Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Biafran war, and to mark the occasion the Irish Biafran community and their friends and supporters are organising a commemoration ceremony starting at 12pm at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin and moving to the GPO.

As well as honouring the dead of the Biafran war and famine of 1967 -70, the organisers will be protesting against continuing alleged human rights abuse in Biafra and supporting that region’s independence from Nigeria.

Biafra’ is a name that will bring back vivid memories for older Irish readers, evoking images of a terrible war in west Africa, and even more terrible famine in 1968, which appalled the world and had charity boxes rattling on the streets all over Ireland.

It coincided with protests on Vietnam and Northern Ireland. Church collections were made for the victims and Irish Catholic missionaries, especially the Holy Ghost Fathers, were active on the ground.

The 1967 war involved a push by the Biafran people, who are mainly Christian and from the Igbo tribe, to break away and create a separate country. Nigeria had been created by the colonial British colonists as a patchwork of different tribal regions and religions.

However, Nigeria is now a powerful, oil-rich country, and the idea of a breakaway Biafra will be a tough one to achieve. But Irish-based Biafrans are inspired by recent progress made by nationalist Scots and Catalans who are pushing for independence for their respective regions. 

Biafrans are also inspired by the Irish independence struggle and the example of 1916. ‘All we are looking for is what Irish have achieved from Britain’ said one Biafran activist  ‘which is full independence and an acknowledgement of past misdeeds.

When we see the pictures of the 1916 martyrs around Dublin, we are inspired.’ Last year, Irish-based Biafrans held a rally outside Dublin’s GPO.

Agitation about Biafra is still a tense issue in Nigeria, even if it is overshadowed by the Islamic insurgency of Boko Haram in the north of the country.

The main group campaigning for secession has been the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra(Massob), an avowedly peaceful group with a shadow Government in Exile. However, another group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), which is UK led, reinvigorated the Biafran cause in 2012.

biafra-protesters-690x450It created a radio station to champion the Biafran cause, Radio Biafra, which has been active around the world, including in Ireland. The various groups have often been beset with internal disputes which have hindered their secessionist efforts.

However, if anything intense agitation for Biafran secession has increased and in 2015, protests have erupted in cities across Nigeria’s south-east, which were confronted by the Nigerian police and army, with scores of people apparently killed. Last year, the federal government charged Biafran leader, Nnamdi Kanu with treasonable felony in the Federal High Court in Abuja

The original Biafran issue in 1967-1970 was not without controversy in the way that affected Irish opinion and officialdom.

While the Irish public responded with great support and sympathy to the plight of famine victims – the Evening Herald had a major help campaign- there was tension behind the scenes as Irish Government officials felt that the Irish Catholic missionaries on the ground in Biafra had become far too sympathetic to the Biafran case – and were exceeding their charity role.

While accepting that Catholic missionaries were bravely standing up for victims there and confronting the Nigerian authorities on human rights abuses, the Irish Government was also anxious not to antagonise the Government of Nigeria, in which there were many other Irish missionaries working (many of them not sympathetic to the breakaway Biafrans).


Indeed, the Biafran conflict brings home the huge depth of involvement of Irish Catholic missions in overseas projects, which is often forgotten now. There was a particular involvement in Nigeria which is why the then Irish Government did not want Catholic priests ‘siding’ with the separatists in Biafra in the 1967 war.

Ireland also didn’t want to offend the British Government which was supporting the Nigerian Government. This was very like what happened with the similar Bosnian conflict in the 1990s when Ireland went along with the non-intervention policy of the EU, led by the UK, so as not to upset the British with whom Ireland was then developing the Northern Ireland peace process.

However, the Irish missionaries, on the ground in Biafra, were too upset by what they saw to stay diplomatically neutral and the writer Frederick Forsyth was so impressed by their bravery that it inspired him to write novels about such heroics! Irish based Biafrans will be hoping to see some of that same spirit in Dublin tomorrow.