HL Deb 09 June 2004 vol 662 cc255-7

2.49 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to reports of escalating violence in Plateau State, Nigeria.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we are concerned at the continuing levels of violence in Plateau State, although the number of incidents is falling. British High Commission officials have visited and are in close touch with the federal and state authorities. We welcome the federal government's efforts to restore peace to the affected areas, but have urged that any intervention be carried out with full respect for human rights and the rule of law. We have offered humanitarian support to the Nigerian authorities.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Is she aware that, although Christians and Muslims have been involved in the fighting, when we were in the conflict areas there were disturbing reports that very well armed Islamist mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Cameroon had been involved in the fighting, and that Osama bin Laden had declared Nigeria ready for liberation and the Obasanjo government apostate? Will Her Majesty's Government therefore raise with the Nigerian Government concerns that the conflicts are being used and escalated to further the cause of Islamist terrorism?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, in answering the noble Baroness, I acknowledge the tremendous amount of international work that she undertakes, and assure her that we are well aware of the Osama bin Laden denunciation of Nigeria and other countries as apostate. We agree that the intervention of well armed mercenaries of both religious persuasions is of concern to us and the Nigerian Government. She will know that the Nigerian Government dealt robustly with a previous incident provoked by Islamic extremists in the northern state of Yobe, which was sparked off by a group calling itself Taliban. We have regular exchanges with the Nigerian Government and other interested parties on the issue, and will watch developments very closely.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, have the Government received any request from the sole administrator of Plateau State for help in dealing with the people displaced by the ethnic violence in Yelwa? Does the Minister, although acknowledging that the matters are for President Obasanjo and his government to solve, think that there might be a role for the Commonwealth in defusing the tensions that have caused the rising levels of ethnic and sectarian violence not only in Plateau State, but recently in Kano?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the matter is for the Nigerian Government to resolve, and we support very much their efforts to resolve it. We have urged them to ensure that any intervention in that resolution is dealt with through the rule of law. For the moment, that is where we stand.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, did the noble Baroness see the reports in the media that, on 11 May in Kano, 3,000 people may well have lost their lives? Has she had chance to study the letter from President Obasanjo in which he makes the welcome statement that he will pursue a policy of zero tolerance against those involved in the atrocities? In pursuing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I should say that President Obasanjo calls for international support to free, our nation from the consequences of decades of misrule and structural as well as systemic dislocation". Will the Government think further about whether we can assist in any practical way in achieving that objective?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I want to make it very clear to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we are assisting at present. Our aid budget to Nigeria is doubling this year. We have also said, because of the conflicts in the regions, that we will stand ready in terms of humanitarian assistance; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was referring to other types of assistance. We are aware of the violence in Kano State. We are extremely concerned about the recent deaths there, and the British High Commissioner has visited Kano recently, where he stressed our concern to both the governor and the emir.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving me sight of his correspondence with President Obasanjo. We welcome the president's efforts to restore peace to the affected areas. We remain strong supporters of his reform programme and are working closely with his government to address reforms that will benefit all Nigerians.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are more active Anglicans in Nigeria than in any other country of the Anglican communion? Is the Anglican Church among the interested parties with which the Government are in touch?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, yes indeed. I was not aware of the information about the number of Anglicans in Nigeria. There is a great and significant Christian community in that country and we are indeed in touch with the Churches. We very much back and give support to the Coventry Cathedral project on reconciliation in the Plateau State.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, are representations being made by the EU and ourselves to the African Union to make it do something about the increasing bloodshed and terror—particularly given that a number of the countries concerned, including Chad and others, are producing fighters who are adding to the mayhem rather than helping?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we are very aware of the problem regarding the Chad fighters and we have been active in the European Union in getting a statement from it recently. The EU said: The Presidency, on behalf of the European Union, expresses its serious concern and distress at the constant incidents of death and destruction that are taking place in Nigeria … The European Union notes the rapid response of the Nigerian Government in despatching additional security forces to the areas concerned".

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that these matters should concern us deeply, not just because of the human rights, bloodshed and atrocity dimension, but because the stability of Nigeria is crucial to the world's energy and oil supply system, on which this country shall increasingly have to rely in coming years. Has she any information about whether these problems have spread to the Niger Delta area, where the main tensions are arising with the oil companies? Can she give us an updated report on that aspect?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we have heard of incidents of problems in the Niger Delta area and we continue to have negotiations with the Nigerian Government, both at federal and state level, about all of those incidents. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that Nigeria is very important to the world community. We are working closely with the president and his government to address the necessary economic reforms that will benefit the whole of Nigeria.