Biafra’s war was modern Africa’s first extended conflict. It lasted almost three years and was based largely on ethnic, by inference, tribal grounds. It involved, on the one side, a largely Christian or animist south-eastern quadrant of Nigeria which called itself Biafra, pitted militarily against the country’s more populous and preponderant Islamic north.
The conflict resulted from political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions which preceded Britain’s formal decolonisation of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. Immediate causes of the war in 1966 included a military coup, a countercoup, and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria. Control over oil production in the Niger Delta played a vital strategic role.
As the war progressed, Biafra also attracted mercenary involvement, many of whom arriving from the Congo which had already seen much turmoil. Western pilots were hired by Lagos and they flew the first Soviet MiG-17 jet fighters to have played an active role in a ‘Western’ war.
Almost half a century has passed since the Nigerian Civil War ended, but memories die hard, because a million or more people perished in this savage, bloody War. This book is an important contribution towards understanding Nigeria’s ethnic divisions, which are no better today than they were then. Biafra was the first of a series of religious wars that threaten to engulf much of Africa. Similar conflicts have recently taken place in the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, Senegal (Cassamance), both Congo Republics and elsewhere.
Al Venter spent time covering this struggle. He left the rebel enclave in December 1969, only weeks before it ended and claims the distinction of being the only foreign correspondent to have been rocketed by both sides: first by Biafra’s tiny Swedish-built Minicon fighter planes while he was on a ship lying at anchor in Warri harbour and thereafter, by MiG jets flown by mercenaries.
Among his colleagues inside the beleaguered territory were the celebrated Italian photographer Romano Cagnoni as well as Frederick Forsyth who originally reported for the BBC and then resigned because of the partisan, pro-Nigerian stance taken by Whitehall.
Venter took numerous photos that appear in this book while on this West African assignment, both in Nigeria while he was based there and later in Biafra itself. Others come from various sources, including some from the same mercenary pilots who originally targeted him from the air.