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

Harold Wilson lies to cover up British complicity in Biafran war crimes

Starving woman in a refugee camp during the conflict –
US Department of Health photo – public domain.

27 March 1969

On 27 March 1969, Prime Minister Harold Wilson lied in a press interview, to cover up the huge scale of British arms exports to the Federal Military Government (FMG) of Nigeria, which was waging a war of genocide against the secessionist state of Biafra causing over two million deaths from famine. The preceding year, Chief Allison Ayida, the leader of the FMG delegation at peace talks, had asserted that ‘starvation is a legitimate weapon of war and we have every intention of using it against the rebels.’1

During the press interview, Wilson insisted that British arms exports to Nigeria were ‘on a limited scale’ and that they didn’t include any bombs. However on the same day he made the statement, the government authorized the export of 19 million rounds of ammunition, ten thousand grenades and 39,000 mortar bombs, and just a day earlier a Foreign Office official had described in an internal memo the shipment as ‘large quantities of arms and ammunition,’ boasting that earlier ammunition for the FMG had been flown out of Manston airport in Kent to avoid ‘unfavourable press comment.’2


  1. Cited in Frederick Forsyth, The Biafra Story: The Making of an African legend, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, 2015. General Yakabu Gowon, Nigeria’s head of state, later explained that ‘food is the means to resistance, it is ammunition in this sense and the mercy flights into rebel territory are looked upon as tantamount to gun running.’ See Akachi Odoemene, ‘Ethnic Balkanization in the War Narratives,’ in Toyin Falola and Ogechukwu Ezekwem (editors), Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War, James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2016, p. 187.
  2. Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage, London, 2004, p. 181.

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