By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Right Abuses
The formerly secret files on the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s show very clear British complicity in the Nigerian government’s aggression against the region of Biafra, where an independence movement was struggling to secede from Nigeria. This brutal civil war resulted in between one and three million deaths; it also significantly helped shape modern Nigeria, and not least the division of oil revenues between the central government and the regions and people.
Background to civil war
For those in Britain old enough to remember the war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, ‘Biafra’ probably still conjures up images of starving children – the result of the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government in Lagos to defeat the secession of the eastern region, Biafra. For Biafrans themselves, the period was one of immense suffering – it is still not known how many died at this time as a direct result of the war and the blockade, but it is believed to be at least one million and as high as three million.
For those seeking to understand Britain’s role in the world, there is now an important side of the Biafran story to add – British complicity in the slaughter. The declassified files show that the then Wilson government backed the Nigerian government all the way, arming its aggression and apologising for its actions. It is one of the sorrier stories in British foreign policy, though by no means unusual.
The immediate background to the war was a complex one of tensions and violence between Nigeria’s regions and ethnic groups, especially between those from the east and the north. In January 1966 army officers had attempted to seize power and the conspirators, most of whom were Ibos (from the East) assassinated several leading political figures as well as officers of northern origin. Army commander Major General Ironsi, also an Ibo, intervened to restore discipline in the army, suspended the constitution, banned political parties, formed a Federal Military Government (FMG) and appointed military governors to each of Nigeria’s regions.
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