Declassified files from British Govt show Gowon lied about Biafran War

A recently declassified files cum memo from the British government exposed so many facts about the months before the Biafran-Nigerian war started and during that three-year-old war.

More facts from the declassified files bring more in-depth insights to the fore for the public to learn what transpired before and during the Biafran-Nigerian war.

‘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 especially [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 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 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 Defence 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 Defence Attache 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.

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 ‘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 Federal Military Government (FMG) with fast patrol boats. This was done in the knowledge that they would help the FMG maintain the blockade against Biafra.

It must be remembered that the blockade was indeed the policy used by Gen. Yakubu Jack Gowon to block the supply of food and medical items from reaching the Biafran Republic, a policy that was used to starve millions of children, youths and hapless women to death. This was also a policy that was cited as a means to win the world. It is therefore wholly untrue for Gen. Yakuku Gowon to have been heard and read saying that he did all he could to stop the picture of starving and malnourished children, who died slow deaths in the Biafra Republic. In fact, it is wholly correct to say that his actions and policy of blockade was targeted at starving those children to death as possible means to push the Biafrans to surrender once they see the pictures of their children suffering from kwashiorkor and dying the unneeded deaths.

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 recognise 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 orders 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 faces 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 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 the 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 behaviour of the Nigerian forces that any weapons supplied would be likely to be used against civilians. it was also 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 the time’ he certainly became CW Secretary 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 favourite response to this request ought to give us every chance of establishing ourselves again as the main supplier of the Nigerians forces after the war’. if the war ended soon, the Nigerians 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’.

It could limpidly be seen here that the totality of the British interest was purely business and nothing towards the lives of the civilians as, they pointed out that civilians are being killed with their weapons. That is definitely not their concern though they did made mention of it, but the merits of the need for the British business interests in oil and others surpassed the need for human lives of the Biafrans were their weapons were being used to kill and maim many of them. Again, the British clearly declared the FMG of Nigeria as their own side and did everything to support them to win the war, in order to protect British commercial interest in Nigeria.

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 Britain supplied six Saladins armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 30 Saracen APCs along with 2,000 machine guns for them, anti-tank guns and 9 million rounds of ammunitions. Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, wrote that he hoped these supplies will encourage the Nigerians “to look to the United Kingdom for their future purchases of defence equipment”. Buy the end of the year Britain had also approved the export of 1,050 bayonets, 700 grenades, 1,950 rifles with grenades 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 Howitzer 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 untied 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 Britain withdrawal from the mid-west in September 1967 a series of massacres started against Igbo (Ibo) residents. The New York Times reported that over 5,000 had been killed in various towns of the mid west. About 1,000 Ibos (Igbo) 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 Ibo 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 Ibo (Igbo) male over the age of ten.

The 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 700 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 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.


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