HC Deb 21 May 1968 vol 765 cc263-8
1. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what further progress has been made, as a result of initiatives by Great Britain, to end the civil war in Nigeria; and what was the outcome of Her Majesty's Government's discussions with the representative of the Nigerian Federal Government about the supply of arms.

9. Dr. David Kerr

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what represenations he has received concerning the supply of arms to Nigeria; and what reply he has sent.

10. Mr. Barnes

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a further statement on the initiatives he is taking to promote peace talks between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Biafra.

18. Mr. Dempsey

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what progress has been made, as a result of the initiative of the Commonwealth Secretariat, in bringing about the end of military hostilities in Nigeria; and if he will make a statement.

25. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs if, in view of the peace talks proposed by both sides, he will now review Her Majesty's Government's policy on the supply of arms to Nigeria.

29. Mr. Henig

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what further peace moves he is contemplating with a view to helping to end the civil war in Nigeria.

31. Mr. Edward M. Taylor

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a further statement on the assistance given by Her Majesty's Government towards the promotion of peace talks between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Biafra.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

Direct contacts in London between the two sides have led to agreement to meet for peace talks in Kampala. We have received no recent represenations from the Federal Government about arms supplies. We have kept our policy under constant review and will continue to do so. If in the course of the peace talks which are about to start both sides were able to agree on a suspension of arms deliveries, we should be very ready to co-operate.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Britain would like to see all foreign arms supplies to Nigeria cut off, including arms from this country? Have the Federal Government been told clearly that the feeling in Britain is that the destruction and killing should stop, and that negotiations should decide the future of Nigeria and Biafra?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. The Federal Commissioner for External Affairs, Dr. Arikpo, was in London a week or two ago and he had talks with both the Prime Minister and myself. We represented to him strongly how concerned public opinion was in this country, and how we have always held the view that this was a civil war which must end in a political settlement. We are therefore very happy that as a result of the events of the last few days the two sides have agreed to come together in Kampala.

Dr. Kerr

Will my right hon. Friend accept that it was not the representations from the Nigerian Federal Government which some of us had in mind? Does my right hon. Friend also accept the recent disturbing reports that the arms which we acknowledge we are supplying to the Federal Government are now in the hands of a rabble which it appears the Federal Government are no longer in control of? Does not that make some difference to the kind of policy that we are pursuing?

Mr. Thomson

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend, who on this matter is being less than his usual fair self. There is no evidence that Britain's arms policy has hindered peace talks and a great deal of evidence that it has enabled us to play a. part in bringing the two sides together round the table.

Mr. Barnes

Will my right hon. Friend remember that some Members on both sides of the House remain convinced that the original decision to allow arms supplies to Nigeria to continue was wrong? Will he now use the influence, which he has told us many times he has in Lagos, in both word and deed to bring home to those concerned that this is a problem which is not capable of a military solution?

Mr. Thomson

I understand the deep feeling of my hon. Friend, and of hon. Members on both sides of the House, about the question of arms in relation to the Nigerian civil war, but I can only repeat that we have used our influence all the time in the direction of bringing about the peace talks which are about to take place. These talks are of fateful importance to the future of one of the greatest African nations, and I should not like anything that I say at this Box at this critical time to make the talks more difficult.

Mr. Dempsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the most effective steps that he can take towards making the impending peace talks successful is to prevail on the Nigerian authorities to stop the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and the massacre of women and children in particular? Will he address his mind to that, and create the proper climate for a peaceful reunification of this war-torn country?

Mr. Thomson

Without accepting the assumptions behind my hon. Friend's question, I think we all agree that a civil war of this character leads to cruel civilian casualties on both sides and that the only way to end those casualties is to bring about a complete cease-fire. I notice that the Federal authorities have repeated their orders against civil targets being attacked.

Mr. Henig

Is not my right hon. Friend being a little disingenuous in hoping for an appeal from both sides to suspend arms sales when one side, namely, the Federal Republic, is receiving arms officially from countries all over the world, including this one, and the other side, Biafra, is receiving no official supplies of arms? Does not he think that it is a shameful position that arms from this country should be used by people indiscriminately to attack civilians and others in what is a civil disturbance in another country?

Mr. Thomson

I have repeated the reasons—I believe that they are on the side of peace—which led us to continue our traditional policy of providing limited quantities of conventional arms to Nigeria, and I need not, I hope, add that the statement that we have provided either bombs or the aircraft to drop them is utterly untrue. I ask my hon. Friend to consider that those who would demand neutrality on our part between the Federal Government and Biafra—and this in effect is what he is urging—should recognise that they are asking the British Government to support a rebellion in a friendly Commonwealth country.

Mr. Taylor

Can we have an up-to-date report on the war? Has Port Harcourt fallen? Did Zambia consult Her Majesty's Government before recognising Biafra?

Mr. Thomson

Zambia had no consultations with us on that issue. Nor would we have expected her to. Our information is that Port Harcourt is now in the hands of the Federal Government.

I ask the House, whose concern about this matter is deep, to note that one of the things which the Federal military authorities sought to do in capturing Port Harcourt was to leave open an escape route for the Ibo population in order to avoid any danger of massacre.

Mrs. Ewing

Is there any chance that in the peace talks the right hon. Gentleman may be able to obtain speedy information about their children for the Biafran parents who are resident in this country and who have had no information about their children since May, 1967?

Mr. Thomson

Like the hon. Lady, 1, too, have constituents who come from Biafra and share those anxieties. By far the best way to allow families to be reunited is to see that the peace talks are successful.

Viscount Lambton

What is the latest information about casualities so far in the war?

Mr. Thomson

I do not think that anyone has accurate information about the casualties. In one sense, the scale of the fighting has been limited as compared with some other wars. Our information, however, is that in proportion to the scale of the war the casualties have been tragically heavy.

3. Mr. Tilney

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to aid the people of all parts of Nigeria once the fighting stops between the opposing sides in the present civil war.

Mr. George Thomson

It is clear that Nigeria will be faced with a heavy task of post-war relief and reconstruction. The relief of suffering is already an urgent need in areas affected by the fighting. I am glad to be able to announce that it has now been agreed, subject to Parliamentary approval, to make a gift of £20,000 to the British Red Cross Society to assist them with the supply of drugs, medical equipment and special foods. Parliament will be asked in due course to aprove a Supplementary Estimate. In the meantime, an advance will if necessary be sought from the Civil Contingencies Fund.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development is consulting the Federal Government of Nigeria on the possibility of providing a pediatric unit to work in a selected area of Nigeria which is in special need of help, and also a small team of engineering experts to examine some of the damage done to public services and communications with a view to giving some assistance towards their restoration.

Mr. Tilney

While I welcome that statement, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether these medical supplies will be available to both sides? Will he also collaborate with our N.A.T.O. allies and others to see whether we could offer a Commonwealth force or some border force to help keep the ring while discussions go on?

Mr. Thomson

On the question of relief, we expect that the Red Cross will continue to provide help where it is most needed, including the Ibo areas. The rest of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question goes rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper, but, as he knows, we have very much in mind the crucial importance of providing security safeguards to the Ibo people as part of any settlement and the Government are ready to consider earnestly how they may contribute towards this end.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

It is essential that as much assistance as possible should be given to the stricken areas in the east. What representation has the British High Commission in the Eastern Region?

Mr. Thomson


Mr. Braine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side warmly welcome the announcement he has made? Rehabilitation will require much more than medical assistance. Has contingency planning on a fairly wide scale already started?

Mr. Thomson

This, of course, is a matter for the Nigerian authorities themselves, but I think that when the time comes they may well think it desirable to ask an international organisation to take the lead. Obviously, a great deal will have to be done, and I hope that many other countries will also contribute.

Forward to