Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Kinnoull: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may say this. While I accept that the listed building may not be a reasonable, practical example, there surely must be a division between contaminated land which can be cured—I refer to heavy metals, for instance—and contaminated land which might have problems of methane gas, or whatever, present for many years. When one considers the damage to the value of the land once it has received such a notice, it seems woefully wrong that the notice will never disappear off the record. There must be occasions when the contaminated land is completely cured. I hope that my noble friend will consider that point.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may say that of course I shall look at all the points made. However, I believe that it is right that the register should record what remediation has been done. There are circumstances when further remediation might be required, and I do not believe it right that the agency should assume those liabilities by signing off a previous owner with some certificate. As I indicated, the danger would be that the enforcing authority would show marked reluctance ever to sign off a site even if it had the power to do so.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I have just heard something very surprising. The noble Viscount said that he thought it right that the register should record what had been done. That is exactly what we ask for. Therefore, on that basis, I may well not have to bring back the amendment. However, I should like to reserve the right to do so when I have read Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 188

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 144H:

Page 51, line 10, leave out ("be in, on") and insert ("come into, onto").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 144H refers to new Section 78E(2) which is beginning to get near the real crux of the problem that I and my noble friends have with the part of the Bill regarding who is the appropriate person. New Section 78E(2) states:

    "Subject to the following provisions of this section, the appropriate person is the person, or any of the persons, who caused or knowingly permitted the substances, or any of the substances, by reason of which the contaminated land in question is such land to be in, on or under that land".

One can read that subsection in this way: that the appropriate person includes anyone who knowingly permitted the substance to be in or on the land. It could be, for example, a neighbour who knew that the polluting substance was on the land but took no action to remove it. I suggest that the wording of the new section does not state what is intended. Subsection (2) is intended to define the polluter. It defines the polluter but also someone who might be an innocent bystander who knowingly permitted the substance to be there. I believe that my amendment makes the clause state what is intended. It defines the polluter. I beg to move.

Lord Coleraine: My Lords, I wish briefly to address Amendment No. 144J which stands in my name. It is a probing amendment. The amendment adds to new Section 78E the provision:

    "A person shall not be treated as having knowingly permitted substances to be in, on or under land until such time as he becomes aware that the relevant land is contaminated land and fails, within a reasonable time of becoming aware, to take what appear to the enforcing authority to be satisfactory measures for remediation".

I have no doubt that it would not be the intention that an enforcing authority could draw to the attention of an owner or occupier previously unknown or unsuspected contamination and immediately serve notice on him for knowingly permitting the contamination to remain. There must, I am sure, be a reasonable period for response which should be given before formal action is taken. I am confident that that would be my noble friend's intention with regard to the Bill, but I should be grateful if he would make the position clear.

The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, I support the amendment and ask the Minister to confirm, in the light of what he said about "knowingly permit", that it is understood that the provision will not attach a liability to an owner or occupier of the land for the time being who just happens to discover that a contaminant is on his land. We go back to the common-sense approach of ensuring that the polluter pays and that the innocent party is not unnecessarily affected.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, Amendment No. 144H seeks to amend the basic test of liability so that it would refer to persons who caused or knowingly permitted substances to come into, onto or under land rather than to be in, on or under land. To an extent, the amendment is driven by the same concerns as Amendment No. 144J, spoken to by my noble friend

7 Mar 1995 : Column 189

Lord Coleraine, which seeks to clarify the meaning of the term "knowingly permit". However, it would cause a number of different problems itself.

It would ignore completely the responsibility which ought to attach to those who genuinely and actively permit the continued presence of contaminating substances in land, for example, as a result of a redevelopment of a site. This would become more of an issue where it was in fact the actions of that later person, rather than the original polluter, who set in train the circumstances by which significant harm became possible, for example, through breaching containment on the site and causing the migration of contaminants elsewhere, or by introducing a more sensitive site use.

The wording of the amendment could arguably broaden the net of potential liabilities as well. It could, for example, be taken to include anyone bringing materials onto the site, such as tanker drivers or those consigning waste to a landfill. The formulation of causing or knowingly permitting substances to be in, on or under the land provides a much narrower focus on those directly responsible for the particular location and circumstances of the contaminating substances. For those reasons, I could not support the amendment.

Amendment No. 144J, spoken to by my noble friend Lord Coleraine, seeks effectively to qualify the meaning of the phrase "knowingly permit" so that a person would not be "knowingly permitting" substances to be in, on or under land until they knew the land was contaminated and failed within a reasonable time to take satisfactory measures for remediation. I argue that the qualification is unnecessary. I indicated to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding that "knowingly permit" has been a basis for liability in environmental legislation for over a century. It is therefore a well-known phrase. I do not believe that I could accept the amendment.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asked me to go much further than that, but I do not believe that I can confirm that what he suggested is the current state of the law.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says and I am impressed with the inadequacy of the wording of the amendment. I wish to take it away and reconsider it. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 144J not moved.]

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.35 p.m.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Nigeria: Human Rights

7.35 p.m.

Viscount Torrington rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to encourage the restoration of democracy and greater respect for human rights in Nigeria.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 190

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, on 15th February the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, introduced a fascinating debate on South Africa in which I should very much like to have taken part. Unfortunately, I had another appointment which in the end finished early. Had I been able to speak, I might have been able to establish my credentials as yet another Peer in whose veins the blood of the 1820 settlers and the voortrekkers flowed.

Anyway, having been unable to speak on South Africa, I am glad to be able to introduce a short debate on another important part of Africa. I am sorry that the time allowed for the debate will be short, particularly since speakers include the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, whose knowledge as a former High Commissioner to Nigeria will be invaluable. The list of speakers also includes the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, who only last week sped off to Nigeria and who will no doubt bring first-hand knowledge to our debate.

Some people fall in love with Africa because, like me, they were born to it. Others catch the thrall of Africa, sometimes in a single short visit. Either way, it is a disease like malaria; it can never quite be purged from the system. For those who love Africa—I know that my noble friend on the Front Bench is one—and who feel pain at Africa's failures and elation at her successes, the last few years have been dramatic. South Africa has progressed from white supremacist apartheid to democratic government. It has done so at some considerable cost in lives but without a true civil war and without destruction to its infrastructure.

In Mozambique, a vicious civil war has been brought to an end. I know incidentally that my noble friend the Minister has done a lot to encourage Mozambique to achieve that desirable state of affairs. There now seems to be genuine movement towards ending the civil war in Angola, but it will be a slow process and the country will need a great deal of help to recover. The ghastly tribal warfare in Rwanda seems, at least for the present, more or less to have subsided and, turning to West Africa, the civil war in Liberia seems to have ground to a halt.

Compared with the catalogue of recent horrors in Africa, it may seem churlish to put Nigeria under the bright light of censure. However, Nigeria is a big country with a population of nearly 90 million people. And if we believe that people are more important than goods and chattels, Nigeria is in that sense three times as significant as South Africa. It is an important country, no small economic force in its region, and a major oil producer. It is vital that Nigeria should set, and be seen to set, an example of peace, stability and democracy.

Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has had one short, sharp civil war, the Biafran war. That finished 25 years ago. More significant is Nigeria's record in terms of democracy and civil rights. At independence Nigeria inherited a Westminster-style democratic system. That lasted only six years. In the 34 years of its existence as an independent state, Nigeria has had only 10 years of elected civilian government. Most of us cannot even remember the civilian rulers. The names of Nigerian leaders that spring to mind are Gowon, Ironsi, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida and now Abacha. Shagari and

7 Mar 1995 : Column 191

Tafawa Balewa are almost forgotten memories. And more importantly and sadly, Chief Abiola, the president who never was, is a fading image.

I do not personally know and have no interest to declare beyond the fact that I share a solicitor with Chief Abiola. I cannot beat my breast and say that Abiola is a saint beyond reproach, but there are honourable men who know him and speak well of him. In terms of some of Nigeria's recent leaders, it would be fair to say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man could be king—or perhaps more appropriately, president.

In June 1993, Chief Abiola won an election which I believe was pronounced broadly free and fair by an irreproachable team of international observers. The election was promptly annulled by the government, which presumably found the result unpalatable. After an uneasy year in which Babangida handed over power to Ernest Shonekan's unelected civilian puppet government, which in turn handed over to General Abacha, a frustrated Abiola, perhaps a little unwisely, declared himself to hold the office to which he had been elected. He was promptly arrested and locked up and has remained so in spite of being granted bail.

Since his arrest, he has been detained, I am told, in various places around the country, at least for some of the time, I am led to believe, without access to legal assistance, writing materials, newspapers or even visits from his family. The aim seems to have been to break his spirit. However, by all accounts, it is only his health which so far shows signs of breaking.

Surprisingly, I am told that human rights were not considered a major problem under previous Nigerian administrations, including that of Babangida. But the treatment of Abiola under General Abacha's government has apparently been mirrored at other levels in a growing disregard for the judiciary and the due processes of law.

Since the oil workers' strike in support of Abiola, there have apparently been numerous cases of detention of trades unionists, journalists and politicians without trial. Leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress and the oil workers union were arrested or dismissed from their posts, and a government decree made it impossible for them to challenge their dismissal. In addition, a number of other decrees have retrospectively legalised otherwise illegal restrictions placed on the rights of citizens.

Three newspaper groups were closed down, including one owned by Abiola. The closure was subsequently challenged in the courts and damages were awarded against both the government and the police. In spite of this, the government promptly promulgated an order legalising the closure.

In September, General Abacha dismissed the attorney-general after the latter apparently publicly stated his opposition to decrees passed without his being consulted but which he believed effectively swept away many Nigerian civil liberties.

In order to pay, some might say, lip service to the principles of democracy, the government convened a constitutional conference, due to report last October, whose findings regarding a return to civilian rule they promised to implement. Due to its composition, the

7 Mar 1995 : Column 192

conference was regarded as something of a sham, but it is interesting that the government used the excuse of Ramadan to send the delegates home, possibly to delay the conclusions of the conference, which might not have been to General Abacha's liking. Possibly his poodle was about to bite its master's ankle.

To give credit where it is due, Abacha's government recently brought in a number of desirable economic reforms, including the effective ending of exchange controls, perhaps to convince people that a government which has sensible economic policies cannot be all bad. Come home, General Pinochet, all is forgiven!

I shall believe it when I see it, but the government are also said to be close to releasing Abiola on health grounds. He is not a fit man, but perhaps—just perhaps—the government are beginning to heed the pressures building up both within Nigeria and within the international community. I hope that Nigeria can, at the eleventh hour, pull back from the edge of the authoritarian abyss and find its way back to the highroad of democracy.

As I said before, I know that, like me, my noble friend on the Front Bench is a lover of Africa. Yesterday, in this context, The Times paid her the somewhat backhanded compliment of being a Tory Minister whom everyone likes. Well, I also know that when one day she ceases to hold her present office and ends her tireless round of African capitals she will be greatly missed by people of all walks of life on that continent. I know that, like me, she feels the pain of Africa's failures. I know that she is dedicated to doing what she can to right the wrongs.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords and the right reverend Prelate. I look forward particularly to hearing from my noble friend the Government's views on what they can do to encourage the restoration of democracy and human rights in Nigeria.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Thurlow: My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Viscount for asking this Question and for giving us an opportunity to discuss the affairs of Nigeria at what may very well be a critical time. The noble Viscount catalogued some of the concerns that have worried many of your Lordships. I preface my remarks with the obvious statement that we all speak basically from the same position. We value our long, traditional friendship and close associations with Nigeria. We have close friendships with Nigerians. We long for the day when this great country can resume its rightful position to help in leading the rest of Africa with stability into prosperity.

But of course we are troubled by what the noble Viscount referred to in relation to recent matters of human rights. Here, I urge that we are measured in our comment. Perhaps we tend to apply to Nigeria a higher standard than we are inclined to apply elsewhere in other continents and to other countries. Successive military governments have, in terms of human rights, had commendable records. We hope very much that

7 Mar 1995 : Column 193

President Abacha will feel able to make gestures to mollify the concerns in this country and elsewhere about recent events.

I speak with feeling about the need for moderation in criticism. When I had the privilege of serving in Nigeria, one of my greatest difficulties was in mending the fences between Nigeria and a new British Government after unmeasured criticism from Opposition Benches on the celebrated Enahoro extradition case. It was unmeasured criticism in the heat of political battle which nearly brought the Government down. Some of what was said was without factual basis. It caused the greatest offence. When the Opposition came to office, it was very difficult to induce the Nigerian Government to have any positive relationship with them at all. So criticism has to be careful and well-informed.

The Question concerns, first, the reintroduction of democracy. I must say that I have wondered about the timing of implementation of the recommendations of the constitutional conference when they are made. We hope that these are not far off. We believe, from what we are told, that they will contain much that is helpful and useful, and that they may lay a sound foundation for a new, accountable, democratic regime. It would be entirely unfair if the new democratic government, when it is introduced, should inherit an economic and social situation which makes it necessary only to take unpopular steps of belt-tightening to get matters straight. Therefore this seems to me to impose a very heavy obligation indeed on the military government to get on quickly with the further restructuring that is necessary to enable confidence at home and abroad to be restored, to enable investment to flow, and to enable the international community to do what it is straining to do; namely, to support the economic and financial fabric of Nigeria in recovering from its extremely difficult predicament.

I turn to human rights. The head of state has assured us—we welcome it—that (these are his own words) there is no going back on the commitment to restore democracy. That implies all that we respect in terms of human rights and freedoms. We all endorse the concerns of the noble Viscount, but we ask the present Nigerian Government to make early gestures to satisfy our concerns, so that the international community can once again do what it so much wishes to do; namely, to get back into a positive relationship of support for the restoration of democracy and freedom.

7.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Sheffield: My Lords, I speak in the debate with some hesitation. Unlike other noble Lords who have spoken, I entirely lack that personal knowledge of Nigeria and Africa which marks their contributions. However, I am glad to have the opportunity to let your Lordships know of the courageous part played by Church leaders in Nigeria in this distressing period in the life of their country.

I found particularly moving the communiqué issued by the Catholic bishops after their conference last September. Unfortunately, time forbids me to read it all. But I can bring your Lordships two paragraphs that

7 Mar 1995 : Column 194

speak of the yearning for good democratic government and of the government's response to that yearning; and a paragraph that points to the future.

The bishops say:

    "Among the people of Nigeria the yearning for freedom and democracy and the loss of confidence in military rule and all those associated with it have been expressed in incessant strikes, demonstrations and at times violent protests. Nigerians have said it loudly and clearly and through the events of the last few months they have demonstrated that they no longer wish to subject themselves to bad government or military rule, however benevolent. After ten years of continuous military presence in power, Nigerians are convinced now more than ever before that the military has no monopoly of political wisdom, nor is patriotism a virtue to be found only in the rank and file of the armed forces. Under military regimes, evidences abound of ethnic and religious bigotry, corruption, greed and graft. Yet these are the ills the military purportedly came to correct. Therefore any attempt to prolong military rule under any guise whatsoever is a direct violation of the people's express will".

Speaking of the government response:

    "The present military government has always spoken of dialogue, but it is disheartening to note that faced with the crisis of credibility and legitimacy, it has often resorted to one panic measure after another, and besieged Nigerians with a barrage of oppressive decrees, rather than appreciate fully and respond honestly to the people's anger and anguish. The consequence is a vicious circle of widespread protests, repressive decrees, and further protests. The cumulative effect of this vicious circle is the loss of confidence in government and in public institutions, and a collapse of the moral, social and economic order in present-day Nigeria".

But the bishops look positively to the future:

    "We salute our countrymen and women who, in the face of this dire situation, have been promoting and defending human rights and freedom. Some of them have been subjected to untold hardship, including indefinite detention without trial. May their suffering not be in vain. Nigeria is a nation of free people. We want to remind our beloved countrymen and women that we are a free people. We may be vulnerable but not helpless under the present circumstances. We must not allow anyone to reduce us to slaves through repressive decrees. We must continue to resist the violation of our fundamental human rights, including the right to free expression, and the right to choose our own leaders. We must continue to resist dictatorship by all peaceful but effective means".

A very similar message has been given by the Christian Association of Nigeria, which represents the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. It says:

    "Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians and not to any special group of Nigerian citizens, of particular religious persuasion or political ideology who believe they are predestined to hold tight eternally to sovereign rule, while poverty and squalor fast reduce the other citizens to wretched and miserable serfs".

The Church leaders say that they:

    "find it impossible to look on and say nothing, while our nation continues to slide down a destructive precipice ... As one moves around, one discerns, boldly written on the faces of most Nigerians, sorrow, depression, anguish, frustration, hopelessness and helplessness".

Surely, this situation is a matter of great concern to all who are within the Commonwealth. The rulers of Nigeria, it would seem, are not impervious to what the world outside Nigeria thinks. Might this be an area where the Commonwealth secretary-general could help to achieve progress?

7.57 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gwydir: My Lords, the House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Torrington for his impressive and clear exposition of the sorry situation in

7 Mar 1995 : Column 195

Nigeria today. It is a situation which has caused widespread international concern, particularly in Britain, where, as the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, we greatly value our close, long-standing relationship with the state and the people of Nigeria.

So far, not much has been said about Nigeria's economy. It is tragic that that major oil-producing African nation, with its high level of educated people which promised such great potential on independence 34 years ago, is today in per capita terms among the world's poorest countries. One can think of many contributory factors that have led to that unhappy situation, but the main fault is the way in which Nigeria has been governed in recent years and in particular today.

My noble friend Lord Torrington said that over the 34 years since independence there have been military governments in Nigeria for 24 years. When General Abacha took over as head of state in November 1993, his was the eighth successful military coup. He dissolved democratic institutions and proscribed all political parties and organisations. Also, as we heard, there have been numerous arrests and detentions without trial, several newspapers have been closed, decrees limiting the jurisdiction of the courts have been issued and habeas corpus has been withdrawn. That is how Nigeria is governed today. Noble Lords may think it not surprising that unrest and resentment are widespread.

One must try to understand the problems and difficulties in governing Nigeria. It is the most populous African country and is divided into three regions. It has many ethnic and religious divisions. The proponents of military rule in Nigeria maintain that it is necessary in order to preserve national unity, but in the 24 years of military rule it has clearly failed to produce that unity. Military government is now seen clearly as an anachronism. Nigeria, along with Gambia and Sierra Leone, is isolated in the Commonwealth. Its potential as an African leader in international fora is diminished. There is deep concern about where General Abacha's government is heading and about its lack of political direction.

The salvation of Nigeria lies in effecting change. There is an urgent need to put the country back on the path towards accountable civilian government. General Sanni Abacha has convened a national constitutional conference. That conference has recommended a handover to civilian government in January 1996. General Abacha should be very strongly advised to honour that recommendation. If he were to make the position clear, a great change might well take place. We all want a strong, united and prosperous Nigeria. It can be achieved if there is an early return to civilian democratic rule.

8.3 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, in recognising the importance of this debate, I requested and was facilitated by the Government of Nigeria to visit the country for four days. I returned last week. The current political issues surround the elected, and in part appointed, constitutional conference commission comprised of 19 committees. The core objectives are: to

7 Mar 1995 : Column 196

establish a system of government reflecting the general consensus of Nigerians; a guarantee of good governance; accountability; and probity in public affairs.

I draw your Lordships' attention to accountability, which is crucial. A three-tier system of local government, state and federal legislatures is proposed, with devolved administration to the states. There is also a call for unbiased central government to ensure the equitable distribution of resources. There are many proposals of merit, not least the call for a rotational presidency. That addresses the difficult pluralistic relationship between ethnic groups in the northern and southern areas of the country.

The date January 1st 1996 for a return to democracy would, in my view, be difficult to achieve. Even if the military elected to hand over control today, the country would not be ready. If democracy is to stand the test of time it is essential to have a sufficient period to allow for the process to be nurtured from grass roots level. On this point I pressed General Abacha, head of state, to whom I expressed appreciation for face-to-face discussions. He would confirm only that a realistic timetable would be set after the constitutional conference—which reconvened on Monday, following Ramadan—had submitted its report to government for study and deliberation. However, it would be helpful to his country to have an early announcement of such a timetable. One point emphasised by Chief Shonokan, a past president, Justice Karibi-Whyte, chairman of the constitutional conference, and Mr. Dozie, governor of the central bank, was that only a viable economy could sustain democracy. I mention their names to reinforce the point.

The democratic process will be jeopardised without economic stability. Political distractions must not be allowed to divert attention from the restructuring of Nigeria's economy. The recent budget has moved the economy away from regulation, as evidenced by the repeal of the Exchange Control Act and the Nigerian Enterprise Promotion Decree. This has been welcomed by the business community, who want to do their part to ensure that the initiative is not derailed. The Economic Summit Group in Lagos has discussed with the head of state the changes necessary to develop Nigeria's economic potential and has been active in urging him not to head the advice of the exponents of regulation. This group is to meet the Finance Minister in Abuja tomorrow to labour the point.

Nigeria is an important country to the United Kingdom and is a fellow Commonwealth member. She is, however, a country with a multitude of problems. Although 90 per cent. of her export earnings are derived from oil, Shell, who, as operator of the consortium, account for 50 per cent. of output, have not been paid by their Nigerian joint venture partners and so have been unable to pay contractors for four months.

Nigeria should be a prosperous nation but is one of the poorest in the world. The average Nigerian seeks only a roof over his head, food to eat, education for his children and good governance. Illiteracy—the bane of Africa—affects approximately 70 per cent. of the population. A horrifying 30 per cent. of GNP is needed for the payment of debt.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 197

Commonwealth sentiment is illustrated by Chief Anyaoku's remarks at the parliamentary conference in Banff last October:

    "Military intervention in politics is a political aberration and a derogation from the democratic development of a country. I believe that as we progressively pursue the objectives of the Harare Declaration, the day will not be far away when representatives of military regimes will find no welcome in the councils of the Commonwealth".

To ostracise a country is an extreme position. It is vital to have continual dialogue for the resolution of differences. However, there are senior sceptical political observers. I want to see their fears allayed. I believe that any differences with Nigeria will be resolved but the question is when. Nigeria feels that it has a relationship with the United Kingdom that transcends the usual diplomatic and trade ties. She feels that the United Kingdom is the driving force behind tomorrow's proposed human rights resolution in Geneva. I encourage the Minister to comment on that point in her remarks.

The key concerns of Nigerians are: the leadership crisis, the lack of political structure and the need for socio-economic development. I appealed to the head of state that he has it in his power to become the architect of a new Nigerian republic. I asked him to consider carefully the recommendations of the impartial constitutional conference. I trust that he will do this in a timetable that is acceptable to fellow Nigerians, thereby gaining the approbation of the world community, without which no country can prosper.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I believe that Nigeria stands on the edge of a precipice, with the polarisation between rich and poor, the economy a disaster, the Naira devalued four-fold last week, inflation running at 60 per cent. last year and climbing, unemployment spiralling, interest on foreign debt more than 7 billion dollars in arrears, and an estimated $12.2 billion of government revenue siphoned off by the kleptocracy in the years 1988-94. Nigeria has the third worst credit rating in the world. There is tension between north and south, between Moslem and Christian and between ethnic groups, all fostered by the narrow military clique that now holds power.

I know that the Government are concerned and have done their best to persuade the military regime to hand over to a democratic civilian administration as soon as possible. They have perhaps placed too much faith in the constitutional conference, as other noble Lords have done, and too little on the need to foster and encourage democratic institutions in Nigeria. But they have at least been ready to listen to the ideas of the Campaign for Democracy, NADECO and the CLO and to consider means of bringing pressure to bear on the regime.

I have a suggestion to make to the Minister. We could consult with the Americans, and any others who want to join in, to create a steering committee to plan our joint aid to democratic NGOs in Nigeria and thereby avoid overlap and make sure that we are delivering the most effective possible help to them.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 198

We and our EU partners have stopped all new supplies of arms and ammunition to Nigeria, all training of military personnel, all ministerial contacts and some other high level visits. Other suggestions have been made, such as a total embargo on Nigerian oil exports and the freezing of Nigerian assets in Britain. Those suggestions have been rejected. Under international law we could not take measures of that kind without the authority of the UN, and the Security Council would be unlikely to approve them. But to do nothing since 2nd December 1993, when the EU package was approved, would be to confess our impotence in the face of the serious worsening of the situation. The international community has to persuade the Nigerian regime to accept constructive advice on the restoration of human rights and the return to democracy. An extension of the arms ban might be one possibility. I was dismayed to note that only two weeks ago we were still delivering tanks to Nigeria against orders placed some time ago.

The international community, for its part, has to be specific about what it expects from Aso Rock. There have to be solid assurances that the regime means what it says about the transition, and that requires strict adherence to the timetable. I was sorry to hear that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, did not receive any assurances on that point. Secondly, those who want to participate in the return to democracy have to be allowed to do so. That means that Chief Abiola must be freed, as President Clinton's special envoy, Ambassador McHenry, requested when he was in Abuja three weeks ago. Mr. McHenry suggested a speedy return to democracy in which Abiola would play a key role, and in response, according to reports, General Abacha said that he planned to leave office at the end of 1997 but that he would allow party activity, including activity by Mr. Abiola himself, to resume on 12th June. Meanwhile, I should like to ask the Government whether they will urge the regime to allow Chief Abiola to receive the medical treatment that he urgently needs. He has to go abroad for an operation for a laminectomy, which means that he is suffering from an extremely painful complaint.

The arbitrary detention of people like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana and Ayo Opadukun, the Secretary of NADECO, who has now disappeared, must cease, and the decrees allowing imprisonment without trial must be repealed. The trumped up charges against six senators, whose cases are now before the Inter-Parliamentary Union, must be withdrawn.

Since the weekend it is reported that up to 200 officers, mostly retired or dismissed, have been arrested on charges of making statements that could cause disaffection in the armed forces. They were alleged to have criticised Abacha for his failure to appoint new ministers since he sacked the whole of the cabinet on 8th February, but really it was suspected that they were plotting a coup. All these arrests, and the suppression of newspapers and trade unions, are a measure of the strength of the opposition. The apparent quiescence of the moment should not deceive the outside world into believing that Nigerians accept the regime's existing policies. Just because there are no large scale violence, no big strikes and no demonstrations, does not mean

7 Mar 1995 : Column 199

that the democracy movement has been crushed. A wise observer from Oyo said that the situation was like a fire smouldering under a carpet: by the time it bursts out, it may set the whole house ablaze.

The international community cannot sit back and wait for the conflagration, which would be a huge disaster for the people of Nigeria, the west African region and Africa as a whole. The danger is so acute that the OAU, the Commonwealth, the US and the EU should act together, all conveying the same message to Aso Rock. The longer freedoms are withheld, and the greater the number of people who are arrested or forced into exile, the more difficult it will be to heal the divisions among the Nigerian people. If after all these delays they do get the chance to express their democratic will, the odds are shortening on their being offered choices based on ideological rather than religious, geographical or ethnic differences. Nigeria can only survive as a state if those differences can be accommodated in a framework of tolerance, non-discrimination, equality and reconciliation. Those qualities have not been the hallmark of recent Nigerian political life, and the year 1995 may be the last chance for them to be demonstrated.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, the noble Viscount's Question is rightly warmly welcomed on all sides of the House and, indeed, way beyond it among the wide range of humanitarian agencies, including those with which I work. This frustratingly timed debate for such a vital issue has clearly demonstrated that civil and human rights have little meaning for General Abacha's regime. A story of all too numerous political prisoners and their conditions and of the acute anxiety of their friends and families is disturbing. In the words of Jesse Jackson, following his visit last year, if the instability were to lead to war in Nigeria, we could suffer a disaster,

    "50 times worse than that of Rwanda",

and Rwanda was a case of massive genocide. The numbers of refugees and displaced people might well reach unprecedented levels. We surely cannot forget that in the Biafran war between 1967 and 1970 approximately 1 million Nigerian men, women and children perished.

Nigeria is potentially one of the richest nations in Africa but according to the United Nations Development Programme nearly half of Nigeria's inhabitants live in absolute poverty—46 million people. Per capita income, which stood at 1,000 dollars in 1980, had plummeted to 250 dollars by 1993. Since then things have gone from bad to worse. Recent world history grimly demonstrates that civil war often occurs when a critical mass of destabilising factors, including tyrannical and incompetent government, combine to exacerbate simmering regional religious and ethnic tensions. We could be precious near that point in Nigeria.

Nigeria could be the strongest and most influential nation in West Africa. It could act as a force for regional stability. At a time when the British Government are calling for the strengthening of regional institutions, such as the OAU, it is therefore logical that everything possible should be done to speed civilian rule in Nigeria

7 Mar 1995 : Column 200

as the basis for its critically needed leadership role. At the same time it would be strange to overlook the potential of Nigeria as an economic power. Nigeria has the capacity to produce 2 million barrels of oil a day, and it has proven reserves of 25 billion barrels. The potential loss in trade should the conditions in Nigeria still further deteriorate is substantial. It is significant to note that when the strikes took place in August last year Shell lost an estimated 400,000 barrels per day.

What should be done? First, the European Union moratorium on aid to the Nigerian military regime is to be welcomed. But why then have the British Government been so intent on honouring all the arms contracts signed before December 1993, including the supply of 80 main battle tanks? By contrast, what plans do the Government have for increasing and targeting humanitarian aid to those in need through non-governmental channels? The Nigerian Government still enjoy dialogue with western governments and international institutions. Our diplomatic representatives are still based in Nigeria, and Nigerian representatives are still based here. While I certainly recognise the force of the argument made both by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, with all his great experience, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in his interesting speech delivered so soon after his recent meeting with leaders in Lagos, I wonder whether the continuation of full-blooded arrangements does not serve to legitimise the current dictatorship. While keeping channels for dialogue open, is there not a case for the international community to denounce the military regime for what it is and to distance itself by appropriate political and diplomatic measures?

I understand the Abacha regime was supposed to reconvene a constitutional conference yesterday. Can the Minister enlighten us about whether that happened and whether any progress was made? Is there indeed any hope of civilian rule by January 1996, as—the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, reminded us of this point—some of those involved in the constitutional conference have been demanding?

We on this side of the House welcome the Government's support in principle for the conference; but that must surely go beyond the offer of books and documents. Are there no economic carrots and sticks which the Minister and her colleagues are prepared to bring to bear? As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has indicated, some key players in Nigeria are calling for an embargo on Nigerian oil as a means of pressuring the military regime into initiating new elections. Where do the British Government stand on that?

Nigeria is still a member of the Commonwealth and clearly values the political influence associated with that. Is there not therefore a proactive role for the Commonwealth? There has been some talk of a Commonwealth "good offices" mission to persuade the military regime to stand down. Would the British Government support that? Indeed, might there not well be a case for insisting that a positive feedback on such a visit should be a prerequisite for Nigeria's attendance at the December Commonwealth Summit?

7 Mar 1995 : Column 201

If we aspire to remain a permanent member of the Security Council, we must demonstrate the resolve that entitles us to such a position. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said, we cannot stand idly by. The Government will therefore have our full support in firm action. If all the words of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary about the importance of pre-emptive diplomacy in Africa are to prove more than empty rhetoric, now is the time to act.

In Rwanda, together with our Security Council partners, the United Kingdom failed to take the action which we should have taken. Nobody suggests that all the genocide could have been prevented; but many of those in the front line are convinced that with more determined action, there would have been many more thousands of people still alive today. Such events must not be allowed to happen in Nigeria.

8.21 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend Lord Torrington on his timely Question and all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I am particularly keen to heed the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, to be measured in all our words. Those of us who rightly love Africa, although not born there, know how quickly words misapplied can be not only misunderstood, but blown up into quite remarkable stories and rumours. Much as I love Nigeria, and I always shall, I have been misquoted many times before in Nigeria when saying relatively innocuous things. I believe that if one is to help Nigeria, then one must be honest. But sometimes some of that honesty has to take place in private otherwise it will be misinterpreted.

The speeches tonight underline the importance of Britain's long-term interests in Nigeria and the close attention that we pay, day by day and week by week, to each and every development there. Britain's interests in Nigeria are many and varied. They include trade, investment, Nigeria's political importance as the most populous state in Africa, the leading role Nigeria has played in international peacekeeping and efforts to promote peace in regional conflicts; the important human and educational exchanges between Britain and Nigeria, and our shared history and culture. Let us never forget those important things. In sum, Britain strongly desires to see a united, prosperous Nigeria, capable of playing a strong role in Africa and in the larger world.

Her Majesty's Government remain intensely interested in events in Nigeria, but deeply concerned about the lack of progress towards democracy, and about the lack of respect for human rights. There is no loss of goodwill. Britain is a friend of Nigeria. But, sadly, Nigeria is not fulfilling her potential. Nigeria should be leading the search for solutions to Africa's problems, not adding to them. Nigeria is in danger of being left behind, as one of the few Commonwealth countries still ruled by a military government in the 1990s.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 202

There is an urgent need to set the country back on the path towards accountable civilian government. We have continued to make this clear to the Nigerian Government at the highest level, since the disruption of the democratic process in June 1993. Only a few hours after the removal of the civilian Interim National Government, in November 1993, we made clear that we regard the return of military government to Nigeria as a step backwards. That remains our firm view, and that of all our partners. We have read press reports here and in Nigeria about arrests of army officers. That emphasises the urgent need for a peaceful transition to democratic civilian rule.

Since the 1993 political crisis, we have been very careful not to be prescriptive in our approach to Nigeria. We have not pressed for the adoption of the Westminster, or any other democratic model, nor have we offered to devise or broker political solutions to Nigeria's problems. Nigeria must decide its own future. But accountable, democratic government is essential for political, economic and social progress in Nigeria, as so many of your Lordships have said. That is our main objective.

We seek therefore signs of movement towards an agreed timetable for an early transition to civilian rule. I was encouraged by the declaration in December by the National Constitutional Conference that the military should hand over to civilian rule on 1st January 1996. This declaration did not have the status of a final conference recommendation, and nor are its recommendations binding on the Nigerian administration. I note that the conference itself resumed yesterday. I believe that that answers the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. We hope that it will conclude its work soon. We strongly urge the Nigerian Government to respond positively to the work of the National Constitutional Conference and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, we hope that implementation of the recommendations is not far off. We want to see work for a transfer to civilian rule in the shortest time practicable. I noted what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, but I hope that all speed will be made because the Nigerian people are waiting most anxiously.

My noble friend Lord Torrington described the depressing situation over human rights. Her Majesty's Government and the European Union deplore the repressive decrees promulgated in 1994. They proscribed press freedoms, strengthened powers to detain without trial, and withdrew habeas corpus.

We have urged the release or fair trial of all those arbitrarily detained. We have appealed for travel restrictions to be lifted on those whose passports have been seized. Such repressive acts contradict the Nigerian Government's declared commitment to make early progress towards democratic civilian government, and damage the reputation of what was formerly one of Africa's proudest bastions of judicial independence and integrity.

All members of the European Union have consistently made their views on human rights known to the Nigerian Government. Nigeria is failing to live up to its human rights obligations. Nigeria has aspirations to the highest standards and is party to many international

7 Mar 1995 : Column 203

human rights instruments. We deplore all human rights abuses and shall continue to raise specific cases with the Nigerian Government.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked about the debates in Geneva. It is the European Union that has tabled a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights which will be debated tomorrow. It is an expression of concern by all members of the European Union about human rights in Nigeria. We look to the Nigerian Government to commit themselves to specific improvements on human rights. We hope that that will happen.

My noble friend Lord Torrington and others spoke of the plight of Chief Abiola. We note the appeals for direct support for his claim to the presidency. But, with partners, we have condemned his arrest last June. The solution is for Nigerians to determine. Our EU role is to support the process of a return to democratic civilian rule. We hope that the talks going on between the Nigerian Government and Chief Abiola's supporters will lead to an early solution.

However, we deeply regret the long detention endured by Chief Abiola. We were encouraged by the decision in November of the Kaduna Appeal Court to grant him bail, but dismayed that he was not immediately released. We are concerned at reports that he has been ill-treated, and has been unwell. Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, we appeal to the Nigerian authorities to ensure that Chief Abiola has continuing access to proper medical attention. The detention of Chief Abiola cannot help to heal the political divisions in Nigeria, or aid progress towards a return to democratic civilian rule. We hope that Nigeria's leaders will have the courage and vision to release him soon, as my noble friend Lord Torrington said.

My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gwydir talked about the prospects for the Nigerian economy. Nigerian inflation is around 100 per cent. It has high unemployment, a budget deficit of 10 per cent. of GDP last year, and high external debt. But this January's budget signalled a positive change of direction. We welcomed the positive reforms it contained, particularly on the exchange rate, as many noble Lords have said. We hope that the deregulatory approach signalled by the budget is put into effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, the economy supports the fabric of Nigeria in its recovery. That is vital. It is essential that investor and manufacturing confidence is restored because, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, only a viable economy can stabilise Nigeria.

We welcome the declaration in the January budget that Nigeria would seek to restart an economic dialogue with the international financial institutions. We hope that Nigeria will be able to reach agreement on a medium-term economic programme this year. We continue to support Nigeria's case for debt relief in principle on the most concessionary terms available. But we, and Nigeria's other creditors in the Paris Club, will look first to see an agreement with the IMF, and a much improved payment of arrears, before debt relief can be considered. That may be the sort of carrot for which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is looking.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 204

Trade with, and investment in, Nigeria is vital. Indeed, all our commercial relations are vital, and Nigeria remains Britain's second largest export market in Africa by far, with exports worth around £480 million in 1994. British companies hold investments in Nigeria worth over £500 million. We have key economic interests there, and a thriving two-way trade is the best way to help Nigeria to prosper. But that will take off again only when there is civilian democratic rule.

The noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Avebury, both asked about aid. Perhaps I may advise them briefly that, although we had to stop aid to Nigeria, we have managed to maintain (through the deployment of NGOs) new and relevant aid programmes. We have certainly responded with programmes in health, water, education and the natural resources sectors. I look forward to the day when we can normalise our aid relations, but I cannot do so until Nigeria has demonstrated a commitment to the restoration of democracy.

The European Union measures against Nigeria were in response to the annulment of the 1993 election, and the later return to power of military government. We suspended military co-operation and high-level visits; restricted visas for members of the military and their dependants; reviewed all new export licence applications for defence equipment with the presumption of denial, and reviewed all new aid projects on a case-by-case basis. It was the European Union which agreed that all measures should remain in force. They will be reviewed only in the light of clear progress towards a return to civilian rule.

I am sometimes asked to consider the imposition of additional measures or sanctions. We do not rule it out. To date we have resisted appeals for wider sanctions on the grounds that we have no wish to harm the interests or the livelihoods of the ordinary people of Nigeria. They would be the first to suffer from an oil embargo or trade sanctions. By contrast, our current measures remind the Nigerian military that it is responsible for the disruption to the democratic process. I hope that we shall soon see progress towards democracy and a resumption of co-operation in every sphere.

The Commonwealth is trying to help in Nigeria and I hope that long before the next Heads of Government meeting, in Auckland in November, General Abacha will have announced a firm timetable for the military's return to barracks.

In conclusion, Her Majesty's Government are deeply engaged over Nigeria. We owe it to the forces of democracy in Nigeria to keep up the pressure. Despite the suspension of high-level ministerial visits, we continue to talk and I have consulted a wide range of political and traditional rulers, as they visit London.

The vitality, spirit and intelligence of the Nigerian people will not be suppressed. I have confidence that Nigeria will find a way forward, but it is essential that that happens soon. I think that one of the lessons of this era in history is that nations cannot stand still. To do so is to invite competitors to attract the investment, the trade and the political interest. Nigeria cannot afford another wasted year. But there is no loss of goodwill.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 205

Britain is a friend of Nigeria. Nigeria's friends know that she needs accountable government as soon as possible—and certainly in 1996.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page