HC Deb 30 June 1969 vol 786 cc33-41
Mr. Henig (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what action Her Majesty's Government are prepared to take to alleviate the fresh threat of mass starvation in Biafra.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

The British High Commissioner in Lagos has seen both General Gowon and Dr. Arikpo in the course of the last few days. The High Commissioner has, on my instructions, made clear to the Federal authorities our deep concern and hope that arrangements should urgently be made which will allow the flow of relief to be resumed.

The House will realise that such arrangements will also require the active co-operation of the Biafran leadership, particularly if daylight flights are to be instituted.

The Federal Government's new policy statement reaffirms that the Federal Government are prepared to allow relief supplies to rebel-held areas subject to proper inspection and control. Every-thing now turns on working out satisfactory arrangements between the Federal Government and the relief agencies on this basis, and, indeed, on the Biafran response.

The talks in Lagos between the Federal Government and the relief agencies began this morning and were resumed at 3 p.m. today. When the results of these negotiations are known, and I have been able to evaluate them, I hope to be able to make a further statement to the House.

Mr. Henig

Is my right hon. Friend aware that public concern and horror are mounting over the totally inadequate nature of the British Government's response to the position? Is he aware that from the statements made by Chief Enahoro on behalf of the Federal Mili tary Government it would appear that mass starvation is now a weapon of war and that the war has become one of genocide?

Has not the time come for the British Government to break with their military allies in Lagos completely, once and for all, and fly in the food and medicines which, in the name of humanity, are needed by millions of starving people in Biafra?

Mr. Stewart

That question contains so many misstatements, but I will try to make my answer as brief as possible.

First, I do not wish to underrate the nature of the peril, but this is what Colonel Ojukwu himself said on 1st June: We seem to have overcome the once imminent danger of mass starvation and can now look forward to a period, after the crisis, of comparative plenty. Our efforts in the land army programme give us visible signs all over our land of imminent victory in the war against want. That is Colonel Ojukwu's judgment.

Secondly, it must be remembered that the Federal Government are engaged in resisting a rebellion. Many of us think that they are right to do so. Some hon. Members think that they are wrong. I hope that we shall all be prepared to respect each other's sincerity in this matter. In the course of that war, the Federal Government use the weapon of blockade, but have announced that they are prepared for the blockade to be breached in respect of both food and of medical supplies. I know of no historical parallel of a Government engaged in a war being prepared to do that. It would be possible for supplies to go in by land as soon as the Biafran leaders agree to this.

The accusation of genocide has been rejected by the international observers, and there are, indeed, 4 million witnesses against it—the 4 million Ibos who live in peace and go about their business under the Nigerian régime.

Mr. Braine

What the Secretary of State has just told the House about the Federal attitude is encouraging, and we must await the outcome of the talks, though we hope that this will not be long delayed. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted Colonel Ojukwu as saying that rebel held territory is self-sufficient. Can he say something about the facts of the situation? Is it the Government's information that large-scale starvation is imminent? If so, what are the objections on either side to suitably supervised daylight flights, which seem to me to be the sensible solution to the problem?

Mr. Stewart

I quoted Colonel Ojukwu because I think that if accusations are to be made against either the Nigerian Government or Her Majesty's Government of attempting to starve the Ibo people it is important to bring this evidence out, but I admit that it is genuinely difficult to know what the exact facts are.

That there is real difficulty I do not deny. That it is often exaggerated for propaganda purposes, I regret is also true. I cannot see any reasonable objections to daylight flights. We shall be glad to help in that. The Federal Nigerian Government are prepared to do that. As present, Uli airport, where planes would have to land, is made unusable by Colonel Ojukwu during daylight hours. It is very important that this obstacle should be removed.

Mr. Winnick

Whatever may be the rights and wrongs in the Nigerian civil war, will my right hon. Friend accept that the British people are not willing to allow possibly 1 million people to starve to death in Biafra? We remember the statement made last week by a Nigerian official that starvation is a legitimate weapon. If agreement cannot be reached today, will the British Government take other action with leading countries to try to get emergency food supplies to those most in need in Biafra-held territories?

Mr. Stewart

We and, I am sure, other countries will take every action to try to get food to those who need it, but I think that the House and the country must understand that the obstacles to this do not arise from the policy of the Nigerian Government. They arise from the decision of the Biafran leaders.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Would the Secretary of State care to reply, in his absence, to the statement made by the Leader of the Liberal Party yesterday on the radio? [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] Does not the Secretary of State agree that a statement by the leader of a political party would be better made in this House rather than on the Sunday radio?

Mr. Stewart

I was surprised at the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman. If I remember rightly, he gave his support to the allegation of genocide, for which there is not a shadow of evidence and which is, I think, a shocking misrepresentation of the facts.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order. Will you, Mr. Speaker, reflect upon the orderliness of a question which makes my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responsible for the statements of the Leader of the Liberal Party? I always understood that a Minister had to reply only where he had Ministerial responsibility. Surely it does not extend to this matter.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) is perfectly correct, but the Secretary of State himself chose to answer.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Have not the Biafran leaders recently offered to accept daylight flights by Joint Church Aid and the Red Cross, provided that they are not exploited for military purposes? Therefore, will Her Majesty's Government use their tremendous and undoubted influence in Lagos to see that this offer is accepted before another million are dead?

Mr. Stewart

I think that we all understand that it is difficult to get completely accurate and up-to-date statements of the positions of all the parties, but, as I understand, the Biafran leaders have said that they will only accept daylight flights in addition to night flights and not as a substitute for them. I think that the whole House realises that the significance of night flights is that it is at night that arms and military material are flown in to the secessionists. The Federal Government have, therefore, said that anyone who engages in night flights must do so as his own risk. I would have thought that the right answer, therefore, was the cessation of night flights and the introduction both of daylight flights and, which is far more important, because all the aircraft we can muster cannot deal with what is required, the opening of the land routes. That is what matters.

Mr. David Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that throughout the long period of conflict there have been deep suspicions on the Biafran side about supplies coming by land through Federal-held Nigeria? Regardless of whether those suspicions are justified or not, will the right hon. Gentleman say that he understands the reasons for them and use his influence with the Federal Government to try to lay emphasis on the air routes which he said earlier would be acceptable to him?

Mr. Stewart

We must spell this out. If one wants adequate supplies carried in, there ought to be land routes. I know that there are objections by the rebel leaders to this. I do not believe that those objections are of such weight that they justify the denial of necessary supplies to their own people. But, failing land routes, I agree that we ought to try to get daylight flights going or the Cross River route which is now under discussion. However, it is not the Federal Government who oppose daylight flights.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Would my right hon. Friend accept that no satisfactory solution can be found for this tragic situation as long as the war continues? Will he explore yet again with other countries the possibility of exerting economic and political pressure on both sides to achieve a cease-fire and meet round the conference table? Only in this way will lives be saved in this tragic confrontation.

Mr. Stewart

That goes rather beyond the original Question, although this is a matter which we have often debated. Her Majesty's Government have used every effort, not only recently but over a long period, to try, first, to avert this conflict and, later, to bring it to an end. If any opportunity occurs where we can helpfully act to that purpose again, we shall take it.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Does it not really amount to this? Land routes are the only effective means of dealing with the long-term problem, but a great deal could be done if only the daylight flights were allowed. Therefore, an unequivocal decision is required from Colonel Ojukwu that these flights will be allowed, and then they can be arranged by the Powers interested in helping to avert starvation.

Mr. Stewart

I am sure that this is right. I know that some hon. Members take a different view from that of the Government, and have been in touch with Colonel Ojukwu. I try not to criticise anyone's sincerity or good intentions, bust I do say that anyone who has contact with Colonel Ojukwu ought to shout loudly in his ear that he should allow relief to come either by daylight flights or by land.

Mr. James Johnson

No doubt my right hon. Friend heard the sensational but unsubstantiated allegations of 1 million Ibos dying. What estimate has Colonel Ojukwu himself made in the refugee camps and other centres about starving Ibos? Has my right hon. Friend any knowledge of this?

Mr. Stewart

The House will realise that exact and reliable information is difficult to come by, but at one time the allegation was that there were as many as 3 million people in refugee camps. The Biafran Rehabilitation Commission, however, has recently said that there are fewer than 1 million. But both to these and to others help could be offered if the land routes were open.

Mr. Sandys

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a very wide measure of understanding for the line taken by the Government in this unhappy situation?

Mr. Stewart

I hope so. I know that this has been for hon. Members in all parts of the House a genuinely difficult question to solve. I have set out in previous debates my reasons why I believe the attempt by some Ibos to deal with their grievances by secession was wrong for Nigeria and wrong for Africa as a whole. This fact we must take into account in dealing with the whole matter. Subject to that, if there is anything Her Majesty's Government can do within reason to relieve human suffering and prevent starvation, we shall be glad to do it.

Mr. Whitaker

Would my right hon. Friend think it helpful to propose that the United Nations should supervise the relief programme and ensure that neither side takes military advantage of it?

Mr. Stewart

If I remember rightly, it was at the suggestion of Her Majesty's Government that there was a United Nations report on this matter at all. The Federal Nigerian Government have proposed that any land routes for relief should be policed by representatives of the Organisation of African Unity, and this seems to me to be quite a reasonable proposal.

Mr. Longden

What corroboration has the right hon. Gentleman for what Colonel Ojukwu says? I have no contact whatsoever with Colonel Ojukwu. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that there is no substance in the reports from all these responsible journalists, from The Times upwards, or downwards? Can there not be one Nigeria which is a Federal Nigeria? Is not Australia one nation?

Mr. Stewart

Indeed, that is the whole point. It is the view of the Federal Government that there should be one Nigeria, but that it should be a Federal State with a proper position for the Ibo people in it. That has been the argument all along.

I quoted Colonel Ojukwu's statement for this reason. It is genuinely difficult to know what the exact facts are, but we do know from the past that the danger of starvation, although it has been there, has sometimes been unscrupulously exaggerated solely for propaganda purposes. I thought it right, therefore, to put the House in possession of what Colonel Ojukwu himself had said.

Mr. Roebuck

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the rebel régime—not Biafra, for there is no such place as Biafra—has any rationing system to ensure that relief supplies go to women, children and civilians and not to the armed forces?

Mr. Stewart

No, Sir. Our information is that there is no system of that kind.

Mr. Crouch

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not everyone in the country is in full sympathy with the Government's view that the best way to settle the civil war is to take one side in it? Does he not agree that perhaps we could have greater influence, or even some influence, with Colonel Ojukwu if we did not take sides in this civil war?

Mr. Stewart

What the hon. Gentleman suggests is very attractive, but I ask him to look at this fact. It was clearly understood, when Nigeria moved to in- dependence, that she could rely on us for some of her supplies of arms. This is something about which a newly-independent country must have some assurances. That meant that Britain was probably the only country in the world that could not, in fact or in honour, be neutral about this.

If we continued the supplies, it would be assumed that we supported the Nigerian Government. If we cut off supplies that they had reasonable grounds to expect, on the ground that they were fighting a rebellion, the inevitable conclusion must be that the rebellion was justified.

In this situation, we had to make a choice. For reasons that I have often given to the House—and I am not unaware of the dreadful human issues involved in this situation and the anxieties of conscience that one has about it—I could not find it right in conscience or policy to say that this rebellion was justified.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

If the Government had assisted to secure a ban on arms to both sides, would not the inevitable conclusion have been that they considered that the matter could not be settled by a war but only by peaceful means? Is not that still the case? Will not the Government, therefore, endeavour to do what my hon. Friend suggested, namely, take an initiative for bringing the war to an end?

Mr. Stewart

I think that the House knows that we have done this more than once already. I think that it is now generally agreed, now that people have had time to review the facts, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's visit to Nigeria was valuable both in securing proper understanding between this country and Nigeria and in bringing home to the Nigerian Government the deep anxiety there was about the reckless use of military power.

We have also sought more than once to try to get international agreement on the stopping of arms supplies, but if that is to be done effectively it has got to be policed from inside Nigeria. That means a cease-fire. I earnestly hope that the Ibo people will realise that a ceasefire and discussions on the basis of one Federal Nigeria with a proper place for the Ibo people is the right answer to this tragic problem.

Sevaral Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.