Conversation with Sir Michael Aaronson on Biafra

This is an interview carried out by Victoria Avis with Michael Aaronson, who will be speaking at the Remembering Biafra conference on International Humanitarianism, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, April 20, at 1:30pm.

How would you describe your major fields of scholarly interest?

I am interested in the motivations and consequences of international intervention: why powerful states intervene in the way that they do in situations of conflict and crisis, and what the consequences are – both intended and unintended. I deliberately define ‘intervention’ in broad terms, to include not only the coercive military intervention that has received so much attention over the last 25 years, but all the various ways in which outside actors seek to influence the course of events before, during, and after crisis. In other words I include the whole range of what have been characterised as the three ‘D’s: defence, diplomacy, and development – and a few other things beside. A key part of this is examining the interveners as much as the intervened upon, but also understanding and analysing the differences of perception and understanding between those who are on the receiving end of intervention and those who practise it.

At the University of Surrey we have established cii – The Centre for International Intervention – to provide a forum in which researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners can engage on these issues:

I am also interested in the study and practice of humanitarianism. This stems from my practical experience of humanitarian action and my passionate belief in humanitarian principles, which goes back to my time as a relief worker in the Nigerian Civil War at the end of the 1960s.

What got you interested in Biafra? 

My 26 months as a relief worker in Nigeria shaped the future course of my life, but came about almost by accident. During my time as an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford, reading Philosophy and Psychology, I had become aware of the crisis unfolding in Nigeria from the increasingly frequent coverage of events there in the UK press. Some of this was the result of publicity generated by The Save the Children Fund, which in July 1968 had sent one of the first UK relief teams to Nigeria/Biafra. Like many in the UK at that time I wanted to help, but it was a stroke of pure luck that Save the Children was recruiting relief workers just as I was graduating; following an interview in London I was sent to Nigeria in August 1969 to join a team working on the front line of the conflict. I was acutely aware of how little I knew about Nigeria and my learning curve was certainly very steep.

I was initially contracted for 6 months and was due to return to academia the following year to undertake a Masters. But I became completely committed to the relief action and postponed my return home a number of times, eventually abandoning the Masters and ending up as Save the Children’s Field Co-Ordinator in the massive relief and rehabilitation programme that followed the end of hostilities in January 1970. After my return home I joined the UK Diplomatic Service of which I was a member for 16 years, including a posting to Nigeria from 1981-3 at the British High Commission in Lagos. I returned to Save the Children in 1988, initially for 7 years as Overseas Director and subsequently for 10 years as Director General.

What specific topics will you be talking about when you come to the conference?

I have already written of my experience of the Nigerian Civil War in the context of contemporary discussions of so-called “humanitarian intervention” (Aaronson M. (2013) ‘The Nigerian Civil War and ‘Humanitarian Intervention’’. in Everill B, Kaplan J (eds.) The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 176-196.)

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My central argument in that piece was that the relief action became a proxy for any meaningful intervention that might have brought a speedier end to the conflict and prevented much human suffering and death. In particular there was a shocking lack of any effective attempt to mediate between the two sides, with instead a rather half-hearted external political and military engagement – almost as if the powers who potentially could have done something just hoped the problem would go away of its own accord.

I also explored some of the humanitarian dilemmas facing agencies such as Save the Children during the conflict. In particular I assumed (wrongly, as my research for this conference has shown) that they were obliged to take a conscious decision to work only on the Nigerian side of the front line as the Federal Government would not allow agencies to be both in Biafra and Nigeria. I thought this might provide an interesting case study of what ‘impartiality’ and ‘neutrality’ mean in practice for aid agencies working in an internal conflict. In fact, as I shall show, Save the Children did not have any real choice in the matter; nevertheless the dilemmas they faced were real enough and I shall attempt to illustrate how they dealt with them.

What lessons might be learned from the Nigeria-Biafra war (or the response to that war)?

The war was an early contemporary illustration of the truth that humanitarian problems need political solutions. Much has been written about whether the relief operation prolonged the conflict. It almost certainly did, but that does not mean that the humanitarian response was somehow misplaced. What it underlines is that humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action if human suffering in armed conflict is to be relieved. Sadly, the response to many similar situations over the subsequent 45 years shows that the lesson has not yet been learned.

The war also marked a turning point in the relationship between external powers, international humanitarian agencies, and newly independent African states. The ‘humanitarian imperative’ collided with the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and raised the question of whether coercive humanitarian intervention could be justified as a response to overwhelming human suffering in the absence of an agreed political solution. This issue has been much debated ever since but sadly is as unresolved today as it was at the time of Biafra – as recent events in Syria and elsewhere so tragically illustrate.

Victoria Avis is a member of the staff for the Institute for Africa Studies and a student in the Elliott School of International Affairs. She will be spending the summer in Tanzania.