to liberalize its unpopular policies in Africa and negotiate a peaceful handover to African leaders. By supporting Biafra, Portugal diverted the attention of African leaders away from campaigning against its unpopular policies in Africa. Portugal saw the war as an opportunity to use Africans' own argument about the primacy of the right to self-determination against them. Portuguese imperial policy in Africa thus provides a window to understanding the international dimension of the Nigeria-Biafra War. This article focuses mainly on the British and Nigerian approaches to Portugal's standpoint. The reason that this research relies chiefly on documents from British, Canadian, and US archives is that Portugal's diplomatic archives have not yet declassified their files on the Nigeria-Biafra War.


Portugal has a long history in Africa. It was the first colonial power in Africa and the last to divest its territories on the continent. Social and political developments in Africa and historical conditions in the global community forced colonial powers to hand over authority to indigenous African leaders. Soon after World War II, the agitation for political independence among African and Asian countries increased. By the late 1960s, when powerful European countries such as Great Britain, France, and Belgium had completed the decolonization of their former colonies, Portugal, a relatively weak and poor state in industrialized Europe, was still hesitant about the future of its African colonies, which it semantically camouflaged as "overseas provinces." (10)

The delay in the decolonization process of Portuguese colonies can be attributed to a number of factors. Portugal was beclouded by a Christian paternalism toward Africa and the assumption that its colonial policy was best for its territories. (11) Portugal believed that its Roman Catholic tradition and its long contact with different cultures and races of the world specially equipped it to maintain good relations with people of all backgrounds. Its leaders often argued that they were building a multiracial society in Africa. (12) Armindo Monteiro, a Portuguese minister of the colonies in the 1930s and the Portuguese ambassador to Britain in the 1940s, asserted that destiny had entrusted Portugal with the responsibility of raising Africans and their territories to the level the Portuguese had attained and that Portugal had successfully created a harmonious society in Brazil without racial hatred. (13) Portuguese scholars appeared to have shared this same perspective. For instance, Gilberto Freyre, a famous Brazilian historian and cultural interpreter, formulated the theory of Lusotropicalism, whereby he argued that people of Portuguese background were preordained to lead the world toward racial harmony and to build a global empire that would be made up of people of various colors, religions, and languages. (14)

The Portuguese believed that successful colonization must be based on union with the indigenous people; this is why they did not support the principle of racial prejudice. Portugal's Organic Charter of the Colonies and Overseas Administrative Reform of 1933 empowered white settlers in Africa to act as protectors of the "Natives." (15) As protectors, they had the duty of promoting the preservation and development of the indigenous people. This idea of acting as the "lord defender" for the "weak indigenous Africans" propelled the mass migration of Portuguese to Africa. By 1938, Mozambique had 20,000 settlers from Portugal while Angola had no less than 57,000--the highest population of Europeans in an African country. (16) Portugal's emphasis on building a harmonious multiracial society and having a large number of its citizens in its African territories led some Portuguese to believe that they had colonization in their blood. A critical analysis, however, shows that there was a huge gap between Portugal's theory of colonial administration and the reality in the colonies. Portugal's aspiration to foster a Pan-Lusitanian community where Europeans and Africans associated freely may have rested heavily on consociation with African women, since Portuguese women did not settle in Africa in significant numbers until the 1940s. Portuguese colonial policy remained static, racist, and authoritarian in terms of human relations and development. (17)

Although Portugal's colonial policy in Africa elevated the social status of Portuguese migrants to Africa, it impoverished Africans. Many Portuguese migrants who settled in Africa and engaged in low-skilled economic activities such as shop keeping, construction, vehicle maintenance, and truck driving enjoyed higher economic status than their African counterparts with the same level of education and skills. (18) A laborer whose monthly...

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