Starvation as a weapon of war: From Biafra to Borno

The militarisation of famine in Nigeria has a notorious history.

The titular quote is a corruption of a statement by Gen Benjamin Adekunle, GOC 3 Marine Commando Division during the Nigerian Civil War, during which both sides cynically weaponised the famine that resulted from the war, a famine that was purely man made.

As discussed previously Biafra fought a purely defensive war, effecting a fighting withdrawal into the central rain forest that marked the centre of Biafra in a slow war of attrition as it’s government and forces retreated slowly.

Whilst the main food producing areas were in the centre, the loss of peripheral food producing areas, the displacement of the population, loss of sources of protein and disruption of farming patterns caused the worst humanitarian crisis in post independence Africa (up till then anyway).

The famine was further aggravated by the large number of IDP’s concentrated in Biafra’s shrinking territory, whose feeding forced the consumption of seed crops, whilst indiscriminate Federal air strikes made farming or any form of vehicular transport of goods hazardous.

The Biafran government initially tried to disguise the extent of the starvation believing that it detracted from their narrative of a plucky, innovative, besieged but well managed young state, however the outpouring of sympathy the first photos of starving children generated rapidly reversed that stance, with the Biafrans using their European propaganda outfit, Markpress to pump out the starvation message to generate sympathy amongst world governments. This was extremely successful in that several non governmental groups such as the World Council of Churches began an immediate airlift of food aid.

This benefitted the Biafrans operationally and strategically in that they charged the aid flights to land at their 2 remaining airstrips (in foreign currency) and used the air flights to smuggle in arms and high octane fuel. The aid also relieved the Biafran government of the responsibility of feeding IDPs and allowed their propaganda to paint the Federal Forces as genocidal, famine inducing monsters.

The Federal forces for their part in typical Nigerian fashion, took a bad situation and made it worse with public pronouncements such as that in the title and offering scant reassurance to the Biafrans or international community that they were not deliberately starving Biafran civilians. On the contrary tons of aid were brought in by sea to Lagos and the very few civilians who did not flee from Federal held areas of the Eastern Region were provided for, to the extent that trading with civilians in Biafra (Afia attack or attack markets) was a going concern.

Half hearted offers to provide aid via a demilitarised land corridor were refused by the Biafrans on the grounds that they gave the Federal Army an unopposed axis of advance, whilst the Federal Military Government (FMG) refused to sanction the air corridor as they (correctly) asserted the Biafrans were using it to bring in arms. The logic of their position against the morality and visuals of starvation would have been hard for any government much less one who’s origins were in a brutal pogrom of Easterners, however the situation was worsened when a mercenary piloted Mig 17 shot down an aid aircraft killing all on board.

The starvation narrative gave Biafra a lease of life, giving the land locked, besieged nation a method by which to bring in arms and feed its populace and arguably prolonging the war. The crisis prompted a young Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, then working for the French Red Cross to form Medecin San Frontieres (MSF), however at wars end, the FMG expelled all aid agencies, accusing them of collaboration and in fits and starts provided effective relief to the former Biafra.

Today Nigeria faces another man made humanitarian crises, as the 2.6m displaced persons in North Eastern Nigeria, Southern Niger Republic, Southern Chad and Northern Cameroun constitute the worst single humanitarian crisis outside Syria according to the UN.

This crisis much like in Biafra is fully manmade.

Boko Harams 2014 offensive used scorched earth tactics in the shaping, decisive and consolidating phase of their offensive.

In the shaping phase, they used a scorched earth tactics to increase pressure on Nigerian forces by attacking and burning a wide swath of villages, those that were not destroyed were denuded of young men and women, produce and livestock.

When Boko Harams general offensive began, they destroyed multiple towns and villages, depopulating them with survivors fleeing to other towns, especially Maiduguri. Those that remained and were not massacred were compelled to share their meagre food stocks with their captors, leading even more to leave.

As they consolidated their gains they planted IED belts in towns and fields to defend their positions further denying these areas to farmers.

The Nigerian counter offensive further exacerbated the problem as liberated people from Boko Haram areas were sent them back to IDP camps.

This created an extreme displacement crisis, with IDP and refugee camps in Nigeria, Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroun.

The Nigerian response coordinated through the National Emergency Management Association and State Emergency Management Association’s has been patchy. However much of the slack has been taken up by a dizzying array of international NGO’s, with virtually every country and interest group represented from the ICRC, MSF, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Fund, IOM, Danish Relief Council and many many more.

This has had several effects, Maiduguri is currently filled with a multiplicity of jeeps and cars filled with foreign and local NGO staff and the cost of accommodation from hotel rooms  to house have increased.

For the refugees in the camp but even more importantly for those in the community, the NGO’s have brought recognition, compassion, shelter, sanitation and food aid.

The scale of the international aid effort in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroun and Niger Republic is as large as it is relatively silent.

Despite the plethora of foreigners in Maiduguri, the large influx of local NGO staff, the NGO helicopters and jets at Maiduguri Airport, the effort is largely under reported even by the NGO’s themselves beyond periodic updates within the relief community and press releases.

Most reporting is from the international press with the Nigerian press largely silent.

Unlike Syria and other current crises there have been no mass appeals or even a targeted, media campaign.


There are several operational and strategic implications to the humanitarian crisis and its response


Enemy sustenance: the enemies’ brutality depopulated the areas they captured robbing them of a captive population to farm and work for them or for them to tax or go to markets. Whilst this might not have overly bothered the hard core of Boko Haram, trained to survive on 2 dates a day, they had taken on a huge retinue of forced conscripts and sex slaves, many of whom had borne children who needed feeding. This has had a decisive effect with huge numbers either surrendering or allowing their families to surrender, robbing fighter of their domestic support structures.

Livestock and Fish: the enemy funded much of their war effort by initially taxing and then taking over the fish and cattle trade. This funding stream however has been severely hampered by the fact that the legitimate cattle trade is so denuded that they can no longer hide amongst the crowd and their sellers are being regularly rounded up. The other effect however is that the cost of protein in the area has risen as have costs throughout the country and Lake Chad Basin

Leakages: although camps have been targeted for attacks with PBIEDs, so far there is little evidence of aid leaking out to Boko Haram however it would be reasonable to assume that some IDPs are unrepentant Boko Haram members and that in the more remote and insecure areas there might be some theft or trade.

Targets: Boko Haram has had more success in Cameroun with PBIEDs than in Nigeria however the plethora of NGOs with varying levels of security awareness, protection and operational security presents Boko Haram with an inviting target for spectacular assassinations or kidnap attempts. Whilst many of these NGO’s have studiously worked to develop the necessary local links to allow them work relatively freely, the factional nature of the group as well as an increasing desperation could lead to an increased likelihood of targeting of INGO’s.

Logistics: the fact that Boko Haram is defeated as a conventional ground holding force simply means they have reverted to an insurgent, ground denying force. Thus whilst Boko Haram might not be able to hold major population centres they can deny the food producing areas around and to them, preventing normal agricultural activities from taking place, thus continuing reliance on aid. The need for aid supplies to the camps means that the military must devote combat power to defending road based convoys as well as road based convoys. The use of helicopters means the amount of aid delivered is reduced and cost of delivering it increased.


Narrative: the Nigerian Government holds stubbornly to the narrative that Boko Haram is defeated and only the desperate, starving remnants are holding out. Whilst there is an element of truth to this Boko Haram is far from defeated and in many cases, it appears the narrative is more important than reality.

Whilst publicity stunts such as the Borno State Governor briefly moving the seat of government to Gwoza and Bama, might be well meaning and reinforce that narrative it obscures the reality that Bama is completely destroyed and empty of everyone but soldiers and Gwoza is under virtual encirclement. IDPs cannot return home but at the same time the Government uses the narrative to justify closing IDP camps.

Long term Famine conditions: destruction of accommodation, wells, irrigation systems, depletion of fertiliser stocks and other destructive effects of the war mean that it will take a while before normal agricultural activities can resume. This is in addition to the need to demine roads and fields. Thus even if the war ends, there will be a period during which support is still needed for the population

Post conflict planning: to the lay observer there appears to be little strategic coordination between local NGOs, the Federal and State Governments, INGOs and the military. Whilst some coordination seems to take place operationally, the planning for the post conflict situation, locally and regionally appears to be lacking. Boko Haram successfully exploited dissatisfaction with governance, economic disparities and hijacked local and regional trades. This needs to be addressed by an organised and regulated agriculture and agro processing sector, that not only provides food and employment but provides enough resilience to withstand local and regional famines.

Governance: much like the use of PMCs in 2015 to train, advise and support Nigerian forces during the Valentine Offensive, the presence of foreigners and INGO’s providing relief to Nigerians further undermines the threadbare faith Nigerians have in their governments. A lack of belief in the system and its constant failures underpin virtually all of Nigeria’s security problems, this is exacerbated by a large scale external intervention balanced against a lack of corresponding homegrown effort .

Enemy support: if there were any remaining vestiges of support for Boko Haram in the region the effects of their massacres, famine and the IDP crisis has thoroughly eradicated it. Despite causing the famine and displacement Boko Haram has not benefitted from it in anyway, in fact it has had a decidedly negative effect on them operationally and strategically yet, they still use violence to obtain food and supplies and burn villages depriving themselves of an enduring source for both commodities.


The displacement and food crisis in the Lake Chad Basin caused by Boko Haram is a devastating humanitarian situation greatly aggravated by governmental incompetence and ameliorated by a multitude of foreign NGO’s.

However like much of these interventions the relief effort addresses the symptoms rather than the disease and allows those who should be dealing with the underlying root causes to ignore the difficult questions and responsibilities of governance.

Much like the Civil War, disguising incompetence and promoting the correct messaging appear to be more important than the effect of the conflict on the civilian population. Like the Biafran Governments initial reaction to their famine the Nigerian Government seeks to deemphasise the famine and humanitarian crisis.

Much like the NGOs and volunteers in Biafra, the second and third order effects of the foreign intervention seem to be little understood.

However these discussions are academic to the long suffering people of the Lake Chad Basin who just want to go home.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Counter insurgency, Geopolitics, Nigeria Strategy, Peace support, Stabilisation, Terrorism, West Africa Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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