Britain was set on the road to supporting Gowon by her then High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce. He later told Professor Eni Njoku, the Chancellor of the University of Nsukka and leader of the Eastern Delegation to the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference, that when it became obvious to him that Gowon intended to announce in his broadcast of 1 August 1966 the dissolution of the Nigerian Federation, he managed to persuade Gowon to strike out the words and substitute other ones. He had thus, he told the Professor, saved the unity of Nigeria. A month later he was gone. However, it seems likely his act set Britain on a course from which it became increasingly difficult to deviate, even though no real effort was made to do so.
In the ensuing months there appeared two occasions at least in which the British High Commissioner, had he been prepared once again to use the undoubted influence vested in his office, could have helped to avert disaster. The first was after the sitting of the Constitutional Conference when it became clear that the majority of Nigerians, from grass-roots level upwards, favoured a loose confederation with a weak central government. The second occasion was when the Regional Military Governors meeting at Aburi had jointly come to the same conclusion and had appended their signatures to the resolution.
There is no evidence at all to indicate that on either of these occasions the British Government’s representative on the spot suggested that this course should be followed. On the contrary, there are indications that the British on ea
ch occasion instead of advising Gowon to go along with Nigerian popular wishes encouraged him to threaten the use of force if he could not get agreement to the course of action that he and his own senior civil servants wished to see. Ironically, the loose confederation in Nigeria would have offered Britain all the advantages of the single market which she favoured from her own point of view, since the four Regional Marketing Boards already in existence were so autonomous as to constitute a kind of confederation in the economic field even at that time. In the event what has happened is that Britain’s annual turnover of £170 million worth of trade has been irreparably eroded and may yet be lost almost completely.
The most charitable interpretation that can be put on the High Commission’s decision to back Gowon against all comers including his own people, and to persuade Whitehall to do the same, is that the British representatives out there shared Gowon’s own view that the Nigerian Army could deal swiftly with any dissidence and that therefore opposition to the Gowon régime need not be taken seriously. At best this optimism was uninformed, at worst cynical.
The job of any ambassador is largely threefold: to maintain the most friendly relations possible between the country he represents and the country to which he is accredited, both on the official and at the popular level; to watch over the lives, safety, property and interests of his own fellow-nationals in the country to which he is accredited; to provide continuous reliable information to his own government on the state of affairs in all aspects within the country where he is stationed. No accepted order of priority of these three tasks ever seems to have been drawn up, but both the first two are likely to be profoundly affected by the policy adopted by the ambassador’s own government towards the country in which he is stationed; and that policy is likely to be influenced by the information the diplomat provides. For, although a diplomat may not formulate policy, it is unusual for his advice not to weigh heavily in the formulation of policy in his own country.
In the event of a policy review, the ambassador is habitually called home for consultations, and his account of the situation, political, economic and social, that prevails in the country to which he is accredited, is usually listened to with great and sometimes decisive interest. Consequently the ‘information’ aspect of an ambassador’s job may be regarded as paramount among his functions. Thoroughly bad information is not only the hallmark of a poor diplomat, but may well influence his own country’s policy into the path of disaster.
In the case of a British High Commissioner in Nigeria, drawing up factual accounts of what is going on should not be difficult. Nigeria abounds in British businessmen, civil servants, traders, journalists, travellers, missionaries, doctors, teachers, professors and engineers who collectively have centuries of experience and deep understanding. There is also a Deputy High Commissioner in each of the four regions.
To judge from Gowon’s remarks before the war about a ‘short, surgical police action’ he genuinely seems to have thought the Nigerian Army could settle the Eastern Region’s disaffection within a matter of days. That he should be uninformed is not surprising. All potentates in Africa are surrounded by sycophants, flatterers and opportunists who find it in their interest to tell the man of power what they know he would like to hear. Yet it appears that the British High Commission shared this euphoria; private conversations with journalists in Lagos at the time make clear the British officials were quite convinced that fighting when it broke out would be brief and almost bloodless, that Colonel Ojukwu would be brought down, and that the east would be reincorporated into Nigeria within a few weeks at most.
Officials, journalists and socialites, refurbishing each other’s illusions in the circular social sodomy of the diplomatic cocktail party round, had managed to convince themselves of this without any reference to what was actually going on in the Eastern Region.
That Gowon and his advisers should have been misled was understandable; that the British High Commissioner should have been wrong was not. For Sir David Hunt was fortunate in that he was served in the Eastern Region by a shrewd and well-informed Deputy High Commissioner called Mr James Parker. Mr Parker had widespread contacts with people of all nationalities and in all walks of life spread right across the Eastern Region. His American opposite number, Consul Robert Barnard, said of him, ‘Jim’s got his finger right on the pulse of this place.’* Mr Parker knew the terrain well enough, and the people involved, to realize that the sense of aggrievement and the people’s ability and determination to defend themselves if they had to, made the situation far more dangerous than those in Lagos seemed prepared to accept.
Other sources in the British Deputy High Commission in Enugu made plain that Mr Parker had put his information and his warnings at the disposal of the High Commissioner in Lagos over and over again. Pressmen in Lagos said later not only were these warnings from the East either cut out of the High Commission’s reports before being forwarded to London, or forwarded with derisive addenda, but that Sir David was observed on the social circuit publicly disparaging his subordinate in Enugu as a ‘white Ibo’.
(This vilification of anyone, even uninvolved reporters, who pointed out the misconceptions of the official assessment later became a pillar of High Commission and Commonwealth Office tactics in keeping attention off the Nigeria-Biafra issue.)
By the time the war started, as has now become clear in retrospect, the British civil servants at least had decided that the policy should be one of unalloyed support for Gowon’s regime. That such support was not of a conspicuously practical nature in the early weeks of the war is due only to the presumption that Nigeria needed no help to crush Biafra. When it became clear that such help would be needed, there was a brief period of wavering as the politicians, though not particularly interested in an obscure African ‘bush’ war, asked their advisers ‘Are you sure?’
The civil servants smoothly won the day, and from then on the aid for Gowon arrived in increasingly large quantities and in an ever wider variety of forms. It is a reflection of the attitude of the British people towards ‘their’ Commonwealth, reflected in their Press and their Members of Parliament, that the policy remained largely unquestioned for almost a year, that is, until the effect of the policy had enabled the Gowon government to bring about the deaths of close to 200,000 Commonwealth citizens. It was only when the policy was firmly questioned that the official mask slipped for a moment and what was being done in the name of the British people was fleetingly discerned. The public then reacted violently, but too late. Government policy had by then so fossilized that, even though the bases on which it had originally been formed, and the succeeding justifications, had all fallen into utter disrepute, the reputations of politicians and notably of the Prime Minister had all become hooked on a policy of crushing Biafra no matter what the cost might be.
That the British Government should decide to support the Gowon régime was not in itself what disgusted the Biafrans. It was the hypocritical way in which it was done. For twelve months every possible effort was made to ask them the facts of what was going on from the British Parliament, Press and people. In Parliamentary answer after answer the questioners and the House were misled, deceived, rebuffed and frustrated. Government spokesmen deliberately told the House that the British Government was neutral, only later to admit they were not and never had been. Poker-faced denials were given that the arms shipments to Nigeria had exceeded pre-war levels on occasions when those levels had already escalated many times. Ministers contradicted themselves, changed ground, vacillated and hedged, and for ten months a gullible House nodded and was satisfied.
While this was going on the arms shipments continued. The secrecy in which they were shrouded indicates something of the lack of confidence the perpetrators of the policy could expect from the British people if the facts ever got out.
Lorryloads of shells and bullets sped through the night in covered trucks to Gatwick Airport, where they were given permission to ride round the taxi-track (almost unprecedented at an international airport) in order to load up at a secret bay on the far side of the field. The story was eventually ‘blown’ by a reporter in Malta where one of the planes stopped to re-fuel. Much of the purchasing on behalf of the Nigerian Government was undertaken by the Crown Agents in Millbank, London, and not all arms orders fulfilled by this traditional purchasing agency for Commonwealth countries came from the British Isles.
In buying arms the important document is the export licence, usually only given after production of the ‘end-user certificate’ which states the ultimate destination of the cargo and avoids the possibility of the consignment falling into other hands. Thus a certificate signed in one country may well be valid for a purchase made elsewhere even though the ship carrying the arms does not stop over in a port of the country that signed the licence. Provided the seller is shown the licence and the end-user certificate, and provided his government has no objection, the deal may go through. Thus arms went to Nigeria out of the British Rhine Army stocks at Antwerp, Belgium: notably mortars, artillery shells and armoured cars.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to list every one of the known arms shipments to Nigeria from Britain or through British offices.* The known shipments are a matter of record and available to study, mostly in newspaper files. Firm reports of a continuing and clandestine supply of arms by the British Government to the Nigerian régime usually in darkness and under a ‘top security’ classification appeared first on 9 August 1967, within thirty-three days of the start of the war, and have continued ever since, until they became so open that they ceased to be news. But the British Government’s explanation of them is interesting.
For the first six months the Government had a fairly easy time; few questions were put and even fewer of their questioners were fully briefed on the subject. But on 29 January 1968 Lord Brockway put a question in the Lords to the Minister of State for the Commonwealth, Lord Shepherd. After the habitual answer that it was not Gov
ernment policy to reveal arms shipments going to foreign governments, Lord Brockway reminded Shepherd that the Government had earlier claimed that ‘only previous contracts and spares’ would be supplied to Nigeria. Shepherd replied that he knew nothing of this but went on: ‘While we deplore the tragic and sad civil war in Nigeria we have been supplying Nigeria with pretty well all its military equipment …’*
This was 100 days after the Nigerian commander at Asaba had used his share of ‘pretty well all its military equipment’ to order the execution of every Ibo male over the age of ten years.
The mask in London had slipped badly through Shepherd’s unprepared answer and from then on the Government concentrated more on justifying the arms shipments to Lagos than denying them. But remarkable deceptions as regards to quantity still continued. Parliament was repeatedly told that only ‘traditional’ supplies of arms, both in type and quantity, were being sent, yet on 16 May 1968 Mr Harold Wilson told the Commons:
‘We have continued the supply – not the Government; I mean that we have allowed the continuance of 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.’†
This was a remarkable statement, as Nigeria was proudly announcing that it had been able to increase the size of its army from 8,000 men at the start of the war to around 80,000 men. Apart from the weapons involved, the usage of ammunition by the Nigerians was so prodigal that correspondents from Vietnam were bemused by the way they threw their bullets around, needing constant re-supply with bullets at levels far beyond what pre-war supplies from Britain could have coped with. And thirdly, as regards the question of ‘private manufacturers’ mentioned by Mr Wilson, this author had during the entire spring of 1968 examined hundreds of Nigerian shell cases clearly marked ‘UK Government explosives – War Department/Army’ which also had their date of manufacture clearly stencilled on the sides – November 1967.
Finally it was admitted that Britain’s supply of weapons to Nigeria had escalated ‘because the war has escalated’. But even while politicians, when pressed hard enough into a corner, little by little permitted the Parliament, Press and public to realize that the arms shipments were very substantial, the façade was still kept up that they were justified for various reasons. It may be as well to examine these given reasons and seek to bring them into some form of perspective.
The main reason given was that Britain had been the traditional supplier of arms to Nigeria and that to have ceased supplies would have been a non-neutral act in favour of Biafra. This was not true. Colonel Ojukwu, as Nigeria’s first indigenous Quartermaster-General, knew exactly what orders he had placed with Britain during his tenure of office, and which he had cancelled. He knew up to the date of Biafra’s independence fairly accurately what purchases were being made or were pending. At a press conference on 28 April 1968 he stated the position. Significantly this was never denied by Lagos, nor has any subsequent Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army ever stated otherwise. What he said was that between 1964 and 1966 ‘the only supply of military equipment that came to the then Nigeria (from Britain) were twelve Ferret cars and two Saladins, with a further order of four pending delivery right up to 1966’.
He said he knew ‘that Nigeria stopped the purchase of rifles and machine guns from Britain when Nigeria signed a contract with the German firm of Fritz Werner in 1964 for the construction of a munitions factory in Kaduna’. (Werner closed down at the start of the war rather than produce bullets for a civil war.) He stated that Nigeria bought recoilless rifles from America, submachine guns and rifles from Italy, light machine guns from Germany, 105-mm Howitzers from Italy, 81 mm mortars from Israel and boots and other equipment from Germany.
By July 1966, when General Ironsi was murdered, Britain had been so replaced as the traditional supplier of arms to Nigeria that that country was dependent on Britain only for the supply of ceremonial dress uniforms and armoured cars.