Britain and Biafra The case for genocide examined:
27 December 1966
Britain and Biafra The case for genocide examined 27 December 1966
From Archive Spectator UK
For as long as any Christian, liberal or human- itarian tradition survives, the year 1968 will be. remembered as the one in which a British government, for the first time in its history, was prepared to condone the mass starvation to , death of innocent civilians as a means of im- plementing one aspect of its peacetime foreign policy. Very few people in England have any awareness of the fact—like most Germans after the war, they will be able to say that they did not know what was being done in their name.
Although photographs of the atrocities being perpetrated in Biafra have appeared in most newspapers, the general impression given by the captions and news coverage is that the children are starving to death as the result of a famine brought about by the war. Not a single newspaper has seen fit to point out that the children are dying as the direct and in- tended result of a siege which is supported by the British government, by the official opposi- tion party and by very nearly every Common- wealth correspondent in Fleet Street.
It may be that the intelligent public has come to accept the sale of arms to Nigeria as one of those tough but necessary measures which are essential to national economic survival. The Government has not thought it necessary to underline that the last big arms agreement was accompanied by a U0 million interest-free loan to the Nigerian government (ostensibly for telephones) and that to all intents and purposes we are giving these arms to the Nigerians. The only other justification which I have heard ad- vanced by ordinary people with ” an awareness of what is happening is that if we do not support the Nigerians in their efforts to crush Biafran nationhood and extinguish as many Ibos as are necessary for this purpose, then we shall lose our investments in Nigeria, variously estimated at between £200 million and £1.000 million.
Even if this consideration justified our corn- pllcity in the deliberate starvation to death of two million Africans who are not our enemies (an alarming number of people on both the right and the left appears to think so) it ignores the whole nature of western investment in the newly-independent third world. All investment in black Africa is in the lap of the gods to the extent that there is nothing in theory to prevent a sovereign state from nationalising any assets it likes without compensation. What discour ages them from doing so is not sentimental regard for the old country, nor memories of happy cricket afternoons at Sandhurst and Eaton Hall, but the necessity of encouraging further investment. Few Englishmen have even bothered to think out their attitudes to the war as far as this.
Because the fact has never been presented to the British public, eNcept in these pages and in a few hastily contradicted letters to the quality newspapers, nobody has had to think further. If they did, and if they accepted the doubtful proposition that the mass starvation of civilians is a permissible act of war (Article IV of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, 1949, expressly states that civilians may not be deliberately used as war targets for the purpose of winning a war) then they would still have to decide what purpose is served by the present siege.
When I visited Biafra in July, I was told by Red Cross officials, by Dr Herman Middle- koop of the World Council of Churches, by the Catholic missionaries there and by secular relief workers that the most accurate estimate of current mortality would be 3,000 a day. Needless to say, I was not able to see anything like that number. When I visited Queen Eliza- beth Hospital, Umuahia, I saw about a hundred children who were beyond recovery, according to Dr Shepherd, the medical officer in charge. He said that if I had come on an out-patients day I would have seen nearer a thousand. That is the only contribution I can personally make to the evaluation of statistics, since everything else was hearsay—a missionary who said that he had buried ten children that day; Mr M. N. Nwaubani, in charge of the Orei Amaenyi refugee camp of 550 inmates, who said that twenty-eight of his charges had died, a fact of which he was not at all proud. It was only one of forty-two camps around Aba, and one shudders to think what has happened to them now.
But however unreliable the figures may be, and however reluctant one may be to believe them, they are the best available, and it is no defence merely to assert that they are exaggerated. Those who have the task of tending to the dying and burying the dead are in a far better position to make an estimate than anyone in Lagos, or than any mandarin in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After I left Biafra, the figure, according to the re- sponsible relief organisations, quickly rose to 5,000 a day until it has now reached the ap- palling level of 10,000 deaths a day inside un- occupied Biafra and 4,000 a day in the so-called ‘liberated’ territory. When existing stocks of seed-yams and cassavas have been eaten, star- vation will presumably be total. But even if one The Biafran Ministry of Information posters reproduced on this and succeeding pages were taken from the walls of Aba, Owerri and Ilmuahia earlier this year. decides, as nobody who has spoken to those responsible for collating the figures reasonably could decide, that they are propaganda- inspired—even then, if we divide the figures by ten, we are still left with the most hideous crime against humanity in which England has ever been involved. – .
If the original purpose of the siege was to make Biafra surrender, then August’s ‘final push’ was an admission that this strategy had failed. The notion of a ‘quick kill’—so enthu- siastically endorsed by Mr Nigel Fisher and others—ended in bloody and atrocious failure, as anybody who had ever spoken to a Biafran —even a Biafran nurse in an English hospital —could have told him it would. At no stage of the last twelve months in the present war have the Nigerians enjoyed an arms superiority of less than ten to one, and when I was there the ratio was probably much nearer a hundred to one, but if there is a single lesson to be learned from the decade and a half since Korea, it is surely that arms superiority is no effective guarantee against a determined enough, in- telligent enough or desperate enough enemy.
However, since the failure of the ‘quick kill,’ Nigeria has returned to a siege strategy. Possibly this siege is intended to last only as long as is necessary for the Nigerians to secure another massive arms build-up, but the indications are otherwise. A siege is far cheaper and less dangerous to the fragile structure of Nigerian unity. Anybody can now see that a siege has no hope of working (at any rate until three quarters of the Biafrans are dead) and anybody at all interested in the matter is now in a posi- tion to decide that the only logical intention behind the resumption of siege tactics is a genocidal one. Visitors to Nigeria invariably come away convinced that no such intention exists, although- I am reluctant to believe that all Nigerians are so unintelligent that they cannot see the inescapable consequence of their actions. Be that as it may, and whatever the intentions behind it, the effect is genocidal.
Genocide, in short, in the sense either of mass destruction of a race or deliberate annihilation of a national group has already occurred and is being continued into the new year with the positive support of the British government. In the face of thioindisputable fact, the small but determined band of Nigerian propagandists—in the former Commonwealth Relations Office, in journalism, and, since their earlier mistakes have committed them, in the Govern- ment—have been forced to adopt an alternative system of apologetics. It is best summed up in the words of Mr Tom Burns writing in a recent copy of the Tablet; although it is seldom so baldly stated nor with such bland self-assur- ance: ‘if genocide is in question, it must be laid at the door of Colonel Ojukwu himself.’
It is not even necessary to strip this assertion of the irrelevant misinformation which usually accompanies it : that the Ibos planned to over- run the whole of Nigeria and then West Africa —probably the whole world; that they had always intended to secede; that minority tribes- men were forced by the Ibos to flee from the invading Nigerians at gun point; that Ibos plan a massacre of all the minority tribes in their area as soon as they win; that Biafra is a police state, the people drilled into submission by patently absurd forecasts of a massacre; that anybody evincing the slightest concern for them is a victim of diabolically clever propaganda from Markpress of Geneva. I shall try to deal with most of these points later on. The essential argument runs as follows: Biafra had no right to secede; rebels must be defeated; the Nigerians are therefore waging a just war; blockade is a permissible act of war; such suffering as follows from this must therefore be blamed upon the original wrongdoers, rather than upon the in- flicters of just punishment, or upon those who are taking such steps as are necessary to bring the wrongdoing to an end.
The argument, with minor variations, is one which has sustained those who, for whatever reason, are so anxious to see Nigeria win and Nigerian unity maintained that they are pre- pared to support actual genocide as a means to these ends. It can only be upheld if one is prepared to accept (1) that a people has no right whatever to determine its own nationhood, (2) that rebellion is so vile a crime that no punishment under the sun is too harsh for it (capital punishment is often described as the. supreme penalty, but genocide is surely a degree supremer), and (3) that the case against the Biafran people is so unanswerable, and our interest in the matter is so overriding that we have no alternative but to offer ourselves in the role of assistants to the executioner.
In fact one could reply to the argument by contradicting every single link in it. But if one descends to particulars, one is in danger of ignoring the moral depravity of the whole. Suffering must be blamed upon those who in- flict rather than those who endure it without succumbing; and its infliction would be even more indefensible if it were true that the Biafran people did not support their leaders, or had been misled into supporting them. If concepts like democracy, nationhood, community or society have any meaning a people must have the right to determine its own destiny. No crime is so vile that it justifies genocide, or even the mass starvation to death of civilians as its punishment, since these things are in themselves the ultimate crime against humanity, if not against God.
Yet this is the argument which has sustained a large part of official England in its support of our first experiment in genocide. At its worst, it presents itself as a kind of tough-talking, fifth-form realpolitik, as in the private conver- sation of at least one young Cabinet Minister, or as a petulant legalistic aggressiveness, as in the writing of Professor Bernard Crick. At its least depraved it presents itself as the profound, honest, moral conviction of such uninquiring people as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is not, of course, an argument which would count for anything with the ordinary man in the strict _since he does not share his leaders’ dirigiste authoritarian outlook on life which would be prepared to inflict punishment on this scale for a recognised end; still less is it one that would appeal to the liberal tradition, or even to the Labour left. Nor, I might add, would the system of apologetics which has been devised for the groups be acceptable to the official classes, since they are in a position to know that it is founded on an untruth.
But for them there coexists a second, if mutually irreconcilable, system of apologetics. This second system of apologetics is easy to refute, but it is the one which has been most generally accepted in England. It holds that (I) the Nigerians do not want anyone in Biafra to starve, (2) they have offered a land corridor as the only effective way of getting food in, (3) Colonel Ojukwu has refused this offer, ostensibly because he claims to think that the food would be poisoned, actually because he is jealous of Biafran sovereignty and because he wants as many people as possible to starve to death for propaganda purposes.
Let us tackle these points in order. If the Nigerians do not want anyone in Biafra to starve, why do they institute a siege? Why do they regard any humanitarian efforts to break the blockade and bring in essential food and medical supplies as `an act of war’—I am quoting Major-General H. T. Alexander, the military observer and expert on genocide, re- nowned throughout the whole Commonwealth Office for his impartiality-1n that it increases the will of people to resist’? Tom Burns came back from an interview with Gowon more recently (Tablet, 7 December) with an identical message : `Food is the means to resistance: it is ammunition in this sense, and the mercy flights into rebel territory, whether they take arms or not, are looked upon as tantamount to gun running.’ Lord Hunt, another good friend of Nigeria, was even more forthright in giving the lie to Mr Stewart’s claim that the first difficulty in getting aid to Biafra was Colonel Ojukwu’s refusal of a land corridor: `What are the facts which have continued to block the way to relief operations in Nigeria? The first is the fact of a state of siege. The siege has continued for several months, with the Ibos completely surrounded and cut off by land and by water . . . Brutal and inhuman though it is, the very essence of siege tactics is to reduce the defenders to physical conditions which they can no longer endure.’
Nobody who was aware (as the British government has been aware for the last eighteen months and Mr Michael Stewart has been aware for the same period) that the Nigerians were engaged in siege tactics could possibly have believed that they were prepared to allow a land corridor through their territory, to relieve the siege for as long as hostilities lasted. Nor were they. Yet this lie—which, of all the lies circulated by the former ow and repeated, parrot-like, by Messrs Stewart and Thomson in the House of Commons, is the one which most obviously could not be true—has achieved almost total acceptance in this country. The reason for this is probably that the English are reluctant to believe that their leaders are either as cynical or as villainous as the facts of the case might indicate, and are eager, to find an alternative villain.
I notice that in their more recent pronounce- ments, both Mr Stewart and Mr Colin Legum of the Observer have tended to play down this aspect. Only Lord Shepherd and Mr Roy Lewis of the Times (and, if you count him, Mr Russell of Galitzine, Chant, Russell, the public relations firm which, along with the ex-Commonwealth Office, conducts Nigerian propaganda in this country) continue to bat on. The plain truth, as all these gentlemen are in a position to know, is that when Dr Arikpo first made his offer in July of this year, he refused to countenance the Biafran stipulation that any such road would have to be demilitarised, and effectively demili- tarised, to prevent Nigerian troops from rushing through as soon as the Biafrans had built up the destroyed bridges and removed -the other obstacles which were preventing Nigerian access to their territory. Since then, Colonel Ojukwu has suggested two demilitarised routes—both from the south—which have been rejected as impracticable with no reasons given. The Nigerians have never been prepared even to discuss arrangements for demilitarising the route.
But one did not need to know this fact (al- though the Government knew it) to know that it was never conceivably possible that the Nigerians could have been serious in their offer of a relief route during a time of siege, that the only purpose of such an offer must have been as a propaganda device. Yet the British public—and the public here includes highly intelligent editors of newspapers, humane and wOrdly-wise opinion-formers—have seized upon this preposterous claim as the easiest way to avoid having a bad conscience over the de- liberate starvation to death of other people’s children.
Before moving to the one system of apolo- getics which just might provide a justification for British policy, I should like to dispose of two minor systems, the first of which has been used successfully to lull the conscience of a large part of the English left, the second (by such skilled propagandists as Mr Legum) to befog the issue and convince us all that nothing is as simple as it might appear, and that we had better leave a disagreeable business like genocide to the experts. One would have thought thtlt such lively consciences as those apparently possessed by Mr Michael Foot and Mr Ben N%itaker, to name but two, would have been a trifle exercised by British support for a policy which threatens to exterminate the greater part of a whole race by starvation, and had already in all probability exterminated the equivalent in numbers of the entire- African child population of Rhodesia. Certainly, if it had been a Tory government pursuing this policy—as the Tories have given every indica- tion that they would try to do, if they were in power—the indignation of the Labour left would have brought the roof down. But Mr Foot has been completely silent and Mr Whitaker has even taken it upon himself to forward me one of the more conspicuously asinine circulars of the Nigerian propaganda effort (I had already received two copies), sug- gesting that the war was being fought to prevent the Ibos massacring minority tribesmen in Biafra.
No doubt there are many reasons why the left (with a, few honourable exceptions) have chosen to ignore their government’s continuing involve- ment in an act of genocide, but these reason are known only to God and themselves, and I would not presume to explore the tortuous reasoning of the left wing conscience. The initial reason why none of them took an in- terest in the matter was probably because of an analogy between Biafra and Katanga, pro- moted by the then cao—although never so blatantly as when Lord Shepherd had the nerve to suggest, in the House of Lords, that both Katanga and Biafra employed the same public relations agency. A threepenny telephone call ‘ would have assured him that this was a lie. Here is the argument which has reconciled the left to the extermination of the Biafrans: Colonel Ojukwu, like Moise Tshombe, was only interested in the mineral riches of the eastern region, and saw no reason why he should share them with the rest of Nigeria; for this reason his rebellion has been backed by western capi- talist interests, whose lackey he has become; furthermore, Iboland itself is a poor, farming area which could never be economically viable for the eight millions crowded into it. Proof of all this is supplied by the fact that Biafra started the war by invading Nigeria.
To start with the last lie, a glance back at any newspaper file will show that Nigeria attacked first on 6 July 1967; it was not until 9 August that Biafra retaliated by invading Nigerian territory. Iboland is the richest area of Nigeria in palm oil products and 66 per cent of Biafra’s mineral oil wealth lies in Ibo- land (according to the Willink Commission’s definition of Ibo territory). The erstwhile CRO has produced no evidence in support of its claim that western capitalist interests are aiding Biafra. My own information on the subject (for what it is worth) is that aid is arriving in more or less equal proportions from China, Tanzania, Gabon and the Ivory Coast, with very little indeed, if any, from France and none at all from Portugal, beyond the freedom to use air- ports at Lisbon, Bissau and • Sao Tome, and to buy arms in Lisbon if the Biafrans can find the money. Nigeria is being supported, as everyone knows, by Britain, Russia and, indirectly, by America.
Argument about Biafran intentions be- fore secession is bound to consist in a series of unsupported assertions which, by inviting ‘contradictory assertions, might leave the _im- pression that the matter is an open one—which it isn’t. Acceptance of the Tshombe-Ojukwu analogy must involve at least partial acceptance of the proposition that the two million Ibo refugees who poured into Biafra after the 1966 massacres were motivated by greed for the oil wealth to be found there, and I do not think this theory will stand up. Nor do I think that anyone who has read Conor Cruise O’Brien’s excellent refutation of this theory in the Observer—he had a certain amount of ex- perience in Katanga, it will be remembered— could continue to believe in the analogy. The Biafrans have always expressed readiness to share the oil wealth : this was made clear in Article Five of the proclamation of 30 May 1967 setting up the Republic of Biafra.
Finally, before discussing the case advanced by, among others, Mr John Mackintosh, MP, which is the only conceivable acceptable argument for supporting the Nigerians in their atrocious war, I should like to nail a red herring dangled from time to time by Mr Legum, Sir Bernard Fergusson, Mr Tom Burns, Mr David Williams and others. The greatest weakness in She Biafran case, they say, is that none of the
non-Ibo tribes in Biafra wish to have anything to do with it. Visitors to Nigeria have spoken to typical minority-tribesmen-in-the-street who assured them that their first and only loyalty was to Lagos, that they detested the Ibos and would never voluntarily join an Ibo-dominated Biafra. When I was in Biafra I spoke to people who were introduced as typical minority-tribes- men-in-the-street (as well as to non-Ibo mem- bers of the Biafran Cabinet and High Corn- inand) who assured me of the diametric opposite. Perhaps none of us has ever spoken to a minority tribesman at all, but only to stooges put up by the respective governments. Clearly the only way to resolve the matter is to hold a uN-sponsored plebiscite, which the Biafran government has requested and the Nigerian government has refused. Until this is held, I suggest a truce on contradictory and unsupported assertions—at any rate among those who are more concerned with presenting the truth than with disseminating propaganda.
Mr John Mackintosh, I think, is such a one (although I made the same assumption about Mr Michael Stewart, and it proved a ghastly mistake). His case, reduced to its essentials— if I misrepresent him, no doubt he will correct me—goes like this: if the Biafran secession is allowed to occur, it will be followed not only by the attempted secession from Biafra of those minority tribes who are -unlikely to be content with Ibo domination, but also by a widespread secessionist movement throughout the whole of Nigeria, to be followed by the breakdown of all national identities in western Africa; these would be replaced by indeterminate and-hotly disputed tribal- areas, with rival tribes seeking to expel, dominate or massacre each other, and the resulting bloodshed, chaos and starvation would be far worse than anything necessary to prevent it by defeating Biafran secession. In other words, the Nigerian war against Biafra, together with such measures as are deemed necessary to bring it to a successful conclusion, must be regarded as the lesser of two evils.
In discussing this case, the actual figures of those already starved to death, and of those about to die, become of paramount importance for the first time. I have given my reasons for accepting the figures produced by the relief workers on the ground, inaccurate as they may be, in preference to those from any other source. If one follows these figures, day by day, and week by week, it is impossible to reach the conclusion that total civilian mortality to date is significantly under a million, and that the next month will bring anything much less than an additional two million dead.,’But even if one decides—for whatever reason, and on whatever evidence—that a reasonable margin of error would be 1,000 per cent, and reduces the total of actual deaths to 100,000, I would like to suggest that this number in itself is- sufficient to put the burden ‘of proof very heavily indeed upon those who advocate our continued support of the war. We are con- fronted with the stark fact of genocide, as defined in the UN Convention, to which we are signatories (although Nigeria is one of the few remaining countries which are not) and unless it can be proved beyond any question of doubt that if these innocent people had not been starved to death a much greater number of even more innocent people would unavoidably have perished, then the argument falls. Nobody has yet proved this, and I very much doubt whether anything so speculative could ever be proved.
So we are left in the uncomfortable position of people who have just assisted in the star- vation to death .of anything up to a million civilians on spec, and are now preparing to starve up to another eight million out of an understandable reluctance to believe that we may have been wrong. Some three months— and perhaps half a million children—ago I addressed a plea to Mr Michael Stewart, whom I believed to be an honourable and humane man, pointing out the inevitable consequences of the course of action on which he was set, and reminding him of his promise given last June, to reconsider his course of action if it became apparent that it was the Nigerians’ intention to proceed without mercy with the starvation of the Ibo people. He knows as well as I do the International Red Cross figure of 4,000 Biafrans a day who are now starv- ing to death ‘inside so-called liberated’ territory, and he knows even better than I do the details of Nigerian obstructionism—com- mandeering of Red Cross aircraft and relief `lorries for military purposes, impounding of relief material at the docks—which have con- tributed to bring this about. He knows that Biafran fears of genocide and massacre are not nearly as unreasonable as he claims to believe (Colonel Adekunle’s pronouncement that he would shoot anything which moved in Biafra and anything, even if it did not move, when advancing into the Ibo heartland, has never been retracted). He knows that the Biafrans will ‘never surrender so long as they have this fear, and yet he prefers to accept the bland assur- ances of military observers, conducted by Nigerian.officers, that no atrocities whatever have occurred—and apparently expects the -Biafrans to accept it, too. He knows that geno- cide is taking place and will continue to take place for as long as the blockade is enforced, and yet he stands up in the House of Commons and assures us that because the military obser- vers were unable to see anything improper, these charges can be dismissed. He has even blamed the Biafrans for their own murder.
My charge against the Cabinet is that it has continued to accept advice from Lagos, and from its advisers in London, with callous dis- regard for mounting evidence that it had con- sistently been, if not deliberately deceived, at least advised with such stupefying incompetence as to give rise to the reasonable suspicion that it had been deliberately deceived. I have been told (although I have not seen them) that there are letters in the possession of at least two charitable relief agencies, urging them to seed no aid whatever to Biafra until the war is over, and assuring them that the war would be over within four weeks of the letter’s date.
The politicians have been sustained through- out by a hard core of Nigerian propagandists, but far more by the total indifference of the British people. There may be, as I suspect, a lingering and only half-articulate suspicion among the English that Africans are something slightly less than human beings; that in any case, they spend most of their time starving to death, and that it is no longer any concern of ours. The almost incredible bravery and resource of the Biafrans against the overwhelming odds can similarly be dismissed as the fanaticism of fuzzy-wuzzies, with which we are all well acquainted from our histories of the Sudanese wars. It may be that the Biafrans are the most highly intelligent and best-educated people of Africa, but who cares?
Nothing else can explain the eagerness with which people have seized upon the argument produced by Mr Frank Giles, foreign editor of the Sunday Times, who claimed in a leader-page article that it would be absurd to stop. arms supplies to the Nigerians, since we would derive no benefit from it, unless a ‘moral thrill’ can be described as a benefit. Of course, a Nazi soldier who refused to serve as prison guard in Belsen might have done little to help. the inmates, and would have derived no benefit from it except a ‘moral thrill.’ I make no apology for introducing Belsen, since the num- bers involved in Biafra are much greater, and the method of destruction is much the same, except that Belsen was more of an accident.
Just conceivably, our withdrawal of support from Nigeria, recognition of Biafra and massive assistance to the Biafrans would achieve noth- ing except to relieve, however belatedly, a little of the guilt we bear. On the other hand, our withdrawal of support, accompanied by that of the Commonwealth members of the OAU whom we influence, and that of the Americans, could well lead to some United Nations action. It is true that Russia would be left holding the ring in Lagos, but I suspect that Russia has a better chance of gaining control (how- ever temporarily, in either case) of a united Nigeria which wins the war than of a divided Nigeria which doesn’t.
Before the war, the Russian embassy in Lagos was limited statutorily to twelve members, and in fact had only nine. By August of this year, the number had increased to forty-nine. After a Nigerian victory, reconstruction of the de- vastated country will be protracted and expen- sive. Britain’s parlous economic position will enable her to make only a token contribution to it, and all the serious bidding will be between Russia, who already has a massive presence there, and America, who doesn’t. So far as British influence is concerned, we have nothing significant to gain. While the reversal of our policy might not achieve anything, the con- tinuation of it can lead to nothing but disaster. Reversal might bring about that loose con- federation of states which is all we can hope to retrieve from the ghastly failure of our attempt to impose federation on yet another random area of Africa. But while the present policy continues, and while Africans continue to starve to death by their thousands every day as a direct result of the blockade which we support, I do not see how any Englishman who knows about it can allow himself to do nothing, without being implicated in the mass murder committed in our name.
British Assisted Genocide in Biafra by the Hausa Fulani Led Nigerian Government 1967-1970
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