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

Minister – oil means we must back Nigeria’s junta against Biafra

8 August 1967

Today in 1967, the Commonwealth Minister George Thomas submitted a confidential memo to Prime Minister Harold Wilson reminding him that Shell-BP, then partly owned by the British government, ‘have much to lose if the F.M.G. (Nigeria’s Federal Military Government) do not achieve the expected victory’ against Biafra, which had declared independence after Nigeria’s coup leader, Major General Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon, refused to allow it greater autonomy.

Ten days later George Thomas further clarified his concerns over the danger to British trade and oil interests if Biafra were to gain political and hence economic independence, explaining that  ‘we cannot expect that economic cooperation… will necessarily enable development and trade to proceed at the same level as they would have done in a unified Nigeria; nor can we now count on the Shell-BP oil concession being regained on the same terms as in the past if the East (meaning Biafra) and the mid-West (a region around Benin City) assume full control of their own economies.’1

Gowon had commenced military operations against Biafra a month earlier, and by the time the war finished in January 1970 it was to cause the death of at least one million Biafrans, mostly from starvation caused both by the conflict and a rigorous blockade on all imports into the region by the F.M.G. Even in August 1967, the British were aware that Biafra’s Igbo population had much to fear both from the conflict itself and a FMG victory, after 30,000 Igbo people had been massacred in Northern Nigeria less than a year earlier. The New York Times had reported how Igbo passengers hadbeen shot down by soldiers as they waited for flights from Kano airport.2 However, the British government had little interest in the welfare of the Igbo people and while feigning neutrality in the subsequent Biafran war, the Wilson government continued to supply the FMG with huge quantities of arms and equipment, even when the conflict created famine, one of the worst of the twentieth century, became a headline news story around the world.


  1. Winston Churchill quoted in Graham Farmelo (2014), “Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Britain’s First Nuclear Weapons Programme,” Faber and Faber, London p338 and J. L. Gaddis, P.H. Gordon, E.R. May and J Rosenberg (Editors) (1999),”Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy Since 1945,” Oxford University Press, Oxford, p186
  2. Memo cited in Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage London, 2004, p170
  3. S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017 p9

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