HC Deb 25 June 1958 vol 590 cc564-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Oakshott.]

10.39 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Thirteen years ago when I was a new Member of the House, the focal point of the defence policy of the party opposite centred upon colonial defence. We had many debates upon the recruitment of colonial armies and no opportunity was lost by right hon. and hon. Members opposite to ventilate their doubts and fears about our colonial defence policy. Times have changed. In only one of the last two Defence White Papers, I believe, has there been any reference to colonial defence, and then only a passing reference.

I hold the view, the modern world being what it is, that the responsibility of Britain for the Colonial Territories is as great now as it was in 1945. Therefore, I have taken the opportunity to raise in this debate the question of defence policy in West Africa. The principle of Her Majesty's Government's policy is laid down in paragraph 26 of the Memorandum of the Secretary of State for War Relating to the Army Estimates, 1957–58, Command Paper 150, which says: It is the policy of Tier Majesty's Government that these territories should assume responsibility for their own forces. The Memorandum states that until 1956 Headquarters West Africa Command controlled and administered West African forces for the War Office. That meant the control of the military forces of Nigeria, the then Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and the Gambia, but on 1st July, 1956, Headquarters West Africa Command was abolished and each of the four Governments assumed responsibility for their own forces, with the assistance of a British adviser. On 6th March, 1957, Ghana becoming then a self-governing Dominion, all responsibility by Her Majesty's Government was severed, although there were left in Ghana about 400 British officers and N.C.O.s.

When the Ghana Independence Act was being debated, I took the opportunity to raise this issue and I think that we received a very good statement from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, If I may say so without impertinence, it was a surprisingly liberal statement. It was a first-class statement which made the position clear. I therefore thought that the situation would develop in a way that would take due regard for economy and, at the same time, should trouble, unhappily, arise, enable likely situations to be met. However, we have learned since that the Ghana Government did not care for the arrangement for a British adviser, and now there is no possible means whereby there can be unification of training and one West African Dominion or Colony can come to the help of another. Each of the four areas has gone its separate way.

Therefore, a few weeks ago I put a Question on the Order Paper, based on a statement by the Secretary of State for War, for on 1st July this year Nigeria assumed responsibility for her own defence and control of her military forces, and on 1st January next Sierra Leone does likewise. Although I put the Question to the Secretary of State for War, and although it was based upon his Memorandum, I should point out that it was transferred, without any regard to my views, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. I understand the technical reasons for that, but it is worthy of note that if hon. Members follow up this subject they will find all the material in statements by the War Office, in the Army Estimates for each year, and in the Memorandum of the Secretary of State for War. Nothing is published by the Colonial Office, nor has there been any statement by that Department.

I put a Question to the Secretary of State for War and asked that he should make a statement on the future of both the Nigerian and Sierra Leone forces. I have particularly in mind Nigeria. This is an area a third of the size of Europe, with 40 million people. I know from personal experience—I have served there—that from time to time internal security problems have arisen. I am also acutely aware, as any hon. Member who studies the problem must be, of the strategic and economic importance of the area.

It is not inappropriate, on the eve of the Cyprus debate, to think for a moment of what a future Gibbon will write about the decline and fall of the British Empire. We have 23 major units committed to Cyprus at this moment, an area of no strategic or economic importance, yet we cannot spare 500 British officers and N.C.O.s for an area which is a third of the size of Europe. It is an astonishing situation. The future Gibbon may well think that we have "gone off our rocker."

I should like to pursue this point but I have not much time; I know I shall not be called upon to speak tomorrow, so I am taking the opportunity of mentioning it now. I am lost in astonishment when I look at the list of units in Cyprus—and likely to stay there for the next seven years—and then look at the situation in the other parts of the British Commonwealth.

I do not think that the Secretary of State for the Colonies was very well briefed. I can understand that. He is a peaceful man, and is caught up in peaceful ways, rightly. He begrudges every penny spent on defence. He needs to spend it upon health and education. However, I would remind him and the House—I am constantly reminding the House—that the exercise of sovereignty means the power to maintain law and order. One of the things I believe we have singularly failed to do is to teach those who are now taking responsibility for their own affairs the importance of this subject, because if one cannot maintain law and order one does not exercise sovereignty.

When I asked the right hon. Gentleman one or two not too searching supplementary questions, the Secretary of State for the Colonies brushed me off by saying that our old friend, Chief Festus, was coming to this country and was coming here to discuss the subject. I took the opportunity of meeting Chief Festus when he was here, and I was astonished to find that he had no military adviser. He had come here to discuss finance. It is true, of course, that colonial defence is now being seen purely in terms of £ s. d. That is the Sandys policy.

Let me give hon. Gentlemen an example. The Gambia Regiment was suddenly called together last December, and it was announced that it was to be disbanded—not quite "disbanded" but it was to be placed in suspended animation. The total strength at that time was 168 African other ranks, two British officers and four British n.c.os. Our contribution in terms of finance was £50,000.

Having taken their gratuities, those belonging to it were invited to join the new police force. By nearly the end of March, 82 other Africans had been recruited to the new police force. Then somebody, rightly, got the wind up and decided to recruit, so I am told, a mobile police force. The first question that I want to ask the hon. Gentleman is whether that police force in Gambia has been established, and if so, how much it has cost. If the hon. Gentleman is a little choosey about answering the question in precise terms, has it cost more than the £50,000 the Government set out to save by disbanding the Gambia Regiment?

Let us go back to the question of Nigeria. As I understand, the contribution of Her Majesty's Government has been tapered off until last year, in 1957–58, Her Majesty's Government were making a payment of just over £1 million. Chief Festus has come here and gone back with an offer from the Government of £1 million payable in two yearly instalments of £500,000. Let it be noted that the total effective troops in Nigeria—again I emphasise that it is a third of the size of Europe—comprise five battalions—one in Enugu, one in Ibadan, one in Abeokata and two in Kaduna. That force is small enough, but it has also practically no mobility at all and practically no services, and the total number of British officers and n.c.os. is about 500.

What will happen two years from now? It is obvious that the Nigerian Government begrudge every penny they spend on defence. I do not blame them for that. I blame Her Majesty's Government for not—I will not say "instructing"; "educating" is the better word—educating the African Ministers into the realities of the situation. Two years from now, when the final payment of £500,000 has been made, nothing more will be forthcoming. Be this noted: up to now Nigeria and Ghana have had a joint training establishment at Teshie, which was erected by the expenditure of British taxpayers' money. I do not begrudge a penny of it, and my guess is that it cost nearly £3 million

The Nigerian Government, most unwisely in my opinion, have decided to withdraw from Teshie. Would the Minister tell us what is taking its place in Nigeria, how far plans are advanced and whether discussions have taken place with Chief Festus on what it will cost to have a comparable establishment inside Nigeria?

If hon. Members think I am exaggerating let them look at the facts. Here is Ghana, with a population of about 7 million, and Nigeria, with a population five or six times as great. Ghana has got four battalions and Nigeria five. Either Ghana has got too much or Nigeria has not got enough.

The thing that worries me is the policy of Her Majesty's Government. What does paragraph 26 of the Secretary of State for War's Memorandum of a year ago mean when it says: the policy of the Government is that these territories should assume responsibility for their own affairs"? Are we washing our hands of it? Have we said to Ghana, "This is the end"? Have we completely put from ourselves any thought of what might happen if internal disorder arose which the Ghana or Nigerian Government could not handle?

These are very difficult and complex problems. If we look at the realities of the modern world, this is the kind of subject which ought to be put on the agenda for the Commonwealth Conference.

In Nigeria, there have been disorders in the last couple of years. In my soldiering years there were a great number of worries about what could happen in Nigeria. There has been some wild talk by African politicians. I am quite sure that it would be a major defeat for the idea of Western democracy if there was something near to chaos and we stood on the sidelines. What worries me is that with our commitments in the Arabian peninsula, Cyprus, and the fantastic defence policy of the present Minister of Defence—which, I trust before long will be reversed—we shall not be in a position to help and neither will the Nigerians.

I will be satisfied if the Minister will get up and say that whoever saw Chief Festus made perfectly clear what the consequences of independence were. I do not believe that the Nigerian Ministers have faced up to this situation. They are living in a dream world; they do not understand what can happen. They look upon soldiers as rather picturesque symbols that one has on guard outside the Governor's house. They do not realise that in the modern world, even in highly developed civilised countries like ours, a battalion in Wellington Barracks, for instance, has a part to play, and that if such a force is needed here, or in Scandinavian countries, it is certainly needed in countries like Nigeria.

I want to give the Minister ample time to reply, but I must say that the one thing that distresses me almost as much as the decision about Teshie is the decision about the West African Army Advisory Council. I have said this before, and I repeat it; one of the most imaginative documents that I have read is Colonial 304. When the position arising from the training of African officers was looked at it was realised that we could not do it all, and the suggestion was that there should be an African Sandhurst, to which all the Commonwealth countries would make a contribution, by way of instructors, money and experience, and that there would be trained young men who would, in due course, take their place in their own armed forces.

I thought that this was a wonderful idea—but in the same Colonial Paper there was a statement about the African Advisory Council. It is absolutely vital that there should be a uniformity of doctrine in the matter of training, if not in operational procedure. But now, as I understand, the Council has also been put into a state of suspended animation. I want to be fair here; I appreciate the difficulties of Her Majesty's Government, which are very great. Ghana has taken the unwise step of withdrawing from the arrangement whereby a War Office adviser, or a senior Army officer, acted as adviser to the West African Governments.

I hope that the time will come when Dr. Nkrumah—who is a wise and farsighted man—will see the wisdom of such an arrangement, and that when the new constitution for Nigeria takes shape, and independence comes, the Nigerians will also see the advantage of a partnership between all the African countries and ourselves, with each playing its part. I have raised the matter tonight because I believe it to be important, and the Minister will be doing a great service to these countries if he indulges in plain speaking, as I have, as a means of making his voice carry into Nigeria and Sierre Leone, so that the African Ministers there will understand that although there is a maximum of good will in this House it must be based on reality. We are willing to give the countries the benefit of our experience, but the African Ministers must face realities and not live in a dream world, as, I am afraid, they are inclined to do at present.

10.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. John Profumo)

The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has raised an extremely interesting and important subject tonight. I am grateful to him for the advance information he gave me of his intentions. I must at once be at variance with him, however. He told the House that he thought that a future Gibbon might write about the decline and fall of the British Empire, and think that some of us were "off our rockers" because of the things that we had done. I do not accept that theory; I think that a future Gibbon would certainly think that anyone was "off his rocker" if he thought that there was to be a decline and fall of the British Empire. I am sure that, far from breaking up, the British Empire is growing up. It is growing up in Africa—and perhaps faster there than anywhere else.

The first thing I want to do is to tell the hon. Member that the military forces in West Africa, whose main function since 1955 has been that of internal security and local defence, are not the only means by which the three Governments in West Africa carry out their responsibility for law and order. In Nigeria, there are 10,717 police and 2,650 auxiliary police; in Sierra Leone, 1,737 police and 394 auxiliaries; and in the Gambia, 276 police and 69 auxiliaries. The duty of the military forces is to support the police in the event of internal security disturbances; as those of Sierra Leone did, of course, in the Kono riots in September, 1957. The responsibility for the use and operational control of the police is vested in the Governor-General of Nigeria and the Governors of the other territories.

Having regard to the fact that the function of the local forces is internal security and local defence, and to political developments that have taken and are taking place in West Africa, I myself am convinced it is right that local forces should no longer be administered and controlled by the War Office but should revert to local control as was the position before the last war. Because there has been that change I find myself at this Box this evening and not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War.

As the hon. Member knows, in July, 1956, the Gold Coast, as it was then called, assumed control of, and full financial responsibility for, her forces. In Nigeria, military forces passed into local control on 1st April last, and Sierra Leone has agreed in principle to assume control as from 1st January, 1959. In the Gambia it was decided that a special police force of 100 men, in addition to the 276 which I have mentioned, would be raised and trained in a manner similar to that of the Gambia Regiment, rather than to continue to run the independent company—about 150 strong—and the regiment was, therefore, placed in suspended animation in December, 1957.

As a corollary to this reorganisation, West Africa Command ceased to exist on 1st July, 1956, as the hon. Member himself mentioned. What this now means in terms of the Royal West African Frontier Force is that it is in three separate commands for Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Thus, there are now in West Africa the five battalions of the Nigeria military forces, totalling about 7,000 officers and men, and the Sierra Leone Battalion, totalling about 1,700 officers and men. All in all, therefore, there are over 20,000 members of the security forces, police and Army combined.

Political developments in West Africa have, of course, affected the various military institutions and organisations in West Africa which were established during and after the last war to provide common services for the West African Governments. The West African Army Advisory Council was set up in 1954 as the civil counterpart to the West Africa Command. It was a body composed of Ministers and officials and its functions were to advise the West African Governments on matters affecting their military forces, and to keep under review measures to further West African military co-operation. It was specifically set up to provide a means of contact between the four Governments and West Africa Command, and on the disappearance of West Africa Command the local Governments asked for—and this is the point, they themselves asked for—the appointment of a Military Adviser to assist them in the co-ordination of defence matters. This appointment took place in 1956.

The four Governments also co-operated in running the West African Military Training School at Teshie, in Ghana, to provide technical and advanced training for all four West African Land Forces. The costs of this school were entirely borne by the West African Governments, the main share, 50 per cent., being paid by Nigeria and 40 per cent. by Ghana. In recent years the yearly cost has been about £150,000.

Now, these arrangements had to undergo some change when Ghana achieved independence. The Ghana Government gave notice of withdrawal from the West African Army Advisory Council a year ago, and this will take effect in five days' time. It also gave similar notice about the arrangements for the Military Adviser. The Military Training School has, since the departure of the Military Adviser in February, 1958, been operating under a joint board.

Nigeria now wishes to establish its own military training school, as the hon. Member surmises, and is proposing to build one at Kaduna at a cost of £200,000, of which £92,000 is to be spent this year. Nigeria therefore proposes to withdraw from the arrangements for Teshie as from 1st April, 1960.

We have contributed to these forces considerably in the past and at the Constitutional Conference held in London in May and June, 1957, my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary promised that if a case were made out after the transfer of control, Her Majesty's Government would consider sympathetically the continuance of financial aid but on a diminishing basis.

I think that at that conference, which took a very long time and which was very thorough, the people who came to London from Africa had a good idea of the consequences of independence. At any rate, last month the Finance Minister for the Federation of Nigeria, Chief Festus, who came here to discuss the extent of future assistance by Her Majesty's Government, gratefully accepted on behalf of the Nigerian Government, a proposal by Her Majesty's Government under which an amount of £1 million in all will be made available over the years 1958–59 and 1959–60, subject to the approval of Parliament in the usual way. After that no further contribution would arise.

The fact that Nigeria will have to meet a substantial extra bill in the current year is fully appreciated. On an estimated cost of the forces of £3¼ million it looks as though the total extra cost over the 1957–58 figure which will fall in the first instance on Nigeria will be about £1,400,000. But Nigerian finances are sound, and my right hon. Friend does consider that the agreement implements fairly the undertaking which was given at the London Conference of 1957, and it has been received in that sense by the Federal Government, by Chief Festus and by the Federal Prime Minister.

In making this assistance available there is, of course, no question of washing our hands of ultimate responsibility for the law and order of the West African territories, so long as my right hon. Friend remains answerable to this House for Nigeria, Sierra Leone or the Gambia. There are plans, of course, for the reinforcement of each of these territories in the event of trouble arising which it is beyond the capacity of the local security forces to contain.

I am assured that the forces which might be requested to reinforce Nigeria are available from the central reserve, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence said in the Report on Defence (Command 363), is maintained in the United Kingdom and is supported by an adequate fleet of aircraft. These can carry reinforcements rapidly to Nigeria, Sierra Leone or the Gambia. It would be neither appropriate nor usual to offer assistance of this kind once a territory had achieved independence.

I hope that what I have said will assure the hon. Member for Dudley that these arrangements have not been undertaken in any spirit of hurry or without very profound thought being given to them by my Department, the Ministry of Defence, the War Office and the Air Ministry. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air is here tonight.

It has to be recognised that when these countries advance towards independence one must accept that if they are to be responsible for internal security the Minister must give them what he feels they require, so long as he keeps fundamental control and we are satisfied that there is an adequate reserve. In the past these forces had two roles to serve: that of internal security and an imperial role, and, therefore, they required more armed forces and more control from here than now that the basic job will be internal security.

We are satisfied that they are taking the opportunity of looking after their own affairs, but that, at the same time, we have the forces necessary to back them up if extreme danger arises. We are also satisfied that they are, by and large, able to shoulder the burden of financial responsibility which must fall on their shoulders when they assume these responsibilities for themselves.

If the hon. Member for Dudley, with his considerable knowledge, has any further qualms about this, or feels that things are going too fast or not quite right, no one will be more ready to listen to him than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies. I can assure him that we do realise the responsibility that still exists in this matter.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.