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The Biafran airlift by NGOs faced federal mercenaries in the skies

Posted in Africa, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Politics, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 1 February 2012

This edited article about Africa originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 623 published on 22 December 1973.

Mercenaries in Nigeria, picture, image, illustration

A need for the excitement of battle drew white mercenaries to Africa in the turbulent sixties when civil war brought horror to Nigeria, by Graham Coton

The plane droned its way towards Airstrip Annabelle at Uli. Its Canadian pilot peered ahead and tightened his lips into a white line. The trouble would start any time now. Even as the thought crossed his mind, his radio crackled and a mocking voice came out of the purple night.

“Genocide calling. This is Genocide calling. I’m waiting for you, Pete. I’m waiting right here.”

It was 1969. While the war between Nigeria and Biafra raged on the ground, another battle was taking place several thousand feet above. There, white mercenaries in old transport planes tried to airlift supplies of food and medicine to the stricken population of Biafra, while other white mercenaries in Mig fighters buzzed around them, threatening to shoot them down.

In 1963 Nigeria had been a republic. It had four main peoples: the Hausa and Fulani in the north; the Yoruba in the south-west; and the Ibo in the south-east. There were significant religious and cultural differences between the peoples, and the republic was built on shaky foundations. Eventually a group of Ibo army officers overthrew the government and took control. Six months later, a counter-coup by Hausa officers was successful and brought General Gowon to power.

Four years of friction passed; then the eastern Ibo province under the leadership of Colonel Ojukwu seceded from the federal republic and renamed itself the republic of Biafra. Civil war broke out – a war of unforgettable horror.

One of its most horrifying aspects was the mass starvation and disease which inflicted the Biafran population. Communications in the province were destroyed and, without food and medicine, people died in thousands then hundreds of thousands. Another horrifying feature of the war was the ruthless manipulation of the facts about this crisis by the public-relations teams which were employed to publicize the claims and counter-claims of both sides.

The sight of dying children accompanied by accusation and counter-accusation by the two leaders became so common in the newspapers and on TV that people became immune to the horror.

Eventually, the big relief organisations went into action. Experience of natural, as well as man-made, disasters had enabled them to mount swift rescue operations. Food and drugs were soon on their way to the main Biafran airfield at Uli. Other, smaller relief operations raised funds, bought supplies and chartered out-of-date planes to carry them. But they lacked experienced pilots to fly in the goods. So they turned to mercenaries.

The mercenaries’ role in the twentieth century had changed dramatically. Instead of being an essential feature of major warfare, as they had been in the Middle Ages, or a useful tool as they had been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their trade in the days of global war had almost become extinct. Only in the little wars, fought in remote corners of the world, could they find employment.

German pilots, French legionnaires, British infantrymen – men who could not settle down in peace-time, men who needed the excitement of war and of killing – found themselves directing civil wars in South America and the Middle East. But their appearance in Africa, in the Congo, during the turbulent ‘sixties, brought them again into the public eye. Thereafter they could be identified in several of the coups that shook the emergent states of Africa. And when Biafra seceded and the federal troops moved against her, mercenaries were employed on both sides.

But they were getting old and the young men who followed them lacked their experience. Both the federal government and the Biafrans found them an expensive luxury. The pilots were an exception. They were essential to the federal government, in particular, for flying its Mig fighters, to bomb Uli and to disrupt the airlift. So, two mercenary pilots sharing a drink in one of the mercenaries’ haunts in London, Brussels or Lagos, might find themselves a few days later, trying to outwit each other in the skies above Biafra.

The federal government’s harassment of the airlift operations was based on the belief, quite true, as it happened, that guns as well as supplies were being brought into the rebellious province. Independent operators were making use of the airspace cleared for genuine relief work to fly in loads of arms and ammunition for the Biafrans. The federals bombed the airstrip and were prepared to force down any planes which they suspected of gun-running. It was clear to everyone that sooner or later a genuine relief-plane would be damaged.

One of the most formidable of the federal mercenaries was Genocide – known only by his call-sign. A cynical ruthless flier, he frightened off several relief pilots and was an ever-present worry to the rest. He adopted the technique of listening to their radio conversations with the controllers at Uli and of picking up personal information about them. He would call them by name and make his threats personal, just as they were coming in to land, with devastating effect.

One Canadian pilot was an old hand. He was getting used to Genocide. He had learned that the best way to control his nerves was to talk back.

“Same old routine?” he asked, over his radio. “Can’t you think of a new approach?”

Genocide laughed. “Getting through to you am I Pete?” he sneered. “What are you running tonight. Guns?”

The Canadian groaned theatrically. “Guns? We’re piled high with dried stock-fish, man. Can’t you smell it up there?”

Genocide laughed and went off the air. The Canadian put down the nose of his plane and landed gently on the Uli runway. As he taxied to a halt, he saw in the light of the flares that the mechanics and loading-crews were running for cover. Over the noise of his own engine, he heard the whine of a diving fighter. Suddenly Genocide’s Mig appeared and neatly bracketed the runway ahead with two sticks of bombs. Turning in from a fresh angle he pinned down the waiting crews with a long spurt from his guns. The Canadian froze. Then his radio crackled.

“That was pretty close, eh Pete?” chuckled Genocide. “Next time it will be closer still.”

He went as swiftly and silently as he had come. The ground crew emerged from their hiding-places. Pete relaxed.

The Canadian survived the war. So, it is thought, did Genocide. But others were not so lucky. And, in the end, the worst happened. A Swedish Red Cross plane was shot down by a federal mercenary pilot. The incident caused serious diplomatic repercussions and brought the airlift to a halt. The federal government ignored its fierce critics, however, and concentrated on winning the war. This it did when Biafra was finally over-run.

Many thousands died from sickness and starvation in that war. But their numbers would have been greater but for the airlift.

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