The Darfor situation in the Sudan raises the question of what happens when governments fail to act as the public would wish. Ironically, an answer is provided in one of the earliest deployments of Canada’s now aged C-130E fleet to Africa in response to one of that continent’s earliest television-driven pleas for assistance.

The Federal Nigerian blockade of breakaway Biafra made starvation a weapon. The television images from Biafra, populated with a large number of Christians served by foreign missionaries, generated sympathy from Europeans and North Americans with their Christian heritage, an empathetic response which the Muslim dominated government of Federal Nigeria was hard-pressed to counter.

Then, as now, a Canadian government was faced with the difficult foreign policy conflict between respecting the principle of non-intervention in the internal politics of a sovereign state and the principle of self-determination.

An air bridge – similar to Berlin, and more recently Sarajevo – was needed to sustain Biafra once the rebels lost their hold on the coast. A massive aerial supply, largely undertaken by civilians, delivered food, medicine, and weapons into the diminishing space controlled by the rebels – in the final months, most flights landed on a converted bush road near Uli.

A Canadian Air Force C-130E served in the airlift, the second largest after Berlin in terms of tonnage carried. Numbered 10322, the Canadian C-130E completed 12 flights from the Spanish colony of Fernando Po to Biafa during October 1968, carrying 220 tons of cargo for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

About the time that 10322 joined the airflow, the Nigerian Federal government began night bombing of the Uli airstrip. Despite the increased dangers from combat operations, Uli was arguably the busiest airport in Africa with 50 landings a night.

In October 1968, Fernando Po became the independent Republic of Equatorial Guinea. The new state immediately established a different relationship with Nigerian, creating difficulties for the ICRC.

Canadian involvement, however, did not end after withdrawal of Canadian military aircraft.

Joint Church Aid, often referred to as ‘Jesus Christ Airlines’, flew primarily from the Portuguese island colony of Sao Tome. Over 5,314 missions were flown by JCA using ten different carriers, lifting 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid. And over 10,000 tons were carried in 674 flights by Super Constellations (Connies) of a Canadian charity, CANAIRELIEF.

CANAIRELIEF is an example of what can happen when others take the initiative when governments fail to act.

A Toronto developer, Jack Grant, met with Dr. Edward Johnson, then Secretary for the Presbyterian Church for Overseas Missions, and Henry Fletcher of Oxfam Canada in November 1968 to ensure the continuation of humanitarian aid. The result was a new air carrier, CANAIRELIEF, which began with the purchase of a Nordair surplus Super Constellation L1049H, Canadian registration CF-NAJ. Four more Super Constellations would join the fleet before the Nigerian Federal forces ended Biafra’s attempt at independence in January 1970.

Just as well, perhaps. The first aircraft, NAJ, crashed in August 1969 and the crew of four Canadians were all killed. Another Connie, CF-NAM, was damaged by shell fragments in October and only became operational again after the airlift had ended. CF-NAK was damaged in November and was abandoned on the strip at Uli.

It should be noted that Joint Church Aid continued flying even after a Red Cross DC-7 was shot down by a Nigerian MIG-17. As CANRELIEF aircraft made as many as six flights a night, these casualties might be considered low in view of the primitive conditions at Uli.

As an epilogue, it should be noted Sao Tome and Principe became independent in 1975. Dr. Johnson went on to become the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada while Canadian C-130Es continue to fly to airstrips in Africa.

The condition of the Uli graves of the aircrew killed in CANAIRELIEF crash is unknown. However, beside the runway at Sao Tome, the remnants of two surviving Connies still stand as monuments to what can happen when governments fail to act.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) is a retired Armour officer with service in UN mission areas on Cyprus, the Golan, South Lebanon, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sarajevo and Haiti. He is recipient of a Meritorious Service Cross (MSC), an UNPROFOR Force Commander’s Commendation, and an UNMIH Force Commander’s Commendation.