What SJP must learn from Biafra activists

This guest blog is written by GW student Scott LaRochelle.

While humanitarian problems often require political solutions, politics often cause self-inflicted wounds to humanitarian causes, specifically those of student activists. Student activists shapes the narratives of the issues they take up, so much so that student protests such as the Kent State Massacre and Tienimen Square became pivotal moments in the war in Vietnam and the Chinese struggle for human rights. In the classroom, students are exposed to topics and schools of thought that receive little attention outside of academia, topics such as Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War. Combine this with the organizational infrastructure of a college campus, and the formation of student activist groups becomes a foregone conclusion. In the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam, civil rights, and Biafra inspired students to mobilize and descent in the pursuit of justice. Today, students take to the streets and social media to fight for LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, and Palestine. Students protests have demonstrated the capacity to affect change, and therefore must be taken seriously.

Impassioned by the starvation, suffering, and slaughter occurring in Biafra at the hands of the Nigerian military in the 1967-70 Nigeria-Biafra war, college students and Peace Corps volunteers came together to raise awareness for the plight of Biafra, forming American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive. Today, college students across the country protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine, calling for University divestment as a means to pressure Israel towards a favorable resolution to the conflict. The American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive (ACKBA) struggled, in part due to shifts in its own rhetoric and political views that ultimately alienated the institutions they sought to convince, along with some of their own members. Today, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is the single largest student-activist group advocating for Palestine’s political rights. However, the rhetoric and politics people associate with the SJP movement threatens to undermine the group’s larger efforts, dooming them to the same fate of ACKBA.

Founded in 1967, ACKBA made up the largest and most prominent American activist group dedicated to raising awareness of the mass slaughter and deliberate starvation of the Igbo people during the Nigerian Civil War. According to Brian McNeil, “The American Committee stated that its purpose was ‘to save the people of Biafra from the threat of genocide ‘by promoting and conducting ‘a general campaign of advertising in all legal and acceptable media’” (McNeil 318). At first, ACKBA’s sought to invoke sympathy for the plight of the starving men, women, and children in Biafra through protests, pamphlets, and telethons (McNeil 319). Their calls for humanitarian intervention by the US and UN meant to invoke sympathy for those suffering in Nigeria and challenged these bodies to act in accordance with the UN Deceleration of Human Rights, hardly a controversial argument. Yet despite successes in raising awareness and relief, ACKBA struggled to create tangible peace within Biafra.

As the members of ACKBA became frustrated with the lack of humanitarian response from the United States and United Nations, they resorted to more and more controversial means. ACKBA began to publicly demand that Biafra be recognized as an independent state, declaring Nigeria’s aim of destroying Biafra’s nationhood a form of genocide, and insisting that the political recognition and support of Biafra as a sovereign state would end the starvation and massacre that tormented the Igbo people (McNeil 318, 319).  At the time, only a handful of countries in the world recognized Biafra as a sovereign state. The decision to intertwine political action and humanitarian relief into the group’s demands moved ACKBA from humanitarian advocates to political activists, raising politically sticky issues that involved questions of state sovereignty and the role of the UN in interstate conflicts (McNeil 319). This essentially made the aims of ACKBA incompatible with the politics of the UN, and called for the United States to intervene in a interstate conflict during the hight of the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam (McNeil 320).

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue every bit as complex as the Biafra crisis, dominates the arena of campus activism. Students for Justice in Palestine, a more or less centrally unified front against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, spans across 189 college campuses nationwide, uniting students of various faiths, backgrounds, and ethnicities. The National Students for Justice in Palestine, an “informal network” of SJP organizations nationwide, describes itself as a “young, intersectional social justice movement” that seeks to promote “Palestinian freedom and equality” by advocating for universities to divest from industries complicit in the occupation of Palestine (NationalSJP.org). However, the SJP movement has become notorious for its contentious, often inflammatory rhetoric. While the phrase “Palestinian freedom and equality” in itself is a controversial statement in US political life, the SJP entrenches itself into a different political discourse by comparing Israel to Apartheid South Africa, the Jim-Crow South, and Nazi Germany (Anti-Defamation League). The hardline anti-Israel stance taken by SJP, accompanied by their flamethrower rhetoric, further polarizes their audience over an already divisive topic. This rhetoric reflects a shift away from constructive discourse towards hardline ideology, the same shift that handicapped ACKBA in the fight to save the Igbo people.

It goes without saying that the Nigerian Civil War and Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different. The Nigerian Civil War was an intrastate conflict which arose from ethnic tensions as the result of indiscriminately placing multiple different peoples into arbitrarily drawn borders. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict invokes deep religious and ideological divides, along with geopolitical realities that make intervention in Palestine much more complicated than Biafra. But the uphill battle for humanitarianism and the desire to protect human rights unite ACKBA and SJP.  SJP can still learn from the mistakes of ACKBA if they wish to be successful in promoting peace and freedom for Palestine. The far-left ideological rhetoric of the group from its more extreme members only serves to antagonize those who they claim they wish to work with. I firmly believe the vast majority of students who seek to promote “justice for Palestine” are reasonable people who agree that solutions must be achieved through a peaceful, nonviolent means. However the contentious rhetoric associated with the SJP movement drags their message away from humanitarianism and into the bottomless pit of political dogfighting, which seldom produces tangible results.

McNeil describes the humanitarian and political realities of Biafra as a Gordian Knot, forever intertwined (328). This is also the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However the purpose of humanitarianism activism is to unite people behind a common belief of natural, inalienable rights. And for this reason, if SJP is to avoid the mistakes of ACKBA, it must constantly strive to argue a positive message of humanitarian responsibility to our fellow human beings to put political pressure on the powers that be. SJP won’t affect change through their current inflammatory rhetoric, and they should learn from ACKBA.

Scott La Rochelle is a sophomore and economics major at the George Washington University. His email is larochelle@gwmail.gwu.edu



“About NJSP.” National Students for Justice in Palestine. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nationalsjp.org/>.

Brian McNeil (2014) ‘And starvation is the grim reaper’: the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive and the genocide question during the Nigerian civil war, 1968–70, Journal of Genocide Research, 16:2-3, 317-336.

“Students for Justice in Palestine.” Anti-Defamation League. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <https://www.adl.org/education/resources/profiles/students-justice-palestine>.