HOW A HUMANITARIAN DISASTER IN BIAFRA FIFTY YEARS AGO LED TO THE FOUNDING OF CONCERN WORLDWIDE
By Mary Rose McCarthy
In 1967, just a few short years after gaining independence, Nigeria was embroiled in civil war. The oil rich eastern province, Biafra, wanted to take control of its own affairs and reap the benefits from the oil industry. The government of Nigeria refused to concede and a very bloody civil war ensued. The Nigerian government blockaded the ports of the Eastern province thus cutting off the route of medical and food supplies. The result was devastating poverty and famine.
The Holy Ghost Fathers, today known as Spiritans, had been on mission in Nigeria since the early 1900s. The order, founded in France, opened a large house in Kimmage, Dublin. Here a large number of young Irish men were ‘formed’ in the Noviciate and prepared for the Missions. Many of them were sent to Nigeria, some in the Eastern province of Biafra. These men saw at first hand the plight of the people due to the civil war.
What became known as the Biafran war was the first humanitarian disaster to be beamed into the homes of Irish people. Television was widespread by the late 1960s. Black and white pictures of starving women and children with swollen bellies were seen daily in livingrooms across the country.
In December 1967, Fr. Raymond Kennedy was on leave from Biafra and gave first-hand accounts of the crisis there. His brother, John O’Loughlin Kennedy, wanted to do something in response to requests from the Bishops in Nigeria. They asked for flour for altar bread and wine for altar wine. He called a press conference in the Shelbourne Hotel and a bank account was set up for donations. At the same time, medics in Nigeria requested medical supplies to treat the increasing numbers of people affected by the conflict.
A mercy flight, named ‘Peace One’ was immediately dispatched by air, with medical supplies, dried milk, and flour. The situation in Nigeria continued to deteriorate and the number of people made homeless by the conflict necessitated the setting up of refugee camps. As well as medical supplies, these camps also needed food, especially high protein foods.