3 September 2019
A picture of Harold Wilson, the British prime minister during the Nigerian civil war – 1967 to 1970 – has emerged on social media, with him allegedly saying that half a million dead Biafrans wouldn’t result in a change of British policy from supporting the Nigerian side against the Biafran rebels.
It is not quite clear if Wilson actually said this and where, but journalist, documentary-maker and author John Pilger shed more light on British policies during the civil war in his book “Hidden Agendas”. Australian Pilger was the British Daily Mirror’s war correspondent and reported from Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Biafra.
He wrote: In the 1960s, the Wilson Government, far from promoting human rights around the world, supported the American invasion of Vietnam, sold arms to racist South Africa and armed and conspired with the Nigerian military regime to crush Biafra.
Later on in the book he noted: I was censored once. On my return from the Biafran War in Nigeria, I wrote that the Wilson Government, as the principal supplier of arms to the military government in Lagos, bore much of the responsibility for the dead and dying Biafran children whose suffering the Mirror had so graphically displayed. Britain, I pointed out, was a major customer for Nigeria’s oil. Lee Howard, the Buddha-shaped editor, a benign man who called people ‘Duckie’, summoned me.
The page-proof of my piece was on his desk. He offered me a Scotch and suggested I was being ‘rather harsh’ on the government ‘at a difficult time’. He was sure I would agree to hold over the piece until I had more time to think about it. Still in my twenties, I was in considerable awe of the editor of the Daily Mirror. Assisted by the Scotch, I said I would prefer to choose another form of words there and then so that the piece could run that night.
He no longer looked benign. ‘You have fifteen minutes,’ he said, handing me the proof. Outside, I rearranged my criticism of the government to include a sprinkling of the vacuous words of sympathy which government ministers had offered the Biafrans. I returned and watched the editor brood over it. No Scotch was offered.
‘Shall we dispense with the reference to oil, Duckie?’ he asked, though more as a statement of invincible authority. I remained silent, watching his fountain pen career across my words.
‘There we are, Duckie …’ He had taken out virtually allmention of the government’s complicity. ‘I’ll tell the subeditors we’re all agreed …”
Oil probably came under the heading of ‘national interest’and the Mirror was being protective towards the government on this issue.