Another reason, taken straight from Nigerian propaganda, was that the Ibos of Biafra had forced the unwilling minority non-Ibos into partition from Nigeria against their will in order to grab the oil riches of the Eastern Region for themselves. All the on-the-spot evidence indicated that the minority groups fully participated in the decision-making process to get out of Nigeria, and were as enthusiastic as the Ibos. As regards the oil, Nigerian propaganda stated that 97.3 per cent of the oil production of Nigeria came from non-Ibo areas. Fortunately the oil statistics both of the major oil companies and of the Nigerian Government are available for study.* For the month of December 1966 out of total production in Nigeria 36.5 per cent came from the Midwest, which was not part of Biafra. Of the Biafran production for that month, Lagos’ own figures show that 50 per cent came from Aba Province (pure Ibo area), 20 per cent from Ahoada Division (majority Ibo area), and 30 per cent from Ogoni Division and Oloibiri (Ogoni/Ijaw area). Besides which, every eyewitness present during the months before the decision to break away from Nigeria was made said later that oil was not the chief motive.
The most commonly quoted reason, and the one which has the most widespread support, is that any secession is in itself bad, since it would inevitably spark off a chain of other secessionist movements all over Africa. The spectres of ‘balkanization’, ‘disintegration’ and ‘reversion to tribalism’ are dutifully held up and even habitually cogent thinkers are overawed.
Mr David Williams, editor of West Africa magazine and one of the best known writers on the subject, wrote on 27 October 1968 in the Sunday Mirror: ‘Yet in the end the Federal forces will win, and if this whole part of the world is not to become a mosaic of tiny, bankrupt, warring states, they must win.’
Although this has often been stated, and represents the Wilson Government’s view, it has never apparently been questioned. Neither has it ever been justified. The assumption is badly made, and presumed to be true. The evidence does not support the thesis.
For one thing the case of Biafra is quite exceptional. Even President Mobutu of the Congo has said categorically there is no similarity between the case of Biafra and that of Katanga, a view mirrored by United Nations diplomat Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, who could scarcely be described as being in favour of secession.
For another thing, Mr Wilson when advocating against the use of force in Rhodesia suggested that violence in Southern Africa could spark off a chain of violence across the continent. Indeed the danger of contagious violence is considerably greater than the danger of contagious partition; yet the war goes on without any serious attempt to stop it.
Thirdly, partition on the basis of incompatibility is an acknowledged political solution to situations where two peoples have shown there is little likelihood of their ever living together in peace. It was used in the case of the partition of Ireland from the United Kingdom. More recently the British Government accepted the secession of Nyasaland from the Central African Federation, the Western Cameroons from Nigeria (on UN supervised plebiscite), the Cayman Islands from the West Indian Federation, Jamaica from the West Indian Federation (after Jamaica’s Premier had admitted there was no legal right to secede); and they accepted the demand of the Muslim League for partition from India in 1947 when it became clear that Indian unity could only be bought at the price of a bloody civil war.
The British Government has in the past accepted the ‘balkanization’ of the West Indies Federation, the Central African Federation and the Malaysia Federaton without a murmur. In each case there has been no consequent rash of secessions across those parts of the world. Some of the independent states of the West Indies are so tiny as to be almost completely unviable; yet independent Biafra would have the third largest population and the highest prosperity potential in Africa.
For the real reasons, one must look elsewhere. Only two seem discernible. One is that Whitehall received information at the start of the war from its High Commissioner in Lagos that the war would be short, sharp and sweet, and that one should certainly back the winner. Politically, this is not exceptionable. One does not back causes that are going to vanish from the map within a week or two. However, when it became quite clear that the whole situation had been misunderstood by Her Majesty’s plenipotentiary and his staff, that their information had been bad, that ‘Ojukwu’s revolt’ was in fact a strongly and widely supported popular movement, that the war would drag on for months and maybe years with a steadily escalating death-toll, that the behaviour of the Nigerian forces towards the Biafran civilians of all racial groups was giving cause for considerable alarm, the British Government deserves to be severely censured in that its policy was not only not reconsidered, but was escalated.
One might have been able to say that up to the end of 1967 the British government did not know to what use its weapons and diplomatic support were being put. But throughout 1968 there was too much evidence, too much eyewitness testimony, too many photographs, too many reliable accounts, too many news and television films, for anyone to entertain a justifiable doubt.
The other discernible reason for the Wilson Government having continued to comfort and support, politically, diplomatically and militarily, the Gowon régime after the facts became known is that Britain has decided, though on the basis of what reasoning no one has explained, that the Nigerian market shall remain intact no matter what the price.
But all this became known only after repeated inquiry by the few who were sufficiently interested to ask. For twelve months the mask of neutrality was kept up, only slipping on occasion and revealing the partisanship behind.
On 20 June 1967, sixteen days before the war started, Lord Walston told the House of Lords that the Government had no intention whatsoever of intervening in the internal affairs of Nigeria and had made this ‘very plain to all the Nigerian leaders’.*
Eight weeks later, correspondents asking about the arms shipments through Gatwick Airport were told they were just ‘tail-end’ orders being fulfilled. The ‘neutrality’ deception continued unquestioned until murmurs of puzzlement started in January 1968. On 25 January Lord Shepherd, asked by Lord Conesford to clarify the position, replied; ‘We are neutral to both sides, but there is clearly a recognized Government in Nigeria … we certainly are not helping one side or the other.’*
Four days later he was admitting Britain supplied ‘pretty well all its military equipment’ to Nigeria. By 13 February Lord Shepherd was still maintaining the charade, but had modified it slightly. He told the Lords, ‘To cut off all supplies [of arms] would be seen by them [Lagos] as an un-neutral and one-sided act against them, and against our own declared policy of support for a single Nigeria.’†
The questions persisted and the maintenance of the deception became increasingly difficult. On 21 May Mr George Thomson developed Shepherd’s theme; replying to a question in the Commons he claimed that neutrality would mean supporting the rebellion.‡ The charade was maintained until the momentous debate of 27 August when the Wilson Government finally came out and revealed it had never done other than support Gowon with everything it had got.
On the international diplomatic scene the full enormity of the consequences of this misrepresentation did not become apparent until later. Throughout 1968 most foreign governments accepted that Britain was at least politically neutral, and therefore available as an impartial mediator if such should be required. In fact Britain was simultaneously assuring Lagos that arms shipments would continue, and thus encouraging the Federal Government to fight to a bitter and bloody
finish; claiming before world opinion that it was doing everything in its power through secret diplomacy to bring about a ceasefire and meaningful peace talks; using the full persuasiveness of its diplomacy to urge deeply concerned governments not to follow the lead of Tanzania, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Gabon in recognizing Biafra; and when peace talks were finally forced on Nigeria by mounting world opinion, becoming the behind-the-scenes spokesman and advocate for the Nigerian cause. It was a twelve-month hoax. When other governments grew restive and wished to take some initiative, they were warned off with the argument, ‘We are in the best position to bring about peace moves in this situation; outside interference, however wellintentioned, could only cloud the issue; leave it to us, we are doing all we can.’
In fact Britain was doing all it could – to ensure Nigeria’s total military victory in crushing the life out of Biafra. Colonel Ojukwu’s refusal to accept the Wilson Government as a mediator so long as it remained the chief arms supplier to his enemies was castigated as another incidence of that callous intransigence that was always laid at his door when he refused to fall in with Nigeria’s or Britain’s more obvious ruses.
Nevertheless, the ‘neutrality’ mask almost worked, even with the Biafrans. Many senior people in the Biafran régime wanted to believe in it, even though the evidence reaching their desks told them otherwise. Sir Louis Mbanefo, the Biafran Chiefjustice and senior negotiator at Kampala, later talked for weeks with British Government officials and Lord Shepherd in the hopes that their assurances of neutrality and desire for peace were sincere.
If the charade almost fooled the Biafrans who were taking a deep interest in the situation, it certainly fooled other governments whose interest, though concerned, was less profound. On 9 September 1968 Mr Richard Nixon, then conducting his Presidential campaign, gave an unwitting indication of the world’s attitude of hesitancy towards facing the Nigeria-Biafra situation head-on. He said:
Until now efforts to relieve the Biafran people have been thwarted by the desire of the central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Ibo people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But genocide is what is taking place right now – and starvation is the grim reaper. This is not the time to stand on ceremony, or to ‘go through channels’ or to observe the diplomatic niceties. The destruction of an entire people is an immoral objective even in the most moral of wars. It can never be justified; it can never be condoned.
And yet what the world did throughout 1968 was to stand on ceremony, to try to go through channels, and to observe all the diplomatic niceties. This is not to say that a frank declaration of factional interest by Britain would have brought forward initiatives from other world leaders, or that any such initiatives would inevitably have succeeded in bringing peace. But it is fair to say that Britain’s ‘Hands Off’ warning and her own self-appointed monopoly of the mediator’s role ensured that no such other initiatives ever stood a real chance of getting off the ground.
The debate in the House of Commons on 27 August is worth a brief description inasmuch as it provided what correspondents the next day described as ‘one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of hostility [against the Government] seen for many years in the Commons’ (Financial Times); ‘a shoddy day’s work’ (Guardian); and ‘fantastic disorder’ (The Times).
There were two debates that day – one in the Commons and one in the Lords. Both were on Nigeria–Biafra. A few hours after the Earl of Cork and Orrery described the use to which British arms were being put in Nigeria, Mr Thomson placed the British Government squarely in its true role. Referring to the outbreak of the war thirteen months previously, he told the House: ‘Neutrality was not a possible option for Her Majesty’s Government at that time.’*
What followed was that he and his colleagues made the Nigerian case more devotedly, more passionately, more partially and on occasions more violently than even the Nigerians could have done themselves.
Mr Thomson started by making it clear that Britain had unequivocally taken sides in the bloodiest local war in decades; that it had adopted this course thirteen months previously. He went on to opine that the Lagos Government were prepared to be accommodating on the constitutional form through which unity was to be interpreted, and even mentioned confederation. (This was never confirmed by Lagos, who indeed have maintained just the contrary.) But throughout Mr Thomson’s description to the House of the exchanges between the regimes of Gowon and Ojukwu which preceded the war, he never once mentioned that Colonel Ojukwu had consistently pressed for confederation as a way of preserving unity without recourse to war.
If there were any doubts left in Members’ minds about the total partisanship of the British Government they were dispelled by the Minister of State, Mr William Whitlock. Reading word by word from his notes prepared in the Commonwealth Office by a civil servant, this Minister gave what witnesses later described as the most biased version of a foreign government’s propaganda output that the Commons had ever heard.
He launched into a slashing attack on Biafra, denigrated its case, and picked as his especial target its Overseas Press Service and the small Geneva-based firm of public relations agents who disseminate the Biafran news to the international Press. He accused Members who believed anything from Biafra of being gullible. By some freak of reasoning he assured the House that the Nigerian final offensive against the Ibo heartland, which had been personally announced by General Gowon on British television screens the night before, was not, despite what Gowon had said, the final push, but the continuing preparations for a final push.
He followed this by reading from his notes almost verbatim most of the Nigerian war propaganda claims, which had long since been proved by independent investigation to be misleading or totally untrue.