How Britain Funded Gowon To Violate The Geneva Conventions

How Britain Funded Gowon To Violate The Geneva Convention
General Yakubu Gowon, Union Jack, And Some Starving Biafran Children.

Geneva Conventions, a series of international treaties concluded in Geneva between 1864 and 1949 for the purpose of ameliorating the effects of war on soldiers and civilians. The Geneva Conventions, the rules of war, or International Humanitarian Law (as it is known formally) are a set of international rules that set out what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict. The main purpose of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is to maintain some humanity in armed conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering. To do that, IHL regulates how wars are fought, balancing two aspects: weakening the enemy and limiting suffering.

The rules of war are universal.  (which are the core element of IHL) have been ratified by all 196 states. Very few international treaties have this level of support. Everyone fighting a war needs to respect IHL, both Governmental forces and non-State armed groups. If the rules of war are broken, there are consequences. War crimes are documented and investigated by States and International Courts. Individuals can be prosecuted for war crimes.

The development of the Geneva Conventions was closely associated with the Red Cross, whose founder, Henri Dunant, initiated international negotiations that produced the Conventions for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War in 1864. The Conventions provided for:

(1) The immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers and their personnel,

(2) The impartial reception and treatment of all combatants,

(3) The protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded, and

(4) The recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement.

The Geneva Conventions have been violated a lot of times by different countries, which have resulted in war crime trials, lots of sanctions and arrests of many leaders and Head of State. The two world wars saw the Geneva clause being triggered leading to very popular trials which included German, Polish, British, American, French, Japanese, Italian and Chinese War officers. It was also triggered during the Vietnam war and the Middle East Israeli-Syria conflicts. This also triggered the establishment of the Hague (the United Nation’s International Court of Justice, headquartered in the Peace Palace, and the International Criminal Court).

Geneva Conventions had been flagrantly desecrated, and no sanction was instituted. One of these notable instances is the British involvement in the Nigerian Civil war otherwise known as the Biafran war.

Read Also: The Resilience Of Biafrans

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, the exact number of Biafran civilians who died as a direct result of the war and the blockade, is not really known till date but it is believed to be over three million lives.

For those seeking to understand Britain’s role in the world, there is now an important side of the Biafran story to add, the British complicity in the slaughter, how the then Wilson government-backed the Nigerian government all the way, and arming her aggression. 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 Igbos (from the East) assassinated several leading political figures as well as officers of northern origin. Army commander Major General Ironsi, also an Igbo, 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.

Ironsi’s decree in March 1966, which abolished the Nigerian federation and unified the federal and regional civil services, was perceived by many not as an effort to establish a unitary government but as a plot by the Igbo to dominate Nigeria. Troops of northern origin, who dominated the Nigerian infantry, became increasingly restive and fighting broke out between them and Igbo soldiers in garrisons in the south. In June, mobs in northern cities, aided by local officials, carried out a pogrom against resident Igbos, massacring several hundred people and destroying Igbo-owned property.

It was in this context that in July 1966 northern officers staged a countercoup during which Ironsi and other Igbo officers were killed. Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon emerged as leader. The aim of the coup was both to take revenge on the Igbos for the coup in January but also to promote the secession of the north, although Gowon soon pulled back from calling explicitly for this. Gowon named himself as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and head of the military government, which was rejected by the military governor in the Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, who claimed, with some justification, that the Gowon regime was illegitimate.

Throughout late 1966 and 1967, the tempo of violence increased. In September 1966 attacks on Igbos in the north were renewed with unprecedented ferocity, stirred up, Eastern Region officials believed, by northern political leaders. Reports circulated that troops from the northern region had participated in the massacres. The estimated number of deaths ranged from 10,000 to as high as 30,000. More than one million Igbos returned to the Eastern Region in fear.

In January 1967 the military leaders met in Aburi, Ghana. By this time the Eastern Region under Ojukwu was threatening secession. Many of Ojukwu’s eastern colleagues were now arguing that the massacres the previous September showed that the country could not be reunited amicably. In a last minute effort at Aburi to hold Nigeria together, an accord was agreed that provided for a loose confederation of regions. Gowon issued a decree implementing the Aburi agreement and even the northern region now favoured the formation of a multistate federation. The federal civil service, however, vigorously opposed the Aburi agreement and sought to scupper it.

Ojukwu and Gowon then disputed what exactly had been agreed at Aburi, especially after the Federal Military Government (FMG) issued a further decree in March which was seen by Ojukwu as reneging on the FMG’s commitment at Aburi to give the Eastern Region greater autonomy. The new decree gave the federal government the right to declare a state of emergency in any region and to ensure that any regional government could not undermine the executive authority of the federal government. Ojukwu then gave an ultimatum to Gowon that the Eastern Region would begin implementing its understanding of the Aburi agreement, providing for greater regional autonomy, by 31 March.

While Biafra was threatening to secede and declare an independent state, the Gowon-led Government imposed sanctions against her to bring the Eastern Region into line. On 26 May the Eastern Region Consultative Assembly voted to secede from Nigeria and the following day Gowon declared a state of emergency throughout the country, banned political activity and announced a decree restoring full powers to the Gowon-led Government. Also announced was a decree dividing the country into twelve states, including six in the north and three in the east. On 30 May 1967 Biafra declared independence and on 7 July the Gowon-led Government began operations to defeat it. It lasted until January 1970 as an extremely well-equipped Nigerian federal army of over 250,000 men supplied by Britain, the Soviet Union and few others, took on a volunteer Biafran army, much of whose equipment initially came from captured Nigerian supplies and which only later was able to procure relatively small quantities of arms from outside.

The background is therefore very complex and it remains far from clear cut as to where the ‘blame’ lay for the failure of peaceful negotiations and the resort to war. It does appear, however, that the Gowon-led Government did go back on its agreement at Aburi on the extent of regional autonomy it was prepared to offer the easterners. Before they began to back the Gowon-led Government unequivocally once the war began, British officials had previously recognised the legitimacy of some of Ojukwu’s claims. The High British Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, had told Gowon in November 1966, for example, that the September 1966 massacres of the Igbos in the north ‘changed the relationship between the regions and made it impossible for Eastern Nigerians to associate with northerners on the same basis as in the past’. The issue was one of basic ‘law and order and physical safety throughout the federation’. He told Gowon that the Gowon-led Government had to go ‘a considerable distance to meet the views of Colonel Ojukwu’.

British officials also recognised that the Aburi agreements were ‘extremely woolly on many important points and lend themselves to infinite arguments over interpretation’. By end January 1967 Cumming-Bruce was saying that both Gowon and Ojukwu were ‘seriously at fault and they share responsibility for the poisoning of atmosphere’.

Then there was the wider question of whether it was legitimate for a region to secede and whether Biafra should have been allowed to establish its independence. Again, a lot of complex issues are involved. British officials feared that if Biafra were to secede many other regions in Africa would too, threatening ‘stability’ across the whole of the continent. Most of the great powers, including the US and Soviet Union, shared this view largely for the same reason.

Yet there appears to be no reason why Biafra, with her 15 million people, could not have established a viable, independent state. Biafrans argued that they were a people with a distinctive language and culture, that they were Christian as opposed to the Muslim communities lumped into the Nigeria federal state, which had, after all, been a colonial creation. In fact, Biafra was also one of the most developed regions in Africa with a high density of roads, schools, hospitals and factories. The struggle for an independent state certainly appeared to have the support of the majority of Biafrans, whose sense of nationhood deepened throughout the war as enormous sacrifices were made to contribute to the war effort.

British interests in the war were apparent and in favour of Gowon-led military government. Shell/BP’s investments amounted to around £200 million, with other British investments in Nigeria accounting for a further £90 million. It was then partly owned by the British government and the largest producer of oil which provided most of Nigeria’s export earnings. Most of this oil was in the Eastern Region.

Commonwealth Minister George Thomas wrote in August 1967 that: ‘The sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations’.

Thomas further outlined the primary reason why Britain was so keen to preserve Nigerian unity, noting that ‘our only direct interest in the maintenance of the federation is that Nigeria has been developed as an economic unit and any disruption of this would have adverse effects on trade and development’. If Nigeria were to break up, he added:

‘We cannot expect that economic cooperation between the component parts of what was Nigeria, particularly between the East and the West, 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 and the mid-West assume full control of their own economies’.


Ojukwu initially tried to get Shell/BP to pay royalties to the Biafran government rather than the Gowon-led Government. The oil companies, after giving the Biafrans a small token payment, eventually refused and Ojukwu responded by sequestering Shell’s property and installations, forbidding Shell to do any further business and ordering all its staff out. They ‘have much to lose if the Gowon-led Government does not achieve the expected victory’, George Thomas noted in August 1967. A key British aim throughout the war was to secure the lifting of the blockade which Gowon imposed on the east and which stopped oil exports.

By the time Gowon ordered military action in early July, therefore, Britain had refused Nigerian requests to be militarily involved and had urged Gowon to seek a ‘peaceful’ solution. However, the Wilson government had also assured Gowon of British support for Nigerian unity at a time when military preparations were taking place. And Britain had also made no signs that she might cut off, or reduce, arms supplies if a military campaign were launched.

The new High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir David Hunt, wrote in a memo to London on 12 June that the ‘only way… of preserving the unity of Nigeria is to remove Ojukwu by force’. He said that Ojukwu was committed to remaining the ruler of an independent state and that British interests lay in firmly supporting the Gowon-led Government.

Before going to war, Gowon began what was to become a two and a half year-long shopping list of arms that the Gowon-led Government wanted from Britain. On 1 July he asked Britain for jet fighter/bomber aircraft, six fast boats and 24 anti-aircraft guns. ‘We want to help the Federal Government in any way we can’, British officials noted. However, Britain rejected supplying the aircraft, fearing that they would publicly demonstrate direct British intervention in the war and, at this stage, also rejected supplying the boats. London did, however, agree to supply the anti-aircraft guns and to provide training courses to use them.

Faced with Gowon’s complaints about Britain not supplying more arms, Wilson also agreed in mid-July to supply the Gowon-led Government with the fast patrol boats. This was done in the knowledge that they would help the Gowon-led Government maintain the blockade against Biafra. Wilson wrote to Gowon saying that ‘we have demonstrated in many ways our support for your government as the legal government of Nigeria and our refusal to recognise the secessionists’. He also told him that Britain does ‘not intend to put any obstacle in the way’ of orders for ‘reasonable quantities of military material of types similar to those you have obtained here in the past’. Gowon replied saying that ‘I have taken note of your concurrence for the usual purchases of arms supplies to continue and will take advantage of what is available now and others when necessary’.

On 23 November 1967 the Cabinet agreed that ‘a quick Federal military victory’ provided the best hope for ‘an early end to the fighting’. By early December, Commonwealth Secretary George Thomson noted that the ‘lack of supplies and ammunition is one of things that are holding operations up’. He said that Britain should agree to the Gowon-led Government’s recent shopping list since ‘favourable response to this request ought to give us every chance of establishing ourselves again as the main supplier of the Nigerian forces after the war’.

If the war ended soon, the Nigerian economy will start expanding and ‘there should be a valuable business to be done’. Also: ‘Anything that we now do to assist the Gowon-led Government should help our oil companies to re-establish and expand their activities in Nigeria after the war, and, more generally should help our commercial and political relationship with postwar Nigeria’. He ended by saying he hoped Britain could supply armoured cars since they ‘have proved of especial value in the type of fighting that is going on in Nigeria and the Gowon-led Government are most impressed with the Saladins and Ferrets’ previously supplied by Britain.

As a result Britain supplied six Saladin armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 30 Saracen APCs along with 2,000 machine guns for them, anti-tank guns and 9 million rounds of ammunition. Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, wrote that he hoped these supplies will encourage the Nigerians ‘to look to the United Kingdom for their future purchases of defence equipment’. By the end of the year Britain had also approved the export of 1,050 bayonets, 700 grenades, 1,950 rifles with grenade launchers, 15,000 lbs of explosives and two helicopters. In the first half of the following year, 1968, Britain approved the export of 15 million rounds of ammunition, 21,000 mortar bombs, 42,500 Howtizer rounds, 12 Oerlikon guns, 3 Bofors guns, 500 submachine guns, 12 Saladins with guns and spare parts, 30 Saracens and spare parts, 800 bayonets, 4,000 rifles and two other helicopters. At the same time Wilson was constantly reassuring Gowon of British support for a united Nigeria, saying in April 1968 that ‘I think we can fairly claim that we have not wavered in this support throughout the civil war’.

At the end of March 1969, Harold Wilson, Britain’s Prime Minister, arrived in Lagos. He had offered to come the preceding Christmas to try to arrange a temporary truce, but the Federal government had made plain their opposition.

It became clear then, if there were ever any doubts, that officially, Britain was not only firmly behind Nigeria but intended to maintain this support. The presence of a British Prime Minister in Lagos, and the fact that he visited Federal occupied parts of Biafra, where he made speeches declaring Britain’s support for ‘One Nigeria’, constituted the final imprimatur of the policy of the British government.

Even though it criticised the visit, the Biafran propaganda Directorate was rather cautious about the way it handled critcisms of the British. Biafra had always maintained that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was acting against the will of the British people, members of his party, and of parliament. There was still hope in Biafra that they could win Britain over, as the war progressed. All they had to do was to ‘hang in there’ until Nigerian credibility waned, and the outside world asked more questions.

Rather, Biafra directed it’s propaganda at Gowon, calling him a puppet. They claimed that he could not take decisioins on his own, that was why he had to invite ‘his Lord and master’ to come and show him what to do.

These massive arms exports were being secretly supplied – indeed, massively stepped up – at a time when one could read about the actions of the recipients in the newspapers. After the Biafran withdrawal from the mid-west in September 1967 a series of massacres started against Igbo residents. The New York Times reported that over 5,000 had been killed in various towns of the midwest. About 1,000 Igbos were killed in Benin city by local people with the acquiescence of the federal forces, the New York Review noted in December 1967. Around 700 Igbo males were lined up and shot in the town of Asaba, the Observer reported in January 1968. According to eyewitnesses, the Nigerian commander ordered the execution of every Igbo male over the age of ten.

This was also the period where the Chief Obafemi Awolowo led international Nigerian Delegation advised General Yakubu Gowon to use Starvation as a weapon to force the surrender of the Ojukwu-led Government.

In one of the peace delagtion meetings held in Ghana that saw the attendance of Gowon and Ojukwu, it was proposed that a ten-mile-wide demilitarised zone patrolled by neutral international troops should be set up to allow relief supplies to pass to Biafran refugees.

Gowon is said to have rejected this, and his comments and attitude seemed to confer that he would not have been able to guarantee the actions of his soldiers at the fronts.

With the economic and military blockade, everything stopped coming. Biafra accused Nigeria of seeking to starve Biafran citizens into submission, and of using starvation as a weapon of war. Biafra had no hard currency to exchange for goods and materials because it could no longer export. Insurance cover was denied to all shipping lines venturing beyond Lagos port – apart from the threat of being boarded and searched.

The area was described by Nigeria as a war zone, while claiming that she was only carrying out a police action ‘to keep Nigeria one’. Biafra launched a scheme called Back to Land which propagated the planting of all sorts of crops, an increase in the production of chicken and egg, extensive fish farming, salt production from seawater etc. But, as the war progressed, these measures became inadequate for the needs of both the military and civilian populations. Gradually, Biafra began to lose even the farming territories to the invading Nigerian army. As the rural areas fell, refugees flocked to the centre of Biafra, exacerbating the famine.

Thus, by May 1968, starvation was almost at its peak. Biafran propaganda on the issue of starvation also heightened, whilst Lagos was determined to play it down.

Biafran children who nearly starved to death during the war as a result Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s starvation policy.

It censored every information emanating from Biafra. The two hundred Christian Missionary groups in Biafra were the first to react to this aspect of Biafra’s message, and responded immediately. They were to play a key role in attracting the world’s attention to the ever-increasing volumes of Biafra’s starving children especially, and women and men generally.

Humanitarian suffering, especially starvation, was severe as a result of the Gowon-led Government’s blockade of Biafra. Pictures of starving and malnourished children went around the world. The FMG was widely seen as indulging in atrocities and attacks against civilians, including apparently indiscriminate airstrikes, in an increasingly brutal war in which civilians were the chief victims.

With federal forces in control by mid-year of Port Harcourt, the most important southern coastal city, British officials noted that ‘having gone this far in supporting the Gowon-led Government, it would be a pity to throw away the credit we have built up with them just when they seem to have the upper hand’. Britain could not halt the supply of arms since ‘apart from other considerations, such an outcome would seriously put at risk about £200m of British investments in non-Biafra Nigeria’, George Thomson explained to Harold Wilson.

Harold Wilson did not succumb to public pressure. The following month he told Gowon that:

‘The British government for their part have steadfastly maintained their policy of support for Federal Nigeria and have resisted all suggestions in parliament and in the press for a change in that policy, particularly in regard to arms supplies’. The Foreign Office argued that ‘the whole of our investments in Nigeria and particularly our oil interests in the south east and the mid-west will be at risk if we change our policy of support for the federal government.’

British arms supplies were stepped up again in November. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said the Nigerians could have 5 million more rounds of ammunition, 40,000 more mortar bombs and 2,000 rifles. ‘You may tell Gowon’, Stewart instructed High Commissioner Hunt in Lagos, ‘that we are certainly ready to consider a further application’ to supply similar arms in the future as well. He concluded: ‘if there is anything else for ground warfare which you… think they need and which would help speed up the end of the fighting, please let us know and we will consider urgently whether we can supply it’.

Other supplies agreed in November following meetings with the Nigerians included six Saladins and 20,000 rounds of ammunition for them, and stepped up monthly supplies of ammunition, amounting to a total of 15 million rounds additional to those already agreed. It was recognised by the Defence Minister that ‘the scale of the UK supply of small arms ammunition to Nigeria in recent months has been and will continue to be on a vast scale’. The recent deal meant that Britain was supplying 36 million rounds of ammunition in the last few months alone. Britain’s ‘willingness to supply very large quantities of ammunition’, Lord Shepherd noted, ‘meant drawing on the British army’s own supplies’.

At the same time, the Foreign Office was instructing its missions around the world to lie about the extent of this arms supply.

By the end of 1968 Britain had sold Nigeria £9 million worth of arms, £6 million of which was spent on small arms. A quarter of Nigeria’s supplies (by value) had come from the Soviet Union, also taking advantage of the war for its own benefit and trying no doubt to secure an opening into Nigeria provided by this opportunity. British officials consistently justified their arms supply by saying that if they stopped, the Russians would fill the gap. It was Britain’s oil interests, however, that was the dominating factor in Whitehall planners’ reasoning.

By the last two months of 1968, with millions dead by now, the fighting had reached a stalemate. The Gowon-led government had taken all Biafran territory apart from a small enclave within it consisting of 3 million people in an area the size of Kent. Biafrans were now dependent on two airstrips for outside supplies which were limited by both Gowon’s and Ojukwu’s refusals to allow sufficient numbers of aircraft to land. Humanitarian agencies were continuing calls for a ceasefire as suffering, especially starvation, had reached crisis proportions. ‘We shall continue to maintain our present policy, despite these heavy pressures on us’, Wilson told Gowon in November.

Biafran resistance ended by mid-January 1970. Wilson then sent another message to Gowon saying that ‘your army has won a decisive victory’ and has achieved ‘your great aim of preserving the unity and integrity of Nigeria’, adding:

‘As you know I and my colleagues have believed all along that you were right and we have never wavered in our support for you, your government and you policy, despite the violent attacks which have been made on us at times in parliament and in the press as well as overseas.’

The Deputy High Commissioner in Lagos added: ‘There is genuine gratitude (as indeed there should be) for what Britain has done and is still doing for this country, and in particular for Her Majesty’s Government’s courage in literally sticking to their guns over Biafra’. The Biafran economy was shattered, cities were in ruins and schools, hospitals and transport facilities destroyed.

This was how with the express help of Harold Wilson and the British Government, the Nigerian forces led by General Yakubu Gowon violated the Geneva conventions of 1949. And to add salt to injury, there were no war trials or sanctions as regards to the blatant use of starvation, massacre and Bio-warfare against innocent civilians as a method of subjugation by the Gowon-led Government.