30 MAY 1969, Page 3

New hope for Biafra?


This Friday marks the second anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra, and it is peculiarly fitting that it should fall during the VVhitsun parliamentary recess, since Parlia- ment has now demonstrated that whatever in- fluence it might still claim on the political scene —to hinder reform of the trade unions or of itself—it has very little interest indeed in the Government's conduct of foreign and common- wealth affairs. Since the adjournment debate on 13 March, when the entire House of Commons was able to muster only sixty-four members prepared to disregard front-bench instructions and vote against the continued supply of arms to Nigeria, Mr Michael Stewart has been able to turn his attention to other matters, secure in the knowledge that while a million people had died and another two million might yet die be- fore his policy of 'one Nigeria' could be ful- filled, there would be no effective political opposition to its fulfilment.

In fairness to ?4PS, it is true to say that they had been consistently and often deliberately misinformed from the start of the war: they had been assured that the conflict was capable of a quick military solution; they had been told that General Gowon did not intend to invade the Ibo heartland; they had been misled about the extent of Britain's supply of arms; it had been suggested to them that British investments were somehow threatened by a successful Biafran breakaway; they had been assured that the majority of non-Ibo Biafrans wished to remain within the Federation, and it had even been suggested that a majority of Ibos would be content to accept rule from Lagos; finally they bad been assured that no genocidal intention existed within the Nigerian army, although when the Government gave this assurance it was already in possession of reports from its two deputy high commissions—in Enugu and Benin—describing the massacres which followed the Nigerian capture of Nsukka and recapture of Benin, where all Biafran males who remained were executed, as they were at Asaba in the Mid-West, and Sanele.

However, this provides very little justification for Parliament's apathy. By 13 March, enough reports had appeared in the British press—let alone the foreign press—to convince any reasonably open-minded Member that the House had been taken for a ride. By then, all three of the conditions advanced as necessary for abandoning the supply of arms by Mr Stewart in the debate of 12 June 1968 were ful- filled, and were known to have been fulfilled: evidence of deliberate starvation on both skies of the Nigerian lines was available from any source; evidence of deliberate and genocidal bombing had been given prominence in the Times; finally, Nigeria had taken advantage of a military situation to dismiss with contempt the peace proposals put forward by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the former President of Nigeria, on 16 February 1969. -However. the House pre- ferred to accept renewed assurances from all concerned. All the House of Commons can say It' its own defence is that it was insufficiently interested. A few perennial optimists there now look for signs of an international initiative to take the matter off our hands, as has already happened with our own economy.

The chance of this coming about depends upon a report due out soon from a body called the International Committee for the Investiga- tion of Crimes of Genocide, based in Paris and under official Jewish and Christian auspices. This is a committee of international jurists, in- cluding judges and lawyers from Italy, France, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Tunisia, Rumania, Venezuela and England. I understand that its investigating team under Dr Mensah, a Ghanaian, has been in Nigeria and Biafra since last December, taking affidavits from over a thousand individuals, including members of the Nigerian armed forces, officials of the Nigerian and Biafran governments, international observers, relief workers and other indepen- dent witnesses, as well as consulting every avail- able published source. If this report concludes that there is prima fade evidence of genocide, as defined by the Geneva Convention, then it will be extremely difficult for some foreign governments to maintain the silent acquies- cence which British diplomatic activity has ensured until now.

But even in England there are signs—miles removed from Parliament, or from any poli- tician—that British policy may be about to undergo a reappraisal. Fairly influential voices in the FCO are beginning to realise that Britain has once again backed a loser. They accept that there is no chance on earth of persuading Mr Stewart to change his mind in the matter

of the arms supply and many still doubt the efficacy of doing so, but there is a dawning awareness that the continuatidn of the war will

do Britain far more harm than any settlement which allows Biafrans a large measure of autonomy. British influence has not been negligible, as a few people maintain. It has been highly effective and highly consistent, but it has always been exercised in the direction of ensuring that Nigeria wins the war. When British officials or government spokesmen have talked about 'peace,' they have always meant Nigerian victory; quite suddenly, it begins to look as if FCO officials, taking advantage of the politicians' ambiguity, are beginning to be in- terested in peace. Nobody expects a reversal of the arms policy, although this would be by far the most effective gesture, because a politician's face is endangered and a Secretary of State's face is acknowledged to be far more valuable than any number of African lives. But if British diplomatic pressure—in Lagos, Kam- pala, Accra. Freetown, Washington and every- where else—were secretly and silently to be re- versed, so that we were actually urging the Nigerians to make terms, then the results could be almost as spectacular.

The consideration which may bring this about has nothing to do with the suffering of the Biafran people (to which nearly the whole of official England appears indifferent, unless to use it with bogus sincerity- as a reason for urging the Biafrans to surrender). It is the result of a military development which has received very little attention in England— rather more in Germany, France and Italy— and which threatens to overturn the FCC:0'S evaluation of where Britain's interests lie. This is the Biafrans' initiative in the Mid-West, where Biafran forces can bring oil operations to a sudden and total halt whenever they please.

Up to now the Government has always be- lieved that Nigeria was bound to win the war, no matter how many millions of Africans might have to die in the process, and reckoned that it was a good idea to remain on the winning side. Not many people were much impressed by the spectre of Russian penetration, which Sir Alec Douglas-Home, among others, has swallowed hook, line and sinker after only one 'confidential' briefing as the main reason for urging the Government to cooperate and even compete with the Russians in suppressing Biafra. But the oil resources of Nigeria were "unquestionably very important, with the Suez Canal closed, and withdrawal from the Gulf adding a further element of uncertainty. In the first place, balkanisation in Nigeria seemed to add yet another dimension of risk to an arcs which had become commercially vital; in the second place. once Britain had unmistakably taken Nigeria's side in the civil war (on the strength of a false assurance from the High Commission in Lagos that the result of the war was .a foregone conclusion and that it would be over in a matter of weeks) it seemed most un- likely that Biafra would be well disposed to- wards any British concessions within her boundaries.

As a result of this, British oil companies have been moving in with almost indecent haste behind the Nigerian army, sometimes even before it has had time to finish its 'clean- ing up' operations in conquered territory. In July. Shell-sp hope to open a sixty-mile-long pipeline being built at a cost of £171 million from Ughelli and Warn i to Ogula, in the Mid- West: and investment in the Bonny and Port Harcourt areas is planned at a cost of £53 million in the next twelve months. These pipe- lines are militarily indefensible, stretching across bush and swampy ground in which Biafran guerrillas have free rein, and the im- portant fact about the Biafran force in the Mid-West is that for six months it has sur- vived after being more or less cut off from the east bank of the Niger, ever since the Biafrans themselves destroyed the bridge at Onitsha.

It was absorbing to read in the Financial Times earlier this month that Shell Lac bases its growth prospects for the coming year almost entirely on its Nigerian activities. So much so, indeed, that the firm has even taken over London and Thames Haven Oil Wharves, which already derived 75 per cent of its profits from Shell, no doubt to handle the extra volume of business. The managing director of London and Thames is our old friend Major- General H. T. Alexander, the impartial mili- tary observer—in a very good position to ad- vise his company on the military situation. His assessment appears to have become a trifle gloomier of late, and understandably so, be- cause the only hope that Shell-BP can now entertain of drawing a single drop of oil from that pipeline in the Mid-West depends upon whether they can persuade the Biafrans to allow them to do so. Nothing else will make the slightest difference—not the capture of Uli airport, Orlu, Owerri or even the slaughter of another million Biafrans, including Colonel Ojukwu and his cabinet. It was silly of us, really, to try to interest people in the humani- tarian side. Nobody cares much about the rights and the wrongs of the matter, but the investment prospects of Shell tac are far more important than saving any pipsqueak poli- tician's face.