DECLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS FROM BRITISH GOVERNMENT FILES: The Depth of Involvement & Real Reasons for the UK Government Involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War
British interests are very clearly revealed in the declassified files. It’s long but history enthusiasts will find it is a treasure case of information
“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 Nigeria, for whose welfare we are of course specially [sic] concerned”, the Foreign Office noted a few days before the outbreak of the war. Shell/BP’s investments amounted to around £200 million, with other British investment in Nigeria accounting for a further £90 million. It was then partly owned by the British government, and the largest producer of oil which provided most of Nigeria’s export earnings. Most of this oil was in the eastern region.
Commonwealth Minister George Thomas wrote in August 1967 that: ‘The sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations’.
Thomas further outlined the primary reason why Britain was so keen to preserve Nigerian unity, noting that “our only direct interest in the maintenance of the federation is that Nigeria has been developed as an economic unit and any disruption of this would have adverse effects on trade and development”. If Nigeria were to break up, he added: “We cannot expect that economic cooperation between the component parts of what was Nigeria, particularly between the East and the West, will necessarily enable development and trade to proceed at the same level as they would have done in a unified Nigeria; nor can we now count on the Shell/BP oil concession being regained on the same terms as in the past if the East and the mid-West assume full control of their own economies”.
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 Ojukwu 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 1967. A key British aim throughout the war was to secure the lifting of the blockade which Gowon imposed on the east and which stopped oil exports.
In the run-up to Gowon’s declaration of war, Britain had made it clear to the FMG that it completely supported Nigerian unity. George Thomas had told the Nigerian High Commissioner in London at the end of April 1967, for example, that ‘the Federal government had our sympathy and our full support’ but said that he hoped the use of force against the east could be avoided. On 28 May Gowon, having just declared a state of emergency, explicitly told Britain’s Defense Attaché that the FMG was likely to ‘mount an invasion from the north’. Gowon asked whether Britain would provide fighter cover for the attack and naval support to reinforce the blockade of Eastern ports; the Defense Attaché replied that both were out of the question.
By the time Gowon ordered military action in early July, therefore, Britain had refused Nigerian requests to be militarily involved and had urged Gowon to seek a ‘peaceful’ solution. However, the Wilson government had also assured Gowon of British support for Nigerian unity at a time when military preparations were taking place. And Britain had also made no signs that it might cut off, or reduce, arms supplies if a military campaign were launched.
The new High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir David Hunt, wrote in a memo to London on 12 June that the “only way… of preserving unity [sic] of Nigeria is to remove Ojukwu by force”. He said that Ojukwu was committed to remaining the ruler of an independent state and that British interests lay in firmly supporting the FMG.
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 Britain. On 1 July, he asked Britain for jet fighter/bomber aircraft, six fast boats and 24 anti-aircraft guns. ‘We want to help the Federal Government in any way we can’, British officials noted. However, Britain rejected supplying the aircraft, fearing that they would publicly demonstrate direct British intervention in the war and, at this stage, also rejected supplying the boats. London did, however, agree to supply the anti-aircraft guns and to provide training courses to use them.
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 Britain. High Commissioner Hunt said that ‘it would be better to use civil aircraft’ to deliver these guns and secured agreement from the Nigerians that ‘there would be no publicity’ in supplying them.
Faced with Gowon’s complaints about Britain not supplying more arms, Wilson also agreed in mid-July to supply the FMG with the fast patrol boats. This was done in the knowledge that they would help the FMG maintain the blockade against Biafra. Wilson wrote to Gowon saying that ‘we have demonstrated in many ways our support for your government as the legal government of Nigeria and our refusal to recognize the secessionists’. He also told him that Britain does ‘not intend to put any obstacle in the way’ of orders for ‘reasonable quantities of military material of types similar to those you have obtained here in the past’. Gowon replied saying that ‘I have taken note of your concurrence for the usual purchases of arms supplies to continue and will take advantage of what is available now and others when necessary’.
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 Britain launching a peace offensive and halting all arms supplies. But this was rejected by David Hunt in Lagos and others since it would cause ‘great resentment’ on the part of the FMG against the British government and be regarded as a ‘hostile act’. Instead, the government decided to continue the flow of arms and ammunition of types previously supplied by Britain but to continue to refuse supplies of ‘sophisticated equipment’ like aircraft and tanks.
The decision to continue arms exports was taken when it had already become clear in the behavior 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 Lagos in early July.
By early November 1967 the FMG had pushed back the Biafrans and captured Enugu; British officials were now reporting that the FMG had ‘a clear military advantage’. Now that our side seemed like winning, talk of reducing arms to them disappeared; George Thomas now said that ‘it seems to me that British interests would now be served by a quick FMG victory’. He recommended that the arms export policy be ‘relaxed’ and to supply Lagos with items that ‘have importance in increasing their ability to achieve a quicker victory’. This meant ‘reasonable quantities’ of equipment such as mortars and ‘infantry weapons generally’, though not aircraft or other ‘sophisticated’ equipment.
On 23 November 1967, the Cabinet agreed that ‘a quick Federal military victory’ provided the best hope for ‘an early end to the fighting’. By early December, Commonwealth Secretary George Thomson [sic, not Thomas. need also to check cos he may have been FO minister at this time’ he certainly became CW sec by mid-68] noted that the ‘lack of supplies and ammunition is one of things that are holding operations up’. He said that Britain should agree to the FMG’s recent shopping list since ‘a favorable response to this request ought to give us every chance of establishing ourselves again as the main supplier of the Nigerian forces after the war’. If the war ended soon, the Nigerian economy will start expanding and ‘there should be valuable business to be done’. Also: ‘Anything that we now do to assist the FMG should help our oil companies to re-establish and expand their activities in Nigeria after the war, and, more generally should help our commercial and political relationship with postwar Nigeria’.
He ended by saying he hoped Britain could supply armored 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, Britain supplied six Saladin armored personnel carriers (APCs), 30 Saracen APCs along with 2,000 machine guns for them, anti-tank guns and 9 million rounds of ammunition. Denis Healey, the Defense Secretary, wrote that he hoped these supplies will encourage the Nigerians “to look to the United Kingdom for their future purchases of defense equipment”. By the end of the year Britain had also approved the export of 1,050 bayonets, 700 grenades, 1,950 rifles with grenade launchers, 15,000 lbs. of explosives and two helicopters.
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, Wilson was constantly reassuring Gowon of British support for a united Nigeria, saying in April 1968 that ‘I think we can fairly claim that we have not wavered in this support throughout the civil war’.
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 Midwest in September 1967 a series of massacres started against Igbo residents. The New York Times reported that over 5,000 had been killed in various towns of the Midwest. About 1,000 Igbos were killed in Benin city by local people with the acquiescence of the federal forces, the New York Review noted in December 1967. Around 700 Igbo males were lined up and shot in the town of Asaba, the Observer reported in January 1968. According to eyewitnesses, the Nigerian commander ordered the execution of every Igbo male over the age of ten.
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 Lagos, with 70 Labour MPs, for example, filing a motion for such an embargo in May 1968. Yet the real extent of arms supplied by Britain was concealed from the public.
Throughout 1967 and 1968, Ministers had been telling parliament that Britain was essentially neutral in the conflict in that it was not interfering in the internal affairs of Nigeria but simply continuing to supply arms to Nigeria on the same basis as before the war. As the declassified files, referred to above, show, this was simply a lie. For example, Wilson told the House on 16 May 1968 that: ’We have continued the supply… of arms by private manufacturers in this country exactly on the basis that it has been in the past, but there has been no special provision for the needs of the war’.
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 Biafra alone and was trying to arrange desperately needed supplies to meet needs, estimated at around 30 tons a day.
Humanitarian suffering, especially starvation, was severe as a result of the FMG’s blockade of Biafra. Pictures of starving and malnourished children went around the world. The FMG was widely seen as indulging in atrocities and attacks against civilians, including apparently indiscriminate air strikes, in an increasingly brutal war in which civilians were the chief victims.
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 Vietnam at the same time, Wilson was not going to be deflected by mere public opposition from backing ongoing aggression by key allies, whatever the level of atrocities and casualties.
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’. Britain could not halt the supply of arms since ‘apart from other considerations, such an outcome would seriously put at risk about £200m of British investments in non-Biafra Nigeria’, George Thomson explained to Harold Wilson.
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 Britain’s past ‘information operations’ described in earlier chapters. Britain urged the FMG to convince the outside world that it was not engaged in genocide or a policy of massacre and to make public statements on the need for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to Biafra.
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’. Wilson therefore urged a senior Nigerian government official, Chief Enahoro, ‘to make a greater effort to ensure that their case did not go by default’.
The files indicate that these ‘presentational’ issues were much more important to British officials than any actual suffering of the Biafrans themselves. London never did anything significant to press the FMG. British officials ruled out threatening to cut off, or reduce, arms exports to force the FMG to change policies. The issue that most concerned the government at the time was that it would be forced to withdraw or reduce its support for Gowon in the face of public pressure. This, therefore, had to be countered, and the FMG needed to make greater efforts.
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 Wilson of the FMG that he even asked the Nigerians in advance whether they would have ‘any difficulties’ if a British official met a Biafran representative. Chief Enahoro replied that this would be acceptable provided the contacts were ‘strictly private and had no formal character’.
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 maneuvered 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.
Wilson did not succumb to public pressure. The following month he told Gowon that: ‘The British government for their part have steadfastly maintained their policy of support for Federal Nigeria and have resisted all suggestions in parliament and in the press for a change in that policy, particularly in regard to arms supplies’. The Foreign Office argued that ‘the whole of our investments in Nigeria and particularly our oil interests in the south east and the mid-west will be at risk if we change our policy of support for the federal government’.
In November, Lord Brockway and his committee for peace in Nigeria met Wilson and urged him to halt arms sales and to press for a ceasefire, estimating that there could be two million deaths from starvation and disease by the end of the year. Wilson not only rebuffed this plea; the files reveal that two days later he agreed to supply Nigeria with aircraft for the first time in a covert deal.
The Nigerians had been pressing Britain to supply several jet aircraft, specifically to attack the runways used by Biafran forces (and which also needed to be used to deliver humanitarian aid). Wilson said that Britain could not supply these directly but there were such aircraft in South Yemen and Sudan previously supplied by Britain. The Nigerians, he said, should procure the aircraft from them which ‘would not directly involve the British government’. The company to deal with in those two countries was Airwork Limited, which was later to be again used by the British government to conceal its involvement in its covert dirty war in Yemen. The British government also agreed to put the Nigerians in touch with ‘suitable pilots’.
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 Lagos, ‘that we are certainly ready to consider a further application’ to supply similar arms in the future as well. He concluded: ‘if there is anything else for ground warfare which you… think they need and which would help speed up the end of the fighting, please let us know and we will consider urgently whether we can supply it’.
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 recognized by the Defense 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 Britain was supplying 36 million rounds of ammunition in the last few months alone. Britain’s “willingness to supply very large quantities of ammunition’, Lord Shepherd noted, ‘meant drawing on the British army’s own supplies”.
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 Nigeria ‘will be maintained but no change in the recent pattern of supplies is to be expected’. So, great is the culture of lying at the Foreign Office, it appears that policy is even to keep its own officials in the dark.
By the end of 1968 Britain had sold Nigeria £9 million worth of arms, £6 million of which was spent on small arms. A quarter of Nigeria’s supplies (by value) had come from the Soviet Union, also taking advantage of the war for its own benefit and trying no doubt to secure an opening into Nigeria provided by this opportunity. British officials consistently justified their arms supply by saying that if they stopped, the Russians would fill the gap. It was Britain’s oil interests, however, that was the dominating factor in Whitehall planners’ reasoning.
By the last two months of 1968, with hundreds of thousands of 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 Kent. Biafrans were now dependent on two airstrips for outside supplies which were limited by both Gowon’s and Ojukwu’s refusals to allow sufficient numbers of aircraft to land. Humanitarian agencies were continuing calls for a ceasefire as suffering, especially starvation, had reached crisis proportions. ‘We shall continue to maintain our present policy, despite these heavy pressures on us’, Wilson told Gowon in November. Foreign Secretary Stewart instructed Lord Shepherd, on a visit to Lagos, to tell Gowon of the extraordinary steps Britain was taking to support him. Gowon should realize, Stewart said, that opposition to British policy ‘cuts right across the normal political or party divisions in the country and is especially strong in the various churches’. He also interestingly said that ‘similar feeling is also expressed within the Cabinet itself’ – such was the extremely thin base on which British support for the FMG was being provided. (One wonders about similar memos being written by Tony Blair to George Bush in 2003).
The Wilson government was keen to present itself as engaged in the search for peace – the files show that officials did so knowing that without appearing to be active they would not have been able to justify their support for the FMG. British government activity in peace negotiations invariably sought to avoid the involvement of the United Nations and was intended to support the FMG to maintain a united Nigeria and to achieve a solution on its terms only.
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 day flights, 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 as 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 Wilson gave a public interview and lied that ‘we continue to supply on a limited scale arms – not bombs, not aircraft – to the government of Nigeria because we have always been their suppliers’. Not only was this untrue as a result of the agreements late the previous year; on the very same day as this interview, the government approved the export of 19 million rounds of ammunition, 10,000 grenades and 39,000 mortar bombs – bombs, that is, that Wilson had said Britain was not supplying at all, still less on a vast scale.
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 Nigeria… using Manston airport in Kent without attracting unfavorable press comment’.
It was therefore perhaps no surprise that Gowon could write to Wilson in April saying that ‘of all the governments in the Western world, yours has remained the only one that has openly maintained its policy of arms supplies to my government’. France, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, had all announced a halt while the US continued its policy of not supplying arms to either side.
Two senior British RAF officers secretly visited Nigeria in August 1969 to advise the Nigerians on ‘how they could better prosecute the air war’. The main British interest, the files make clear, was to provide better protection of the oil installations, but the brief for the two officers stated that this impression should not be given to the Nigerians. The officers subsequently advised the Nigerians on a variety of tactics on ‘neutralization of the rebel airstrips’. It was understood that destruction of the airstrips would put them out of use for daylight humanitarian relief flights. It is not clear whether such advice was put into action.
Britain armed the federal government all the way. In December 1969, just before the FMG’s final push that crushed the Biafrans, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart was calling for stepping up military assistance including the supply of more armored cars. These supplies by Britain, he wrote, “have undoubtedly been the most effective weapons in the ground war and have spearheaded all the major federal advances”.
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 your 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 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 1½-2 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 kilometer 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.