HC Deb 03 December 1968 vol 774 cc1239-43
Q2. Mr. Barnes

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his recent discussion with Chief Enahoro about the supply of arms to Nigeria.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

My discussion with Chief Enahoro on 8th November provided an opportunity for a review of all aspects of the Nigerian war but the details must of course remain confidential.

Mr. Barnes

What would be the Government's attitude if, for example, Canada were to seek an internationally-agreed arms embargo through the United Nations or, indeed, if Canada were to take the lead in trying to interpose a peace-keeping force? Would the British Government fully support such moves?

The Prime Minister

This is a hypothetical question, but we have made clear our attitude. Indeed, it was I who raised with the former Prime Minister of Canada the idea of a Commonwealth peace-keeping force for this purpose, including Canadian and British units, but the discussions with Chief Enahoro were principally on the possibility of urgent moves towards a cease-fire, and also on the relief question.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Would the right hon. Gentleman, in view of the disaster which continues in Nigeria, not consider approaching, when he talks to Chief Enahoro or others, the idea of something like the Aburi agreement, which was signed and agreed but which everyone has reneged upon, and which would make possible an early settlement of this question?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's description of this tragedy, and also about the need for an agreement which will be honoured, but he will know the very great patience with which not only the Emperor of Ethiopia but the O.A.U. has pursued an agreement. Yet still the agreement is eluding both parties, and still there is no agreement to get relief supplies, either by the land route or by daylight flights, into Biafra.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by Mr. Andrew Brewin, of the Canadian House of Commons, who has just returned from the Biafran front, and who makes a powerful case for a Commonwealth initiative in the United Nations to end the war and stop the supply of arms to all parties?

The Prime Minister

I have seen a report by a Member of the Canadian Parliament, although I am not certain whether it was the same member to whom my right hon. Friend refers. However, on a Commonwealth initiative, there have been many initiatives taken by Britain, by other Commonwealth countries, by the O.A.U., and by the Emperor of Ethiopia. All of them have been designed to get a cease-fire, to get guarantees against genocide or recriminations after the cease-fire and to get the relief supplies flying. So far, we have been prevented, because of the intransigence of those on the spot, from getting this done.

Mr. Heath

We recognise the many demands which have been made to secure these objectives, but will the Prime Minister consider whether the time has come to take a further initiative—and perhaps for the Government to take it themselves—first of all to try, with other countries, to get a limitation on arms going to the two countries, at least to Nigeria and Biafra, and particularly private arms; and, secondly, whether the British Government could not be responsible themselves for flying in food supplies without their being inspected by the Federal Government? Would the right hon. Gentleman consider these two initiatives?

The Prime Minister

These are important questions, but the right hon. Gentleman has the suggestion in the wrong form. On the first, it is, of course, the almost total inability to control private arms shipments which has caused the difficulty all along. The problem is to get both sides to agree to a cease-fire. A limitation of arms would not, of itself, achieve that, and recent shipments to Biafra have of course prolonged the misery and the agony. On the relief side, we made it clear from the beginning that we are prepared to make Royal Air Force Transport Command planes available for both sides. I believe that it may be done under the Red Cross. Unfortunately, we can get no agreement for the daylight flights which are necessary to supplement the very limited facilities provided by night flights.

Mr. Grimond

As one of the reasons advanced by Her Majesty's Government for the continuing supply of arms to Nigeria was that we would thereby have greater influence with the Nigerian Government, and as it appears from the Prime Minister's answers to questions that we have so far unfortunately had none, will he now agree to stop the supply of arms?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman must be responsible for his own deductions. We have certainly had greater influence than any other country in getting, for example, the Hunt Mission, which made powerful proposals for getting relief supplies to a starving population. That was not unimportant. Because of the concern of this House and all of us to prevent genocide, massacres and undisciplined action, we have a military observer at the battlefront reporting all the time, together with other observers, on what is happening. As for our influence, we have got the Nigerian Government to agree to a reasonable cease-fire and to relief flights, but these have been vetoed by Colonel Ojukwu on his side.

Mr. Winnick

Despite what has been said so far, is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Britain would like to see more done by way of supplies for the millions of people in Biafra who will die unless these supplies reach them? What is to prevent us from trying to get some sort of agreement for arms embargoes with countries which are supplying arms to either side now? Is my right hon. Friend aware that some people are saying that Russia, France, Portugal and ourselves have got blood on our hands because we have been sending arms?

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend said was, I thought, perfectly fair when he began by concentrating on relief supplies. It was we who, through the Hunt Mission, arranged to have opened a land supply route. That is still not open, because Colonel Ojukwu has refused to let relief go through by that route. As for air supplies, I very much doubt that, even if we could get the daylight flights which the Biafrans are refusing to have, we would get enough supplies through to avoid starvation. This is a very serious matter, but, here again, while the Federal authorities have agreed to the daylight flights, they have been rejected by Colonel Ojukwu.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Is it not a fact that there is really only one airfield which is essential to getting food supplies into Biafran territory? Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that access to this is now being refused by Colonel Ojukwu? If so, will he make another effort to see whether these food supplies can be flown in under British Government supervision?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the repeated initiatives which we have taken, including the recent one, in this matter. The International Committee of the Red Cross—and I shall be discussing this matter with a representative of the Red Cross this evening—is convinced that night flights alone cannot now meet the need in the rebel-held area for food and medical supplies. The Federal Government have agreed to daylight flights, but Colonel Ojukwu has still to be persuaded to agree. I have expressed the view that, even if he does, it may be inadequate, in the period in the New Year, when there will be need to fly in massive amounts of carbohydrates as well as proteins which are so much needed at the present time?

Mr. James Johnson

In view of the difficulty of securing a collective embargo on arms supplies to Nigeria—in view, for example, of the behaviour of the French—is it not also fiction to talk about getting in such large quantities of food and medical supplies in daylight when an offer to supply these goods has been made but has been refused by Colonel Ojukwu? Is it not a question of having to accept that these are the facts of life?

The Prime Minister

Arms supplies to Eastern Nigeria have undoubtedly prolonged the agony and the danger of starvation. That is so, from wherever the arms may come. To answer my hon. Friend's remarks about food and medical supplies, very many organisations in this country, including Her Majesty's Government, have made supplies available. The tragedy has been all along the inability to fly these supplies in in large enough quantities. I have stated clearly what the inhibitions are. It is a question of the daylight flights having so far been refused. We recognise, of course, that if we could open the land corridor—it could be opened and the Federal authorities are prepared to open it; international organisations and the Hunt Mission confirmed that it could be used—we could certainly transform the situation from the point of view of the question of starvation.