DECEMBER 4, 1969
Nigeria-Biafra Tragedy: Any Hope?
AN ADDRESS BY Dr. E. H. Johnson,
MODERATOR OF THE PRESBYTERIAN
CHURCH IN CANADA, AND VICE-CHAIRMAN
CHAIRMAN The President,
H. Ian Macdonald
Last Friday, the newspapers carried reports of a 70-minute meeting which had taken place late on a cold November afternoon--Thursday, November 20th. The meeting was symbolic in a number of ways, but three aspects deserve particular consideration today.
In the first place, the meeting represented a continuation of the ongoing relationship of church and state, for it involved a discussion between Prime Minister Trudeau and Dr. E. H. Johnson in his capacity as Vice-chairman of Canairelief. In the second place, it represented the paradox that so often emerges between politics and people, when the individual becomes squeezed in the tight vice of bureaucracy and our democratic institutions. Thirdly, and above all, I would imagine that the conversation revolved about a simple, but eternal, question: what value do we attach to a single human life? That is the question to which all others must be subservient, that is the question which explains why Dr. Johnson is so deeply preoccupied with Nigeria-Biafra, and that is the question which links the first two aspects together: the church and state, on the one hand, politics and people, on the other hand.
Today, the press is filled with reports of the vacant pew and social philosophers describe contemporary society as "the post-Christian era". Some churches employ the services of the public relations man to improve their image and all attempt to build a bridge over the generation gap. Yet, the tireless efforts of Dr. Johnson and other churchmen clergy and laity--to relieve the suffering in Biafra is evidence enough of the primary and essential role of the church: the maintenance of the highest standard of human concern.
Dr. Johnson and his colleagues have demonstrated that there is a continuing place for the individual, in a free society, to mobilize human concern in a programme of action. At the time of that conversation to which I referred, the House of Commons was busily debating the technicalities of international law, the constitutional niceties of recognition of Nigeria or Biafra, and the political hazards of daylight flights into Biafrian-held territory. While recognizing the complex web of international law and order, we can also insist that humanity must come first and that individuals must forever crusade to relieve human misery.
Some may ask: why Biafra and not Nigeria, or Viet Nam, or the Middle East or, for that matter, the Canadian Arctic? The fact remains, and I suspect our speaker would say, that it matters not because people are more important than politics. It may be difficult for the individual to know how to stop Nigerians and Biafrans from the senseless idiocy of murdering each other, but he can come to the rescue of the innocent victims of megalomania. This is what Dr. Johnson and Canairelief are doing and thank God for them. Recent disclosures of the massacres in Viet Nam have made a mockery of the judgment at Nuremberg, at the very time Canadians have been steadily giving life, sometimes at the price of their own lives, to starving Biafrans.
A brief review of Dr. E. H. Johnson's career makes it clear that his work in Canairelief is but a chapter in a consistent life story. Born in Montreal, he graduated from McGill University with the gold medal in mathematics and physics. He studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and did graduate studies at New College, Edinburgh and the University of Berlin.
In 1935, he was appointed by the General Board of Missions to overseas service in Manchuria where he served until 1941, when forced to withdraw by the Japanese aggression. Then, for five years, he was Secretary for Missionary Education of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and, from 1947-54, General Secretary of the Student Volunteer Movement for Christian Missions, based in New York City.
However, his international church statesmanship has flourished mainly since 1954 when he became Overseas Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, with responsibility for the church's overseas missions. This work has taken him around the world many times to the church's continuing battleground--the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Japan and Formosa, and to numerous assignments in the World Council of Churches.
In much of this work, he has been joined by his charming wife, whom we welcome today. Mrs. Johnson was born in Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the Ohio Wesleyan University and completed Nursery Training in Boston--a form of American investment in Canada about which not even the most ardent nationalist dare complain.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I suggested that the issue before us today was the value of a single human life. It is a pleasure to call upon Dr. E. H. Johnson, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and Vice-chairman of Canairelief, to talk about the future of thousands of lives. His subject: "Nigeria-Biafra Tragedy: Any Hope?"
I am delighted to have the opportunity to address this Club on the Nigeria-Biafra situation and what we in Canada are doing about it, both in trying to promote peace and to give relief, because I believe this is one of the most important concerns now before the Canadian people.
A few weeks ago, when I passed through London, I was interviewed on The World at One, one of the most widely heard news programmes of the BBC. The interviewer, a hard-nosed type, with good blunt questions talked with me for a few minutes about the situation generally, and then started the interview. "I am glad," he said, "to have with us, today, someone who can talk on the Nigeria-Biafra situation. We have all been greatly disturbed by reports that thousands are starving to death, and then we hear that the reports are all propaganda and that nobody is starving at all so that we are completely confused, and we would like to know what the real facts are. I am glad to be able to present to you, today, a man who has just come from Biafra, one who has absolutely impeccable credentials, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada." And then he put me on the air.
When I returned to Canada I ran into a good bit of criticism in talking with groups here and told them tale story of my BBC interview. "I may be impeccable in Britain," I said, "but here in Canada there is a great deal of pecking."
It is natural that in a matter of this kind on which there has been very contradictory information, there should be criticism, and here in Canada, as in Britain, people are interested in getting hard facts.
Those of us who have been deeply involved in the relief effort on both the Nigeria and Biafra sides are, of course, more concerned than the public generally to get hard and accurate information, because the relief effort is carried on at great cost. We in the airlift have had twenty-five crewmen killed because of the difficulty of the flights. For this reason, I, personally, have made it my business to go into Biafra frequently because I wanted to know exactly what was happening. I did not want to be involved in a relief effort that was not meeting a real human need.
This is an issue in which we must avoid all too common emotional judgments and try to take a cool and rational look at facts which can be secured and are known to people who are in touch with both the Nigerian and Biafran sides. It is also an issue in which we must be careful to avoid partisan interpretations and activities. The final decisions in the conflict must be made by the Africans themselves, and we who are participating in relief, and in seeking to promote peaceful settlement, should not let ourselves become involved in a partisan way on one side or the other of the conflict.
I myself was involved in Nigeria for some twelve years before the war began in overseeing the diverse activities of our Church's overseas programme, which was started mostly in Eastern Nigeria, the area in which Biafra is located, but extended also to Lagos, the Federal capital, and Ibadan, the university city in the west. Through these mission contacts I had become quite familiar with the country and was well acquainted with many of the leading political figures who now are the leaders on both sides of the conflict. For this reason, we in the Presbyterian Church in Canada felt that we had a very special responsibility to do everything in our power to promote peaceful settlement. Because we had been involved in hospital work and schools, we were very much aware of the terrible needs of food and of medicine, and felt we should do everything in our power to provide help in order that the children and other innocent civilians should be able to survive during the period of blockade.
At this time we need accurate facts and clear thinking so that we can identify the real question the conflict poses for us. It is not whether we support Federal Nigeria or Biafra, but whether we can take a non-partisan position and support a peaceful settlement which recognizes the rights and concerns of both sides of the conflict.
The war has now gone on for two and a half years and constitutes perhaps the major disaster area in the world today. It is estimated that more lives have been lost in the NigeriaBiafra war than in both the Viet Nam and Middle East wars during the same period. Conservative estimates approved by an investigating team of U.S. experts, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, by U.N.I.C.E.F. and by the church bodies who are deeply involved in relief work on the ground, agree that some two million people have died, most because of starvation. The war has been vastly destructive to the economy and has set the country back in a way that would take many years of normal economy to restore. In spite of great suffering the end of the war is not in sight. While Biafran supplies of food and arms are dwindling, the morale is good and the numbers on that side are much larger than would appear when one looks at a map which shows Biafra as only a very small percentage of the total Nigerian territory, and progressively decreasing.
During the past year, we in Canada have been very active in the programmes of relief, for Nigeria as well as for Biafra, but a great deal more has been heard about the Biafran relief because the blockade has necessitated the night airlift and this has been heroic and spectacular. Canairelief planes have established a magnificent record since January 23, 1969, when they began flights. Up to the present time they have completed 524 flights and delivered a total of 8,329 tons of urgently needed food and medical supplies. We have lost one plane and a crew of four who were killed when that plane crashed. The reports which come to us daily indicate that last night our planes completed five flights and took in a total of seventy-nine tons of supplies.
There has been a great deal of international talk about the possibility of daylight flights, and we in Canairelief are fully informed about the detail of these talks. We ourselves have been involved in conversations seeking a workable formula for daylight flights because we know how hazardous the night flights are, both because of anti-aircraft fire and bombers and other military hazards and, also, the intrinsic difficulties of night flights into a small jungle airport without radar and other normal flight aids.
I myself have experienced something of the hazards of these flights, having been into Biafra four times this year. My last flight was in early August, one week after one of our Canairelief planes had crashed. As usual, we felt our way through the overcast to Uli airstrip, but had a fairly safe flight and came out with nothing more than a bullet lodged in one of the engine cowls, which had hit the plane when we were at four thousand feet gaining altitude on the return flight. Perhaps more dangerous than the guns and bombs were the hazards of weather. Sitting in the small jump seat in the cockpit behind the pilot one sensed this as the pilots carefully felt their way down through cloud and low ceiling, flying completely by instruments, with the aid of a weak radio beacon from the narrow landing strip, and having the ground lights turned on only twenty seconds before the plane actually touched the runway. The pilots and crews have performed a heroic achievement in carrying out over 500 flights under these conditions.
The Biafran authorities have been under severe criticism by the world press, and I am sorry to say by our Canadian Government also, for not allowing daylight flights. The actual fact is that, on many occasions, General Ojukwu has stated that Biafra is ready to have daylight flights if a formula of flights can be set up which does not endanger basic security. The particular daylight flight proposals which have been turned down are ones which would have been difficult for any of the relief organizations to accept because they allowed the relief operation to become mixed up in the same air corridors as the military operation and this would have made it very difficult to control as a relief airlift.
I expect that you, along with other Canadians, are interested in the response of the Canadian government to relief needs. Canairelief has made requests to the Canadian government, one, only a few days ago, asking their support for this massive relief airlift. We pointed out that other governments have supported their voluntary relief organizations, that, specifically, the American, West German, Dutch, and Scandinavian governments have all done so. All of these are the governments of respectable, careful nations equally concerned with Canada to maintain a neutral position, but they have been moved by humanitarian considerations to take an action which does have some risks. We have pointed out to the Canadian government that to assist Federal Nigeria by aid and relief programmes, and not to assist Biafra, is to support one side in a civil war and to depart from the neutrality which our government claims is the basis of their policy. We have reason to feel that Mr. Trudeau and some of his advisers are sympathetic to our request and hope to have a favourable response before Christmas.
People rightly raise the key question about the prospects for peaceful settlement of the war. When one faces the question of how to move towards peace, one feels a little like the stranger who was lost in southern Ireland and asked the old farmer how to go to Dublin. The Irishman replied: "If I wanted to go to Dublin, I wouldn't start from here." If one is concerned about peace, this is a bad moment from which to start. There have already been a number of formal peace negotiations which have not been successful, probably because they were used more for propaganda purposes than for serious conversation and negotiation. It is encouraging that preparations are now underway for another series of talks in Ethiopia under the chairmanship of the Emperor of Ethiopia, in the latter part of this month. Those of us who have watched the war, and know the suffering on both sides hope that the long continuation of the war will lead both sides to a negotiation which will succeed in finding a constructive plan for peace.
Perhaps the most hopeful prospect for peace is in events which bring increasing pressure on both sides to make a more intensive search for ways to end the war. On the Biafran side there has long been a desire to reach a settlement because the blockade has imposed terrible suffering on the people, and they have believed from the beginning that the war had to end in conversation, and the sooner such conversations could take place the better. On the Nigerian side, the war did not cause too much suffering or hardship until recent weeks. Now the oil production has been seriously cut and the money from oil royalties which has helped to finance the war is reduced at a time when the military activity must be increased. There is reason to believe that a failure to end war soon could lead to serious political tensions and dissensions within the Nigerian governing group. Events of this kind may force both sides to more flexible negotiations which could lead towards a settlement.
Surely no future course could be more harmful than a prolonged attempt to end the war by military means. For Biafra it would be a disaster because of the further suffering and loss by death of their children and multitudes of innocent civilians. For Nigeria, the war is costly because it is gradually eroding the great promise which Nigeria had when it became independent in 1960, of being the strong and stable country of Africa giving leadership to the whole of that continent. The longer the war goes on the more Nigeria becomes re-colonialized, with commitments to Britain and Russia and other countries which support her in the war. The continuation of the war is leading to the increasing involvement and influence of the USSR in Nigerian affairs. It is also leading to serious tensions between top political leaders on the Nigerian side. The continued attempt at a military solution could only be at the expense of leaving a major area of the country largely desolated by war and its aftermath and its people alienated from their brethren. A military solution of the conflict would be a backward step for Africa because it would establish a precedent which one hopes Africa does not need to see, that is, that a government can do anything it wants to a minority within its bounds, in order to maintain a particular type of political structure. The war is a disaster for the world because Nigeria had promise of being the great and hopeful leader of Africa and one of the great countries of the world, and with a military solution, would begin the next phase of its national life by establishing by force what should be established by negotiation. While many Nigerians and many others in Europe justify the Nigerian war by referring to the American civil war, one hopes that the world has advanced in solving differences beyond that tragic conflict in North America one hundred years ago.
Many voices are saying rightly that this is an affair for Africans to decide without the intervention of outside groups. The Organization of African Unity has taken this position very strongly, yet at the same does not protest the intervention of Britain and Russia which is the decisive factor in Nigerian strength. Those who want to help the situation, should maintain that this is a decision to be made in Nigeria by Africans, and outside powers should withdraw arms support from both sides.
In ending I would say one word about our part in Canada. I believe we continue to have a responsibility in two fields. First of all, in relief. The Canadian people have done a tremendous job in supporting Canairelief and that support is growing day by day. May I assure you that in spite of contradictory information the starvation situation has been very bad and we should be supplying twice as much food and medicine as is now getting into the country in order to provide the minimum amount people need. Secondly, we have a contribution to make in terms of peace. Our Canadian government could play an important role in giving leadership to many nations of Europe and of Africa that would like to promote peaceful settlement but are unwilling to take the leadership risks themselves. Within recent months we know from our associated groups of Joint Church Aid that the United States, West Germany, Holland, the Scandinavian countries, and some of the African countries would have supported efforts to set up peaceful negotiations if Canada had given leadership. We should continue to pressure our Canadian Government to play a bolder and more creative role in seeking to encourage negotiation talks through the United Nations or through special conversations called for this purpose. Here is a place where concern for humanity should take precedence over all other considerations.
Dr. Johnson was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club by the Very Rev. E. M. Howse.