HL Deb 16 March 1999 vol 598 cc603-6

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assistance they are providing to the Government of Nigeria to help them in returning to civilian rule based on democratic institutions.

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

My Lords, we are actively supporting the current transition programme to civilian rule in Nigeria. We aim to help Nigerians secure for themselves a stable, democratic and prosperous future. Help from the FCO has included projects in support of democracy and direct assistance to the election process. The Department for International Development is funding a good governance programme to support and strengthen the work of civil society and non-governmental organisations.

Discussion takes place at all levels, including most recently my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who visited Nigeria from 8th to 10th March for constructive talks with the outgoing head of state, General Abubakar and with President-Elect Obasanjo.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware of how strongly many of us in this House and the country feel about the satisfactory return of Nigeria to democratic institutions? Is it correct that the BBC has just been able to reach a co-operation agreement with Nigeria enabling programmes in both English and Hausa to spread throughout the entire country? Finally, can the Minister say whether the new, but welcome, Anglo-French initiative might be brought to bear on the economic problems of West Africa? She will be aware that anglophone and francophone countries literally interleave across the whole of that part of Africa in ways which suggest that closer economic co-operation might be very helpful to both sides of the Anglo-French groupings.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware that many people draw considerable satisfaction from what has happened in Nigeria. Of course, we must all do our best to maintain the way in which Nigeria is moving. The noble Baroness raised specific points about the BBC. She may be interested to know that the FCO funded the BBC World Service project on responsible journalism and on voter education. I am not entirely sure about the point she raised on Hausa, but I will certainly do my best to get some information on that matter for her. As to economic questions, we have been very pleased with the budget announced on the 1st January which we believe is based on prudent assumptions, tight monetary policy and significant fiscal adjustments. We are also pleased to see that some structural reforms have been introduced which have been advocated by the IMF. I am sure we all agree that these kinds of economic programmes and co-operation between those who wish Nigeria well—this country, France and others—will in due course bear significant fruit.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in view of all this good news, are the Government yet able to foresee the time when they might recommend that Nigeria be readmitted to the Commonwealth?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the next meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is due to take place on 29th and 30th April. Her Majesty's Government will then be urging the group to recommend to the heads of Commonwealth governments that Nigeria's suspension be lifted immediately. Her Majesty's Government would very much like to see Nigeria at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in South Africa this autumn.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, during his visit to Nigeria, what assurances did the Foreign Secretary seek from General Obasanjo that Nigeria will not withdraw its forces from the Ecomoa peace-keeping force in Sierra Leone? What assessment has the Minister made of the view that it will be extremely difficult for an elected government in Nigeria to justify the expense of maintaining Ecomoa troops in Sierra Leone given the unpopularity of financing the regional peace-keeping force amid the deprived and impoverished Nigerian population?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that it is commonly known, but let me state again for the record that Her Majesty's Government have encouraged Nigeria to keep its forces in Sierra Leone on all occasions when we have been able to have significant ministerial contact. My right honourable friend would have done so when he was in Nigeria earlier this month.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, given the happy events in Nigeria, will the fear that previously existed for ordinary members of the public there begin to be removed? Will people be able to feel more secure than they did previously? My father, who was a governor there, would no doubt be very pleased that it appears that at long last the great Nigerian nation will be able to begin to rebuild itself.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that we all agree with the points made by the noble Lord. Her Majesty's Government will continue to do what they can to ensure good and stable government in Nigeria. We have been working through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to provide training for political parties and politicians. We have also, through DfID, been trying to help with the draft constitution. It is important to remember that, even in the strange relationship that we had with Nigeria over a period, we maintained our help in poverty elimination to the tune of some £12 million a year. Her Majesty's Government, with the support of this House, have done what they can to increase stabilisation in the way suggested by the noble Lord.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of those who can play a prominent role in building up civil society in Nigeria, particularly in a human rights capacity, have spent long periods in prison in that country? I refer to people such as Beko Ransome-Kuti and Femi Falana. In looking at the aid we are providing to help the Nigerians build their civil society, will the Government give particular preference to organisations represented by those people who have suffered so much under previous military regimes?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, indeed we do that. We have welcomed the release of political detainees. The most recent releases took place on 3rd March. We continue to urge the Nigerian Government to ensure that political detainees are released. We have welcomed the release of the Ogoni 20. A significant point is that we continue to urge Mr. Abubakar's government to release the bodies of Ken Saro-wiwa and the eight associates of the families for proper burial.