Abstract: Shell-BP and the British Government in the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970

Abayomi Kristilolu


A hostile operating environment has often led to various forms of networking in the oil industry. Between 5 July 1967 and 15 January 1970 civil war made normal business activities difficult in Nigeria, especially those conducted within the vicinity of fighting. The most important business trapped within the theatre of war in the Nigerian crisis was the oil industry, which was dominated at this time by a largely British-owned firm, Shell-BP. At the same time, the Nigerian civil war posed significant diplomatic, political, strategic, and economic challenges to the British government, which was the colonial ruler of Nigeria until midnight of 30 September 1960. Factors that agitated the British government in the Nigerian crisis included the threat to stability in a friendly, newly independent Commonwealth country, the centrifugal force that a successful ethnic secession in Nigeria might unleash in other multiethnic countries of Africa, and the threat to British economic interests in Nigeria. Of the three concerns, the economic was the most profound for the British government, and the most crucial segment of British economic interest in Nigeria at this time lay in the oil sector, where two-thirds of an estimated £300 to £450 million British investment in Nigeria was located, largely in the hands of Shell-BP. Extra-Nigerian developments compounded the anxieties of the British authorities with regards to oil. A month before the outbreak of fighting in Nigeria, the crisis in the Middle East on account of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war had negatively affected a significant proportion of oil supply to the British economy. Shell-BP and the British government had a number of common oil-related goals in the Nigerian civil war: maintaining oil production and export, safeguarding oil production infrastructure, and retaining the share, profit, and influence of British firms in Nigeria. This coincidence of interest deepened a pre-existing contact between British company and state officials both in Nigeria and in the United Kingdom. The collaboration resulting from this interaction and its significance for bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Nigeria is the focus of this paper.