HC Deb 24 July 1956 vol 557 cc215-21
The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement, which is rather long.

A dispute has arisen in the Eastern Region of Nigeria about the relationship between the Premier, Dr. Azikiwe, and the African Continental Bank Limited.

This Bank was founded by Dr. Azikiwe. On assuming office the Premier informed the Governor that he had resigned his directorship of the bank. He had enterprises with which he has been associated are still shown as large shareholders in it. I have been informed that during 1955 £877,000 of public money was invested in the Bank—and other large sums deposited with it—out of funds made available from Marketing Board reserves to the Finance Corporation, which the Eastern Region Government had established.

I have also been informed that, following this investment, the bank was a party to certain documents contemplating that the Premier should be life Chairman of the bank and purporting to give him the right to nominate certain other directors.

As long ago as last November I took the matter up with the Premier in London and we have been in correspondence since. In April of this year Mr. Eyo, a member of the Regional House of Assembly, who had until then been the Government's Chief Whip in that House and Deputy-Speaker and Chairman of the Regional Development Corporation, tabled a Motion in the House relating to the association of the Premier with the Bank. He subsequently called for the appointment of an independent commission of inquiry. Dr. Azikiwe has now instituted libel actions against Mr. Eyo and certain newspapers.

On 14th July, after receiving a report from the Governor, I sent a personal message through him inviting the Premier to agree to my appointing a commission of inquiry. I considered it essential that these matters should be fully cleared up before the next Nigerian Constitutional Conference. This Conference will consider further constitutional advance for Nigeria, and, in particular, the grant of regional self-government to those regions that desire it, in accordance with the undertaking given by Her Majesty's Government in 1953 as recorded in the London Conference Report.

I pointed out that such a commission was appointed in the United Kingdom when last the conduct of a Minister was called in question. I suggested that I should appoint the commission as at least one of the matters to be inquired into is reserved to the Federal Government and the Governor of the Region is not competent to appoint a commission to inquire into federal matters.

On 16th July I received from the Premier a message couched in terms which, I must confess, disappointed me. His message, which has been quoted extensively in the Press, implied a rejection of my invitation. Shortly afterwards, I was informed that the Premier and his colleagues, after considering my message, advised the Governor of the Region to appoint a commission with a sole commissioner of their own choosing. Such a commissioner could not inquire into matters reserved to the Federal Government, of which banking is one.

On 18th July I made a further approach to the Premier, explaining this again. I also said that, although it would not be proper for the Premier to suggest the full membership of the commission since he would be personally involved in its proceedings, I would nevertheless be prepared to invite the person whom he had proposed as sole commissioner to be a member of it. I said this as I was satisfied that the person proposed was suitable for appointment.

I regret to say that the Premier rejected this second approach, also. Instead, he and his colleagues now advised the Governor to appoint a committee of inquiry and nominated three persons to serve on it. Such a committee could not compel the attendance of witnesses or heat evidence on oath, and its investigations of matters reserved to the Federal Government would be of doubtful propriety. The Governor did not consider that to proceed in this way was, in the words of his Royal Instructions "in the interests of public faith" and informed the Ministers that he felt unable to act on their advice. This decision of the Governor, who has a most difficult and invidious task, has my unqualified support.

In these circumstances, I have decided that in order to secure a speedy, impartial and full investigation as to the investments made in the bank, and the grave allegations that have been made—matters closely affecting the conduct of Government—it is necessary that I should now appoint a Commission of Inquiry. I have invited Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, the Chief Justice of the Federation of Nigeria, to be Chairman, and he has accepted my invitation. The names of the other members and the terms of reference will be announced as soon as possible.

I earnestly hope that the Premier and his colleagues will accept the decision I have reached as in their own best interests and in the best interests of public life in Nigeria as a whole. I need hardly say that there is no question of any attempt on Her Majesty's Government's part to impose a British banking monopoly in Nigeria, or to dictate financial policy.

The Commission will, I am sure, complete its work and report with all possible speed, but I am afraid that its appointment must almost inevitably mean some delay in convening the Constitutional Conference, which was to have met on 19th September. I hope that this will not be long, and I have asked the other Nigerian Governments to accept this delay, regrettable though it is to all of us, because in the interests of the Territory as a whole these serious allegations must first be fully investigated.

At the same time, I have made it clear to them that Her Majesty's Government stand by the undertaking given in 1953 about the grant of regional self-government to those regions that desire it. I trust that after the Commission has reported we shall be able to resume our work together.

Mr. Bevan

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is a very serious statement and may have serious consequences in Nigeria. First, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has any idea how long the September Conference will be postponed, because I am certain that that will have a bearing on the response to his statement in Nigeria?

Secondly, may I ask whether it was not possible for him to have set up this Commission a little earlier, so as not to interfere with the September Conference?

Thirdly, is it not a fact—as has not been made in the statement—that the Speaker in the Eastern Nigerian Parliament stated that an inquiry could not be held, because proceedings were taking place in court and that such a committee, or rather, the Resolution of the Assembly, would be sub judice; and that the Commission which the right hon. Gentleman has set up is the only sort of judicial tribunal which can, in fact, withdraw proceedings from the court in the meantime? If the right hon. Gentleman made that statement, it would be clear to people in Nigeria.

Fourthly, would the right hon. Gentleman also recognise, with some degree of humility on behalf of himself and his hon. Friends, that the association of politicians with banks is quite notorious in Great Britain as well as Nigeria?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Save for the ending thrust of the right hon. Gentleman, I am grateful for the helpful questions he has asked. I do realise that this is a serious matter, but I could not reconcile it with my responsibility to take any action other than that which I have taken. I very much hope that the restrained way in which he and other hon. Members have taken the statement will also be echoed in the Eastern Region and in Nigeria as a whole.

About the postponement which this will almost certainly mean for the September Conference, I should not like to bind myself to any particular period, save to say that I hope it will be a short postponement. I very much hope that the facts will justify this expectation.

I have taken action in this matter as soon as it was possible for me to do so and I shall do all I can to see that the necessary preparatory work is carried out as quickly as possible. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Speaker in the Eastern Region Assembly did say that, in a sense, the matter was sub judice, because of the forthcoming libel action, and that was the reason why this was not ventilated in the Eastern Region Assembly, where, indeed, the Premier had asked that it should be so ventilated. I share with him the view that the action I have taken is the best possible way in which this matter can be brought to a speedy decision.

Sir R. Robinson

Can my right hon. Friend say why he was not content with the suggestion that Dr. Azikiwe's libel action might well settle this matter?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

This is a public matter, requiring public inquiry, and cannot, I think, be left to private litigation. Apart from that, private litigation might well prove very protracted, and even longer delay the convening of the Conference. The issues in the libel action might not cover the full field which should be investigated by the Commission.

Mr. Fenner Brockway

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all of us are concerned that Nigeria and the rest of West Africa shall progress in an orderly way towards self-government, and that it is in that spirit that we are asking our questions?

Is it not the case that Dr. Azikiwe and the other Ministers of Eastern Nigeria have to go even beyond the point of Ministers in this country? Have they not only to resign their directorships in any limited liability companies but actually to reveal to the Governor all their financial interests? Was that not done by Dr. Azikiwe? Is it not the case that Dr. Azikiwe was appointed as permanent chairman of this bank without his own knowledge and that he repudiated that appointment and resigned it when he became Prime Minister?

Did not the Governor himself recommend that the Eastern Nigerian Government should invest these large sums in this bank? Will the terms of reference to the Commission not only refer to Dr. Azikiwe and his colleagues, but to those who are responsible for British administration in Eastern Nigeria?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The. first three questions which the hon. Gentleman asked are matters to which, clearly, the Commission will pay attention. It would be wrong for me to make any comment on them in advance of the sitting of the Commission. As for the action that the Governor took, undoubtedly he is anxious—as I am—to encourage indigenous banks in Nigeria and elsewhere, and the advice the Governor gave and the action taken as part of his advice will also be a matter which the Commission will inquire into.

Mr. Tilney

Would my right hon. Friend consider the appointment as members of the Commission of those from other Commonwealth Territories?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I certainly would not rule that out.

Mr. J. Johnson

Is it not a fact that alleged corruption like this has been talked about as long ago as 1953, when there was a crisis in the Legislative Council in Enugu associated with the Natal Council of Nigeria and Cameroons Party?

Is it not a fact that there is nothing new in all this? Why is it that the Governor, Sir Clement Pleass, is so insistent on pressing this matter with the support of the Colonial Secretary, on the eve of the September Conference? Is it not the case that a similar charge of alleged corruption was made on the Gold Coast? Why cannot we have the whole thing settled by an inquiry inside Nigeria, by their own people on the spot, as the Governor, Sir Charles Arden Clarke, did in regard to Kwame on the Gold Coast? Is that not much better than having a Commission sent out from the United Kingdom to look into their affairs?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

As the hon. Member knows well, the Gold Coast is not a Federation. It is precisely because banking is outside the sphere of the Regional Government that a regional inquiry would not be appropriate. As to the length of time certain stories have been floating around, I had a prolonged discussion with the Premier last December, and it was only in April of this year that certain charges, going far beyond anything that had been suggested, were made. In the name of good faith in Nigeria, those charges should be ventilated.

Mr. Bevan

So that there may be no confusion left about this matter, may I ask whether it is not only that these are Federal matters in Nigeria and that, therefore, a Federal inquiry must be held, but, as I understand the constitutional position, that it would not be proper for a committee of inquiry, which alone the East Nigerian Parliament could create, to remove the matter from the court at the moment? Only the action and the authority of this House could establish a commission of inquiry of sufficient status.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that and, to put it beyond doubt, he has said it again.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Do we understand that the setting up of the Commission will prevent the libel case going on? Otherwise, we shall have two inquiries going on at the same time?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is not a matter for me, but I understand that it would not prevent it continuing.

Mr. Brockway

In view of the unsatisfactory statement made by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the unsatisfactory position in which the matter has been left by the curtailing of Question Time—I am not referring to you, Mr. Speaker—I wish to give notice that I will raise this matter at the earliest opportunity.