Review: The British Press & The Nigerian Civil War

I was delighted when a friend sent this 1972 article to me for my reading pleasure. Frankly, I am so young that the only tales of the Nigerian Civil War I have are of those  told by word of mouth in classrooms and at home. My most recent tale was from Chimamanda Adichie’s picturesque account in her novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun”.

Adichie & Half of a Yellow Sun

You can thus relate with my joy when I came across a true academically researched account of the war. I understand however, that the scope of this piece is limited to how the British Press gave coverage to the Civil War of 1967 and the possible influences therein.

The British Press and the Nigerian Civil War is written by Bolaji Akinyemi. It was published by the Oxford University Press under the Royal African Society.

Akinyemi narrowed his definition of the British Press to 7 newspapers, which he labelled as the ‘heavies’. They are: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Financial Times.

His article sought answers to questions such as: what positions did the British Press take on the Nigeria/Biafra war, why and what role did the press play in the crisis – that of providing information or a propagandist? All these and many more questions.

Akinyemi dropped some solid findings in his research article. Unfortunately, some of the poor journalistic traits he mentioned are still practiced in this present day. Before I start ranting, let’s go straight to what the author discovered in his examination of the coverage the British press gave to the event.

The author decried the manner in which the British Press covered the Civil War. He cited an instance where a British correspondent predicted in his news paper that “the northerners may have already begun to take their revenge for the death of their leader, the Saradauna of Sokoto, on the large number of Ibos in the North.” This was in a situation where the said prediction had obviously not taken place yet.

Akinyemi said something that struck me deeply, “anyone familiar with Africa, especially a journalist, is aware of how much attention African leaders used to pay to British newspapers and the BBC as sources of information, often accepting everything they read and heard as the gospel truth.”

The author termed that scenario as an act of high irresponsibility. He decoded from this event  that the “the Northern elite would naturally assume from the article that not only must Mr X (the correspondent) possess information which they do not have, but the world expected them to react in this way…”

Overall, Akinyemi concluded that “this was not an honourable era in British journalism”. He said, the news was most times incorrect and misleading, and the editorial opinions “demonstrated a naivete in elementary international politics”. He exonerated The Observer as being objective and maintaining a high level of professional competence and journalistic integrity. This was mostly because The Observer had an on-ground correspondent who understood Nigerian politics.

As for the others, they did not employ any on-the-spot reporters familiar with Africa to report on Nigeria. He opined that the newspapers handled the event in a sensational manner.

Akinyemi ended his article on this note, “the most apt comment on the British press was by Brigadier Sir Bernard in the Times of 12 December 1968: ‘now that I am wiser by five weeks… I have at least learnt that much of what I had deduced from the press was wrong’.”


At some point on this blog, I have written about ‘framing’ in the media, and argued about there being nothing like ‘objectivity’ in journalism. Even my Masters dissertation was on how big news organizations framed the panty-bomber event.

This old 1972 article which I am just reading for the first time,  further buttresses my argument.

The media can make or mar a society – believe me they are that powerful. However, that power has been tempered by the rise of the internet and citizen journalists. If we had Twitter in the days of the civil war, newspapers would not have gotten away with misleading or propagandist articles.

I am staunchly following the current build-up towards the Nigerian 2011 elections online – Twitter and other social networks – and it is amazing!

I end this post on the note that Africa needs a media that is development-oriented, not sensational. I tweeted this thought recently, and someone from Ghana responded that he could not agree less.

I have a new post coming shortly – Be the MAN – Media Africa Needs – in this post, I will draw from past experiences where we’ve been getting it wrong, and how we can get it right in order to meet our development needs.

Kudos to the citizen journalists for stirring up the Nigerian youths to get up, register and vote – I SEE YOU 🙂

photo credits: Google Images


9 thoughts on “Review: The British Press & The Nigerian Civil War

  1. @tomi,

    Objectivity is dead, or may be it was never born.

    Since the birth of web 2.0 there has been democratization of information. We can kill who ever we like now. They killed Nelson Mandela On Twitter few days back.

    Just like I said some days back in my tweet; YOUR TWEETS HAVE POWER, don’t throw your power away.

    kudos g/f.

  2. Fasina ife says:

    Sir,this is real true,the situdtion on ground in Nigeria is very different from the way it is being relayed by the foreign media.The only way out is to groom Nigerian born worldclass journalists who truly love NIGERIA.

  3. Timdavid says:

    U know wat Tomi, I have alw been of the same opinion as wat u have so beautifully put down. However, I have come to realize that no one is stirred to development except there is an exaggerated attempt to induce excitement…
    The simple truth never stirs excitement enough to kindle the passion for awareness, vigilance or development… So these days, I don’t see the Media or Journalism to be misleading… I just take it as hyperbolic writing which I think serves its purpose in society quite well… Just my point of view though… 🙂

  4. precious says:

    The world wide web would never be enough in so much as over 60 percent of persons in need of information can neither read or write. What do we do? Impressive piece though.

  5. myne Whitman says:

    A well presented review, love it (I also enjoyed CA’s HOAYS).

    The truth is that the press is powerful though sometimes they’re ignorant and other times they misuse it.

    I’m really grateful for the internet and web for bringing news closer to people and believe that we’re yet to fully harness it.

    I also see the citizen journalists and they give me hope.

  6. chichimambo says:

    How did I miss out on these posts? I fell in love with Chimamanda after her TED speech, She is amazing so I’m definitely ordering one of her books. BTW to think that someone said they couldn’t agree less on that thought baffles me. What is the use of sensational reporting, if it isn’t a cheap means of publicity? Critical thinking and research is highly important. Western reporting on African issues has often taken this standpoint of so called “vaguely observing and mindless reporting”…which is interesting considering that they further victimize the victims instead of taking a human approach and standpoint which examines the nature of their situation from their perspective…. enough said for now, but why should we abuse ourselves and digress by following in that kind of journalism. I COULDN’T AGREE WITH YOU MORE…a development oriented media is of utmost importance to our progress, I’m yearning for a post on your study of the 2011 elections in Naija…keep me posted!

  7. someone says:

    where’s the place that the nigerian war took place?!

  8. Sydney says:

    The truth is that if the press had reported what was on ground, the lives of hundreds of thousands of children would have been saved. it still makes me feel bad how hunger was used as a weapon of war against children.

  9. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited this blog before but after looking at many of the articles I realized
    it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly delighted I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking
    back often!

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