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Britain and Biafra 50 Years On

Fifty years on, through archive material and first-hand testimonies, Afua Hirsch looks back on the Nigerian-Biafran War, the images of its famine and their legacy in Britain.

If one word ruptured the early optimism felt in Britain for its ex-colonies, it was Biafra. Pictures of black children with distended bellies, headlines like "Land of No Hope", footage of aid workers struggling on the ground - such coverage may have since become banal but, in June 1968 in the new era of TVs and tabloid splashes, it was unprecedented.

Fifty years on, through archive material and interviews with first-hand witnesses, Afua Hirsch explores the Nigerian-Biafran conflict and its legacy as one of the first wars beamed nightly into British living rooms.

It's the story of a new style of British reportage - visceral, humanitarian, and heavily collaborating with NGOs. And, after Empire, perhaps a new sense of Britishness too as a shocked public helped send the largest ever civilian airlift to Biafra to deliver aid.

We hear from Nigerians recalling their childhood memories of famine and their teenage experiences of battle. We hear from British journalists still shocked at what they found in the Biafran enclave. And we hear from the aid workers reacting to those reports, flying to places they had never heard of to try to help.

It would be a type of coverage - the foregrounding of human stories, of wide-eyed hungry black babies, and the relegation of politics - with a deep imprint on how we came to know Africa, from Biafra through Ethiopia and Live Aid to the present day. But has it proved deeply harmful to our understanding of what is actually happening on the continent?

The impact of the Biafran war in Nigeria is much discussed - here we ask how it shaped the way Britain sees the world.

Producer: Sami Kent
An Overtone production for BBC Radio 4.

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58 minutes

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