Live Broadcast

THE LORD BISHOP OF BIRMINGHAM (John Leonard Wilson) while addressing the UK parliament about Biafra on 29th of April, 1968

My Lords, I do not apologise for speaking on this subject, even at this late hour, because it is one of great importance. Although it may not be a “forgotten war” it is one that very few people know much about. I have often asked people what they know about Biafra, and they have said. “Isn’t that an Italian football club?” That is about as far as the large majority of people can go. Yet this is not just a tribal internal matter; it is a matter of a large number of people.
    I know it is difficult to get at the truth, and that people use the words “truth” and “liberty” for base and ignoble ends. I know there are many rebels against just law and wholesome moral restraint who have masked their caprice under the name of “liberty”. On the other hand, we should have to blot out half the pages of heroic history if we are to erase the deeds done, the suffering endured, in the name of liberty. I am sure Biafra comes in the second category. They are heroic people. Some may regard them as wicked because they defend themselves, but I was there last month and I spent five days, not only with the Ibos who are the main body in the central part, but also with the minorities, and there is no doubt whatever that they are strongly Biafran—the minorities included. I will speak about them later.
    I do not want to raise too many difficulties about the question of bombs. It is quite certain that people believe that the bombs are British, and I said to them: “If I am going to be briefed as an advocate I must have the truth, and I must have evidence which would stand up in a court of law”. They did not give me the evidence that would satisfy me in a court of law, but I did see the outside shells. I saw the casings which said, “Made in Britain” and I saw “GE” cut off—and it could not have been stuck on, because every dent and every cut corresponded with the other half of the casing underneath it. If it was faked it was done by a highly skilled person who had come from China, or somewhere like that. But it was not faked; it was definitely what it purported to be. When we put it to them that these may have come from another nation to which Britain had sold them, their answer was, “No, Britain makes a stipulation that they are not for re-sale”. Of course that does not mean that the stipulation is kept.
    I also argued—and I hope genuinely, because I believe what I have heard—that there was not an escalation. I dislike the fact that we went on sending arms, but I do not think we had escalated the war to that extent. When I asked whether these bombs might have been there before, the man in charge of the ordnance gave me his full assurance that he was there before this war broke out and therefore he could certify that they were not there because there was nothing of that kind among the ammunition which had come from Britain. However, there were the markings and sufficient superficial evidence for a large number of people to believe this story. It is easy for these things to be exaggerated, and I hope there may be some way of convincing them by an assurance that it is a lie. For instance, one might have suggested an examination by Crown Agents, or something like that.
    I want now to address myself to the question of minorities, because this is an important and delicate question. It is true that many of the minority peoples were in positions of responsibility in the Biafran Government. It is true that there had always been peaceful relationships, cultural exchanges and a good deal of inter-marriage between these peoples.But the main brunt of the destruction in the war fell on these areas and had the effect of stiffening their loyalty to Biafra rather than the reverse. It had been pointed out that we could only meet the leaders, who were unquestionably loyal to Biafra—the others might be far away. It is true that one cannot examine every witness, yet the crucial test was the force of the argument put to me by Colonel Ojukwu: what happens when the minority areas are invaded? Instead of falling into the arms of the Federal soldiers and greeting them as great liberators, the inhabitants retreated towards Biafra. I went to meeting after meeting which was crowded by various minority groups who gave me “large welcomes”, as they put it, a little tempered by their dislike of Britain, but still thinking that the Church of England was the Government of England. I tried to disillusion them on that point, and said that we had very little influence whatsoever but that I would do my best to put their case forward.
    These were people from minorities, who said that they would be loyal as Biafrans. In some cases they were critical of individual leaders, but still they were more loyal than the other Biafrans. So I do not think there would be a great deal of trouble with the minorities. There is no doubt that some kind of a nation has been formed and, as I said out there, I consider it is a crazy way to try to get people into a Federation—bombing their civilians; and I know it was civilians because time after time I was shown the hospitals, the market places, the colleges that had been bombed. Of course there may have been military objectives as well to which they did not take me, but I went up as far as Onitsa and I saw what they were doing. I definitely saw a large number of market places that had been bombed. How can we expect people, 30,000 of them, or even if we amend it to 20,000, being massacred not in war but definitely being massacred, chiefly as they came out of the churches, right through the North, to federate? Between 1 million and 2 million were scattered from their homes—and these are true facts which are accepted generally.
    To go on bombing their peoples and then say, “You will come into the Federation whether you like it or not, and it is one of the conditions that you must come in and can never have your independence”, is asking for trouble. We have asked for it in our own British history, and had it for years, with a certain country that used to be part of Great Britain and is now a republic. You will never get these people working together for a very long time unless there is far greater mutual trust. They definitely believe that it is genocide; that the others want to wipe out the Ibo people. They think it is also a religious war. I tried to calm them down. They think it is Moslems against Christians. There are no Moslems among the people in that western part of the Eastern Region; they are nearly all—95 per cent. of them—Christians, chiefly Roman Catholics, though there are a large number of Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, with great names like Mary Slessor of Calabar, whose great work is remembered with love and affection by the people she cared for and thought of. And now so many of them are being killed by arms which they think are coming from Britain.
    I know it is true to say that “If you stop your supply other people will supply bombs”. But the psychological effect would be tremendous if Britain said, “It is time you got together, and until you do we are not going to send any more arms”. I doubt whether one could say that it was a de facto Government, let alone de jure, of the Federal Army. The main thing, if we are to get them to come together, as I hope we shall (I do mot think it will be in London, because of this deep feeling: I wish it could be, because I think Ojukwu would be safer here) is that they should come together without conditions. When I say “without conditions” I mean just that. I pressed Ojukwu on this question. He had at first said a cease-fire and peacekeeping forces on the borders. But later on, I understand, it was to be entirely without conditions, though the cease-fire would be at the beginning of the agenda. Let us try to get that. But do not let ‘us British try to force them back, because we had a wonderful blueprint of a great union of Nigeria. Do not let us press them too hard to go back into something which will cause more and more difficulty in the future. I am grateful to the Commonwealth Secretariat. They have done fine work. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, for introducing this Question, and giving us a chance of clearing our minds as to what are the real issues.

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