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‘Organising the unpredictable’: the Nigeria–Biafra war and its impact on the ICRC

  • Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps

Abstract

This article analyses how the events of the late 1960s – and in particular the Nigeria–Biafra War – marked a turning point in the history of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Nigeria-Biafra conflict required the ICRC to set up and coordinate a major relief operation during a civil war in a post-colonial context, posing several new challenges for the organisation. This article shows how the difficulties encountered during the conflict highlighted the need for the Geneva-based organisation to reform the management of its operations, personnel, and communications in order to become more effective and professional. Finally, the article takes the examination of this process within the ICRC as a starting point for a broader discussion of the changing face of the humanitarian sector in the late 1960s.

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1 For Philippe Ryfman, the second century of humanitarian action starts with Biafra: see Ryfman, Philippe, Une histoire de l'humanitaire, La Découverte, Paris, 2008, pp. 4849. Although Michael Barnett does not repeat the same periodisation, he also indicates that Biafra opened a new chapter in humanitarian action: see Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: a History of Humanitarianism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011, p. 133.

2 For a discussion of these questions, see P. Ryfman, above note 1, pp. 52–59.

3 On the shift in the activities of non-governmental actors to areas outside of Europe at the end of World War II and the unprecedented media coverage of humanitarian crises from the late 1960s, see for example M. Barnett, above note 1, pp. 118–158.

4 On the International Committee of the Red Cross and its principles of action, see Bugnion, François, The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims, ICRC and Macmillan, Geneva, 2003.

5 A well-documented study was done at the end of the conflict by an ICRC staff member who had access to the archives: Hentsch, Thierry, Face au blocus: histoire de l'intervention du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge dans le conflit du Nigéria, 1967–1970, Droz, Geneva, 1973. See also the analysis by Jacques Freymond, Committee member and vice-president during the conflict, ‘Nigéria–Biafra: l'aide aux victimes de la guerre civile’, in Preuves, first quarter, 1970, pp. 70–83.

6 Forsythe, David P., The Humanitarians: the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, p. 62; Moorehead, Caroline, Dunant's dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross, Harper Collins, London, 1998, p. 614.

7 Bornet, Jean-Marc, Entre les lignes ennemies: délégué du CICR 1972–2003, Georg Éditeur, Geneva, 2011, p. 87.

8 D. P. Forsythe, above note 6, p. 51.

9 Freymond, Jacques, Willemin, George and Heacock, Roger, The International Committee of the Red Cross, Martinus Nijhoff, Boston, 1984, p. 79.

10 Ibid., pp. 57–67 and 129.

11 Ibid., p. 128.

12 Saunier, Pierre-Yves, ‘Le secrétaire général, l'ambassadeur et le docteur: un conte en trois épisodes pour les historiens du “monde des causes” à l'époque contemporaine’, in Monde(s), Histoire, Espaces, Relations, May 2012, p. 33.

13 Perret, Françoise and Bugnion, François, De Budapest à Saigon: histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, vol. IV, 1956–1965, ICRC and Georg Éditeur, Geneva, 2009, p. 39. Rey-Schyrr, Catherine, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu: histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, vol. III, 1945–1955, ICRC and Georg Éditeur, Geneva, 2007.

14 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, p. 85.

15 F. Perret and F. Bugnion, above note 13, p. 309.

16 Ibid., p. 601.

17 D. P. Forsythe, above note 6, pp. 62–78.

18 Herrmann, Irène and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Humanitaire et massacre: l'exemple du CICR (1904–1994)’, in Sémelin, Jacques, Andrieu, Claire and Gensburger, Sarah (dir.), La résistance aux génocides: de la pluralité des actes de sauvetage, Presse de Sciences Po, Paris, 2008, p. 237.

19 For an examination of the ICRC's role during the Italo-Ethiopian War, see Baudendistel, Rainer, Between Bombs and Good Intentions: the Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1936, Berghahn, New York, 2006.

20 For an overview of the ICRC's activities in Africa in the early 1960s, see F. Perret and F. Bugnion, above note 13, pp. 259–329.

21 After the 1962 Gonard Mission, Georg Hoffmann was appointed regional delegate for Equatorial and Sub-Equatorial Africa and in 1963 became the general delegate for Africa (except for Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt): see ibid., pp. 266 and 319–329.

22 On the Nigeria–Biafra War, see, among others, Kirk-Greene, Anthony H. M., Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria: a Documentary Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, London, 1971; Stremlau, John, The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967–1970, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977; Clergerie, Jean-Louis, La crise du Biafra, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 1994; Gould, Michael, The Struggle for Modern Nigeria: The Biafran War, 1967–1970, I. B. Tauris, London, 2012.

23 T. Hentsch, above note 5, p. VII.

24 Freymond, Jacques, Guerres, révolutions, Croix-Rouge – réflexions sur le rôle du CICR, Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales, Geneva, 1976, pp. 335.

25 For a study on the members of the Committee, see Diego Fiscalini's dissertation, ‘Des élites au service d'une cause humanitaire: le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge’, University of Geneva, Geneva, 1985.

26 ICRC Archives (ACICR), plenary Committee meeting, 1 November 1967.

28 T. Hentsch, above note 5, pp. 23–46.

29 ACICR, BAG 12-044, critical note by Pierre Basset, November 1970.

30 T. Hentsch, above note 5, p. 46.

31 ACICR, extraordinary plenary Committee meeting, 29 August 1968.

32 T. Hentsch, above note 5, pp. 82–90.

33 Letter from the Swiss ambassador to Nigeria to the head of the International Organisations Division, 5 June 1968, Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (DDS), dodis.ch/33767.

34 ‘You are probably in a position to help the ICRC find the right persons for the action in Nigeria. At the end of the day, it is our country's reputation that is indirectly at stake, insofar as any action is to be undertaken by the Swiss. It would be unfortunate if the donor states and other organisations that have made financial contributions had the impression that the Swiss were not up to the task entrusted to them’. Letter from the Swiss ambassador to Nigeria to the head of the International Organisations Division, 14 June 1968, DDS, dodis.ch/33772.

35 On the pressure put on the ICRC by other entities, see Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, ‘Entre coopération et concurrence: Unicef, CICR et organisations religieuses au Biafra’, in Relations internationales, No. 156, 2013.

36 Aktennotiz [action notice] by the head of the International Organisations Division, 17 July 1968, DDS, dodis.ch/33790.

37 On Auguste Lindt, see Wilhelm, Rolf, Gygi, Pierre and Vogelsanger, David (Hrsg), August R. Lindt: Patriot und Weltbürger, P. Haupt, Bern, 2002.

38 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 7 November 1968.

39 Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., International Committee of the Red Cross Relief Operations in Nigeria, Report, 1 July 1970, pp. 17–20. This figure corresponds to the total food relief distributed in ICRC operations over the 1967–1970 period in Nigeria and Biafra (the majority of relief for the war zones went through Nigeria). It does not include medical aid.

40 ACICR, BAG 12-044, note by Jean Pictet, February 1970.

41 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 9 January 1969, report by Gerhart Schürch.

42 ACICR, BAG 280 147-002. Appointing a Swiss ambassador to head ICRC operations also raised the issue of the independence of the ICRC in relation to the Swiss Confederation.

43 ACICR, BAG 12-044, critical note by Pierre Basset, November 1970.

44 Among others, see ACICR, AVM 2005003-14/70.

45 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 7 November 1968.

46 ACICR, Presidential Council meeting, 23 January 1969.

47 On these events, see T. Hentsch, above note 5, pp. 169–192.

48 D. P. Forsythe, above note 6, p. 65. On the Nigerian point of view as seen by the British, see the UK National Archives, FCO 65/375 and 65/376.

49 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, p. 122.

50 ACICR, Presidential Council meeting, 25 January 1968.

51 ACICR, Committee meeting, ‘Rapport du secrétaire général sur l’état d'avancement de ses travaux en matière d'organisation’, 21 October 1970.

52 President Samuel Gonard decided to resign at the end of 1968 and Roger Gallopin resigned as director-general at the end of 1969, which led to the dissolution of the Directorate.

53 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, pp. 119–128. For a broader view of these changes, see D. P. Forsythe, above note 6, pp. 201–227.

54 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, pp. 131–133.

55 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 14 July 1967.

56 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 5 September 1967.

57 This was particularly true in the spring of 1968, when the ICRC repeatedly postponed sending medical teams to Biafra. A doctor from the Church of Scotland, for example, finally decided to leave with the airlift set up by religious groups rather than join the ICRC team. See ACICR, BAG 202 147-001, letter from Reverend Bernard, 26 March 1968.

58 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 5 June 1968.

59 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 24 July 1968.

60 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 5 June 1968.

61 Kwashiorkor is a type of childhood malnutrition resulting from protein deficiency. It is characterised by oedema and swelling of the abdomen.

62 French Red Cross teams (including some of the future founders of MSF) also arrived in Biafra in September 1968.

63 See International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 8, No. 90, September 1968, pp. 458–459.

64 On the role of a delegate, see Troyon, Brigitte and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘The ICRC Delegate: an exceptional humanitarian player?’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 89, No. 865, March 2007, pp. 97111.

65 ACICR, Presidential Council meeting, 17 August 1967.

67 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 15 December 1967.

68 Letter from the Swiss ambassador to Nigeria to the head of the International Organisations Division, 14 June 1968, DDS, dodis.ch/33772.

69 Christophe Zürcher, ‘Schürch, Gerhart’, in Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse, available at: www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F6675.php (last visited 25 June 2013).

70 Memo on the meeting between the ICRC director-general and the head of the International Organisations Division, 3 July 1968, DDS, Vol. 24, No. 92, dodis.ch/32824.

71 ACICR, Directorate note, 10 September 1968.

72 Gilbert Marion, ‘Bignami, Enrico’, in Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse, available at: www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F30544.php (last visited 25 June 2013).

73 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 9 January 1969, report by G. Schürch.

74 ACICR, BAG 121.147-001, letter by G. Schürch, 3 December 1968.

75 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 9 January 1969, report by G. Schürch.

76 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 6 February 1969.

77 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 9 January 1969, report by G. Schürch.

78 Urhobo, Emmanuel, Relief Operations in the Nigerian Civil War, Daystar Press, Ibadan, 1978, p. 54.

79 UK National Archives, FCO 38/226, ‘Meeting with members of the International Observer Team’. The intrusive nature of relief operations remained the main source of tension between humanitarian organisations and the Nigerian government.

80 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, p. 133.

81 On the importance of this issue in humanitarian literature, see Sébastien Farré's article, in this issue. More generally on the ICRC in World War II, see Favez, Jean-Claude, The Red Cross and the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999; Cardia, Isabelle Vonèche, Neutralité et engagement: les relations entre le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge (CICR) et le gouvernement suisse, 1968–1945, Société d'histoire de la Suisse romande, Lausanne, 2012.

82 On the way in which this issue was viewed in the 1960s, see in particular the article by the former ICRC President Boissier, Léopold, ‘The silence of the International Committee of the Red Cross’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 8, No. 85, pp. 178180.

83 The ambiguity of this stance has been increasingly discussed, but this is still considered to be the moment when the French doctors split from the ICRC. See Vallaeys, Anne, Médecins sans frontières: la biographie, Fayard, Paris, 2004, pp. 2790.

84 Desgrandchamps, Marie-Luce, ‘Revenir sur le mythe fondateur de Médecins sans frontières: les relations entre les médecins français et le CICR pendant la guerre du Biafra (1967–1970)’, in Relations internationales, Vol. 2, No. 146, 2011, pp. 95108.

85 M. Barnett, above note 1, p. 132.

86 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, p. 192.

87 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 28 February 1968.

88 T. Hentsch, above note 5, pp. 82–89.

89 ACICR, Presidential Council meeting, 18 July 1968.

90 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 23 October 1968, report by Karl Jaggi.

91 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 8 August 1968.

92 On the relief operations run by religious organisations, see in particular Laurie Wiseberg, ‘The international politics of relief: a case study of the relief operations mounted during the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970)’, doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1973.

93 ACICR, Presidential Council meeting, 22 August 1968.

94 Jacobs, Dan, The Brutality of Nations, Paragon House, New York, 1988, p. 52. See also the letter from the President of the Danish Red Cross, Johannes Frandsen, published in Journal de Genève, 31 October 1968, p. 5.

95 On the statements made by some ICRC volunteers during the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, see M.-L. Desgrandchamps, above note 84.

96 T. Hentsch, above note 5, pp. 136–148.

97 The US government provided four planes for the Red Cross airlift and four planes for the churches' airlift. On the American attitude concerning relief during the conflict, see Thompson, Joseph E., American Policy and African Famine: the Nigeria–Biafra War, 1966–1970, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1990.

98 Memo on the meeting between the ICRC director-general and the head of the International Organisations Division, 3 July 1968, DDS, Vol. 24, No. 92, dodis.ch/32824.

99 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 9 April 1969. Many thousands of photographs were distributed by the ICRC Information Service between 1967 and 1969, particularly to illustrate the ICRC's activities in the Middle East and Nigeria–Biafra. See ICRC Annual Report 1967, 1968, and 1969, ICRC, Geneva, 1968–1970.

100 See, for example, International Review of the Red Cross, October 1968, Vol. 8, No. 91, pp. 521–526, and January 1969, Vol. 9, No. 94, pp. 13–20.

101 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 6 November 1969.

102 ACICR, Directorate briefing note, 12 January 1970.

103 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 30 April and 1 May 1969, minutes of the plenary meeting of the jurists' group on the matter of the protests.

104 ACICR, BAG 12-044, critical note by P. Basset, November 1970.

105 J. Freymond, G. Willemin and R. Heacock, above note 9, pp. 131–132.

106 Ibid., pp. 199–201.

107 Ibid., pp. 67–68 and 164–165.

108 ICRC Annual Report 1967, ICRC, Geneva, 1968, p. 80.

109 ICRC Annual Report 1970, ICRC, Geneva, 1971, p. 115.

110 Preface by Freymond, Jacques, ICRC Annual Report 1968, ICRC, Geneva, p. 5.

111 ACICR, plenary Committee meeting, 3 April 1969.

112 Ibid.

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‘Organising the unpredictable’: the Nigeria–Biafra war and its impact on the ICRC

  • Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps

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