HC Deb 14 July 1998 vol 316 cc179-81
10. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

What discussions his Department has held with the Nigerian regime about restoring democracy to that country. [48710]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd)

I visited Nigeria on 25 and 26 June. I had a constructive meeting with General Abubakar. I reiterated our support for an early restoration of democratic civilian rule and called for the release of Chief Abiola, whose death is particularly tragic when we believed that his release had been imminent. I also called for the release of all other detainees and for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur to visit Nigeria.

Mr. Bruce

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should continue with the arms embargo on Nigeria? Will he confirm that British companies—certainly some companies—were arming Nigerian troops when they were in Sierra Leone? What is he doing to make sure that Sir Thomas Legg looks into the matter? That clearly was a breach of an arms embargo to a regime that we all condemn.

Mr. Lloyd

Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman that the common position of the European Union, including the arms embargo, is still in force and will continue until we see the return of Nigeria to civilian government and the release of all political detainees. Those have been the common demands of the entire European Union. Although we have no knowledge of British companies arming Nigerian troops in Sierra Leone as part of the ECOMOG forces, that would not be in breach of the EU arms embargo. The embargo is specific to the territory of Nigeria and as such would not be a matter that arose as a breach—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh.!"] Opposition Members may find that difficult to understand, but it is a simple statement of the legal position.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

Can my hon. Friend tell me what steps the British Government took to verify the cause of death of Chief Abiola? Can he give an idea of the steps that he intends to take to help secure the early release of other detainees? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that commercial interests will be put second to human rights interests in Nigeria?

Mr. Lloyd

Let me take the final part of my hon. Friend's question first. The difference between this Government and the previous Government is that our policy on Nigeria has always been pursued as one about principle and about the need for restoration of democratic forms of government. That will continue now and in the indefinite future, because it is what the Nigerian people want and deserve.

On the tragic death of Chief Abiola, the post mortem was attended by a number of outside experts at the request of the Abiola family. Dr. Richard Shepherd, a British pathologist, was in attendance and took part in the preparation of the interim report on Chief Abiola's death, which states that it was death by natural causes. We await the final report. The Government have stated repeatedly—I put this again to General Abubakar when I was in Nigeria recently—that one of the conditions that must be met for Nigeria to rejoin the family of democratic nations, and certainly to rejoin the Commonwealth, and to see the lifting of the EU common position involves the release of all political detainees, including the 20 Ogonis.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

There is no doubt that the whole House wishes to see Nigeria return to stable and democratic government. To that end, the British Council has been playing an important role through its good governance programme. Its programmes included supporting organisations trying to reduce and expose corruption, training and informing human rights workers, and conflict management training, which has even resulted in getting opponents around the table for the first time since four years ago when they were killing each other. Does the Minister agree that that work is invaluable and that failure to sustain the budget of the British Council in that region could severely jeopardise progress towards democracy? Can he give the House a guarantee that there will be no reductions to that vital budget and no fiddling of the figures to try to present a glossy picture in the spending review?

Mr. Lloyd

I find it astonishing that an Opposition Member should talk about cuts in the British Council budget after the damage that the previous Government inflicted on the work of the British Council on a global basis. It is truly astonishing that the hon. Lady should have the gall to come to the Dispatch Box with that statement. However, the hon. Lady, like the whole House, must wait with patience to hear the statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in just a few minutes. I hope that, at the end of that statement, she will have the good grace to be fulsome in her congratulations and to reflect on her need to criticise the actions of her colleagues when they were in government.