HC Deb 29 July 1975 vol 896 cc1499-502
Mr. Tugendhat

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the position of British subjects and interests in Nigeria.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. David Ennals)

We have no reason to believe, on the scanty information so far available, that British subjects in Nigeria are in danger or that British interests have been adversely affected by this morning's events.

The first news of this coup came at 6.30 this morning when Colonel Garba spoke over Lagos radio and declared that it had been decided, in consultation with his colleagues, that General Gowon had ceased to be Head of State and Leader of the Armed Forces.

The following measures were announced and have since been repeated at regular intervals on Lagos radio: a dusk to dawn curfew; the closure of all borders and airports; the suspension of Nigerian Airways services and external telecommunications. It would be a work-free day for all workers except for some public utilities and for oil-tanker drivers. Anyone caught disturbing public order would be "summarily dealt with".

It was announced that the coup was bloodless, and we have no reports of violence or disturbances or, indeed, of resistance of any kind.

We have since heard that Lagos is quiet and that it is quiet in Ibadan, Kaduna, Jos, Kano and Sokoto.

It is too soon for the reaction to the coup to become apparent. Telephone services appear to be cut off. United Kingdom citizens are being advised not to move about unnecessarily, to observe the curfew, and to keep away from airports.

Mr. Tugendhat

The Minister of State will be aware that we are grateful to him for coming to the House so promptly. It is difficult to think of a country more vital to Great Britain than Nigeria. It is our fourth largest supplier of oil, it is a massive recipient of British investment and, I believe, one of the largest holders of sterling, which makes it particularly vital at the moment. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us about these matters, particularly the sterling balances? Will he also tell us about the background of Colonel Garba and his attitude to this country? Finally, will he tell us whether reports circulating today that Mrs. Gowon is in London are true and. if so, whether we have any knowledge of the whereabouts of General Gowon?

Mr. Ennals

General Gowan is, as I think everyone will agree, a distinguished and able Head of State with whom Her Majesty's Government have had very close and friendly relations. I am certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to share my hope that the situation in Lagos will be resolved with the minimum of dislocation and without bloodshed.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Nigeria is extremely important in terms of Britain's relations, investment and trade, as well as British citizens. There are approximately 15,000 people for whom we have consular responsibility working in Nigeria.

Our investment in Nigeria amounts to£250 million, apart from the value of Shell and BP's residual holdings in the oil industry. I cannot give any details at the moment about the sterling balances.

Colonel Garba commands the Nigerian Brigade of Guards.

General Gowon was informed of the news this morning while attending the OAU summit. Mrs. Gowon and the children are at present in London on a private visit.

Sir G. de Freitas

In view of the large size of the British community in Nigeria, will the Minister of State assure us that, should there be any civil or military disturbance in that country, he will do everything that he can to see that the staff of the British High Commission is maintained at full strength not only in Lagos but out in the countryside?

Mr. Ennals

Yes, I certainly give that assurance. My right hon. Friend, from his own knowledge of Nigeria, knows that we have a large population there. There are 30 members on the staff of the British High Commission. Their task at the moment, though it is difficult for me to say how they are fulfilling it, is to look after the interests of the British community as well as British property. I give the assurance for which my right hon. Friend asks.

Mr. Cordle

In view of the orderly and peaceful manner in which the coup has been undertaken, and as the Minister has informed us from the information that he has that in Idaban, Kaduna, Jos, Kano and Sokoto there has been no up-rising in those more densely populated areas, will he tell us whether anything is to be done about Her Majesty's proposed visit to Nigeria on 14th October? I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members hope that the visit will be carried out because it could do nothing but good.

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is much too early to give an answer to that question. The information did not break, even in Lagos, until 6.30 this morning. We have had only scanty information. I have given the I-louse virtually all the information at my disposal, including the fact that all is quiet in the cities to which I referred. However, we cannot make any supposition as to what may happen. I do not think that at this stage we ought to draw conclusions from a situation which has really developed only during the last few hours.

Mr. James Johnson

Without wishing to interfere or intervene in any way with the internal affairs of a sister State of the Commonwealth, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware that many hon. Members on this side of the House who have long acquaintance with General Gowon and others in Nigeria have a feeling of deep anxiety about the situation? Will he assure us that he will keep the House fully informed in future about this matter? In view of General Gowon's leadership in OAU and the fact that Nigeria has the biggest army in Africa and supplies 12 per cent. to 14 per cent. of our oil, it is fearfully important not only that we should look after our own people but that the House should be kept informed of what is happening in this very powerful State in Africa.

Mr. Ennals

I suspect that my hon. Friend speaks for the House when he refers to the sense of concern and admiration for the leadership of General Gowon both as a leader of his country in the Commonwealth and in the OAU. I assure him that I will keep the House informed. If it is necessary to come to the House with further information, I shall certainly do so.