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Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent escalation of violence in Nigeria.

My Lords, the Islamist extremist movement known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Nigeria. Ongoing intercommunal tensions have also led to conflict, which has recently been exacerbated by attacks on places of worship such as the one in Kaduna state on 17 June. The British Government utterly condemn such violence and work with the Nigerian Government and international partners to ensure the location of a comprehensive strategy to tackle security threats.

I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Is he aware that I recently returned from Kano, Bauchi and Plateau states, where Christians are living in siege-like conditions, especially on Sundays, when many have been attacked and killed during church services; where it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian leaders to sustain their commendable efforts to prevent retaliation, with the risk of escalating intercommunal conflict, as happened in Kaduna, to which the noble Lord referred; and where there are concerns over the possible destabilisation of Nigeria itself? Will Her Majesty’s Government raise with the Nigerian Government the concerns of the Christian communities, including the frequent failure of the authorities to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of violence against them?

I am aware of the noble Baroness’s recent visits and I was very grateful for the very informative report that she shared with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials on the situation. The British Government are appalled as well as deeply and continuously concerned by what has gone on and by the situation that she described. I can only say that we are fully engaged with the Nigerian Government on these issues and on the essential need to protect minorities more effectively and to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice.

My Lords, we are at the beginning of Questions. Perhaps we may hear from the Opposition first. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, will then be next.

The Minister will be well aware that Boko Haram is only part of an Islamist tide sweeping across the Sahel. In northern Nigeria, a particular problem is the atrocities against the Christian community—the attempt, in effect, to cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians. What specifically are the Government doing to assist Nigeria, possibly in co-operation with our French colleagues because of the general nature of the problem, and to what extent do we fear for the unity of Nigeria?

The noble Lord is right that this is part of a larger series of trends and developments, some of them of a very ominous and dangerous kind —not least the instability in Mali and the attacks on Timbuktu that have been very much in the news. All those events reflect and connect with the activities of Boko Haram, to which the noble Lord referred. We are working with the Nigerians at all times to see how we can help them increase security. At the same time we are working with the French and other EU partners to address the whole issue of the Sahel, where all these dangers are arising. The noble Lord is absolutely right to call attention to them.

If I may, I will take that point a little further, although my noble friend has just offered us an answer. What assessment have our Government made of the links between Boko Haram, AQIM in Mali and al-Shabaab in Somalia in their logistical, ideological and political operations?

We keep a very close eye on this in making assessments, as do our French colleagues—as I just mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—our United States colleagues and others. The precise linkages are fluid and not always easy to identify, but there is no doubt that, where there has been potential instability and turmoil, al-Qaeda, or branches and franchises of al-Qaeda, tend to turn up like flies around any corpses. This is always the danger and we should watch it very closely. As for al-Shabaab, we cannot see a visible connection at the moment, but it too might be involved, although it is quite a long way away.

My Lords, I have made nearly 70 trips over the past 30 years to Nigeria, many of which in the past few years have dealt with conflict management. Do the Government also remain committed to working with private and civil society organisations, particularly the churches and religious leaders—I am thinking of organisations such as the one run by the bishop of Kaduna, Bridge Builders—which in many ways have been especially effective in dealing with an issue that has religious elements?

The answer to the right reverend Prelate is indeed yes. To reinforce the point, although there are different religious groups in Nigeria we have always seen it as a state of tolerance rather than religious intolerance. That is not the main cause of the violence and horrors that we have seen recently, which arise much more from the provocations and extreme violence of organisations that have intruded and invaded, such as Boko Haram.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House appreciates the efforts made by Her Majesty’s Government so far in trying to resolve some of these problems. Are the Government aware of the reports of the well-armed mercenaries who are operating in the attacks on Christian churches? If they are, are they doing anything to find out the source of the supply of the sophisticated weaponry that is being used against Christians?

We are aware of reports. We always seek more information. These are very important matters in which we take a very close interest. We take a particular interest in the arms trade issue, which we will discuss later on this afternoon in this House.

Is my noble friend aware that although we in this country are very alert to Boko Haram and to the religious imbalance in this conflict, the media constantly report, particularly to other Muslim countries, that this is a reciprocal fight in which Christians and Muslims are equally engaged? How does he square that with the fact that it is almost always Christian churches that are blown up and Muslim mosques that are left untouched?

I cannot comment on the balance or lack of balance in any media reporting, but of course it is not always balanced, although my noble friend is right to say that there is no equality of violence. However, there are reprisals and it is true that mosques have been attacked as well as churches. We have no doubt that the new levels of horror, violence and atrocity that have been imported into northern Nigeria are initiated and have been provoked by Boko Haram.

My Lords, given that 600 people in Nigeria have already been murdered this year by Boko Haram, which states that it wants to extinguish all reference to western ideals, including democracy, why have we not proscribed it as a terrorist organisation in the United Kingdom? Has the Minister had a chance to look at the information which I have sent to his office about the links between funding organisations in the UK supporting Boko Haram?

On the first point, it is not HMG’s policy to comment on which organisations may or may not be considered for proscription. On the funding issue raised by the noble Lord, I am very grateful to him for doing so. We were not aware before he raised it of the suggestion that funds were going from UK groups to Boko Haram. I have brought it to the attention of officials who are examining the issue, and I will write to him about it.