Dr. Arua Oko Omaka (Fellow, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Nigeria )

State Denialism: The Biafra Genocide And The International Observer Team

15 November 2018 – 14 May 2019

Background: The ‘Biafra genocide’, 1967-1970, generated anxieties and international debates and was well documented in the media. In the capitals of Europe and North America, people identified Biafra as a place in Africa where children died in thousands due to starvation. Members of the British parliament and humanitarians across the globe were uneasy and disturbed by the reported cases of indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets by the Nigerian Air Force and the blockade-induced famine, which had caused the infamous kwashiorkor (acute protein deficiency) and mass deaths. There were criticisms from the press and concerned members of the British parliament that Britain, through arms sales to the Nigerian government was supporting genocide in Biafra.The allegation that the Nigerian government was committing genocide against Biafra had reputational cost on the British and Nigerian governments.  In September 1968, the Nigerian government had to set up an international observer force as a response to the genocide allegation. The setting up of the International Observer Team was an attempt to correct the impression that the Nigerian government was pursuing a policy of genocide. Despite the growing interest in genocide and human rights studies, the ‘Biafra genocide’ has not received adequate attention in the historiography of the Nigeria-Biafra War. Using archival sources in the UK, Canada, Nigeria and the US, this paper interrogates the International Observer Team and its role in investigating the genocide allegation in Biafra.

Findings: The International Observer Team, whose operations lasted from September to the end of the war in January 1970, issued a number of reports that refuted the allegation of genocide against the people of Biafra. However, the circumstances under which the Team operated largely influenced its performance and findings. The Team was given an impossible task under ridiculous conditions. The terms of reference were circumscriptive and could not have allowed it carry out an independent investigation. Total dependence on the federal government for logistical support and escort meant that they could only act when the federal authorities willed. They were largely guests of the federal government and were shown what the federal government wanted them to see. In such a conducted visit supervised by the Nigerian government, the observers could have seen only very little as to be able to draw a reasonable conclusion on the allegation.For notvisiting Biafra to investigate the atrocities that happened in the past, the observers hobbled their assignment and had virtually become an arm for Nigeria’s propaganda by facilitating Nigeria’s denial of the genocide charge. The role of the International Observer Team in the Nigeria-Biafra War simply reinforces the fact that denial is the last stage of genocide.[1] At the last stage, perpetrators either block the investigation or cover up the evidence and deny that they committed any crime. The implication of a successful denial is that there will be no punishment and further genocidal killings may occur.    

[1] Gregory H. Stanton, ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide’, http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/tenstagesofgenocide.html (Assessed 18 February 2019).


Arua Oko Omaka (PhD, McMaster) is a specialist in war and society. He taught at University of Toronto, Canada, before joining the Department of History and Strategic Studies, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu Alike Ikwo, Nigeria. Arua’s articles have appeared in reputable journals, including War in History; Medicine, Conflict and Survival; War & Society; Journal of Global South Studies; and Canadian Journal of History. Library Journal Reviews listed his book, The Biafran Humanitarian Crisis, 1967-1970: International Human Rights and Joint Church Aid (2016) as one of the best sellers in African history in 2017.

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