HL Deb 21 July 1998 vol 592 cc714-6

3.13 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of recent developments in Nigeria, they will encourage European Union and Commonwealth countries to lift visa restrictions on government personnel from Nigeria with immediate effect, with a view to facilitating dialogue with the new administration.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, many of your Lordships will be aware of General Abubakar's statement of yesterday, 20th July. We welcome his commitment to the restoration of democratic civilian government by May 1999, after free and fair elections in early 1999. We also welcome his undertaking to respect human rights and democracy, including the release of the remaining political prisoners. This is the best news that we have had from Nigeria for a long time.

The time has now come to re-establish dialogue between Nigeria and Britain and the wider international community. We will be working to secure the agreement of EU partners that members of the Nigerian Government should now be allowed to visit EU member states where that would help General Abubakar's programme and promote constructive dialogue.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I consider that an excellent response. I understand that Tony Lloyd has also reacted to this news. Not least, Britain's business community will breathe a sigh of relief. Has not General Abubakar acted in a responsible manner since taking office, driving Nigeria towards democracy on a firm foundation within a realistic timetable? Should we not now be extending our hand of friendship, not least with our European partners, most notably France, and easing restrictions commensurate with progress?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are still considering what more we can do to support General Abubakar and his political and economic programme. His emphasis on transparent and inclusive political and economic processes is extremely important. The Nigerian people have made it clear that they want action and not just words. General Abubakar has set out a detailed plan of action by which they, and the international community, will be able to monitor progress. Britain is ready to help General Abubakar and his new administration with speedy and credible implementation of this difficult but essential programme.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, given recent developments, can the Minister update the House on the prospects for Nigeria's future participation in the Commonwealth?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for its non-compliance with the Harare principles of good governance. We shall be willing to look at re-admittance once Nigeria returns to compliance by restoring the democratic, civilian government, which they will be doing next year. That is implied by last night's statement. The next steps are through the Commonwealth ministerial action group. It is for that group to come together and to look at what the Commonwealth as a whole should be doing in order to help Nigeria in this much welcomed initiative which the general has taken.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I believe that the whole House will join the Minister in welcoming recent announcements from Nigeria. Does she agree that the situation remains unstable? There are slips between cup and lip. Until these changes are in place, does the Minister agree that existing asylum seekers from Nigeria should be given the benefit of the doubt and not returned there?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it will be action and not words that count in relation to Nigeria. We must be as encouraging as possible of the reforms which the general announced yesterday. For example, we welcome the release yesterday of a further 10 political prisoners. They were civilians charged with being involved with a coup in 1995. We shall be looking very closely at these questions. I am unable to say anything enormously helpful at the moment to the noble Earl as regards asylum. I am sure that he will understand that yesterday's statement will have to be examined very closely by Her Majesty's Government and within the Commonwealth, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and in the EU as well, as I indicated in my original response to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is now a real possibility that British Airways will be able to recommence its flights to Lagos?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, General Abubakar's statement is fairly lengthy. I shall make arrangements for a copy of the speech to be put in the Library of the House. I can tell the noble Viscount that there was a commitment in the statement to restore air links. I do not know whether that specifically covers British Airways. More light may be shed on that by the whole of the speech, but I am not clear on that point. I hope that I shall be able to give the noble Lord a detailed answer in a letter.

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