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Ugandan School Attack

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make a statement about the attack on the Lhubiriha Secondary School in Uganda on 16 June.

At the outset, I thank my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising this important matter and for his courtesy in taking the trouble to inform my office.

On Thursday 16 June, there was an horrific and cowardly attack on Lhubiriha secondary school in Mpondwe in western Uganda, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Government of Uganda have confirmed that 42 people were killed, of whom 37 were students from the school. Six people were injured. There are also reports that a further five to seven people, which may include children from the school, were abducted. The Ugandan authorities believe that the perpetrators are from the Islamic State-affiliated armed group the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which operates in the DRC. The Ugandan military is pursuing the attackers. Those responsible for the attack must be brought to justice.

I issued a tweet on 17 June expressing my horror at the attack, which took the lives of so many innocent schoolchildren. My condolences go out to all the victims and to their families. The British Government strongly condemn this attack. We have confirmed that no British nationals were caught up in the attack. In response to the attack, the Foreign Office updated its travel advice for Uganda on 17 June with a factual update. The British high commissioner in Kampala issued a tweet sending her condolences to all those affected and the British high commission in Kampala remains in close touch with the Ugandan authorities.

First of all, I thank the Minister very much for his response. He encapsulates our horror and our concerns. I also thank him for his obvious interest, which we know he has anyway, but which he has proven today. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest sorrow and sympathies for the victims of Friday’s abhorrent attack.

I want to put on record the full magnitude of what occurred. On Friday 42 people, including 37 students, were killed when militants from the ADF, affiliated with IS Central Africa Province, attacked the Lhubiriha secondary school. Some victims were murdered with machetes, while others were killed in their dormitories when terrorists threw bombs and set the building alight after students had barricaded the doors to try to protect themselves. Six additional students were kidnapped to carry loot stolen from the school and it is estimated that some of those may be some young girls and ladies.

The effect of this act of terror is clear: many of the town’s residents have fled since the attack, and yesterday schools across the region were empty, as teachers and students feared turning up. While IS Central Africa Province has yet to claim the attack, that is not unusual, and the attack carries all the hallmarks of ISCAP. Moreover, it is part of a trend of escalating attacks by the group, targeting Christian villages in the DRC since March, resulting in some 400 deaths. This attack in Uganda spells an alarming development.

The attack is part of a wider trend of violence against Christian and religious minority communities stretching across central Africa, including attacks from Daesh, Boko Haram and Fulani militants in Nigeria and intentional targeting of places of worship by al-Shabaab in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

I want to ask the Minister four questions. First, what steps can the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office take to help recover those who were kidnapped? Secondly, what scope is there in the current UK aid budget to provide emergency relief to displaced communities and help to create a safe environment for schools to reopen? Thirdly, when was the latest joint analysis of conflict and stability assessment carried out for the region by the FCDO, and does it reflect the current threat from IS Central Africa Province to Christians and minority communities? Fourthly, what can we do to prevent future attacks?

The hon. Gentleman sets out the position extremely well. He asks me a number of questions. First, in respect of the aid budget, Britain has a significant partnership with Uganda, which last year was in the order of £30 million. That is spent principally on humanitarian and reproductive health-related issues, but we always keep the humanitarian situation under review and we will continue to do so in this specific case. He asks me about the latest JACS report; it is not recent, but I can tell him that before these horrific events we were looking at commissioning another one and we will pursue that. In respect of what more Britain can do, we are in very close touch with the Ugandan authorities and will do everything we can to help them.

I congratulate my very good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the urgent question. My condolences go to all those parents who are suffering unimaginable horror and fear. The abduction of children is cowardly in the extreme, and I am sure that the Minister is doing all he can to exert pressure to bring those six children home to their families.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is gravely concerned about the current situation. We have launched an inquiry into counter-terrorism so that we can look at the position in countries such as Uganda. We are aware of links between the Allied Democratic Forces and Daesh. Will the Minister please explain what we are doing to discourage any engagement with the Wagner Group? Increasingly, too many African countries are turning to the Wagner Group in a misplaced effort to counter the rise of organisations such as Daesh. Will the Minister also explain what we are doing to tackle border insecurity between Congo and Uganda? The situation is grave.

I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for what she has said. On her third point, I make it clear that we work closely together on counter-terrorism and regional security, which is a shared priority.

On my hon. Friend’s first point, she is right: this was a horrendous attack on young people and students. A fire bomb was thrown into the male student dormitory, and six and possibly as many as 12 mostly female students appear to have been abducted. Two others, who were taken to a nearby health centre, died owing to a lack of blood supplies. My hon. Friend was right to emphasise the cohort that has suffered so much.

On the disorder at the border, we give strong support to the Luanda and the Nairobi peace processes, which are designed to try to do something about the disorder in the eastern DRC, of which I know my hon. Friend is well aware.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the urgent question.

Forty-two people are dead, including 37 children, and students remain in terrible danger after being abducted. I struggle to understand the mentality of anyone who deliberately seeks to murder children. The Opposition, and I know the whole House, stand in solidarity with the people of Uganda in their grief.

Last month, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I discussed these issues with His Excellency the Ugandan Minister of Foreign Affairs. Insecurity in the region is a serious threat to many lives. It is also a threat to sustainable development, and to UK interests. Sadly, it lacks the international attention that it deserves.

The ADF is responsible for frequent massacres and brutality in DRC. It seems most likely that it is responsible for this atrocity too. The security situation could grow still more complex as elections in DRC approach this December. May I press the Minister on what plans the Government have to update our sanctions on the ADF? Is he confident that he has the right resources to map illicit financial flows? Do we understand where we have leverage over those who support the ADF and other armed groups in the area?

How are we engaging with the African Union, the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community to support consensus against insecurity among regional states? The ADF and hundreds of other armed groups that terrorise the region must be held to account. Surely the Government must update our offer of support, in solidarity with the people of Uganda.

The hon. Lady makes several important points, and I thank her for the tone and content of her comments. She asked a number of questions. We are in very close touch with the African Union and the SADC. I should emphasise that Uganda has designated the ADF a terrorist organisation, and the Ugandan defence forces are tracking the perpetrators, as the President has made clear.

The hon. Lady asked about illicit financial flows. She will know from the “Integrated Review Refresh” that tackling those flows of stolen and dirty money is a high priority for the Prime Minister. We are actively engaged in working out how we can do more on that front.

Finally, on the processes that Britain is engaged in supporting, the Nairobi process, to which we have provided funding, is a very important aspect of how we bring some sort of order to the eastern DRC, which, as the hon. Lady implied and knows well, is a source of enormous worry to all the surrounding countries, as well as to us and many others.

I thank my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for securing this urgent question. I have visited schools in Uganda. They should be happy and safe places. This is yet another tragedy. I am concerned about rising violence throughout the region. Since the war started in Sudan, there have been ominous reports of waves of ethnic violence in El Geneina in Darfur. It may be that the Rapid Support Forces are rekindling genocide in Darfur. Genocide has happened there before, and it may be happening again.

It is incredibly important that the international community keeps shining a spotlight on this and that we break this culture of impunity, because when one violent organisation thinks it can get away with it in one part of Africa, another violent organisation thinks it will get away with another atrocity in another part of Africa. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet members of the UK’s Darfur community who are desperate to tell people what is going on there so that they can whistleblow on what might be genocide again?

My right hon. Friend will know that I have met recently with the Darfur community, but things have changed since that meeting, so I take on board her final point. She also made a point about the war in Sudan, which means there is the possibility—perhaps the likelihood—that this area of disorder, conflict and humanitarian disaster could stretch from the middle east right the way down to southern Africa. She is completely right about that.

My right hon. Friend is also right to say that impunity must not be allowed to stand on this or any other violent acts. The Ugandans are pursuing the perpetrators. The Ugandan commander-in-chief of land forces has been to the area and was joined by the commander of Operation Shuja, which is the Ugandan deployment in the eastern DRC specifically to combat the ADF. I hope that that, in part, answers her question.

This is a shocking terrorist crime, and I put on record my party’s condolences to the families of those murdered in this horrific attack. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing attention to this crime, which has had too little of that.

The people who carried out this atrocity are not an unknown group. They have already been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Uganda and the United States of America. When will the UK Government finally join those countries in proscribing them too? What will the UK Government do to support Uganda in response to this attack and to the ongoing threats that clearly exist there?

Lasting solutions can only be achieved by Governments in this region with outside support investing in peacebuilding and civic society building. Military cannot be the only option, so does the Minister agree that it would be a mistake to continue cutting aid in the sub-Saharan area and, indeed, worldwide?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, we are deploying very large amounts of British taxpayers’ money in the area, as he suggests, and we are ensuring that we are light on our feet and using that to good humanitarian effect. If he looks at some of the programmes I have announced recently, he will see that they directly affect the humanitarian position, particularly for girls and women.

In respect of what Britain is doing to try to ensure greater security in the eastern DRC and on the border to which the hon. Gentleman refers, although we never discuss proscription and other security measures in advance, he may rest assured that the British Government are fully engaged, not least through the Nairobi peace process, in doing anything that we can to bring back stability to this very troubled part of the world.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this really important question before the House. It is a dastardly and awful attack—it is desperate—and the people living along that border will be fearful for their lives and living with a heightened sense of fear and danger. Could my right hon. Friend set out what measures we are taking across that border between Congo and Uganda to help those people who are living in fear every day?

Britain has been heavily engaged through both the Luanda and the Nairobi peace processes in trying to tackle that very problem, and we will continue that engagement until we are finally successful.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this urgent question. I know that he has been diligent in highlighting these issues, as have so many organisations—such as Open Doors—that have also highlighted the persecution of Christians and other minority religious groups across the world. I chide him in just one way: do not fall into BBC-speak. These people are not militants, but terrorists. They are terrorists who have blood on their hands and engage in the cruellest activities to promote their cause.

May I ask the Minister two questions? First, we have a foreign aid budget, and this is not just about Uganda, but Nigeria and other parts of central Africa where these occurrences are happening almost daily. How can our aid budget be targeted in such a way as to help those who are victims or potential victims? Secondly, it seems that some Governments—either because they do not have the resources or do not have the willpower—are not pursuing these terrorists in the way they should. What discussions has the Minister had to ensure that those Governments take action where possible, and get help from our own Government in doing so?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s last point, as I said, the Ugandan commander-in-chief of land forces has been there, and the Ugandan army is pursuing the perpetrators. The right hon. Gentleman added very eloquently to the statement and comments of our hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, and I very much agree with what he says. On how the British development budget is spent, we spend a great deal of time and taxpayers’ money on trying to stop conflicts from starting, stopping them once they have started, and reconciling people once they are over. That is the aspect of the budget to which he was referring, and I think it is very effective and gives very good value to the British taxpayer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on tabling this urgent question on a topic that I know he is passionate about. We learned from Michela Wrong’s excellent article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs how the M23 paramilitary organisation, which is actively destabilising areas of both the DRC and Uganda, has been given direct economic and military aid supported by the Rwandan Government in a deliberate strategy of President Paul Kagame, similar to that which they abandoned under pressure in 2012. Given the leverage that this Government now have with that regime, what assurances has the Minister—who I believe is an admirer of President Kagame—sought from the Rwandan Government that they will respect the sovereignty of their neighbours in the region, lest we provoke a wider humanitarian crisis in the great lakes?

I expect to see the Foreign Minister of Rwanda within the next 24 hours, and I will say to him what we say to all of those who are engaged in fighting, profiteering or causing human misery in the eastern DRC: that we urge everyone to be part of the Nairobi and, indeed, the Luanda peace processes. We urge everyone to lay down their weapons and allow a peace process, which can also ensure that humanitarian aid reaches people who desperately need it.