Declassified British files show that Harold Wilson’s government secretly armed and backed Nigeria’s aggression against the secessionist region of Biafra. During the three years of war, up to three million people died, as Nigeria enforced a blockade on Biafra, causing widespread starvation. The Nigerian government under General Gowon — who had seized power in a military coup in July 1966 — began military operations to defeat the Biafran secessionists in July 1967. His well-equipped federal army of over 85,000 men supplied by Britain and the Soviet Union, among others, took on a volunteer Biafran force under Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern region, much of whose equipment initially came from captured Nigerian supplies.
The then Labour government secretly provided large quantities of arms to the Nigerian federal government which, by early 1970, had crushed an attempt by the country’s eastern region of Biafra to gain independence, which it had declared in May 1967. British officials made clear to the Nigerian government that they supported the country’s unity. Labour minister George Thomas told the Nigerian High Commissioner in London in April 1967, for example, that the federal government had “our sympathy and our full support”
British policy was mainly shaped by its oil interests, declassified government documents from the time show. “Our direct interests are trade and investment, including an important stake by Shell/BP in the eastern region,” the Foreign Office noted a few days before the outbreak of the war in 1967.
Shell “have much to lose if the FMG [federal military government] do not achieve the expected victory,” George Thomas, Labour’s commonwealth minister, noted in August 1967. He added: “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.”
UK supplies of arms — which eventually enabled the Nigerian government to win the war — included millions of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of machine guns and grenades, thousands of mortar and artillery bombs, aircraft and armoured personnel carriers. These supplies were massively stepped up while Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was telling parliament that Britain was supplying arms to Nigeria at the same level as before. The decisions to supply arms and ammunition were taken at a time when it was clear they were being used against civilians. Wilson’s agreement to supply patrol boats in 1967 was done in the knowledge that this would help the government maintain the sea blockade against Biafra.
In June 1967, the new British High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir David Hunt, wrote in a memo to London that the “only way… of preserving unity of Nigeria is to remove Ojukwu by force”. He reiterated that UK interests lay in firmly supporting the federal government.
Commonwealth Secretary George Thomson suggested the UK should agree to Gowon’s shopping list for arms supplies. He wrote: “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.”
As a result Britain supplied 36 armoured personnel carriers, along with 2,000 machine guns for them, anti-tank guns and nine million rounds of ammunition. Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, wrote that he hoped these supplies would encourage the Nigerians “to look to the United Kingdom for their future purchases of defence equipment”.
By mid-1968 Britain had supplied 15 million rounds of ammunition, 21,000 mortar bombs, 42,500 Howitzer rounds, 1,950 rifles with grenade launchers, 15,000 lbs of explosives, 500 submachine guns, 4,000 rifles and four helicopters.
These arms exports were secretly stepped up at a time when atrocities and killings of civilians were being widely reported in the press.
Humanitarian suffering, especially starvation, was severe as a result of the federal government’s blockade of Biafra. Pictures of starving and malnourished children went around the world.
By the beginning of 1968, British files refer to deaths of between 70,000-100,000 people in the war. The Red Cross estimated there were around 600,000 refugees in Biafra. By August 1968 the Red Cross estimated that 2-3 million people were “in dire need”, facing shortages of food and medical aid.
The real extent of arms supplied by Britain was concealed from the public by the government. Throughout 1967 and 1968, Labour ministers told parliament that Britain was essentially neutral in the conflict and was continuing to supply arms to Nigeria on the same basis as before the war. Wilson misinformed the House of Commons 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”.
By mid-1968, 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 “such an outcome would seriously put at risk about £200-million of British investments in non-Biafra Nigeria”, George Thomson explained to Harold Wilson in private.
British officials sought to counter widespread public opposition to the Nigerian government by helping it improve the “presentation” of its policies. British officials urged the Nigerian government to convince the outside world that it was not engaged in genocide and to suggest it backed a ceasefire and humanitarian access to Biafra.
It ruled out threatening to cut off or reduce arms exports to press the Nigerian government to change policies.
Wilson did not succumb to the growing public pressure. The month after the Red Cross’ dire warning, he told Gowon: “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”. Wilson agreed to supply Nigeria with aircraft for the first time in a covert deal, the files show. Wilson said that Britain could not supply these directly but there were such aircraft in South Yemen and Sudan previously exported by Britain. The Nigerians, he said, should procure the aircraft from them which “would not directly involve the British government”. The British government also agreed to put the Nigerians in touch with “suitable pilots”.
The Foreign Office again made clear its primary interest: “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”.
British arms supplies were stepped up again. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said the Nigerians could have a further 40,000 more mortar bombs and 2,000 rifles. Some 36 million rounds of ammunition had also been supplied in the last few months alone.
“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. 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.” At the same time, the Foreign Office was instructing its missions around the world to provide disinformation about the extent of this arms supply.
It sent a memo to diplomatic posts on 22 November stating 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”.
Humanitarian agencies were continuing calls for a ceasefire as suffering, especially starvation, had reached crisis proportions. However, Wilson told Gowon: “We shall continue to maintain our present policy, despite these heavy pressures on us.” The British government policy sought to avoid the involvement of the United Nations in peace negotiations and was intended to support Nigeria to achieve a solution on its terms only. The government’s public statements consistently blamed the Biafrans, but not the federal government, for obstructing peace negotiations and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The leaders of both sides were responsible for the failure to deliver adequate humanitarian aid, but starvation of the Biafrans was no accident or simply a by-product of the war – it was a deliberate policy of the Gowon regime.
By March 1969 Wilson continued to misinform the public 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. 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 Royal Air Force officers secretly visited Nigeria in August 1969 to advise the government on “how they could better prosecute the air war”. The main British interest, the files make clear, was to better protect the oil installations, but the brief for the two officers stated that this impression should not be given to the Nigerians.
Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart was still calling for stepping up military assistance even further. The British supplies, he wrote, “have undoubtedly been the most effective weapons in the ground war and have spear-headed all the major federal advances”.
The toll of the war was assessed in a report for the British High Commission. It mentioned that up to two 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 Biafra where 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.