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Volume 758: debated on Monday 12 January 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Hugo Swire to an Urgent Question in another place on Nigeria. The Statement is as follows:

“The Boko Haram terrorist group continues to wreak havoc across north-east Nigeria. Many colleagues will have seen the press reports over the last week highlighting their latest sickening attacks. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in the town of Baga in Borno state last week as Boko Haram continued their bloody insurgency campaign. Suicide bombings in urban areas are also a common feature of Boko Haram’s tactics. This weekend we saw another heinous example in the Yobe state town of Potiskum.

These attacks are just the latest example of the insurgents’ reign of terror. We believe that last year more than 4,000 people were killed by the group in north-east Nigeria. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been displaced by terrorist activities and at least 3 million have been affected by the insurgency.

The abductions of the Chibok schoolgirls on 14 April last year shocked the world and highlighted the mindless cruelty of Boko Haram. The group deliberately targets the weak and vulnerable, causing suffering in communities of different faiths and ethnicities. It is almost certainly the case that attacks by Boko Haram have killed more Muslims than Christians.

2015 is an important year for Nigeria’s future. Presidential and state elections will take place in February. It is crucial that these are free, fair and credible and that all Nigerians are able to exercise their vote without fear and intimidation. As Minister for the Commonwealth, I responded to the right honourable Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, the former Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government in the last debate in this House on this subject. I am grateful to the honourable Member for Brent Central for asking this timely Question. It will allow Members from across the House to give this important issue the attention it deserves”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, despite the shocking events in Paris last week it is essential that the world does not lose sight of the terrorist attacks happening elsewhere in the world, most notably in Nigeria. We were horrified by reports that up to 2,000 people were killed in northern Nigeria last week following a series of deadly and brutal attacks carried out by Boko Haram extremists. Terrorism is unacceptable wherever it takes place.

As the Minister has highlighted, this follows months of violence across northern Nigeria, with killings, mass abductions and attacks against innocent civilians. These attacks and this brutality have been condemned around the world. While many people have rightly praised the moving solidarity across Europe in recent days, there can be no doubt about the need for solidarity across continents in the wake of these appalling attacks. The world must not simply stand back and tolerate Boko Haram’s brutal campaign of violence.

I emphasise that here in the UK there is cross-party support for Britain to continue to provide support, alongside our allies, to the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to tackle Boko Haram. I ask the Minister to update the House on the level of that support and to confirm whether there have been any additional requests for British advice and expertise from the Nigerian Government. Is the Minister confident, in the light of the violence, that fair presidential and state elections can take place in February? Can they be fair?

The Minister referred to the appalling kidnappings in Chibok which brought much needed global attention to the security situation in northern Nigeria and the vulnerability of civilians—in particular women and girls—at the hands of Boko Haram extremists. Let us not forget the meaning of Boko Haram: “Western education is forbidden”. The recent testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch from victims who were able to escape show the appalling extent of the violent and brutal conditions in the Boko Haram camps where women and girls are still being held. Can the Minister provide the House with an assessment of the current plight of the girls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, and what discussions her department has held with the Nigerian authorities on working to secure their release?

Stabilising Nigeria is essential as its population is expected to surpass that of the United States by 2050. According to UN projections, it could be the world’s third most populous nation by the end of this century, and Boko Haram risks becoming a regional threat to peace and stability. Can the Minister update the House on what discussions the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is initiating with regional and international partners to co-ordinate international action on this issue?

My Lords, I am grateful to hear the noble Baroness repeat the support of the Opposition on this matter for resolving what is a horrific situation where we have an insurgency that does not differentiate between good and evil; beheading people seems to be of no account, regardless of who they are. We have read horrific descriptions of what has been happening over the past week. I know that the noble Baroness gave a particular figure. I would say that the figure for those who have been butchered over the past week is not actually confirmed, but clearly there have been significant massacres across northern Nigeria. The area affected, of course, is about the size of Belgium—it is a vast area.

The noble Baroness asked several questions in particular about the activity of the UK. She asked several questions, so perhaps I can be fairly brief in answering each one. We have continued to give our commitment to United Kingdom aid. We work through the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. DfID has provided £1 million to support the Red Cross to provide humanitarian assistance in the north-east of Nigeria—the particular area to which the noble Baroness referred. In addition, we are working through existing education programmes to ensure that schools are safer in the eight other areas of northern Nigeria. The noble Baroness asked what we are doing in particular for children and rightly reminded us of what Boko Haram originally meant. It has gone a long way from that. This is a group of people who want power and they will kill anybody in their way—regardless of who they are.

Since 2011, 60% of DfID’s budget has been spent in the north of Nigeria, and a major focus of that work has been with regard to women and girls. Particularly, we have worked on education projects throughout the area. I am happy to talk to the noble Baroness about the detail of that later, but I am conscious of the nature of an Urgent Question. She rightly asked, of course, about the Chibok girls and the situation there. I again remind the House that as a Government we are concerned with more than those Chibok girls, serious as it was that they were seized. We have heard stories of seizures and kidnappings across the period since then as well—of boys as well as girls. We have continued our talks with the Nigerian authorities in order to be of as much help as we can, particularly in the provision of surveillance assets and intelligence expertise.

The noble Baroness asked about the position with regard to elections. Clearly, a security situation where people feel afraid to go out and vote is the last one you want when something as important as a presidential election is approaching. We are doing all we can to work with the Nigerian army to provide technical assistance, expertise and training. We are also working through DfID as hard as we can to provide some hope and expectation that there may be some way of elections going ahead that are free and fair, and open to all.

My Lords, the activities of Boko Haram are barbaric and brutal, as we know. Would the Minister not agree with me that it is just as brutal as the Taliban, which attacked children in Pakistan in recent weeks? More than 140 children were killed by the Taliban, and its activities are, no doubt, just as bad as those of al-Qaeda and Daesh in different parts of the world. Would the Minister tell the House what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to help Pakistan to protect its schoolchildren from such brutal attacks by the Taliban in future?

My Lords, it is the custom that, in answering a Question, we are confined to the particular country under consideration. I can say to my noble friend that, of course, terrorism is wrong per se. He will know our absolute commitment to ensuring that it is rooted out in whichever country it may be.

Boko Haram has been creating havoc in north-eastern Nigeria for years now, yet Nigeria is a hugely wealthy country with a large army. Can the Minister shed any light as to why the Government in Nigeria seem so helpless in dealing with this situation? In an earlier reply, she mentioned the help the British Government were giving in terms of aid and intelligence. Could she say a little more about what help we might be able to give the Nigerian Government in terms of military strategy, so that they can deal with this much more forcibly than they are at the moment?

I entirely agree with the noble and right reverend Lord’s assessment of the situation. The economy of Nigeria is the largest in Africa currently, and if it were not so beset by corruption and by difficulties in administration—if I can put it that way—Nigeria would have a thriving economy. It clearly does not. It spends 20% of its budget on security, yet the security forces have great difficulty in facing and containing Boko Haram. We have ensured that there is technical assistance and advice; indeed, we have ongoing projects with the army to ensure that it can build up resilience over the coming years to try to defeat Boko Haram and that, having done that, Nigeria has an army capable of preventing a recurrence.

Would my noble friend not agree that what we are seeing is largely a continuation of the civil wars of the early 1980s in Nigeria, when the Hausas, who are mainly Muslim, were in conflict with the mainly Christian and pagan Igbos and Rivers people? This is now exacerbated both by the corruption of the Nigerian Government and the new spirit of the vicious Islamic group Boko Haram. Is there any help which we can sensibly offer to Nigeria, other than military help, to help its incompetent army defeat Boko Haram? Are we in any position to offer military help?

My Lords, we have made it clear that we are not going to become militarily involved in Nigeria with our own troops, but we have done everything reasonable to provide advice and assistance to the army there. We have ongoing projects to provide it with expertise and training. My noble friend referred in particular to the history of the area. However, Boko Haram is something new, not just in the utter viciousness with which it behaves but in the way that it is Muslim against Muslim—not Sunni against Shia but members of the same group against each other. These people have no thought about what one’s religion is. If you are in their way and they want your land, they will kill you.