HC Deb 21 July 1970 vol 804 cc470-84

3.31 a.m.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchin)

I very much appreciate the Minister's coming to the House to answer the debate at this late hour. It is a debate on a matter of very great importance, and it was because we felt that the Consolidated Fund Bill provided the only opportunity to raise this matter before Parliament broke up for a very long recess—and human beings have a way of not being able to wait, sometimes, for relief—that we felt obliged to put the Minister to this extreme inconvenience. I apologise to him, but there was no other opportunity.

I begin by saying that the facts as I know them in the present situation in the Eastern Region of Nigeria are that the Rehabilitation Commission took over from the Nigerian Red Cross on 30th June of this year; it has been established that the major relief agencies, and particularly the three that have borne the greatest part of the day-to-day field work in relief, have decided to continue their work, and that the Nigerian Government have agreed to this, at least until 30th September. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that.

I also understand that it is estimated that between 1 million and 3 million people are still dependent upon emergency relief feeding by the relief organisations to which I have referred. I also understand that food is available in the East Central Region and that the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund has supplied no less than 11,000 tons of protein in the last few weeks and that money is available because the Federal Government have provided about £10 million to the East Central Region Government and that there is still an outstanding sum from the original grant of about £5 million by the United Kingdom Government for the relief of the Eastern Region. I understand that nearly £3 million is still outstanding, but I ask the Minister whether he can confirm that that is so.

What leads us to raise this matter is the report that there is still considerable malnutrition in the Eastern Region. I want to raise what seems to have been the bane of the entire Nigerian tragedy—and one of the things that have made it most difficult—for people to Know how best to help, namely, the extremely conflicting reports still coming from the Eastern and East Central Regions. I want to detain the House for a few moments by mentioning some of the reports that are in contradiction one to the other, and to ask the Minister whether he has any additional information about the situation to which this substantial Supplementary Estimate in the Consolidated Fund is being directed in the form of emergency relief.

It is not unknown to hon. Members that at the time the civil war was still raging there were constant conflicting reports on the question whether it was the policy of the Federal Government to pursue the genocide of the Ibo people—a view that my right hon. Friend and I never shared—or whether this was, as it later proved to be, a mere wild rumour, and one for which there was no justification.

On 13th July, in the television programme, "Panorama", the interviewer said: Many Ibos have surrendered their useless Biafran currency—they have surrendered it, but General Gowon has refused to exchange it for Nigerian money. This conflicts with a report which appeared in West Africa, the expert magazine on that part of Africa, on 18th July: Four million pounds was paid in compensation to currency holders and £10 million in funds were made available to the Enugu Government in addition to normal funds. Again, in "Panorama" on 13th July, we were told: They"— that is, the Government officials— have received unwritten instructions to slow down completely on aid to the Ibos. Yet we know that all the senior officials and commissioners of the East Central Region are themselves Ibos.

This also conflicted with a television programme only four days later, in which the relief co-ordinator in Owerri was quoted as saying: The amount of food available to the people has increased. So it is very difficult to discover or decide exactly where the truth lies.

I have one final quotation. This is perhaps in some ways the strangest conflict of all. In that same "Panorama" programme on 30th July, the interviewer said: The assessment of all the relief workers I have talked to is this: 'The starvation today in some parts of former Biafra is as bad today as it was during the war.' Yet only a few days ago, the Secretary-General of the Red Cross Societies, Dr. Hendrik Beer, said, 'No more people are dying of hunger in the eastern part of Nigeria. The situation is now normal by African standards, where under-nourishment is typical'. From all this, I draw certain conclusions which I want to put on record. The first, which is clearly strongly based on such reports as we have, authenticated from many sources, is that General Gowon has approached the question of the aftermath of war in a spirit as magnanimous and generous as any Government has ever shown—certainly more so than has been shown in any civil war, including some that all of us still remember.

Second, his intentions—this is familiar to any Government—have not always been carried out in full in every detail in the field by all his subordinates. Anyone familiar with the difficulties of communications in Nigeria, which are not improved by the aftermath of war, may know how difficult it may sometimes be for people in the field even to know precisely what those instructions are.

Third, it is undoubtedly true that there is, as there always has been in this particularly over-populated part of Nigeria, a lean period before the harvest. I suspect that because many people no longer have the reserve of strength they would have had in normal circumstances because of the civil war, there are some who are badly under-nourished and some who may even be dying because they cannot last out until the harvest. But this again is a re-emphasising of the constant situation of malnutrition in many parts of Africa.

The rise in the number of kwashioker cases is very serious, particularly in certain areas. Is it the Minister's view that these areas include Owerri, Awka and the areas around Mbaise? It is also worth putting on record the fact that the commissioners of the Eastern Region themselves have been very precise about their needs and have never tried to hide the real situation. The Commissioner of Health and Social Welfare, Flora Nwakuche, only two weeks ago made it clear that there was a need for more food urgently for the affected areas.

I suspect that two new and quite serious crises are arising in this area. They are concerned not so much with the immediate crisis of food supplies—I have explained that there is still a serious need in certain areas for food—but with the massive need for jobs. This, I suspect, is not unrelated to hardship because the East Central Region took on its payroll shortly after the civil war ended many thousands of people whom it could not possibly sustain in employment.

In an effort to help those who had been dispossessed by the war, they were taken into the civil service, but they cannot be employed on a permanent basis in view of the highly inflated situation of the public employment arrangements. This serious unemployment problem may to some extent be eased by the movement of some of the Ibos back to the regions where, in the past, they have been singularly successful in being of help.

Another problem which is emerging is the large number of schools left in a pitiful state through the war. I understand that more than 1,100 primary schools are in a serious state of bad repair and that, as a result, the educational programme of what is, after all, one of the best educated areas of Nigeria has been brought to a halt because of the absence of educational materials, books and so on, as well as building materials to repair the schools.

I wish to be brief to enable my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson), who is an expert on this subject, to speak. There are a few direct questions which I hope the Minister will answer. I ask them fully recognising that this is a situation which concerns a sovereign and independent country and a country which it is high time we in Britain recognised is free to conduct matters in its own way.

Have we offered immediately relevant help in the last few weeks—help with, for example, educational equipment, schoolbuilding prefabricating sections and seed, though I recognise that much of the seed that we have available is not relevant in this case? And what about spares for the commercial lorries, many of which are Bedford vans? I understand that many of these vehicles are laid up because spares have not reached them. This has, I gather, had a serious effect on the fleets of relief vans in these parts of Nigeria.

How much of the original £5 million contributed by Her Majesty's Government has been spent? Is it true that the majority of this sum is still unspent? What information does the Minister have about there being adequate supplies of protein-rich emergency food there? Does the problem of distribution—I have referred to the need for lorry spares—arise as a result of inadequate roads and bridges? If so, can we do anything to help?

Are the Government generally and the Department in particular considering how best to respond to the recent appeal for a £500 million loan which Nigeria is seeking from friendly countries with a view to starting the major task of reconstruction and rehabilitation throughout the country?

I repeat that, in my view, the intention is there to correct the situation. However, it is not helped by putting a particularly unhappy interpretation on what has been done. It is the responsibility of Britain—of the Government and the Oppposition—to do everything possible to relieve the serious need which inevitably follows one of the grimmest civil wars of this century.

3.45 a.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

After listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), I think that the House and the Government are in her debt for initiating the debate. It could not have come at a more opportune time for Nigeria. I have just received a letter from an old Nigerian public servant, in which he talks about a new wave of propaganda which is being mounted in some quarters to belittle what the Federal Government have done to date in solving the problems of relief. I applaud the decision of the former Government on, I think, 19th January to make further assistance available in the sadly war-torn eastern part of Nigeria, and I compliment the Minister and his Government on implementing the pledges given then.

The Vote is under two heads. The first is direct expenditure on rehabilitation. Perhaps the Minister would tell us in a little more detail whether this means providing vehicles or perhaps maize seedlings and things like that for the farmers. The other consists of the larger sum of grants for the voluntary agencies, such as the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria and St. John Ambulance Brigade.

I join my hon. Friend in asking the Minister to confirm the conditions east of the Niger. We must look at the situation in which the taxpayer's money is being spent. We are a little disturbed about it, and we are disturbed by both the "Panorama" programme on B.B.C. television and a recent edition of the Evening Standard, which seemed to mislead hon. Members and the public. If not mischievous, they appeared to me to be somewhat mendacious. There was a suggestion that malnutrition was on the increase in the East Central State, which is Ibo land by and large, whereas a young voluntary worker who had just left denied this. He said that things were much better than they had been.

I have taken some pains to check this, both with the High Commission here and with some old friends, Nigerians from the Mid-West, Ibos from Benin city and others who are now in London, and they say that malnutrition is not on the increase.

The debate will have served a purpose if the Minister tells us what conditions are like there, and whether they are worsening, which I do not accept, or getting better, which I very much hope to be the case. This part of Nigeria has always been a food-importing area. The yams were brought from Ugogi and the meat from the north. Therefore, it has always been in difficulties. A great deal of money was sent back by expatriates working elsewhere. In addition, there was the dislocation of the civil war, and not all the farmers have yet returned.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that things are getting better, and that as a result of the goods sent out under the Vote they will get much better still. The first harvest should be in by now. The war finished towards the end of January, so vegetables should be in now—tomatoes and the like, and other foods with a protein value, though I accept that cassavas and yams will not be with the Ibos and other tribes until October or November, after the heavy rains.

I am told, and I hope that the Minister will confirm this, that the old civil servants, basically Ibos who fought in the war, are now being absorbed. I hope that he will also confirm that the Administration, which of course will plan how to spend these moneys, is all Ibo under Mr. Tony Asika, of Enugu. The Ibo are being administered by their kinsmen and we hope that they are getting back to their old life and that Federal public servants are coming back. The people who will be administering these funds will know what is wanted and that they are not outsiders from Lagos and elsewhere.

I hope that the Minister will say that qualified Ibo engineers and medicals, for whom there are no jobs at the moment are helping to make conditions better and that when they go to work they will be able to send part of their wages to the north and other parts of Nigeria. I understand that £250,000 is being given in grants to voluntary organisations assisting in relief work.

The decision was taken as far back as August last year that the International Red Cross should hand over and the decision was taken on 1st July this year that the Nigerian Red Cross should hand over to the local machinery. Now we find that the local machine, plus I believe six voluntary agencies, will administer relief work in this sorely stricken territory. I understand that these are the Nigerian Council of Churches, the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, U.N.I.C.E.F., the Save the Children Fund, the Christian Council of Nigeria and the World Food Programme. This gives the lie to many statements in newspapers in the United Kingdom that we do not know what is happening, and that the money is administered by Federal servants, much of it filtered away and lost in the capital. I hope that the Minister will give an indication of the good work done in the field for 2 million or more people in difficulty in the centre.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman particularly to say something about the need for teachers and what is happening and will happen in the restoration of schools. I was for some time in Calabar at the famous school of the Church of Scotland, Hope Waddell College. It had 800 students. The Ibo soldiery occupied it and looted it. They tore up the floorboards to make fires. Outside help is needed in this situation. One hopes that soon our efforts will change the situation and that once more there will be 800 students following their studies in Calabar, which is almost an Athens in this respect. I hope it does not sound presumptuous to ask that there should be consultation with the High Commissioner and the Educational Council at Nigeria House about these matters. There is a big need for land vehicles, I am told, particularly land rovers.

To summarise, I again ask the Minister to confirm that all the activity and all the administration at Enugu and in the State is by Ibos. It is very important that it be understood that the Ibos are now looking after their own State from top to bottom. They have the same powers as all other States, whether it is the Western or North Eastern Region, or Kano or elsewhere.

Will the Minister confirm that the Ibos are given money to use at their discretion? There have been comments that some of the help sent has lain in Lagos and that Lagos is inefficient. Now it is not the case. The stuff goes to Enugu. It is there to be spent at the discretion of the Ibos.

I again emphasise that the voluntary agencies act of their own volition. They are not hampered, as some people have alleged, by federal or any other civil servants.

There is a need for school equipment and agricultural implements. Perhaps not all that is sent leaves Enugu and reaches the villages. Perhaps all of the £2,000 worth of screws and nails which was sent by the Americans recently did not filter through for school rehabilitation and the like. There is no one present tonight who would not say that there is obviously incompetence, and even some indifference. After all, this is Africa. To deny this would be to say that the Ibos were perfect. In our recent debates some have sought to give the impression that the Ibos are almost the quintessence of all the virtues. They are very good but, like the English, they can make some mistakes.

Another canard that the Minister might attempt to dispel is that no one gets into Nigeria to see how our money is being spent and how the agencies are administering it. I believe this to be an absolute lie. Reuters are in there. The magazine West Africa, earlier quoted, is there, with an eminent editor, David Williams. French journalists go in. I believe that we should see an end to this myth that aid sent by us or by anyone else is not reaching its intended destination and that we do not know what is happening.

The Federal Army has done a wonderful job with Bailey bridges and the like. Curiously enough, I place two other needs almost as high in my list of priorities as food and education. It is very important that law and order should be maintained. The Ibo Army did not hand in all its arms. There is banditry east of Owerri which places enormous difficulties in the way of the voluntary organisations. Lastly, there is the need for jobs. Without jobs, these people will always be the supplicants of outside agencies.

I quote from the Evening Standard, of all papers: The British are intimately involved. The public wants to know that the money now spent upon relief is being well spent. So far the new Tory Administration has remained silent on the issue. Here is an area which demands sympathy, attention and positive action.

3.59 a.m.

The Minister of Overseas Development (Mr. Richard Wood)

I assure the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) that she need have made no apology for raising this matter even at a rather late hour, because she has drawn our attention to a matter of very great importance about which many people feel strongly.

I will say something about the background against which our assistance is given. The hon. Lady recognises, as I know the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) does, that Nigeria is a sovereign and independent member of the Commonwealth. This by no means precludes discussions with the Nigerian Government before official requests are made to us as to the best means of using our aid. It means, however, that the aid which we eventually give must accord with the wishes of the Nigerian Federal Government.

Secondly, the hon. Lady rightly drew attention to the magnanimity, which, I think, most of us admire, shown by General Gowon since the end of the war, but we should all agree that the task faced by the country is formidable Thank goodness, the war is over, but all wars leave scars, and after civil wars they are generally deeper.

The Nigerians are engaged in a massive constitutional reorganisation, having decided to replace the former structure of four regions by a federation of 12 States. This major reform is being tackled at the same time as the reconstruction of the Nigerian economy and the repair of the damage which was caused by the civil war.

The House will realise that since the civil war, as we always expected would be the case, there have been immense difficulties, with a part of the country left with no form of civil administration, the new administration had to be improvised and built literally from nothing at all levels.

The hon. Lady has drawn our attention to the fact that this time of year is normally known as the hungry season in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, and between harvests food resources are low. Even before the civil war, the protein deficiency and malnutrition which accompanied the hungry season affected, unhappily, the rural population in Eastern Nigeria and especially what is now the East Central State.

Having spoken of the background, I should like to talk for a moment about the three Rs—relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The sense in which I use these terms is, first, relief, meaning all immediate measures to relieve human suffering; rehabilitation, the longer-term measures to restore normality to people's lives; and reconstruction, the replacement of damaged or worn physical assets.

Looking back, during the financial year 1968–69, almost £1 million £970,000—was spent on relief. Early in 1969, the then Government considered the need for reconstruction when the war ended. They offered a grant of £100,000 and later followed this with an offer of an interest-free loan of £1 million. Between April, 1969, and the cease-fire, another £¼ million was given to the International Committee of the Red Cross; £¼ million was spent on relief, largely in support of the work of the Save the Children Fund, whose field teams were helping Nigerian authorities; and other money was also spent on relief.

The hon. Lady asked me about the £5 million. This was provided, as she well knows, by the late Government when the war ended last January for relief and rehabilitation. Up to the end of March, about £1.8 million of this had been spent and, therefore, the balance then remaining was just over £3 million.

During recent weeks, my colleagues on this side of the House and I have had certain criticisms to make of the administration of the late Government, but I have nothing but admiration for the massive airlift organised by a number of Departments and by the Crown Agents. That airlift enabled us to meet the pressing requests for assistance which the Nigerian authorities made to Britain. Substantial grants were also made to the International Red Cross, the League of Red Cross Societies and to U.N.I.C.E.F.

Both the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked about schools and educational equipment generally. By agreement with the Nigerian Government, £125,000 has been given in educational material to the war-affected States. Also, U.N.I.C.E.F. is itself mounting a substantial programme, to which the Government have contributed through their grant of £¼ million to U.N.I.C.E.F.

Up to last April, as the hon. Lady knows, Departmental responsibility for relief measures rested with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although the funds which it administered were found within the aid ceiling. After that, responsibility was transferred to my Department, which was already responsible for aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Now, the question of the £5 million. I expect that the whole of the balance of the £5 million to which I have referred will be disbursed during the current financial year. My Department will continue to support the British voluntary societies, which are playing a magnificent part in the relief operation, particularly in East Central State. The hon. Lady asked how long they would remain. My own opinion is that they will probably be required to remain after 30th September. If this be so, and if we are asked to continue to support them, we shall certainly continue to do so after that date.

As well as helping to distribute food and medical supplies, the Save the Children Fund teams have taken part in a significant seed planting programme under which the Fund has provided quantities of seedling yams to farmers. There has also been a certain amount of rice planted under this programme, and the Americans have sponsored a successful programme of maize planting. With the agreement of the Nigerian authorities, the Save the Children Fund is about to undertake a further programme of seed planting, with the emphasis on vegetables rich in protein.

We all join in paying tribute to the magnificent work of the British voluntary societies engaged in relief work in Nigeria, and, indeed, to each individual member of the teams in this work of mercy, often carried out in conditions of considerable hardship. The societies have established cordial relations with their Nigerian colleagues, and their help has obviously been appreciated. This, in a sense, is the best tribute of all.

Until the end of last year, the whole relief effort in Nigeria was co-ordinated by the International Red Cross. Then the Nigerian Red Cross assumed responsibility and took over the direction of the voluntary societies engaged in relief. Yet again, on 30th June the Nigerian Red Cross relinquished its co-ordinating rôle and handed over its remaining stocks of food an dequipment to the voluntary society teams in the field.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman spoke about the present administration in the East Central State. This, as both hon. Members rightly said, is a State predominantly inhabited by Ibos, and it now has an Ibo administration responsible for bringing relief to the Ibo people.

I can sum up the pattern of the relief operation in this way. During the war, responsibility was assumed by the International Red Cross. As soon as it became possible, the Federal Government transferred that responsibility, as was right and proper, to the Nigerian Red Cross, which, under the presidency of the Chief Justice, has discharged a massive task both efficiently and with great understanding. Now that the immediate crises is thought to be over, relief will be the responsibility of the States concerned and will remain part of their normal responsibility for as long as it continues necessary.

Meanwhile, the work on rehabilitation has also been going ahead. After consultation with the Nigerian authorities, we have undertaken to supply a wide variety of goods and equipment needed by the people and by the administrations in Eastern Nigeria. This equipment is of many kinds—a great many more vehicles and spares, mobile telephone exchanges, ambulances, water pumps, equipment for schools, fishing equipment, and so on.

We have been consulting the Nigerian authorities about reconstruction. The value of the reconstruction loan has been increased to £1.55 million, and £1 million of this was spent by the end of the last financial year. Again, there is a wide variety of goods which have been or will be supplied under this loan. We have now offered £1.85 million in additional reconstruction aid which will be used by both the Federal Government Departments and the State authorities.

The hon. Lady mentioned particularly the subject of jobs, and the hon. Member emphasised the need for schools equipment, which I have mentioned. The hon. Lady also spoke of the need for rebuilding roads and bridges. I am told that roads and bridges are not a serious problem. We have already contributed from the 1969 loan bridging material and cement.

I assure the hon. Lady that I share her view that the provision of jobs is of immense importance, but, as she knows, the Federal Government has been preparing a four-year development and reconstruction plan which is likely to be published this year. As soon as we know the longer-term requirements of reconstruction, I shall be able to consider how far British aid can contribute to it in Nigeria.

The aid which I have mentioned has all been additional to our normal aid programme. Some of it has been concerned with commitments undertaken before the civil war began. This country was the one major donor which continued its aid programme throughout the war and was ready to take on new commitments before the fighting stopped.

Both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member drew my attention to the general situation which now exists and asked whether there had been any deterioration. In our view, based on regular reports from the High Commission in Nigeria, there has not been any general deterioration in the situation. I have been disturbed, as has the hon. Lady, by recent reports, particularly the reports in the Evening Standard. But it is significant that the worsening figures in the Evening Standard relate to the week ending 12th June, when it is said that out-patients in the clinic at Owerri rose from 12,000 to 41,000. It is significant because the corresponding figure for the following week is 23,370. Similarly, the number of malnutrition cases at Awka hospital is reported to have risen to 588, and the corresponding figure for the following week is 196.

I do not know whether there is a printing error of some kind, but there seems to be some doubt cast by the most recent figures which I have been able to receive. However, whether these figures are for malnutrition or anything else, they should be judged against what the hon. Lady recognised as the background of the hungry season. In fact, there are many fewer people now under treatment for malnutrition since the end of the war. The number of new cases of malnutrition has also fallen each week, although there have been these fluctuations, whatever the reason for them in recent weeks. But the Nigerian authorities know about this and action has been taken to deal with it. Substantial quantities of food are available to the State Rehabilitation Commission, and projects under the World Food Programme are getting under way with the object of feeding most of 1 million people.

The position is, as always in this situation, that distribution and organisation are the main problems and that there is very little margin for any serious error. As the hon. Lady says, like all wars, the war in Nigeria has diminished the physical reserve of many people. If supplies were interrupted the effects could soon be serious. The danger should soon be greatly reduced when the main bulk of the harvest is gathered in September. For some time to come special help will have to be given to increasing the amount of food being grown in the area and in so far as we are asked to help we shall certainly do so.

The hon. Lady mentioned currency. It is true that a shortage of currency, especially in the East Central State, puts a brake on economic revival. The Nigerian Government has announced that £N20 will be paid to everyone who banks "rebel", or demonetised Nigerian currency before a certain date and this should bring into circulation £N4 million. Moreover, the Federal Government have announced that an additional amount of £N10 million will be made available to the East Central Government towards the cost of community development schemes.

I apologise for the length of my reply, but the situation in Nigeria now that the fighting is over is one which gives rise to concern among many of our fellow countrymen and I hope that the hon. Lady and the House generally will forgive me if, for this reason, I have gone into considerable detail to answer the questions raised.