While the Biafrans starved, the FO moaned about hacks

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THE ANNUAL release of 30-year-old official documents at the Public Record Office gives some of us the chance to revisit the walk-on roles we played in our nation's story. It can be chastening.

Leafing last week through the 1968 files on the Nigerian Civil War, I was intrigued to find myself and five fellow-reporters characterised by a bemused British diplomat as a horde of drunken refugees from Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. If he is to be believed (and I am not sure he can be), only his intervention saved us from incarceration, or worse, at the hands of ruthless natives.

The improbable setting for this saga of men behaving appallingly was Niamey, the capital of Niger (population 9 million). In July 1968 it was the venue for peace talks between General Yakubu Gowon, the leader of the Nigerian Federal Government, and General Odemugwu Ojukwu, who had taken the former Eastern Region out of the federation the previous year to form Biafra.

As a result of the war, and a Nigerian blockade, hundreds of thousands of Biafrans were starving. Since spring of that year, newspaper and TV pictures of children close to death had touched the world's hearts. There was tremendous pressure for a cease-fire, an arms embargo and a relief effort. Biafra became one of the great causes of the Sixties.

Britain, as the former colonial power and Nigeria's main arms supplier, was in a sensitive position. Many newspapers and politicians were urging the prime minister, Harold Wilson, to end arms supplies. It was a contentious political issue, complicated by Britain's pounds 300m trade interests in Nigeria. Mr Wilson had to be seen to be doing something. Early in July he sent Lord Hunt, conqueror of Everest, to Nigeria to discuss the mechanics of providing humanitarian aid.

A few weeks earlier I had returned from reporting on the war and the famine for the Sun, so I was assigned by the paper to cover Lord Hunt's visit. Several other papers also sent reporters on the flight to Lagos, the Nigerian capital. Soon afterwards, plans for the Niamey summit were announced and six of us were told to head for the former French colony, with the aim of interviewing General Ojukwu. On arrival we made our way to the main hotel and found that a fellow guest was Mr McMullen, the British charge d'affaires in Niger.

Let him take up the tale, in a plaintive cable to the Foreign Office: "The chief problem of the last few days has been the irruption of British press correspondents representing the Express, Mail, Sun, Times, Telegraph and Sunday Times. Some seem to have swallowed the Biafran line whole and several were highly critical of HMG's policy on handling the Nigerian problem. Their main object seems to have been to get a sensational statement from Ojukwu. When thwarted by very thorough security arrangements, they planned clandestine communication with him. Fortunately overhearing this, I warned them that the inevitable result here would be arrest and deportation on the next plane, which seems to have been sufficient deterrent."

Mission accomplished then - but wait: "However, their frustration ... encouraged some pretty sensational reporting on side issues, eg the fierce handling of the press by armed police and soldiers at the airport. Hours of patient exposition, liberally irrigated with whisky, probably did not, repeat not, do much to change minds already made up on the main issue. Diori [president Hamani Diori of Niger], who does not understand the manners and customs of a free press, did not, repeat not, hide his disgust at what he regarded as their irresponsible willingness to risk wrecking delicate negotiations in pursuit of copy."

I do not remember what "clandestine communication" we planned - probably we were talking about bribing one of the guards to deliver a note. As the evening wore on, some of us may have dreamed up ever more outlandish schemes to wind up poor Mr McMullen. As for our having swallowed the Biafran line, I was not the only reporter in the group who had visited the rebel- held territory and we simply told the diplomat what things looked like from there. I doubt that we were particularly phased by "fierce handling" by the police, since only a few days earlier we had all seen action on the Nigerian front line in the company of Colonel Benjamin "Mad Dog" Adekunle.

We did not plague Mr McMullen for long. After three days, still unable to breach conference security, our editors sent us back to Lagos. Still, his short exposure to Fleet Street's finest clearly left a deep impression on our man in Niamey. His final report to Whitehall, ostensibly on the outcome of the talks, included an even longer and more lurid account of our behaviour, embellished by the passage of a week or two.

"I did my best," he protested, "to give background information to the motley crew of British press and radio reporters who descended without warning on a sleepy place which had not seen anything like some of them before. Indeed I had a rather hideous three days....

"When Diori complained to me of the behaviour of some of these gentlemen I told him that I was wearing myself out, and incidentally ruining my liver at the hotel bar, trying to persuade the more ardent spirits, with the aid of large quantities of the same, that this was not Westminster, and that if the President said there would be no contact with the Biafran delegation he meant just that." Meantime, the hyenas of the press were still "copiously ingesting my whisky and gin, supplemented when it gave out by US lend-lease".

I am not sure about that last bit. When the hacks' circus hit town we would invariably pay for our shout. If the Sun still has my expense claims on file I could probably prove it.

The peace talks failed and the war went on. The international outcry became so insistent that, the following December, Mr Wilson feared the government might be defeated in a Commons debate. In a revealing memo to Michael Stewart, the foreign secretary, he wondered whether Britain might have been wrong to support the Nigerians so wholeheartedly: "However justified our policy, we have not succeeded in selling it to the House or the country. Some ministers feel that our present policy is no longer viable."

But the government won the Commons vote and the policy stayed intact. Many months later, with countless more dead, the Nigerians finally succeeded in ending the secession and the oil revenues began to flow again. I suppose Mr McMullen of the FO saw that as proof that the arguments he put to us through the alcohol fumes that night in Niamey were the right ones.

I shan't drink to that.

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