HL Deb 15 March 1995 vol 562 cc851-4

3.3 p.m.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given Her Majesty's Government private notice, namely: whether Her Majesty's Government will make immediate representations to the Nigerian Government for the release of General Obasanjo, former Head of the Nigerian Government, who was arrested on 13th March.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we have already made it clear to the Nigerian authorities that Her Majesty's Government are gravely concerned at the arrest of former President Obasanjo. He is one of a number of distinguished political figures who have been detained recently by the military regime. Others include Yar'Adua, a leading member of the Constitutional Conference.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is it not ironic that the Nigerian Government should arrest the head of the Constitutional Conference (whom they themselves appointed) because he has had the temerity to recommend a return to civilian government? Is it true that General Obasanjo has been detained but not arrested so far and that no charges have been made against him? Finally, in view of the fact that the Minister's concern is shared by other governments, will she consider using the machinery of the European Union to co-ordinate representation, which would then have much more effect in securing the early release of those who have been detained?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that that is ironic. President Obasanjo is a distinguished Nigerian who has expressed strong commitment to an early return to democratic civilian rule. As the noble Lord will remember, President Obasanjo is the one former military president who returned his country to civilian democratic rule after three years. He has been arrested and is being detained, but he has neither been charged nor, as far as we know, has any evidence been laid against him. Therefore, it is essential that the Nigerian legal process is allowed to take place and that he is either charged or promptly released. The proper processes of the law must be followed.

We are already in touch with other governments who have made their own direct representations. We shall co-ordinate our representations not only with our European Union partners but with our Commonwealth partners. We shall do all in our power to ensure that this is brought to a successful conclusion. We still hope to see President Obasanjo here in the United Kingdom for the "Britain in the World" Conference on 29th March. If he is, not here, the whole world will be united in his defence.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the concern expressed by both the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and herself must be shared by all of us in this House who have the well-being of Nigeria and its future democracy at heart? I welcome the representations which the Minister has told us have already been made. I welcome particularly the Minister's remarks about co-ordination and co-operation with the Commonwealth Secretary-General.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. Although the resolution that was tabled by the European Union at the UN Commission on Human Rights last week was narrowly outvoted by manoeuvring, that has not altered the position of the members of the European Union, and the military regime under General Abacha in Nigeria can take no comfort from it. The latest events underline the deteriorating human rights situation in Nigeria. Given that volatile situation, I shall say little more except that we shall be doing everything in our power to ensure that people who are detained without trial are either charged or released.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that a "military disturbances board" was established yesterday in Abuja; and is she concerned that the Attorney-General has no authority in the matter?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there is no confirmation of what the noble Viscount has just said. A tribunal may have been set up, but it is not clear what is happening in Abuja. Certainly, if the Attorney-General's authority over the due processes of the law has been removed, that is further cause for grave concern.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, for asking this Question and the Minister for her Answer. Will the Government bear in mind that because of our historic relationship with Nigeria we have a special degree of influence there? Will they see this in the wider context and recognise that, with the restoration of democracy in South Africa, the restoration of democracy in Nigeria (which is perhaps the richest and strongest African state south of the Sahara) would be a tremendous event for the continent as a whole? Therefore, will the Government do everything that they possibly can to encourage positive action towards a return to democracy in Nigeria?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, yes, I agree with the noble Lord. We have a historic relationship and we try to have a special influence, but it is extremely difficult at the moment to know to what influence General Abacha and his small military regime clique will respond. We have made many attempts to talk to leading Nigerians—not the military—to exert a greater influence and obtain a greater understanding of what is going on in Abuja. At the moment we must just work away to get released all the people who have been detained.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that there are many in this country who served in Nigeria in the past? I am thinking of my father, who finished his career in the Colonial Service with his last governorship in Nigeria. Such a person would be most disturbed by what is happening in Nigeria now. Therefore it is good that this matter is being brought out into the open. I give my noble friend all my support in the hope that her efforts will bear fruit in achieving a happy solution in that country.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for what he has just said. Our debate on 7th March illustrated your Lordships' deep concern over what is going on in Nigeria and the absolute determination of all parties united in the House, and, indeed, in the country, to see an end to the regime which is so unacceptable and a return to democratic civilian rule.

Lord Richard

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for what she has said. We support the efforts that the Government are making in this present situation. Perhaps I may ask her just one factual question. Presumably when we make representations to the Nigerian Government they answer. What is their excuse? Is there one, or are they just playing for time at the moment?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord may be aware that there were press reports here and in Nigeria about the arrest of a large number of serving and retired military officers who were said to have been involved in a coup. When we question, we are told that people have been taken for questioning in connection with that apparently abortive coup. The essence of what is going on is that the National Consultative Council, having been adjourned during Ramadan, was just about to make recommendations to the military government in Nigeria. There may be other reasons why people are being arrested without charge.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the trade unions have gone on strike to make absolutely clear where they stand on the arrests? Secondly, has not the time come for the Foreign Office not just to issue statements but to consider our aid to Nigeria, because time and time again, year in and year out, we are told that the people of Nigeria want to return to a democracy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, first, there have been many strikes against the military regime in Nigeria. I am not in a position to tell my noble friend whether another has started today. We have made it clear that we shall not give aid to the military government or their institutions. The only assistance going to Nigeria is assistance which brings direct benefits to poor Nigerians. We use non-military channels such as NGOs. Aid from the European Commission and other European member states follows those guidelines which we set down two years ago.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what she has already said. Does she agree that until the situation is resolved this country may be receiving requests for political asylum from Nigerian democrats? Will she discuss with her right honourable friend the Home Secretary what might be the most appropriate way of responding to such requests?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, yes.