The ethnic Igbo-majority Eastern Region declared its independence on 30 May 1967, following a military coup, a counter-coup and what French diplomats described as “pogroms” of tens of thousands of Igbo living in northern Nigeria the previous year.
The attempt to break away led to a 32-month war, which was to see about between 500,000 and two million deaths from starvation caused by Nigeria’s blockade of the breakaway region.
Nigeria’s former colonial ruler, Britain, backed the Lagos government’s One-Nigeria policy, covertly providing weapons and military intelligence.
The US declared itself neutral, while the Soviet Union gave full support to the Nigerian government.
Although France – unlike allies Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire -- never recognised Biafra diplomatically, it backed what then president Charles de Gaulle called its “just and noble cause.”
De Gaulle saw the conflict as a means to weaken the “anglophone giant” of west Africa, which was surrounded by former French colonies closely aligned with Paris through a policy of defending French interests that would come to be known as Françafrique.
While French Foreign Affairs Minister Maurice Couve de Murville declared that his country was observing a “complete embargo”, the presidential palace’s notorious “Africa cell”, headed by the controversial Jacques Foccart, sent large quantities of arms to the Biafran side, taking care to keep the operation secret from the Quai d’Orsay.
The planes carrying the weapons had to pass through the airspace of several countries that opposed the process, prompting a complaint by Morocco, which had not granted them access.
They landed at Uli, “Africa’s busiest airport”, according to Biafra supporters. But it was in such a poor state that pilots flying for Nigeria, including South African mercenaries, sometimes mistook it for a stretch of road. Pilots recruited by Biafra were in the know and managed to bring 75 tonnes of rifles, assault rifles, bazookas, grenades and cannon in just 11 days in 1969, documents show.
Appeal for more weapons
But, with the Biafran side losing ground, Foccart’s men appealed for more.
Warning that the breakaway territory could fall “before the end of October ”, one of them Philippe Lettéron, wrote in a note now in the national archives and seen by RFI, “to take back control of the situation and have some hope of regaining the lost territory, a massive effort of at least 600 tonnes of arms and munitions would be needed in a very short space of time.”
Defeat did in fact come in January 1970 but not for want of French arms, as telegrams from the French embassy Lagos reported, notably when French expatriates in Port Harcourt, the region’s main port, notified it that the Bounty, hailing from Bordeaux, had broken the blockade and delivered weapons.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry did find out about the arms traffic and drew up an “inventory”, declassified at RFI’s request, in 1968.
It lists 16 Alouette and 12 T6-G helicopters and two planes for training pilots, delivered before the war, and two B26 bombers delivered after the independence declaration.
Support for the Biafran cause did not prevent France selling some arms to the Lagos government, mainly parts of orders placed before the war broke out.
And planemaker Sud-Aviation, then headed by Maurice Papon who was later convicted of war crimes during the Nazi occupation, lobbied to be allowed to sell helicopters, while sending a note the Africa cell, now declassified at RFI’s request, advocating “secret backing” through the supply of mercenaries to Biafra, to guarantee France a “privileged position” in an independent Biafra where high-quality, low-sulphur oil had recently been discovered.
Many French mercenaries
In fact, a number of mercenaries, many of them French, had been in the area since at least five months before the declaration of independence, as ambassador Marc Barbey had been informed by French nationals in Port Harcourt and a Soviet diplomat.
But Barbey, either believing or pretending to believe that they were working for the Lagos government, discussed their presence with Nigerian military leader Colonel Yakubu Gowon, urging him to refrain from recruiting French citizens.
Gowon warned the diplomat against any action that might threaten Nigeria’s territorial integrity but Barbey told his superiors that “France is certainly not the target” of the warning, since it was Israel that was sending mercenaries to the territory.
Once the war started, the US was alarmed to see a French crew fly a B26 bomber into rebel territory, leading the French Foreign Affairs Ministry to discover that three American-built bomber were there, two of them having been flown in from an airbase at Creil, near Paris.
More arms smuggling came to light when a plane that had formerly belonged to Air France exploded in Bissau due to the munitions it was carrying.
The most notorious of the French mercenaries, Rolf Steiner, a former Hitler Youth member who joined the French Foreign Legion, formed a 3,000-strong brigade that became the elite corps of the Biafran army.
But he and most of the other mercenaries left before the final defeat.
“After departure of Rolf Steiner and his comrades, there are only three European combatants with the Biafrans, two French and one English,” French Ambassador to Gabon Maurice Delauney, a Foccart loyalist, reported in a telegram on 15 November 1968.
Not all francophone countries in Africa sided with Biafra.
Senegal sent a diplomatic envoy to Enugu, the Biafran capital, with the hopes of convincing the separatists to backpedal. And landlocked Niger, which depends on Nigeria for its access to the sea, went further. It played a key role in the transfer of Belgian and Swiss arms supplies. Weapons were flown in on Sabena flights and held in storage in the Niger presidential palace before being sent by lorry across the border to Kanu, French cables indicate.
The war dragged on until January 1970 when a young Nigerian officer, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo announced on Radio Biafra that the conflict was officially over.
Obasanjo became Nigeria’s head of state in 1976 and again in 1999.