The guns seized by the German army at the end of the Second World War were succeeded by guns and shells, then by helicopters and planes. When the Biafra proclaimed its independence, on 30th May 1967, General de Gaulle saw in it, The opportunity to arm the new state to weaken Nigeria, the “Anglophone giant” of West Africa. The French archives reveal the extent of armaments deliveries.
The “Africa cell” of the Elysee, how many divisions? None, but weapons in profusion. Deliveries to Biafra via Cote d’Ivoire and Gabon are organized by the controversial Jacques Foccart, who heads the “General Secretariat for African and Malagasy Affairs”, his official name.
The greatest secrecy surrounds these shipments. The ” Africa Cell ” does not want the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which it considers a rival, to be made aware of. The minister, Maurice Couve de Murville, insists that France has put in place a ” total embargo “. In his eyes, Paris must refrain ” from any delivery of arms and ammunition that could be used by the two adversaries for purposes of mutual annihilation.”
The men of the Elysee (with the support of the Minister of Defense, Pierre Messmer) will, however, carry to Biafra, during the first year of the conflict, large-scale French armaments. Traffickers like Paul Favier had already taken the lead since he had sent weapons to the independentists via Portugal even before the proclamation of independence.
Deliveries by air
In view of the blockade put in place by the Federal Government of Nigeria, the only way to dispatch armaments is by air. Specifically, French deliveries arrive at night by aircraft overflying a number of countries which disapprove of these deliveries (this is the case in Morocco, which does not grant them overflight authorization and complaints at Quai d Orsay).
At the Biafra, the aircraft land on a runway damaged by the bombing. It is emblematic of the resistance of the “Biafran Reduction “. Landings are so frequent that secessionists not lacking in humor call it ” the number one destination in Africa”!
Uli airport is so well camouflaged – its facilities are covered with palm leaves – that Nigerian hunters struggle to spot it. Its airstrip is, of course, visible from the sky, but uninformed pilots confuse it with a simple stretch of road.
Tons of equipment
Although the tarmac may be in a bad state, the ” Foccart networks at times in sending large quantities of weapons: 75 tons of rifles, machine guns, bazookas, grenades and small canons in eleven days (September 1969). But worried about the progress of the Nigerian army, the Elysée fears, since 1969, that the French equipment is not enough to allow the Biafra to prevail.
” It would have been necessary, in order to take up the situation in hand and have some hope of regaining the lost ground, a massive effort in a very short space of time of at least 600 tons of arms and ammunition,” writes Philippe Letteron, Of Foccart, according to a document preserved in the National Archives. Consumption, far from diminishing, Will go on increasing as long as the Biafarian Reduction will exist. If a considerable effort can not be made by France […] the Biafarian reduction will fall before the end of October . “
If he fell two months later in January 1970, it was not because France had not sent him weapons. The French embassy in Lagos sent a number of telegrams to Paris to describe the extent of the deliveries, particularly when French residents of Port-Harcourt, the oil port in the Biafran territory, informed it that the Bounty, a cargo ship from … Bordeaux, Forced the blockade at the beginning of the conflict to disembark war material there.
Quai d’Orsay will discover the extent of shipments during the conflict, from May 1967 to January 1970. An “inventory” drawn up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1968, declassified at the request of RFI, specifies that Biafra was In possession of French flying equipment: two B-26 bombers, 16 Alouette and 12 T6-G helicopters, and fighter training apparatus. Essentially, this material had been delivered before the war began – with the exception, however, of bombers sent to the Biafran authorities after the proclamation of independence.
Harm in the United Kingdom and the United States
French diplomacy is not enthusiastic about the independence of the Nigerian region of the East. Safrap, an oil company controlled by the French State, is certainly present in Biafra, where low-sulfur oil appreciated by refiners has just been discovered. But Quai d’Orsay believes that the interests of France, Nigeria’s fifth largest supplier, surpass the only oil sector …
The ” Africa Cell ” of the Elysee gives another reading of these French interests. For her, secession is one way of weakening an English-speaking country whose neighbors are all French- speaking and, consequently, of harming the United Kingdom and the United States.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is counting on Britain’s military aid. The former colonial power, which imports 10% of its oil from Nigeria, is worried about its supply of crude, disrupted by the closure of the Suez Canal in the wake of the Six-Day War (June 1967).
The United Kingdom does not just send armored vehicles, helicopters, machine guns and grenade launcher. Prime Minister Harold Wilson will visit Nigeria during the civil war in 1969 to express his support for the federation.
Belgium, the USSR, the Netherlands …
Lagos is also relying on military aid from Italy, Germany, and Belgium, which sells “large stocks of small arms and ammunition”, a French ” confidential ” telegram said in September 1967.
The entire national airline Sabena, the national airline, delivers Belgian weapons, including artillery pieces, in the greatest secrecy via neighboring Niger (as we shall see on Thursday). It is even the president of this country, Hamani Diori, who blows the idea to the Nigerians. He ” advised them to buy weapons directly in Belgium, where he himself refueled to arm his pioneering youth [Editor’s note: the single party militias] “, reported the ambassador of France in Niamey, Albert Treca.
The Soviet Union, for its part, sends Lagos weapons and combat aircraft via Algeria. Antonov aircraft coach Mig in spare parts to Kano and Kaduna in northern Nigeria. The hunters are assembled by about 160 Soviet technicians, but piloted by Egyptians, the USSR having demanded that no Westerners do so – a ban that will not always be respected.
Other states like Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands sell to both sides. Like France to some extent, since the Quai d’Orsay, preoccupied with the market shares that France hopes to keep after a possible “armistice”, does not totally block shipments to Lagos. So much the worse for the ” total embargo ” official …
In 1966, a year before the outbreak of hostilities, Nigeria proposed to buy 1,600 French machine guns. Not wishing to ” precipitate the showdown “, the Quai d’Orsay opposes it. But when Lagos assures Paris that this armament is intended for the police (and not the army), France gives the green light. In the end, however, only 200 machine pistols will be delivered.
Similarly, when Nigeria seeks to acquire some sixty light machine-guns, the ministry advises the builder to temporize. So much the worse if Nigeria has already set the score for 12 vehicles! Only six vehicles will be delivered.
“Occult Support” of France
Sud-Aviation, the aviation manufacturer that will give birth to Concorde, would like to sell helicopters in Nigeria. But the company, which is presided over by Maurice Papon (the former Paris police prefect who was convicted in the 1990s for complicity in crimes against humanity) is not entitled to do so. He is prohibited from exporting aircraft weighing more than 500 kg (assimilated to war material).
In its request for exemption, Sud-Aviation sent an analysis to the ” Africa Cell “, which praised the merits of an “occult support” of France to Biafra by way of ” private ” (read: mercenaries). Rene Journiac, the right arm of Foccart, will forward this document to the Quai.
Declassified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the request of RFI, the note dated 19 May 1967, argues that any aid occult gives France ” an excellent map “, ” privileged position “, in Biafra “in the process of Come a world producer ” of oil.
Although Paris has taken up the cause of independence, Lagos will show … understanding. As if Nigeria did not really want France to arm the secessionists. In a letter dated 1 May 1969 – eight months before the end of the conflict – the Nigerian Foreign Ministry asks France to return, of course, to its support for the so-called Biafra.
But he adds that he wants to associate it with a ” gigantic ” program to rebuild one billion Nigerian pounds (parity with the British pound). It is true that Paris, unlike London, can open in Nigeria the doors of the Common Market, the future European Union …
By delivering weapons to Biafra, has France prolonged the agony of a pro-independence project that is destined to fail? These armaments, in the spirit of the ” Africa Cell “, were not intended to allow Enugu to triumph on the battlefield. Rather, they should have helped him to weigh at the negotiating table.
De Gaulle himself declared that ” only a political solution ” could resolve the conflict – except that no diplomatic initiative has ever succeeded in bringing the belligerents closer together (as we shall see on Thursday).