JOHN L. BUCHANAN
February 13, 2007
I was a Peace Corp volunteer in the first group of volunteers to go overseas in 1961 (Ghana I). I had a super experience in Ghana so when I got a call from Peace Corps Washington several years after my return to go to Nigeria as a staff member I jumped at the chance because of my overseas experience. I was working in North Carolina when the call came. In North Carolina there was little news in the media about the situation in Nigeria so when I agreed to go I envisioned helping volunteers have the same positive experience in Nigeria that I had had in Ghana.
That turned out not to be the case in the Nigeria. After I arrived in Nigeria to take my post the situation worsened. I tried to support the volunteers in their efforts in spite of the disturbing news in the media and rumors that were circulating. About a year after my arrival it seemed prudent to start making plans to evacuate volunteers and staff. Viable jobs for the volunteers were becoming scarce, food was in short supply, businesses were closing and travel was dangerous. It was a painful decision because most volunteers wanted to stay and do what volunteers do and what they were trained to do. I had great sympathy and admiration for that frame of mind but I was now responsible for their safety and well being. Peace Corps volunteers in the Midwest were some of the last expats to leave their posts; other expats and government agencies were gone. Voice of America and BBC were advising all expats to leave the region as soon as possible.
After the evacuation of personnel from the Midwest to Lagos, volunteers with time left to serve on their commitment, were reassigned. Others had the option of travel or return home.
I was reassigned to Kenya Peace Corps staff and tried to become involved there. I took Swahili lessons (my third vernacular language training), traveled the country but had little background for East Africa, which is admittedly a beautiful part of the world. I thought often about volunteers who had also been reassigned to other parts of Africa and had to in short order be assimilated into a new culture which might be quite different and learn yet another language. It is/was not easy.
The report is the day-to-day activities, as I saw
them, during the evacuation. I'm not including the telephone message log, memos
to the volunteers or PC Lagos, the names of volunteers, host country nationals,
PC staff, or the plans for the return to Nigeria after the war, which has never
happened. I am nervous about using names without permission; obtaining
permission would take more time than I presently have available.
AUGUST 9 - AUGUST 20, 1967
Working with my forty-year-old notes and a less than accurate memory of the many events in 1967, the incidents with small groups of PCVs, individual volunteers, staff members, host country nationals and other country nationals may not always be accurately remembered. However I am still grateful that I had the opportunity of working with some of the most dedicated, resilient and delightful people I've ever met.
The situation in Midwest Nigeria in 1967 was tense; I had no background or experience in planning evacuations but with the volunteers, staff, other government agencies, host country nationals and other country nationals in the Midwest at that time it seemed anything could have been possible. In the forty years since that time I've had brief contacts with a few of those evacuees and they still exude that same enthusiasm for making the world a better, safer and more humane place for everyone.
This report of the evacuation does not contain all the individual stories that my memory may have distorted, aggrandized or forgotten. But even if my memory is less than 100%, my own response to difficult new situations during these past forty years is still tempered by the performance of that group, as individuals or collectively. And I still in my mind thank them for being who they were.
February, 2007 John Buchanan
On August 9, 1967, the Midwest State was invaded and occupied by the Biafran Army. Over the next eleven days the Peace Corps staff in the Midwest was faced with many decisions that directly affected the volunteers posted in the Midwest and, indeed, the Peace Corps stance in Nigeria. Uppermost in these decisions was the safety of the volunteers. As the events unfolded over the next eleven days the safety of the volunteers was not the determining reason for leaving the Midwest. At no time did the staff feel that any volunteer's safety was being jeopardized The problems which did result in the decision to leave were problems that the staff was not prepared to deal with given the speed with which the situation changed and the insufficient planning given to these contingencies. Though not necessarily in order of importance, the four problems that most influenced the decision to evacuate were the communication problem, lack of jobs, shortage of food and the threat of civil disorder.
(1) The psychological effect of other volunteer agencies leaving, an exodus of expatriates, the often distorted and frightening rumors and radio broadcasts urging all expatriates to leave caused concern among the PCVs. This problem may have been lessened with a communication system linked to each volunteer post; such a system was not available and could not have been established in a short time. (2) The problem of finding productive work for all volunteers proved so difficult that only six PCVs out of one hundred twenty were actively employed after the schools closed. Two of those jobs were in a mission hospital, one in the Benin General Hospital, two Ag/RD volunteers were able to continue their regular work and one teacher had a special project that might have lasted for a week. Of these six jobs, only the three hospital workers could have continued working for an indefinite period. (3) The shortage of food and the closing of shops caused rising food prices in addition to difficulty in obtaining many essential food items. Those volunteers in towns would soon be faced with the prospect of spending their days searching for food. (4) As food items became scarce, and with the police force all but dissolved and the army preoccupied, there was a growing threat of looting and general disorder. Peace Corps staff had no way of coping with that situation other than evacuation.
There were also subtle pressures that staff considered in making the decision to evacuate. What exactly was the Peace Corps' position in dealing with the Liberation Army? Was the staff compromising the position of volunteers by doing so? By allowing volunteers to stay in the Midwest was the staff making it difficult for PCVs in the rest of Nigeria? These were some of the questions staff considered during the next eleven days.
Philosophically the staff tackled the question of the Peace Corps' presence as compared with the Peace Corps actively involved in meaningful work. During the final days before the evacuation as I drove back and forth on Akugbe Street between my apartment and the Peace Corps office I had the feeling that my host country neighbors felt a certain security in my being there and following the same routine that I had followed since last October. Multiplied by one hundred twenty PCVs going back and forth on their Akugbe Streets and the staff felt that constituted an important reason for staying.
Finally the communication problem with Peace Corps/Lagos was one of frustration for the staff. Although assured many times that we were on the scene and best able to evaluate the local scene, the nagging thought that there might be information we did not have, and which could not be sent over the radio, weighed very heavily on every decision that was made. The second guessing, the carefully worded questions which hopefully would get the answer needed, the analysis of each message for the "true" meaning, and just plain luck were some of the ingredients in any "right" decisions that were made.
On the following pages is the record of events as I saw them occurring. Throughout the eleven days the volunteers and staff searched hopefully for a way to remain or return to the Midwest and continue the work that in the past year had begun to pay off. They did not find a way to remain or return and their disappointment was profound. No one had predicted or prepared for the events that occurred. I feel that the decisions that were made were in the best interest of Peace Corps and that Peace Corps volunteers may some day be able to return to the Midwest.
August 29, 1967 John Buchanan
Record of Events of the Midwest Evacuation from August 9-20
Wednesday - August 9: At 6:45 a.m. in my apartment on Akugbe Street in New Benin, another staff member and I heard what sounded like gunfire in the direction of Edokpolar Grammar School. Shortly after the gunfire started we saw, from my second floor apartment balcony, soldiers and students running on Ekugbe Street toward town. Several of the runners shouted to us that the East was attacking and that we should leave! A neighbor told us that war had started. We drove three blocks to the Peace Corps office. When we got there the Nigerian staff was excited and commenting on the rumors they had heard about Biafra invading the Midwest. I called a staff member about 7:30 and told him to call another staff member who lived in the same area and tell him to stay with his family until we could determine what was happening. That staff member confirmed that there was also some disturbance on the G.R.A. Telephone communication was discontinued shortly after my call to the G.R.A. Rumors seemed to indicate that Biafra had taken over all the Midwest as far west as Benin and including Benin. Supposedly Biafran troops had crossed the Niger River bridge during the night and moved to Benin in the early morning. A traveler who was returning to Sapele reported seeing the first Landrovers with Biafran markings driving through Benin at about 8:30 thus confirming who it was that had invaded the Midwest. There were some initial reports that the Biafran solders were hunting and killing the Hausas in Benin. Most of the rumors caused a great deal of anxiety and everyone was very jumpy. The staff from the G.R.A. began arriving at the office around 10:00 and a staff meeting was held at 10:30. It was agreed that we would wait to see what was going to happen before doing anything. Two staff members drove into Benin followed later by two other staff members. Neither trip resulted in any additional information. There was a noticeable calming down in the afternoon but little information to add to the early reports. With so little knowledge as to what was happening it was impossible to do much more than wait for new developments. Because of the dusk to dawn curfew imposed by the Liberation Army, it was decided that we should all go home about 4:00 p.m.
Thursday - August 10: Benin seemed relatively quiet in the morning and it was decided that a doctor and staff member should try to get a travel pass to go to Auchi to see a volunteer. The volunteer had reportedly broken his collarbone in a Honda accident and had not been seen by a doctor yet. No one was allowed to move out of Benin yesterday so a host country official was called to see if he could arrange a travel pass. The official said he could and told the staff member and doctor to come to the Officers' Mess at Army Headquarters to pick up the pass. Before the staff member and doctor left to pick up the pass (it was late afternoon before the pass was issued) it was decided that all the volunteers in the Auchi area should be alerted to come to Benin until we could determine where they would be safer. It was felt that Federal troops might attack through the northern part of the Midwest and the staff felt that volunteers who lived along the north-south road should be moved from their posts. During the morning it was decided to move all of the volunteers as far south as Uromi to Benin. This decision to move PCVs was relayed to PC/Lagos. At this time the country director was alerted that the Benin staff felt strongly that we should start considering evacuation. The possibility that the Midwest would be used as a battleground seemed immanent. The country director suggested the local staff start touring the Midwest and then make a decision about whether to evacuate or not.
Friday - August 11: The situation in Benin was still outwardly calm but the PCVs in Benin were told to pack all their belongings for possible evacuation. A staff member was sent to Lewis and Peet rubber factory to see if it was available for evacuation. Two staff members went to Sapele to make arrangements for housing, feeding and transportation for possible evacuees. Along with two staff members I visited the military commander and was assured not only about the safety of the volunteers in the Midwest but also of the desire of the commander for the Peace Corps to continue to work in the Midwest. The vacation schedule of PCVs was explained to the commander--most of the volunteers were due to leave in the next several days--and advice was requested on how they should plan their travel. The commander suggested that the volunteers wait until the middle of the following week at which time they could go by road to Lagos!
When asked about danger areas in the Midwest, the commander recommended withdrawal of all volunteers in the Warri and Sapele areas. A staff member in the Sapele area had been in telephone contact with PC/Benin and had already started passing the word to the volunteers in the delta. The PCVs in Warri and Bomadi were instructed through the AID radio in Warri to leave the area by the first available means. The staff continued to recommend that all PCVs leave the region on vacation rather than evacuation; the recommendation did suggest, however, that the volunteers pack all their belongings just in case unforeseen events made it impossible to return to the Midwest.
Saturday - August 12: Two staff members left for Kwale and Ashaka to pass the word to the volunteers to leave the delta. The option of leaving the Midwest or of staying was still open but our best information indicated that no volunteers should stay in the delta. At this time we had information from a staff member that there would be a ship in Sapele that would leave Monday afternoon. Staff was recommending that as many volunteers as could be notified should leave the Midwest on that ship. The staff member in the delta telephoned again reporting that the sailing time had been changed from Monday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. The volunteers in Benin were notified--particularly terminating volunteers--that arrangements were being made to get them to Sapele to the ship. There was a rumor that another ship was scheduled to arrive in Sapele either Tuesday or Wednesday; some PCVs wanted to use the extra few days to pack and see what was going to happen. Two staff members continued to pass the word to evacuate the delta. There was telephone communication with the staff member in the delta who was to advise PCVs they had an option of staying in the Midwest--but not the delta--or go on vacation, which was strongly recommended. It is not known if this message was made clear to all volunteers; many of them had come to Sapele as a result of information passed by the oil companies and the warden system used by the British High Commission. The best information the PCVs had suggested that it was time to evacuate and they did so. Every volunteer post in the delta was contacted but most of the PCVs had left as a result of earlier visits by staff or radio broadcasts (VOA had advised all Americans to leave the Midwest).
Both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Cooperatives and Rural Development were contacted and assured that although PC staff was encouraging volunteers to leave the Midwest at this time as far as PC staff knew the Peace Corps presence was intended to continue in the Midwest. Both ministries were understanding of the staff position. A host country official was contacted and advised that there were numbers of volunteers in Benin who would be available for work in the hospital if needed. There had been a report that many of the nurses had left for their villages resulting in a shortage of personnel to help with catering and other hospital services. A brief meeting was held with volunteers in Benin to bring them up to date on the situation in the Midwest, as the staff knew it. A memo was prepared for all volunteers urging them to leave by ship from Sapele. The sailing time of the ship had again been changed, this time from Saturday to Sunday afternoon. Based on new information it was decided to allow volunteers stationed in the north and northeast of the Midwest to return to their posts if they wanted to or to stay in Benin several more days to await developments.
Two staff members arrived from the East with the eastern freight, which was to be loaded on the WACASC trucks for shipment out of the country.
Some PCVs who had not had a chance to cash their living allowance checks found that the banks would no longer cash checks on a Lagos bank. The imprest fund had about three hundred pounds so it was decided to let the PCVs have five pounds if they had no money and could not borrow any. The PCVs were in good spirits although the anxiety over the situation was mounting as rumors continued to circulate. I met with the British Deputy High Commissioner to arrange for volunteers and other American citizens to join their motor convoy to go to meet the ship on Sunday. The volunteers were notified to meet at the Peace Corps office at 7:00 a.m. and they would be provided transportation to Sapele.
Sunday - August 13: All the PCVs were delivered to the High Commissioner's house by 7:30 a.m.; there was a delay before the convoy formed and got underway. The volunteers who were leaving were in good spirits. Before the convoy left at 9:30 a.m. a staff member advised me that a Peace Corp contract employee's family had been ordered by his employer to leave the Midwest on the ship. There were several roadblocks between Benin and Sapele, which caused some delay, but the convoy reached Sapele about an hour and a half before the Steinhoff sailed.
The PC staff member in Sapele reported that most of the remaining PCVs from the delta were on the ship. The delta operation went off smoothly due to the housing and feeding preparations that the staff member had made. Thirty-six volunteers were on the ship; four volunteers remained in the delta including the two missing PCVs.
A radio message was received from PC/Lagos to move all PCVs from the northern part of the Midwest; a runner was sent to notify the four volunteers who had returned to their posts in the north to return to Benin. Four staff members from the East arrived in Benin.
Monday - August 14: Two staff members left for Agbor and Issele-Uku to let volunteers in that area know about PC plans; these volunteers were becoming anxious as they had been out of contact with the PC office for almost a week and did not know--and had not been informed--about the evacuation plans. The PC doctor and I left for Omandino to find a missing volunteer. Neither of the missing volunteers had been heard from in Sapele. We arranged for the Jeep that had been left at the Sapele Club to be driven to Eku so two volunteers working at the hospital would have transportation. One of the missing volunteers was found in Omandino. We rowed to his village in a canoe and helped him pack. We returned to Benin by 5:30 p.m. Little news about the war during the day; Benin relatively calm.
Tuesday - August 15: At a staff meeting at 9:00 a.m. the staff was tense over the situation in the Midwest. The staff decided to recommend total evacuation of all PCVs and staff within forty-eight hours based on the situation in the Midwest. This message was radioed to PC/Lagos and they concurred. With the help of the Eastern staff, the implementation of the evacuation plan was begun. The evacuation was to be from PCV posts to Benin, from Benin to Sapele, from Sapele to Escrovos, and finally from Escrovos to Lagos. As the day wore on some of the tenseness lessened, as many of the morning reports were proven false. The volunteers stayed close to the Peace Corps office and were eager for any news we could give them regarding the situation in the Midwest or the plan for evacuating from the Midwest. A staff meeting at one of the staff houses at 8:00 p.m. gave Midwest staff a chance to have a discussion and dialogue with the staff from the Eastern region. It became clear that although the Eastern staff experience was helpful, the Midwest staff was in the best position and capable of evacuating the volunteers from the Midwest. There was a lengthy discussion on when to tell the PCVs to evacuate and by what means they should be evacuated.
Wednesday - August 16: PC/Lagos radioed a message to evacuate all PCVs as soon as possible by the first available transport! Two staff members left immediately for Lewis and Peet rubber factory and Koko to explore the possibility of tugs and barges at these two points. Three staff members left for Sapele to check on tugs and barges, the possibility of another ship and the off-loading of the WACASC trucks onto barges or a ship. A staff member left for Asaba to tell the PCVs to come to Benin. That staff member also made arrangements to hire a lorry to bring all the PCV freight along the Benin-Asaba road to Benin. Plans were made for the storage of furniture, canceling leases, auditing the imprest fund and a general administrative wind-up. As the day wore on there appeared to be growing difficulty in arranging transport out of Sapele. Another staff member reported a concentration of troops at Koko, which would not make it possible to use Koko as a debarkation point. It was impossible to find any military people at Army Headquarters from whom to get permission to travel or recommendations for alternative routes for evacuation. The evacuation situation became more difficult as the evacuation possibilities became fewer.
Thursday - August 17: Word came from PC/Lagos to take open barges from Sapele to Escrovos as the last chance to leave the Midwest. Word was also received that if we did not take the barges the alternative was "to keep your heads low"! We started making final arrangements to move from Benin to Sapele. The announcement that the Host Country Official we had been in contact with had been made Military Administrator came as a surprise. A staff member and I made an appointment to meet him to iron out the final details of getting permission to leave the Midwest through Sapele to Escrovos. The meeting with the new Military Administrator was strange and did little to assure me of any help from the Liberation Army. During the meeting an officer and a civilian came into the room and spoke in Ibo. On several occasions they mentioned Sapele, Escrovos, Gilli-Gilli and ships. When we left the meeting we were still not sure that we had permission to travel to Escrovos, although it was repeated several times by the new Military Administrator that "you are free to travel to any part of the Midwest."
PC/Lagos was radioed and told of the entire plan. Two staff members who had traveled to Sapele reported another complication in getting permission to use the barges. The Palm Line representative in Sapele had to have permission from Palm Line in Lagos before he would authorize the use of the barges.
The lists of PCVs, American citizens and other nationals who were planning on being evacuated were taken to Army Headquarters about 5:00 p.m. While presenting these lists to the major on duty, a PC staff member was brought in at gunpoint carrying the USAID radio! Questioning about the radio lasted several minutes and the officers dismissed all of us. The PC staff went immediately to the Deputy High Commissioner and he radioed Lagos to let them know the radio had been confiscated. The staff then went to the Peace Corps office and got the volunteers and rest of the PC staff on their way out of town. It was a relief to know that they were on their way out of town. The remaining staff member and I went back to Army Headquarters to give the list of license numbers on the vehicles and to pick up the letter giving us permission to travel from Benin to Escrovos. The major at that time refused to write the letter or to give permission to make the trip! The staff member and I went back to the Deputy High Commissioner to ask him to get a message to the American Embassy so they could clarify if we were still authorized to move from Sapele to Escrovos on the barge. While at the High Commissioner's house I received word from the Catholic Mission that the other missing PCV was at the Mission. That volunteer thought we were leaving for Sapele at 4:00 a.m. Friday morning rather than 4:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
The Deputy High Commissioner was unable to use his radio because of interference, the first time that had happened. He was able to telephone to Enugu to the High Commission there and fortunately the American Consul was having dinner with the Deputy High Commissioner. The American Consul was told of our plight and he in turn got in touch with the Embassy. The staff member and I returned to a staff house about midnight anticipating a call during the night from Enugu. We decided that if the call did not come, I would drive to Sapele the next morning and keep the barge from leaving at daybreak. I had previously given instructions that the barge should leave even if the staff member, missing PCV and I were not there.
Friday - August 18: I drove to Sapele before it got light in an effort to stop the barge before it left now that we no longer had permission to move. The other staff member would stay and contact the Embassy to clarify the order to evacuate. The volunteers and the rest of the staff members had spent a good night in the Sapele Club. The food and housing arrangements had been adequate. I reported the rather unsettling news to the staff that Peace Corps had been refused permission to go from Sapele to Escrovos. The staff decided that we should wait for word from the staff member in Benin before saying anything to the volunteers. We phoned Benin every half hour; the volunteers were not told about the latest development and they began to become restless wondering when we were going to leave. Three staff members continued to make preparations for the river trip. The barge would be ready for loading about 10:00 a.m. There was also a contact made with the manager of Chellerams to hire small boats to make the trip to Escrovos.
The tenseness kept building among staff members and consideration was being given to returning to Benin, moving on to Enugu and finally going overland to the Cameroons. A difficult if not impossible alternative in the rainy season. At 10:30 a.m. it was decided to return to Benin; several expatriates came to the Sapele Club with news that the FMG troops had landed south of Warri and other troops were in the Benin River heading toward Sapele At that time I told the staff member in Benin that we would return to Benin. When I returned to the Sapele Club--I was telephoning from the post office--the staff felt we should wait one more hour before moving to Benin. I concurred and a staff member was sent to telephone Benin that we would wait one more hour before leaving Sapele. By this time the volunteers were becoming very restless but it still seemed best not to let them know about the uncertain situation regarding our evacuation. A call was placed to Benin at 11:00 a.m. and the word was finally received from Benin to load the barge and prepare to sail; the staff member and the missing PCV would leave Benin immediately and join us as soon as possible. PCVs were loaded onto the buses and left for the dock. It took only about half an hour for everyone to board the barge with all their baggage. Staff gave the keys to the Peace Corps vehicles and the USAID van to the Americans from the Baptist Mission in Eku who had agreed to store them for us. The staff member from Benin arrived with the missing PCV about 12:30 and the barge departed in the next few minutes. The volunteers settled down and the atmosphere relaxed considerably after the barge got underway. I still had some reservations about our reception at Koko but I kept these reservations to myself. The barge passed Koko after several hours' travel with no problem. Several soldiers were visible but the barge's passing caused no concern. The volunteers and staff were now very relaxed and the trip down stream progressed smoothly under unseasonably clear skies. Most agreed the barge trip wasn't as bad as it could have been but the good weather played a large part in that assessment.
It became clear to me that we could not reach Escrovos before dark (the time to make the trip by barge had been reported to take as few as seven hours to as long as twenty hours!). The captain was reluctant to travel after sunset because of the blockade. At dark he started looking for a place to tie up. Within about an hour's travel of Escrovos, by one estimate, the captain pulled over to the bank and tied up the barge and tug for the night. It became apparent very quickly that it wasn't going to be a very comfortable night. Mosquitoes swarmed all over the barge and no one was prepared for them; most were up all night because of the insects, the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and a spirited discussion that went on at one end of the barge among several volunteers.
Saturday - August 19: After a miserable sleepless night most barge passengers were moving about by 4:30 a.m. and anxious to leave and rendezvous with the ship which was to take us from Escrovos to Lagos. There was still some lingering doubt if there was actually a ship at Escrovos so after we got under way about 6:30 a.m. everyone was eagerly looking around the next bend hoping to see a ship. After about an hour a small boat was seen at the end of a large lagoon; none of the passengers were sure whether it was part of the blockade or the ship that was sent to meet the barge. It was a much smaller craft than had been expected. Shortly a Gulf Oil tug came along side the barge and the transfer of freight and passengers was made in about half an hour.
As soon as everyone settled down the passengers were served breakfast consisting of a can of fruit cocktail and a box of cheese crackers. The tug captain passed the word that we would stay in Escrovos on the tug until 5:00 p.m. and then leave for Lagos. Volunteers and staff tried to catch a little sleep during the day to make up for the loss of sleep the night before. About 2:00 p.m. a freighter steamed into the harbor followed by another smaller ship. Shortly after these ships anchored in the harbor there were five underwater explosions in the harbor. A small patrol boat approached the tug (Niger Tide) and told everyone to keep their heads down! The captain radioed that the Niger Tide was a neutral vessel; within minutes the Niger Tide was ordered out of the harbor and the tug left Escrovos about 3:00 p.m. As soon as the Niger Tide got beyond the breakwater it became apparent that the sea voyage would be rough. There was not enough room for everyone to lie down to sleep as the deck was soon awash. There was spray breaking along the sides and some of the passengers were soon wet. It looked like another miserable night for the evacuation party! Five or six volunteers got seasick; the loss of sleep and lack of food was beginning to tell on everyone.
Sunday - August 20: After another uncomfortable, sleepless night the tug arrived outside Lagos harbor at 5:00 a.m. The tug got clearance to enter Lagos harbor around 7:00 a.m. Inside the harbor the army stopped the Niger Tide in order to search the luggage and check the passengers. Luckily only the visible luggage was searched--which was about one-fifth of all luggage--luggage stored in the freezer had been overlooked. The Niger Tide docked at the Apapa wharves and the evacuees were met by the Peace Corps Lagos staff, Embassy officials and news reporters. Everyone was visibly glad to disembark. A few more preliminaries and the volunteers and staff left for the Mainland Hotel, showers and brunch.