By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Unpeople:
The formerly secret files on the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s show very clear British complicity in the Nigerian government’s aggression against the region of
Background to civil war
For those in Britain old enough to remember the war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, ‘Biafra’ probably still conjures up images of starving children - the result of the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government in Lagos to defeat the secession of the eastern region, Biafra. For Biafrans themselves, the period was one of immense suffering - it is still not known how many died at this time as a direct result of the war and the blockade, but it is believed to be at least one million and as high as three million.
For those seeking to understand
The immediate background to the war was a complex one of tensions and violence between
Ironsi’s decree in March 1966, which abolished the Nigerian federation and unified the federal and regional civil services, was perceived by many not as an effort to establish a unitary government but as a plot by the Ibo to dominate
It was in this context that in July 1966 northern officers staged a countercoup during which Ironsi and other Ibo officers were killed. Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon emerged as leader. The aim of the coup was both to take revenge on the Ibos for the coup in January but also to promote the secession of the north, although Gowon soon pulled back from calling explicitly for this. Gowon named himself as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and head of the military government, which was rejected by the military governor in the eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, who claimed, with some justification, that the Gowon regime was illegitimate.
Throughout late 1966 and 1967 the tempo of violence increased. In September 1966 attacks on Ibos in the north were renewed with unprecedented ferocity, stirred up, eastern region officials believed, by northern political leaders. Reports circulated that troops from the northern region had participated in the massacres. The estimated number of deaths ranged from 10,000 to as high as 30,000. More than one million Ibos returned to the eastern region in fear.
In January 1967 the military leaders met in
Ojukwu and Gowon then disputed what exactly had been agreed at Aburi, especially after the Federal Military Government (FMG) issued a further decree in March which was seen by Ojukwu as reneging on the FMG’s commitment at Aburi to give the eastern region greater autonomy. The new decree gave the federal government the right to declare a state of emergency in any region and to ensure that any regional government could not undermine the executive authority of the federal government. Ojukwu then gave an ultimatum to Gowon that the eastern region would begin implementing its understanding of the Aburi agreement, providing for greater regional autonomy, by 31 March.
The background is therefore very complex and it remains far from clear cut as to where the ‘blame’ lay for the failure of peaceful negotiations and the resort to war. It does appear, however, that the FMG did go back on its agreement at Aburi on the extent of regional autonomy it was prepared to offer the easterners. Before they began to back the FMG unequivocally once war began, British officials had previously recognised the legitimacy of some of Ojukwu’s claims. The High British Commissioner in
British officials also recognised that the Aburi agreements were ‘extremely woolly on many important points and lend themselves to infinite arguments over interpretation’. By end January 1967 Cumming-Bruce was saying that both Gowon and Ojuwku were ’seriously at fault and they share responsibility for poisoning of atmosphere [sic]‘.
Then there was the wider question of whether it was legitimate for a region to secede and whether
Yet there appears to be no reason why
What is crystal clear is that the wishes of the Biafrans were never a major concern of British planners; what they wanted, or what Nigerians elsewhere in the federation wanted, was simply not an issue for
Nigerian aggression, British support
British interests are very clearly revealed in the declassified files. ‘Our direct interests are trade and investment, including an important stake by Shell/BP in the eastern Region. There are nearly 20,000 British nationals in
Commonwealth Minister George Thomas wrote in August 1967 that: ‘The sole immediate British interest in
Thomas further outlined the primary reason why
Ojukwu initially tried to get Shell/BP to pay royalties to the Biafran government rather than the FMG. The oil companies, after giving the Biafrans a small token payment, eventually refused and Ojuwku responded by sequestering Shell’s property and installations, forbidding Shell to do any further business and ordering all its staff out. They ‘have much to lose if the FMG do not achieve the expected victory’, George Thomas noted in August
In the run-up to Gowon’s declaration of war,
By the time Gowon ordered military action in early July, therefore,
The new High Commissioner in
Before going to war, Gowon began what was to become a two and half year long shopping list of arms that the FMG wanted from
The Deputy High Commissioner in Enugu, Biafra’s main city, noted that the supply of these anti-aircraft guns and their ammunition would be seen as British backing for the FMG and also that they were not entirely defensive weapons anyway since ‘they could also take on an offensive role if mounted in an invasion fleet’. Nevertheless, the government’s news department was instructed to stress the ‘defensive nature of these weapons’ when pressed but generally to avoid publicity on their export from
Faced with Gowon’s complaints about
By early August Biafran forces had made major gains against the FMG and had invaded the mid-West region. Commonwealth Minister George Thomas noted that ‘the chances of a clear-cut military decision being achieved by either side now look rather distant’. Rather, ‘we are now faced with the probability of an escalating and increasingly disorderly war, with both sides shopping around for arms’. In this situation, he raised the option of
The decision to continue arms exports was taken when it had already become clear in the behaviour of the Nigerian forces that any weapons supplied would be likely to be used against civilians. It was also at a time when Commonwealth Secretary General Arnold Smith was making renewed attempts to push for peace negotiations after having been rebuffed by Gowon in a visit to
By early November 1967 the FMG had pushed back the Biafrans and captured
He ended by saying he hoped Britain could supply armoured cars since they ‘have proved of especial value in the type of fighting that is going on in Nigeria and the FMG are most impressed with the Saladins and Ferrets’ previously supplied by Britain.
As a result
In the first half of the following year, 1968, Britain approved the export of 15 million rounds of ammunition, 21,000 mortar bombs, 42,500 Howtizer rounds, 12 Oerlikon guns, 3 Bofors guns, 500 submachine guns, 12 Saladins with guns and spare parts, 30 Saracens and spare parts, 800 bayonets, 4,000 rifles and two other helicopters. At the same time
These massive arms exports were being secretly supplied – indeed, massively stepped up - at a time when one could read about the actions of the recipients in the newspapers. After the Biafran withdrawal from the mid-west in September
Nigerian officials informed the British government that the arms were ‘important to them, but not vital’. More important than the actual arms ‘was the policy of the British government in supporting the FMG’.
This support was now taking place amid public and parliamentary pressure for a halt to British arms to
Throughout 1967 and 1968, Ministers had been telling parliament that
One British file at this time - mid-1968 - refers to deaths of between 70,000-100,000 by now as ‘realistic’. The Red Cross was estimating around 600,000 refugees in
Humanitarian suffering, especially starvation, was severe as a result of the FMG’s blockade of
The files show that Wilson told Gowon on several occasions in private letters that he had successfully fended off public and parliamentary criticism in Britain, in order to continue to support the FMG – clearly showing where the government’s priorities and sympathies lay. As in
With federal forces in control by mid-year of Port Harcourt, the most important southern coastal city, British officials noted that ‘having gone this far in supporting the FMG, it would be a pity to throw away the credit we have built up with them just when they seem to have the upper hand’.
It was also at this point that British officials sought to counter widespread opposition to the Nigerian government by conniving with it to improve the ‘presentation’ of its policies – another example of
High Commissioner Hunt suggested to Gowon that the federal air force be used for ‘psychological warfare’ and to drop leaflets over the Ibo towns which would help the FMG score a ‘propaganda point’. Officials noted that their support for the FMG was under attack and that ‘our ability to sustain it… depends very much on implementing enlightened and humane federal policies and securing public recognition for them’. What was needed was ‘good and well-presented Nigerian policies which permit that support to continue’.
The files indicate that these ‘presentational’ issues were much more important to British officials than any actual suffering of the Biafrans themselves.
By mid-1968 British officials had still had no contacts with Ojukwu and other Biafran leaders; offers from the latter had been refused. So supportive was
In early August FMG forces had retaken the whole of the southeastern and Rivers states and the easterners were now confined to a small enclave, blockaded from the outside world. Commonwealth Minister Lord Shepherd minuted Harold Wilson saying, that 14 months since Biafran secession: ‘Our support for the FMG finds us in the position in which we are on comparatively good terms with the side which is in an overwhelmingly advantageous position… It is important, therefore, that we should not be manoeuvred by pressure of opinion inspired by Ojukwu’s publicity, into abandoning at this late stage all the advantages which our policy so far seemed likely to bring us’. The same month, the Red Cross estimated 2-3 million people ‘in dire need’ and a similar number were facing shortages of food and medical aid.
In November, Lord Brockway and his committee for peace in
The Nigerians had been pressing
British arms supplies were stepped up again in November. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said the Nigerians could have 5 million more rounds of ammunition, 40,000 more mortar bombs and 2,000 rifles. ‘You may tell Gowon’, Stewart instructed High Commissioner Hunt in
Other supplies agreed in November following meetings with the Nigerians included six Saladins and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for them, and stepped up monthly supplies of ammunition, amounting to a total of 15 million rounds additional to those already agreed. It was recognised by the Defence Minister that ‘the scale of the UK supply of small arms ammunition to Nigeria in recent months has been and will continue to be on a vast scale’. The recent deal meant that
At the same time the Foreign Office was instructing its missions around the world to lie about the extent of this arms supply. It sent a ‘guidance’ memo to various diplomatic posts on 22 November saying that ‘we wish to discourage suggestions’ that the Nigerians, in their recent meetings with British officials, were seeking ‘to negotiate a massive arms deal’. Rather, ‘our policy of supplying in reasonable quantities arms of the kind traditionally supplied’ to
By the end of 1968
By the last two months of 1968, with hundreds of thousands dead by now, the fighting had reached a stalemate. The FMG had taken all Biafran territory apart from a small enclave within it consisting of 3 million people in an area the size of
In public, British statements consistently blamed only the Biafrans, not the FMG, for obstructing peace negotiations and the delivery of humanitarian aid. On the latter, there were numerous proposals and counter-proposals made by both sides on the issue of night or dayflights, and river or land routes into Biafra, which obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of suffering people. The FMG feared that the Biafrans would use the cover of humanitarian aid supplies to slip in arms deliveries; while the Biafrans believed the FMG would poison the supplies. There is no doubt that Ojukwu and the Biafran leadership were partly responsible for the failure to deliver adequate humanitarian aid, yet so were the FMG. Starvation of the Biafrans was no accident or simply a by-product of the war; it was a deliberate part of the FMG’s war policy.
Several memos by British officials that reached Wilson and other ministers painted a more accurate picture than the one pushed in public. These said that it was at least as much the FMG that were to blame as the Biafrans. Yet this never upset British policy to side unequivocally with Gowon’s FMG.
In March 1969
A day before the Wilson interview, a Foreign Office official had written that ‘we have over the last few months agreed to supply large quantities of arms and ammunition’ to Nigeria ‘to assist them in finishing the war in the absence of any further [peace] negotiations’. He also noted that ‘we have flown small arms ammunition to
It was therefore perhaps no surprise that Gowon could write to
Two senior British RAF officers secretly visited
Biafran resistance ended by mid January 1970. Wilson then sent another message to Gowon saying that ‘your army has won a decisive victory’ and has achieved ‘your great aim of preserving the unity and integrity of Nigeria’, adding: ‘As you know I and my colleagues have believed all along that you were right and we have never wavered in our support for you, your government and you policy, despite the violent attacks which have been made on us at times in parliament and in the press as well as overseas’.
The Deputy High Commissioner in Lagos added: ‘There is genuine gratitude (as indeed there should be) for what Britain has done and is still doing for this country, and in particular for Her Majesty’s Government’s courage in literally sticking to their guns over Biafra’.
The toll of the war was counted in a report for the British High Commission at the end of the month. It referred to a relief agency report estimating 1 1/2-2 million people were being fed with food relief supplies, around 700,000 of whom were refugees in camps dependent entirely on food aid. Three million refugees were crowded into a 2,500 square kilometre enclave in which not only food but medicine, housing and clothing were in short supply. The Biafran economy was shattered, cities were in ruins and schools, hospitals and transport facilities destroyed.http://markcurtis.wordpress.com/2007/02 ... a-1967-70/