1960-1969 | Arms exports | Backing repressive regimes | Nigeria

Memo – We want to help Nigeria’s junta ‘any way we can’

Gatwick in 1967 from where weapons were secretly flown to Nigeria. Photo – John Baker – CC License – via Geograph.

7 July 1967

On 7 July 1967, the British government decided to explain apologetically to Major-General Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon, the leader of Nigeria’s military junta, that although it strongly sympathised with his efforts to crush any attempt by the persecuted Igbo population of Biafra to secede as an independent state, it would be diplomatically awkward to agree immediately to his entire shopping list of military equipment. A confidential memo from the Commonwealth Office to Downing Street noted that ‘we want to help the Federal (Military) Government any way we can.’ However Wilson’s government realised that Gowon’s request for fast patrol boats and ground attack aircraft, if met and made public, would be an open acknowledgement of British involvement in the conflict.1

It was therefore decided initially that beyond the fulfillment of substantial existing military contracts, the only immediate additional support to the Junta would be the provision of anti-aircraft guns as well as training in their use.  However, as one British diplomat noted , ‘they could also take on an offensive role if mounted in an invasion fleet.’2 This escalation of British military support for the Federal Military Government occurred on the day war broke out over Biafra’s attempt to secede, and was soon followed by a flood of additional equipment and ammunition, including, within days, a promise to supply the fast patrol boats. Wilson’s government knew these would be used to impose a crippling blockade on Biafra, whose population was critically dependent on food imports. The Foreign Office also realised that any conflict would predictably lead to atrocities against the hated Igbos as well as the likelihood of famine. Therefore, every measure was taken to keep British military support unexposed to unwelcome publicity.

Sir David Hunt, the British High Commissioner in Lagos, was so concerned that he urged London ‘to use civil aircraft’ for transporting the guns and other military supplies, so that ‘there would be no publicity.’3 His advice was hastily adopted.  According to Frederick Forsyth, in The Biafra Story: The Making of An African Legend, ‘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… in order to load up at a secret bay on the far side of the field.’4

FOOTNOTES

  1. Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage, London 2004 p. 171
  2. Ibid p. 272
  3. Ibid p. 272
  4. Frederick Forsyth, The Biafra Story: The Making of An African Legend, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2015 p. 161.

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