Biafra War: The Catholic Priest, the Hollywood Publicist and the Arms Dealer

As part of the revelations contained in the 21,000 pages of confidential and secret American documents on the Nigeria – Biafra War, the Irish missionary priest of the Holy Ghost Fathers, Fr Kevin Doheny Cssp was Ojukwu’s intelligence director. He was also reputed to be in charge of all radio communications in Biafra. According to the American secret documents, Fr Doheny a cousin of Senator Mansfield, had ties to Senator Goodell and Congressman Lowenstein who visited Biafra, and through his older brother, Fr Mike Doheny had ties to Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston and member of National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP)and to US Speaker McCormack who passed the landmark 1964 American Civil Rights Legislation.

Father Doheny was ordained a priest on 5th of July 1953 in Dublin and arrived in Owerri Diocese in November 1954. During the Civil War, Father Doheny was successful in mobilising worldwide catholic relief support for the suffering children and women in Biafra. Doheny who travelled from Dublin to Geneva to hold talks with Clarence Clyde Ferguson, Jr., the US Special Coordinator on Relief to Victims of the Nigerian Civil War in June 1969, told the American head of mission there that the charge of genocide against the Federal troops was “highly exaggerated” but he said  it as “a major factor in keeping the Biafrans fighting.” Robert Goldstein, Biafra’s public relations guru said it was necessary for the world to see the deaths and the starvation of tens of thousands refugees in Biafra. And so he helped organised regular international press trips to Biafra.

But unlike Fr Doheny, he was motivated purely by the financial angle. In a conversation he had with Robert Smith, the country officer for Nigeria at the US State department in Washington on 13 February 1968, Goldstein said Mathew Mbu, the Biafran Commissioner for External Affairs arranged for him a public relations contract worth “one million pounds in negotiable bonds” with the Biafran government. He then presented the two certificates, one for £200,000 payable in 1968 and another for £800,000 payable in 1973 for the diplomat to see. While both bore a stamped signature of a Nigerian central Bank official, they seemed payable to the “Ministry of Finance of Eastern Nigeria,”  Smith noted. Goldstein said he was told he could borrow money against the certificates pending the time they matured. In other words, the Biafran had convinced Goldstein he was holding gold in both hands.

Robert Smith then told Goldstein that first, Biafra was in serious financial difficulties. Two, he wasn’t sure Biafra was going to exist by the time those certificates become redeemable. Three those certificates, given the names and offices of those who signed and stamped them, were of doubtful value and authenticity. Goldstein replied Smith that were not fake and that as a matter of fact, he was going to the World Bank later in the day to see how the bonds could be added to Biafra or Nigeria’s external debts portfolio when he eventually had to cash them.

It wasn’t Goldstein alone who was paid for his services to Biafra with these Bonds. According to the cable of 16 November 1967 written by Ambassador Mathews in Lagos, Ojukwu went on Radio Biafra to denounce the Federal Government for seeking through its High Commissioner in London, “the services of four notorious mercenaries who were connected with recent activities in Congo.” They were “Mike Hoare, otherwise known as mad Major, Commandant John Peterson, Major Capister Wicks, and Major Bob Desnard.” In October, the document continued, Ojukwu had met these men in Port Harcourt airport. They had turned his offered down as too small. He then went on radio to reveal and denounce them so that they would be rendered unbuyable by the Federal Government. Then he thought up the Bonds and called them up.

 According to the secret cable sent from American embassy in Gabon, on 12 November 1968, “Bob Denard, a French mercenary arrived in Biafra in December 1967 with 100 mercenaries under contract with Biafra. They fought as a single unit during the defence of Onitsha. Rolf Steiner, Taffy Williams and an unnamed Italian  then became military advisors to Ojukwu. At the end of April 1968, Steiner and the Italian were each given command of a battalion of Biafran commandos with 400 to 500 men per battalion. The Italian was killed during the defence of Port Harcourt. In April, Taffy Williams went to the UK to recruit two additional mercenaries: John Erasmus and Alex who were veterans of the 6th commando in the Katanga war in Congo. Williams, Erasmus and Alex arrived in Biafra at the end of June 1968. There was another Irish mercenary during March to August, named Paddy who was an engineer with 22years experience in Africa. He was in charge of maintaining equipment.” Still another French mercenary and a veteran of Congo named Armond and another Frenchman named Leroy arrived at the end of August to fight for Biafra based on the Bonds.

It was Leroy who proposed to Ojukwu to set up small guerrilla units to arrange air drops from Libreville, Gabon since Uli airstrip could not support the weight of the bigger transport plane proposed for more quantitative deliveries of arms and ammunition.  Steiner, who was now in command of the 4th commando brigade, was put in charge of the defence of Aba. In early June when the Federal government announced ‘operation quick kill’ to finish off the war rapidly, the Steiner’s Brigade consisted of about 8000 men; only 1,500 were armed. Why?

The American, Hank(Henry) A. Wharton, was the main arms dealer remaining for Biafra after Christian Von Oppenheim, the Spanish-based arms dealer of German origin was shot down on 8 October 1968 when he flew to bomb Lagos. The first bomb, a fifty pound ordnance dropped on the southwest side of State House in Marina did not explode. The second hit the Barclays Bank building (40 Marina, Lagos) and the extensive damage was done to the Canadian chancery in that same building. The third bomb was dropped in the vicinity of Niger House at the intersection between Broad Street and Marina. According to US defence Attaché’s report, the plane then flew over to Apapa dropping a bottled gas bomb on Harbour Road missing the large fuel tanks in the area which was its target. It was when plane circled to return to Lagos Island that anti-aircraft batteries from the Naval Dockyard, Apapa were launched at it. Still limping in the air as it passed over Ikoyi, the plane was hit by artillery from Dodan Barracks. And so Christian Von Oppenheim and his three crew members hit the ground at Ikoyi South West as a ball of fire. That left Hank Wharton as Biafra’s sole arms dealer.

Wharton had been involved in arms supply for Biafra since October 1966 when Ojukwu told a very selected few he had decided on secession. In September 1968, Wharton said he was tired of these Biafran Bonds and the assurance Ojukwu to him of setting up the first Biafran National Airline once the war was over. flew to see Ojukwu for his $1million dollars cash payment.  Instead, Ojukwu accused Wharton of working for his enemies. He charged that from June to August 1968 when the Federal Government announced the much publicized “quick-kill” offensive to defeat the Biafra, Wharton’s deliveries suddenly became irregular and so the mercenaries and their battalions could not have enough supplies of arms and ammunition. Ojukwu also described as sabotage the incident during which Wharton’s plane emptied its Biafra-bound cargo into the Atlantic Ocean. In his diary entry on that day Ojukwu wrote:  “August 13 [1968]: The Hank Wharton Plot, hatched by British government and American CIA to sabotage Biafra and help Nigeria to carry through her ‘final thrust’ into Biafran heartland. Cargoes of arms and ammunition bought by Biafra are dumped into the sea during airflight. Tons of new Biafran currency are dumped into the sea, to create artificial scarcity in the Republic.”

Warton vigorously denied that was the case. He told Ojukwu that in actual fact his plane developed engine problems and the pilot had to quickly eject its cargo into the sea to avoid crash. He argued further if he had wanted to double-cross Ojukwu he wouldn’t have lifted the cargo at all from Sao Tome. Wharton sounded convincing but Ojukwu won’t have it. He had no money to pay Wharton.

The European mercenaries too started having a rethink; they were convinced beyond all reasonable doubts, there was no money; the bonds were a fraud. Peter Lynch the Australian correspondent working for United Press International who went to Biafra told the American ambassador in Lagos on his way back that Pierre Laures, the chief French procurement officer had disappeared. “All the French mercenaries of the Faulques group had left Biafra as they found the going too tough and had not being paid.” Robert Goldstein, the publicity guru who claimed love of the Dollar drove him to work for Ojukwu, called up Robert Smith, American diplomat again in Washington. He said because of the discussions they had about the validity of Biafran bonds, he too had started to scale down his commitment to Biafra.

On Tuesday 13th August 1968, Goldstein addressed a press conference in Washington that he was done with Biafra and Ojukwu. In his resignation letter he accused Ojukwu of using those starving children as pawns to negotiate favourable concessions for himself because of the OAU summit coming up; that Ojukwu never cared about those starving children and yet, wrote Goldstein, “starvation was the most agonising death that can befall any living creature.” Robert Goldstein seemed to have claimed the moral high ground. His conscience seemed to have pricked him and so he spoke out.

However, The Milwaukee Journal of 14th August 1968 told a different story. The paper reported that Robert Goldstein was given $35,000 down payment in cash for his resignation by the Federal government in place of the useless $1miilion Biafran Bonds he was carrying about. Even his resignation letter too was worded for him. According to a confidential State Department document cabled to the embassy in Lagos on 17 July, Goldstein met with Iyalla Nigeria’s Ambassador to US on 16th July 1968 and offered to reverse all the PR successes he had done for Biafra.  He suggested that he would help organise a world press conference where Gowon would passionately plead with Ojukwu to allow his people to come out of the bush and be fed. This, Goldstein argued, would switch the evil perception of Gowon as the starver of children they had created in the eyes of the world back to Ojukwu and the Biafran government.  Goldstein also suggested that Nigerian planes should drop food and leaflets pointing to relief centres on starving Biafran territories; but this should only be done when foreign reporters were there.  The cable concludes: “the fact is that Goldstein has not received payment from the Biafrans is obviously the reason for the switch, but he didn’t reveal [to us] the price he is quoting to the Federal Government. He continues to negotiate with Iyalla and awaiting decision from Lagos.”

 A month later, the cable of 13th of August 1968 from Lagos to Washington noted: “We have seen the sample of the leaflets. It is printed on stiff paper in four languages – English, Ibo, Ibibio, Efik. Each leaflet has two tear of safe conduct passes. It reads: The federal government invites you to return to your homes…A call to all of you- men, women and children of the East Central State still running and hiding in the bush out of fear – to return to your homes in the liberated areas of Enugu, Onitsha, Agwu, Akwa, Abakaliki, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Degema, Yenagoa, Bonny, Uyo, etc. the Federal Government pleads with you to return to your homes today in the interest of your safety and wellbeing. Many of your kith and kin (brothers and relations) have already returned to their homes, unmolested, happy and free. They are adequately fed daily, and given medical attention regularly as the pictures in these pages show. Please return to your homes today. The Federal government guarantees:

  1. Safety for your lives and property
  2. Medical care for your ailments
  3. Food for those who are hungry
  4. New homes for displaced persons
  5. Happiness and prosperity for you and your children.”

$35,000 had changed hands. Hank Warton, Biafra’s sole arms dealer admitted too in an interview with Alexander Mitchell published in Sunday Times of 27 October 1968 that he too had been “approached by British agents and offered bribes to switch allegiances.” He emptied his cargo in the sea to convince his new paymasters he meant business. The British Foreign Office promptly denied it. Wharton, Peter Lynch observed, had a row with Goldstein in Port Harcourt back in February 1968 over Biafrans’ failure to produce money owed him. Goldstein persuaded him he would get paid one way or the other. They were both men. Wharton later said he received “an anonymous call” from Frankfurt in Germany offering him $100, 000 to switch sides. As Alexander Mitchell of Sunday Times noted, Wharton secretly visited London twice in two weeks.

During their talk in Geneva, Fr Kevin Doheny told Clarence Ferguson that Biafrans believe the key to a ceasefire was London. “Despite British support for the federal side, there is an innate respect in Biafra for Britain. He feels that a British fact-finding mission to Biafra would be well received.” Ferguson carefully noted what the priest said and asked if Biafrans “have a price” other than “the stated price” it might be “useful if they sent the message in clear terms by known Biafran official.” Ferguson then suggested Pius Okigbo, the commissioner for economic affairs and Sir Louis Mbanefo, the Chief Justice.

 Father Kevin Dahoney stayed with the Biafrans till after the war.  Days after the war, he was arrested and tried on 27th January 1970, found guilty of “giving military help to the rebel regime” and sentenced to six months imprisonment. He was expelled from Nigeria on Tuesday, 3rd of February 1970.

  • Damola Awoyokun is the executive Editor of Pwc Review and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

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Artice title: Biafra War: The Catholic Priest, the Hollywood Publicist and the Arms Dealer