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Remembering the nightmare of Biafra: E.H. Johnson was at the centre of saving lives in Biafra 35 years ago.

It was officially called Jointchurchaid (JCA), but the daredevil pilots called it the Jesus Christ Airline with a swagger of pride and hint of awe. For almost two amazing years, JCA kept a small, breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war. It flew 5,314 missions, carrying 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid, and saved millions of lives.

The lumbering DC-6s and temperamental Super Constellations flew without lights at night from the island of Sao Tome off the coast of West Africa into a tiny airstrip carved from the dense bush. They skimmed blindly over the trees at 2,000 feet to avoid the enemy guns and fighters. At its peak, Uli "airport"--really just a widened road--was the busiest in all of Africa, handling up to 50 flights a night, and each flight broke some international law.

Each of the old planes had a JCA logo--two fish, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. But each also had its own name--the best known in Canada was Canairelief, whose four Super Connies were an integral part of JCA. There was also Nordchurchaid (from Europe) and the Holy Ghost Airline (run by the Irish Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers).

JCA soon became the darling of the media, attracting journalists like author Frederick Forsyth, who made his name as a reporter in Biafra, and the CBC's Stanley Burke. For the first time in history, famine, starvation and the humanitarian response were seen nightly on world television.

It was all put together by a bunch of church people who refused to be bound by old mission, old diplomacy, old colonialism, the power of big oil and the secrecy of murderous bush wars. Men and women took the church's gospel mandate seriously to act in word and deed with the poor and the oppressed. It was the late 1960s. JCA had the Vatican and the World Council of Churches integrally involved for the first time. It was the church in action. And in the very middle of it was the Presbyterian Moderator, Rev. Ted Johnson. A man of prodigious energy and talent, he held an unshakeable belief that to be Christian, to be the church, is "to serve humanity in concrete actions, to feed the hungry and to promote justice and peace. That is how the real nature of the church became known to the world."

And it was all very controversial with ramifications reaching into this century.

Humanitarian relief: Canada says no, but churches say yes

It is 35 years since the independent state of Biafra collapsed, ending one of the most audacious and activist leadership roles ever played by international and ecumenical churches--and Canada and Presbyterians were firmly in the middle of it. On Jan. 12, 1970, the military head of state, Gen. Odumegwu Ojukwu, flew out of Uli on the last relief flight, Biafra collapsed and the then Eastern Region of Nigeria was returned to that troubled and fractious country.

Canairelief made its first flight on Jan. 23, 1969, and its final trip on Jan. 11, 1970. It completed 670 flights and delivered 11,000 tons of desperately needed food and medical supplies into the blockaded state of Biafra. Churches, relief groups and a few volunteer agencies, including a historic ecumenical alliance of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations, bombarded Ottawa and raised the flag of famine. From the beginning, the indomitable and capable Ted Johnson was at the centre of it all, and he made 10 harrowing and dangerous trips into Biafra.

Four Canairelief crew members were killed when one Super Constellation crashed at Uli. A second plane was destroyed when it was bombed on the ground during the 20 minutes or so it took Biafran workers to unload the relief supplies for Caritas and the World Council of Churches, which ran more than 2,000 feeding centres. JCA lost 25 pilots and crew to the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade. The Nigerian military government of the day steadfastly refused to allow relief flights or any other form of humanitarian aid into Biafra. Despite JCA's best efforts, it is estimated some two million Biafrans starved to death. The world was shocked as stark pictures appeared on television screens of stick-thin children with the swollen bellies and sparse, rust-coloured hair that symptomizes kwashiorkor, the body's painful protein deficiency that killed children in their thousands.

Biafra was a nightmare for the international community, especially for Britain, France and--given the almost single-handed initiatives of Ted Johnson--Canada. The response from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ("Where's Biafra?") and External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp was "shameful," according to the Toronto Star of Feb. 21, 1969, usually a Liberal party mouthpiece.

Johnson was unrelenting. He led a delegation of church leaders to Ottawa asking for help for starving Biafrans but was refused. With that rebuff came Canairelief, supported (without government money of any kind) by Jewish leaders, the Roman Catholic Church and major Protestant denominations, particularly the Presbyterian, United and Anglican churches.

Church leaders went back to the government twice to ask for transport planes or money. Twice more in 1968 they were refused. Johnson and his team then went the political route and arranged for two MPs--Tory David MacDonald, a United Church minister, and Andrew Brewin, an NDP Anglican--to fly into Biafra on Canairelief on a fact-finding mission. Their report, Canada and the Biafran Tragedy, became a book in 1970 that recommended Canada use its position to prod the United Nations to negotiate a ceasefire, participate in relief operations, push to have Nigerian civil rights violations under the UN charter enforced and give money for humanitarian relief. They got a flat "No" from Mitchell Sharp and U Thant, then UN secretary general. Both were more worried about the Federal Republic of Nigeria's specious unity than the millions of starving Biafrans.

Ottawa did send three Hercules freighters as part of an International Committee of the Red Cross relief effort. In an act of incredible incompetence or political venality, two went to Lagos and one to Sao Tome. Lagos impounded the two planes in Nigeria and never let them off the ground, while the Sao Tome aircraft was sent back home after another ICRC plane was shot down by the Nigerians.

"Compare this exercise in futility with the achievement of the churches," the Toronto Star editorialized. "Just four weeks after being turned down by Ottawa, Canairelief bought a Super Constellation [from Nordair, which used the huge four-engine freighters to service the DEW Line] for $108,000 and, in less than a month, it had 28 flights into Biafra." And the reason? "They are not as timid as the Red Cross and the corridors of External Affairs."

By flying into Biafra, the ICRC and Canada argued they would be "recognizing" the breakaway state, thus annoying Nigeria's undemocratic military dictatorship under Gen. Yakubu Gowan. Ted Johnson argued that saving the lives of millions of men, women and children had a higher moral imperative than maintaining good diplomatic relationships with Nigeria, whose soldiers (along with British neo-colonial officials) were terrified the nation would split into many more parts than only Biafra. At the same time Canada was maintaining its timorous posture with Nigeria, several other countries, including Germany, Sweden and the United States, refused to stand by and allow millions to starve as the Nigerian government implemented its policy of famine as a weapon of war.

In today's even more violent world, where civilians in their millions (far more than the military) are the victims of war, the same timid attitude prevails and churches have retreated behind their castle walls into bureaucratic survival. That was not the case with Biafra. "The churches of Canada responded to Biafra," Johnson said. "In doing so, they put the lie to the image of church leaders being exclusively concerned with their own institutions, not humanity. In this Biafra instance, the churches' enterprise is all that has saved Canada from moral bankruptcy in response to a distant people's agony."

Nation states or self-determination: what price?

The story of Biafra is also a story of the times: a story of church leaders who believed the church belonged in the midst of God's world; a story of a people's right to self-determination; a story of tribalism, colonialism and the influence of First World development in the Third World. The Presbyterian Church in Canada was intimately involved with Nigeria and Biafra, its missionaries accepted and often beloved. Through the likes of Ted Johnson and other missionaries, the church maintained its ties with the two combatants and their civilian populations.

Biafra's breakaway from Nigeria on May 30, 1967, was a crushing, if inevitable, blow to Africa's most populous country and, perhaps, an even greater blow to the policies of British neo-colonialism. It was the beginning of a seemingly endless round of rebellion, bloody coups, military dictatorships, appalling corruption, and ethnic and religious strife. After its independence from Britain on Oct. l, 1960, loudly hailed within and without as a model for Africa of a happy and harmonious state, Nigeria descended into a state of chaos caused by colonial attempts to merge three distinct regions forcibly into one federal state. That chaos continues to this day, with Nigeria having suffered under a corrupt political civilian and military treadmill of successive coups and dictatorships.

Nigeria descends into chaos

Nigeria is a country of great climatic, territorial and ethnic variety, ranging from the tangled swamp and dense rain forest along its 800-kilometre coastline on the Gulf of Guinea and the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Bonny. Southern Nigeria is split into eastern and western portions by the Niger River. North of the forest, which runs inland some 160 to 200 km, lies the Middle Belt. Here, the woodlands give way to savannah grasslands and finally to semi-desert and scrub. Nigeria was exceptionally rich in natural resources. Immensely valuable oil and natural gas resources were discovered, mostly in the Eastern Region. Altogether, today, Nigeria sprawls over 993,774 sq km, with an estimated 125 million people of enormous ethnic diversity. In the southwest are the Yoruba people, with a long history of developed kingdoms. Western culture came there first with the penetration by the British through Lagos. In the southeastern region, which would become Biafra, lived a variety of peoples, the most prominent being the Ibo, or Igbo as they are known today. North of the forest dwelt numerous non-Hausa people, animist vassals of the Hausa/ Fulani Empire. The North proper was the land of the Hausa, Kanuri and the Fulani, who are Muslims. It took three years for the British to conquer the North and impose a form of indirect rule under the emirs and their courts. In 1914, the three regions were amalgamated for colonial administrative purposes, and the stage was set

The easterners quickly assimilated with the Yorubas and into British forms of development while the North, opposed to modernization, was open territory for the adaptable and resourceful Ibos who ran the trains, the civil service and small businesses. By 1966, an estimated 1,300,000 Ibos were living in the Northern Region and another 500,000 lived in the West. The Ibos made Nigeria run fairly efficiently in the early days of independence but, being Christian and modern, they were segregated from the northern Muslims. At home in the Eastern Region, Ibos and smaller tribes lived together equitably and finally united because of the war in 1966.

The first Nigerian election in 1960 produced a Parliament in which none of the three parties--roughly based on regional and ethnic support, and nepotism and corruption (the latter already well established under the British)--came into full force. Until 1960, the Nigerians had never lived together as one people ruling themselves. There are more than 300 ethnic groups and many languages. The three largest groups--Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo--each had more than five million people at that time.

Into this colonial stew came the colonizers and the missionaries well over 100 years ago. They found a traditional animistic spirituality, which still has great influence on thinking and behaviour. Islam and Christianity are the other two great religions affecting Nigerians. Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity were firmly established in the south long before independence. Christian councils, schools, infirmaries, clergy and lay training schools, hospitals and universities were established by Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, including Canadians. Most churches had become autonomous by the mid-1960s or earlier but, in the colonial style, had divided the country into areas of interest. National government and administration had been largely in the hands of the colonial power, Britain. Unlike southern Africa, Nigeria did not fight a unified liberation struggle but has been struggling for the past 44 years for its unity. Independence brought intense rivalries and a mounting volume of corruption and nepotism, with the crisis forcing a state of emergency after the country was only two years old. In 1964, the second national election was grossly unfair, with widespread intimidation and violence. Lawlessness was rampant across the country. The first federal prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner universally respected, was kidnapped with other high officials and eventually killed. The army revolted and, in early 1966, Maj.-Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Ibo from the East, staged the first of two military coups in one year, which ended the First Republic after only six years of independence.

Ironsi named military governors in the regions and a military council to role the country. That year was a disaster for the Ibo, who occupied many of the civil service posts and a commanding position in commerce. Scathingly referred to in the Muslim north as "black Jews of Africa," although they were about 90 per cent Christian, as many as 40,000 to 50,000 were slaughtered in pogroms in 1966 and some two million fled for their lives back to their Eastern Region homeland after their property and homes were destroyed. A huge refugee crisis faced the nation. It was ironic because easterners had always been the strongest supporters of national unity. Ironsi was killed in a second military coup after only six months. A northerner, Lt.-Col. Yakubu Gowon, established a military dictatorship and broke the country into 12 regions, instead of the previous four, to weaken the power of regional governments.


I first met Ted Johnson in Biafra. I knew who he was--he was front and centre in those heady, optimistic days in the late 1960s when the churches had leaders who thought they should be in the middle of the grimy world that God's creation had become. Ted was in there with his Student Christian Movement theology, along with Lois Wilson (United Church) and Ted Scott (Anglican), challenging their musty establishments to change and change dramatically. Their goal was to change the world--which, after all, was their vocation--and change was their watchword.

I never did find out why Ted was there in that dugout lit by a flickering kerosene lamp. The last I'd heard he was meeting in Geneva with Eugene Carson Blake, another Presbyterian and general secretary of the World Council of Churches. They were trying to pressure the international community to make peace in Biafra and send in more aid.

It had been a hellish kind of trip into Uli, for me anyway. The plane was old, and we couldn't see anything. Tracer bullets whizzed by and everything was black. The big plane seemed suddenly small and vulnerable and terribly noisy. It was full of food and medicine strapped down where the seats used to be. No one told me about the landing. After a couple of hours with only the tracers to indicate there was anything below us, the descent began. No one said, "Fasten your seat belts" (there were none) and no one said anything about landing; we could just feel the plane going down into the black African night. It was scary. Suddenly there was a flash of lights for what seemed like 10 seconds (actually 30) and we hit the ground with a huge bang. All was black night again, and a voice said: "Out yuh go. The Intruder's around." Out I went. It's a long way down from a Super Connie. I fell, got up covered in red dirt and some people hustled me off to my certain death, I was sure. The bombs were in my lap, I thought.

And, then, there was Ted Johnson standing in that flickering lamplight, saying in his most charming way--and Ted was a charmer--"Welcome to Uli Airport, the republic of Biafra." I almost hugged him, except I'd never hugged a Moderator before, especially a Presbyterian one. He was wearing a brown clerical shirt, without the collar, on his stocky frame, looking as if he were picking me up at Toronto's airport. Suddenly I stopped shaking and felt safe. I never saw him again that trip, although he was there meeting Ojukwu, Akpan, Chief Justice Louis Mbanefo and Biafran army commander Philip Effiong. He knew everyone. And he knew everyone in Nigeria and half the capitals around the world. He didn't have a BlackBerry, but his address book was packed with names from everywhere. He knew about networking before it became the in thing.

Then it was time to leave. I was a wreck, and there he was at Uli again. We were both leaving on the first flight out. It was a bad night, and the Intruder was getting pretty close. We crouched beside a palm tree. The odd plane landed, but others turned back. Were we going to get out? A Rhodesian plane offered us a lift, but Ted wouldn't fly on the gun runners. Finally, a Holy Ghost Airlines plane came in--a ratty, banged-up, old DC-6 that was flying to Libreville in Gabon. No boarding passes required. There we'd fly on Air Afrique to Paris and then to Canada. It was just before Christmas. It was simple, Ted said. We'd flown all over West Africa trying to make connections and our papers weren't in order, but he was my leader and we made it to Paris about 45 minutes before the Air Canada flight to Toronto.

We had to run like mad to make it in time. I didn't know Ted had angina and carried the little white pills in his suit pocket. I thought he was immortal. Suddenly, my leader turned kind of blue and started gasping. He pointed to his pocket where I found the pills. I was terrified he was going to die and leave me alone. He popped a nitroglycerine and, in seconds, we were charging across the airport to get home. We made it.

After that first meeting, he became a kind of hero to me. Like Ted Scott and Lois Wilson and all those other former SCMers who had a special vision of the world as global and as God's creation, which they had the smarts and the guts to take on in the name of God.

The blockade of Biafra and starvation

Although Ojukwu was military governor in the Eastern Region, appointed by Ironsi and a classmate of Gowon, relations between the East and the Central governments deteriorated until meetings were no longer possible and Eastern leaders were pressing for secession. On May 30, 1966, Eastern Nigeria proclaimed itself the independent state of Biafra and declared a state of emergency. The central government imposed a naval blockade, and fighting began between the east and the rest of Nigeria. After some initial victories, Biafra, which started with a population of 12 million (two-thirds of them Ibos), lost all its cities, including the oil centre of Port Harcourt and the capital, Enugu. Soon five million people were squeezed into a tiny football-shaped enclave of 2,000 sq km around the market town of Umuahia. Gowon boasted the war would be over in two weeks.

The war became bloody and bitter. It was a low-tech struggle with Biafran soldiers chronically short of supplies--going into major battles with 10 bullets each. The Nigerians, heavily armed by Britain and Russia (odd allies in that Cold War period), withheld food supplies, openly stating that food was a legitimate weapon of war. As the Biafrans were pushed back from the best agricultural land into their own barren heartland, and as crops and stores fell into the hands of the Nigerian soldiers, starvation and famine appeared, flapping their wings like the vultures that hovered over the feeding centres and refugee camps. Casualties were huge among civilians; yet, somehow, Biafran morale remained high despite the military campaign going irretrievably wrong.

For the first time in history, the mass media zeroed in on an African humanitarian disaster. New technology and a generation of young, bright, media-savvy church people and NGOs made this possible. Appalled by the magnitude of the Biafran tragedy, we searched for answers. Too often it was all dismissed as a consequence of tribalism. White governments in Britain, the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, could not comprehend. "There are forces let loose in Biafra" stated the London Sunday Times Magazine, one of the papers most sympathetic to the Biafran cause, "that white men cannot understand."

But the large European and British oil companies, with billions of dollars of investment in Nigerian Biafran oil, could understand all too well. Companies such as Gulf, Mobil, Texaco, Standard and Phillips, and participants such as Britain, Holland, France and Italy, knew 75 per cent of Nigeria's oil was in the secessionist state. When some began to threaten Gowon's government that they could get a better deal with Biafra, Nigeria was furious but also frightened. Who was going to get the oil revenues? In the complex diplomatic negotiations, the posture of the oil companies would be decisive in determining who would eat and who would starve, who would get guns from racist Rhodesia, Communist USSR and oil-hungry France and who would be defenceless. Nigeria had to prove it was still the powerhouse of Africa, "the working democracy with a sound economy, a free press and a moderate pro-Western government" as Time magazine once described it.

Could Biafra, with only four African countries recognizing it officially, display "effective sovereignty"? It was the same size as some of the Gulf states, just a platform for oil rigs. But Lagos did begin to win the war of starvation, and secession was very costly for the oil companies. The British government was irrevocably committed to federal Nigeria, and all the pipelines and storage facilities were home again in federal territory when Port Harcourt fell. But the French, holding few of the Nigerian franchises, had little to lose and continued to give support to Biafra. So it was that Britain wanted Nigeria to win and poured all its military and other resources into Gowon's unelected government; France, who didn't care if Biafra lost or not, supported it for commercial, oil and political reasons. And the Americans kept asking Biafra to compromise and save itself.

But Biafra couldn't simply give up. It wasn't simply the stubborn arrogance of the Ibos or the megalomaniac bravado of Ojukwu, there was genuine fear that the massacres of 1966 would resume. Surrender under the military's new federal structure would mean accepting the division of Biafra into three parts--with the Ibos crowded into a single section containing almost no oil. After the massacres of the North and the atrocities of the war, the Ibos saw it as the end of their people.

In May of 1969, Ted Johnson came back from another hair-raising flight into Biafra and reported that the war was no closer to a resolution despite his and others many trips to Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy to try and mediate the increasingly vicious conflict. "The federal forces have an advantage of more than 100 to one in firepower, but the Biafrans have the advantage of a morale, which comes from a people who believe they are fighting for survival and basic freedom."

In the 18 months of war from July 1967 to December 1968, three international peace conferences were held--one under the auspices of Canadian Arnold Smith, head of the Commonwealth whom Johnson lobbied incessantly, and two under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity. All were abortive. Prospects for peace were poor despite efforts by the inept OAU and its special mediator, Emperor Halle Selassie of Ethiopia. The Biafran leadership totally mistrusted the OAU because its mediating stance was based on the inviolate premise that existing boundaries of African states at independence must never be altered. Biafra had to return to Nigeria before anything could happen to end the tiny enclave's starvation and abject misery. The Biafrans hoped for intervention by the Soviet Union or the United States to call a truce.

Making peace and feeding the starving

Because of its long connection with the people on both sides of the war, the Presbyterian Church played a unique role in trying to bring humanitarian aid to the suffering and a healing ministry to the whole desperate situation. In 1969, Ted Johnson outlined three lines of activity for the church:

* seek to maintain fellowship and support to our Christian brethren and particularly our fellow Presbyterians on both sides

* engage in a vigorous role in relief work on both sides

* try to promote a peaceful settlement by maintaining contact and conversation on both sides with colleagues who are high in government responsibilities. While Johnson always accepted the General Board of Mission's policy--"we make no judgment as to the right or wrong on either side in their conflict; our interest is in the bringing of peace and the relief of suffering to all peoples"--he was widely perceived by the political classes in Canada and internationally as being strongly opposed to the Nigerian and British strategy of starving Biafra into submission. His high-profile activities with Canairelief, his many trips to Nigeria and Biafra, his close ties to Ntieyong (N.U.) Akpan (a committed Presbyterian and principal civilian secretary to Ojukwu) and his high profile in Canada and overseas made him the object of criticism and controversy, not least in his own church where he was both Moderator and secretary for overseas missions. The churches were accused of prolonging the war by their humanitarian activities and of being propagandists for Biafran secession. Johnson, never one to suffer fools gladly, was accused by other bureaucrats of not following proper procedures.

"Look, for a long time, I was pretty much a one-Nigeria man" he told the Globe and Mail's Betty Lee in a 1968 interview. "Now I believe that, if Lagos insists on trying to impose a military solution on the Biafrans, they'll end up with nothing but a mass graveyard and concentration camps. There will be no such thing as what the British want--a quick kill. The Biafrans are fighting a people's war."

When Lee questioned Johnson about his role as a propagandist, he stated: "That isn't true. About the only public relations was that which got around the world by word of mouth and by the mass media telling the world about the horrors being perpetrated against civilians. I helped a few journalists get into Biafra, but they told their own story, not mine. The real story of Biafra was told to Canadians by David MacDonald and Andrew Brewin, both MPs. We couldn't get humanitarian relief funds from the government so we went out and raised the money ourselves. I suppose that could be called 'deliberate public relations' but none of the journalists or politicians or church people who went to Biafra exaggerated the situation. I checked it out time and again with responsible doctors who had been in Eastern Nigeria for years, and there's no doubt that 6,000 people--mainly children and women--were dying daily during the summer."

Stephen Lewis, now waging a high-profile struggle to stem Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic (see January 2003 and May 2004 Record) also went to Biafra and described the situation in 1968. "The Canadian people and the churches were magnificent in their concern over Biafra," he wrote. "The government was anti-human."

Three meals a week

In 1969, Ted Johnson helped this reporter, along with Rev. Eoin Mackay of Rosedale Presbyterian Church, Toronto, and Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, make a trip into Biafra. As we jumped, literally, from the cargo bays of the DC-6 and were hustled into a dugout in the rich red earth for formal customs and immigration procedures, the first person we met was Johnson. Bombs landed nearby, the Russian Hyushin bomber known to all as the Intruder was trying to bomb the airlift. With our passports duly stamped, Johnson hustled us into the black African night for an immediate meeting with his friend Akpan and a briefing, then to an abandoned plantation house where the moon shone through the bullet-holed roof. Early the next morning, we awoke to the low drone of wailing children and the all-pervasive smell of death. It never goes away. It stays strong in the memory.

We were in a village called Atani, a market that had been strafed the day before by the Russian MiG fighter jets flown for the Nigerian air force by Egyptian pilots. Cannon shells bad burst in the middle of the market. A line of bullets traced their way down the middle of thatched huts. Bodies still lay by the side of the dirt track. It was no military installation. The feeding station and sick bay run by the World Council of Churches was a long, low shed where 300 children, mostly inert, lay on the earth floor on straw mats. Their hair was red, their bellies swollen, their skin scaly and their limbs like bent twigs. Eyes stared blankly from hollow sockets. The low moaning sound that bad greeted us the first morning was louder. The children were in constant pain. They were being fed (when it was available) high protein food, milk and a few drops of fish oil flown in on the Jesus Christ Airline and Canairelief.

These were the innocents. They had made no war. Their bodies were ravaged, and their parents were worse. Refugees for two or three years, they were getting three meals a week and they were dying in the bush under thatch, quietly by the side of road. There was not an animal to be seen; they had been eaten long ago. Lizards were a protein treat. Wander off the roads and into the bush almost anywhere in Biafra and the sight of starving people soon became one of the most harrowing sights visitors would see.

The churches were accused of manufacturing these horrendous images to raise money to keep Ojukwu in power. The brutal fact, Johnson told me, was that these and millions more children were innocent victims of an international power play for political influence in Africa and a struggle for control of one of the world's great oil reserves.

The courage of the pilots, the Biafran relief workers who could unload a Super Constellation's 15 tons of aid in 20 minutes in the darkness, and the missionaries and medical staff inside Biafra was incredible. In the September 1968 Record, Stanley Burke, host of the CBC's' The National News, asked angrily why no government would help. "In Africa," Burke wrote, "it seems the rules are different for the rich, white world or perhaps it's just that our consciences don't relate to the suffering of black people. But when you're here, you feel it so much it hurts. Last year a million people died--more than Britain lost in two world wars. Here there are walking skeletons and the war was being fought with mainly British weapons. Never have I encountered in 21 years as a newsman cynicism and hypocrisy as blatant. That a million or two people should be compelled to die in the name of preservation of 'one country' is surely monstrous."

In the end, international politics and commerce won out. Biafra collapsed. Ojukwu fled. Uli was overgrown with jungle, its simple airport destroyed by Nigerian soldiers. Corpses of the pilots and planes can still be found in the lush Biafran bush.

The humanitarian disasters in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World have grown in magnitude, and emergency relief pioneered by the Jesus Christ Airline and people like Ted Johnson has now become big business. Violence-jaded viewers watch the repetition of Biafra endlessly on their television screens. The comment by Stanley Burke that our society and churches suffer from "compassion fatigue" becomes more incisive daily. Canada still spends less than half of one per cent on Third World development aid. Arms merchants and mercenaries get rich protecting transnational resources from the people who own them. Since Biafra, Africa has been blighted by similar wars in Angola, both Congos, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Thirty-five years later, churches no longer play a major role in these catastrophes; but JCA was eventually reborn in 1990, some 20 years after Biafra, into Action by Churches Together (ACT), now based in Geneva. And Ted Johnson died in 1981 at 72. He was one of the giants of his age, mentor to many, acknowledged as Canadian Presbyterianism's most distinguished church leader. He believed utterly that to be Christian was to be at the cutting edge of change and that to do mission was to risk.


Ted Johnson is memorialized by the Presbyterian Church in the E.H. Johnson Trust Fund, which continues his ministry of Christian outreach, ecumenism, peace and social justice. Each year since 1981, individuals receive the award for dedication to the cutting edge of mission.

People who knew him well call him their mentor, a special term for a man whose whole life was dedicated to the global world and to change. "Because the gospel calls us to be [with the people] and because Ted wanted us to have room to fly, we did," says Barbara McLean, recently retired deputy clerk of the General Assembly at the Presbyterian national office. She and her husband, Walter, a former Tory cabinet minister in the Joe Clark government, started their ministry in the Eastern Region of Nigeria that would become Biafra. Johnson was their mentor too.

"He came out of the Montreal scene where the SCM was most radical at McGill," recalls Barbara. "Essentially they were Marxists. He was a gold medallist in mathematics and physics and had a passion for the social gospel even though he came from a wealthy background."

He was considered a maverick long before Biafra, Walter McLean agrees. "Once when he came back from a visit to China, he chided the church for its unrelenting anti-Communist view of China and said we could take some lessons in commitment from Mat Tsetung. That was not the thing to be saying in 1973. He also said Mat was a great humanitarian and had tremendous faith in the individual human being."

Johnson was born in 1909 and, after studying at McGill, Princeton, Berlin and Edinburgh, he was sent to Manchuria in northeast China as a missionary. He was expelled in 1941 by the invading Japanese forces. Johnson was a youthful rebel and believed the church must change and become more open to youth. He spent post-war years in the United States, working for the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. "Even then," Barbara says, "he was an anti-establishment man with enormous energy and the ability to cut through red tape to make critical decisions. He was one of the few church leaders then to understand the importance of mass media."

Johnson travelled incessantly working for students. He always talked about the great moments of history. "He'd find two or three people who wanted to talk about the world at a time when Canadians were pretty parochial," says Walter. "He was no church bureaucrat; he was a real leader and knew people all over the world who shared his urgency and passion for justice and peace.

"Sadly, today, the church has pulled back from that sense of global mission to bring Christians and the church into the centre of the world. Ted saw institutional preservation almost as a contradiction to the core of the gospel"

Johnson became secretary for overseas missions in 1954 and stayed in that position for more than 20 years. He left a deep mark on his church by insisting and implementing the idea that mission had to change to meet the needs of changing times. "And he shaped Presbyterian mission policy to achieve that change," the McLeans say.

He was elected Moderator in 1969 at the height of the Biafra conflict. He was active, too, in the World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches, and his ecumenical enthusiasm broadened the horizons of the Presbyterian Church. In addition to Biafra, one of his greatest passions was China, dating back to his days in Manchuria. He spent much of his time interpreting China to Canadians and helped to found the Canada-China program.

"Two of the great nations of the world, China and Nigeria, have the same birthday as I do--October 1," he often joked.

He was well aware of the responsibilities the churches bore in the colonial project in Africa and battled for a more responsive attitude toward post-independence Africa. When the Biafra war ended, Johnson had the difficult task of wrapping up Canairelief and facing the need for the church to rebuild its battered Nigerian mission. He was never allowed back into Nigeria despite many attempts.

Johnson received many awards, including an honorary doctorate from Trent University, Peterborough, Ont., for his Biafran work. But he also left a legacy of controversy. Shortly after he retired as moderator, he was shuffled sideways in 1973 to become secretary of research and planning for the Board of World Mission. He retired in 1978 and died from a fall while walking in 1982.

Hugh McCullum is a Toronto-based author and journalist who has covered Africa since 1968, when he made his first trip to the continent with Ted Johnson to cover the Biafra conflict. His latest book, Radical Compassion: The Life and Times of Ted Scott, was published earlier this year.
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Author:McCullum, Hugh
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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