The Biafra Story - Page 36

The Peace Conferences

The eighteen months of the war between July 1967 and December 1968 were punctuated by three peace conferences, all of them abortive. Their failure surprised no one, least of all those on the Biafran side. The prerequisite of any peace conference, if it is to be successful, is that both parties must ipso facto be persuaded that the conflict in progress is no longer susceptible to a military solution within their grasp and that a negotiated solution is not only desirable but in the long run inevitable.

Those on the outside of the conflict, wishing to see the conference successful, must, if their role is to be anything other than a sophistry, do all in their power to bring both parties to that persuasion. For any power outside the conflict to profess a desire to see a peaceful and negotiated solution on the one hand while providing one of the partners with a reason for failing to come to share that view is hypocrisy.

In the case of the three conferences between Nigerians and Biafrans, Britain and America acted diplomatically, and Britain practically, to keep Nigeria locked in her original conviction, which was that a total military solution was feasible and within her grasp, while a negotiated solution was by no means inevitable in the long run. As a result the Nigerians showed within a few hours of each conference opening that the presence of their delegation was solely in order to discuss the terms of the Biafran surrender. Failing acceptance of this basis for negotiation, the war must inevitably go on. Which it did. Part of the responsibility for this must rest with the two powers, and with the supineness of the African states who allowed themselves to be persuaded into a ‘hands-off’ policy towards a matter which had already become a slur on the whole continent.

The first conference resulted from some diplomatic activity by the Commonwealth Secretary, Mr Arnold Smith, an amiable Canadian possessed of much goodwill and little astuteness. After contacting Lagos several times in the early spring of 1968 he finally told the Biafrans that the former were willing to talk peace. As this development had been the Biafran desire for the length of the war, they agreed, and an arrangement was made for preliminary talks at Marlborough House, London, to discuss the formula for the conference.

At the time Nigeria was under pressure. Repeated attempts to take the major Biafran city of Port Harcourt from the seaward side had failed, and the commander of the Third Division had promised he could take the city by the end of May.

While the Third Division continued its cumbersome progress across the marshlands towards Port Harcourt, the situation changed alarmingly on the diplomatic side. On 13 April Tanzania recognized Biafra as a sovereign state. This heartened the Biafrans as much as it demoralized the Nigerians, even down to the level of the infantry. It was at this juncture, with Ivory Coast and Gabon thinking of following Tanzania’s example, that the Nigerians intimated to Mr Smith that they were willing to talk. On the Biafran side it was immediately expected that ‘stall’ was a more appropriate expression, for the fall of Port Harcourt would probably swing diplomatic tendencies in Africa the other way again. And so it proved.

The preliminary talks began in London on 2 May with the Biafran Chief Justice Sir Louis Mbanefo leading for one side and Chief Anthony Enahoro heading the Nigerian delegation. The points to be discussed were the venue for the conference, the chairman and international observers (if any) and the agenda. Biafran suspicions that the talks were a stalling manoeuvre were strengthened from the outset. Sir Louis told Mr Smith that he was persuaded the talks could not succeed. For one reason the British had refused to suspend arms shipments to Lagos even while the talks were in progress, a gesture not misinterpreted by the Nigerians; for another because of the composition of the Nigerian delegation.

Apart from Chief Enahoro they included Alhaji Amino Kano, a Northerner but definitely not of the Northern Establishment, and who could not speak for Northern Nigeria, and three Biafran collaborators, Asika, the Lagos-nominated Ibo charged with administering the Ibo heartland, Brigadier George Kurubo, a renegade Rivers man renounced by his own people, who had once been a Brigadier in the Biafran Army before defecting to Lagos when offered the Nigerian Ambassadorship in Moscow, and Mr Ikpeme, a Calabar Efik, who had represented Lagos in Calabar while the reprisals against the Efiks were in progress in late November and December.

It was rather like the South Vietnamese delegation turning up in Paris with three Vietcong defectors as their spokesmen; the reaction of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese delegations can be imagined.

But although he was aware that this group of men could under no circumstances be regarded as competent to speak for the people of Nigeria, Sir Louis carried on. As a venue the Biafrans asked for Dakar, which was refused by Enahoro who offered no alternative site. After three days

’ delay Sir Louis asked Enahoro to submit a list of places suitable to Lagos, adding that the Nigerian hope for London being chosen was out so long as Britain continued to supply arms to Nigeria.

Enahoro submitted a list of seventeen capitals in the Commonwealth, out of which Sir Louis proposed Kampala, which had been his own second proposal. But he had kept it up his sleeve. Discomfited but cornered, Enahoro agreed to Kampala, capital of Uganda. Biafra wanted a talks chairman and three independent international observers, aware after Aburi of the necessity of witnesses to such meetings. Enahoro wanted neither and suggested this matter be settled at Kampala. Sir Louis agreed. After further delays, the agenda came to be discussed.

Sir Louis wanted a two-point agenda: agreement on a ceasefire, and more prolonged talks on the terms of the future nature of association between the two parties, that is, the political solution. Enahoro countered with a seven-point agenda which amounted to discussing the ways and means of organizing Biafra’s total and unconditional surrender. Sir Louis protested that a ceasefire was the main aim of the talks, and that without a ceasefire the talks would in any case be bound to founder. Besides, he pointed out, the original offer brought back by Smith had been for talks on a ceasefire, without preconditions. The two-point agenda was eventually accepted.

The main conference opened in Kampala on Thursday 23 May 1968. By this date the Nigerian advance patrols had entered Port Harcourt and the conference became an academic exercise. It took two days to agree that there should be no chairman, but one observer. The Biafrans asked for President Milton Obote, their host, putting the Nigerians in the position of either ceding the point or snubbing their host. They agreed, and Dr Obote named his Foreign Minister Simon Odaka to sit in. On the Saturday the Nigerians complained that one of their secretaries, Mr Johnson Banjo, was missing, and they could not resume until the errant stenographer was found.

By this time the talks were looking like comic opera, while in Umuahia Colonel Ojukwu angrily described them as ‘a grisly farce’. Enahoro could not resume the talks on Sunday morning because of going to church, and made two more excuses for Sunday afternoon and evening. He asked to see President Obote, and then sought private talks with Sir Louis. These led nowhere. On Tuesday he put forward a twelve-point proposal discussing in detail the surrender of Biafra, disarmament of her armed forces, administration of the territory by the Nigerians and the fate of the Biafran leadership. Sir Louis reminded him they were in Kampala to discuss a ceasefire, the first item on the agenda, and the political solution after that. Enahoro stuck to his proposals, which effectively reversed the order of the agenda. By this time the details of the capture of Port Harcourt were through and hopes for any conversion of Lagos Government thinking to a peace policy were finished.

While the London and Kampala talks had been going on three more countries had recognized Biafra, Ivory Coast on 8 May, Gabon on 14 May and Zambia on 20 May. But the news of Port Harcourt, reaching Kampala between 23 and 27 May, swept away any chance of these recognitions having the effect of changing Nigerian policy.

It was at that time generally believed that the loss of Port Harcourt airport, which fell several days after the city, would cut Biafra off from the outside world and from her arms supplies. In that case it was presumed the Biafran resistance could not last longer than a fortnight.

But the recognition, if underrated by the exuberant Nigerians, disturbed the British and American Governments. Intense diplomatic activity behind the scenes was undertaken by both parties to dissuade any other tempted nations to follow suit. Mr Alfred Palmer, US Under-Secretary of State for African Affairs, a former Ambassador to Nigeria, made a tour of West African countries coming out strongly in private and public against Biafra and for Nigeria. The joint action was not without its effect; the rash of recognitions stopped, and three other African countries which had privately informed Colonel Ojukwu that they were considering recognizing Biafra, but who economies were somewhat dependent on dollar aid, decided to hold their horses.

On Friday 31 May Sir Louis told Dr Obote first and then the press that his country was of the view Nigeria was totally convinced that there was a military solution, that he was wasting his time, and intended to withdraw. To judge from what they wrote most of the international correspondents had already come to the same view.

Disappointed but still hopeful, Sir Louis returned not to Biafra but to London, where after spending seven days with British officials he finally applied to see Mr Harold Wilson. Instead he got a call from an official suggesting he see the Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office, Lord Shepherd. Sir Louis agreed and they met at Mr Arnold Smith’s house. Lord Shepherd opened the discussion with a massive solecism.

He made plain that up till that moment he had thought the Biafrans an obscure tribe of a few thousands living somewhere in the bush. Even case-hardened veterans like Sir Morrice James, Permanent Under-Secretary, were reduced to staring uncomfortably out of the window. It was the first appearance of Lord Shepherd on the diplomatic scene.

The two had three meetings, during which Lord Shepherd stressed the British Government’s desire to see a ceasefire and more peace talks. He asked if Biafra would accept British mediation. Perplexed that Shepherd had not grasped the situation yet, Sir Louis replied it was his government’s view British mediation was out of the question while Britain supplied more arms to Lagos. Press reports at the time indicated those shipments were escalating. The viewpoint appeared to surprise the noble Lord.

However, Lord Shepherd produced a plan for a ceasefire, which Sir Louis asked be put in writing, which it was. When viewed beside the Biafran plan, no major points of difference in principle emerged. The ceasefire, the need for an international peace-keeping force, the subsequent negotiations for the political solution – all tallied. Lord Shepherd appeared pleased and said he would go to Lagos to try for agreement there on the basic formula already agreeable to the British and Biafrans. He asked Sir Louis to remain in London till he got back from Lagos, but the latter preferred to fly back to Biafra, promising to return to London if Lord Shepherd’s mission proved fruitful. The latter flew off on 13 June, and Sir Louis the next day.

What followed stunned the observers. Lord Shepherd’s plan, if it was ever broached in Lagos, was turned down flat. For Lagos the political solution, in the form of the Biafran surrender, must be a pre-condition of a ceasefire. Undaunted, Lord Shepherd flew off to Calabar, which is now in Nigerian hands. Here he behaved in an extraordinary manner for a putative mediator, making speeches and asides that showed he had become within a few days a total devotee of Nigeria and its cause.

Confronted by two News of the World correspondents, Mr Noyes Thomas and Mr Graham Stanford, who related to him with passion the sights of human misery and degradation they had witnessed in Nigerian-occupied Ibibio territory, notably at Ikot Ekpene, Lord Shepherd manifested some surprise and shock. But within a short time, again the centre of attraction, he was delightedly waving to the crowd (Biafran agents in the town later reported many were Yoruba soldiers in mufti) and even got himself into a situation where he was observed greeting a choir which had been enjoined to serenade him with the psalm ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. Comparisons with Lord Runciman’s mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938 and that ridiculous peer’s performance at Petrovice were unavoidable. In Lagos he made more statements of a strongly pro-Nigeria flavour and departed with any chances of a negotiated settlement through his mediation in shreds and tatters.

The effectiveness of British diplomacy in the issue was at an end and, despite subsequent claims of great victories won in the corridors of Lagos, of concessions, of tentative agreements and lots more besides, the British Government has subsequently been able to affect by not one jot or tittle the chances of peace in Nigeria, except perhaps that her continued policy has moved them even farther away. Yet observers were left wondering why Britain of all countries, with a fund of fine diplomats of the calibre of Sir Humphrey Trevelyan who acted so shrewdly over Ade

n, felt itself obliged when confronted with a situation of the utmost delicacy like the Nigeria–Biafra war to confine her efforts to using the services of Lord Shepherd who is not a professional diplomat.

The next move came from Africa. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia had for months headed the six-nation Committee on Nigeria of the Organization of African Unity, a committee which had remained mute since the previous winter when it had been warned off visiting Biafra by General Gowon and had meekly succumbed. After contacting the other five heads of state, those of Liberia, Congo Kinshasa, Cameroon, Ghana and Niger Republic, the Emperor convened a conference in the capital of the lastnamed country, Niamey. The host was the President of Niger, Hamani Diori. The meeting was opened on Monday 15 July, and was attended by General Gowon on the following day. Hardly had he flown home in the afternoon than the committee issued an invitation to Colonel Ojukwu to come and present his case.

The news reached Biafra first by radio, but the official invitation took longer, being delivered through the offices of President Bongo of Gabon that night. The next day, Wednesday, Colonel Ojukwu held a long-scheduled press conference at Aba, during which he proposed two means of getting food into Biafra to alleviate the human suffering. One was via a sea and river route up the Niger River to the port of Oguta, still firmly in Biafran hands. The other was for the internationalization of Port Harcourt under neutral control, and for a ten-mile-wide corridor from there up to the front-line positions north of the town where the Biafran Red Cross would take over. He was asked at the same conference if he would go to Niamey, but he ruefully shook his head and replied that though he would like to he felt the military situation would not allow it.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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