– in the House of Commons at 12:29 pm on 18th December 1996.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill , Streatham 12:29 pm, 18th December 1996

I thank the Minister for agreeing to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), who has a long record of support for the Nigerian democratic movement, with especially close links to the Nigerian Organisation for Democracy with Integrity. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), who has led Labour's campaign against the Nigerian military dictatorship.

Three and a half years ago, on Saturday 12 June 1993, in a jungle clearing south of Benin City, I observed the people of the township of Nikrogha voting in the Nigerian presidential election. Voting was orderly and conducted in a spirit of optimism, and procedures were entirely correct. On the same day, 14 million other Nigerians voted. The turnout was variable, but, as hundreds of international observers and thousands of Nigerian election monitors universally reported, the vote was free and fair.

Chief Moshood Abiola was the unquestionable democratic winner, with majorities across all regions—a genuinely unifying and national mandate for his presidency. We are all familiar with the sequence of events that followed: the annulment of the elections by the then military dictator, Babangida, to nationwide protests; and the assumption of power shortly afterwards by the current military dictator, Abacha, who proceeded to ban political parties, dismantle the existing democratic structures—including state and federal legislatures—and replace civilian state governors with military administrators.

Resistance to the military regime continued. In May 1994, the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, was created. Soon afterwards, the national assembly reconvened to declare the Abacha Government illegal. In June 1994, Abiola returned to claim his presidency. His arrest on 23 June provoked nationwide strikes led by petroleum workers. In associated demonstrations, hundreds of people were gunned down. Abiola and Frank Ovie Kokori, the leader of the petroleum workers, have remained in detention since 1994.

Bizarrely, even the so-called constitutional conference, set up by Abacha to implement his transition programme and largely appointed by the military, voted in December to end military rule by 1 January 1996, a recommendation that was subsequently reversed after the arrest of the originator of the proposal, Shehu Musa Yar'adua. Wherever and whenever they have had the opportunity, Nigerians have always chosen the path of democracy. It is our duty as democrats to support them in that demand.

Just over a year ago, the world was horrified by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders in an act described by our Prime Minister as judicial murder. Nineteen Ogonis remain on trial for murder in connection with the same facts and before the same so-called civil disturbances special tribunal that convicted Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants. That execution is the most extreme and best-known example of the military regime's open contempt for human rights.

The authorities in Nigeria continue to resort to arbitrary detention of prisoners of conscience, ignoring court orders whenever it suits them. Political prisoners continue to face the prospect of unfair trials by special tribunals with the power to impose the death sentence. Detainees continue to be denied access to lawyers, families and essential medical treatment. There are continuing allegations of extra-judicial executions by Nigerian law enforcement officials.

In June and July 1995, former Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Musa Yar'adua, and 41 other individuals were tried in secret before a military tribunal on charges of plotting a coup against the military Government. They were denied legal representation of their choice, and there was no appeal procedure. Many Nigerians believe that the charges were simply a device to remove military officers and others who posed a threat Abacha's hold on power.

Also swept up in the charges were Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, and four journalists—Christine Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, George Mbah, and Ben Charles Obi—whose guilt consisted solely of publishing articles commenting on the trial. Amnesty International believes that all the so-called coup plotters are prisoners of conscience.

There is a strong suspicion that the regime is resorting to political assassination to supplement its manipulation of the judicial system. In October 1995, Pa Alfred Rewane, a major supporter of the National Democratic Coalition, was shot dead in Lagos in a hail of bullets. In early 1996, Alex Ibru, publisher of the liberal newspaper The Guardian, was the subject of an attempted assassination.

On 4 June 1996, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, senior wife of Chief Abiola and the principal campaigner on her husband's behalf, was murdered in Lagos, in circumstances that have led many to fear that her assassination may have been carried out by Government agents, acting with or without the knowledge of the central authorities. The Government have failed to initiate an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation of her killing.

Apologists for the regime sometimes claim that dissidence is not widespread in Nigeria, and that there is little evidence of internal dissent. It has been aptly remarked that, if dissent is limited, it is the silence of the graveyard. Meanwhile, the Abacha regime has announced its own leisurely programme of transition to democracy, designed to culminate in the swearing in of a newly elected president on 1 October 1998. The programme bears an uncanny resemblance to the abortive Babangida transition programme, and has already been marked by a travesty of local government elections earlier this year and a process of party formation in which none of the parties have managed to meet the Government guidelines.

We cannot leave the transition to democracy in the hands of the military junta. The regime has no democratic legitimacy, and the transition to democracy can have no credibility unless it is carried out in a climate of genuine democratic participation and observation of human rights.

The demands on the regime are clear: the release of all political prisoners and credible guarantees that free and fair elections will go ahead as soon as possible, and well before the proposed date of 1998. It is equally clear that exhortation alone will not persuade the generals. The international community will have to ratchet up its pressure on the Nigerian regime to secure those objectives. That will mean readiness to deploy sanctions beyond those already applied in the aftermath of the Ken Saro-Wiwa execution last November.

The extra sanctions have been well ventilated and were recommended for consideration by the United Stares, the European Union and the Commonwealth by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group after its second meeting in April this year. It recommended a ban on air links and additional economic measures, including the freezing of the financial assets and bank accounts in foreign countries of members of the regime and their families. They have been backed by members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, such as New Zealand and Jamaica, and have been unilaterally imposed by Canada. The virtue of those measures is that they target members of the regime and the elites that sustain it, without increasing the suffering of the population in general.

Britain's historic and cultural links with Nigeria, not least our key role in its economy, make it natural that we should take the lead in renewed international pressure against the regime. The British Government must use their status as the foremost partner in the Commonwealth to co-ordinate a clear and consistent strategy against Abacha and his cohorts. We have the machinery in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, of which we are a member, to enable us to act now.

There is widespread suspicion that Britain has so far exerted its influence to retard effective international action against the generals. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that is not so. In any case, we do not have long to wait for the election of a Labour Government, who will be whole-heartedly committed to the restoration of human rights and democracy in Nigeria.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood 12:40 pm, 18th December 1996

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) for allowing me a few moments to intervene.

We are both sponsors of the Nigerian Organisation for Democracy with Integrity, which is based in the United Kingdom. It is not the only organisation in Britain, the United States or in other countries outside Nigeria that is campaigning vigorously for the restoration of respect for human rights and public integrity in that country, hope that the Nigerian authorities are aware of the depth of feeling about conditions in that country, not just among Nigerians in that country but among those abroad and their friends and allies, among whom I hope that we can number everyone in the House today.

It is a tragedy that Nigeria should be saddled with a dictatorship, violence and corruption, not least because of its great natural resources of oil and in agriculture. The natural appetite of its people for education means that they are well adapted to move forward in the world, so it is also a tragedy that a country that should be leading Africa is so far down the league and kept there by the corruption of its current leaders and their dictatorial system.

In common with my hon. Friend, I ask for an announcement from the Government to the effect that further pressure will be applied by the international community, not least by the Commonwealth, to encourage a return to civilian rule and the restoration of respect for human rights and public integrity. The truth is that democracy will not work successfully in Nigeria unless its society is free of corruption and respects public institutions and the rights of its ordinary people.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the time has come to intensify those pressures. One of the most dramatic reasons for that, although not the only one, was supplied to me in a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department about constituents, in which he spoke of concerns about the lack of progress towards civilian democratic rule for Nigeria, and the human rights record there, including the appalling executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a minority rights activist, and eight of his associates following a flawed judicial process. Those are not my words, but those of a Home Office Minister, yet nothing has been done to redeem the situation created by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogonis. No apology has been forthcoming. Nineteen other members of the Ogoni tribe have been kept in detention without trial since 1994. When one recalls what happened to Ken Saro-Wiwa, perhaps we should not press for those people to be brought to trial. We should, however, argue that those people, who have been kept imprisoned without trial for two years and have not been subject to any proper judicial process, should be released.

The second reason for intensifying our pressure on Nigeria is General Abacha's attitude. Although he says that he wants a transition to civilian rule and wants to encourage the creation of political parties, they are nothing more than sweetheart parties, because the only effective opposition there is the Nigerian Democratic Coalition—NADECO. When its representatives campaign, however, their offices are raided, they are arrested, and they are not allowed to participate in elections.

As my hon. Friend said, political assassinations continue, and I can add to his list the death of Dr. Shola Adeshola, who was recently killed by a car bomb when driving. That bomb was believed to be intended for his brother, who is a leading member of NADECO in Nigeria.

No political prisoners have been released, and the 2,000 Ogoni people who were dispersed from the River State have not been encouraged to return to it. The wasteland created as a result of oil exploitation has not benefited from any major environmental rehabilitation. The only plan seems to be to try to civilianise the dictatorship rather than return Nigeria to a democracy.

The time has come for the international community to apply more pressure and to turn the screw. Nigeria is tragically falling behind because of the regime that has been allowed to continue there. We have many Nigerian friends in this country, and we hope to hear the Minister announce plans to intensify pressure to ensure that the restoration of respect for human rights and democracy will at long last come about.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 12:46 pm, 18th December 1996

I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) on obtaining the debate, and I welcome the fact that he chose such an important topic. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) not only for his contribution, but for his extreme courtesy in getting his timing so impeccably correct.

I should like to start by discussing the actions of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which, if the House will forgive me, I will refer to as CMAG for the rest of the debate.

The group's representatives visited Nigeria on 18 to 20 November to continue their assessment of Nigeria's adherence to the Harare principles of good governance, as mandated by the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland last year. I remind the House exactly of the Harare principles, which place particular emphasis on the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth"— which are defined as democracy; democratic processes and institutions; the rule of law and the independence of judiciary; just and honest government; and fundamental human rights. The hon. Members spoke about all those issues.

My right hon. Friend Baroness Chalker represented the United Kingdom at that meeting, and, far from retarding progress on those issues, she has been an important member of the group, and represents the Government and the country in pushing the process forward. I know that her commitment to reform in Nigeria is without doubt.

Sadly, the Canadian delegation was unable to participate in the visit, as Nigeria refused to issue visas to two security officers who were due to travel with the Canadian Minister. That is indicative of the sort of problem that we still face in our current negotiations.

I should also report that the Nigerians pressed once again, not surprisingly, for Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth to be rescinded; for CMAG to support the transitional programme; for all sanctions to be lifted; and for the resumption of high-level dialogue. There are quite a few conditions that must be met before that can be achieved.

In addition to the Nigerian delegation, CMAG met representatives of the National Electoral Commission and the transitional committees, as well as the leaders of the five recently registered political parties, traditional rulers and the chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission. The group also had an audience with General Abacha, but was not able to see Chief Abiola, General Obasanjo or any other political prisoners. Baroness Chalker met representatives of the human rights and pro-democracy groups in the margins of the visit.

I am pleased to report that the Nigerians released three high-profile political prisoners during the visit: Femi Falana, Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Aborishade. Like CMAG, I welcome their release, but I want to make it clear to the House that is not nearly enough. The group pressed for the prompt restoration of accountable civilian government; the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Chief Abiola; the rapid resolution of the case of the 19 Ogonis who face the same charges as Ken Saro-Wiwa and his associates; and a review of prison conditions. All those conditions must be met.

The Nigerians were questioned in detail about the implementation of the transition timetable, including the delay in promulgating the draft constitution and the opportunities for unregistered parties to participate in the process, which we regard as an important, not a nominal, part of any proper democratic process. In addition, they were questioned about the mechanisms for conducting the local elections that are scheduled to take place this month.

The Nigerians assured the group that the transition was on track, although they said, in their terms, that they did not believe that it was logistically possible to conduct the local elections this month. If there are logistical reasons for their not being carried out this month, we hope that they are carried out as soon as is practicably possible, because it is not acceptable for logistics to be given as a reason for a delay in implementing proper democratic reforms.

The majority of those to whom CMAG spoke, both those in the Government and others, expressed confidence in the transition process. The group was also informed that most of the politicians whose associations had not registered in September had now joined one of the five registered parties.

The group also expressed its deep concern about the lack of respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and the use of rule by decree, which concentrates power in the hands of the regime. The group requested clarification on several decrees that impinged on fundamental rights. Not surprisingly, the Nigerian side responded only that rule by decree was not unusual in military regimes. That practice must change.

CMAG made it clear to the Nigerian authorities that it expects the Ogoni Nineteen to be released or brought before a properly constituted court that respects the basic legal rights of the defendant. It also pointed out that any further trials by the same tribunal that tried Ken Saro-Wiwa would provoke a strong international reaction. The group also called again for the Nigerians to receive and to co-operate fully with the visit by the two United Nations Commission on Human Rights thematic rapporteurs.

The hon. Member for Streatham mentioned Amnesty International's recent report. The Government welcome that report and the 10-point programme for human rights reform in Nigeria. Those useful documents were circulated to all members of CMAG before the visit. The group handed a copy of both documents to the Nigerians in Abuja for their urgent attention and, more important, for their response, which we await with interest.

What will be the next steps? CMAG will meet again in the new year to consider the material it received during the visit, and to agree on next steps in preparation for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh next October. We hope that that meeting will also hear submissions from key Nigerian opposition groups in exile and relevant international non-governmental organisations.

We shall be working towards a fair assessment that reflects the wide range of views that CMAG has heard since it began its assessment last December. It is too early to comment on CMAG's recommendations for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next year, but it is clear that Nigeria is still in breach of the principles set out in the Harare declaration, and Nigeria's suspension will have to be considered in that context.

I am pleased to inform the House that the United Kingdom co-sponsored another critical resolution that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 12 December. The resolution criticises Nigeria's human rights record, and calls on it to implement all the recommendations contained the UN fact-finding mission's report.

The resolution also recognises the important work being done by CMAG, and calls for continued co-operation between the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Such co-operation is an issue that is and should be important to the entire international community. The greater the level of co-operation between the UN, CMAG, the European Union and individual Governments, the better. The European Union has rolled over its common position on Nigeria, which means that all EU measures introduced at the end of last year remain firmly in place.

All those decisions combine to send a clear message to the Nigerians that the international community remains resolved and is working together to keep up the pressure on Abacha and his regime to restore human rights and democracy.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about where we go from here, and I should like to take those one by one. First, there is the question of further Commonwealth sanctions. The Commonwealth has already taken the significant step of suspending Nigeria's membership of the association. No other organisation has taken that step, so it is important in itself.

CMAG's mandate is to assess Nigeria's adherence to the Harare principles and to make recommendations to the Commonwealth Heads of Government—CMAG is not a sanction-making body. The April package of measures remains on the table, and CMAG has not yet recommended its implementation to the Heads of Government, but we await any decision on that.

The United Kingdom, together with the European Union, has had measures in place since July 1993, and they were reinforced by adoption measures by means of EU common positions on 20 November 1995 and 4 December 1995. Our aim is to identify carefully targeted measures that will be effective and send a clear signal of our concerns to the regime without wrecking the Nigerian economy, and without imposing any more hardship on its 100 million people than is required to achieve our political objectives.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill , Streatham

indicated assent.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I see the hon. Gentleman nodding—he understands that it is most difficult to achieve the right balance when any form of sanction is being used to try to achieve political ends.

The full list of EU measures is now suspension of non-essential high-level visits in both directions; suspension of military training; an EU-wide arms ban; visa restrictions; the suspension of development co-operation except for projects in support of human rights and democracy and those concentrating on poverty alleviation; the withdrawal of all military personnel attached to diplomatic representations of EU member states in Nigeria and the expulsion of military personnel attached to Nigerian diplomatic representations in member states; and an interruption of sporting contacts through the denial of visas for official delegations and national teams.

We have noted calls for further economic sanctions, including the severing of trade links, an oil embargo and an assets freeze. In our view, those would require a UN Security Council resolution to be effective, and an oil embargo would, in addition, have to be implemented through a naval blockade. We judge such sanctions to be, in practice, unachievable at present.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an air links ban, but, again, we believe that that would be effective only if applied unanimously by the whole international community. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK is not prepared to support an air links ban unless it is supported by all its European and Commonwealth partners.

The issue of defence exports is often raised. On 11 November 1995, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a full UK arms embargo against the Nigerian military, and on 20 November the European Union adopted a common position that extended measures in force since June 1993 to include a full EU-wide arms ban. The restrictions now in place include all military, security and paramilitary goods and arms, ammunition and related material. The rules do not distinguish between items intended for the military and those intended for the police; nor will any exception be allowed for international peacekeeping operations in which the Nigerians might be involved. Sometimes there is confusion on that last point.

I should like to speak on one subject that the hon. Gentleman did not mention—our position on aid and the UK aid programme. Development co-operation is suspended, except for projects in support of human rights and democracy and those concentrating on poverty alleviation.

The UK adheres strictly to the EU common position, being confined to projects bringing direct benefits to poor Nigerians in health, population, water, basic education and small-scale agriculture, using non-military channels such as non-government organisations. Our bilateral expenditure has inevitably dropped from £12 million in 1992–93 to £4.8 million in 1995–96, but it is starting to increase again this year as our new sector programmes develop.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Streatham for initiating the debate and giving me the chance to clarify some of the points that he raised. The Government take the issue extremely seriously. The present Conservative Government are fully committed to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and sustainable development for all the peoples of Nigeria.