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  • Biafra and the AGIP Oil Workers:Ransoming and the Modern Nation State in Perspective
  • Roy Doron (bio)


On 9 May 1969, in the midst of the Nigerian Civil War, a squad of Biafran commandoes attacked an oil facility belonging to the Italian oil company Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli (AGIP)1 on the west bank of the River Niger, near the town of Kwale, some seventy kilometers south of Onitsha. In the assault, eleven oil workers were killed and a further eighteen were taken prisoner and ferried across the Niger into the secessionist enclave. After two weeks, when the Nigerian government and a team from AGIP found a mass grave with the eleven bodies, the Biafran government admitted to holding the surviving eighteen, which consisted of fourteen Italians, three Germans and a Jordanian. The Biafrans claimed the oil workers had taken up arms with their Nigerians guards during the raid and tried them for aiding the Nigerians in a genocidal war against Biafra, sentencing them to death on 2 June. Three days later the prisoners were released, after a Portuguese request for clemency. Unofficial reports, news interviews and declassified documents suggest that the Italian Foreign Ministry and AGIP paid a ransom of ITL 18,000,000,000, or USD 3,000,000, to secure their release. Biafra sought not only to hold the workers hostage, but to frighten the oil industry, which the Biafrans considered complicit in what they characterized as a genocidal war.2

Because public opinion in support of Biafra had begun to wane since early 1969, the Biafrans used this case to thrust their plight back into the global spotlight. Further, the Biafran Government used the affair to gain several material and political advantages. Not only did the Biafrans hold the oil workers until a ransom was allegedly paid, the Biafrans hoped to use the affair to establish de-facto recognition of their government by holding high level governmental talks and using Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Committee of the Red [End Page 137] Cross (ICRC) and other aid organizations. The affair proved an unmitigated disaster for the Biafrans and gave the Nigerians some authority in the propaganda war that the Biafrans had, until this moment, waged so effectively. Though the Biafrans received a substantial payment in exchange for the prisoners, the costs of taking hostages and holding them for ransom was so unpalatable to the international community that the monetary gains were far outstripped by the non-monetary costs associated with an act seen as criminal.

Biafra’s attack on AGIP’s facility and subsequent hostage crisis caused an international uproar and led to global public opinion, especially in Europe, turning against Biafra’s cause. Biafra had hitherto cultivated an image of a modern state in the making and this affair tarnished the nascent republic’s image. The decline in Biafra’s standing came about because ransoming had, by the mid twentieth century, become an act associated with criminal behavior and not one that modern nation states engaged in. Biafra was actively engaging global public opinion to portray its cause as a just one and its image as a modern state worthy of joining the family of nations. This case showcases the shift in ransoming practices where the non-monetary costs associated with a state actor engaging in behavior now seen as a criminal far outweighed any gains made by the action.

Background to the Nigerian Civil War

Nigeria’s civil war erupted in May 1967 as the culmination of the political crisis that had plagued the country since independence, and had its roots in the structure of the colonial and post-colonial state. Nigeria’s politics had long been dominated by the three large ethnic groups, the predominantly Muslim Hausa in the Northern Region, the mainly Christian Igbo in the Eastern Region and the Yoruba in the Western Region, who comprised both Muslims and Christians. Together, these three groups comprised almost seventy percent of the country’s population when Nigeria became independent on 1 October 1960.3 Nigeria’s crisis stemmed from the competition between the rival ethnic groups’ over control of the country’s power structure, which was the key to...


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pp. 137-156
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