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Nigeria: A veteran of war … and of international humanitarian law

19-06-2014 Interview

Professor Boniface Obinna Okere lectures on international humanitarian law and other subjects at the University of Nigeria in Enugu. During Nigeria's civil war, he was a young officer in the Biafran army. He talks about his experience with international humanitarian law and the ICRC.

Professor Okere is a member of the African Union International Law Commission, which drafts treaties on points of interest to African countries. He often advises on legal problems affecting Africa and on general principles of international law that concern all African countries.

Professor Okere, you now teach at the University of Nigeria, but is it true that you've also taught international humanitarian law to soldiers?

In the 1970s, I had the privilege of being invited to lecture on international humanitarian law at the Command and Staff College, one of the places in Nigeria where senior army officers are trained. Like every other country that has signed the Geneva Conventions, Nigeria has the obligation to spread knowledge of the rules and principles of international humanitarian law.

You also lived through Nigeria's civil war, also known as the Biafran war, as an officer in the Biafran army. Was international humanitarian law known and respected back then?

Before the civil war, if I recall correctly, there were about 11,000 men in the Nigerian army. As hostilities escalated, both sides recruited of course. I believe on the Biafran side we must have had close to half a million men under arms by various names, taking the militia and the regular army together. On the Nigerian side, there were three times that number, and they were hastily recruited men and officers who didn't receive much training.

But when the State of Biafra was declared, the head of State announced that the country would abide by all the international obligations of a State, and that it was seeking admission to the UN and to the Organisation of African Unity, as the African Union was then called. When war broke out, he declared that Biafra would comply with international law, including the Geneva Conventions governing hostilities.

I joined the army the week I graduated. We received about six weeks' training at the military school. The emphasis was on the use of weapons, but we also learnt about the circumstances that led to the war and the secession of Biafra.

It was important for us to fight the war in a civilized and humane manner. This message was passed to officers at the military school, but without going into the details of the Geneva Convention. But the substance of what the Conventions stipulated was passed on to the soldiers. By that, I mean the idea of waging war in a humane manner, respecting the basic principles of sparing civilians, the wounded and prisoners of war.

Did the soldiers obey these rules?

To a very large extent, yes. The war was not being fought just on the battlefield; it was also an ideological war, a war to win the minds of the people and a war to win over the international community. A war of propaganda, if you like. It would have weakened Biafra's case if Biafran troops had committed atrocities. So when Biafrans moved into the mid-west region, we went there not as the Biafran army but as the Mid-West Liberation Army. For us, it was a question not just of gaining territory, but also of winning the minds of the people. You couldn't do that while alienating them by committing hostile acts. We didn't want to be seen as an army of occupation.

When we captured federal troops, we were conscious of two things. Firstly, that we needed to show we were fighting a civilized war, and secondly that if we treated the captured troops badly then it was likely that our own captured soldiers would be treated badly. We complied with the laws of war. We had an appropriate, organized court system. Courts-martial existed, and on one occasion I even served as a prosecutor for breaches of the laws of war.

Did you encounter the Red Cross during the war?

I knew about the Red Cross. We saw them as attempting to ease suffering.

The two major suppliers of relief to Biafra were the Red Cross and a Catholic organization, Caritas. Without their intervention, the death toll from kwashiorkor, the malnutrition that ravaged infants in particular, would have been terrible.

Later we heard on the radio about efforts made by the Red Cross to secure an air corridor for the transit of food and medicines to Biafra, but the Nigerian government didn't allow it. Biafra was insisting on an air corridor, but the Nigerian troops wanted a land corridor. There was deadlock, but some relief organizations and some Europeans took risks to make sure that supplies were provided. Insufficient as they may have been, they were of immense relief.

Do you think that the Red Cross made a difference?

A lot of difference, a lot. In fact, without the Red Cross the suffering would have been much more devastating. I single out the Red Cross, as the scale of their operations was quite immense. Their help was greatly appreciated.


Photos

Professor Boniface Obinna Okere 

Professor Boniface Obinna Okere
/ CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC

An ICRC delegate visits prisoners of war in Biafran hands. 

Biafra conflict, June 1968.
An ICRC delegate visits prisoners of war in Biafran hands.
/ CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / A. Porchet / v-p-ng-n-00007-30

A Biafran Red Cross worker. 

Biafra conflict.
A Biafran Red Cross worker.
/ CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / M. Vaterlaus / v-p-ng-n-00051-33a

Delegates in front of the main building, ready to leave for Biafra. The young man on the right is Dr Hercog, who was killed during fighting near Okigwi on 30 September 1968. 

ICRC Headquarters, Geneva, September 1968.
Delegates in front of the main building, ready to leave for Biafra. The young man on the right is Dr Hercog, who was killed during fighting near Okigwi on 30 September 1968.
/ CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / v-p-ng-e-00367

A child receives vitamins from a Swedish Red Cross doctor. 

Biafra conflict. Nto-Primo refugee camp.
A child receives vitamins from a Swedish Red Cross doctor. The civil war and the blockade caused malnutrition and spread disease, both because of food shortages and because essential medicines were unavailable. In July 1968, the ICRC launched its largest aid operation since the Second World War, working in conjunction with numerous Red Cross Societies, governments, and international organizations, notably UNICEF, the World Council of Churches and OXFAM. Food aid saved the lives of many refugee children.
/ CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / M. Vaterlaus / v-p-ng-n-00061-27