Biafra Dissertation

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British Arm Sales in the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970

Candidate Number: P14521 Word Count: 9117

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Table of Contents Introduction...................................................................................................................3 Section I.........................................................................................................................6 Section II..........................................................................................................................12 Section III.........................................................................................................................24 Conclusion.......................................................................................................................31 Bibliography.....................................................................................................................31

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Introduction On May 21 1968, Mr. David Winnick stood up in the House of Commons and asked Mr. George Thomson, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Britain would like to see all foreign arms supplies to Nigeria cut off, including arms from this country?1 Over a year later on June 23 1969, Mr. Barnes asked Mr Foley, the new Foreign Secretary, if he will set a time limit to the continued supply of British arms to Nigeria in view of the protraction of the war with Biafra?2 Nigeria, as described by Lord Brockway, was regarded almost as a showpiece of British decolonisation.3 It is not surprising then that the civil war which lasted from July 1967 to January 1970 and which saw Britain play the role of arms dealer to Federal Nigeria, attracted much comment, both inside and outside Parliament. Eastern Nigeria seceded on May 26 1967 under the leadership of General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu who declared the republic of Biafra in reaction to the massacres of Easterners earlier that year. In his words, the act of secession was in order to [ensure] the survival of our people.4 Federal Nigeria responded by declaring war on the breakaway republic in July 1967. Early on, the United States refused to sell arms to either side. As the war progressed, the media images of Biafrans starving and dying led European countries such as Holland, Belgium and Italy to also refuse to sell arms in the conflict.5 Britain never followed suit despite the barrage of criticism that rained down on the government from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who called for a British arms embargo in the House of Lords on February 13 1968,6 to the youths of London, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham who

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Hansard, House of Commons Debate [hereafter HC Deb], May 21 1968, Vol. 765, cc. 263-268, p 264. Hansard, HC Deb, 10 July 1968, Vol. 785, cc 983-985, p 983 3 Hansard, House of Lords Debate [hereafter HL Deb], 13 February 1968, Vol. 289, cc 69-92, p70. 4 John de St Jorre, The Nigerian Civil War, Hodder and Stoughton (1972) p120. 5 Ibid. p 181, p 208. 6 The Times, Wednesday February 14 1968, p 14.

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released 1,000 black balloons in their cities on December 19 1969 to symbolise the one thousand Biafrans that were reportedly dying every day from the conflict.7 Even the newspaper reports from this time were deliberately phrased to rile the public against the governments arms policy. On April 24 1968 one correspondent asked in The Times, What can one say to a man whose child has just been killed by a British bomb...8? Another revelled in the unpopularity of Harold Wilsons Labour Government, writing, ...the Government are acutely embarrassed by their present public image as the main supplier of arms which keep the war going. They would like to get off the hook.9 For Britain to have refused arms to Nigeria would have gone against their historical relationship. Prior to the civil war, Britain had been the traditional supplier of arms to the former colony. In January 1961, a few months after independence, the two countries signed the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact in which it was agreed that Britain would control Nigerian military bases and air staging facilities and Nigeria would purchase her hardware and military training from the former mother country. Although this weapons entente was ended in 1962 because of Nigerian opposition to its restrictive clauses,10 Britain still continued to supply a sizeable portion of the arms and ammunition that the Nigerian military used. For example, in 1966, she supplied 32.8% of Nigerias total stock.11These traditional arrangements would come into consideration whenever the subject of an arms embargo was discussed in the secret papers circulated in Whitehall at the time but they would not be the main reason why Britain refused to cut off arms to Federal Nigeria.

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The Times, Saturday December 20, 1969, p 5. The Times, Thursday April 25 1968, p 8. 9 The Times, Tuesday May 28 1968, p 5. 10 J.F Ade Ajayi and A.E Ekoko, Transfer of Power in Nigeria: Its Origins and Consequences, in Prosser Gifford and William Roger Louis eds. Decolonization and African Independence: the transfer or Power 1960-1980, Yale University Press (1988) pp 245-270, p 263. 11 Olatunde JB Ojo, Nigerian-Soviet Relations; Retrospect and Prospect, African Studies Review, Vol. 19 (Dec 1976) pp 43-63, p 55.

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The major reason for Whitehall backing Nigeria was the threat to British influence posed by certain foreign countries that were willing to supply arms to the conflict - countries that in some cases publicly purported a policy of neutrality. Chief amongst Britains competitors was Soviet Russia. The documents show an acute paranoia of Soviet involvement in the conflict which is only understandable in the context of the Cold War. By the 1960s, this war was well underway and the tussle for influence in the Nigerian Civil War mirrors the wider international struggle between East and West. Although Russia would be viewed as the chief threat, there would also be other foreign powers attempting to use arm sales to stake a claim in Nigeria and adding worry to the politicians in Whitehall who found themselves jostling for influence in their former colonial showpiece. The government papers used in this study are held at the National Archives in Kew Gardens and have only recently been declassified. They add considerably to the debate on British involvement in the Nigerian Civil War because the historians writing prior to their release have relied on conjecture to deduce British motivation for selling arms to Nigeria. These papers are by no means an exhaustive body of material. Some of the documents dealing with this period have still been deemed too sensitive to be released. Yet from what has been made public, a view of British motivation during this war begins to emerge which differs from what earlier commentators and historians, overly concerned with the economic and neo-imperial dimensions of arms sales, have said. Supporting the Federal side with arms was at its heart a pragmatic attempt by the British to retain influence in a region that seemed to be drifting away from the former mother country.

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I Much has been written about Britains decision to sell arms to Nigeria but less attention has been focused on the months during which very few British arms reached the shores of her former colony. The reaction in Whitehall to the idea of civil war in Nigeria was almost uniformly condemnatory. An example of this strong opposition is displayed in a telegram from the Commonwealth Office dated June 16 1967 which stated, Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute may be, there is no doubt that there would be strong revulsion of feeling in this country against attempt to settle it by civil war.12 And it seemed that the British were prepared to go to some length to ensure that if the dispute between Eastern Nigeria and the rest of the country did result in civil war, their involvement in the outcome would be negligible. In a meeting between a British Minister of State and Gowon, the former was alleged to have asked the General, Would it really help Gowon if it became clear that he had only vanquished the East through British help? In the same discussion the Minister also mentioned that in their policy towards hostilities in Nigeria, Britain had leant over backwards to stick the principle of non-intervention in Nigerian affairs.13 Though arms were still supplied in this period, they were of a quantity that one telegram noted would not significantly or immediately add to [Nigerias] offensive capabilities against the East.14 In the first few months of hostilities, by pursuing this policy of minimum intervention where arm sales were concerned, Britain, as Oye Ogunbadejo briefly summarised, seemed to be...anxious to limit the scale of the conflict.15

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The National Archives, Kew Gardens [hereafter TNA], FCO 38/265, Telegram from Commonwealth Office to Lagos, 16 June 1967. 13 Ibid. Letter from O.G Forster to A.M Pallister at 10 Downing Street, 7 July 1967. 14 Ibid. Telegram from Lagos to Commonwealth Office, 14 June 1967. 15 Oye Ogunbadejo, Nigeria and the Great Powers: The impact of the Civil War on Nigerian Foreign Relations, African Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 298 (Jan 1976) pp. 14-32, p 15.

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While it does seem high-handed to attempt to control the scale of a war in a sovereign country by limiting arms supplies, this policy seems to have rested on genuine humanitarian feeling in Whitehall. In a report to the Prime Minister in November 1967, George Thomas explained the rationale behind providing the Federal Government with only reasonable quantities of ammunition for weapons supplied by us with small quantities of weapons of which we have been traditional suppliers. Thomass first explanation for this policy was to reduce loss of human life.16 Certainly, the more cynical may arg