I apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is attending the ministerial meeting in Singapore between the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the European Union.
My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development held discussions with the Nigerian authorities at the highest level, most recently during the Commonwealth ministerial action group visit in November. We remain extremely concerned about the human rights situation in Nigeria, and the lack of progress towards the restoration of democracy in that country.
My hon. Friend is right to be very cautious about any promises that come from the military regime. As he will know, Members of Parliament attended the presidential election as observers. It was clear that Chief Abiola won that election, and that the military regime simply discarded the result. Can my hon. Friend be certain that the regime's current assurances about restoring democracy are real, or are they merely illusory?
We continue to monitor progress with the transitional timetable. The local elections on a party basis, which are now due on 15 March, are the next important benchmark, and they must be free and fair.
The Minister will know that 19 Ogoni activists are still being held in prison, on charges similar to those applying to the nine who were executed in 1995 under a seriously flawed legal system. The prisoners are being held in appalling conditions, and it has been said that one has gone blind as a result. What do the British Government feel they can do to ensure that those people are released as soon as possible, and that human rights are restored in Nigeria?
I raised those points myself in a recent Adjournment debate. We have made representations about prison conditions. We have made it clear to the Nigerian authorities that we expect the Ogoni 19 to be released—or to be brought to a properly constituted court that respects human rights—and that any further trials by the tribunal that tried Ken Saro Wiwa would provoke an extremely serious international reaction.
Is the Minister making particular representations to the Nigerian authorities about the continued detention of General Obasanjo? Does he recognise that the general was the only president of Nigeria—the only military ruler, that is—who handed over to a democracy, and that since then he has played a distinguished part in providing democracy throughout the continent of Africa? His continued detention is an international outrage.
The detention of political prisoners in Nigeria is indeed a cause for international outrage in many cases, as the Commonwealth ministerial action group made extremely plain during its last visit. We will continue to make that clear on every occasion. It is one of the most obvious abuses of human rights that we looked at.
I entirely agree. We will take every opportunity to tell the Nigerian Government exactly what we expect from them. There must be a move towards proper democracy in that country: we cannot help it with aid projects and international finance if it does not respect human rights and basic democratic principles.
Does the Minister realise that, although I am sure that General Abacha took note of the recent Adjournment debate and the Minister's welcome comments, when the Commonwealth ministerial action group went to Nigeria, the fact that the Canadians were not part of the group gave a clear signal to General Abacha that little would come of that visit and that he used it for propaganda purposes? What tough action will we get from next week's CMAG meeting, and what signals will be given to Nigeria that the present lack of progress towards democracy is simply unacceptable?
CMAG does of course meet next week and it will make clear what we expect. At the meeting, we will demand the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Chief Abiola, the restoration of a democracy in which all can participate, the early resolution of the Ogoni 19 case, as I have already mentioned, and a review of prison conditions.