|French mercenaries will deliver weapons to the Biafran military and introduce them to guerrilla tactics.|
Initially, Nigeria vomited “human vermin” (in the words of Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda). But in the war with the Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970, Lagos will call on foreign mercenaries – like the other side. Diplomatic records show that “soldiers of fortune” played a limited but crucial role.
At the beginning of the conflict, the federal military government resisted. In his view, the recruitment of white mercenaries, whether European or South African, undermines his sovereignty. The independentists, who struggle for their survival, do not embarrass themselves with such scruples.
The French ambassador in Lagos, Marc Barbey, is quickly informed of the presence of French mercenaries at Biafra. A Soviet diplomat reported to him on 12 June 1967, ie three weeks before the outbreak of war, the rebel region recruited ” many mercenaries including (…) many French “, according to a telegram Declassified at the request of RFI.
In fact, the ambassador had already been put to perfume by a French resident of Port Harcourt, the main port city of the Nigerian region of the East. The ” terrible ” had been spotted five months before the proclamation of independence of Biafra, near the border with the neighboring North.
Believing in the service of Lagos – or pretending to believe it – Ambassador Barbey addresses the thorny issue with Nigerian ” number one ” Yakubu Gowon. During their interview, the diplomat expresses the ” wish ” that Lagos does not recruit French. It is not the ” federal military government ” that recruits them, he replies, but the eastern region …
Colonel Gowon warned him against any initiative that would jeopardize the integrity of Nigeria. ” France is certainly not targeted, ” said the diplomat in an ” urgent ” message dated 1 March 1967, three months before independence, specifying that Israel – not France – supplies mercenaries to Biafra … Ignore the fact that the “Africa cell” of the Elysée, which Jacques Foccart oversees, does nothing to oppose the deliveries of French weapons to Biafra, that it will end by squarely organizing (against the advice of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maurice Couve de Murville)?
In November 1967, while the presence of French mercenaries was amply commented on in the press, Ambassador Barbey would still use the conditional to designate them: ” Many mercenaries would be French or recruited in France. “
As Nigeria has imposed a land and sea blockade on Biafra, the only way to deliver anything to the secessionists is by air. The pilots are thus almost literally the nerve of war. No wonder then that the “hideous” count among their number of foreign pilots, especially since the few Nigerian pilots are inexperienced. They are so little in fact that a color fighter plane from Nigeria will land in Cotonou, the capital of Dahomey (now Benin), by mistake, its two pilots having confused its airport with that of … Lagos.
Foreign pilots worry
These foreign pilots worry diplomats. The US embassy is alarmed that a French crew brought an American bomber B-26 to the rebel capital. The Quai d’Orsay finally realized that in Enugu there were not one, but three, American bombers and that two of them took off from a French military base in Creil, in the Paris region …
These flights between France and Biafra via Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa finally attract the attention of the French Embassy in Portugal. She finds “unusual ” the rotations of a Super Constellation between Lisbon and the island of Sao Tome and says fears of arms trafficking to Biafra. The mystery will dissipate when the aircraft that belonged to Air France will be destroyed in a fire caused by the explosion of ammunition on board the tarmac of the airport of Bissau …
The Quai d’Orsay will instruct its embassy to try to block the take-off of an aircraft that landed at Lisbon International Airport. ” Whilst there is every reason to believe that this aircraft has as its final destination the capital of the secessionist state of the Biafra and is called upon to take part in the military operations which involve the forces of Lagos and those of Enugu, to avoid, to the extent possible, the starting Portela, so we subtract the charge of encouraging rebellion ” , wrote Claude Lebel, Director of African Affairs, 22 July 1967. Except that This date, France already armed the rebellion – at the instigation of the ” Africa cell ” of the Elysee.
It does not just arm it. Rolf Steiner, one of the most famous French mercenaries, will form a brigade of 3,000 soldiers who, once initiated into the guerrilla tactics, will become the elite corps of the Biafarian army. Steiner, who had joined the Hitler Youth in the Second World War before joining the Foreign Legion, did not remain in Biafra, however, until the end of the conflict.
The presence of ” soldiers of fortune ” in Biafra, never very numerous, will diminish in the second year of the conflict, as early as February 1968, according to archives consulted by RFI. ” After the departure of Rolf Steiner and his companions, there are only three European fighters among the Biafran, both French, and English “, noted the ambassador of France in Libreville, Maurice Delauney, in a telegram ” secretive ” Dated 15 November 1968.
Lagos, meanwhile, will recruit British, South African and Rhodesian mercenaries as pilots. Paid 1,000 pounds per month on accounts in Switzerland, according to the British press of the time. In the first year of the conflict, Nigeria will also enlist foreign volunteers. The Chadians and Cameroonians who fought in the French army are ” particularly sought after “, notes the French Embassy in Yaounde.