Don McCullin. Sixteen-year-old Ibo boy, famine due to the civil war, Biafra, Nigeria, April 1968

Scholarship by our speakers

Some of our blog posts in the coming weeks will feature discussions of scholarship by the conference speakers and/or interviews with them. This week we look at Brian McNeil’s “’And starvation is the grim reaper:’ the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive and the genocide question during the Nigeria civil war, 1968-70,” published in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2014. The article discusses the role the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive (ACKBA) played during the civil war and how its actions impacted American views of the Biafran War and foreign policy.

McNeil considers how influential the ACKBA was in informing the American public about the war and framing the discussion about genocide in America. According to McNeil the ACKBA promoted a “campaign of advertising in all legal and acceptable media” in order to garner more attention for the crisis in Nigeria. As a result of ACKBA’s campaigns, there was an increase in American public support which ultimately led to an increase in the amount of American humanitarian aid delivered during the war.

McNeil also discusses how the ACKBA’s strategies changed

Children in Biafra (International Committee of the Red Cross)

over the course of the war. He states that when the ACKBA changed its lobbying strategy from apolitical humanitarianism to political recognition of Biafra, a shift occurred in the definition of genocide. It evolved from the eradication of a people or a group to the destruction of a nation-state. McNeil notes that there were important undercurrents in international politics that impacted this shift, such as the ambiguity of the definition of genocide, which gave the ACKBA the opportunity to offer a new characterization of genocide to include the eradication of nationhood.

Later in the article, McNeil examines the work of the ACKBA in relation to human rights, noting specifically, “the struggle to prevent genocide and feed Biafrans…was a significant moment in human rights history,” (319). He touches on the nuance of the ACKBA’s appeal during the war, noting that they were not calling for a violation of Nigerian sovereignty but rather the creation of a sovereign Biafran state. McNeil believes that the link between violation of sovereignty and the creation of a new state revealed the ambiguity of human rights in international politics at the time.

He also argues that the “genocide question” in Biafra was an important indicator of American foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era. The ACKBA, instead of pressuring the US government to intervene directly in the conflict, hoped that the government would call for the UN General Assembly to begin international debate over the situation in Nigeria. McNeil posits that the refusal of the US government to broach the subject with the UN was indicative of the widening gap between what the government was and was not willing to do in the global south.

Biafran mothers

McNeil concludes by maintaining that the ACKBA’s expectation of the US government to lead humanitarian intervention in Nigeria was unrealistic. He claims that Biafra represents a notable shift in American foreign policy, from one discussing what constitutes American intervention to one centered on the limits of American intervention. While many people, specifically committee members, felt that human rights were dying as the conflict in Nigeria raged on, McNeil concludes by arguing that perhaps the modern-day conception of human rights was born just after the end of the Biafran war.

Abby Pioch is the primary blogger for Remembering Biafra. She is a senior in the Elliott School studying International Affairs concentrating in international development with a second major in French Language, Literature and Culture and a minor in Political Science. She is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority and currently tutors ESL students at the Washington English Center.