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Humanitarian Aid and the Biafra War: Lessons not Learned

M-A Pérouse de Montclos


In African contemporary history, Biafra is not only remembered as one of the worst humanitarian crises on the continent, but also as a tragedy that gave rise to the concept of ingérence or the international responsibility to protect. Unfortunately, the controversies about the impact of aid during the conflict have been forgotten. Today, the humanitarian legend of Biafra celebrates the saving of starving children and the birth of the famous NGO Médecins sans Frontières,
but it does not acknowledge the military impact of relief operations that helped the secessionists continue the war for over a year after it was lost militarily. As it prolonged the suffering of local populations, relief was a matter of discussion during and just after the war. Since then, this strategic debate has been ‘lost in translation’. This paper will argue that the contemporary idea of humanitarian aid that advocates a right of intervention in order to save innocents confuses the
issue for at least two reasons. First, it leads us to think wrongly that Biafra gave birth to the concept of an international responsibility to protect, something that had existed previously. Secondly, it overshadows the dark side of humanitarian aid, where international intervention often assists belligerents rather than civilians,
prolongs suffering, and poses new threats to national sovereignty.

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eISSN: 0850-3907