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Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recent violence in Jos, Nigeria.

My Lords, I have expressed my concerns to the Nigerian Foreign Minister at the violence in Jos. The Nigerian Government have taken measures, including a curfew, to avoid further violence. The Nigerian Inter-Religious Council is working to prevent future outbreaks. We have discussed the situation with both Christian and Muslim communities. We will continue to support measures to address religious tensions through our conflict prevention strategy, including support for NGOs working with the communities in the northern states.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Is he aware that there is widespread concern over the media coverage of the riots, which implied parity of killings between the Muslims and the Christians, whereas it was actually well armed Muslim extremists, including foreigners from Chad and Niger, who instigated the violence against unarmed Christians? Equally disturbing is that this is part of a pattern of continuing violence against Christians. In July I saw eight churches that had recently been burnt in Bauchi state and a large Roman Catholic church razed to the ground in Kano. Will the British Government urge the Nigerian Government to provide adequate protection for the Christian communities in these northern and central states?

My Lords, I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that I received assurances from the Nigerian Foreign Minister last week that the Government were committed to providing security. Our high commissioner has also had the opportunity of discussing this with the governor of the state, who, again, in the measures he has taken—both the curfew and the deployment of extra military—seems intent on ending the intercommunal violence.

My Lords, will the Government consider using some of the DfID money which is at present allocated generally for northern Nigeria to relieve some of the dispossessed people now in the refugee camps in order to assist them to rebuild their lives?

My Lords, we have made repeated visits to the north before and since these tragic incidents. My noble and learned friend makes a very important point which we shall look at. We are supporting NGOs engaged not in relief but in building links between the two communities, particularly Bridgebuilders, whose mission is contained in that name, which has Muslim and Christian leaders working together to build bridges between younger members of their communities.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Plateau state governor is apparently under pressure to release some of those arrested following the violence in Jos in the so-called interests of peace? Will he and his colleagues further urge the Nigerian Government to ensure justice is done so that violent intimidation and discrimination are not encouraged?

My Lords, I was not aware that the governor was under pressure to release those who may be guilty of these acts. He is determined that law and order will prevail and that the guilty will be brought to justice. We will continue to insist on that message in our dealings with him and the federal Government.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his intensive diplomatic efforts over the past couple of days and for keeping the House fully informed of what he has been doing. Should we not suggest to President Yar’Adua that a judicial commission of inquiry should be established into the events in Jos, particularly in view of the fact that allegations have been made of atrocities committed by the security forces in shooting and killing unarmed civilians, and that the previous judicial commission of inquiry into the events of 2001 was never published?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct; one way or another we need to arrive at a definition and understanding of what happened on which everyone can agree. Our own high commissioner has warned me to be careful about characterising these riots at this stage because, despite having made visits up there since the events, even we are still not certain what mixture of criminality and interreligious tension fired these actions. We should certainly consider what is the best way of establishing the facts, whether that is through a judicial inquiry or other means, because without understanding what happened we have no chance of rebuilding trust between the communities.

My Lords, I return the Minister to a point made by my noble friend about the role that radical insurgents from Chad and Niger played in the atrocities that occurred in Jos. What information does he have about that? Does he recognise that the attempts to impose Sharia law on unwilling people in Jos could have the same long-term effects as those that occurred in southern Sudan, where 2 million people died when similar attempts were made there?

My Lords, on the first point, we, too, have heard the allegations of outsiders being involved and have seen the same reports of them. Determining whether those individuals were involved is very much at the top of the list of the facts that we are trying to establish. At this point we do not know that and are looking into it. On the second point, some states in northern Nigeria have introduced Sharia law. The federal Government have resisted doing that. Everybody is aware of the real risks to the freedom of non-Muslim citizens in the north. We hope that the Government and all involved will approach this with great sensitivity and respect for minority rights.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a need for DfID money not only for bridge building, important as that is, but for humanitarian aid, given the estimate that at least 26,000 people are living in makeshift camps, deprived of basic access to sanitation, water and nutrition? Can DfID help with that?

My Lords, as I indicated in an earlier answer, I can assure my noble friend that we will look into this to see exactly what DfID is doing and what further help could be provided.

My Lords, are we acting on this on our own, or are other countries with Christian traditions and basic constitutions joining us in an approach on this subject and, indeed, elsewhere in the world where the persecution of Christians takes place?

My Lords, where the persecution of Christians takes place, we are very forthcoming in making our concerns known. The cases of a number of countries have been raised in this House over recent months, and I have been able to report to noble Lords about the steps that we are taking. We are not alone in the case of Nigeria or elsewhere in our concerns about this. Our European Union colleagues and others are equally anxious to make sure that Christians are not discriminated against. But let me say that we are anxious also to protect the rights of all religions.