Printer Friendly



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 income in Lisbon was 4,000 escudos could earn as much as 8,000 escudos for doing exactly the same job in Angola or Mozambique. However, Africans earned much less than that. (19) In the job pyramid, Portuguese nationals occupied the top rung while Africans filled the bottom. Even when Portuguese were employed to do the same job as Africans, the Portuguese dominated Africans. An African's ceiling in the job pyramid apparently started at the Portuguese floor. The discriminations and abuses meted out to Africans in Portuguese colonies obviously belied Portugal's image of itself as a nation without racial prejudice.

Portugal's sense of entitlement in its colonies also impeded the decolonization process in Africa. In 1939, the president of Portugal declared that because Portugal had paid a huge price in terms of labor, suffering, and human life to develop and "civilize" the natives, everything that existed in the colonies belonged to it. (20) Portugal was relatively poor and industrially backward compared to Western European countries and its economic prosperity depended to a large extent on its African colonies, which were economically profitable. Portuguese sold most of its export products, especially wine, cotton, and agricultural tools, in its African colonies. Exports from Portuguese colonies in Africa included coffee, sisal, tea, diamonds, and copra, all of which earned a huge foreign exchange for Portugal. The Portuguese economy would have been adversely affected without this income.

Commenting on Portugal's retention of colonies in Africa, D. M. Friedenberg noted that the entire social and economic structure of the country was tied to that of Angola and Mozambique with the result that the government feared revolution in the metropole if African colonies were granted independence. (21) For Portugal, the overseas territories were an indivisible part of the mother country. The poverty of the metropole was the major force that drove the mass migration of Portuguese to Africa, not because the Portuguese sought to create a Pan-Lusitanian community where Europeans and Africans would freely coexist without racial prejudice, as the much-touted theory suggests. Given that Portugal supported itself with revenue from its colonies in Africa, it was determined not to surrender to criticisms and pressures from Africa and the United Nations. Retaining colonies in Africa provided an outlet for the Portuguese to deal with economic challenges at home. This economic background also explains why Portugal's colonial policy was exploitative and repressive.

In addition to the economic interpretation, there was also a near-total indifference of different sectors of Portugal's society to colonial affairs. The Portuguese, especially the political class, did not care much about the welfare of its African colonies despite the waves of decolonization that were sweeping through the whole world. This partly explains why African nationalists' agitation for independence did not gain wide acceptance among Portuguese politicians. (22) Portugal's unresponsiveness to events in the colonies can also be attributed to the political crisis that rocked the country in the early part of the twentieth century. From 1910 to 1926, Portugal had nine presidents. This period was marked by anarchy, corruption, rioting, and assassination. When Antonio Salazar came into power after a coup on May 28, 1926, he issued restrictive laws and police measures. Because his administration aggressively censored the press and because liberal democracy was non-existent, the press could not provide adequate coverage of events in the colonial territories. The crisis in the metropole created room for a small, dominant interest group in Portugal to manipulate the colonial system. (23) Because the authoritarian regime in Portugal had destroyed democracy in the metropole, it would have been paradoxical to expect freedom in the African colonies, which were considered backward. Granting civil rights to Africans would have amounted to offering a gift that the metropole did not itself enjoy.

Portuguese leaders justified their continued paternalism by arguing that they had not been surpassed by any colonial power in winning the goodwill and affection of Africans. This sense of pride in past deeds offers another explanation for the behavior of Portuguese colonialists in Africa. They also emphasized that early independence had led to communism in Ghana and Guinea, to violent crisis in Congo, and to racism on the African continent. (24)

However, despite Portugal's claim that it had won the goodwill and affection of indigenous Africans, it could not forestall the revolt that nearly engulfed Angola in 1961. From 1961 to 1974, Portugal was involved in a full-scale colonial war that is known in Africa as wars of liberation led by the emerging nationalist movements in its African colonies. It took the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, in Lisbon to overthrow the unpopular corporatist authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo and bring the colonial conflict to a close. It is obvious that political developments in Portugal from 1910 to the 1960s largely influenced Portugal's policies in its African colonies.

Agitation to decolonize Portuguese African territories came from two major directions: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and African leaders. Until the early 1950s, the United States and Britain had supported Portugal on issues pertinent to its African colonies, but this relationship came to an end when it was obvious that Portugal was unwilling to hand over power to African leaders. Some European powers and Asian countries that recognized decolonization movements as a reality strongly condemned Portugal's static policies in Africa. (25) NATO, for instance, mounted pressure on Portugal to liberalize its colonial policies and grant independence to African states under its rule. However, Antonio Salazar's authoritarian regime wanted to exercise indefinite authority over his colonial territories in Africa and decided to overlook the historical realities of the moment. As an impoverished country, Portugal saw its colonies as a source of wealth and pride. Instead of yielding to the pressure from NATO and African leaders, Portugal threatened to leave the United Nations in protest and interpreted the pressure from NATO to decolonize its possessions in Africa as an attempt to "disintegrate the Portuguese empire." (26)

In Africa, anticolonial sentiment was united against Portugal's presence in Africa and its repression of its colonies. In 1963, a group of African leaders presented their demands for political independence in the United Nations Security Council. The African leaders claimed that the conditions in Portugal's African colonies were seriously eroding peace and security on the continent and they asked the United Nations to declare the situation a threat to international peace and security. (27) They also called on the UN to impose sanctions on Portugal and expel it from the international body. The UN Security Council endorsed the demands that Portugal grant independence to its colonies in Africa and asked all member states to stop supplying arms for the suppression of liberation movements in Portuguese colonies. (28) However, the Security Council considered the imposition of sanctions and the expulsion of Portugal from the United Nations to be extreme measures that could affect the continued existence of the world body. Against this backdrop and the fact some powerful Security Council members such as the United States, Britain, and France had abstained from voting on the resolution, the Security Council cautiously interpreted Portuguese relations with its colonies as a mere dispute. (29)

It was clear that the economic and strategic interests of the "great powers" in Portuguese colonies influenced their decision to abstain from voting on the Security Council's resolution on Portuguese Africa. The United States and Britain, for example, had large investments in Angola and Mozambique. In addition, the United States considered Portugal to be anti-communist and thus friendly. (30) Again, the United States had a military pact with Portugal related to its autonomous region in the Azores that had expired in 1961 and was due to be renewed. The United States also had interests in the whole of Southern Africa and wanted to assign a strategic role to Portugal as a counter to a perceived threat in the Indian Ocean from the Soviet navy following the withdrawal of Britain. Based on these interests, the United States only gave tepid support to self-determination for the people in Portuguese Africa. (31)

Given that the United States considered Portugal to be an important NATO ally, it never went beyond verbal condemnation of Portugal. In concert with its allies, the United States successfully blocked every UN attempt to sanction Portugal, asserting that any resolution against Portuguese policy that went beyond verbal rebukes would not achieve any meaningful purpose. (32) Portugal clearly benefited from the collaborative neutrality of its NATO allies. (33) The US posture on the Portuguese-African issue is congruent with the assertion that European interests at the global level superseded those of Africa, regardless of the size of the European country. Another reason the United States took this position is that it considered Africa to be Europe's special responsibility, just as Latin America was considered a US sphere of influence. The fact that the United States did not play an active role in Portugal's decolonization of Africa should not be taken as a sign of indifference to African affairs. Its discreet stance can be interpreted as a policy of remaining disentangled from the African struggle for decolonization.

Regardless of the roles and interests of the great powers in the anticolonial struggle, the UN Security Council declared that Portugal's rule in Africa was doomed by history and that its claim that its African territories were its "overseas provinces" was anachronistic. (34) African and Asian delegates to the United Nations insisted that they were colonies and should be freed from colonial rule. By describing them as "provinces," Portugal wanted to avoid being held accountable to the international community on matters pertaining to its colonial policies in Africa. Although Portugal described the Security Council's resolution as "revolting," it could not escape the force of world opinion, which had risen against the possession of colonies as an unacceptable condition in the modern world.

Portugal's centuries of suzerainty in Africa did little to bring development to its colonies in Africa, which suffered some of the worst forms of economic deprivation. (35) Portuguese settlers in Africa got richer while indigenous Africans remained poor. It was extremely difficult for African children in Portuguese colonies to acquire even a rudimentary education. Less than 3 percent of Africans in Portuguese colonies were literate in 1961. (36) Portugal also failed to provide health care services. The rudimentary health care facilities that existed were found only in cities and on mission stations where a large number of Portuguese immigrants resided. Portugal provided a classic example of imperialism as a tool to exploit overseas empires in order to make up for shortcomings in the metropole. Although economic development was not on the agenda of the colonial powers in Africa, some colonial powers such as Britain and France tried to provide basic education and rudimentary medical care in some parts of their colonies. France, for example, regarded equipping its colonies to look like modern states as "infrastructure." (37) Britain also knew it would hand over power to Africans and provided requisite education and training to its subjects. Although Portugal continued to claim that it was less motivated by racial antagonism than other colonial powers, in Angola and Mozambique, blacks and whites lived almost completely separate from one another, a practice that was similar to the apartheid policy in neighboring South Africa. (38)

This is not to suggest that other colonial powers were less oppressive and racist in their policies. Britain, for instance, created detention camps that harbored about one million Kikuyu Kenyans during the Mau Mau Uprising, a tortuous situation that historian Caroline Elkins has described as Britain's gulag. (39) Germany killed the Herero and the Nama of Namibia by the thousands in 1904 for resisting the Germans' attempt to take over their land. The Germans also took many Namibians to a concentration camp, where they died in 1904 and 1905. Their remains were taken to Germany for racial experiments intended to show European superiority over Africans. (40) Namibians relived the horror and tragedy of colonialism in October 2011, when the German government returned twenty skulls that Germans had taken from Namibia for experiments.

Portugal's colonial policy did not became a matter of concern and international debate until it became obvious that it was neither contemplating handing over power to Africans nor ready to compromise on its brutal policies in Africa. Portugal remained unconcerned about the political right of the citizens in its colonies to self-government. Instead of negotiating for self-government with African leaders, the Portuguese government resorted to supporting activities that destabilized the peace and security of some African countries as a way of diverting global attention from its oppressive rule in Africa. President Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria, for example, accused the Portuguese government of masterminding mercenary attacks in their countries. (41) Mobutu stated that Portugal was using its colony of Angola to supply and reinforce the mercenaries who attacked his country. General Gowon alleged that Portugal was using its offshore island of Sao Tome for the purpose of recruiting mercenaries to support the Biafran "rebellion." Although Portugal denied these allegations, it was evident that the last mercenary who entered Katanga had come in through Angola. (42) Mobutu alleged that the attacks on Congo of mercenaries who had traveled through Angola were part of Belgium's Union Miniere Trust's plan to destabilize Congo following the Congolese government's nationalization of its property. John de St. Jorre, one of the journalists who reported on the Nigeria-Biafra and Congolese wars, observed that Portugal played an ambiguous role by providing help for Moise Tshombe in the secessionist Province of Katanga in 1960 and later by assisting rebellious Congo mercenaries. (43) The Congolese government and other observers believed that Portugal used the dispute between Congo and Union Miniere Trust to weaken large black African countries that criticized its colonial rule in Africa. (44)

Although Portugal used the Biafra war to divert attention away from its colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, it should also be pointed out that Portugal's political situation up to the second half of the twentieth century also played a critical role in the violent and traumatic decolonization of its African colonies. In addition to the forty-eight years of dictatorship in Portugal, there was a high degree of interdependence between developments in the metropole and those in the colonies. Norrie Macqueen has pointed out that the contradictions within the Portuguese government between the Spinolists, whose programs for independence were both unrealistic and unacceptable to the African independence fighters, and the more radical members of the armed forces who supported immediate independence played a role in delaying the decolonization of Portuguese colonies in Africa. (45) The Portuguese government was faced with the challenge of reconciling settler interests in Angola and Mozambique with the demands of African nationalists. These and other factors complicated diplomatic negotiations, thereby delaying the decolonization process. Portuguese policies in Africa and the decolonization movements in the 1960s provide a window to understanding Portugal's strange friendship with Biafra.


When the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out in July 1967, Portugal offered its territory as a transit state for the blockaded Biafra. It also permitted Biafrans to set up European headquarters in Lisbon and to establish radio communication facilities there. Thus, Portugal became a principal channel through which arms and supplies reached Biafra and a telecommunications link that kept Biafra in tenuous touch with the outside world for the duration of the conflict. Portugal's offer of its territory as a transit state to the secessionist Republic of Biafra raised a big concern among Nigerian government officials for two reasons: the Nigerian government still considered Biafra to be an integral part of Nigeria and insisted on resolving the conflict within the framework of "One Nigeria." Second, the Nigerian government had blockaded Biafra, believing that it would soon weaken and be forced to surrender. Against this background, the Nigerian government interpreted Portugal's role in the conflict as an unfriendly act and accused the Portuguese government of providing moral and financial support for Biafra. (46)

Portugal's alleged complicity in the conflict was also a source of worry to the British government, which supported the principle of a united Nigeria. Aside from colonial ties, Britain had a huge economic investment in Nigeria and wanted a stable political climate that would enable British businesses to flourish. Britain considered Portuguese assistance to Biafra to be a direct attack on British interests because it believed that the Biafran government was using military resources from Portugal to attack British oil installations in Biafran territory. (47) While the positions and interests of many European and North American countries on the war were clear, those of Portugal were not. Portugal had no direct interest in or any form of relationship with the Eastern Region (later Biafra) until the war broke out.

As the war dragged on, some European countries openly supported Nigeria's anti-secession war while others remained scrupulously neutral. Britain, for instance, gave full military and diplomatic support to Nigeria, while the United States, Finland, Norway, Netherland, Sweden, and Iceland maintained a position of formal neutrality. (48) The Nigerian government's blockade of Biafra resulted in starvation and mass death that aroused the conscience of the global community. However, many countries in Europe and North America maintained diplomatic relations with the Nigerian government or at least recognized the Federal Military Government of Nigeria as the only legal government of Nigeria. (49) Although some European countries provided substantial humanitarian aid to Biafra, none of them played the strategic role that Portugal did.

The Nigerian government did not publicly mention Portugal's role in the conflict until October 1967, when Nigerian troops captured a small freighter headed for Biafra that was loaded with arms from Portugal. (50) Portugal denied providing either military or financial support to Biafra. However, on January 27, 1968, the Baltimore Sun reported a secret movement of arms, ammunition and manpower supplies from Portugal to Biafra. Some of the crew on the plane that was involved in the clandestine operation between Lisbon and Port Harcourt (a city in Biafra) revealed that Biafrans had moved arms and foreign journalists into Biafra. (51) The journalists were flown into Biafra under the auspices of Hollywood, a public relations firm that managed Biafra's publicity before Markpress took over. Robert Goldstein, who was in charge of Hollywood, wanted to present the Biafran side of the story to the western world in order to elicit public sympathy and humanitarian aid and Biafrans used the opportunity to import arms into Biafra by air. (52)

Although the Nigerian government subsequently accused the Portuguese government of assisting Biafra with arms shipments, Portugal denied the allegation. (53) Portugal contested the Nigerian government's allegation by arguing that it had no direct interest in the conflict and was indifferent to the outcome of the war. (54) However, Portugal's attitude toward the conflict suggested otherwise. George Shepherd, an international commentator, for instance, noted that Portugal was supplying arms to Biafra in order to build an alliance. (55) Politically, the Portuguese wanted Nigeria to be fragmented and possibly to collapse. The Nigerian government had also broken diplomatic relations with Portugal because of its oppressive policies in Africa. In addition, Nigeria had made large financial contributions to the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), which provided funds and political support for anticolonial movements in Portugal's African colonies. (56) Portuguese support for Biafra, therefore, was a way of weakening Nigeria and its support for anticolonial campaigns in Portuguese colonies. By supporting Biafra, Portugal believed it had turned Africans' own argument about the primacy of the right to self-determination against them. Portugal also encouraged disorder in African states to buttress its thesis that independence was being given to African countries too soon. (57) There is no doubt that crisis in Nigeria diverted the attention of Nigeria and other African countries away from their united stand against Portugal's repressive policies in Africa. Many African leaders became more concerned about the Nigerian crisis when the Nigerian government and Britain argued that the successful secession of Biafra would lead to the disintegration of other African countries along ethnic lines.

Psychologically, Biafra's war of independence offered a good opportunity for Portugal to make a new friend on a continent where it had lost friends due to its despotic rule. Portugal also believed that supporting Biafra would demonstrate its continuing ability to influence African affairs. Indeed, Biafra welcomed Portuguese assistance even though Portugal had become unpopular in Africa. Biafra and Portugal reached an understanding that made it possible for the Biafran government to make use of metropolitan Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome for the transportation of supplies and maintain offices in Lisbon. For example, Henry Warton, a German-born American who flew arms for Biafra and relief supplies for humanitarian organizations, operated out of Lisbon. (58) This assistance accorded Portugal the status of a major ally of Biafra in the conflict.

Religiously, Catholic Portugal had received strong pressure from the Vatican to provide relief for the starving masses in Biafra. (59) Although the Nigerian leader General Yakubu Gowon maintained that the conflict was not a religious war, some observers interpreted the war as a religious struggle between the Christian south and the Muslim north. (60) The religious coloration of the conflict partly explains why many religious bodies in Europe ignored diplomatic considerations in their historic provision humanitarian aid to Biafra between 1968 and 1970. Portugal's Catholicism and the concept that aid to Biafra was humanitarian, which had spread across Europe since the war gained global media attention, partly influenced its role in the conflict. The humanitarian effort of church groups across Europe awakened the conscience of many Portuguese who believed that Biafrans were fighting for survival against starvation and a well-armed enemy. (61)

Another interesting facet of the conflict was Portugal's defense of its provision of transit facilities for Biafra. Portugal argued that it did this based on the United Nations convention of providing access to landlocked countries. (62) The United Nations Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked States of 1965 stipulates that states without a seacoast should be given free transit to the coast for the purpose of advancing international trade and economic development. (63) However, the practice of a country with a seacoast providing transit facility to a landlocked was based on a common understanding and reciprocity. And since this convention only applied to member states that were recognized by the United Nations, its application to Biafra raised a legal concern. The UN never officially recognized Biafra as a sovereign state. In addition, Biafra was not landlocked. The territorial boundary of the geographical area known as Biafra coincided exactly with the boundary of the former Eastern Region, which had access to the sea in Calabar and Port Harcourt. Biafra did not become blockaded until Nigerian troops occupied Calabar, Ogoja, and Port Harcourt in April and May of 1968. Accordingly, Portugal's argument that Biafra had the privilege of "freedom of transit" as a landlocked state was erroneous and did not meet the conditions of the United Nations Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked States. A British ambassador to

Portugal argued that Portugal was overstretching the application of the "doctrine of access to land-locked states." (64) Portugal's reference to the convention on landlocked states as a reason for providing transit facility for the Biafran government was only a camouflage. If that explanation were to be taken at face value, it would have meant that Portugal recognized Biafra as a sovereign state.

The Nigerian government's worry over Portugal's involvement in the war became more serious when Nigerian troops captured a former Portuguese air force pilot, Gil Pinto de Sousa, on November 2, 1969, after he crash landed near Keffi in Northern Nigeria. (65) De Sousa, a former Portuguese air force pilot who had been hired by the Biafran government, was flying a North American Aviation T-6 Texan aircraft from Abidjan to the Biafran airport at Uli when he lost his way due to bad weather and ran out of fuel. (66) De Sousa had become involved in the flight operation for Biafra through his contact with a US air force captain who was working for Phoenix Airline, a charter company based in Guinea-Bissau.

The Nigerian government's press release on the captured Portuguese mercenary pilot revealed that Portugal was providing facilities for storing arms and training mercenary pilots near Tiers in Portugal. (67) The Biafran government was also using a Portuguese air force base in Guinea-Bissau to assemble aircraft shipped from a factory at Seama, Portugal. Portuguese mercenary pilots were moving aircraft meant for Biafra from the Guinea-Bissau factory. The Nigerian government also claimed that four of the T-6 aircraft Biafran mechanics had assembled under the supervision of a Portuguese mechanic and Portuguese air force personnel had been shipped from the Seama factory in Portugal. (68) According to De Sousa, the Biafran government was paying the Portuguese mercenaries a monthly salary of [pounds sterling]200 with a bonus of [pounds sterling]318 for every flight into Biafra. (69)

A similar report on Portugal's involvement in the conflict came from R. O'Donnell, a correspondent for the Financial Times. O'Donnell, who was in Sierra Leone, reported that the Biafran government had signed a protocol with the Portuguese government. (70) Portuguese foreign affairs minister Franco Nogueira denied any such protocols between his government and Biafra and O'Donnell did not provide any further detail regarding the protocol. In a press interview at the United Nations on April 16, 1969, Nogueira, dismissed O'Donnell's allegation of a protocol and allegations that Portugal had an arms deal with the Biafran government. Nogueira stated, "If Biafrans are receiving military aid, this aid is certainly not coming from Portugal." (71) He asserted that Portugal had only allowed the transit of goods bound for Biafra.

The British embassy in Lisbon appeared to have cleared Portugal on the question of a protocol with Biafra when it reported that it had not heard of any such protocol or formal agreement between Biafra and Portugal. Commenting on Portugal's alleged support for Biafra, Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian novelist, stated: "The extent of Biafran relationship to Portugal is simply said, 'Your planes can land in our territory.'" (72) While Achebe pointed out that he was not personally interested in the motive behind Portugal's sympathy for Biafra and that Biafrans would have readily accepted an offer of air support if it had come from the devil, he added that Portugal was not providing arms to Biafra. (73) B. J. Evarett, an official of the British embassy in Lisbon, dismissed the idea that a protocol existed, arguing that a local Financial Times correspondent in Lisbon who was well informed about the Biafran conflict would have known if such a formal agreement existed between Biafra and Portugal. (74) Although the Portuguese government claimed not to have been involved in any military deal with Biafra, it was aware of the transactions between its nationals and the Biafran government or its agents. For instance, De Sousa and three other former Portuguese air force pilots who were involved in procuring aircraft for Biafra lodged in the officers' mess in Guinea-Bissau and enjoyed military passes and the privilege of using Portuguese air force charts in Bissau. (75) When the British Foreign Office discovered that the Portuguese pilots were assembling aircraft in Bissau for Biafran use, it convinced the Portuguese government not to authorize the Portuguese pilots to take aircraft out of Bissau. (76) Nevertheless, mercenary pilots who were quite experienced were able to convince the Bissau air base commander to allow them to move the aircraft to Abidjan, since Ivory Coast recognized Biafra.

The growing concern about Portugal's role in the conflict led Alexander Boeker, A US assistant under-secretary for Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to tell the American ambassador to Nigeria that it was necessary to raise the issue of the Nigeria-Biafra War at the NATO meeting in order to draw the attention of Portugal to the displeasure of its NATO associates about its active support for Biafra. (77) As part of its effort to discourage Portugal's assistance to Biafra, the British government enrolled pro-Nigerian members of Parliament who had connections with people in Portugal to persuade the Portuguese nationals to stop providing facilities and mercenaries to the Biafran government or its agents. (78) John Cordle, a Member of Parliament who chaired the Conservative Party's Committee on West Africa, championed the move.

The Nigerian government made a first attempt to end Portuguese assistance to Biafra in October 1967 when it asked the US government to bring pressure on Portugal through the United Nations and NATO. (79) The US government did not respond to Nigeria's request because, like West Germany, it still believed that Portugal's assistance to Biafra was limited to providing access routes through Lisbon, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome for the delivery of arms and other necessary equipment. (80)

However, the British government was convinced that Portugal was playing a strategic role in sustaining the conflict and it encouraged Nigerian authorities to raise the issue before the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. (81) Britain believed that by presenting the evidence gathered from de Sousa, the captured Portuguese pilot, it would be able to secure a condemnatory note against Portugal. The capture of de Sousa in November 1969 provided the Nigerian government with more evidence with which to criticize Portugal. His detailed description of the flow of arms from Portugal to Biafra convinced Nigerian government officials that Portugal was prolonging the conflict in Nigeria in order to weaken its anticolonial campaign against Portugal. (82) Portugal's opposition to the anticolonial movement partly explains why General Gowon, the leader of the Nigerian government, challenged the claims of some observers that the conflict was essentially a religious war. (83)

Nonetheless, the Nigerian government was reluctant to raise the issue of Portugal's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra War at the UN Security Council for a number of reasons. First, the Nigerian government believed that a discussion of Portugal's involvement might lead to other issues in the conflict, especially the question of genocide by starvation, which had attracted global attention. (84) Second, the Nigerian government felt that raising Portugal's involvement might lead to some investigations that would further prolong the war. (85) The Nigerian government also believed that raising Portugal's arms deal with Biafra at the United Nations could attract a general arms embargo that could affect their arms supply from Britain and the USSR. The Nigerian government's fear was justified, given that it benefited more than Biafra from the international arms supply. The Biafran government relied mainly on the black market for its arms supply. While France supplied arms to Biafra, it did so covertly and thus could not match the level of support that Britain and the USSR gave to Nigeria. The Nigerian government knew that a general arms embargo would have threatened its ability to achieve a quick military victory and it was thus unwilling to present the case of Portugal's complicity at the United Nations.

Another factor that discouraged the Nigerian government from reporting Portugal to the United Nations was the former's earlier declaration that the war was a domestic issue. From the beginning of the crisis, the Nigerian government had maintained that the conflict was an internal matter that did not call for any external intervention. Raising the issue at the United Nations would have internationalized the conflict and created an opportunity for other countries to look upon Biafra as an independent state. The Nigerian government and its British ally well understood what could happen if Biafra had a chance to bring the conflict to the United Nations and often frustrated Biafra's efforts to do so.

The Nigerian government was also reluctant to indict Portugal at the United Nations due to racial considerations. Britain, Nigeria's major supporter in the conflict, advised against taking an approach that might be interpreted as racist by the international community. (86) The British argued that it would be hostile and discriminatory to single out Portugal at the United Nations when Tanzania, Gabon, Zambia, and Ivory Coast were known to have officially recognized Biafra as an independent country and to have provided arms to support the secession. Apart from racial considerations, condemning Portugal at the United Nations Security Council might not have changed Portugal's policy on the war. On the contrary, such a condemnation could have worsened Anglo-Portuguese relations. Anglo-Luso relations were already frosty because of the Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) issue. Portugal had not supported the British petition to the United Nations to impose sanctions on Rhodesia following Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom on November 11, 1965. Portugal had disagreed with Britain's desire to impose sanctions on Rhodesia because it did not support that action regardless of the country involved. (87)

When it became obvious that the Portuguese question would not be raised at the United Nations, the British government suggested that the Nigerian government should engage in strong anti-Portuguese propaganda across the whole of Africa through the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Britain's determination to shame Portugal through the OAU was not unconnected with Portugal's opposition to its desire to impose sanctions on Rhodesia. The British government's use of the OAU as an alternative platform for dealing with the conundrum of Portugal's support for Biafra was intended to shame the violently anti-Portuguese commonwealth countries--Tanzania and Zambia--that supported Biafra. (88) The Nigerian government was expected to raise the issue of Portugal's complicity in the war at the meeting of the OAU scheduled for February 1970. The OAU could not hold a full-scale meeting at the heads of mission level earlier than February because there was no machinery that could enable Nigeria to raise the issue effectively. As events turned out, the war ended in January 1970 and the debate about Portugal's involvement was brought to a close.


Portugal's role in the Nigeria-Biafra War was a source of apprehension for the Nigerian government until the war ended in January 1970. The Nigerian government strongly believed that Portugal's moral and material support to Biafra prolonged the conflict. Although Portugal consistently denied giving military aid to Biafra, it was implicated in the fact that Portuguese mercenaries were involved in organizing materiel for Biafra. Portugal also accorded Biafra treatment that amounted to de facto formal recognition under the United Nations Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked States. The doctrine of transit trade of landlocked states applies only to states that are recognized by the United Nations. Portugal was aware of that and still invoked the doctrine to defend its provision of transit facility for Biafra. The Nigeria-Biafra War lasted as long as it did because of the strategic role Portugal played. Portugal's offer of its land facilities in Lisbon and its African colonies for Biafran use weakened the potency of the Nigerian government's blockade, which might otherwise have forced Biafra's early surrender.

Portugal's support for Biafra garnered it no obvious advantage and it was uncertain whether Portugal would have been the first to recognize Biafra if Biafra won the war. Its colonial policy in Africa provides an interesting window into the international dimensions of the Nigeria-Biafra War because the war broke out at a time when the African continent was undergoing decolonization and Portugal had been criticized for its paternalistic dictatorship and its reluctance to negotiate a peaceful handover to African leaders. In addition to using the crisis to divert the attention of African countries, especially Nigeria, from supporting liberation movements in Portuguese territories in Africa, Portugal saw the war as a platform for turning Africans' argument about the primacy of the right to self-determination against them and to buttress Portugal's thesis that independence had been given to African states too early.


(1.) "Nigeria: The Secession of Eastern Nigeria: Memorandum from the British High Commissioner in Lagos to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs," July 7, 1967, File 25/232, National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surry (hereafter National Archives).

(2.) "Great Powers and Imperialist Involvement in the Biafra/Nigeria Conflict," August 29, 1969, File 1973-5005, The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives (hereafter PCCA), Toronto.

(3.) "The Biafran Illusion: The Fate and Future of Non-Igbo Peoples in the Eastern States of Nigeria," May 23, 1968, File 1973-5005-9-3, PCCA.

(4.) J. Isawa Elaigwu, "The Nigerian Civil War and the Angolan Civil War: Linkages between Domestic Tension and International Alignments," Journal of Asian and African Studies 12, nos. 1-4 (1977): 221.

(5.) Alexis Heraclides, "Secessionist Minorities and External Involvement," International Organization 44, no. 3 (1990): 348. See also David Williams, "Nigeria: One or Many," African Affairs 68, no. 272 (1969): 247.

(6.) Lasse Heerten and A Dirk Moses, "The Nigeria-Biafra War: Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide," Journal of Genocide Research 16, nos. 2-3 (2014): 176.

(7.) Elaigwu, "The Nigerian Civil War," 222.

(8.) John J. Stremlau, The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 235.

(9.) C. L. Sulzberger, "Foreign Affairs: The Third Illusion," New York Times, November 8, 1967,45.

(10.) Paul M. Whitaker, "The Revolutions of 'Portuguese' Africa," Journal of Modern African Studies 8, no. 1 (1970): 15.

(11.) James Duffy, "Portugal in Africa," Foreign Affairs 39 (1961): 485-486.

(12.) G. J. Eddy Gouraige, "United Nations and Decolonization," The Black Scholar 5 (1974): 19.

(13.) Armindo Monteiro, "Portugal in Africa," Journal of the Royal African Society 38 (1939): 267.

(14.) Eduardo C. Mondlane, "The Kitwe Papers: Race Relations and Portuguese Colonial Policy with Special Reference to Mozambique," Africa Today 15, no. 1 (1968): 13.

(15.) Monteiro, "Portugal in Africa," 267.

(16.) Ibid., 271.

(17.) Alan K. Smith, "Antonio Salazar and the Reversal of Portuguese Colonial Policy," Journal of African History 15, no. 4 (1974): 654.

(18.) Henry Kamm, "Portugal's Absurd Empire: Portugal Has Not Just Failed Her Africans," New York Times, August 18, 1974.

(19.) Marvine Howe, "Chased from Africa, Adrift and Jobless in Portugal," New York Times, March 7, 1976, PEL

(20.) Monteiro, "Portugal in Africa," 272.

(21.) D. M. Friedenberg, "Portugal in Africa: The Blind Beating the Lame," Africa Today 8 (1961): 5-6.

(22.) Smith, "Ant6nio Salazar and the Reversal of Portuguese Colonial Policy," 654.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Duffy, "Portugal in Africa," 486.

(25.) C. L. Sulzberger, "Foreign Affairs: Isolation Won't Pay in Portugal," New York Times, January 6, 1962, 18.

(26.) Smith, "Ant6nio Salazar and the Reversal of Portuguese Colonial Policy," 654.

(27.) "Moral Victory for Africa," New York Times, August 2, 1963, 26.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) William Minter, "Allies in Empire: Part III: American Foreign Policy and Portuguese Colonialism," Africa Today 17, no. 4 (1970): 34.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) See Antonia Costa Pinto and Stewart Lloyd-Jones, The Last Empire: Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization (Bristol: Intellect Ltd, 2004); Miguel Bandeira Jer6nimo and Antonio Costa Pinto, The Ends of European Colonial Empires: Cases and Comparisons (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

(34.) "Moral Victory for Africa," 26.

(35.) Mondlane, "The Kitwe Papers: Race Relations and Portuguese Colonial Policy," 18.

(36.) Duffy, "Portugal in Africa," 486.

(37.) See T. Hodgkin, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (London: Frederick Muller, 1956).

(38.) Kamm, "Portugal's Absurd Empire."

(39.) See Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London: Pimlico, 2005).

(40.) "Germany Returns Namibian Skulls Used for Experiments," VOA, October 3, 2011.

(41.) Sulzberger, "Foreign Affairs: The Third Illusion," 45.

(42.) Ibid.

(43.) John de St. Jorre, The Nigerian Civil War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972), 219.

(44.) Sulzberger, "Foreign Affairs: The Third Illusion," 45.

(45.) See Norrie Macqueen, The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire (New York: Longman, 1997).

(46.) Alfred Friendly, "Nigerian Leader Accuses Lisbon of Aid to Rebels," New York Times, October 31, 1967, 6.

(47.) J. B. Johnston, "Memorandum on Portugal to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office," December 18, 1969, File FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(48.) T. L. Hughes, "Research Memorandum: Western European and Canadian Attitudes Towards Nigerian-Biafran Conflict," August 1, 1968, Department of State Telegram Pol 27, RG59, Department of State Central Files, Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files, Biafra-Nigeria 1967-1969, Political Affairs (hereafter RG59, Biafra-Nigeria), National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA), Washington, DC.

(49.) Ibid.

(50.) Friendly, "Nigerian Leader Accuses Lisbon of Aid to Rebels."

(51.) "Arms Aid to Biafra," January 27, 1968, Department of State Telegram Pol 27, hereafter RG59, Biafra-Nigeria, NARA.

(52.) Ibid. Robert Goldstein, whose firm had been handling publicity for US film actors, said that Biafra was the first foreign client his firm had handled. He committed himself to the Biafran project because of the mass starvation in the blockaded territory of Biafra. Goldstein planned to raise $1 million in Los Angeles in March 1968 by using the talents of many top movie stars. He named the scheme "A Bond Drive for Biafra." He later abandoned the project when Robert P. Smith, an official of the American Embassy in Lagos, told him in a meeting in Washington on February 14, 1968 that his activities with the Biafran government were causing embarrassment to the US government.

(53.) "Arms Aid to Biafra."

(54.) Hughes, "Research Memorandum: Western European and Canadian Attitudes Towards Nigerian-Biafran Conflict."

(55.) George Shepherd, "Civil Wars and the International Arms Traffic," Africa Today 14, no. 6 (1967): 5.

(56.) Hughes, "Research Memorandum: Western European and Canadian Attitudes Towards Nigerian-Biafran Conflict."

(57.) Consequences of the Nigerian Civil War, 25, March 28, 1968, Department of State Telegram Pol 27, hereafter RG59, Biafra-Nigeria, NARA.

(58.) "Biafra: Possible Additional American Citizen Participation in Airlift Operation," August 15, 1968, Department of State Airgram, Pol 27, hereafter RG59, Biafra-Nigeria, NARA.

(59.) Hughes, "Research Memorandum: Western European and Canadian Attitudes Towards Nigerian-Biafran Conflict."

(60.) Friendly, "Nigerian Leader Accuses Lisbon of Aid to Rebels."

(61.) Al J. Venter, Biafra's War, 1967-1970: A Tribal Conflict in Nigeria that Left a Million Dead (England: Helion and Company, 2016), 247.

(62.) Johnston, "Memorandum on Portugal to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office."

(63.) "1965 Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked States," accessed August 22, 2015,

(64.) J. B. Evarett, "Portugal/Nigeria: Memorandum to W. J. Watts of West African Department," August 27, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(65.) "Press Release Issued by the Federal Ministry of Information, Lagos," December 9, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(66.) "Nigeria: Portuguese Involvement: Telegram from the British High Commission, Lagos to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London," November 14, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(67.) "Press Release Issued by the Federal Ministry of Information, Lagos."

(68.) "Nigeria: Portuguese Involvement, Guidance Telegram No 228 from Stewart to Foreign and Commonwealth Office," December 12, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(69.) Ibid.

(70.) "Portuguese Policy on African Questions: Memorandum from British Embassy in Lisbon to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London," April 21, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(71.) Ibid.

(72.) Chinua Achebe, "Achebe on Biafra," Transition 36 (1968): 36.

(73.) Ibid.

(74.) Evarett, "Portugal/Nigeria."

(75.) "Nigeria: Portuguese Involvement, Guidance Telegram No 228."

(76.) Venter, Biafra's War, 247.

(77.) "Deterring Portuguese Assistance to the Republic of Biafra," August 20, 1967, Department of State, Airgram, Pol 27, hereafter RG59, Biafra-Nigeria, NARA.

(78.) Ibid.

(79.) Friendly, "Nigerian Leader Accuses Lisbon of Aid to Rebels," 6.

(80.) "Deterring Portuguese Assistance to the Republic of Biafra."

(81.) "Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British High Commission in Lagos," December 23, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

(82.) Friendly, "Nigerian Leader Accuses Lisbon of Aid to Rebels," 6.

(83.) Ibid.

(84.) "Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British High Commission in Lagos," December 23, 1969.

(85.) Ibid.

(86.) Ibid.

(87.) "Portuguese Policy on African Questions."

(88.) "Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British High Commission in Lagos," December 15, 1969, FCO 65/285, National Archives.

After teaching at the University of Toronto, ARUA OKO OMAKA joined the Department of History and Strategic Studies at Federal University, Ndufu Alike Ikwo, Nigeria. His contact address is
COPYRIGHT 2019 University Press of Florida
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Omaka, Arua Oko
Publication:Journal of Global South Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Mar 22, 2019
Next Article:Education and Empowered Citizenship in Mali.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters