British Interests, Nigerian Tragedy
Michael Leapman on cabinet papers that recall the starving children of the Biafran war
BIAFRA was one of the great emotive causes of the late Sixties. The name still conjures up images of emaciated children, close to death, starved as a result of the blockade imposed by the Nigerian Federal Government to defeat the secession of the country’s Eastern Region. I was there, and the images do not fade.
Britain, the former coloniser of Nigeria and its main supplier of arms, could not escape involvement. As the outcry over the famine grew, Harold Wilson’s government came under attack at home and abroad for providing the weapons that tightened the noose on Biafra.
The war began in 1967. Cabinet papers for that year, just released, show how the decision to continue arming Nigeria was not based on arguments for or against secession, or on the interests of its people, but on backing the likely winner. It is a case study in realpolitik. As one Commonwealth Office briefing document to the prime minister put it: “The sole immediate British interest is to bring the [Nigerian] economy back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment can be further developed.”
The Biafran secession was the culmination of a long period of tribal and regional unrest in Nigeria that had come to the boil with the assassination in January 1966 of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, in a coup led by General Johnson Ironsi. The new military ruler was an Ibo, the dominant tribal group of the Eastern Region. In May that year, thousands of Ibos were massacred in the Northern Region in riots against Ironsi’s regime. A further coup in July was led by Maj-Gen Yakubu Gowon. Fearful of renewed massacres, the Ibos of the East sought autonomy under their military governor, Col Odumegwu Ojukwu. He declared the region’s independence, as the state of Biafra, in May 1967.
As more recent conflicts in Eastern Europe show, it is hard to judge the rights and wrongs of other people’s ethnic fears and hatreds. In any case, the cabinet papers make clear that right and wrong were the last considerations on anyone’s mind. Oil, trade and the protection of British citizens dominated the decision-making process. If today’s Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, really wants to introduce an ethical basis for policy-making, he should read the file to see how radically he needs to change the diplomatic mindset.
The bulk of Nigeria’s foreign earnings derived from oil and most of it was in the Eastern Region. Shell-BP, then partly owned by the British government, was the largest producer. After secession, Col Ojukwu demanded that royalties for oil production should be paid to Biafra and not to the Federal Government. Shell agreed to make a “token payment” of £250,000. The Commonwealth Office at first proposed to support this decision on the grounds that Col Ojukwu was in de facto control of the oilfields. Harold Wilson bridled at that: “Dangerous argument – cf Rhodesia” he scrawled in the margin of the policy paper. Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence in 1965 but Britain was urging that nobody should recognise it, despite the regime’s de facto control.
Gen Gowon imposed a blockade on Biafra, which meant that no oil could be exported anyway. This was a blow for the British economy, already floundering in the crisis that led to devaluation later in the year. Now the prime object of Whitehall was to get the blockade lifted. An important lever fell into British hands when Gen Gowon asked for more arms: 12 jet fighter-bombers, six fast patrol boats, 24 anti-aircraft guns.
George Thomas, Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office, was sent to Lagos. The Commonwealth Office note to Wilson about the mission was explicit: “If Gowon is helpful on oil, Mr Thomas will offer a sale of anti-aircraft guns.” The plan went awry. Gen Gowon would not lift the blockade but he got his guns anyway; planes and boats were refused, but the Nigerians were permitted to take delivery of two previously ordered patrol boats – which ironically helped enforce the ban on Shell-BP’s oil shipments. In August the Biafrans scored a military success (their only one, as it turned out) when they marched into the Mid-West Region and occupied Benin. This provoked a rethink in Whitehall. The Commonwealth Office set out five choices. A and B involved maintaining or increasing arms to Nigeria, C was to stop all supplies, D to promote a peace initiative and E a combination of the last two. Thomas wrote to Wilson, holidaying in the Scillies, recommending Option E. That view might have prevailed had not Sir David Hunt, British ambassador in Lagos and a keen advocate of the Federal cause, flown to Britain and persuaded the government to continue providing arms.
Soon the war turned in Gowon’s favour and in November the flexible Thomas wrote to Wilson again, proposing this time that arms supplies be stepped up: “It seems to me that British interests would now be served by a quick Federal victory.”
That victory came, but not quickly.During 1967 the words “famine” or “hunger” appeared nowhere in the hundreds of official documents devoted to the conflict. They would not emerge until 1968, when I and other reporters went to Biafra and witnessed the scenes for ourselves. By then the policy was too set to be altered. Too many reputations depended on the war’s outcome. The conflict went on for another two years. Millions of children starved. How many would still be alive if that one slim chance had been grabbed back in August 1967 and Option E, E for ethical, had prevailed?
– THE INDEPENDENT, SUNDAY 4 JANUARY 1998. (posted to Igbonet by Obi Taiwan)