House of Lords Oral Question on Fulani militia attacks in Nigeria

Baroness Cox
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of recent developments in Nigeria, with particular reference to attacks by Fulani militia.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, we remain deeply concerned by the escalation in intercommunal violence across Nigeria, which has a devastating impact on lives and communities and is a barrier to Nigeria’s development. While religion is a factor, the root causes remain complex and include access to resources, population growth and displacement due to climate change and desertification. We are working closely with international partners and the Nigerian Government to develop measures to address the causes of the conflict, including the national livestock transformation plan.

Baroness Cox (CB)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that since the Fulani insurgency began, thousands of Christians have been killed in the Middle Belt region? That includes about 300 killed in Kaduna between February and April this year. Also, on 14 April, Fulani militia invaded Nasarawa, killing 17 people, including a 100 year-old man, and a girl whom they raped to death, and on Good Friday, another dozen were killed in Benue.

Given that the Government’s interim independent review into the global persecution of Christians has found that religious hatred plays a key part in these killings, does the Minister agree that while other factors may be involved, the asymmetry and huge scale of attacks by well-armed Fulani upon the predominantly Christian communities has a significant ideological base that must be acknowledged if the issues and the suffering are to be addressed appropriately—such as the Nigerian Government’s responsibly to ensure that it will be safe for thousands of displaced Christians to return to their homes?

​Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. It is exactly why the Foreign Secretary and I were intrinsically involved in that decision, and initiated the independent review of Christian persecution around the world. The interim report is not just sobering, it is actually pretty horrific in terms of the numbers. We are talking about 200 million Christians around the world being persecuted in some shape or form because of their faith.

The example of Nigeria is a very stark one. The noble Baroness knows Nigeria well. This was a focus area for my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit, and I assure the noble Baroness that any of the organisations that seek to represent or hijack a religion are doing so erroneously. It is important for all communities, all faiths, to stand against them. I am of course referring to Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa. Through development, diplomacy, and security initiatives, we will defeat these radical extremist groups once and for all.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
My Lords, Nigeria is a valued member of the Commonwealth and as such, has signed the Harare Declaration and all other relevant declarations, yet Nigeria is mentioned by Open Doors as among the 50 worst countries in the world in which to be a Christian. What have the Government done, consistent with their new policy on religious persecution, to assist the Government of Nigeria to fulfil their commitments under the Commonwealth? Does the Commonwealth have a role in this tragedy?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
First, I totally concur with the noble Lord. Membership of the Commonwealth brings additional responsibilities for any country wishing to be an active and fully engaged member. I assure him that we are working closely with the Government of Nigeria. President Buhari himself has condemned these clashes. There is also an initiative from the Christian vice-president, who is taking forward a national strategy to address the issue of violence directly. He has already engaged directly with governors. We are also providing support and assistance to communities on the ground to ensure that those communities—be they of whatever religion, Christian or Muslim—can work together to defeat the scourge of extremism. This is a long process; that does not mean that we bail out at the first challenge. I fully accept that the situation of Christians in Nigeria is dire, but it is important that we engage even more forcefully now to ensure that we can beat the groups which seek to destabilise Nigeria.

Baroness Berridge (Con)
My Lords, as a fellow officer of the APPG it was a pleasure to respond to the request from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for the group to launch an inquiry into this matter. The evidence has been that the violence goes across many states but that it is complex and various factors are at play. One key theme has been that the perception is rising that religion is a motivating factor, due to the use of social media, fake news and, often, the lack of capacity in civil society to investigate what is happening. Whatever part religion actually plays, in and of itself, the perception that it is playing a heightened role is a concern. Will my noble friend the Minister please ​outline what funding from the FCO and DfID can be given to civil society in Nigeria to increase its capacity to get accurate information about these attacks? Many of them, particularly Muslim-on-Muslim attacks, are going underreported in Nigeria.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My noble friend is quite right to point out the extensive level of support. I assure her that our work in Nigeria represents, I believe, the fifth-largest DfID support programme and our second largest in Africa. Various organisations are engaged on a series of initiatives; whether we are talking about schoolchildren, teacher training or building community capacity, we are working at all levels. When my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Nigeria, he went to Maiduguri and saw directly how the UK is contributing to a programme for Nigeria to fight against terrorism. Again, we have emphasised the importance of the British Government standing in support of all initiatives. We are working with a raft of organisations on the ground and I will write to my noble friend in that respect.

Lord Chidgey (LD)
My Lords, in answering the Question that I put to the Minister last December, he said that the development of policies and plans with European partners to address the escalation of violence and deaths in Nigeria was “work in progress”, and that the Nigerian Government were planning to introduce a Bill to address the events that have occurred between the Fulani and the farmers. Can he confirm what progress has been made in developing these policies and plans with our European partners since then, and advise how much, if any, of the £150 million of new British aid announced by the Foreign Secretary will be allocated to these projects?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Lord is correct to ask that question. Progress is being made; obviously, the election in Nigeria may have caused certain things to come to a halt but there has been a renewed focus. I have already referred to the vice-president’s initiative. On the Bill that the noble Lord refers to, we are providing direct assistance to the communities affected. Consideration is currently being given to that very Bill, which will look at, for example, grazing reserves, routes and cattle ranches, to ensure that we can address the issue of land in Nigeria.

9 May 2019