The Diplomacy of Theodore Brown and the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War

Negotiating a Destiny

by Keith A. Dye (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 176 Pages


This book chronicles the diplomacy of civil rights activist Theodore Brown and the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA) to help end the Nigeria-Biafra civil war from 1967 to 1970. The book challenges histories dismissive of the ANLCA and makes its contribution to African American history and U.S. history by arguing that the group was successful as the only African American group allowed to serve as mediators to the conflict. This was a "first" for African American relations with Africa as a result of post-coloniality. Their endeavor opened up a new avenue for relations between the two peoples. Their effort was unique because it was independent of the U.S. government.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 Sourcing the Prelude to 1960: Great Britain, Nigeria, African Americans, and the United States
  • Movement within an Atlantic Empire
  • African Americans and Independent Nigeria
  • 2 Two Decisions: The United States and the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa Engage Pre-War Nigeria
  • The Matter of an ANLCA
  • Toward 1967: U.S. Diplomacy to Nigeria and the ANLCA, Part One
  • 1967: A Leap to Destiny
  • 3 Declaring War, Declaring African America
  • Broadening Ideas and ANLCA Engagement with Nigeria-Biafra
  • The Meeting at Aburi
  • An Unexpected Note: Black Power
  • 4 “The Response in Africa, Especially in Nigeria, Was Extremely Encouraging”
  • Progress to a Destiny
  • 1968 As Fate Would Have It
  • After Brown and the ANLCA: African Americans on the War
  • Conclusion: A Pyrrhic Victory?
  • Index


I owe a special thanks to Joellen El Bashir, curator of manuscript collections, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University for bringing this interview to my attention and making it available. I must also acknowledge other curators, researchers, librarians, archivists and other personnel at institutions that assisted in my research; independent researcher Naaman Josiah Pamoja and editor Sandra Judd; Michelle Smith and the anonymous reviewers and editors at Peter Lang Press. Thanks must also be given for the advice, support and encouragement from many colleagues, former colleagues, associates and personnel in African and African American Studies, the Social Sciences Department, and Dean’s office at the University of Michigan—Dearborn; the history department at Oakland University (special nods to De Witt Dykes and wife Silverenia, Bernadette Dickerson, and Mary Karasch with our annual get-togethers; Dan Clark and Sean Moran); the University of Detroit Mercy; University of Toledo, and the Africana Studies Department at Wayne State University. And a special thanks to Chaka Nantambu, Doris Triggs, and Kim Smith. All mistakes are mine. Lastly, thanks also to family and friends that provided encouragement.


When the United States provided war resources and recovery assistance to its European allies during and after World War II, African Americans also lent their support to a struggling Africa as an international freedom movement had begun to accelerate. “Allies” as a victorious war term and something of a Cold War commandment was rapidly on its way to meaning more than an association between the United States and Europe.1 The idea could easily extend to relations between African Americans and Africans during wartime, and those anti-colonial movements that would partly attribute their momentum to individuals and groups outside the continent.2 And, as could be expected of allies, once independence had become an irreversible tide by 1960 these same contributors would also assist with nation-building as an immediate objective of former colonies. The process would be rife with challenges when these new states retained or adjusted their colonial boundaries or formed new ones all on European models of what constituted functional sovereign entities. In a manner similar to efforts by the United States government to stem further decimation of the post-war European landscape, the American Negro Leadership Conference ←1 | 2→on Africa (ANLCA), a civil rights-oriented African affairs organization, would by 1967 bring its concern and expertise hopefully to help arrest decimation of an African state itself then on the verge of post-colonial civil war.3

Having some idea about the construction of a post-colonial world, members of the ANLCA turned their attention to an unsettling political quake in Nigeria following their January 1967 conference on lingering European regimes in Africa. Growing turmoil over egalitarian governance in Nigeria threatened to undermine the liberated role African Americans envisioned for the newly independent nation. ANLCA leaders reasoned that chances for a setback to such aspirations were too high to be ignored. A worst-case scenario was not unthinkable as the group considered “with great anxiety … the breakup of Nigeria and the prospect of bloody civil war.” That meant a secessionist civil war having the possibility of offsetting the group’s grand expectations for African American—African cooperation. It was imperative, therefore, that the disputants “mediate their differences for us all.”4

Large states in Africa had arisen out of decolonization during the early years of the decade. The populations of several comprised many ethnicities that sought competitive advantage in government and economic affairs. Egypt, the Sudan, Mali, the Congo, and Nigeria were well-known examples, but especially the latter, having more internally contending elements than the others. Numerically dominant ethnic groups such as the Hausa in the north, the Igbos in the east, and the Yoruba in the southwest, and lesser peoples throughout, made state building less a fluid exercise and more the welding of several “Nigerias” into one political entity. Each group had held sway in their respective region prior to the colonial era. Their desires to maintain those individual ethnic controls carried over into the composite of a new Nigeria by 1960.5

By July 1967 the ANLCA realized that the conflict in Nigeria had escalated beyond local significance. Their quiet observance earlier that year quickly gave way to a need for immediate intervention. The only question would be if an African American perspective on the conflict was adequate to assist with negotiations between Igbo secessionists and the Nigerian federal government. Such hope had been premised ←2 | 3→upon their program that called for common struggle and nation-building between African Americans and Africa, and the encouragement of U.S. foreign policies that would strongly support the self-determination of an emerging Africa. Bourgeoning relations between African Americans and Nigerians, and the status of that country among other states, were in greater jeopardy with each successive month of hostilities.

African Americans, as one set of outsiders, would have a unique role in the embryonic and euphoric stage of Nigeria’s life. Their special position generally was to have an historical and purposeful connection to any number of the ethnicities shoveled into the borders of that country. A long history in this regard could be asserted by African Americans who, even though the majority could not identify their biological lineage to Nigeria, saw no barrier that had resulted from the absence of recorded proof. For them, a powerful post-colonial African state that hailed from their region of ancestry took precedence over scraping up the pieces of shattered parentage scattered over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet that same body of water could not bar the need for descendants to return. Events of the post-colonial world gave cause for the involvement of African Americans in helping Nigeria shape its destiny. Post-coloniality was a term suggesting transition out of a historic and frightful era that could bring African Americans into contact with Nigeria, apart from how they envisioned such ties. The ANLCA would count among its founding members veteran activists whose credentials fit firmly in the years of anti-colonial agitation, as would other groups.6

Without minimizing the depth of personal insecurity and public disorder, the importance of this circumstance was also made manifest by its timing and broader association. Occurring during the decade of African independence the years were a hopeful time borne of a “pan” movement sentimentally vibrant, if organizationally intermittent, since the early twentieth century. African American unity with Africa was part of the 1960s momentum against oppression, specifically the wave of anti-colonial activism then sweeping the globe. These challenges to the prevailing system brought with them assumptions that Africans and their cross-Atlantic descendants together might begin an era different from the legacy of the slave trade and colonial conquest.7 African ←3 | 4→Americans and Africans were confident about a first-time chance to consider how best they might secure their joint interests through the instrument of rising states, as the old-world order appeared to be unraveling. In this new epoch, the British, French, and other empires, as well as the U.S. government, were either on the decline or ambivalent about the course of decolonization.8 But interactions among struggling peoples could also experience difficulties, whether or not related to the thirst for empire by European states.

Up to that point, many Africa-focused individuals and groups had been preoccupied with anti-colonial activities, having viewed attacks on the European empire system as their priority work. With escalation of the war, however, these Africa watchers were faced with several choices: determine the most applicable political explanation that satisfied their ideological preferences; support the Federal Military Government (FMG) of Nigeria that sought to retain its territorial integrity; side with the seceded eastern region of the country having renamed itself the Republic of Biafra and support their grievance of an oppressed nation-within-a-nation; or refrain from any of the above to combat the specter of displaced and starving refugees as the conflict surged on unabated.

Leaders of the barely five-year old ANLCA thought differently. This assemblage of civil rights groups led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Asa Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Dorothy Height, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Jr., and labor activist Theodore Brown as executive director, reasoned that although a political implosion was on the horizon in Nigeria—a country believed by Africa watchers as the embodiment of a new Africa—it did not lend itself to a confrontation-oriented anti-colonial critique. Great Britain was no longer the principle foe of the first half of the twentieth century. When confronting imminent war in Nigeria the ANLCA was more comfortable with a moderate approach they believed could realistically nurture an African American relationship with Africa. Their collective background had been the peaceful mediation of disputes involving racial discrimination in the United States. This olive-branch strategy to tackle inflammatory issues was the ANLCA method of operation rather than an armed struggle mandate. The Nigerian civil war erupted as a complex matter internal ←4 | 5→to Nigeria that eviscerated armed struggle advocacy by third parties. The ANLCA jumped at the opportunity to fill the void.9

Negotiating a Destiny explores the attempt of the ANLCA to help end the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, and to expand Nigeria’s evolving links with African Americans. It is not a history of the Nigerian-Biafran war; rather it is an attempt to bring substantive attention to a new approach African American leaders had for the war in the interest of their constituencies. In doing so they widened what constituted decolonization activism of that time, and in like manner later ideas about African American relations with Africa.


X, 176
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 176 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Keith A. Dye (Author)

Keith A. Dye earned his PhD in American history from the University of Toledo. He is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and History at the University of Michigan–Dearborn.


Title: The Diplomacy of Theodore Brown and the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War
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188 pages