Skip to main content

Nigeria: Religious Violence

Volume 805: debated on Monday 21 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, published on 15 June.

My Lords, the Government welcome the report and the detailed analysis of complex issues of intercommunal violence and terrorism in Nigeria. We condemn all incidents of violence and call on the Nigerian Government to do more to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account. The UK Government’s formal response to the report will emphasise our approach of supporting solutions that tackle the causes of conflict to reduce violence affecting Christian and, indeed, Muslim communities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but we cannot ignore the chilling signs of the potential genocide in Nigeria. According to the International Committee on Nigeria, Islamist Fulani herders have killed 19,000 people across the country’s Middle Belt. I have visited four of the devastated villages in Plateau state and stood in the house where they had murdered the pastor.

Therefore, given the escalation, frequency, brutality and asymmetry of such attacks on Christian communities—and, indeed, Muslims—is it not time to give greater effect to our obligations as a signatory to the 1948 genocide convention and our duty to protect?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that this is important. I pay tribute to her work in Nigeria, and to that of others in your Lordships’ House. We condemn incidents of violence where religion is erroneously used to justify the worst of crimes and acts of terrorism and extremism. On genocide, as the noble Baroness will know, it is the UK Government’s policy not to unilaterally determine whether genocide has occurred, in line with the genocide convention. As she will know and as I have often said, this is a matter for competent courts and tribunals.

My Lords, like the Minister, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this issue; she is tireless and fearless in standing up for the weakest and most vulnerable. While the issues of genocide are often ones of legal terminology, the situation in Nigeria is one of large-scale killing in many areas across all communities and for a wide variety of reasons, not all of which are religious. Would the Minister say how the very large numbers of UK passport holders in Nigeria—most with dual citizenship and families here—are protected and informed of the situation? Would he also say what priority the establishment of reconciliation will get in the allocation of overseas aid in the new department?

My Lords, first, I fully align myself with the remarks of the most reverend Primate and pay tribute to him for his tireless efforts on conflict resolution, not just in Nigeria but around the world. As he knows from our discussions, I share many of the views that he has articulated. On his specific questions, we are developing a new conflict, security and justice programme, which aims to reduce levels of violence through the development of more effective conflict-management systems, working in conjunction with key partners on the ground. On the issue of British nationals, apart from the focus on conflict management, we continue to update travel advice to inform British nationals intending to travel to Nigeria, providing, in particular, specific travel advice for different states within Nigeria.

My Lords, the Government continue to downplay the scale of the suffering endured by Christians in central belt states. Ministers refer to attacks by Fulani herders as

“a consequence of population growth”.—[Official Report, 11/7/19; col. 1958.]

They have also referred to them as a consequence of “land and water disputes”. This does not reflect the reality on the ground, identified by local observers as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Will the Minister ensure that the Government revisit the characterisation of this violence to acknowledge the significance of the perpetrators’ ferocious ideology?

First, I assure my noble friend that, as he will know, the Government fully endorsed an inquiry into Christian persecution, and we are carrying out every single recommendation that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister agreed. We will continue to work with the Bishop of Truro, who oversaw that particular inquiry. I share his concern that, yes, any conflict in Nigeria is exploited. Unfortunately, as I said in my original Answer, it is exploited by those divisive voices who erroneously use religion to divide people, and we will continue to condemn all acts of violence, particularly those against Christians and other communities in Nigeria and, indeed, elsewhere.

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her commitment to this cause. The all-party group report is a stark warning. What are we are doing in the UN Security Council to prioritise these serious concerns—which now appear endemic in Nigeria—and to seek a resolution that significantly enhances the security given to communities at risk of attack? Can the Minister reassure the House that we are actively pursuing this in the United Nations?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to look at the issue of the freedom of religion or belief with partners in the UN. Indeed, I am currently working towards a possible resolution, or certainly a debate, during our presidency, on freedom of religion or belief—in which I am sure Nigeria will feature.

My Lords, it is clearly beyond the capacity, or perhaps the will, of the Government of Nigeria to end the conflict and ethnic cleansing. Have they sought any external advice or assistance from the Commonwealth or the British Government, and are we prepared to act if our advice is sought?

My Lords, we are working with the Government of Nigeria, and with NGOs and faith NGOs on the ground, such as Christian Aid and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, to support communities—particularly those that have been displaced—and we will continue to do so.

My Lords, Amal Clooney has just resigned as envoy on media freedom because of the Government’s statement that they may not respect an international treaty that they have just agreed and signed. What challenge does this situation pose for the Minister as he makes the UK’s case for media freedom and freedom of religion and belief, including in relation to Nigeria, at UN bodies and elsewhere?

My Lords, I remain resolute in standing up against human rights abuses in whichever forum I attend, and will continue to do so on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

The singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu has been sentenced to death by hanging in the northern state of Kano. Will the Minister contact the Nigerian Government to ensure that due process is followed? Although there is a ban on FGM in Nigeria, with girls out of school due to Covid the risks to 10 million to 15 million girls are extremely high. The failure to help end FGM will deepen poverty and create more insecurity. Will the Minister agree to meet the Five Foundation and Nimco Ali to discuss this and ensure that funding from the FCDO for ending FGM reaches programmes that will have a real impact on achieving this important aim?

Let me assure my noble friend that I agree with both points he has raised about this issue with regard to that case. I will follow that up and take the meeting that he has proposed.

My Lords, will the Minister also comment on another individual case, that of Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian humanist association, who has been held on blasphemy charges since April? He has not had access to a lawyer or been allowed family visits since being arrested. I know that the noble Lord is aware of this case, because it was raised at ministerial level back in May or June. What steps is the noble Lord taking to ensure that Mubarak Bala is given access to his legal team? If there is to be any justice at all, this arbitrary detention for 87 days without charge must end.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and I am fully aware of the case. We continue to make representations and to ensure that Mr Bala gets the access mentioned by the noble Lord.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on two urgent matters about which I have given him prior notice? The first is the targeted slaughter of Igbos and occupation of their villages in south-east and southern Nigeria by jihadist Fulanis and mercenaries. The second is the repeated interrogation of and death threats directed at Dr Obadiah Mailafia, an economist and former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, after he publicly exposed state collusion with Fulanis in ethnic and religious cleansing in southern Kaduna and the Middle Belt?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, we will continue to call for a full investigation to hold the perpetrators to account, and to implement long-term solutions, particularly, as the noble Lord mentioned, in relation to people in the south-east of the country. On Dr Obadiah Mailafia, the former deputy governor of the central bank, we have already touched on media freedom, and it is vital that we stand up for the importance of individual media freedom. When freedom of expression is restricted or under threat, human rights are generally challenged. I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to engage on this case and others like it.