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Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2006

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of debt relief granted by the UK on the Nigerian Government’s expenditure on welfare programmes. (107816)

The Nigerian debt relief deal has released $1 billion a year for the country to spend on reducing poverty. A virtual poverty fund has been established to track the expenditure of these debt relief savings. Some 145,000 teachers have been retrained, and the recruitment of 40,000 new teachers, the construction of clinics and roads, and the creation of bore holes is now under way.

I welcome that, but given the wide range of challenges still faced by the Nigerian Government, such as the fact that 7 million children receive no schooling and one in five dies before the age of five, what assurances has my right hon. Friend been given that the Nigerian Government are using the financial flexibility that debt relief has provided to ensure that the key issues of health and education are tackled head-on?

Britain worked very hard to achieve this debt deal, which the Nigerian Government wanted—indeed, we played a leading role—and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that the benefits should be felt by the people of Nigeria. That is why I welcome the establishment of the virtual poverty fund, which is overseen in part by non-governmental organisations in Nigeria. They recognise the progress that the Nigerian Government are making, but my hon. Friend is right—Nigeria is home to 20 per cent. of the children in Africa who are out of school, and 20 per cent. of the poor people of the sub-Saharan continent of Africa. There is a long, long way to go before their lives begin to change for the better.

Given our support for debt relief and our positive development aid for Nigeria—I greatly welcome that, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on all he is doing—will he bring his influence to bear to ensure that next year’s presidential elections are not cancelled by the existing President, as is being threatened, and that they do take place, so that good governance and welfare support for the people of Nigeria can continue?

I am very happy to give that assurance. We are already providing some financial support to help civil society organisations prepare for the elections, monitor registration, encourage greater participation by women and provide technical assistance. This is a very important test of the very young democracy in Nigeria. Will the elections be perfect? I doubt it, but they need to take place because they will, in themselves, represent progress, and the huge population of Nigeria want the chance to express a view on how they will be governed in future. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that those elections take place.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that the Department for International Development is doing in Nigeria. My all-party group has recently returned from a visit to a village just outside Abuja, where school roofs are being re-done. DFID is supplying equipment for those schools and I congratulate him on that, but can he use his offices to put some pressure on the elected representatives of such areas, so that they realise that they have to become accountable to the people whom they represent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sending me a letter about that visit, and I look forward to meeting him and those of his colleagues who travelled with him to Nigeria to hear at first hand about their experiences. I also pay tribute to the interest that he takes in Nigeria and its future. It is very important that we do that, which is why our work in the south of the country—in the delta states—includes a programme that we launched this year to support better Government accountability. The delta states get higher income per head in recognition of their oil wealth, but the really big issue in Nigeria is indeed the one that my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention to: accountability. That is why the elections matter and why enabling people to have their voice heard matters. That is the best way for the country to resolve its problems, to get more children into school and to reduce the number who die needlessly.

The Opposition remain supportive of the Paris Club’s deal on reducing debt. While in Nigeria, I was encouraged by the additional investment being made, as other Members have said, in public services as a result of the extra resources that are available. However, this progress is predicated on the continuance of democratic institutions and, most immediately, on next year’s elections. DFID currently funds voter registration, but with minimal tangible success. Just 2 million out of 70 million possible electors have been registered, thereby jeopardising the elections. What is DFID’s strategy to put pressure on the Nigerian Government to ensure that these elections take place, and to increase the amount of domestic legislation and the level of public procurement and fiscal transparency initiated by the Nigerian Government, in order to ensure the confidence not just of the international community, but more importantly, of the Nigerian people themselves?

I recognise the scale of the challenge to ensure that the elections take place successfully and that people have the chance to participate in them. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to make sure that everyone has that chance. His second point is also important, as it is about good governance. Fighting corruption and improving financial management are essential to Nigeria making progress. That is why we have supported the extractive industries transparency initiative, and I welcome the fact that one state governor is currently on trial. In the Dariye case, the High Court yesterday ruled that £1 million of assets that were in London can now be returned to Nigeria. That shows what needs to happen: if money is stolen, we must play our part in returning it to the people from whom it was thieved in the first place. Nigeria can contribute by impeaching governors accused of corruption on a case-by-case basis. I can see no reason why anyone who holds public office in Nigeria should be exempt from prosecution if there are grounds to think that that person has broken the law. That has been discussed in Nigeria’s constitutional commission. Although no progress has yet been made, I very much hope that it will.