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Volume 590: debated on Monday 12 January 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on the current situation in Nigeria.

The Boko Haram terrorist group continues to wreak havoc across north-east Nigeria. Many colleagues will have seen the press reports over the past week highlighting its latest sickening attacks. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in the town of Baga in Borno state last week as Boko Haram continued its bloody insurgency campaign. Suicide bombings in urban areas are also a common feature of Boko Haram’s tactics. This weekend, we saw another heinous example in the Yobe state town of Potiskum.

These attacks are just the latest example of the insurgents’ reign of terror. We believe that more than 4,000 people were killed by the group last year in north-east Nigeria. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been displaced by terrorist activities, and that at least 3 million have been affected by the insurgency.

The abductions of the Chibok schoolgirls on 14 April last year shocked the world and highlighted the mindless cruelty of Boko Haram. The group deliberately targets the weak and vulnerable, causing suffering in communities of different faiths and ethnicities. It is almost certainly the case that attacks by Boko Haram have killed more Muslims than Christians.

The year 2015 is an important one for Nigeria’s future. Presidential and state elections will take place in February. It is crucial that they are free, fair and credible and that all Nigerians are able to exercise their vote without fear and intimidation.

As Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, I responded to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government in the last debate in the House on this subject. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for asking this timely question, which will allow Members from across the House to give this important issue the attention it surely deserves.

This weekend saw an inspiring and moving display of international solidarity in the wake of the Paris shootings, but while we were watching the horror unfold in Paris, hundreds or possibly thousands of civilians were slaughtered by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, with very little international attention. While millions poured on to the streets in Europe in a hopeful, defiant march for peace, thousands of Nigerians fled across the border into Chad in fear of further violence, adding to the tens of thousands who have already fled to Chad, Cameroon and Niger and the 1 million or so people displaced internally.

I visited northern Nigeria with Voluntary Service Overseas in 2008, as recorded in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, to see projects working to improve access to and the quality of primary education. Will the Minister tell the House how UK Government-funded programmes for education in northern Nigeria are responding to the escalating security situation and to the mass displacement of people? What are the Government doing to ensure a rapid humanitarian response for refugees, who are mostly fleeing to countries that are already resource-poor and insecure? Looking ahead to the world humanitarian summit next year, are there measures that can be put in place now for the co-ordination of aid and support for local non-governmental organisations? Does the Minister recognise that the international NGOs are already hugely overstretched in the region, responding to multiple conflicts and Ebola?

What are the Government doing to bring pressure to bear on the Nigerian Government to tackle Boko Haram and to prioritise protection of humanitarian workers? What are we doing to encourage the Nigerian Government to stamp out corruption, which is such a breeding ground for loss of confidence in the state? Finally, looking ahead to the Nigerian elections, how will the Minister ensure that we can capitalise diplomatically on the window of opportunity provided by a newly elected Nigerian Government to tackle such issues, however discredited those elections might turn out to be, when we will be in the middle of our own election campaign?

I thank the hon. Lady again for asking this urgent question, which gives us the time to return to these matters. There is a problem in that when something crops up elsewhere in the world, we are easily diverted and we forget the appalling suffering that continues in other parts of the world. I pay tribute to the world leaders who gathered in Paris at the weekend, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the “Je suis Charlie” campaign. I know we would all have liked to be there to show our solidarity.

To return to the question of Nigeria and managing the humanitarian crisis, we are working closely with our international partners to react to the large numbers of people who have now been displaced by the conflict in the north-east, an issue that affects not just Nigeria but its close neighbours. The UK’s contribution to the UN’s central emergency response fund and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid and civil protection department programmes in 2014 was £1.7 million and, of course, DFID’s total budget for Nigeria is one of the biggest in the world at some £250 million, which includes funding for the safe schools initiative and promoting women’s and girls’ rights in northern Nigeria. British aid will help 800,000 more children to go to school in Nigeria, including 600,000 girls.

Corruption is worth highlighting, and it is worth remembering as we discuss these matters that Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa. It spends 20% of its national budget on security, so, properly run, Nigeria should be able to do a lot of this work itself. Our money from DFID does not just alleviate poverty, although there is a disparity in the economies of the north and the south, but helps build robust institutions so that Nigeria can take on some of the problems itself.

The hon. Lady refers to the forthcoming election in February. We have concerns about violence during the election and about the feasibility of running a nationwide election when an area the size of Belgium is now under Boko Haram.

I thank the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for asking this question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.

The whole House will be shocked and outraged by reports that up to 2,000 people were killed in northern Nigeria last week following a series of brutal and deadly attacks by Boko Haram extremists. Most recently, we have heard reports of 23 people killed in a bomb attack involving three young girls, one of whom is reported to have been just 10 years old. Eyewitness reports suggest that after one such murderous attack hundreds of their victims’ bodies were left strewn across the town of Baga, including those of children, women and the elderly.

As the Minister highlighted, that follows months of violence across northern Nigeria with killings, mass abductions and attacks on innocent civilians. These attacks and brutality have been rightly condemned around the world, and although many people have rightly praised the moving solidarity seen across Europe this week, there can be no doubt about the need for solidarity across continents in the wake of such appalling attacks. That includes the atrocity in the school in Peshawar; we welcome its reopening today, striking a blow against terrorism everywhere. The world must not simply stand back and tolerate Boko Haram’s brutal campaign of violence.

Here in the UK there is cross-party support for Britain to continue to provide support alongside our allies to the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to tackle Boko Haram. Will the Minister update the House on the level of that support and say whether there have been any additional requests for British advice and expertise from the Nigerian Government? The Minister rightly reminded us of the appalling kidnappings in Chibok, which brought much needed global attention to the security situation in northern Nigeria and the vulnerability of civilians, in particular women and girls, at the hands of Boko Haram.

The recent testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch from victims who escaped or who were released show the appalling extent of the violent and brutal conditions in the Boko Haram camps where women and girls are held. In October the Nigerian authorities announced that they had agreed a ceasefire with Boko Haram, which was supposed to see the schoolgirls safely returned, but this agreement was shattered by the horrific news of the suicide bomber wearing a school uniform who set off a backpack full of explosives in the middle of a school assembly. Can the Minister provide the House with an assessment of the current plight of the girls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram? What discussions has his Department held with the Nigerian authorities on working together to secure their release?

I stand alongside the shadow Minister in welcoming the reopening of the school in Peshawar. We should all stand together against violence and terrorism around the world. By doing that, we can face it down.

The shadow Minister asked about UK support. I imagine he was referring to the package of support announced on 12 June 2014 by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, then the Foreign Secretary, who is in his place now. Since then we have enlarged our programme of capacity-building support for the Nigerian armed forces to provide direct tactical training and advice to the Nigerian forces engaged in this fight against terrorism. With France and the United States we are supporting regional intelligence-sharing arrangements between Nigeria and its neighbours. As I said to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), a DFID-US aid partnership will draw 1 million more school children into education by 2020, which includes increased support for girls’ education in particular. This is in addition to the £1 million which we committed in May to the UN safe schools initiative, which I alluded to earlier. DFID is providing advice and assistance to Nigeria for a more strategic approach to economic development in the north.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the brutality of Boko Haram. There is no other word that better describes their actions. They are extraordinarily brutal to their own Muslim brothers, as well as to Christians—indeed, to any one who seems to get in their way. The tales of what they leave behind when they move into these areas are too ghastly to rehearse here this afternoon. They are one of the most brutal organisations known to man.

The issue that caught the attention of this House and of the world was the abduction of the Chibok girls. We are still supporting the Nigerian authorities in trying to establish the girls’ location through the provision of surveillance assets and intelligence expertise. Information generated by these assets has been provided to an intelligence fusion cell in Abuja, where British personnel are working alongside Nigerian, American and French colleagues. We are clearly unable to comment on the results of ongoing intelligence operations, as the House will accept, but while the girls are still missing our resolve and that of the international community to continue the search remain strong. I remind the House that we are dealing with an area the size of Belgium under the control of Boko Haram, and intelligence is difficult, but we are not giving up at this point.

What is happening in northern Nigeria with Boko Haram is grotesque and it is important that the House and everyone else should demonstrate that all human life is equally valid and equally sacred. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he is the Minister with responsibility for relations with the Commonwealth, and as the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who spoke for the Opposition, made clear, this is not just about northern Nigeria; it equally applies to the north-west frontier province in Pakistan. What is the potential for the Commonwealth as an institution to show solidarity by ensuring that Commonwealth countries act collectively to support Commonwealth members that are seeking to resist terrorism and fundamentalism?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely good point. I am the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, although I do not have direct responsibility for Nigeria, and I have been asking officials about this matter this afternoon. I think that there is a role for the Commonwealth. Particularly in Nigeria, more work could be done locally through organisations such as the African Union, but the Nigerian Government have to want other countries to come in and do that. It is worth looking at a pan-Commonwealth approach to dealing with terrorism of this nature, from which few countries currently seem to be immune, and I shall raise it with the secretary-general.

The vast demonstrations in Paris and in other French cities against murderous religious fascism were among the most impressive in my lifetime. Is there not genuine concern that the authorities in Nigeria are simply inadequate to deal with this terrible threat? Time and again when the Nigerian President has been under a good deal of international pressure, and rightly so, his response has been such that one can conclude only that the commitment to fight the terrorism and atrocities in that country is not as it should be.

No one living outside the affected areas in Nigeria should believe for one minute that they are immune to the possible terrorist activities of Boko Haram. As I said, there is an election in February, and presumably there are those who wish to campaign in this large chunk of the country in the north. It is a problem for Nigeria. Yes, we certainly wish that its institutions were stronger, but I think that both the Nigerian Government and the international community are absolutely certain that Boko Haram needs to be routed out, and quickly, before it does further damage within the country and to its vulnerable neighbours.

I agree entirely with what the Minister and the shadow Minister have said. I particularly agree with the Government’s decision not to intervene in Nigeria directly with military force. Will the Minister explain, though, why the west is right to try to use military force in Syria and Iraq, in rather similar situations, but not in Nigeria?

We have deployed assistance to Nigeria and we will continue to do so, particularly on the intelligence side. I repeat that Nigeria is one of the richest countries in Africa and it spends 20% of its own budget on defence expenditure. In the normal course of events, it should be able to handle these things itself, but it cannot, and that is why we are providing assistance to enable it to do so. Drawing any parallel between what is going on in Syria and Iraq is not useful, if I may say so. This is something localised to Nigeria, and we want to prevent it from spreading across other parts of Africa.

I draw the House’s attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where I have registered visits to Nigeria over the years. The Minister will be aware that the situation in Nigeria is a matter of great concern to the British people. It is also of concern to the tens of thousands of our constituents with strong family connections in Nigeria who want to know what the British Government are doing for their friends and family. As he pointed out, Nigeria has the capacity to deal with Boko Haram if it so chose. After all, it has the largest GDP on the continent and spends huge amounts of money on arms and weaponry, and it was very effective in relation to Ebola. Does he agree that people want to know what the British Government are doing to put maximum political pressure on the Nigerian Government to make them aware that people all over the world are watching them and want them to step up to this crisis?

We are more than stepping up to the crisis. I have said that we have one of the biggest bilateral aid budgets to Nigeria in the world—it is approximately £250 million a year—as well as the additional packages I have just announced. For the diaspora here, that is something of which we can be proud. The hon. Lady said that, given the wealth in Nigeria, Nigerians have the capacity to handle these things, but I disagree. I would say that they should have the capacity to deal with them, but the reality is that they do not. That is why a lot of UK support is going towards helping to build the capacity they need, with direct tactical training and advice to the Nigerian forces. I agree that they should have it, but currently I do not believe that they do.

Does the Minister agree that the answers to violent extremism lie in inclusion and reconciliation, and development and good governance—all of which the Department for International Development will continue to support in Nigeria, even after the cameras have moved on? Does he also agree that effective evaluation of Government-to-Government aid must accompany that work?

The first thing to point out is that no UK aid goes directly to the Government of Nigeria; it goes to other organisations within Nigeria. Yes, we should continue to help build. As I have said, I believe that we have to justify overseas aid because it is a contentious issue and people do not want to see it going to countries that squander it in some way. That is why we do not on the whole give Government-to-Government overseas aid. Given Nigeria’s huge wealth and its huge divisions of wealth, particularly between the north and south, we think there is a role—in the British interest, apart from anything else—to help build capacity and strengthen institutions in that country so that it can handle these issues itself. We will continue to do that, whether the cameras are on us or not.

I think the whole House appreciates what the Government have done to support the Government of Nigeria. In my view, we have the best counter-terrorism operation in the world. Has the Minister had a specific discussion with the Home Secretary about any counter-terrorism support we can give the Nigerian authorities? They may be very rich, but they lack our expertise.

The best thing we can do is what we have done, which is provide satellite imagery, training, and surveillance and intelligence assistance to the Nigerian authorities. In an earlier search, we deployed Sentinel and Tornado GR4 aircraft with surveillance capabilities. I have not had a discussion with the Home Secretary; these things have been handled to date by the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The problem with trying to gain intelligence is that the only way to get really good intelligence is to put troops into the area where it can be gathered. The Nigerian Government already spend 20% of their gross national income on security. Will the Minister consider the possibility of putting on the ground some kind of coalition—under the United Nations and paid for, at least in part, by the Nigerian Government—so that effective troops could go into this area the size of Belgium to get decent intelligence and give some reassurance to the people there?

I should declare that I chair the all-party group on Nigeria. Although I do not want to play down the evils of Boko Haram, we know that the security forces and the Nigerian police have themselves caused problems while tackling its actions. I know that the Foreign Office has met the Metropolitan police’s Nigerian police forum—there are nearly 900 Nigerian-origin police officers in the Met. Will the Minister update the House on those discussions and on whether there is a role for the Metropolitan police and other police in the UK to help embed human rights policing in Nigeria?

There are human rights issues in not only the police in Nigeria, but in the armed forces there as well, and those very serious concerns have to be balanced against any assistance we provide. That applies to us, France and, of course, the United States. The hon. Lady’s question about any assistance that the Metropolitan police might be able to offer would be best answered by the Home Office, and I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary answers it fully.

As the appalling violence spreads, will the Minister outline what specific measures the UK has taken to help the Nigerian authorities protect civilians in the more isolated and rural areas? Given the targeting of so many women and girls, what steps are being taken to share our technical expertise in preventing and prosecuting sexual violence in conflict?

I will not rehearse again all the assistance that we have given to Nigeria, particularly since June. It is extraordinarily difficult to have a conversation at the moment about the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, to which my hon. Friend alludes. We could have it with the Nigerian military. However, given that across great swathes of the country vast numbers of girls are being abducted, made to convert from their religion and married off, it is a bit premature to start talking about the prevention of sexual violence. This is an endemic problem right across the struggle between the Nigerian authorities and Boko Haram.

It is a sobering thought that the deaths of so many hundreds and thousands of Nigerians last week warranted so little attention in this country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) spoke of the need for solidarity across continents. In the discussions that will undoubtedly happen in the wake of yesterday’s moving show of solidarity across the channel, will the Minister see how the UK and France can work together to provide security assistance—particularly at the porous border between Nigeria and Niger, which enables Boko Haram to melt back after its atrocious crimes?

There have been a number of ministerial meetings around the world to look at the security situation in Nigeria and the UK will attend the next follow-up meeting on 20 January in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Co-ordinating the regional approach to Boko Haram’s violent campaign is vital, as the hon. Lady suggested. The terrorists do not respect national borders. The recent attacks on Cameroon have also been extremely bloody. The House should be in no doubt that this will be a long and difficult task, but we are totally committed to standing by Nigeria in its fight against terrorism.

As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, the Nigerian state showed a strong response to Ebola, yet its response to terrorism in the north has been extraordinarily weak, with soldiers reportedly not even having bullets for their weapons. How does the Minister of State account for that enormous discrepancy in competence?

We would like to have seen a more robust attitude from the army and the military to what is going on in the northern states. However, it is an extraordinarily complicated question and it is extraordinarily difficult to find out what is going on. We read lots of stories about people changing sides and equipment being seized. The Nigerian army certainly needs better training to combat the incredibly violent terrorist organisation that is Boko Haram. It needs more assistance and training, but, as I have said, that cannot be done overnight.

The House owes a debt of thanks to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for ensuring that this question was asked today. Millions turned out across Europe yesterday, particularly in France, because of the atrocious killings in Paris; millions more need to turn out all over the world over the deaths of innocent people in Nigeria. Does the Minister not think that it is important for all Governments—and all Parliaments, for that matter—to send the message that a human life lost because of such atrocities is equally awful in France, Nigeria or anywhere else, and that every human life is a human life that should not be taken?

Hear, hear to that! We estimate that in 2014, at least 4,000 people were killed in Boko Haram attacks. The insurgency is growing and it is a growing humanitarian issue. The UN estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been displaced and at least 3 million affected by the insurgency.

The hon. Gentleman will have noted the recent words of the Catholic Archbishop of Jos in Nigeria, who claimed that the west is not doing enough to support Nigeria in tackling Boko Haram and drew an unfavourable comparison with the international community’s response to the Paris terrorist attacks. I think that the United Kingdom is showing the way through leadership, financial assistance and training. Perhaps other countries should look at themselves and see what more they can do to join in with the attack on terrorists.

Members of the Nigerian armed forces have complained that one reason why they cannot defeat Boko Haram militarily is that money destined for equipment has been siphoned off by senior officials. To go back to a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) asked, what specific action is my right hon. Friend the Minister taking to tackle corruption in Nigeria?

There are allegations of equipment going missing and money not reaching the right place, and unfortunately I believe that all those allegations are founded on truth. That is why we have training teams in Nigeria—to try to build better institutional capacity for a better, more accountable and more transparent military, so that such things do not go on happening.

It has been reported that the French have an initiative whereby they are trying to create a multinational taskforce comprising Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, but so far none of those countries has been prepared to provide the troops required. Is the United Kingdom supporting the French Government in that initiative, which must surely be the way forward?

I think I said earlier that the solution should be regional. Some of those countries, such as Niger and Cameroon, are on the borders of Nigeria and are already affected. However, we cannot offer help if the country we are offering it to does not want it, so we have to hear more from the Nigerian Government about how the international community can assist, particularly locally. Hopefully, a force such as the hon. Lady suggests can come from that.

No one can have a sensible discussion about Nigeria unless they consider its exponential population growth. In 1950 there were 33 million Nigerians, and there are now 175 million. The UN’s central estimate for 2100 is that there will be 730 million. One in five Africans is Nigerian, and half the population is under the age of 14. Against the background of that huge demographic instability, is the Minister satisfied that the Foreign Office understands the potential catastrophe for Africa of a successful Islamic insurgency in that country?

We are extremely concerned about the problem spreading—I have already said that—but let me look at the glass as being half-full, rather than half-empty as my hon. Friend sees it. Nigeria is the richest economy in Africa, and it has huge talent—we have only to look at the Nigerian diaspora in this country to recognise that. It is rich in resources, so there are huge opportunities for it. However, it has endemic problems, such as a disparity of wealth, including a north-south geographical disparity, that is far too great.

I believe that if an incoming Nigerian Government of whatever persuasion in February are determined to invite in the international community in a more open way to help rebuild a modern Nigeria, they can become a shining beacon on the African continent of what such a country can achieve.

I fear that many people listening to this exchange, perhaps including the 1 million or more British citizens of Nigerian origin, will see the Minister’s response as inadequate: first, because he has framed the problem as being smaller than they perceive it to be; secondly, because his response that we are at the behest of the Nigerian Government, rather than actively pushing them for change, is too weak; and thirdly, because he has not outlined one measure that will give the thousands of people who are running for their lives right now any hope for any change in the near future.

With the greatest respect to those who took part, our response to Boko Haram needs more than a hashtag and a photo opportunity. It needs an active response from the British Government, who believe in the freedom of the individual wherever they are in the world. May I ask the Minister to reflect on that and perhaps come back to the House with a more substantive response?

I simply do not recognise any of that. My hon. Friend talks about photo opportunities and Boko Haram, but there have not been any that I am aware of. We have one of the biggest bilateral aid budgets at £250 million, and we are doing a lot on education and safety in schools in Nigeria. However, Nigeria is a rich country and it needs to be taught to do those things itself. I believe that the UK is at the forefront of trying to assist Nigeria, but we cannot impose assistance if it is not asked for. There is something called sovereignty, which may have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice, and the Nigerian Government are perhaps, as I have said, too slow to ask the international community for help. The United Kingdom should be proud of its record at the forefront of attempts to right some horrible wrongs going on in that country.