To break the law in the glare of world publicity and keep one’s virtue is ticklish; to keep it up for a year and a half is downright impertinent. Yet 34 years ago, a mixed group of priests, missionaries, pilots, navigators, riggers, fitters, loadmasters, volunteers, idealists and general weirdos did exactly that.
They ran an illegal airline flying forbidden cargoes of food, and probably kept alive half a million African children who would otherwise have died. They flew unarmed rust buckets, usually on three out of four engines, from an offshore island into Africa, always at night, against flak from below and hunted by MiG fighters above.
They found and landed on a runway made from a strip of converted road, by floodlights that came on for eight seconds only, because of the MiGs above, and they took off again after being relieved of their vital cargo in pitch blackness. Some of them did two runs a night. They were crazy, illegal and marvellous.
In October 1960, Nigeria, the jewel in the crown of Britain’s African empire, achieved independence with the usual panoply and ceremony. Within a few months, things began to go slowly pear-shaped. By January 1966, five years of corruption, jobbery, election-rigging and inter-ethnic resentment had destroyed the heady optimism, and the Nigerian army struck in a coup d’etat.
This was followed in July by a second, far more violent, and then the pogroms began. In essence, Nigeria divided into three. In the north were the Hausas, Fulanis and Tivs, all Muslim. In the south-west were the Yorubas and in the south-east the Igbos. It was the Igbos, dubbed by one not very lovable British jobsworth “the Jews of Africa”, who took the brunt. They came from the south-east but had spread to every nook and cranny of the country.
The reason the British never introduced Indians to Nigeria to run small businesses, mend things and do the clerking jobs was the Igbos. The reason the Syrians and Lebanese were so sparse in Nigeria was the Igbos. They did all that. They worshipped education, studied hard, qualified, moved upwards. They started with a market stall and ended with a chain of shops. They began with a truck and finished with a haulage fleet. Naturally, all the others hated them, especially the Muslims.
Whether the second coup of 1966 really left 30,000 Igbos dead and three times that number with bits hacked off, or whether the figures were much smaller (the London version), the pogrom that followed the July coup was pretty foul. The Hausas did the killing; the Yorubas looted the property. The Igbos fled back to their south-eastern corner, about 1.8 million of them – destitute, angry and very panicky. They began to foment for separation. In May 1967, they seceded, calling themselves Biafra. By July it was civil war.
It was the blockade that really did it. The rebellious Igboland was surrounded by Nigeria to the north and west, Cameroon to the east and the sea to the south. Nigeria’s first act was to enforce a total blockade, including food.
Igboland was self-sufficient in starches but not in protein. Children need proportionately far more protein than adults. Eggs, fish, meat, milk all ran out. The children began to wither and die. The missionaries went home to Europe to appeal for help. But it was the media that blew the story wide open in June/July 1968.
Comfortable Europe and North America had never seen such pictures outside textbooks. The stick limbs, the belly bloated not with food but air, the black curls turned to russet frizz, and always those huge, bewildered, silently begging eyes.
Most people became compassionate. I knew just how armpit-deep my own government was in this obscenity, so I got angrier. And the churches got together. Relief committees sprang up all over, mostly faith-led. Presbyterian and Catholic rolled up sleeves and started to plan. High Tory and Tribune-devoted Trot agreed completely in the committees they co-chaired . . . Something must be done!
It was unprecedented then and remains unique to this day. Not famines, we have seen many since. But this was a man-created famine. Most are down to drought or crop failure. Others are the predictable by-products of war. This was mass starvation as an instrument of war, fully supported by the British government.
Even in wars, the relief of dying children is supported or at least tolerated by the combatants, welcomed when nature is the cause. Here, relief was banned by the incumbent Nigerian government which, though a military junta, had international law on its side.
I think today the agencies would all touch forelock (it is very PC to touch forelock). Back then, the churches and the freethinkers, without actually holding a seminar, just collectively said: “Bollocks, we’re going in anyway.”
Caritas Internationalis represented Rome, the World Council of Churches the Protestants. The Scandinavians unified into Nord Church Aid and organised the aircraft. The Portuguese agreed to lend their offshore colony, the island of Sao Tome. The whole effort coalesced into Joint Church Aid, which at once became Jesus Christ Airlines. Somehow, crazily, illegally, it worked.
Last April, a few of the survivors went back to Sao Tome, independent long since. A joint Danish/Channel 4 team made a documentary. It was strange to see the old-timers again. Few were spring chickens 34 years ago. Now, the arthritic knuckles will never hold a control column steady again: the rheumy eyes would not see a jungle airstrip come out of nowhere. But back then, they did it. They really did it. It is not given to very many to keep alive half a million children who would otherwise die.
Witness: Jesus Christ Airlines is on Channel 4, 23 February, at 8.05pm