HL Deb 26 June 1968 vol 293 cc1409-16

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to make a Statement on my recent visit to Nigeria. During my visit to Lagos I had three lengthy meetings with General Gowon and other members of the Federal Government. I was also able to pay visits to Calabar and Enugu to see for myself some of the problems of relief and rehabilitation, and to speak to civilians and prisoners of war in those areas. Unfortunately, because of weather conditions I was prevented from carrying out my plans to pay a similar visit to Port Harcourt, where we have substantial British interests.

In addition to delivering a letter to General Gowon from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, I had four main aims in going to Lagos. First, I wished to follow up the contacts which I had already made separately with representatives of the two sides in London, with a view to securing a resumption of talks between them after the breakdown of the peace talks at Kampala. I had already been promised by the Biafran representative, Sir Louis Mbanafo, that he would be prepared to assume direct informal talks in London provided that I was able to satisfy myself that the Federal Government were prepared for meaningful negotiations. In Lagos, General Gowon assured me that the Federal Government were ready to start direct talks on an informal basis as soon as possible, and to send a representative to London for this purpose with a view to re-convening the Kampala Conference. As a result of my discussions I am satisfied that meaningful talks are possible, and Her Majesty's Government hope that Sir Louis Mbanafo will shortly return to London to take up this offer. I shall be seeing Mr. Arnold Smith to-morrow morning about the practicable arrangements for the resumption of talks.

Secondly, in response to my inquiry General Gowon expressed the readiness of his Government to see, as part of a satisfactory cease-fire arrangement, the introduction of an External Observer Force. He emphasised that the purpose of such a Force would be to give a sense of security to the Ibo people Thirdly, I was able in Lagos to emphasise the concern which is felt in this country about the need to avoid unnecessary casualties. I stressed the urgent necessity of achieving a negotiated end to hostilities before the conflict reached a scale likely to cause greater suffering and loss of life to the civilian population. I was given earnest assurance by the Federal Government of their wish to co-operate to this end and to keep casualties to a minimum.

General Gowon said that it was not his intention to order further bombing attacks except against important military targets such as airfields being used for arm supplies.

General Gowon underlined the responsibility he, personally, and the Federal Government felt for the safety and wellbeing of all Nigerians.

Fourthly, I also urged upon General Gowon the need for relief to the civilian population. General Gowon promised his Government's full and ready cooperation in allowing relief supplies to be taken through an agreed corridor in the fighting lines under the control of the International Red Cross, and was ready to put at the disposal of the Red Cross and other organisations whatever airports or sea ports were considered most practicable. Her Majesty's Government are urgently considering what more we can do to relieve the plight of refugees in war-stricken areas. It is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to increase significantly their financial contribution to the relief of distress and they will make a further statement in this respect shortly.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Lord for having made this Statement which I think has also been repeated in another place although it is in his name. We welcome him back to this House. I think I can say that we welcome the Statement. I hope the noble Lord is not being over-optimistic—as, perhaps, he was, I felt, in his radio interview last night. But we wish him good fortune in the continuation of the talks which he and the Commonwealth Secretary-General are undertaking. There are one or two questions which I should like to ask. I suppose that by far the most important part of the Statement was that which related to the proposed External Observer Force. May I ask the noble Lord whether this will be the kind of Commonwealth peace-keeping force that my right honourable friend suggested in another place? Will it be a peacekeeping force designed to keep the contestants apart? Will it, in fact, be operational or will its members be merely observers? How will this force be composed; and what arrangements have so far been made to constitute it? That is all that I wish to ask.

We all welcome General Gowon's statement that it is not his intention to order further bombing attacks except against important military targets, such as airfields which are being used for arms supplies. I hope that the noble Lord can reassure us on this matter, for bombing aircraft do not always hit their target. Can the noble Lord say that there is now no intention of an invasion of the Ibo heart-land?


My Lords, with permission, I should like to answer the noble Earl before other questions are put. I should prefer to deal with each speaker separately, for these are very important points that need to be carefully spelled out. I have never attempted to be too optimistic in this matter. I can certainly say to the noble Earl that it is infinitely easier to stop a war from starting than to stop a war once it has started. Those of us who have been concerned in this matter are well aware of the very great problems that still need to be solved; but I believe that we have now an opportunity for informal talks in London. If there is to be peace in Nigeria, since this is a Nigerian problem, it can be settled only by Nigerians. With good will on both sides and a recognition of the cost of further fighting, both sides will see that a negotiated settlement is brought about as soon as possible.

In regard to the External Observer Force, it may well be that it would be of a Commonwealth construction similar to what has been talked about in this House and in another place. But at the end of the day this will depend upon the contributions that can be made to it and whether those contributions are acceptable to both sides. This subject will be among those that are to be discussed in the London talks. It is too soon to say that arrangements have been finalised; the matter still needs to be ironed out. But there have been informal contracts between various countries to see whether they would be willing to contribute.

In regard to the bombing, as the noble Earl has said, bombers are not entirely accurate; and this is particularly the case in the type of flying weather that one experiences in Nigeria. But having read so much in the Press I will say that, having met General Gowon and having spent many hours with him, I am satisfied that he will use the minimum of force, and that if force has to be used it will be used with the greatest reluctance. With that spirit I hope both sides will react by bringing about peace in Nigeria.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for making this Statement in this House and to congratulate him on the results of his efforts in this matter. I hope that the talks will take place fairly quickly and that they will be successful. I do not dispute that the External Observer Force is important but more important is to get a cease-fire and a settlement. I have only one point to put to the noble Lord. One of the most worrying aspects of this matter is the long period of delay before the British people realised what was happening in Nigeria. I wonder whether the noble Lord can say what additional machinery has been created to keep him, the Government and the country informed as to what is happening now, before the External Observer Force goes in.


My Lords, as I said in my original Statement, the External Observer Force will be basically to give security to the Ibos. In terms of information, clearly we have our own High Commissioner's Office. Although he is not informed from Biafra, there are other sources of information open to us —sometimes through the Press and sometimes through personal contact with travellers. It is true that we are still not very sure of the size of the rehabilitation and relief problems that we may face. From my own experience, not so much of the distress that I saw but of the complete absence of civilian population, I can only say that the problem is bound to be immense. When one considers that we have already lost one harvest and that we have lost the replanting of the new harvest, one can see that there is a major problem in terms not only of size but also of time. Clearly, this is a matter to which Her Majesty's Government, and all who have humanitarian interests at heart, will have to give their careful consideration in the course of the next few months.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who have been urging for Government initiative in this matter heartily congratulate him on what he has done? May 1 put three questions to the noble Lord? I do not want to say anything which will make peace more difficult because, as my noble friend is aware, I have seen both sides and have tried to contribute towards it. First, was my noble friend able to meet representatives of the Biafrans as well as of the Federal Government? He went into Biafra but, so far as I understood, only to the part occupied by the Federal Government. Secondly, in view of the fact that there are now 4 million refugees, many of them facing near-starvation, are Her Majesty's Government prepared not merely to use the corridor proposed but to send direct supplies in connection with the International Red Cross to the air strips which are now available? Thirdly, Will Her Majesty's Government contribute to a solution of this problem by suspending the supply of arms to either side until these peace negotiations take place?


My Lords, I did not see representatives from Biafra during my visit. As my noble friend said, I visited the reoccupied areas of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. As the noble Lord is aware—and if he is not aware, I will inform him—I saw there representatives of many thousands of people of smaller tribes who lived in Eastern Biafra under the occupation of Colonel Ojukwe. As regards the starvation and the question of supplies; by air to Biafra, the noble Lord must be aware that there are now two air strips into Biafra which come from the use of roads, and there are trees very close to the runway. With the weather there and the type of climate, air navigation is very difficult and flying hazardous. If the problem is as big as we belies e it to be, an airlift into Biafra will only scratch the surface.

I am convinced that there is only one way to meet this problem and that is by a major road lorry haul into Biafra through these guaranteed secure corridors. That is the only way. I am bound to say to my noble friend that we shall have to consider not only the question of food and medical supplies but the provision of lorries in order that materials can get into Biafra. I think I should say to my noble friend that it is not only in Biafra, the Ibo land now held by Colonel Ojukwe, that there is suffering, but also in the reoccupied areas of the Eastern Region.

I would never agree that we should continue to supply arms if I felt that this would prevent us from helping in this matter, but I am bound to say to my noble friend that if we were to change our policy to-day I believe that all the good and the influence that we have now would be completely and utterly lost, and I would not pay that price.


My Lords, may I express the hope that the noble Lord's optimism is in no way overstated and also congratulate him on what he has achieved? I wonder if he can give any indication whether operations are still proceeding, whether they are in fact taking place on the ground, or whether the situation has reached a comparatively static state?


My Lords, my understanding is that there is nothing static in this type of war. Biafran forces launch attacks and they have to be counter-attacked; and vice versa. But I do not believe there are major military activities, and, as General Gowon himself told me, it is not his wish to have to fight into Ibo land; he would prefer to find a negotiated settlement. From my experience of General Gowon, I believe him to be right in this matter.


My Lords, as one who has twice visited Nigeria and also Biafra, and as one who asked a question in this House on a previous occasion, being deeply concerned about the situation, may I express deep appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for all he has done? We much appreciate it and thank the noble Lord very much indeed.


My Lords, may I add my thanks, and may I ask the noble Lord whether he does not think it essential, or at any rate very advisable, that any future mediator should visit Biafra as well as Lagos in order to dissipate the impression that all skill and expert information is coming now from one source? May I ask one other question in regard to the proposed peace-keeping force of which I am sure we are all in favour? Would he contradict a rumour, which I hope is untrue but which I have heard on some sides, that owing to pressure from Lagos this force is to be made up of Africans, but only Africans from African countries which have not recognised Biafra? Would the noble Lord kindly deal with that?


My Lords, I would say to the noble Lady that the last report or rumour is completely inaccurate. In any case, the contribu- tions that are made will have to be agreed by both sides. Regarding the visit to Biafra by either a Minister or a mediator, I may say that careful thought has been given to this in the last few days. If we have now the willingness of both sides to meet in London for direct talks I should have thought it far better that we should start those direct talks as soon as possible. But, clearly, as those talks develop we shall have to review the general position and see what other steps should be taken to bring an end to this war.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister how soon this relief will begin? Because if we have to start from scratch, with the provision of lorries, there will be a lot of starvation before anything ever arrives.


My Lords, relief is already going in. I saw some of the relief at the airport an Enugu. There are vehicles in Nigeria and steps are being taken to bring lorries down to help, although it will take an operation of some size to meet the need. We are considering what contribution we can make and from where the vehicles should be found.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend one other practical question? Is he aware that in view of the feeling in Biafra it is urgent that there should be a peace-keeping force as soon as the cease-fire is declared; and, if so, has any approach been made to Commonwealth countries to contribute towards that peace-keeping force?


My Lords, it is too soon to make an official approach but informal contact has been made.


My Lords, as regards the provision of corridors for relief, which I am sure your Lordships' House will think the most practical way of relieving the enormous distress in Biafra, can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Biafran authorities have accepted this arrangement?


My Lords, approaches have been made to the Biafran authorities in this matter but so far we have not had a reply. I only hope that we shall receive a reply very soon.