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Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to recent episodes of violence in northern Nigeria.

My Lords, we are concerned about the ongoing violence in northern Nigeria, and we have discussed the situation with the Nigerian authorities as well as with the 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 communities in northern states and dialogue with the authorities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer. On a visit to northern Nigeria over Easter, I and my colleagues found incontrovertible evidence that the recent violence in Bauchi, Plateau and Niger states was religiously motivated, with attacks by well armed Muslim militants, assisted by foreign mercenaries, who have targeted Christian communities, killed hundreds of Christians and destroyed more than 50 churches and many hundreds of Christian homes and businesses. There was no reciprocal comparable violence against the Muslim communities. Will Her Majesty’s Government make serious representations to the Nigerian authorities and Government to ensure adequate protection for all citizens?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness that she has made a great case both here in this House and to me privately about the danger of the situation. I asked the British high commissioner to go to northern Nigeria to make a reassessment based on the facts that the noble Baroness shared with me, and he is there this week doing just that. Among other things, he will discuss the issues raised with the governor of Bauchi, one of the two states that have been affected. The noble Baroness knows well that there are disagreements about to what extent the violence is triggered by the marginalisation of certain groups and by the level of poverty, for which religion is an excuse, and to what extent it is a religiously triggered conflict. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we will go on pressing the Nigerian authorities to try to end these troubles.

My Lords, what recent advice has the FCO given to British nationals living and working in this area?

My Lords, in northern Nigeria, we have not felt the need to advise British nationals against travel or anything of that kind because the disputes, although violent, have nevertheless been internal. It is worth saying that while some lives were tragically lost over Easter, the last mass outbreak—in which, tragically, hundreds died—was last year. We give very different travel advice for the Niger delta in the south, which is extremely dangerous.

My Lords, given the reports of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cutting spending on conflict management, can the Minister confirm that there are sufficient funds in Abuja, through the high commission and DfID, to support the reconciliation work between Muslims and Christians being pioneered by the Bishop of Kaduna?

My Lords, let me reassure the right reverend Prelate that we are giving significant support to Bridge Builders and other groups involved in trying to bridge the conflict. Northern Nigeria is a huge area; if it were a country, it would be the second biggest in Africa, with tens of millions of people. It has some of the worst social indicators anywhere in the world, so it is actually the subject of DfID’s largest bilateral programme in the world, because we are trying to target poverty in the north.

My Lords, apart from the several hundred killed and the tens of thousands displaced by the events last November in northern Nigeria, the special rapporteur on religious freedom has reported that, over a period of years, tens of thousands of people have been killed in religious clashes. What have the Government done to get from the Nigerians word about the two commissions of inquiry that were commissioned on recent events by the federal and state Governments respectively? Have our Government taken up with the Nigerian Government implementation of recommendation 31 by the UPR working group on promoting a culture of religious tolerance and protecting the rights of religious minorities?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, Nigeria prides itself on being a multi-religious, multicultural society, and it is in a precarious situation. We have pressed on the President and Ministers—I have pressed them personally—that they must do a better job on this. We followed with great care the progress of the two commissions to which the noble Lord refers. However, we are not convinced that enough steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence. In that sense, I do not want to convey to the House that we have any confidence that there will not be repetitions of what has tragically happened.

My Lords, what help has DfID been able to give to the 50,000 displaced people now in Bauchi and Plateau states following the attacks there on the churches, businesses and homes referred to by my noble friend, both in her Question and in the excellent report that she has published? Also, when the Minister is carrying out the assessment that he is undertaking about these events, will the role of the mercenaries who have been arrested in Nigeria—75 of them have come from places such as Niger, Chad and Saudi Arabia—be properly assessed?

My Lords, in the bilateral programme—funding for it is rising to £140 million for next year—we have tried to ensure adequate humanitarian provision, as the noble Lord knows. I do not know the exact amount given to the group displaced in Bauchi; we will need to get back to him. I want to be clear that DfID is trying to work directly with local authorities and communities to ensure that not just the sources of conflict are addressed, but that there is better access to healthcare and education and a strengthened security and justice sector, as well as immunisation for children. Whatever the balance of cause for this between religious faith and poverty, we need to address both.

My Lords, will the Government assure us that we are concerned equally about attacks on people of all religious faiths, and not just, as was perhaps implied, solely about attacks on Christians? In the past two or three years, we have seen attacks by Hindu on Muslim, Sunni on Shia and, sadly, in Rwanda and in Kenya, Christian on Christian, including the burning of churches with people inside. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are concerned with all uses of religious identity as a source of violence, and that we oppose all those uses in different places around the world?

My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Lord that assurance. In northern Nigeria it is Christians who in general are in the minority, although Plateau State, where this started last November, is a majority Christian state. Nevertheless it is Christians who have borne the brunt of the violence and are in that sense the besieged minority; so it is an appropriate Question with regard to northern Nigeria, but I am glad to have the opportunity to confirm that faiths of all kinds equally deserve our support.