BIAFRA: Loss of Touch?

Time Magazine Friday, March 28, 1969

While his invasion force was settling into Anguilla, Harold Wilson was packing his bags for a trip this week to Nigeria and talks about the Biafran war with Nigerian Leader Yakubu Gowon.

The Prime Minister is not exactly traveling light — or alone. Against the chance that Africans infuriated by British arms shipments to Gowon might attack Wilson during the visit, the 11,000-ton amphibious assault ship Fearless will drop anchor off Lagos with an extra platoon of marines aboard.

Offset the Russians. Wilson's purpose, according to government sources, is not to negotiate a truce between Nigeria and rebellious Biafrans. Rather, the Labor government, which has consistently supported Gowon and supplied arms to his troops, feels that it needs to restudy the Nigerian situation in view of growing attacks in Britain against the policy. By backing Gowon, the government had hoped to prevent further Balkanization of Africa and offset the influence of the Soviet Union, which is also arming Nigeria.

In spite of Britain's efforts, the Russian influence is increasing. The Soviets have broadened their technical assistance and trade programs, have announced plans to erect a $120 million steel mill and, if Gowon is agreeable, intend to expand their embassy staff and open consulates in other Nigerian towns to put them in closer contact with labor and student groups. Meanwhile, Nigeria's British backers have been acutely embarrassed by Nigerian air attacks on undefended Biafran towns and hospitals. Britons who have protested bombing of civilians in Viet Nam now find their own nation indirectly supporting similar action in Biafra. The uproar has touched off a parliamentary debate, and last week led the Times of London to complain that Britain's Nigerian policy is a failure. Between that and Anguilla, suggested the Times, "there is a serious loss of touch in the conduct of British foreign policy."

Better Harold than Ted. British domestic policy under Wilson is not proceeding much better. A Gallup poll released last week found that 59% of voters disapprove of Wilson's government v. only 22% who approve. Most of the disapproval centers around domestic policies: 84% were unhappy over the rising cost of living. A strike by 38,500 workers against Ford Motor Co. was settled last week, but the 24-day work stoppage cost Britain $60 million in exports. Wilson himself has called the union walkout irresponsible. He is furious because the loss will have to be recouped by tightening the budget or by further limiting imports.

For the Prime Minister, the darkening clouds of political discontent have a silver lining of sorts. More than half those questioned in the Gallup poll are ready to turn Labor out. At the same time, the survey showed that there is even less enthusiasm for Conservative Leader Ted Heath than for Harold Wilson. Until a better candidate turns up, being the lesser of two evils is politically advantageous, however uncomplimentary.

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