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Violence against Religious Groups: Nigeria

Volume 715: debated on Monday 6 June 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the killing of church worshippers in Ondo state, Nigeria yesterday, and on wider issues of violence against religious groups in Nigeria.

I am horrified by the attack that took place against a church in Ondo state, south-west Nigeria yesterday. I publicly express the UK Government’s condemnation of this heinous act and stress the importance of those responsible being brought to justice in accordance with the law. The high commission in Nigeria has also expressed our condolences to the governor of Ondo state and offered our support. I know that the House will join me in sending our condolences to the families and communities of those killed.

Rising conflict and insecurity across Nigeria are having a devastating impact on affected communities. I have raised this issue with the Nigerian authorities on several occasions, including in conversations with Nigeria’s vice-president and Foreign Minister during my visit in February. During that visit, I also met regional governors, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations to discuss intercommunal violence and freedom of religion or belief.

It is clear that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence in Nigeria and that Christian communities have been victims, but the root causes are often complex and frequently also relate to competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality, so the UK Government are committed to working with Nigeria to respond to insecurity. At our security and defence dialogue with Nigeria in February, we committed to work together to respond to the conflict. We are supporting local and national peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria, including through the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and National Peace Committee. We provide mentoring and capacity building to support Nigerian police force units, to improve their anti-kidnap capacity, and we support efforts to address the drivers and enablers of serious and organised crime in Nigeria. At our security and defence dialogue, we reiterated our shared understanding and commitment to protecting human rights for all.

We are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. I discussed FoRB with the Nigerian Foreign Minister only last month, and we look forward to hosting an international conference on FoRB in July. We will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to take urgent action to implement long-term solutions that address the root causes of such violence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, following the tragic news of the latest killings in Nigeria—a targeted attack, not on warring militias as part of armed conflict, nor even on farmers or villagers over land; no, this was a brutal attack on a place of worship, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, and on worshippers gathering on Pentecost Sunday. A time of celebration turned into a time of carnage. Why? That is the really urgent question.

The governor of Ondo state, Governor Akeredolu, condemned the attack as “vile and satanic”. Reverend Augustine Ikwu, Secretary of the Catholic Church in Ondo, said:

“We turn to God to console the families of those whose lives were lost”.

The whole House will join in those words of condemnation and of consolation for the victims and their families, and I thank the Minister for her words in that connection. However, as the urgent question implies, this latest atrocity is a far from isolated incident: religious minorities, particularly Christians, are targeted. Bandits, predominantly militant Fulani herdsmen, have killed 3,000 people in 2022 alone. Most of those horrendous attacks in recent times have been in the middle belt region, and have affected adversely the practice of Christianity in the region. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) led an all-party parliamentary group delegation to Nigeria last week, alongside my deputy special envoy, David Burrowes. They heard evidence from Benue, Enugu, Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Adamawa and Taraba states. All those people said that the attackers of their communities were militant Fulani herdsmen whose targets—whose victims—were profiled based on their religious identity.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. While the causes of violence and conflict in Nigeria are complex, does she agree, following this latest attack, not in the middle belt or the north, but in the relatively safe south-west, that this is a FoRB issue, as the attacks are mainly on largely Christian communities? Will she agree to meet the APPG delegation and me to hear how local faith actors and non-governmental organisations need more support to bring faith communities together? What can the Government do to support the Nigerian constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and of freedom from discrimination? How does the Government’s partnership with Nigerian security forces and legal services support the apprehension of perpetrators and prevent increasing acts of impunity across Nigeria? Finally, will the Government support NGO calls for the establishment of special courts for the speedy prosecution of perpetrators of violence in affected states to discourage impunity, and will they support NGOs in providing better research and monitoring of such grievous religious and human rights violations?

Can I gently say that this is a very important issue, which is why I granted the urgent question, but we cannot double the amount of time available? We have to stick to the rules—they are not my rules, but MPs’ rules.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this urgent question, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I thank my hon. Friend for all she does to speak for freedom of religion or belief across the world. This was, as I have said, a heinous act. We have condemned it. It has been widely condemned by Christian leaders and Muslim leaders, and leaders of different faiths in Nigeria have been vocal, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs under the leadership of the President-General and Sultan of Sokoto. I mention that because it is important to note that religious leaders from all sides are coming together to condemn this attack.

As I said in my opening statement, it is clear that religious identity can be a factor in some of these violent issues. The sad fact is that Nigeria is a country that is becoming increasingly violent. It is violent, and there is rising conflict and insecurity. That includes terrorism in the north-east, and separately inter-communal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, and violence in the south-east and south-west. Ondo state, as my hon. Friend says, was an area that had not experienced tragedies such as this.

Our high commissioner has spoken to the parish priest of the church that was attacked to express our support and solidarity. We are encouraging religious leaders to speak out against this attack and others who continue to target religious institutions. We are working closely with religious leaders, but also liaising with the authorities in Ondo state to encourage a thorough investigation. My hon. Friend gave her thoughts about investigation, and we are talking directly to the state about how best to help it and to support those coming together. We are working with local faith actors and have done so since Sunday’s attack.

One thing I would point out is the really sad fact that we are seeing targeted actions against Muslim communities, as well as against Christian communities. For example, in April, gunmen attacked a mosque in Taraba state. It is important to work with all sides when we are tackling these issues. That is why the UK will continue to work with the Government of Nigeria on medium-term and long-term programmes to help address the causes of the instability, as well as working with the police, for example, on improving the work that they do.

I begin by thanking Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) would have been speaking for the Opposition in this urgent question, but she is unable to be with us today because she has covid. We wish her a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The massacre in Owo yesterday was utterly horrific. To target a church where so many were gathered to peacefully pray and celebrate Pentecost is truly appalling. Reports suggest that at least 50 people have been killed, including children. The shock and sorrow, and the anger and despair felt by the families and communities broken by this atrocity will be shared on both sides of the House. Our solidarity extends further to the many across Nigeria in shared mourning for the lives lost and to the millions of Catholics around the world and so many in British Nigerian communities who feel this is a personal blow.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Religious and ethnic bloodshed, kidnappings, banditry, vigilantism and revenge attacks are all on the increase in Nigeria, and each attack deepens the conditions for further violence. Insecurity has been increasing rapidly across much of west Africa, and we have not seen an equally urgent response from the Government.

As the desert expands with climate heating, traditional livelihoods are destroyed, Governments are weakened and distrust grows along economic, ethnic and religious lines, and criminals and terrorists fill the void. Surely we must recognise that insecurity poses a threat even to the stability of Nigeria as a democracy, and supporting such an important regional and global partner must be a top priority. How will the Government adapt and build on the UK-Nigeria security and defence partnership to focus on the drivers of insecurity on the ground across Nigeria? What will the Government do to stop Nigeria and the wider region from sliding further into instability with all the further atrocities that will result?

I thank the hon. Member, and I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who I hope feels better soon.

The hon. Member asks a really important question about what we are doing to address the drivers of conflict, and there are different drivers in different parts of the country. I have had the huge privilege of being able to visit the country, talk to a lot of different groups and meet my counterparts a number of times. For example, in some parts of the country there are conflicts between herders and ranchers, so we have provided technical support to the Office of the Vice-President to develop Nigeria’s national livestock transformation plan, which sets out a long-term approach towards more sedentary forms of cattle rearing. That is explicitly to address some of the drivers of intercommunal violence, and the plan is now being implemented in eight different states in the middle belt region. That very specific, targeted work is now being implemented.

We also support efforts to respond to the conflict. For example, there is the work we do on regional stabilisation efforts and the regionally-led fight against armed groups, including demobilising, deradicalisation and integration of former group members. We provide humanitarian aid to the crisis in north-east Nigeria, where 8 million people need life-saving assistance. One of the issues we have helped with is improving respect for humanitarian law within the defence services, so part of our defence training offer is improving understanding of international humanitarian law. During my visit to Nigeria, I was really pleased to hear that, in the north-east region, the relationship between security actors and local community members seems to be improving. This was told to me by a local community leader, who directly related such improving of relationships to the work we have been doing to help improve understanding of humanitarian rights by the security services. So we are taking many different actions in a very complex situation.

Incidentally, I will have the huge honour of meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury tomorrow, and I will certainly be discussing this with him.

Will the Minister take a look at early-day motion 95, which has been tabled by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others, about the horrific stoning to death—and then the burning of the body, and indeed of the buildings of the college—of a young female Christian student, who had the temerity to object to the way in which a WhatsApp group was being used for inappropriate “religious” purposes? Does she accept that this problem goes wider than marauding groups, and will she make every effort to ensure that the Nigerian authorities bring the perpetrators of that barbaric crime, as well as of this one, to justice?

I believe my right hon. Friend is talking about the awful murder of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, which took place on 13 May. It was another barbaric and heinous act, and I have expressed my public condemnation of it. We have urged the relevant authorities to ensure that the perpetrators face justice in line with the law. I was also extremely sad and troubled to hear over the weekend that there was the stoning and burning to death of, I believe, a member of a Muslim community in Abuja. Again, that reflects the incredibly difficult situation we have. There is of course concern that, as we move towards an election, violence may increase. That is why we are urging everybody to stay calm, and why it is so important that leaders come together to condemn this attack, but also to urge calm.

I send our deepest condolences to everyone affected by this appalling attack. This time last week, I was in Nigeria with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Although this latest atrocity is truly shocking, I fear that it will come as no surprise to the religious leaders, civil society activists and victims we met, all of whom told us how rampant corruption, a culture of impunity, the inability of the state to provide adequate security and escalating poverty are driving that beautiful country to the edge of catastrophe.

Can the Minister tell me what practical help she has offered? In a country where we were told that everything is seen through the prism of religion, when did she last meet the special envoy specifically to discuss the escalating religious-based violence in Nigeria? Rather than cutting aid by 50%, should the UK not be investing to alleviate poverty and building interfaith, inter-community trust relationships to prevent such radicalisation in future?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to condemn the attack. I thank him and members of the all-party parliamentary group for their trip to Nigeria last week; I know that they worked with the high commissioner to meet lots of community and faith leaders from many parts of the country, and that their visit was truly appreciated by the people they met.

I have already mentioned some of the programmes that we do in Nigeria to try to improve stability and address long-term concerns. We also do a lot of work in the region to try to prevent greater instability, including across the Sahel and in Nigeria. That is why we have peacekeeping troops in the United Nations multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali, why we support the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States, and why we lead the international response at the Lake Chad basin.

The hon. Gentleman asks what meetings I have had recently. I am in pretty regular contact with the Foreign Minister of Nigeria; in fact, I spoke to him when we were in Côte d’Ivoire. I spoke to our high commissioner just last week.

Clergy have been kidnapped, women and girls raped, and ordinary worshippers murdered in their sanctuary. It is appalling that the regime of violence against Christians in Nigeria has been allowed to continue for so long. Open Doors reports that even within Government forces, Christians are vulnerable to persecution. Muslims in Nigeria have also been the victims of targeted attacks; no one is spared. What reassurance can the Minister give to those in the UK with loved ones in Nigeria that we will not just mourn this violence, but take proactive measures to protect the freedom and the lives of religious minorities in Nigeria and worldwide?

Not only is the UK absolutely committed to working with the Nigerian Government to improve stability and tackle insecurity in what is a very challenging part of the world, but we are leading work internationally to promote the freedom of religion or belief. That is why the work of the envoy, whom I met in December formally and am in pretty regular contact with—we exchanged messages as soon as we heard about this tragic incident—is so important, as is the global conference that we will host at ministerial level in July to drive forward international efforts on freedom of religion or belief. We continue to work with the UN, the G7 and other multilateral fora.

It is very important that we stand together to condemn this incident and that we in the UK and people across Nigeria and across communities call for individuals to be held to account under the law. The call for calm is also crucial.

What is happening in Nigeria has been going on for more than a decade, and it more or less meets the UN definition of genocide. We are increasingly seeing attacks on Muslims; for many years, Christians have predominantly been the target. The Nigerian Government may say that they are taking action, but there is not much evidence to suggest that they are doing so with any great determination. The Minister says that she has regular meetings with the Nigerian Government, which I do not doubt, but what measures have they said they are taking to address this and stop it?

As the hon. Member quite correctly says, this is an extremely challenging issue that has been going on for many years, with terrorist attacks in north-east Nigeria and instances of intercommunal violence in many states having had devastating impacts on both Christians and Muslim communities. The Nigerian Government have worked with us in the security and defence dialogue that we launched earlier this year. In the first dialogue they asked us, for example, to improve mentoring and capacity building for the police, to improve their work, and we reiterated our shared understanding and commitment to protecting human rights for all. However, there are so many different drivers. That is why the work that we have done with the vice-president’s office on other ways of rearing cattle to try to reduce conflicts between different communities is also really important. We work on those projects while we can with the Government, but it is extremely important that we continue to urge all parties, including those hoping to stand in next year’s election, to keep the calm and not incite violence.

The shock of these unprovoked attacks is made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that they included children. The Liberal Democrats add our voices of condemnation to those across the House. The Minister has rightly identified that the causes are complex—they are to do with lack of resources and insecurity—but I am afraid that the Government’s money is not where their mouth is. Not only have they cut the aid budget to Nigeria by half, but the forward projections are no good, either. Aid went from £237 million to £117 million and will go to £73 million, £55 million and then £40 million. How does that dwindling budget tally with what the Minister says about the country being serious about tackling the root causes of this terrorism?

It is really important to look at what we have done. I have mentioned a number of different projects, and others are coming. For example, our LINKS programme has facilitated investments worth more than £14 million. That has created 20,000 full-time jobs and has been helping to pay more than 48,000 people and increase their incomes since 2019. As I said, when I visited the region, I was moved to hear how the relationships between community members and members of the forces had significantly improved in the Lake Chad basin. It is a very difficult part of the world with high levels of conflict—the country has some of the highest levels of conflict in the world—but there were slithers of optimism that we should continue to try to develop.

I, like hundreds of millions across the planet, had the pleasure of celebrating Pentecost yesterday and, with no disrespect to the Minister, I think that the FCDO still does not get this. The Government must recognise the anti-Christian nature of the attack on the birthday of the Church yesterday, because there were also attacks at the Chapel of the Pentecost in Jerusalem. Does she agree that the religious dimension must be addressed for progress to be made?

As a Christian, I know how important Pentecost is—it is a really important service—and to attack Christians at prayer is a hideous crime. It is also a hideous crime to attack anyone from any religion who is trying to worship and pray for peace. It has ripped away the peace of that community, of those who lost their lives and of their families. At this point, it is not clear who was behind the attack or what motivated it specifically, but there could be up to 50 victims.

As I said in my opening remarks, it is clear that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence in Nigeria. We have seen attacks against churches; we have also seen attacks against mosques. It is really important that we work together with Nigeria—a country that is 50:50 in Muslims and Christians—across the fence to call for peace, to call for calm, and to call out those who attack others, whether religiously motivated or otherwise.

The Minister highlighted the fact that we need to hold people to account in law. Sunday is a religious day for many Nigerians, and it is very sad to learn that so many women and children died at St Francis church just for worshipping. I send my condolences to the families.

One of the key issues is support for regional, state and community policing in Nigeria, and instability has been mentioned by many hon. Members. The Minister may be aware that just a week ago the head of the Methodist church, Bishop Sam Kanu, was abducted in Abia state, and two weeks ago two Catholic priests were kidnapped. People who merely want to worship and express their religion are being attacked. What more will the Minister do to help to address that and provide basic security for communities, including those in my constituency, who are worried about their families back at home in Nigeria?

There is a number of different questions there. I understand how concerned some of the hon. Lady’s constituents may be about their families in Nigeria. When we met the Nigerian Government in the dialogue on security and defence in February, we agreed to co-operate to support Nigeria to tackle security challenges and to promote human rights. That is a really important part of the policing. We have offered to support Ondo state and are already liaising with the governor to encourage a thorough investigation.

I know that the high commissioner is also encouraging religious leaders to speak out against the attack, to come together in condemnation, to continue to call for calm, to give support to the victims and ensure that those responsible face justice in line with the law. Those are the key commitments from all community leaders that we are working to try to support. On top of that, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief visited the country just last week.

I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for asking the urgent question, and the Minister for her responses. I also wish to convey my deepest sympathies to those who are grieving today and I will continue to pray for all the families. As the Minister knows, I travelled to Nigeria last week with other Members of this House and of the other place. We met many Christians who had been targeted in the same way as those celebrating Pentecost at St Francis church. Just last year, 4,650 Christians were killed for their faith in Nigeria—13 per day.

In the Minister’s discussions with the Nigerian Government, the state governors and the British high commissioner, is it clear that the duty of any Government is to protect their people first and foremost, to keep them safe from murder and to ensure their right to worship their God as they wish to do? What help can the UK Government give to the Nigerian Government and the military to combat terrorism in general, ever mindful that the military were involved in operations in 30 of the 36 states of Nigeria? It is a big job and we need to help them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for leading the delegation last week. It was an invaluable opportunity to meet religious and political leaders and discuss freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria. I also believe that he raised the impact of conflict and insecurity on freedom of religion or belief, and that is an issue that Sunday’s attack has so dreadfully highlighted. I thank him for continuing to fly that flag.

In terms of support, we have a number of programmes running in the country. We are working with the military on training, for example on human rights. I have heard that that has been making a difference. It is a very complex situation, but we stand ready to support where we can.

My thoughts today are with the families and friends of the worshippers brutally killed in St Francis church in Owo yesterday, on a sacred day for Christians around the world. Constituents who are members of the Nigerian diaspora have been raising their grave concerns about escalating religion-based violence in Nigeria for a long time. I tabled a written question on this topic a year ago, and I looked at the answer again today: it is the same as the one we have had from the Minister today, which is that the Government are encouraging the Nigerian Government to take urgent action.

Although we have had warm words from the Minister, I am afraid that the response does not meet the scale of the horrific loss of life and escalating violence that we are seeing in Nigeria. What measure of success is the Minister using for the programmes that she has talked about today? How will she know when those interventions have achieved the impact she is looking for? What engagement is she having with members of the Nigerian diaspora in the UK to help inform the Government’s approach and to make sure that it really is helping to stop this terrible violence?

I thank the hon. Lady, because she is asking really important questions. This is a tragic situation. This is one of the most violent countries in the world, and the violence is coming about for many different reasons in different parts of the country. That is what I have heard when I have visited, but also when I have spoken to different leaders on the ground, different community groups and different stakeholders. One of the huge tragedies about Sunday’s awful attack is that it was in a part of the country that has historically not seen this type of attack, so it is even more shocking and concerning that the problem is potentially widening.

We continue to be concerned about the increase in this violence, especially in a country that is so significant and that has so many brilliant things happening in it. That is why we have worked with the Government to see where we can support what needs to be done. We work with community leaders. We take different actions in different parts of the country. We often work with different state governors on projects to try to increase stability and prosperity—for example, by investing in education, entrepreneurship and so on. That is all part of creating stability.

On attacks against different religious groups, these attacks can sometimes have a religious link, but at other times they do not. That is why we work not only to support voices from different religious communities to come together, but to tackle the causes of instability.

The massacre of at least 50 Christian church worshippers in Ondo state, Nigeria, and other recent violence against faith groups is utterly reprehensible, and my heartfelt condolences go to the victims’ loved ones. What steps are the Government taking to advise, and support the capacity of, regional, state and community policing across Nigeria—our close ally—in providing basic security for communities and stopping the rise in banditry, vigilantism and extreme religious violence?

The hon. Member is absolutely right about the concerning rise in violence. It is precisely because we recognise the impact of rising insecurity in Nigeria that we hosted our first ever security and defence dialogue in February, which took place over a number of days and went into great detail. We came out of it committing to work together to do more to respond to the security challenges and the rising insecurity. One thing we have committed to support is the delivery of effective, accountable and responsive civilian policing. That was a request from the Nigerians, who asked whether we could do more on that issue. That is one of the many actions that we will be taking to help.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). My thoughts and prayers are with the souls departed, and I hope that the families they leave behind can get some comfort from their own faith.

Nigeria is one of the top five recipients of British aid, receiving around £250 million a year. Yet the Nigerian Government consistently fail to protect the freedoms and rights of minorities, and the situation is worsening, not improving. The British taxpayer wants their aid to go to countries that protect the rights of women, religious minorities and other groups. What is the Minister doing to pressure the Nigerian Government to do all they can to protect Christians and other minorities?

It is right that we work with Nigeria, a country with which we have long and deep historical ties and very close diaspora links, as many hon. Members have said. That is why Nigeria is a significant recipient of UK aid, and it is why we work on so many different projects to tackle different issues in different parts of the country. We should not underestimate the impact of climate change on Nigeria, and it is another driver of instability. In our international development strategy we continue to fund work not only to support women and girls but to adapt and mitigate against climate change.

I have also spoken to Nigerians in my constituency, and their message is a familiar one. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, there is a concern that this is not the first attack, but people are also concerned, as my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and others said, that there does not seem to be a sense of urgency from the Nigerian Government. It is not necessarily that they condone these attacks, but their foot is not hard on the accelerator pedal. Does the Minister have full confidence that the Nigerian presidency understands how seriously these attacks are viewed and is ready to take firm action to prevent further repeats?

I discussed the rising insecurity with both the vice-president and the Foreign Minister when I was in the country in February. There has since been an extensive dialogue between our two countries on how we can help. I know they are deeply concerned about the rising insecurity both in Nigeria and across the Sahel, and about how it could impact on Nigeria. Nigeria is at the beginning of the presidential election process, and one of the main parties has chosen its leading candidate and the other is yet to do so. There is a concern that there is sometimes increased instability and increased violence during an election period, which is why it is so important that we all call for calm.

We urge our constituents from the diaspora to call for calm across the religious divide. I witnessed during my childhood in Northern Ireland how important it is to work across the religious divide and to call for calm, and to call for those who did this heinous crime to be held to account in accordance with the law.

I send my condolences to the family and loved ones of the people murdered at St Francis’s Catholic church in Owo, and to the long-established Nigerian community who worship at St Clare’s Catholic church in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. What steps are being taken to ensure that increased poverty and food insecurity do not become a driver for further violence and instability in Nigeria and the wider region?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the impact of the rising cost of living on not only Nigeria but across the region and the continent of Africa. Putin’s horrific and illegal war in Ukraine has pushed up world food prices, which is having a real impact on the world’s poorest, including many in Africa. The main thing the UK has done is use our position as a lead shareholder in the World Bank to unlock $170 billion of funding, which is an unprecedented package of support to help the poorest countries in the world cope with the rising cost of food and fuel. A lot of that funding is going out rapidly, and we encourage that it goes to the poorest countries first. Putin’s actions are having an impact on the world‘s poorest, including in Nigeria and across the continent of Africa.