Film Eye

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Biafran troops prepare for attack on the Awka front in April 1968. By then Biafra was a land-locked enclave. (Holy Ghost Fathers)

Biafran troops prepare for attack on the Awka front in April 1968. By then Biafra was a land-locked enclave. (Holy Ghost Fathers)

Night Flight to Uli
Concern films at the Irish Film Archive, Temple Bar
by Tom Lodge

Recently the NGO Concern donated a collection of its films, originally made for fund-raising purposes, to the Irish Film Archive. Originally ‘Africa Concern’, its formation in 1968 was prompted by Irish missionaries in Biafra at the time of its secession that led to the Nigerian civil war of 1967–70. By early 1968 the Federal Nigerian army had occupied the major portion of Biafran territory, including the coastline. The schools and hospitals run by the missionaries had to accommodate an exodus of refugees inwards into what remained of Biafra. In eastern Nigeria, through the colonial period, missionary organisations had been the main providers of primary health care and education. Irish priests and nuns were extensively involved and therefore they played a conspicuous role in the organisation of food and medical care for the refugees.
Biafra was one of the first wars to be televised (Vietnam was the other) and Irish voices on news reports helped to bring the war home to Irish citizens. More broadly, the Catholic church provided support for the new republic, and several prominent Catholic bishops were openly sympathetic to the secessionist cause. Several Biafran-based Irish missionaries, members of the Holy Ghost Fathers, with the help of their families, established the Joint Biafra Famine Appeal, the forerunner of Africa Concern. Within a year the Joint Appeal raised £250,000.

The film records feeding operations and medical care supplied in refugee camps, mainly in the vicinity of Owerri, organised under the authority of Bishop Joseph Whelan (left, accepting Caritas aid), who had presided over the Owerri diocese for the previous twenty years. (Independent Newspapers)

The film records feeding operations and medical care supplied in refugee camps, mainly in the vicinity of Owerri, organised under the authority of Bishop Joseph Whelan (left, accepting Caritas aid), who had presided over the Owerri diocese for the previous twenty years. (Independent Newspapers)

The oldest film in the collection, Night Flight to Uli, was produced just before Africa Concern’s establishment. Biafran relief efforts were international in scope, and both the International Red Cross (IRC) and the Vatican’s Caritas played central roles. The Red Cross began flying food supplies and medicine into the enclave from March 1968, basing its operation on Fernando Po, then a Spanish colonial island in the Bight of Biafra. Other operations were to follow, and the Portuguese colony of São Tomé became the main point of transit where supplies were unloaded from European ships and flown to an airstrip at Uli constructed by the Biafran army especially for the purpose.
The arrangement of these flights was accompanied by torturous diplomacy. The Nigerians were under considerable diplomatic pressure to allow the flights across Federal-occupied territory without inspection, even though they argued that relief supplies could include arms. Though one of the missionaries involved in setting up Concern, Fr Raymond Kennedy, had indeed organised a flight containing weapons at the beginning of the war, no evidence has since emerged to confirm Nigerian suspicions. Nevertheless, they shot down one of the IRC aeroplanes in June 1969, and thereafter the church operations became the main source of nutrition for the rapidly shrinking Biafran enclave.
Within the relief operations Irish priests and nuns were especially conspicuous, not just in raising funds for purchasing supplies but in organising its loading and despatch in São Tomé, arranging the flights and, most important of all, in managing its distribution within Biafra. After June 1969 the Nigerians refused to authorise any flights over their territory, and hence, in terms of international law, the operation became illegal and even more dangerous.
Night Flight to Uli opens in Dublin’s docks, where a cargo of milk powder, clothing and dried fish is being loaded into the hold of the Irish Rose, a freighter commissioned by the Joint Biafra Famine Appeal. The remainder of this nearly hour-long documentary was filmed either in Biafra itself or in São Tomé. Pitched at an Irish audience, its narrative is sustained through interviews with Irish Holy Ghost Fathers or Sisters of the Holy Rosary, orders representing the oldest missionary presence in colonial Nigeria. The film records feeding operations and medical care supplied in refugee camps, mainly in the vicinity of Owerri, organised under the authority of Bishop Joseph Whelan, who had presided over the Owerri diocese for the previous twenty years. Though Federal troops had occupied Owerri, a substantial regional town, the bishop and his colleagues retreated into outlying villages and re-established their refugee programmes in local churches.

Flight coordinator Fr Tony Byrne (third from left) in São Tomé—flights from the island had made over 850 deliveries to Uli airstrip. (Independent Newspapers)

Flight coordinator Fr Tony Byrne (third from left) in São Tomé—flights from the island had made over 850 deliveries to Uli airstrip. (Independent Newspapers)

By this stage of the war, the food brought into the country was the main source of nutrition for its inhabitants, by late 1968 doubled in number to some ten million by the influx of refugees. The yam harvest of several months earlier was almost exhausted, and local farms could only hope to produce modest yields of salad vegetables until the next yam harvest, several months away. The dried fish, grain and milk powder brought in by the various church organisations were for many the only source of food. At one point in the film, Bishop Whelan visits the local market, still an important social centre but for most of its former customers now unaffordable, with stocks of cigarettes, salt and fish selling for huge multiples of their former prices.
To judge from the film, soldiers were well fed but even non-refugee civilians are quite obviously starving. At the Nguru feeding centre, where the local convent had replaced the market as a source of food, 3,000 women lined up daily for a piece of stockfish, a ladleful of soup and a vitamin pill. Men and children were fed in a separate line, 4,000 children receiving a cup of ‘garri’—cassava grain mixed with milk. As the commentary notes, the missionary presence in Biafra provided ‘a network of local agents able to direct supplies to where they are best needed’. They were able to achieve this goal with a degree of precision and efficiency that successive international humanitarian agencies have struggled to match.
The achievement was all the more impressive when one keeps in mind that, Caritas and the IRC apart, the rest of the organisation involved was not run by governments or by powerful international agencies but rather through civil society networks that depended on public support in donor countries. The Joint Church programme was a huge undertaking that brought together the main non-Caritas religious organisations involved. It purchased its own aeroplanes because insurance premiums were set too high to make hiring a practical option. According to Fr Tony Byrne, the São Tomé flight coordinator, these aircraft had made over 850 deliveries from the island to Uli airstrip.
Irish public support for Biafran relief was a turning point in the history of Irish foreign relations. Irish government policy that favoured Nigerian unity became increasingly unpopular and, partly to deflect political pressure generated by sympathy for the Biafrans, the government began increasing its contributions to the Red Cross, the beginning of more generalised support for multi-lateral development agencies. Night Flight to Uli supplies insights into the extraordinary emotional public impact in Ireland of these events in West Africa, events that, arguably, helped to transform Irish political life.

Tom Lodge is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Limerick.

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