I beg to move,
That this House has considered the security situation in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to see so many valued colleagues here today. In October 2022, Nigeria will celebrate its 62nd year of independence. In those six decades, the country has experienced civil war, alternating periods of military and civilian rule and—in 2015—its first peaceful transfer of power. That progression should have laid a foundation for continuing success, but Nigeria is at a crossroads. As Ayo Adedoyin, the chief executive officer of the International Organisation for Peace-building and Social Justice, who is in the Public Gallery today, has said,
“Nigerians are a very resilient people. However, it is that very same virtue which explains why the nation’s insecurity crisis is not yet such a national and international issue.”
Those are words I certainly agree with.
It is known that almost half the population would like to leave the country. The reasons for that will be wide and diverse, but there are underlying conditions that apply to every single person who lives in the country and is a member of the nation. Nigeria is home to one of the world’s largest populations living in extreme poverty. It has become synonymous with political inertia and corruption, widespread insecurity and a loss of public confidence in its politicians. Worst of all is the increasing death toll. Last year alone, 1,000 people were killed in violent terrorist incidents and the death of Boko Haram’s leader at the hands of Islamist rivals has brought further insecurity.
It is no exaggeration to say that Nigeria’s security situation has now reached crisis levels, and in the next few minutes I will outline six issues that have not only caused the situation but are perpetuating it. They are Islamic extremism, kidnappings for ransom, intercommunal and religiously motivated violence, human trafficking, electoral violence and extreme poverty. There can be little doubt that the Nigerian security crisis is having a calamitous economic impact, deterring foreign investment and undermining prospects for economic growth, which will result in a regional crisis in the future.
On the first of the six issues, violence perpetuated by Islamic extremists has increased, with the Islamic State West Africa Province surpassing Boko Haram as the deadliest terrorist organisation in the province. ISWAP is believed to have recruited a militia of as many as 5,000 into its ranks, compared with Boko Haram’s one-time strength of around 2,000 men. This new organisation emerged after a division of loyalty from the leadership of Boko Haram, with ISWAP founder Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the eldest son of former Boko Haram spokesman Mohammed Yusuf, declaring allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rather than to the former leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, who was killed last year by ISWAP.
The group has focused its activities against state targets, which has resulted in a reduction of the military police and security service’s capability. Its attacks have demonstrated a level of tactical and strategic attitude, with ISWAP combatants better armed and trained than their predecessors. There are unconfirmed reports that many are heard to speak Arabic instead of Hausa, which indicates the growing participation and influence of extremists from the Sahel and beyond. The decision to reduce attacks on civilian targets has resulted in a rise in public support for the group, which resulted in a Government intervention that began in 2013 in three states having to widen its remit across several territories in northern Nigeria.
In the last 12 months, Nigeria has also seen a large rise in kidnappings for ransom. In the first nine months of 2021, some 2,200 people were kidnapped for ransom—more than double the number abducted the year before. Many that occur are in the north-eastern states and are perpetrated by Islamic extremists, but others have been conducted by groups that are widely characterised as bandits—sometimes in conjunction with the extremists. The motivation remains financial gain. Violence conducted by Islamic extremists was highest in the state of Borno, but last year, more Nigerians were killed by criminal gangs in the north-west than by jihadists in the north-east.
For many years, there has been conflict in the middle belt region that illustrates social divisions in Nigeria. In two decades, more than 17,000 people are believed to have been killed in the region, and more than 10,000 people have fled their homes. That violence receives scarce media attention, particularly in the west, but when it does, it is attributed to disputes between farmers and herders about resources. It is undoubtedly true that in the last 10 years, 60% of Nigerian territory has been characterised as experiencing some form of desertification, which has reduced the amount of land available for agricultural production through a decline in the water supply.
Fulani herdsmen traditionally migrated through pasture lands in the middle belt region. The geographical conditions now require a greater migration further south, which brings them into conflict with settled farms. The Fulani herders come from a nomadic, predominantly Muslim tribe, but greater numbers of people in the south are practising Christians. That ensures that public opinion in Nigeria increasingly characterises the conflict as a geographical one between the country’s two dominant religions—Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. That is reinforced by the fact that Fulani militia target non-Muslim communities, particularly Christians.
In the last decade, more than 500 churches in Benue state have been destroyed by Fulani militia. In just one year, 2014, more than 100 churches were destroyed in Taraba state, with another 200 abandoned through fear of attack. In October 2021, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom raised concerns about a spate of lethal attacks against Christian communities in Kado and Kaduna states. Central Nigeria is known as the breadbasket of the nation, but because farmers are being killed in their fields, they are afraid to go out to work. With nobody to tend their crops, they fail, which contributes to the greater food shortage in the country.
Human trafficking ranks as the third most common crime in Nigeria after drug trafficking and economic fraud. It is estimated that up to 1 million people are trafficked annually, with 98% moving internally. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that at least 1.4 million continuing victims of human trafficking are living within Nigerian borders. Most victims are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced labour.
In the past three decades, an estimated 30,000 Nigerian women have been forced into prostitution here in Europe, with more than 85% originating from just one state—Edo. Migrants are typically unable to afford to pay the price of their transit and are forced to enter into servitude, which ensures an indefinite period of effective slavery or sexual exploitation, which is often reinforced by the use of revered juju rituals that compel those subjected to trafficking to comply with their traffickers. Those rites are used to intimidate people to stop them reporting their trafficking and to ensure their compliance.
On elections, Nigeria has a long history of electoral violence. In the 20 years since returning to civilian rule, it has held 16 elections, all of which have been marred by violence and bloodshed. In 2003, 100 people were killed; in 2007, 300 were killed. But the worst election-related violence occurred in the three days after the 2011 election, when there were more than 800 fatalities. Some 700 were killed in Kaduna alone.
Next February will see the country’s next general election. It is estimated that 87 million Nigerians—around 40% of the country—live on less than $1.19 a day. The country desperately needs to provide economic opportunity for a rapidly growing population. The United Nations projects that Nigeria’s population will almost double by 2050, reaching an estimated 400 million people. Job creation has failed to keep pace with the country’s high birth rate. That ensures that many people, especially the young, become highly vulnerable to manipulation by extremists and criminal networks.
It is not the role of the United Kingdom Government to enter Nigeria and provide military aid, but as a Commonwealth country we have a duty to assist our friends. The Minister, who is in her place, recently responded to my written question and advised that the official development assistance bilateral spend in Nigeria last year was more than £100 million. We have a lot invested in the country. To stand back and watch it become a province of Daesh is unacceptable.
The UK Government are supporting Nigeria to respond to the increasing conflict by supporting regional stabilisation and increasing inter-agency co-operation, delivering training to tackle terrorist financing and in defection, demobilisation, disengagement and deradicalisation processes, which will provide a genuine pathway for members of violent extremist organisations to defect and to reintegrate into their communities and families.
As recently as February, the bilateral Security and Defence Partnership dialogue witnessed the UK’s commitment to support Nigeria as it responds to these security challenges. However, it would now be appropriate to review what political, diplomatic and military support the UK can offer the people of Nigeria. I ask the Minister to consider reviewing the ODA to allow spending to be focused on non-lethal security co-operation measures. It is useless to provide money to ensure that girls can access education if terrorists are kidnapping those very same children.
After the elections next year, the Nigerian Government should convene an international summit to outline specific actions they intend to take, and to make requests of the international community for material development and technical support. If a proactive action plan is not made and implemented, the tentacles of Daesh will extend into and find a base on the African mainland that will allow terror attacks to occur across Africa and into mainland Europe. We need to draw a line to stop Nigeria becoming a failed state, to stop a regional conflict becoming an international one, and to protect the peoples of the Commonwealth. That line is Nigeria.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate and on setting the scene so well. I declare an interest as a chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG speaks up for those with the Christian faith, those with other faith and those with no faith. Nigeria encompasses all three.
Nigeria is a topic very close to my heart; as many Members know, I had the privilege of visiting Nigeria five or six weeks ago, during my time as chair of the APPG. That visit happened to take place in late May. In Nigeria, we met people of Christian faith who had been displaced. We met those of Muslim faith who had been displaced. We met those who are humanists and had no faith at all. We took that opportunity to interact with all of them. I am pleased to see the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), in the debate. He and I were part of that deputation.
Shortly after we came back, the Minister responded to an urgent question on Nigeria. I think it was to do with the murder of Christians. It is hard for us to believe that we came home on a Thursday, and on the Sunday there was an absolutely terrible, horrific attack on Christians worshipping in their church, where 40 men, women and children were murdered. If we needed any reminding, that brought back to us with great force what it means to be a Christian in Nigeria.
During that recent visit I spoke, through the APPG and through the deputation, to people who had suffered at first hand the horrific consequences of the deteriorating security situation in Nigeria. They shared stories of unimaginable violence and intimidation, of family members murdered or mutilated, of women and children who were subject to all sorts of abuse, who had their property stolen, had lost their education, their opportunities and their jobs, and were in the internally displaced camps. We visited one of those camps where there were both Christians and Muslims; they had been there for eight and nine years. I find it hard to take that case in, to be honest. It was one that left a lasting impression on myself and others, because there were many who just wanted to do something and achieve something in their life but they were in a displaced camp and when they got there, they seemed to be forgotten about. They were there and food and water had been set down for them, but that is not okay because what they need is an education.
We went with a charity called Bellwether International. They provided finances so that we were able to take some food to those in the camp and to take some things for the children’s education. Within that camp—I know that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was moved by this, as I was—we had some people who were trying to provide education for the young people. Others were trying to find job opportunities. There was a very rudimentary medical centre; to be honest, it was like a garden shed that had fallen into disrepair over a number of years, but the important thing was that there were people trying to do something. What we need to do, and what I hope we can do through our Minister and Government, is to reach out to those non-governmental organisations that reach out to people and give them the opportunity, hope and vision that they need, and which we have seen through the eyes of those who were there.
On many occasions, we met people and we did not actually have to ask them what their stories were; we just had to look at their eyes. Their eyes told us their stories. Their stories were stories of pain and agony. All those stories were made all the more bitter and unjust due to the lack of impunity and the inaction on the part of the Nigerian Government. Three million people have been displaced in Nigeria and we met some of them—from academics to NGO workers and victims. Many of the people I met in Nigeria shared concerns about impunity from the ongoing violence, where the army and the police on many occasions just stood aside and did nothing. There needs to be a strong-arm approach to dealing with terrorism, and the army and the Government need to push that very hard.
I heard, for example, that the Federal Government built a local primary school in the new region and named a school after a Fulani chief, in an area where numerous Fulani attacks have resulted in the murder of many people. If that does not spit in your eye, I would like to know what would. Again, this shows that Government in Nigeria seems to be out of touch and seems to have an unwillingness or an uncertainty when it comes to reducing the level of impunity, which has heightened in recent years as the violence in Nigeria has increased and spilled into southern states that were considered safe.
We had hoped to visit north-east Nigeria. That was not possible because of the security situation, but what we did do was to bring people from north-east Nigeria in planes down to Abuja. We met church leaders and community leaders. We were able to hear their stories and we tried to help out. Buhari’s positioning of Muslims in senior Government roles also makes it even more difficult for Christians and other minorities to speak out, thereby perpetuating a culture of impunity and a sense of being left behind. It is so sad to see a country of the magnitude of Nigeria, which has a population of 200 million and has great potential, great reserves and great economic opportunities, now lagging behind in the world watch list. Nigeria is No. 7 in the Open Doors world watch list. That means it is the seventh worst country in the world to be a Christian, with Christians facing severe levels of persecution.
The situation in the middle belt of the country is particularly concerning. Violence in the middle belt has become one of Nigeria’s most serious security challenges. Reportedly six times deadlier than Boko Haram in 2018, Fulani militant violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of Christians, and intensified religious and ethnic divisions in the country. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that everything in Nigeria seems to be measured by religious status, which tells us that everything is coming from that thrust; that is what we need to address. It is true not only for Christians, but for those of other beliefs—indeed, for Muslims and those belonging to ethnic groups.
Connected to the Nigeria visit, we heard from Leo Igwe, founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who told us that, due to the extremely precarious situation of humanists in Nigeria, they do not always know where fellow humanists are and that trying to get in contact with them poses a serious threat. The APPG delegation made contact with Mubarak, a humanist who had been in prison for some 24 years. We felt that the Government were making some steps in the right direction. We would all be very happy if the Minister could properly reassure us on that.
To conclude, I will share the remarks of a Boko Haram survivor. Martha, a Christian from Gwoza, Borno state, told the delegation:
“Sometime in 2014, we were home when information reached us that a group of armed men were attacking houses and killing men in our village. My family and I tried escaping when my father-in-law and husband were caught by the Boko Haram men. The two were murdered, while my life and that of my 8 children were spared.”
Although it is a blessing that Martha managed to survive, eight years later this lady is still in a camp for internally displaced persons and has no stable source of income. Not too far from the IDP camp where we were, they had identified a portion of land where farmers—because they were farmers—could have produced their goods. It could have given them a reason to get up in the morning and a way to become sustainable. There are things that can be done.
If the security situation is not improved, however, and attacks by extremist groups are not prevented, more people will face this devastating situation. We were aware of attacks in the south-west of Nigeria, and in the middle belt where we were. I hope that this debate goes some way to communicating the gravity of the situation to our Government, so that they will do what they can to ensure that no one else has to suffer in a such a way.
We met some of the Nigerian authorities, including high commissioners and those in civil service positions within Government. We impressed on them very strongly that the one thing that they have to address first is the security situation, prevent terrorism and let people who wish to live together and who have lived together to do so. I will use Northern Ireland as an example because I have lived there for many years. The two communities were at each other’s throats for a long time, but they both realised that, in order to go forward, we had to come together. To make that happen, the first thing to do is to provide security and do away with terrorism. I suggest that the first thing the Nigerian Government do is address the terrorism issue in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always so faithful in his commitment to these debates. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate and for his excellent speech. I look forward to the Minister’s responses to his incisive questions.
There was a tale of two speeches at the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief here in London two weeks ago. First, in her keynote speech introducing the conference, the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Liz Truss MP—
The Foreign Secretary commendably called out last month’s atrocity in Nigeria, when over 40 people were killed simply for being in a Catholic church in Ondo state, celebrating Pentecost. But that was no isolated incident, because on the same day, 5 June, there were reports from Kajuru in south Kaduna of Fulani bandits attacking the indigenous Adara people, aided by an air force helicopter, killing 32 and destroying a church of the Evangelical Church Winning All. Not a single terrorist was killed; 32 members of that church were. The following Sunday, 12 June, there were further reports of approximately 50 Catholics killed just before morning mass in Edumoga in Benue state, north-central Nigeria. In one week alone, over 120 innocent civilians were slaughtered in north-west, north-central and south-west Nigeria.
I apologise for not mentioning this earlier, but when a town was under attack right outside the gate of an army barracks, the army did not respond because it was waiting for the okay from superior officers. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the major issues in Nigeria is the need to address terrorism on the ground? Only then can the local community get back to living a normal lifestyle in peace.
Indeed, it has to be addressed on the ground. It is heartrending that night after night, people are going to bed fearful of whether they will wake up.
The International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law noted in April 2022 that 4,650 Christians were killed in Nigeria between November 2020 and October 2021. That is higher than the 3,530 deaths recorded in the previous year of October 2019 to November 2020. It also noted that 2,500 Christians were abducted between November 2020 and October 2021, compared with 900 in the previous year.
The Minister will no doubt be keen to throw something of a contextual narrative on my emphasis on religious-based violence and religious targeting of mainly Christian victims. She will also likely note that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence in Nigeria and that Christian communities have been victims but emphasise that root causes are often complex and frequently also relate to competition over resources, historical resources and criminality. She might also factor in the pressing challenges of climate change and global food shortages. I ask her, however, to interrogate the repeated number of attacks going on in the central and north-west regions of Nigeria. They are executed and co-ordinated by well-organised and well-funded groups, including the Fulani Islamist militia groups, as well as other terrorist groups, such as Ansaru in Kaduna state.
The appalling atrocities by those perpetrators, using sophisticated equipment including a helicopter, cannot simply be characterised as atrocities by local bandits. The killings going on, such as those last month, are not simply a clash between farmers and herders. Much attention is given to the security challenges in north-east Nigeria, rather than the central parts of Nigeria experiencing such devasting attacks. Many villages have been destroyed, and thousands of people are displaced. Some reports say that the Fulani Islamist groups have killed more people than Boko Haram in the last two years and are more vicious in executing their atrocities.
Efforts to rightly avoid simple descriptors of Nigeria’s insecurity as a religious conflict should not fail to properly diagnose the security situation facing Nigerians who get in the way of Islamist militants. The Minister will rightly reference that the nearly 350,000 Nigerians who have died as a result of Islamic insurgencies include a large number of Muslim victims, as well as indigenous, humanist and Christian believers. As the Foreign Secretary recognised two weeks ago, those are grievous violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, a right that should be available for everyone, everywhere—a universal right that only 10 days ago brought together over 1,000 delegates from 100 countries for the London international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. However, a country whose representative at that conference sadly does not truly get what is happening in Nigeria is Nigeria.
The second speech to which I wish to draw the House’s attention is that of the Nigerian high commissioner to the UK, who pledged to uphold freedom or religion or belief without hindrance, as guaranteed in Nigeria’s constitution, but then declared that insecurity has nothing to do with religion—refusing to recognise religious-based and targeted violence. Sadly, that speech risks perpetuating impunity for religiously motivated violence across Nigeria. It means that when the young student Deborah Samuel was horrifically lynched in Sokoto on 22 May of this year, having been accused of blasphemy—which was rightly condemned by religious leaders—no one has been held accountable for the severity of that crime. It is why there are reports of security services being at best absent and at worse complicit in violence perpetrated by militants.
In conclusion, I ask that, rather than follow the line of the Nigerian Government on security and freedom or religion or belief, the Minister follow the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s April 2022 report. It stated:
“The integrated delivery plan should include concrete steps for how the UK Government will support the Nigerian Government in promoting freedom of religion and belief, as well as preventing violence against women and girls, across their engagement activities in Nigeria.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for the thoughtful and considered way in which he opened the debate, and I thank Members for all their contributions. It has been a useful and worthwhile exercise.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the debate is timely and important, because this is a crucial time for Nigeria. We visited Nigeria just a few weeks ago with Baroness Cox as part of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. The purpose was to follow up on the APPG’s 2020 visit, and see what had been done in response to the report, “Nigeria: unfolding genocide”, which had concluded that Christians were experiencing mass atrocities and violent acts including killings, kidnappings and the destruction of property.
As we have heard, it was a challenging visit, particularly because we were unable to travel beyond the city limits of Abuja, and those who wished to speak to us had to travel vast distances to do so. Such was their desire that they did come; they came from Sokoto, Kaduna, Jos, Maiduguri, Lagos—everywhere. They came to ensure that the UK and UK politicians did not forget about Nigeria, and that they understood and accepted the historical and colonial responsibility that this country has for that beautiful state.
What was striking was that no matter where they came from, and irrespective of their religion, their stories were similar. They were all about endemic corruption, a lack of security, a culture of impunity, an absence of meaningful civil society and extreme poverty, coupled with the emergence of radical Islam. That has seen Nigeria at a tipping point, which could descend into chaos and civil war if nothing is done.
At one meeting, we spoke to Rebecca and Kadigea, two women who had devoted their lives to building peace and bringing justice to their community. Their assessment was simple. They said that the Government “is totally oblivious to our reality”, that politicians have nothing to offer except division, and that people, particularly the young, have been left without hope. That exclusion is one of the major drivers of the conflict.
As the hon. Members for Hendon, for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) have said of the escalation of violence, there are of course religious leaders who are doing their very best, but because of rampant Government corruption, people have lost faith. They have lost faith in the institutions that should be there to protect them, and as a result, far too many now follow the voice of the cleric, no matter how radical that clerical voice is, because it has replaced the Government as the voice of authority.
In a country where everything is seen through the prism of religion, it is almost inevitable that religious violence will follow. I recall one person we spoke to making the very shrewd observation that in Nigeria, his homeland, there has been a big increase in ostentatious displays of faith—the prayers are louder, the churches and mosques are fuller—but there is less God. He concluded that religion is not about what you do, but how you treat others. How true that statement is.
A tipping point has almost been reached. Next year, 2023, when the presidential election will take place, will be absolutely pivotal for the future of Nigeria. Both sides have chosen their candidates, and we have a responsibility to ensure that that election is free, fair and peaceful. Regardless of the result, we have to support the new Government. What plans have the UK Government put in place ahead of those elections, because the clock is ticking and Nigeria needs real, meaningful change? Unless Nigeria is transformed quickly, it will be too late, and the nightmare scenario of religious-based violence descending into civil war could become a reality. Should that happen, the consequences for Africa, for Europe and for us would be unthinkable. I ask the Minister to think seriously about what this Government can do to support Nigeria in avoiding that catastrophic end.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate, as well as all those who have spoken today.
The potential of the people of Nigeria to shape our world for the better is enormous, but that potential is being shattered by terrible violence with increasing frequency and scale. The fear and chaos even risks the political stability of Nigeria, one of our most important partner countries. Many of us represent wonderful Nigerian diaspora communities, so we have a vivid sense of those links and the benefits that are on offer, but at the same time, we hear increasing concern from constituents worried about the safety of their families and terrified for the beautiful country that they love. We have heard about some of the atrocities that have been perpetrated on the people of Nigeria; perhaps the worst attack of all was in Owo on 5 June, which has taken the lives of 41 churchgoers to date, with 17 still in hospital. I reiterate the Labour party’s solidarity with the victims, their families and their communities. As colleagues have mentioned, there have been other targeted attacks on religious sites and leaders.
We need to see all of this in the context of wider conflicts and violations of religious freedoms for Christian denominations and others. In January, 571 instances of kidnapping and 314 killings of people were reported in Nigeria; the majority took place in the north-west, particularly in Niger and Zamfara states. Much of the insecurity is affecting mainly Muslim communities in the north of Nigeria, and we need to be clear that insecurity is affecting people across religious, ethnic and geographic lines in Nigeria. We need to support healing and peacebuilding, which means not fuelling narratives that are being used to stoke further hatred and violence. I hope that with the Minister, we can send a unanimous message of solidarity with all the Nigerian communities struggling in the face of that insecurity.
Nigeria is a named priority in both the Government’s integrated review and the international development strategy. I hope that we will hear more from the Minister about what fresh work is being done to put that priority into action. What strategic assessment have we made of whether the forms of support within the security partnerships are the right ones? Are they at the right scale to make a real difference?
I note that the security partnership is expanding to include programming on civilian policing and civilian-military co-operation, which are desperately needed. However, when it comes to UK aid, the cuts were brutal. Funding for bilateral Nigeria programmes was cut by more than half last year. So there have been specific requests for more assistance with tackling the drivers of insecurity. However, does the Department have the resources to meet those requests? How will we manage the sensitivities of the pre-election period while hopefully ramping up our support for security in Nigeria? How are we working with other countries, particularly with Niger and Chad, on some of the big cross-border drivers?
I know that the Minister will rightly talk about the work being done as part of the Lake Chad stabilisation strategy, but frankly the geographic scale of this issue has expanded. It is alarming to read the UK-Nigeria Security and Defence Partnership’s communiqué from February and to see north-eastern Nigeria being highlighted constantly. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that the security challenges of recent months have primarily been in the north-west of Nigeria and the country’s middle belt, and I hope that she will be able to say a little more about what co-ordinated cross-border work is planned to address the drivers of insecurity.
Those drivers are not new; they will not go away overnight; and we have to face the fact that climate heating is creating intense conflicts for dwindling resources such as water and fertile land. That situation interacts with religious and ethnic differences that mirror the divide between farming communities and herders who are often nomadic. At the most basic level, people struggling to survive are more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups—not just terrorists, but bandits, too. The UK has a role to play in supporting the Nigerian Government to provide an effective response and I believe that we need steady peace-building, enabling the state to build public service provision in marginalised areas and, above all, to enforce the law and protect people.
We really have to be conscious of what happened in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, and the risk to democracy when security deteriorates. There is promising leadership against insecurity, especially in Niger, and I would like to hear how we are getting behind those efforts to expand and adapt the more effective approaches.
We know that independent, proudly African, human rights-respecting, democratic states can provide real security for their people, but we need to support states in demonstrating that against the challenges they face. Surely, that is the task, and if there is not success in that task, we are likely to see more military coups in the region, more terrorism, more frightful atrocities, more humanitarian disasters and more exploitative interference by Russia. If that happens, the enormous promise of Nigeria risks being lost and UK interests will be woefully damaged in the process. Let us work together to stop it happening.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Nokes.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate and to the other hon. Members who have spoken for their comments; I will try to respond to as many of their points as I can.
Nigeria is, of course, a priority partner for the United Kingdom; its success matters. Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy and its largest economy, and it has the highest number of people living in poverty of any country on the continent. What happens in Nigeria has far-reaching repercussions, particularly, as the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) said, in the surrounding region, so the region matters as well. She also mentioned the vibrant Nigerian diaspora that we have in the UK. Indeed, the Nigerian diaspora is one of the largest in the entire United Kingdom, with more than 200,000 people.
The Government are committed to maintaining a strong partnership with Nigeria—one that furthers the links between our people and that delivers our economic, security and development objectives. As Members here in Westminster Hall today have so correctly pointed out, rising insecurity in Nigeria is a very significant concern and the country faces multiple and complex challenges, from terrorism in the north-east to intercommunal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, violence in the south-east and south-west, as well as much serious and organised crime.
Many of those challenges are long standing, and the causes are complex and varied. Competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality are key drivers, and religion can be a factor. It is notable that 2021 was the worst year on record for levels of conflict and deaths resulting from political violence. I know the entire House shares my sympathy and concern for the families and communities affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and others asked what our Government are doing to support Nigeria. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned elections. The 2023 elections will be a significant test for Nigerian democracy. The UK Government will continue to publicly stress the importance that all actors work together to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections in 2023. The importance of having a peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria is raised with me not only in Nigeria, but in many of my other discussions with other African nations. We are supporting the Independent National Electoral Commission to deliver credible elections. We are supporting civil society to encourage women and young people to participate more meaningfully in the election process, and we are working with the National Peace Committee and a range of civil society partners to promote peaceful elections, which includes countering divisive narratives, fake news and disinformation, because they can drive violence.
On our security and defence partnership, it is important to remember that security is of course the responsibility of the Nigerian Government, but we support them in a number of ways. The UK’s Security and Defence Partnership with Nigeria is the cornerstone of our bilateral relationship. In January, the UK hosted Nigeria’s national security adviser for the inaugural dialogue in support of our security and defence partnership, and we committed more support to help Nigeria tackle its security challenges, including police reform, tackling serious and organised crime and countering terrorism. I discussed the rising insecurity with Nigeria’s national security adviser during that dialogue, which was very in-depth and took place over a number of days, and I raised those issues with the Nigerian Vice President and the Foreign Minister during my visit to Nigeria in February. The Prime Minister raised insecurity again with President Buhari at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last month.
Although we recognise that Nigeria is responsible for resolving its security challenges, we can and do help it to respond to insecurity and shared threats in a way that is compliant with human rights. That includes delivering accountability and justice to victims of violations and abuses. To support the Nigerian authorities, we are providing training, technical assistance and advice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon raised the situation in north-east Nigeria, where extremist groups including Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram, and the ongoing conflict with them, are having a particularly devastating impact on communities. Those groups continue to target anybody who does not agree with their extremist ideology. The conflict has lasted for more than a decade, causing more than 35,000 deaths and leaving 2 million people internally displaced. It has caused an alarming humanitarian crisis: 8 million people living in north-east Nigeria are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
The problem is not just limited to Nigeria; it also hurts communities across the wider Lake Chad basin region, and that has even wider implications. We take a co-ordinated and regional approach to supporting Nigeria and its neighbours to address the causes and effects of the conflict. We provide global leadership, and the UN Security Council is working with others to encourage a regional approach to peace. Through the regional stabilisation facility, we are supporting initiatives to improve security services and economic opportunities for all people in Boko Haram-affected areas. Over the past five years, we have provided £425 million of humanitarian aid in north-east Nigeria, reaching about 1.5 million vulnerable people. That includes food aid, malnutrition prevention support and protection services to the 1.3 million children under the age of five, pregnant and lactating women and at-risk boys and girls.
My hon. Friend also raised the situation in north-east Nigeria, which has also rapidly deteriorated due to banditry, kidnapping and violent crime. Around 14,000 people have been killed in the last decade in the north-west, and that situation is spilling over into other regions. We recently launched projects alongside Nigerian stakeholders to tackle crime and banditry and counter illicit financial flows, and we are also using our development budget to support work to build social safety nets for the most vulnerable, including those displaced by conflict and violence in some of the worst-affected states.
Regarding human trafficking, which my hon. Friend also raised, between 2017 and 2022 the Home Office’s modern slavery fund invested just over £6 million in Nigeria in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration and the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. That increased the capacity to pursue and secure the convictions of traffickers, and supported around 444 victims of trafficking.
My hon. Friend also mentioned kidnappings. Those occur across Nigeria, and are carried out by criminal gangs and violent, extreme organisations. We condemn all kidnappings and call for the release of all those held captive, and we are providing mentoring and capacity-building support to Nigerian police force units, which helps them to prevent kidnapping, protect victims and hold those responsible to account.
Intercommunal violence is having a devastating effect on those communities, and the conflicts are highly localised and varied. As raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is very wise, it is clear that religious identity can be a factor in instances of violence. In some instances, it can be the main factor; indeed, in some instances it is the main factor. I discussed this with religious leaders, non-governmental organisations and regional governors during my visit to Nigeria in February. They made it clear that the root causes of these tensions are often complex, and also include competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality. That is why it is right that the UK is supporting local and national peace-building initiatives to tackle intercommunal violence, including through our work with the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and National Peace Committee.
However, the UK remains resolute in its commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between religious and non-religious communities. We hosted a successful international ministerial conference the week before last, bringing together over 500 delegates from more than 60 countries across the world. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for the tireless work that she does; the conference would not have been the success that it was without her work. Her role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief has had very far-reaching consequences, and I know that everybody across the House is deeply grateful for her work.
The Nigerian high commissioner attended the conference, but so did many representatives from across Nigeria, from groups promoting peace building, social justice and interfaith relations. I understand that the conference was incredibly helpful in helping different organisations to listen to those from other countries—to discuss their issues and similarities, to see what has and has not worked, and to support those networks.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the case of Mubarak Bala. The UK Government continue to follow Mr Bala’s case closely, and I have raised his sentencing with the Nigerian Foreign Minister. We believe it is the right of individuals to express opinions, and that that right is essential in any free and open society.
To conclude, I welcome hon. Members’ comments. I am pleased that they remember that, despite the challenges that Nigeria faces, it is a country of huge potential, and the UK will continue to support a more stable and prosperous future for it. Our aid is important: it has supported more than 2 million Nigerians to improve their incomes or jobs since 2015, and it has supported education in 11 states, reaching more than 8 million children since 2009. Indeed, the importance of education was specifically raised in my meeting with the regional governors. They absolutely believe that, to improve stability across some of the fragile regions that they represent, education remains key because it will unlock opportunities.
The Government remain firmly committed to education and to our economic partnership to promote mutual prosperity. We will support Nigeria to respond to its responsibility to tackle rising insecurity, and to do so in a way that conforms with international human rights standards and humanitarian law. We will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to implement long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence and insecurity. That is how we will work together towards a safer and more prosperous future for all our countries. I encourage all hon. Members present, and those with Nigerian diaspora living in their constituencies, to call for peace in Nigeria, especially through the election process next year.
I thank the Minister for her comments, and congratulate hon. Members on the wealth of experience and knowledge that I have heard in the debate. I thank in particular Ayo Adedoyin and his team for allowing me to understand such a complex issue—although I must apologise to some of them for mangling their names.
To respond to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the asymmetry of the weaponry and the frequency of the attacks appear to constitute an ethno-religious cleansing. As someone who represents many constituents who have direct experience of the holocaust, I am guarded about using such language and I do not do so lightly.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), was able to come along to the debate, and that her deputy, David Burrowes, who was not here himself, was giving me updates throughout. He has visited Nigeria, and has concluded that it is on the brink of crisis.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton would agree that the arming of certain groups makes it clear that organisations and individuals are receiving weaponry from outside the country. In July, a Nigerian air force Alpha jet was downed by what was termed a “non-state actor”, but those weapons clearly came from outside the country.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) shared his experience of visiting Nigeria, which showed that the amalgamation of those groups into a terrorist group is a real threat to the country. If he was not able to travel outside the cities that he was visiting, something is very wrong. He mentioned support for the country, which is necessary for everyone.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke about official development assistance, which is important. It has always been my view that we should use ODA, not because international development is a charity, but because our spending should allow countries to prosper—it is in our own security and economic interests.
The Minister covered a large range of issues, for which I am grateful. I do not have time to go any further, so I will reflect on what she said.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the security situation in Nigeria.