Orders of the Day — Sierra Leone

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 12th March 1998.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 9:09 pm, 12th March 1998

I am grateful for Madam Speaker's choice of tonight's subject on the Adjournment, which is the situation in Sierra Leone. I first sought a debate on the subject some weeks ago. It is of great encouragement to me that, since I first started seeking this opportunity, things have improved considerably in Sierra Leone. Although it is taking events in somewhat the wrong order, we meet tonight in the context of the liberation of Sierra Leone from its military junta and at the beginning of what I hope—like, I am sure, all colleagues in the House—will be a hugely positive and constructive new chapter, with a democratic Government installed, supported and made secure.

My first reflection is that, instead of having the debate that I feared we would have—one critical of a military regime and setting out the horrors that were inflicted a couple of weeks ago, in one of the poorest countries in the world—there is now a substantial shaft of light.

Secondly, I have used the opportunity of tonight's debate to gather together some people who know much more about events in Sierra Leone than I do. It is clear that the general view is that the British Government—especially the new Government—have signalled their intention to be a strong and renewed supporter of the Commonwealth. It is clear also that they have wanted to be helpful and supportive—supportive of the President in exile, supportive of our mission in exile with him and intensely keen to try to bring about a satisfactory resolution.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and his colleagues have the respect of the Sierra Leonean community, both there and here. I therefore hope, that we can all contribute constructively and positively to the debate, as I know the Minister personally and his colleagues have sought to do. I think that I am right in saying that the Minister has plans—he will probably tell us more formally—to go to Sierra Leone in the near future. That visit will be greatly welcomed.

My third introductory comment is that I come to the debate entirely ill equipped, in a way, to be introducing it. 1 love Africa greatly and I have been there relatively often, but I have never been to Sierra Leone. My interest does not spring from my experience of the country in either its peacetime or its wartime. It comes instead from friendships with and the interests of my constituents, who form part of the significant Sierra Leonean community in this country.

I do not know the accurate figures, but I have read that there are about 180,000 Sierra Leoneans here. Parliamentary colleagues from Hull, north London, including the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), and others, like me, represent significant numbers of people who have come from Sierra Leone. Many of them have been in this country for a long time in settled communities. Others have been here for a short time; those people have come because they could not stay at home.

One of the issues on which I shall touch is that, together with the Minister of State and his Department, there is a Home Office interest in the debate. Last year, as a result of the coup and the situation in Sierra Leone, the Home Office declared that Sierra Leone was a country whose nationals in this country would not in any circumstances be sent back, because it would be unsafe for them to return. I welcomed that decision. My constituents who are from Sierra Leone also welcomed it greatly.

Within days of the beginning of the restoration of democratic government, questions arose concerning when, how and in what way it would be appropriate to change that process. Clearly that is of great concern to Sierra Leoneans in This country.

Before I knew that Madam Speaker had selected this subject for debate, one of the first unsolicited letters that I received at the beginning of the new year was from an organisation that I had not heard of before. It may have written to other colleagues—certainly to Ministers. The letter was from a small group of people based in this country who call themselves the Movement for Peace in Sierra Leone. I shall read the beginning of the letter, as it sets the scene for the situation in Sierra Leone at the turn of the year: I am writing to you about the lack of public awareness of the deteriorating events in Sierra Leone and the distressing plight of its refugees as a result of a prolonged seven year civil war culminating in the recent military coup of 25 May 1997.Words are extremely difficult to find to describe the carnage which has resulted from this military coup. Sierra Leone now lies in ruins and is ungovernable. With a population of 4.5 million of which 150,000 or more have been killed in the civil war: the exodus of Sierra Leoneans to the relative safety of neighbouring countries has reached epic proportions, estimated at around 750,000. This has created a humanitarian crisis along the west coast of Africa and beyond and the litany of suffering, destitution and degradation encountered by Sierra Leonean refugees would bring tears to your eyes…we were impelled to do something on their behalf. The organisation was impelled to write to colleagues and to me.

That message at the beginning of the year made me think that I should do something. I know that such a thought has always been in the mind of Government, and in the minds of colleagues, many of whom have asked questions in the House and in the other place.

Those who do not represent Sierra Leone or who have not worked or lived there, or who have not been involved directly with the agencies or previous missions to Sierra Leone, may wonder whether this is a big issue on the world stage, because we have not heard about it in the same way as we have heard of Rwanda and Burundi—we have not had pictures on our news in the same way—but occasionally the tragedies of the lack of a democracy in such countries impact here.

Colleagues and others who later read or hear our debates may remember a true-life story which was reported in this country: that of a little girl from Makeni, north of Freetown, who came to this country from a children's home, where she could not get the treatment she needed after a bullet was shot into her head, between her eye and her brain. She came here, to Norwich hospital, two years ago, for her life to be saved. Tenneh Cole, "the girl with the bullet in her head", encapsulated for a moment the tragedies that occur when the democratic structure of countries such as Sierra Leone is completely overturned. Only weeks ago, it was reported that everybody from the home from which that little girl came had gone missing. It had been looted and it was not known whether any of the children were alive or dead. Mercifully, later reports confirmed that the children had escaped into the bush.

We are talking about a country that has been ripped apart and ravaged, where the most indescribable things have happened to the most vulnerable in the most vulnerable of places. The least we can do is reflect on that and get the maximum agreement and support from the Government to bring help, succour and consolation.

I shall not spend a long time tracing the history of what has happened; nor will I spend long getting involved in the debate—although it has merit—about how the forces of liberation came to the rescue in recent days. I shall do that summarily.

After the military coup, attempts were made by the EU, within the United Nations and by Governments in west Africa, to bring about, by means of sanctions, diplomacy and so on, a peaceful resolution and an end to the military regime. That did not succeed; therefore, ECOMOG—the military observer group of the Economic Community of West African States—intervened.

I think that it is widely accepted that, technically, ECOMOG intervened outside the remit of the United Nations. That is not something that we would usually sanction, and I am not seeking to do so now. All I can say to the Minister, as I am sure he has been told, is that the first response in Sierra Leone was that the Nigerian-led troops were welcome. They have allowed the President to return. Whatever we may think about the regime in Nigeria, and whatever we may wish for that country, it would be wrong to be distracted tonight by those issues when, thank God, things have moved on and that intervention has taken place.

The implications of the way in which the President has been allowed to return, and the deputy commissioner and now our high commissioner have gone back, are matters for us. There are two sorts of issue which I hope will concern the House. I shall illustrate those, ask a few questions and leave the House with a few reflections which have been picked up from Sierra Leonean citizens who have lived and worked there and which they have been good enough to share with me.

There are two principal areas in which we can assist, and I speak to the Minister as he is wearing both his British Government hat and his European Union presidency hat, which he has for six months. First, we need to consolidate, bolster and secure democracy, civil liberty and the rule of law in Sierra Leone. Since independence, it has had two military regimes and it does not want any more. It wants to continue in a democratic tradition. Therefore, we must go about building that democracy.

It emerged clearly from a meeting that we had not many minutes ago that local government is one of the respects in which Britain may be able to help. I have a practical example which relates well to other experiences that I have had in other African countries.

If, for example, one is seeking to distribute aid or organise other matters locally, it is far more likely that an elected local government structure, rather than appointed or self-appointed local organisations, will have the confidence of the people. If we are seeking to build a regime of security, supporting the Government and people of Sierra Leone, there are various ways in which to proceed.

We need to give support to the United Nations to regularise the position of any external forces which may remain in the country. It is important that what has happened is put right, made legitimate and then made secure within a United Nations context.

It is clear that, if people feel insecure, there cannot be a democratic regime and the fair chance of a beginning of prosperity. Most important, the country's borders and, in particular, its border with Liberia, must be secure. The frontiers must be known to be secure and there must be protection against the risks that many believe triggered the initial civil war—the spilling over into Sierra Leone of issues that originated in Liberia. External and internal security go together. If one is not secure, both may fail.

We must ensure that human, political and civil rights, as well as economic and social rights, are looked after. In a study on wealth carried out about 10 years ago, Sierra Leone came 186th out of 186 or 187 in the world league table. One destabilising factor, which is more tragic when it occurs in a poor country, is the great injustice that remains between the affluent and the poor. Economic injustice results in economic and social imbalance, which detracts from a stable political, civil and social community.

As we think about how we can proceed in terms of securing a political and democratic regime, I want to make a specific suggestion. Given that the Commonwealth secretariat is based in this country, as soon as is practicable in Sierra Leone an organisation such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could seek to facilitate a constitutional and civic discussion so that the ideas of people of experience who remain in Sierra Leone or have been exiled can be taken into account and used in the rebuilding process. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has done good work in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, so perhaps it, as well as other organisations, could be used.

Secondly, practical assistance is desperately needed to build up a country that is on its knees. I refer to humanitarian aid in the first place, but a reconstruction programme is also needed. Earlier today, I was listening to friends and colleagues in a Committee Room speak of their experiences. If I were a Sierra Leonean, I would want the world to help with a sort of Marshall plan for my country. That is the level of investment and commitment that is needed. A country of 4.5 million people is not an insignificant one to rebuild.

Sierra Leone has one or two crucial industries. If it is to have a diamond industry that produces wealth for all, not just for the few, it must be incorporated into a reconstruction programme. In many areas, agriculture has been devastated and the infrastructure is non-existent. Although it is a small country, there have been repeated pleas for a decent rail system. Pleas are heard in all countries, but they are all the more crucial in a country that has suffered both civil war and then a repressive and cruel regime. Hardware is needed to allow agriculture to take off quickly. The land for growing rice exists, but without tractors and tools, the rice cannot be grown, so people are not as self-sufficient as they would like to be.

I hope that the Government will draw up a list of the practical humanitarian measures that they can take and co-ordinate a response. It would be helpful if the Minister will not just say that the United Kingdom Government will continue to respond and be keen to help, but mobilise our colleagues in the European Union and the Commonwealth to respond appropriately, too. If this Parliament has noticed how unsatisfactory and oppressive the regimes in Sierra Leone and Nigeria have been, we must respond with speedy action when the chance comes for those regimes to end.

Measures are needed that go beyond the immediate and short terms. In response to what our Sierra Leonean partners tell us, we could help to co-ordinate training, support and back-up for their education and teaching, judicial and local government systems. "Training" is one of the words I hear most when people are asked what is needed in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leonean voluntary sector organisations, some based in this country and some based in Sierra Leone, already have the appropriate people who are willing and able to work, and they should be supported. People from Sierra Leone who are based in Britain need help to enable them to go back and contribute to the rebuilding of their country, because they face complicated problems. The Government must consider also how they can respond sensitively and appropriately to the problems of those who are so unsettled, upset, physically hurt and bereaved that they are not ready or able to go back home in the near future.

All I can do is hint at the enormity of the task facing us. Britain was the colonial power, and since 1961 has been regarded as the principal non-African friend of Sierra Leone. If ever there was a time for us to do our post-colonial duty, it is now; if ever there was a time for the Government to respond generously and win the sympathy and support of all hon. Members, it is now.

On behalf of a community that has suffered far more than any community has ever deserved to suffer, I say to the Minister that there is an opportunity to rebuild. The President and the Government want to get on with the job, and the people of Sierra Leone are looking to us to respond. I hope that tonight's debate shows that we are ready to listen, and to respond most generously.