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6.53 pm

Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham): My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) spoke with great eloquence and wisdom on the subject of Nigeria. We both represent constituencies in the London borough of Lambeth which has the largest number of Nigerian residents of any borough. We are both in constant touch

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with our Nigerian constituents and we know the shame and anguish that recent events in that country have caused them.

At business questions on 2 November, two days after the death sentences imposed on Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues, I called for a statement on Nigeria by the Foreign Secretary and urged a new and tougher sanctions regime by the Commonwealth. Thus, I became the last hon. Member to raise the tragic case of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the Floor of the House before the hangings were carried out. I claim no special virtue for that; scores of hon. Members had already expressed concern about the death sentences in support of early-day motion 1556 and I know that the concern was shared more widely on both sides of the House.

In the aftermath of what the Prime Minister has termed the "judicial murder" of Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders, concern has turned to outrage here in Parliament, in the country at large and in virtually the entire international community. It is essential that that moral outrage should be translated into effective international action to force the generals out of power. History and the importance of our commercial relationship with Nigeria place special responsibilities on Britain in that initiative.

If we mean what we say about the nature of the Nigerian regime and its international pariah status, it has implications for not only the conduct of foreign policy but domestic policy and, in particular, the Home Office's treatment of Nigerian political asylum seekers. Those are the issues on which I wish to concentrate.

Last week the Government had an opportunity to come to the House to announce that Britain was taking the lead in forging a serious sanctions package against Nigeria in advance of the Commonwealth summit. Would that have stopped the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa? Who knows-- there were no guarantees. We do know that precious time was lost in prevarication, pious utterances and affirmations of faith in quiet diplomacy in which not only this country but those who should know better were inculpated. Ken Saro-Wiwa's defence counsel, Olisa Agbakoba, wrote to President Mandela saying:

Is it any surprise that the generals considered themselves to be immune from effective international action? After all, it is now 12 years since the military seized power in Nigeria. During that time Britain has supplied Nigeria with a wide range of weaponry, including Lynx helicopters, Lightning F53 aircraft and some 200 Vickers tanks. Most of the sales were made under Export Credits Guarantee Department cover or other loans financed by the British taxpayer. Nigeria currently owes Britain a colossal £2.3 billion, virtually all of it as a result of arms purchases.

The annulled presidential elections of 1993 should have been the final writing on the wall for the military regime in Nigeria. I was present for those elections as a member of the international observation team together with three other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is in his place. That international team of observers was united in its conviction that the elections were free and fair and that M. K. O. Abiola had won them fair and square based on a clear majority across all tribes, faiths and regions of the country. Above all, in those elections Nigerians were

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expressing their complete and utter rejection of military rule. Within a month, as is well known, the then head of the provisional ruling council, Babangida, had cynically overturned the elections. Within a year his successor, the yet more ruthless Sani Abacha, incarcerated the elected president, M. K. O. Abiola.

The response of Britain and the European Union to those events was feeble--some limited visa restriction on military personnel, some limited cuts in aid and a promise to review new defence export licences on a case-by-case basis with a so-called "presumption of denial". Critically, because the Vickers contract had been signed before this qualified embargo came into effect, the junta continued to take delivery of the Victor tanks. Eighteen of those tanks were delivered last year to the Nigerian armoured regiments, which are the backbone of the army and the guarantor of military power.

Moreover, despite the presumption of denial, we now know that no fewer than 30 export licences were granted for defence exports to Nigeria in the past two years. According to the Government, those licences were for "non-lethal" military equipment, but I have to point out that the Government had exactly the same rule for defence exports to Iraq. That allowed anything from tank and military helicopter spare parts to mortar-locating radar and military communications equipment to be shipped to that country. I do not mind making the presumption that the follow-on parts for Vickers tanks have been included in the defence sales to Nigeria over the past two years.

Despite constant probing by Labour Members, the Government have consistently refused to disclose details of the sales on the ground of commercial confidentiality. In a written answer, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis), explained that it was Government practice not to reveal such details

The cat is now well and truly out of the bag about Nigeria. The murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues has brought home the nature of the regime with a vengeance.

I believe that certain principles are more sacrosanct than the confidentiality of commercial contracts, and not colluding with a bunch of vicious military despots is one such principle. The public need to be reassured that the defence licences to date have not served to sustain these thugs in power, that the arms ban announced by the Prime Minister in Auckland means what it says, that all such contracts will cease to have effect forthwith and that there is absolutely no question of further supplies of defence materials being sent to Nigeria. I call on the Government to disclose details of the defence sales and to offer an absolute guarantee that no more British military equipment will reach Nigeria until the junta is overthrown.

An embargo on arms sales would strike at the heart of the military regime in Nigeria. It is a matter of urgent necessity that Britain should use all its influence through the United Nations and the European Union to make that embargo stick. However, if military might is the heart of the military regime, its life blood is oil. Indeed, 90 per cent. of Nigeria's state revenues comes from oil sales. Much of that money goes straight to line the pockets of the military kleptocrats who rule that country.

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It is estimated that, during the eight years of the Babangida regime, £9 billion was siphoned off from the oil revenues into the bank accounts of the generals. The Prime Minister was quoted as warning in Auckland that

He is quite wrong. Has the Prime Minister got any idea of how the vast majority of Nigerians live?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis): Yes, he worked there.

Mr. Hill: He worked there 30 years ago in a bank for eight months. I am not aware that he has been back in the intervening period. If so, he would have discovered that-- [Interruption.] If the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants to challenge me on that point, I shall give way. He asks from a sedentary position how long I was there. Does he want to defend the present state of affairs in Nigeria? Does he deny the atrocious conditions in which most Nigerians live and which I am about to outline? Does he want to challenge me on that?

Mr. Corbyn: It is interesting to note that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has been laughing and giggling all the way through my hon. Friend's comments about Nigeria's appalling human rights record. The Minister is in a position to know what defence equipment was sold to Nigeria and to stop any more going the same way. The very least that the House can expect is an intervention from the Minister to say what he is going to do to restore human rights in Nigeria.

Mr. Hill: The Minister declines to take the opportunity to do so.

Dr. Reid: So does the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr. Hill: That reinforces our anxiety about the fact that, although the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said that all the options would be examined and that the possibility of sanctions would be kept under review, there is thus, to date, very little solid commitment to effective international action against Nigeria. That is the point of our appeals this evening for effective action.

I am sure that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be interested to learn that most of the schools in Nigeria are closed most of the time, that the university system has broken down, that there is little or no health provision, that crime is rampant and that the economic system is on the point of collapse. The truth is that the oil revenues have not gone and are not going to the Nigerian people, many of whom face the daily prospect of starvation. The revenues from oil sales have been looted by the generals and their civilian collaborators, who have stashed the money in western banks or squandered it.

Half of Nigeria's oil goes to Britain and the United States and most of the rest of it goes to Europe as a whole. In other words, an oil embargo agreed by the United States and the European Union would have an immediate and immensely damaging effect on the junta's finances and would seriously weaken its position.

The Government should take firm action to halt Shell's planned £3 billion natural gas project at Bonny in Ogoniland. Shell is responsible for half the oil extraction in Nigeria. No other company has been more heavily involved in sustaining the generals in power. In Ogoniland

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people say that the fires of Shell are the fires of hell, and it was the rape of Ogoniland in pursuit of oil which led to the creation of Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and thus to his murder by the regime.

It is wholly misleading for Shell to claim that because the project will not come on stream until the turn of the century, it will not assist the current ruling clique. The condition for any such deal will be huge upfront back-handers to the generals. That is why the Shell project should be stopped, and that is why Labour is right to call for the generals' personal assets in the European banks to be frozen. The Government should take the lead in arguing for the necessary Security Council resolution to that effect. I am told that during the Falklands war the assets of the Argentine junta were frozen. That is a clear precedent, and similar action ought to be taken against the Nigerian junta.

The truth is that the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have pussy-footed around for too long in their treatment of the Nigerian junta. In August this year, the Commonwealth human rights initiative reported:

At the same time, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was compiling a country report on Nigeria for use by Home Office immigration officials. That report denied extensive human rights abuse in Nigeria, and that guidance has led to the scandalous record of only four grants of political asylum being made to more than 2,000 Nigerians who have applied for that status since the annulment of the election in 1993. If the Government are sincere in their condemnation of the Nigerian regime, they must draw the appropriate conclusions for their treatment of Nigerian political asylum seekers in Britain.

Ken Saro-Wiwa once said:

What is now required is the imposition of an effective sanctions regime by Britain and the international community, which will fatally weaken the generals and pave the way to a return to democracy and civilised government in that potentially great country.

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