HL Deb 22 January 1970 vol 307 cc238-49

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships, perhaps I may intervene to repeat a Statement made in reply to a Question put to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"Lord Hunt, who as the House knows went to Nigeria at my request to see how we could best help the Nigerian authorities in the problems of relief which faced them, returned yesterday and spent over an hour with me late last night giving me a very full oral account of what he had discovered both in his talks in Lagos and his two day visit to the forward areas. With him last night was Sir Colin Thornley, Director General of the British Save the Children Fund, who was a member of Lord Hunt's mission, and had visited a number of other acutely affected areas. Mr. Brian Hodgson, Deputy Director General of the British Red Cross, who visited a number of areas with Sir Colin Thornley, stayed on an extra day for further discussions, in particular on the Red Cross side. He will be returning to-day and I shall then be informed further on what he has seen and learnt.

"We have seen lengthy and detailed accounts in the British Press and also on British television, and many of the individual instances described or screened naturally fill everyone with deep concern.

"The picture which emerges from my meetings last night, and later information received to-day, substantially confirms the report I gave to the House on Monday.

"There is no question that what some had feared, namely, reprisals and victimisation, massacres involving the death of many innocent people, have not taken place. There were inevitably some individual cases where shots were fired, particularly in the period before the call to lay down their arms and the clear order to that effect given by Colonel Effiong. It is clear that there have been serious individual instances of indiscipline, but there is evidence that in cases that came to the attention of senior officers stern disciplinary action was taken.

"Concern will remain about such individual cases until the completion of the Nigerian Government order to withdraw the troops from the areas concerned, and to leave the civilian police in charge of maintaining law and order.

"As I indicated on Monday, the greatest concern must still be about relief, both as regards food—and particularly getting it to where it is most urgently needed—and medical supplies and treatment.

"I am in no doubt that the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian Red Cross are coming to grips with the situation, and this is the view which has been taken by Lord Hunt and his colleagues and by, for example, Mr. Henrik Beer, Secretary General of the League of Red Cross Societies, in his public statement.

"The movement of food supplies to the distressed areas, first by the Army and increasingly by civilian teams, is a top priority. Not enough even now is where it is most urgently needed. While the reports I have are that the situation is changing hour by hour, the movement is gathering momentum. The condition of the roads is generally good, bridges have in most cases been repaired already and the distances involved are not great.

"A good deal of movement on the roads is accounted for by refugees returning from the enclave to their homes outside the enclave, where there is plenty of locally grown food. The members of the Mission reported seeing in many cases such refugees with —indeed carrying—their cassava with them.

"But there is still acute concern in some of the bigger towns, notably Owerri, Orlu, Uli, Aba and Ikot Ekpene, some of which were acutely disturbed by the ebb and flow of the fighting almost to the last days.

"The problem of relief is serious, locally severe, but at nothing like the scale which some outside estimates have suggested. For example, figures were being quoted of four, and five, and six million. The estimates I have been given, and they are as authoritative as possible in the circumstances, are that the total numbers who were being fed, in part or wholly, by local and imported relief supplies shortly before the military collapse cannot have exceeded 1½ to 2 million people. All the evidence so far is that the numbers in respect of whom there is immediate anxiety are, of course, a small proportion of this, though the human suffering and distress, as the House has already been told, is serious. It was of course serious for weeks before the fighting ended, hence the urgency with which we and the International Red Cross and others sought to secure agreement to daylight flights, in default of the more productive methods of sending in supplies, namely by road and river. Very many of those showing distress and the symptoms of malnutrition owe their condition to the weeks and months before January 10 rather than to the days since then. Alongside the pictures of those in greatest distress there are of course very many more people in those areas in no acute danger of starvation.

"The most urgent need is for transport, where we and other countries, and the international agencies are giving all the help physically possible as soon as we get the day-to-day requisitions from the relief organisation.

"The main anxiety as I indicated on Monday relates to medical treatment. Emergency supplies and teams have been rushed into the areas affected, and hospitals some distance from the most recent area of fighting are accepting many who can be moved—including the British Children's Medical Care Unit at Enugu who have also made supplies available to the forward areas.

"Patients in the scattered hospitals and dispensaries of the former enclave will now be concentrated in seven large hospital centres to make the best use of medical and nursing staff available. Within a short time the Nigerian Red Cross hope to have 50 doctors and between 100 and 200 nurses employed in these.

"The main problems, as the House was told on Monday, are among the war wounded and children, particularly those in institutions where the previous Ibo doctors and nurses have fled. Many of these are returning day by day and working side by side with other Nigerians. Doctors and nurses flown in from Britain are going forward.

"It is encouraging that Sir Louis Mbanefo, the President of the former Biafran Red Cross, and Mr. Moses Iloh, its administrator, have returned to the enclave to mobilise the former Biafran Red Cross workers and medical teams to work in full co-operation with the Nigerian Red Cross. It is encouraging too that there is co-operation between Federal and former"Biafran"officers, especially at senior levels. Lord Hunt, in fact, travelled for a good part of Saturday, in the company, indeed in the car of a former Biafran colonel: all this with the full agreement of the Federal military authorities.

"To sum up, there is still a great deal of confusion and mobility, particularly on the roads and near the big towns. But more and more people are getting to their homes. And the reception centres and refugee camps are emptying as the former refugees make for home. Food supplies in the forward areas are increasing and the urgent need is for transport, and better local distribution facilities. As I said, the greatest tragedy and the need for greatest urgency is among the wounded and among children, especially those previously in institutions.

"Lord Hunt and his colleagues have given me most detailed accounts of what they have seen and their assessment of the position, on which they have expressed their views both to those concerned with relief—and to the military—in the forward areas and at the highest level to the authorities in Lagos.

"I hope to have more information on Mr. Hodgson's return and, of course, over the next few days. I will ensure that the House are kept as fully informed as possible and as frequently as may be for the convenience of the House next week and subsequently. There is reason for anxiety, especially over the next few days. But there is reason for hope, especially as area after area, group after group of individuals, return to their homes or are otherwise ministered to."

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I think the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, for having repeated that Statement. The House will and ought to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for having gone on this trip, as he did on the one previously. Those of us who know him know that the report that he brings back is the report of an honest, honourable and sensible man.

I wonder whether I could make just two general comments. Everyone in the House must be very relieved that there have been no massacres and no reprisals, and I think it is generally agreed that there have not been any. It is very satisfactory that General Gowon was able to honour his word, as he said he could and as he said he would. That must be of great satisfaction to everybody in your Lordships' House. As for relief, there is obviously a very big problem in terms of numbers, even if one discounts some of the inflated numbers that have been given and to which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, referred. Any organisation, and any country, would have difficulty with the problems which face the Nigerians—and they are really faced with very big problems. If I may say so, it is very easy to be critical; it is very easy to be critical when one is sitting in this country and not having to cope with some of the problems that the Nigerian Government have to cope with. To be over-critical is not, if I may say so, necessarily to be very helpful. Some-times it has exactly the opposite effect to that which those who are critical wish to achieve.

Surely what we ought to do is to help the Federal Government and the Nigerian Red Cross in every way we possibly can. For example, when I was in Enugu a month ago I visited a hospital which was partly staffed by British doctors and nurses, but which had only three wards out of about twelve open—I do not know the exact number—because there was a shortage of nurses and a shortage of doctors. Are we providing the doctors and nurses that the Nigerian Government are asking for? Are we seeing that the Nigerian Red Cross has the money that it needs? When I was in Lagos a little over a month ago now, although the Nigerian Red Cross had quite a number of very good plans they were indeed very short of money. They needed money and transport to achieve those plans. It seems to me that these things are the kind that we ought to be worrying about, and we ought to be doing what we can to help rather than being critical at this particular time.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the Leader of the House for keeping us informed of the efforts which are being made to alleviate the human suffering and distress in Nigeria. I want to put only one point to him. Our reports indicate that the major need at the moment is a regular supply of drugs and medical supplies, particularly at hospitals which are rather difficult to get at. May I ask him whether there is any possibility that the Nigerian authorities will be able to organise some form of air drop, particularly to the isolated areas which are at the moment inaccessible by road transport?

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, I appreciate very much what the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Byers, have said. I should like to echo the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and to pay a tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who, I know, carried out a very difficult and uncomfortable journey, and did so in his characteristically modest and effective way. It would be easy, of course, to pay many tributes, but I think I ought to mention the High Commissioner, Sir Leslie Glass, and his staff, who have worked indefatigably and have played a crucial part in this matter.

I very much take the point as to the rôle that we can all play in this situation. I think it is apparent that Government, and the agencies through which Government is working, are bringing the maximum possible energy to bear. I say this not in any boasting sense at all, because we all share in this particular tragedy. I was asked one particular point by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, on the amount of medical help we can give. We have been asked for 15 doctors and 20 nurses altogether. By to-night, 14 doctors and 13 nurses will have left, and the rest will be following within a few days. We have flown out all 50 of the Land Rovers for which we were asked, and 18 4-ton lorries—it has been agreed with the Nigerian authorities that 4-ton lorries are more suited to local conditions. We therefore decided to increase our total supply of 4-ton lorries to 110, instead of sending some 10-tonners. We have had a supplementary request for the equipment for two mobile field hospitals as well as a number of tents, both for hospital use and for use by soldiers and others, thus releasing accommodation for refugees and people returning from the bush.

We have also airlifted to Nigeria a total of 31 tons of medical supplies and some 5 tons of vehicle spare parts. We have been asked to suspend action on the request for a coastal vessel, but there is of course other support coming from other countries, particularly the United States. On the financial side. I would repeat what was previously said in the Commons: that the Government have promised to provide up to £5 million of aid, in addition to the £7½ million that they are providing under the regular aid arrangements.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, touched on this difficult issue, and I think he directed his remarks not so much to Uli Airport as to the possibility of airdropping into particular areas in the bush. I am certain that these matters have been considered. There is enough food stockpiled close to the areas of main need to meet immediate requirements, and this food can be taken easily by road as soon as the additional vehicles, which we and others are supplying, reach the area. I can only say that I have noted the noble Lord's point. Certainly these are the very matters that the Government are considering and which I am certain the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the others who were with him have themselves examined.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, can the noble Lord the Leader of the House give some indication of how he thinks the charitable organisations might best assist? I am sure he is aware that there are many societies that are keen to do all they can to help, but at, the same time they do not want to embarrass the Federal Government or the Government here. They are also well aware from previous national and international disasters, whether at Aberfan or Lynmouth, that charity or voluntary help can sometimes cause more embarrassment than help. Nevertheless, one is well aware of the numbers of organisations in this country which are very keen to help at the moment; and if they can obtain some guidance from the Government as to how that help can best be given they will be very grateful.


My Lords, I think the right reverend Prelate will be aware that one of the first things my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did was to call together representatives of the various relief agencies. It is very natural for all those involved in this matter to wish to move into action as quickly as they can and give help. There is equally a great deal of evidence that the Nigerian Government, within the extraordinarily difficult conditions obtaining, are organising rather well; and tributes have been paid to them by people such as Mr. Henrik Beer. I am sure that, so far as lies within the power of Her Majesty's Government, and bearing in mind that Nigeria is a sovereign country, help as appropriate will be called on. But it is important to have the right kind of help. It is in relation to that that the various societies should assist. There was strong representation by the British Red Cross and the Save the Children Fund, who have actually been out in the field; and in the light of their report no doubt further help will be forthcoming as required.


My Lords, in putting questions to the noble Lord, may I thank him for his Statement and, beyond him, thank the Prime Minister. It indicates the deep concern which the Government have in this matter. Is my noble friend aware that those of us who have been critical of the policy of the Government are deeply appreciative of the urgency and the extent of the aid which they have given; and that if there has been delay it has rot been the fault of the Government of this country? Is the noble Lord aware—I am putting my remarks in the form of questions, which I understand is necessary from the Back Benches—that I want to be completely constructive, and not critical, on this occasion? Is he aware that on the Island of Sāo Tomé, which is within 90 minutes of the most distressed areas in the Eastern Region, there are 6,000 tons of food, as well as great supplies of medicines, which are lying idle? Also, is he aware that there are pilots and 'planes there which are prepared to take those supplies to the distressed areas? Is the noble Lord aware that there is a network of organisations for distribution, which has great experience? Moreover, is he aware that those in charge of these operations are prepared to act completely under the Nigerian Red Cross? In view of these facts, are Her Majesty's Government prepared—I am aware of the sensitiveness of the Federal Government—at least to ask the Federal Government to consider whether this very nearby aid of food, medicines and personnel, with a distributive network, cannot be used to meet the appalling hunger which exists to-day in such a large part of what was Biafra?


My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's opening remarks, and I acknowledge his great concern in this matter and the fact that he had it in mind, depending on the situation, to put down a Private Notice Question. He has touched on one of the most sensitive issues, on which any remarks that I can think of are not particularly calculated to help anyone. But I will give the noble Lord some information. First of all, at some stage it may be desirable for the stockpiles at Sāo Tomé and Cotonou to be transferred by the most convenient means to Nigeria for use in the areas of need; but that is not a pressing requirement, I am advised, so long as there is sufficient food and other stocks available in Nigeria.

Here, I will give the noble Lord some of the figures. The latest information is that there are stockpiles in Eastern Nigeria, at Enugu, Koko, Port Harcourt, Agbor, Uyo and Calabar, amounting to some 10,000 tons. About £100,000 worth of local food stocks have been purchased and are at Enugu. Vessels arriving during the next few days will be carrying another 10,000 tons, and this includes shipments due to-day—4,600 tons are due to arrive at Lagos by sea to-day—and arrangements are being made for this to be trans-shipped to Port Harcourt. Other arrangements have also been made for the shipment of rice and other supplies from Cotonou. These stockpiles are only some 50 to 70 miles from the heart of the worst hit areas, which are themselves about the size of Hampshire. Convoys have for some time been carrying food from the stockpile to these areas, and the Red Cross will be stepping up the flow with the new vehicles already on their way.

My Lords, I could go on at some length. I think perhaps I should make this further remark. The Nigerians have fought a long and terrible civil war, but however strong our compassion may be I am not sure whether we, as Europeans, are really in a position to tell the Nigerians how to behave after a war. I believe there can be few, if any, occasions in history to compare with almost the nobility of the approach of General Gowon to these problems, and I feel that in these matters the wisest thing is to offer help, to encourage, to give such advice as is sought, and thereafter to assist the Nigerian relief organisation. There is evidence from people who have been there, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the officials and others who are engaged in this matter are showing great efficiency in their administration.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that many of us have the greatest appreciation of the spirit which General Gowon has shown at the conclusion of this war and of the way in which he is seeking the reconciliation of the Ibos? Those of us who have met him had no doubt that that would be his attitude. But, on the question of relief, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is not the case, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, found on his visit, that the particular area which is now suffering most from starvation is the area around Uli and Orlu? It is bad in Owerri, but not nearly so bad in Owerri as in those other areas. Is it not the case that relief can be brought most quickly to them from Sāo Tomé, where supplies are available and where those in charge are prepared to act under the Nigerian Red Cross? In those circumstances is it not possible for Her Majesty's Government, without in any sense dictating to the Federal Government, at least to ask that that proposal shall be considered?


My Lords, I will only say that I hope the noble Lord, in the light of the tributes he has paid to Her Majesty's Government, will leave Her Majesty's Government to do what they regard as best in the interests of relief, with full consideration and full compassion.


My Lords, while welcoming very much indeed the relief which is being supplied by Her Majesty's Government, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether any approach has been made by Her Majesty's Government to the Nigerian Government with a view to ensuring the freedom of movement of the 80 journalists of various nationalities, including British, who are partly or entirely sequestrated under very trying conditions at Port Harcourt? And will the noble Lord agree that some of them have in fact been molested by Nigerian forces?


My Lords, I can only say that my heart bleeds for the journalists, but it bleeds more for the people of Nigeria.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether an exchange rate has been fixed between the Nigerian currency and the Biafran paper currency?—because that seems to me to be the most important consideration in providing relief.


My Lords, I would not say that it is the most important part of the problem, but it is a matter which I am told is being considered. It is a point of significance, but the important thing is to get the food into the hands of the people who need it, without necessarily asking them to pay for it.