HL Deb 02 July 1968 vol 294 cc162-8

2.54 p.m.


With permission, my Lords, I will make a Statement on Nigeria. Since my Statement in the House on June 26 after my return from Nigeria, we have taken the following action to aid a settlement of this unhappy war. At our request, Mr. Arnold Smith has taken steps to convey to the Biafran authorities that, in the light of my discussions in Lagos, the opening of direct informal discussions between the two parties in London with a view to the reconvening of the Kampala peace talks are, in our view, possible, and could be productive. In addition to Mr. Smith's action, I spoke yesterday to Mr. Kogbara, who was associated with Sir Louis Mbanafo in his earlier talks, and urged upon him the need for a representative of Colonel Ojukwu to come to London as soon as possible in pursuance of the undertaking given by Sir Louis. I have accordingly read with regret—and I am sure this is shared by all Members of this House—the reports of Colonel Ojukwu's speech yesterday. I hope that this speech does not mean that he has turned his back on the attempt to secure a return to the negotiating table. In that event, the responsibility he would incur would be grave indeed.

I should like to take advantage of this opportunity to tell the House of our attitude if, following upon a cease-fire in Nigeria, the two parties to the conflict were to request an external Observer Force and were to ask for British participation in it. In that event, Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to contribute up to one battalion with appropriate support, for a period of up to six months, to a Commonwealth Force on the understanding that other Commonwealth countries also agreed to take part on a suitable scale and that such conditions were agreed upon as would permit the Force to carry out its duties effectively.

Regarding relief, I promised on June 26 to make a further Statement on this subject. Subject to Parliamentary approval, I can now say that in addition to the £20,000 which we have already given to the Red Cross Her Majesty's Government will now make available a further sum of £250,000 for humanitarian relief in the war-stricken areas of Nigeria, including the Ibo areas. Parliament will be asked in due course to approve a Supplementary Estimate. In the meantime, an advance will if necessary be sought from the Civil Contingencies Fund. The intention is that this relief aid should be used as flexibly as possible in order to make the greatest contribution to the relief of suffering, hardship and malnutrition.

In order to ensure that the money is spent in the most effective ways, expert advice and on the spot discussion with local authorities and relief bodies concerned will be necessary. We are therefore arranging, given the necessary co-operation of both sides, for a high-powered relief advisory team to go to Nigeria as a matter of urgency in order to assess the forms which our humanitarian help should take. I am glad to be able to announce that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has accepted the invitation of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to lead the relief team to Nigeria and to make recommendations. Sir Colin Thornley, Director-General of the Save the Children Fund, and Mr. Hodgson, Deputy Director-General of the British Red Cross Society, have agreed to accompany Lord Hunt on this mission. I am sure the whole House will join with me in expressing our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues for agreeing to undertake this arduous but vital task.


My Lords, I think we must all welcome this Statement, and the fact that the Government have now taken action, even if perhaps some action might have been taken a little earlier. But I think we should welcome what the noble Lord has done and the energies he has put into this. I hope that direct talks will now be reconvened. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he has any further information regarding participation of other Commonwealth countries in the Observer Force. I am very glad to hear that we are going to contribute one battalion.

In regard to relief, I think we should also welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to allot the sum of £250,000 for this purpose; and we cer- tainly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as head of this relief mission. On the question of relief, there is only one question that I should like to ask the noble Lord. There is no doubt that people in the Eastern Region are now starving, and I understand that OXFAM are willing to fly out relief and food. But am I right in saying that there is some difficulty in this matter? I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about this.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for making this Statement, and I certainly hope that negotiations will be resumed. On the subject of relief, I welcome the appointment of this relief team under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the fact that the relief aid is to be as flexible as possible. But may I also stress the point of urgency? From all that one reads, there is a very desperate need. To what extent is relief getting there now—for example, through the OXFAM Fund? Many people are willing to contribute, but they wish to know whether this relief can get through, and how quickly. On the subject of the observer team, is it possible at present to indicate what other Commonwealth countries will be contributing and what are the conditions referred to in the Statement?


My Lords, if I may I will deal with the Commonwealth force, the external force. As I said in my Statement last week, this is a matter which is subject to discussion; but in the end the choice of the countries who will participate must be that of the two sides in the conflict. We have not yet reached that stage in those discussions. But this would arise, I hope, when the two representatives are in London for informal talks.

In regard to aid, I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, that Oxfam have, I think, some 400 tons of food at Fernando Póo. Distribution of this food would require an airlift, and we are in active consultation with the federal military government in Nigeria to see whether it would be possible for these urgently needed food supplies to be flown in to Biafra. I say with the greatest possible sincerity that while an airlift can deal with the immediate emergency, the long-term problem can be dealt with only by the creation of neutral corridors through which road vehicles can travel carrying heavy quantities of food. At the present moment we have not been able to get agreement about these corridors from one side; I hope that we shall get agreement from both sides so that supplies can be got through quickly and regularly.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we shall all support his appeal for renewed negotiations and that we welcome the steps that have been taken for relief? But in view of the urgency of the issue at this moment, when thousands of children are dying from starvation, is it not necessary that steps should be taken to provide these supplies by air? Does my noble friend remember that on the last occasion that I raised this issue he said that the air strips would not be suitable for this purpose? Is it not We case that both the International Red Cross and Oxfam have now made arrangements to use these air strips to provide relief; and will Her Majesty's Government give the utmost support with a view to the immediate relief of the present terrible suffering in Biafra?


My Lords, I sought to point out to my noble friend the difficulties of using these air strips. They are very difficult from the point of view of navigation; particularly in the type of weather existing in Nigeria. Therefore, the hope of continuing supplies through this means is very precarious. That is why I stressed the need for open corridors. I agree with my noble friend that this is a matter of urgency. We are in the closest consultation with Oxfam, with the International Red Cross, with the Federal Government, and, if I may say so, with the representatives in Biafra. It is not easy to reach a conclusion quickly; but I would assure my noble friend that there is nothing that we are now doing that in any way could be done more quickly.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether Her Majesty's Government will not only make available R.A.F. aircraft but will consider the use of local aircraft which are, presumably, more suitable for this task?


My Lords, I believe that the Andover, with its capabilities, will merely scratch the surface of this problem. We have various projects in mind. There is a pilot who is now on his way to Biafra to see whether the air strips are suitable for a Hercules. This is something on which only the pilot can advise us and we must await his report.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the remarks of Colonel Ojukwe were very unfortunate. Is it possible that that situation could have been avoided if we had kept more closely in touch with the Biafra people? Is it not now and in future possible to have someone on a slightly more official basis near to the centre of their organisation?


My Lords, when this unfortunate incident started we had a Deputy High Commissioner in the Eastern Region. It was Colonel Ojukwe who made it impossible for huff to remain and to carry out his duties not only to Her Majesty's Government but also to the British citizens who are in this area. It is through no fault of ours that we are not in a position to have direct contact with events in Biafra. But we hope that we are making some contact with the Biafran authorities in London on an informal basis to see whether we cannot speed up this humanitarian action.


My Lords, is it not possible to drop some supplies from the air? I realise that this would be only scratching the surface; but is it not better to save some children's lives than none?


My Loris, we must take into account the question of terrain. I have heard it suggested that supplies may be dropped by parachute. But the noble Viscount can appreciate that this would afford relief of only a very temporary nature. The suggestion has been examined; I do not think it is practicable.


My Lords, I was going to ask a question on those lines but was anticipated by the noble Lord. I was told on good authority that both thy; Red Cross and Oxfam—two very well credited international bodies—had expressed their view that medical supplies and food could be dropped on to the airstrips in Biafra. They did not bring the R.A.F. into it; although, of course, we should welcome their help. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he discounts that evidence. My other question is this. Does the noble Lord really believe that we can be taken seriously as mediators when we visit the country of only one of the combatants and sell arms to only one of the combatants? Surely that is a partisan position and one which cannot be accepted as mediation. When I last asked a Question on this matter the noble Lord said—although it was not in answer to my Question—that we should lose all the influence that we now possess with the Nigerians if we suspended or stopped the supply of arms. I believe that those were the noble Lord's words; perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong. In view of that statement, I should like to ask him how many human lives he thinks that we have saved by our influence up to date, and how many human lives he thinks have been destroyed through the effect of our arms?


My Lords, in reply to the first question of the noble Baroness, it would be possible, as an act of desperation, to drop food by parachute; but there is a very great long-term problem and, as I have said to my noble friend, Lord Brockway, consideration is being given by Oxfam to the use of a Hercules. A pilot is now on his way to see how feasible is this project. In reply to the second part of the question of the noble Baroness, I can say only this. I have seen Sir Louis Mbanafo, the chief negotiator at Kampala for the Biafran authorities. I explained to him fully our policy and our continuing to adhere to it. Sir Louis said that he had power to negotiate and that he was prepared to return to London for talks. I had three or four meetings with Sir Louis and his colleagues. I do not believe that our position with the legal Federal Government in Nigeria in any way inhibits our using our good offices between the two parties in Nigeria.

In regard to the third part of the noble Baroness's question, of course everyone deplores war and particularly civil war. I am bound to say that I am getting a little tired of the allegations, the reflections, that this civil war was started by one side. My Lords, it was started by both, and the responsibility is borne by both sides, not by one.


My Lords, I made no allegation about the causes of this war. I said that we were selling arms to one side only, which is to my mind an act of partisanship that must inspire suspicion and mistrust in the other. I further said that none of our official negotiators had visited Biafra, whereas they all went to Lagos.


My Lords, in view of the extreme urgency of the situation can my noble friend say what is the earliest date at which British observers can be expected to arrive at the scene of operations?


My Lords, it will depend on how quickly we can arrange a cease-fire between the two parties.


But does my noble friend—


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