18 AUGUST 1967, Page 4

Breaking point


'From bad to worse' might well be adopted by the Organisation of African Unity as a motto to sum up not only its own disarray as an inter- national body but also the domestic political and economic situation of so many of its mem- ber states.

If, as now seems all too probable, Nigeria descends into Congo-style chaos, African aspira- tions will suffer a more devastating blow than the Lumumbas, Tshombes, Mobutus and, Kasa- vubus could ever have delivered. For Nigeria is unquestionably the most important black Afri- can state. Not only is it a giant in population figures (it is one and a half times more populous than all the other fourteen West African states put together) but it is also one of the few with an economy which showed signs of being able to develop even if all aid were cut off.

Nigeria never had a leader of myth-figure proportions; no Nkrumah or Sekou Toure has walked the Nigerian political stage. But over the last three years there have been encouraging signs all over Africa among both the elite and the ordinary people that the post-independence need for a personality cult was fading. More and more Africans were beginning to demand eco- nomic results- from their leaders rather than fiery and entertaining speeches.

Because of this, Africans increasingly looked towards the giant Nigeria, which showed every sign of progress as a real country; it seemed to be able to run its own affairs, and a booming economy with a healthy foreign trade balance

was being administered by its own indigenous entrepreneur class. Even more striking for other Africans was the way Nigeria's diverse ethnic groups at one time seemed to be able to live and work together, for, without give and take between peoples of very varied beliefs and habits, all calls for wider African unity were but vain mouthings.

Even after the initial military coup in January 1966 a solution to Nigeria's tribal problems looked just possible. But now the prophets of doom seem justified. Today Nigeria is in a state of confused civil war, with not only a federal government in Lagos and a secessionist Biafra, but also the announcement of a new indepen- dent regime in the mid-west, led by Brigadier Victor Banjo, self-styled 'saviour' of Nigeria, a thirty-one year old Yoruba officer, trained- yes—at Sandhurst. (One wonders, incidentally, what effect the proposed reduction of the Sand- hurst course from two years to one will have on the future trend of African politics. A good PhD subject is waiting for somebody.) The long-drawn-out deterioration in the Nigerian situation has shown vividly that both the Commonwealth and the Organisation of African Unity are powerless to do very much when tribal passions are aroused. Indeed in the whole field of effective political action the two organisations seem to have become hot rivals in the fatuity stakes. Interestingly enough, the only recent occasion when a solution to Nigeria's problems seemed even remotely in sight was when meetings between the federal authorities and the regional governors were organised by one single friendly state—Ghana.

Nigeria's failure is depressing in another way, for other Africans as well as for outside ob- servers who want to see the African countries stand on their own feet. For it has shown that the military, on whom many Africans placed so much hope, are just about as incompetent as the civilian regimes they overthrew. And what alternative is there left?

In the case of Nigeria there have been calls by individual Nigerians and others for outside military intervention. An independent Tan- zanian newspaper, the Standard, has even gone as far as to suggest that Britain should do the job. There are precedents, of course, in the 1964 mutinies in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. But times have changed since then. To Africans it would look inconsistent for Britain to try to sort out the blacks in Nigeria, an independent state, when she was incapable of doing very much about the whites in Rhodesia, theoretically a British colony. There is a case for supplying the federal government with the arms and aircraft they are asking for. But there is only a good case if it can be shown that Such arms deliveries would not be used again to massacre civilians, and that they would—as claimed—bring quick victory for the federal government.

A long and possibly very bloody civil war seems the most likely course of events for Nigeria. The strongest cards in the hand held by Major-General Yakubu Gowon, head of the federal government, are, first, that his is the 'legitimate' government and he can hope for more help from outside than the others, and, second, that he has naval forces with which to trouble his rivals. Despite this it is clear that his troops would have a very hard time even if they managed to cross into the Ibo homelands. This East point, of course, applies in reverse to any over-ambitious military advances by Colonel Banjo, or the Biafrans from their respective homelands.

The outlook is altogether very bleak, No rapid military victory by any of- the contestants seems probable, and outside intervention might only make matters worse. Perhaps the best hope is that at some point when all those involved are reasonably exhausted General Ankrah of Ghana will try his hand at mediation again.