HC Deb 24 October 1968 vol 770 cc1587-9

Q7. Mr. Frank Allaun asked the Prime Minister if he will seek to end the growing slaughter and starvation in Biafra by inviting the Prime Ministers of the three other countries still permitting arms supplies to either side to agree to a joint arms ban and to cooperate in an airlift of food and medical supplies.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I do not think that such an approach could achieve the results my hon. Friend desires.

Mr. Allaun

What valid objection is there to at least making the attempt? Could not we ask the Lagos Government to consider a ceasefire before the suffering goes to too great lengths?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend knows that time and again we have tried to achieve a cease-fire—and a ceasefire on both sides is required. I feel that the present situation has been aggravated by the intervention of other nations and of supplies of munitions from other nations in the past three or four weeks. But not only the latest initiative of my noble friend Lord Shepherd but the painstaking activities of His Majesty the Emperor of Ethiopia and the work of the O.A.U. have been directed towards a ceasefire. The O.A.U. at any rate does not seem to be in much doubt about where responsibility for the failure to get a ceasefire lies.

Mr. David Steel

The Prime Minister says that the situation is bedevilled by major Powers supplying arms to either side. Why do the Government still refuse to take an initiative to try to stop this intervention?

The Prime Minister

The initiative we have taken is to try to get a cease-fire. There is a refusal to get a cease-fire, and the responsibility for that is fairly clear to most hon. Members who are not completely dominated by their support for one side. That is the initiative we should have taken and it is the initiative we have taken.

Mr. James Griffiths

Can my right hon. Friend confirm or deny a statement in the Press that the Federal régime is now seeking to negotiate with Her Majesty's Government for increased supplies of arms for the last stage of the war in Nigeria? In view of the certainty that this last stage will be horrifying, may I appeal to my right hon. Friend to use all his influence with both sides—and I will join him in this—in seeking a ceasefire before it is too late?

The Prime Minister

We have been trying to secure a ceasefire. It is not for me to confirm or deny statements in the Press, although I have seen the statement in the Press that already very substantial arms supplies have been negotiated between the Federal Government and Soviet Union. But the best guarantee against what the whole House seeks to avoid, namely, genocide or a massacre as a result of the last stages of the fighting, is our success in securing the agreement of the Federal Government to the appointment of international observers, including a very distinguished military officer from this country. The reports which we are getting are more reassuring than some of us might have expected two or three months ago.

Mr. Thorpe

Since the Prime Minister said that the situation is bedevilled by continued supplies of arms by any country to Nigeria, can he say whether he regards Britain's activity in continuing to supply arms as assisting the process or the reverse?

The Prime Minister

It is not assisting the process of bedevilment, if that is what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. We have taken a consistent view throughout the whole tragic history before and since the fighting began, in trying to get the two sides to the conference table. We were in the last stage of this situation and we were more successful than we might have hoped in preventing genocide, although there were one or two unfortunate incidents on which we have had reports from the observers, but this is not affected either way by the traditional rôle of Her Majesty's Government in supplying to the Federal Government.

Mr. James Johnson

Whatever may be legitimately said in the House about the actions of Her Majesty's Government, is it not a fact that we were near some form of settlement not long ago but for the intervention of the French Government and French supplies? Would my right hon. Friend think again about conferring with the French on the matter of supplies to the secessionists on the other side?

The Prime Minister

The difficulty about conferring with the French is that they deny that there are supplies coming from France. We have our own information on this question, and so have most hon. Members, I think. There was a very good chance of a settlement on the basis and on the information which reached us about the possible attitude of Biafrans. My noble friend, Lord Shepherd, on my instructions, went to Lagos to discuss this matter, but by the time that he got there Colonel Ojukwu had said that they would fight to the bitter end. He was helped in this by additional and new supplies coming, for whatever motive, from other countries.

Captain W. Elliot

Would the Prime Minister agree that the supply of arms to Nigeria is beginning to assume an ominous resemblance to the situation surrounding the supply of arms to Spain in 1937? Would it not be wiser for us to be neutral in this matter?

The Prime Minister

We have debated this many times. I cannot accept the doctrine of neutrality in this matter because here we have a Commonwealth country facing a secessionist revolt. What we have tried to do, while still maintaining our relations with the Federal Government, is to bring both sides together to avoid the bloodshed. The line which we have taken in recognising what is the real Government in Nigeria was overwhelmingly accepted by the O.A.U. at its recent conference. I am rather surprised that some hon. Members disagree with the view of the O.A.U. as to whom the Government of Nigeria really are.