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Nigeria: Killing of Church Worshippers

Volume 822: debated on Monday 6 June 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place from my honourable friend the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean:

“I was horrified to hear of the attack on a church in Ondo state, south-west Nigeria, yesterday. I have publicly expressed my condemnation of this heinous act and stressed the importance of those responsible being brought to justice in accordance with the law. Our high commissioner in Nigeria has also reached out to the governor of Ondo state to express our condolences and to offer our support to him and his team. I know this House will join me in sending our condolences to the families and communities of those killed.

Rising conflict and insecurity across Nigeria is having a devastating impact on affected communities. I have raised this issue with the Nigerian authorities on several occasions, including in conversations with Nigeria’s Vice-President and Foreign Minister during my February visit. During that visit, I also met with regional governors, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations to discuss intercommunal violence and freedom of religion or belief. It was clear from that meeting that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence and that Christian communities have been victims, but the root causes are complex and frequently relate to competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality.

The UK Government are committed to working with Nigeria to respond to insecurity. At the first dialogue in support of our security and defence partnership with Nigeria in February, we committed to work together to respond to conflict in Nigeria. We are supporting local and national peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria, including through our work with the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and National Peace Committee. We are also providing mentoring and capacity-building support to Nigerian police force units to improve their anti-kidnap capacity and supporting efforts to address the drivers and enablers of serious and organised crime in Nigeria. At our inaugural security and defence dialogue, the UK and Nigerian Governments also reiterated our shared understanding and commitment to protecting human rights for all, including victims of conflict.

The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. I discussed freedom of religion or belief with the Nigerian Foreign Minister last month. We look forward to hosting an international conference on freedom of religion or belief in July. We will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to take urgent action to implement long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence.”

I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. These are horrific killings. The Answer referred to the security and defence partnership dialogue which has resulted in agreements on police advisers being deployed from the UK to Nigeria, as well as wider support for community policing. What assessment has been made of that assistance? Are there plans to extend it even further?

The dialogue also mentioned human rights for all and freedom of religion or belief—or no belief. I raise the case of Mubarak Bala, who was president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and was sentenced to 24 years for blasphemy. I know the Government have taken the case up, but can I ask what further progress has been made with the Nigerian authorities to ensure that Mubarak is released?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and for raising the case of Mubarak Bala. The UK Government continue to follow the case closely and the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean has raised his recent sentencing with the Nigerian Foreign Minister. The UK Government believe that the right of individuals to express opinions is essential to a free and open society. The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Promoting the right to freedom of religion and belief is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities.

On a broader point that the noble Lord raised, we are concerned about rising conflict and insecurity across the country. That includes terrorism in the north-east, intercommunal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, and violence in the south-east and south-west. The data we have from 2020 suggests that only Afghanistan and Yemen experienced more civilian deaths due to conflict than Nigeria. We are committed to working with Nigeria; it is one of our main aid partners and has been for many years. The Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean discussed these issues with Nigeria’s Vice-President and Foreign Minister during her visit and they agreed that future co-operation is required between our two countries to respond to shared threats and to support Nigeria to tackle security challenges and promote human rights. Our teams are working on exactly what that looks like as we speak.

My Lords, no one could see the images and reports of this horrific attack and not be moved. I share in the Minister’s condolences to those affected. This will be a scar for many years to come in that community. I also agree with the Minister’s comments recognising the nuance and complexity of the sources of some of this horrific violence.

My question relates to the UK’s plans. The Foreign Affairs Committee in the Commons wrote to Vicky Ford in January, saying:

“We understand that contracts with ODA funded projects that work specifically with women and girls impacted by violence have been cancelled with very little notice. How will the renewed emphasis on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Freedom of Religion and Belief, affect the level and nature of project funding in the future?”

The Minister’s reply said on funding for freedom of religion or belief and preventing sexual violence in conflict that

“the FCDO is also working through these as part of the business planning process”.

We know that the UK’s support for Nigeria is being cut by two-thirds overall, so are any projects on freedom of religion or belief that require long-term support going to be protected as part of this? Can the Minister say a little more about this business planning process so that those who will deliver some of these projects will have certainty that they will be able to be on the ground?

As the noble Lord knows, I will not be able to give him numbers on future spending, but a process is happening in line with the vision set in the IDS, which we discussed earlier today. It is for our country offices and regional experts to tell us what they are looking for, what they need and what the priorities are. The FCDO will then respond to that. It is not clear exactly how much money will be going to different areas, but, as he knows, Nigeria is one of the largest recipients of UK aid and has been for a long time. We provided over £100 million in bilateral aid to Nigeria last year. We provided nearly £210 million in 2020-21 and supported a very wide range of issues. I spent a considerable amount of time only two days ago in Stockholm discussing with my counterpart from Nigeria how we can do more to support the ambition Nigeria has to tackle what it regards to be the root cause of some of the conflict, which is a battle over resources, shortage of resources and very serious environmental degradation, which can mean only more human misery to come.

My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister’s comment about the shortage of resources, with which I agree, a lack of resources does not walk into people’s homes and behead them. It does not abduct young women such as Leah Sharibu, rape them and impregnate them. It did not walk into a church and kill over 50 people yesterday. Ideology, impunity and insecurity are words that stand together in Nigeria. For far too long there has been indifference to the widespread killings of minorities, especially in the north of the country but now in the south as well. In 2020, the all-party group on freedom of religion or belief produced a report which asked the question: is this an unfolding genocide? The Africa Minister at the time dismissed it and said that this was a wrong appreciation of what was under way. Will the Minister at least undertake to go back and read that report to look at some of the issues around ideology, Boko Haram, ISIS West Africa Province and a multitude of other organisations coming out of the Sahel?

I am certainly not going to disagree with the noble Lord. These organisations are a cancer in the region and are born of an utterly perverse ideology. We are doing everything we can, along with allies, to encourage religious leaders to speak out. In fact, religious leaders from different faiths have spoken out in strong terms as a consequence of the barbarity that we are talking about today—including, for example, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs under the leadership of the President-General the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, who condemned in very strong language Sunday’s violence. That is true of religious leaders of many faiths in Nigeria. So I very strongly agree with the comments of the noble Lord. I know that the APPG sent a delegation very recently —I forget which month—to Nigeria, and the feedback that has been provided to the FCDO has been invaluable.

I cannot answer the question on genocide, partly because it is not UK Government policy to unilaterally determine whether genocide has occurred, in line with the Genocide Convention. There is no question in my mind or any of my colleagues’ minds about the extent of the barbarity that took place on Sunday, or indeed that has taken place on many occasions in that country, often as a consequence of the toxic cancer that the noble Lord described in his question.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that religious leaders do not always get recognised by some of these ideologically driven so-called religious groupings and organisations? So the condemnation by religious leaders, though important, has no impact on these ideologues. Do the Government have any approach, particularly at the ministerial conference coming up next month, to address this reality and discrepancy?

My Lords, if there were a silver bullet, we would be investing in it and supporting it. I would not completely discount the value of hearing very strong condemnation from religious leaders, particularly where those leaders come from a wide spectrum of different religions. But, in terms of what the UK can do, it will require us to continue to do what we have been doing, which is work very closely with our partners in Nigeria to ensure that they have the capability to track down and ensure that those people who are either tempted to take part or who have taken part in the kinds of atrocities that we are talking about today are brought to justice. That requires a particular emphasis on governance in a country that is notoriously corrupt.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that there could be a Commonwealth initiative? Nigeria is a member, as is Cameroon next door; they have a lot of similar problems. Co-operation within the Commonwealth might prove a way forward.

My noble friend makes a very good point. We of course have a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of State coming up in Kigali, Rwanda, very soon. I believe that the Prime Minister will be attending—sadly, I will not, but other Ministers will. Security will be a major theme, alongside many of the other issues that we have talked about, at the Commonwealth meeting.

House adjourned at 6.12 pm.