Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the missing Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Earlier this year the Select Committee on International Development, which I chair, visited Nigeria as part of an inquiry into the work of the British Government, including both the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, in that country. As part of our visit, in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, we joined the regular vigil conducted by campaigners seeking to highlight the plight of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
As Committee members—I am glad to see so many of them here, as well as other Members from all parts of the House—we made a pledge that we would not forget about the girls or those campaigning to highlight their plight. We have taken opportunities since our visit to raise that with Ministers in both DFID and the Foreign Office. I am delighted—I give my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for this—that we have this opportunity to address this important issue once again.
Let me start by setting out some of the background. As colleagues may know, Boko Haram is roughly translated as “western education is forbidden” or “western education is a sin.” Among other things, we can take western education to mean girls getting an education. On 14 April 2014, Boko Haram militants attacked a government school in Chibok in the early hours and kidnapped 276 girls. At the time, other schools in that part of Nigeria were closed precisely because of the difficult security situation. The reason that the Chibok government school was open and the girls were there was to enable them to take their examinations, and that village was assumed to be a place of safety and security.
Some of the girls managed to escape during the night, but the total number of kidnapped girls was still 219. It is thought that they were taken to the Sambisa forest in the north-east of Nigeria. The forest has been considered by Boko Haram to be a safe haven: it is difficult for the Nigerian military to monitor the whole of this vast area of land. We understand that non-Muslim students who had been kidnapped were forced to convert to Islam and that many of the girls were married off—effectively enslaved to Boko Haram fighters.
It was not until 2 May that year that Boko Haram officially accepted responsibility for the kidnappings. Its former leader made its argument that the girls should not have been in school; they should instead have been married. Later that month, on 26 May, Nigerian forces claimed that they had located the girls but that a rescue operation was impossible due to the risk of collateral damage.
There was then a long period in which very little happened. Very little news came through from Boko Haram, the Nigerian Government or indeed other sources. Then in May this year—more than two years after the kidnapping—one of the girls was found in the Sambisa forest. Amina Ali Nkeki, aged 19, was found with a baby and a suspected Boko Haram fighter who claimed to be her husband. In August, Boko Haram released a video that appeared to show about 50 of the Chibok girls, and a masked fighter said that many had been killed in air strikes and many others had been married off.
The kidnapping of the girls sparked a global campaign: Bring Back Our Girls. I am wearing the badge that I was given when we were in Abuja earlier this year. There was a big social media campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter. The campaign was started by a lawyer in Abuja but it quickly trended on Twitter and became prominent. The official movement was started by Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former Federal Minister of Education in Nigeria and president of the African division of the World Bank. She said:
“The way our Government handled the Chibok girls’ case goes beyond an election matter.”
This was in the run-up to elections in Nigeria. She continued:
“This is not a one-time issue we discuss over elections. We need to have a deeper conversation about what kind of a nation we want to be.”
This was early on, following the kidnapping. She went on:
“Today is day 241 and the girls are still not back. If some people want to move on, it’s their right…But they should remember we moved on when 69 secondary schoolboys were killed, and nothing changed. Do our children now have to choose between getting an education and dying? Some of us cannot move on and accept that kind of society.”
The hashtag was promoted and propagated by celebrities, politicians and others across the world, including our former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), the Pope and the actress Julia Roberts. Perhaps most prominent was the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, who said in 2014:
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education—grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.”
She went on to say:
“Why, two years ago, would terrorists be so threatened by the prospect of girls going to school that they would break into a dormitory in the middle of the night?”
She also said:
“What happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident. It’s a story we see every day as girls around the world risk their lives to pursue their ambitions.”
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
The Chair of the Select Committee is making a powerful speech. I well recall being at that meeting in Abuja with the supporters of the girls, who are dedicated and tireless campaigners. It was deeply moving. He mentioned that this has happened to countless children across the world and that these girls are still missing. Does he agree that it is very concerning that the Department for International Development does not focus more closely on human trafficking, particularly given that we hear reports of girls being trafficked, perhaps for prostitution or servitude, into this country from Nigeria, the very country about which he is speaking?
I am grateful to my friend, the hon. Lady, who is an assiduous and hard-working member of our Select Committee. I pay tribute to her for her consistency in raising these issues in the Committee and the House and with the wider public. I absolutely agree with her. We have seen a greater focus by Her Majesty’s Government on issues around human trafficking, but it is vital that all the different Departments join up their efforts to maximise the impact of that commitment.
The organisation that has been campaigning has aimed to raise awareness of the plight of the girls and to encourage the Nigerian Government to do all within their power to bring the girls back. The United Kingdom Government, along with other Governments including the United States, France, China and Israel, have all contributed significant military and economic resources to the region to support the attempt to find and rescue the girls. A regional taskforce was launched with Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, amassing almost 9,000 regional troops to force Boko Haram out of the Chad Basin National Park. There has been concern among parliamentarians globally. For example, the European Parliament passed a resolution two years ago calling for the
“immediate and unconditional release of the abducted schoolgirls”.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the UK Government’s role in seeking to find the girls. Last year, the UK sent around 130 military personnel to Nigeria to assist in training the Nigerian military. The UK and the US have provided counter-terrorism support and advice and, importantly, support and advice on hostage negotiation and victim support capabilities for Nigeria. Additionally, the UK has invested around £5 million in supporting the multinational joint taskforce set up by Nigeria and its neighbours to combat Boko Haram. From our point of view on the International Development Committee, we welcome the UK’s role in humanitarian relief for those most affected by the insurgency, which we set out in a report published earlier in the summer. That money is being used to provide food, water, sanitation and emergency healthcare for up to 7 million people across Nigeria.
I will also mention, in particular, the safe schools initiative in Nigeria, which has helped more than 90,000 displaced children return to school and provided them with the learning materials and teachers needed, including those giving psychosocial support. DFID has played a role in supporting that project as well, and we welcome the support that DFID and other parts of the UK Government have given.
The United Nations appeal for Nigeria is not fully funded and we urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that it is, including by other countries. At the world humanitarian summit in Turkey sin May, commitments were made to address education in emergencies. We think it is crucial for the UK Government, and for DFID in particular, to use their resources and influence on other donors to ensure that the “Education Cannot Wait” fund is properly supported and quickly operationalised so that interruptions to education caused by conflict are minimised to no more than 30 days.
We know that in Nigeria, in that region and in other parts of Africa and the middle east, increasing numbers of children are spending a large part of their childhood, or their entire childhood, as refugees or internally displaced people. It is vital they get that access to education as they grow up, and we therefore recommend that DFID scale up its support for the safe schools initiative, as well as engaging with and supporting the special investigative committee appointed by President Buhari of Nigeria to assess the safety of schools in that country. Our recent report also recommended that DFID continue its support for work to address the drivers of conflict through the Nigerian stability and reconciliation programme.
Since the kidnapping, the Nigerian Government have pursued a military campaign against Boko Haram. They have been able to free other women and girls who have been held by Boko Haram, but none were the Chibok girls. We know that Boko Haram has continued to kidnap women and girls in the north-east of Nigeria. We also know that it has been affected by internal strife and a leadership struggle following its pledge of allegiance to Daesh last year, which resulted in an internal division in the movement. It remains the case that only one girl has escaped from the original 219. There have been sightings of the girls, including by a former clergyman, Stephen Davis, as well as by citizens in Cameroon and Chad.
During his inaugural speech, President Buhari committed to redoubling the Nigerian Government’s efforts to find the girls, saying Nigeria will not have
“defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls”.
We know that, because of the conflict in Nigeria, nearly 1 million school-aged children have been forced to flee their homes. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “‘They Set the Classrooms on Fire’: Attacks on Education in Northeast Nigeria”, 600,000 children have lost access to learning altogether. We know that teachers have been killed and have had to flee, and that attacks in the north-east of Nigeria have destroyed more than 900 schools and forced a further 1,500 to close.
Today’s debate is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the strength of cross-party commitment in the House to this important movement and campaign. Last year at the United Nations, the countries of the world came together and adopted the sustainable development goals—the “global goals”, as they have become known. Among those goals are commitments to global education, gender equality and, in goal 16, to
“Peace, justice and strong institutions”.
There can be no better way of demonstrating our commitment to those goals than maintaining the campaign to ensure that we “bring back our girls”.
Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. As the chair of the Select Committee on International Development, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), set out so eloquently, on an International Development Committee trip to Nigeria in March, we had the honour of meeting a small team of dedicated, passionate campaigners. On arrival at the hot and dusty venue I could hear them chanting and singing. Every day, the small group of mainly women, but with some men, meet at Unity Fountain in Abuja. They campaign for the return of the 276 girls taken from their school by Boko Haram on 14 April 2014. Shortly after the abduction, 57 of the girls escaped. As we have heard, one more escaped in recent weeks, but 218 girls are still missing.
The girls from Chibok were just like our girls. They were daughters, they were granddaughters, they were sisters, they were cousins and they were nieces, and they were loved by their families. They had been encouraged to embrace education, and they had, and their families had. They were preparing for their final school certificate when disaster struck. Notwithstanding world condemnation, and the support of Michelle Obama, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) and a host of others, the girls have still not been returned. It is believed that many are likely still to be held by Boko Haram. Many will be pregnant as a result of rape, often by different men, and we know that many have been forced into marriage. Some have been used as suicide bombers. Some are very ill. Some are HIV-positive, and some have died as a result of physical and mental abuse.
The Chibok girls are a small proportion of an estimated 2,500 women and girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014. As they return, many face discrimination and rejection by their communities. Some fear that the girls have been radicalised. Others believe that the children who have been conceived will be the next generation of fighters because they carry the violent characteristics of their biological fathers. As a result, children, babies and mothers face stigma, rejection and further violence when, as victims, they should be getting all the help and support they need and deserve to move on with their lives and reintegrate.
For the families of these girls, the pain is hard to imagine. With every reported sighting and every video released, hopes are raised for something positive to hold on to, but then quickly dashed. One father described it as
“like being beaten and being stopped from crying”.
One mother, who had identified her daughter in the most recent video, sent a video message back. She said:
“From birth, I have been planning for you—your life, your education, your health…Until now, I have not seen or heard anything from you. But I believe that one day, I will fulfil that, my promise to you, and I will see you again, and my happiness, my joy, my life will be complete with you.”
I stand in this great hall as a mother, a daughter, a sister and a politician. I can actually still hear the chants of those Nigerian women at Unity Fountain. I can still hear them saying, “Bring back our girls now and alive. Bring them back now,” over and over and over again. Rarely have I witnessed such strength and determination.
Now, with the second anniversary of the girls’ abduction having passed, the families and campaigners need world support. They must raise awareness further and keep the issue in the spotlight. They want people everywhere to write, email, tweet with the hashtag #BBOG and hold rallies, vigils, talks and Google chats. We need Governments and agencies around the world to share credible intelligence and all the latest eye-in-the-sky technologies to find these girls and to bring them back home. Time is running out. Every single day, there is more suffering. Decisive action is needed now, and terrorism cannot be allowed to succeed.
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing this extremely important debate. He is a fine Chair of the International Development Committee, and it is a pleasure to serve on that cross-party Committee with him and other colleagues. I would particularly like to thank the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who has just given an extremely poignant speech that almost brought me to tears.
I have a strong interest in this matter. As colleagues have described, earlier this year I visited Nigeria with the International Development Committee, where we met with the Bring Back Our Girls campaigners, whose tireless work keeps the Chibok girls’ memory alive. It has been now more than two years since the Chibok girls were abducted by Boko Haram from their school in northern Nigeria. Other than a few who escaped, they have not been rescued or returned. It is not fathomable for those of us living in the west that our child could be abducted from school for the proposed crime of seeking an education, or that girls, by sole virtue of their gender, should be denied that education. The pain suffered by the parents, who wanted the best for their girls and sent them to school, never to return, is unimaginable. What has become of the Chibok girls during the past two years remains largely unknown.
We visited schools that have bravely dared to reopen since this atrocity occurred, and we spoke with Nigerian politicians about the current status of girls’ education in Nigeria and the continued fight against the brutal extremism of Boko Haram. Arriving in northern Nigeria was daunting, to say the least. I have never been anywhere where the security was intensified so significantly for myself and the group. We were given security briefings, transported in armoured vehicles, had body armour fitted and were protected by armed guards. That shows just how difficult and risky the situation remains for citizens in Nigeria and particularly for young girls at school.
We visited two schools in Kano, one a state school and the other run by the local church. Both were co-educational, although it was difficult to fathom whether the curriculum differed for boys and girls. We were told that early marriage remains the norm for girls in the north of the country, due to both cultural and religious beliefs, which interferes with the length of girls’ education and therefore the intrinsic value for parents of sending them to school at all. Millions of children are still not recorded as being in school, and those who are experience overcrowded classrooms of 100-plus children.
There are significant problems for the Government in providing quality education, due to a lack of teacher training and resources. Cultural beliefs, security issues and lack of future opportunity present ongoing barriers to sending girls to school in Nigeria. The girls we met, from primary to secondary level, wanted to learn, had aspirations and voiced ambitions to become hairdressers, nurses, teachers and doctors. It was depressing that despite their ability, ambition and motivation, they were unlikely to realise their dreams.
Meeting with the Bring Back Our Girls campaigners in Abuja was one of those moments in life that grounds you. They have been campaigning for the return of the Chibok girls for more than two years and have pledged to keep the girls’ memory alive outside Parliament until they return. Realistically, hopes have become slim. The Government have reported no new leads, and we were told that it is highly likely that many of the girls have been married to Boko Haram soldiers, incurred sexual violence or even been killed. As we heard, one of the girls was recently located with a child. Given cultural beliefs, it is difficult for her to reintegrate into society, such is the stigma of her situation.
Meeting Government officials in Nigeria was equally sobering. A new Government have heralded renewed efforts to tackle the country’s problems, including corruption going up to the highest levels of society and inequality. They should be commended for that. However, the lack of female representation in Parliament is stark and has actually reduced since the current Government came to power. Equality issues do not appear to be high on the agenda, and without concerted efforts to increase women’s representation at all levels of society, it is difficult to see how culture will shift and the lot of young girls within Nigeria be significantly altered.
The Chibok girls who were abducted hold the same value as girls across the world. It is hard for me to believe that if this had happened elsewhere in the west, more would not have been done to bring them back at an earlier stage. The new Government have reportedly increased efforts to improve security and to tackle Boko Haram, with limited success—but some success—so far. People we spoke to said that they now feel more able to go out after 6 o’clock, though security issues remain paramount. Some parts of north-eastern Nigeria were completely off limits due to security issues. The population remains displaced and the schools in those areas closed. There is a long road to tackle extremism in those areas, to offer alternative hope and to support the population out of poverty.
I urge the Minister to keep these girls at the forefront of our minds. Pressure from international Governments appears to have dissipated over time, and it must be resurrected to give hope to the Chibok girls and to girls across Nigeria and the developing world. The parents we met despair, but they will never give up hope for the return of their girls.
John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate, which is very timely and on an issue that we should not forget. I am very grateful to him. I thank too all those who have contributed so far and made valuable points. I do not want to say anything that might diminish their points, which I fully support. The situation is tragic not just for the girls, important though that is, but for their families. Some speakers have given weight to the fact that we are talking about girls who are daughters, cousins and members of larger family groups. That is an important feature of Nigeria.
In my short contribution, I want to widen the debate, pick up some of the points about the underlying cause of the situation and try to give some guidance on how it might be prevented from continuing. I do that in my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria. I have just come back from a visit there when I was able to raise this on several occasions with Ministers and businessmen operating there. First, I want to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby about the success the Nigerian Government are beginning to have against Boko Haram. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) pointed out the large area that it still covers, principally because Nigeria is a very big country, but Boko Haram is being contained. I like to believe that our advice on counter-terrorism and our practical assistance to the armed forces in Nigeria are helping to do that.
All that is good, but it is not enough and the underlying causes of Boko Haram need to be examined. It seems from conversations that Boko Haram’s terrorist threat is linked to the economic situation in the country. The hon. Lady mentioned some of the issues that contribute to that, one being the extent of corruption in a country where 40% of oil revenues are stolen before they reach the Revenue. That is a phenomenal amount of lost revenue that the country could use in the fight against Boko Haram by making conditions much better for people. We must give all the support we can to President Buhari and his Government who, after all, came to power on an agenda to tackle corruption. He is doing that effectively as far he can.
Hon. Members have mentioned peace and justice and I want to pick up on the justice elements because the British judiciary is participating in projects to toughen up the Nigerian judiciary and to give it the ability to tackle these problems in its courtrooms. All that is an important contribution to the work of President Buhari and his Government to try to increase the extent to which the country is tackling underlying causes.
Secondly, the problems in Nigeria will not go away until the currency has been sorted out. Earlier in the year, the Central Bank of Nigeria stated that it would introduce a flexible currency for the future, but we are still waiting for details of exactly what that means. Until then, British companies will resist going into the country. This market will have 400 million people by 2050 and has enormous opportunities for British companies that want to go there. Dealing with the currency problem will have the enormous advantage of ensuring that companies go in sooner rather than later, and by going in sooner they will exert influence over the Buhari Government and their successors and start to take action themselves.
My third point is about the prosperity agenda, which goes across Government and includes the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. Its purpose is to increase the country’s prosperity. All trade envoys are looking out for opportunities to encourage the use of the prosperity agenda, particularly for training.
All that leads to stability in the local marketplace and that too helps the situation. But it is really important that we concentrate on ensuring that the prosperity does not go to just a few rich Nigerians. Boko Haram has such success in the north of the country because it is one of the poorest areas. If that wealth is spread more effectively, we will begin to see the erosion of Boko Haram and, I hope, release of the girls.
I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s expertise in the area. It was marked during our visit that there is little electronic transfer of money in Nigeria. I am wondering whether progress been made on that because the Government were unable to collect many of the taxes that were due because money was being bartered and there was no record of it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I wish I could answer yes, but I cannot. The situation is confused and in the last few weeks it has got worse for electronic transfer of money. That, too, is something the Buhari Government must concentrate on to make sure there is a free-flowing money system that will tackle directly the Boko Haram challenge and hopefully lead to release of the girls.
I want to pick up on a point that the hon. Lady made about equality. During one of my visits I went to LADOL, a deep-water offshore oil and gas company run by a woman who trained as a surgeon in Oxford. Although she has two brothers, she was invited back by her father to run the company because of her undoubted ability to do so. It was a great pleasure to see her. She set us up with a long line of inspections of the army, the police, customs officials and taxmen, all of whom were stationed on her free trade island in the lagoon at Lagos. Believe it or not, I had to take the salute. It was fascinating.
At a dinner with Nigerian businessmen afterwards, I asked why this woman was not in the Nigerian Parliament and the answer was simply because she is a women. It was as bold and as simple as that and came from prominent businessmen in Nigeria. I do not think they approved of that and I think they took the view that it was bad, but that the fact that she was there—admittedly she was an exception—was a move in the right direction towards more equality.
There is a trend for the middle classes in Nigeria to come to London. While I am a trade envoy, I want to take London to Nigeria because I firmly believe that will build a stronger middle class in Nigeria which will help to press for release of the girls and the ending of the Boko Haram menace.
Also, to the extent that I have not had the opportunity to do this so far, I would like to have discussions with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby offline, because anything that I can do when I go out there to push this agenda forward, I will very happily do to ensure that this issue is taken up and pursued with equal vigour by President Buhari and his Government and the British Government.
DFID does and has done a number of things in Nigeria that I want to pick up. One is that, since 2011, the incomes of 1.1 million people have been raised by up to 50%; 200,000 of them were women. That is a very good targeted use of our money in that country. Similarly, in terms of the focus that there has been on state budgets, looking at both education and health, that money has been extremely well spent. It is useful to reflect that the work being done on privatisation of the power sector also has an effect. It, too, leads to a much broader and more secure economy that helps tackle Boko Haram and this whole issue. I understand that DFID now spends more than 60% of its funds in Nigeria in six northern states, which I think is a very good move. It is one that I am sure we all, across the House, will support and, hopefully, enjoy.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), the trade envoy to Nigeria. He is absolutely right to highlight the important point that the new Government were elected to deal with corruption and the economic situation in an oil-rich nation that does not distribute its wealth among its own people.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I want to return to our visit to Nigeria, when we met, in the country’s capital city, the campaigners for the release—the freedom—of the Chibok children. It was a very emotional meeting. Like many colleagues, I have had the pleasure over the years of listening to some prominent speakers, but the tone that those campaigners set and the words that they uttered will remain with me for an awfully long time. I stood there listening to my colleagues speaking alongside the campaigners, and I did so as an uncle and a father, not as a visiting Member of Parliament. I listened to the chanting for the release of these children.
The British Government have a proud record of investing in the human development, through education, of people across the globe, including in Nigeria. On the International Development Committee visit, we visited many educationists. We met politicians, including the vice-president. We met a number of people, and it was stark that there were very few young people under the age of 35 in Parliament—I believe that the constitution does not allow those people to represent their country. There were also very few women in either House of Parliament. We met people from both Houses while we were there.
Education is so important. It is vital that we get educated young people in Nigeria, including women, coming through to represent their people, so it was hard to take the situation in. These young girls had committed no offence whatever other than to attend school to educate themselves. Their brave parents had sent them to the dormitories and have never seen them again. Hundreds of children were abducted by a terrorist organisation. There is no nice way of putting it—it is a terrorist organisation.
I would be abdicating my duty as a parliamentarian if I did not repeat something that some of the fathers said to me: “When you return to your Parliament”—we made this pledge and are honouring it today—“think about this. If there had been children there from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel or other countries that have been involved in working hard on this, would there have been extra effort by the Nigerian Government to release these children?” I know that it is not easy—I understand economics and the terrain and the geography—but these are young human beings. We, the international community and the British Parliament, have a proud tradition of working to release people in such circumstances.
I am sure that the Minister will make an eloquent speech when he winds up this important debate and will tell us about the work that is being done behind the scenes. We understand that, and we understand that the expertise is being used in a positive way, but parents are still without their children. That is the fundamental argument in this debate. These young people were not unlike any young person in this country attending their school. I say to anyone who is an uncle, a father, a mother, a niece or an aunt: just think of how the relatives must be feeling, having been without their children for two years. Then there is the indignation at this terrorist organisation releasing videos and using the children as political pawns on TV in their own country. The international community has to do more to work with the Nigerian Government to get them released.
On the issue of corruption, we met the police, and a new unit is being set up. The new President, Buhari, was elected to eliminate corruption, but he pledged swift action to release these children as well, and the campaigners are angry with their own Government. I am not angry with our Government, because we are doing a lot of work in Nigeria, including on education. We must provide not just basic education for children but basic safety, and we must work with the other members of the international community and with the Nigerian Government to provide a setting for children and young people to become the parliamentarians and businesspeople of the future. They need that basic education and that basic safety.
I will not echo the eloquence of other speakers who have given a breakdown of what has happened in Nigeria, but I do want to echo the sentiments of the campaigners we met in Nigeria. They are honest, decent people whose only sin was to send their children to school. Think about that. I say, in the best British tradition, that this Parliament today stands shoulder to shoulder with those campaigners, and we ask for the release of those schoolchildren today.
Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
I was mightily relieved earlier when I did not have to follow the very moving speech by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant)—that was a tough act to follow. I pay tribute to everyone who has spoken today, but particularly to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the whole International Development Committee for not forgetting about these parents and children. I have many Nigerian constituents and friends, and I know that it matters so much to them.
It is important to point out that although anyone watching might think that this is an empty Chamber, two debates are going on today and constituency work is also going on. We are not the only people who care about this issue. I have had incredible feedback from members of the Scottish National party group and other groups. I want us to put that message out there to anyone watching: this is just a tiny snapshot of all the people who care about this issue.
I am privileged to be able to contribute to this debate—indeed, to any debate in this place. I am privileged because I am one of an appallingly small number of women in the world to hold elected office. In fact, it is estimated that only 22% of all parliamentarians globally are women. As a woman, I am also, apparently, privileged to have benefited from education, and from higher education in particular. As we have heard, other women and girls across the world have not been so lucky.
The missing Chibok schoolgirls were brutally torn from their families and their lives for no worse crime than accessing the education that we all take for granted and have done all our lives. They were kidnapped by a group that prioritises the prevention of a secular education but particularly prioritises the prevention of any education at all for girls. That is in a country where opportunities for women to achieve a reasonable standard of living are already scarce.
Any reasonable person would find it difficult to comprehend the motivations of the men who commit such acts. Acts of barbarism struck sufficient terror into the heart of communities that schools were shut down lest their children be kidnapped or murdered. Such acts of terrorism, and this one in particular, would not easily be forgotten had they occurred in this country. Two years on, it is vital that we continue to remember these girls, that we work to ensure that this evil act remains on the news agenda and that Governments across the world continue to exert pressure to target this crime.
I welcome the support of the UK Government and others for the Nigerian military. I call upon the British Government to ask whether, in addition to what we have heard they are already doing—they are doing a lot to help—it is possible to do anything to increase the international pressure, provide assistance to the Nigerian Government and help bring back the girls. If it is, I urge them to do it.
I also ask the Government to consider supporting the Nigerian Government in re-establishing education for the millions of people displaced by terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa. I know they are doing some of that, and clearly the priority in this debate is the missing girls, but female education has become almost non-existent in the areas terrorised by Boko Haram. The thousands who have had to flee—both boys and girls—are also now without an education. But the large-scale displacements of people to areas not affected by Boko Haram mean that there is also the freedom to ensure that those displaced people are allowed to be educated. I wonder whether our Government could do anything more to support them to do that, until those people are safely returned home and can be educated in their own towns and villages.
There are 62 million girls around the world aged between six and 15 who are not in school. We know that educating girls does amazing things for the societies in which they live. It correlates with an increased GDP, it provides better outcomes for girls and women themselves and it leads to healthier children, because a mother who can read instructions on a medicine bottle, for instance, is a mother who is more able to protect the health of her child. It is clearly worthwhile for all Governments to work to support girls’ education across the globe as part of their efforts to promote development.
It goes without saying that the pain and anguish that a family go through when a child is missing must be unbearable. “Unimaginable” was the word used by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and that is probably the best way to describe it, because I bet it is a million times worse than we imagine it to be. I cannot even begin to comprehend the suffering of parents who live every day not knowing whether their children are safe or in danger, dead or alive. It does not matter whether someone lives in a tiny village in rural Nigeria, a penthouse in Paris, a trailer park in the US or a mansion in rural England, everyone would feel the same unbearable pain. The powerful words of the mother mentioned in the moving speech by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald could be the words of any parent anywhere.
However, I worry that Nigeria seems so far away, and the lifestyles of the families so far removed from our own, that we are in danger of allowing ourselves to forget what is happening and of putting it out of our minds because we do not relate to the parents in the way that we might relate to someone in Europe or the US. We all remember the terrible, tight knots of dread we had in our stomachs when the news broke of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. When Sarah Payne was kidnapped and murdered in July 2000, our country was shaken with grief and anguish for her and her family. When it transpired that Jaycee Dugard had been kidnapped and held hostage for 18 years in California, shockwaves reverberated around the world—rightly and understandably so. But in this one incident in Chibok in Nigeria, those terrible crimes were repeated over and over and over again, and they continue to be so.
These Nigerian families sent their children to school because they hoped and believed that getting an education would allow their girls to get on in the world. Two hundred and seventy six girls were taken in total. As we have heard, 57 escaped the same day, and one managed to do so two years later. That leaves the families of more than 200 young people utterly devastated. Some of the girls are said to have died at the hands of their kidnappers or in bombing campaigns against Boko Haram, but nobody knows for sure. Despite not knowing where these girls are, we do know that some have been forced to change religion, some have been raped in forced so-called marriages and all have been forced to live transitory lives in forest regions far away from their homes, families and everything that is familiar to them. They are each somebody’s child, and they must be terrified. They must wonder whether their families have given up on them or are still looking for them, because who knows what their captors are telling them.
The nightmare goes on for all these people and their families. Let us resolve today to do everything we possibly can to help bring them back to their families and, in their honour, to support education for the displaced people in Nigeria and for girls right around the world.
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important, timely debate. I thank all my friends here—those who visited Nigeria as Committee members and others from whom we have heard—for their contributions, which were very emotional and touching. People can feel what is involved with this issue only if they have seen it. I saw it when we went to Nigeria: the emotions, the way campaigners presented themselves and the honesty in their moves.
As a grandfather myself, with a 15-year-old granddaughter, let me say this to Members: imagine that your child, your granddaughter, was taken away from you—the child that you love so much—and that you did not know where the child was now. That is what the people were telling us; as a human being—as a father or grandfather—I was imagining what it would be like not to know what was happening to my child and to feel so helpless about their safety. That was the feeling and it is what has given Committee members—those who have spoken in the debate—the commitment to come back to see what else we can do.
Every Member who has spoken has given the details and set the scene: the country, the way the Government operate there, the corruption and the north-south divide. People there are still talking about out-of-date ideologies. They are not talking about the 21st-century society we want to live in, where the whole world is coming together to make sure that everybody has equal rights and where, as we put it, nobody is left behind. There are many slogans and sustainable development goals: all the world leaders have signed up and given the commitment that every child will be protected, and that there should be education for all and the elimination of poverty. Yet in some areas there are still individuals and ideologies that do not want their girls to be educated or to live free from fear of terrorism. We have been fighting inequality for years in the western world, and now we are talking about how best we can improve that—not only here, but throughout the world.
The time has come for the whole world to come together. Those girls must be waiting for someone to release them. The parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters are waiting for someone to bring their children back. Some Members have said that for reasons to do with culture, faith and many other traditions, the girls who come back are badly treated and not accepted. We need to advocate the protection of those who come back and look at how to bring them back into society.
I am proud that we have offered nothing but unwavering support for the families of the girls and aid to the Nigerian Government as we continue to lead the international effort to secure the girls’ safe release. I commend DFID for providing consistent aid through development and for working alongside intelligence and military teams that have been key partners of the Nigerian Government.
I am pleased to say that the Government have taken further actions to ensure that schools become a safe place for all children. The safe schools initiative has proved successful in helping more than 90,000 displaced children to return safely to education. However, it is important that we do not stop there. I recommend that we increase our support and aid to this troubled region, as there is still much to be done.
President Buhari has appointed a special investigative committee to evaluate the vulnerability of education facilities. I hope that DFID has already taken steps to communicate effectively with this group in order to influence the Government’s policy decisions. Safety in schools is undoubtedly paramount to future regional development. Given the tendency of Boko Haram to target schools, we must be able to ensure that children will be safe in their place of education. Although we will continue to support the Nigerian Government’s efforts to bring the girls home, it is key that we stress the importance of education and the protection of women and girls from violence.
While some state governments in Nigeria have been unable to provide adequate schooling for children, I am concerned that the private sector provision is not in keeping with the sustainable development goals’ commitment to leave no child behind. I therefore urge DFID to focus on how to help the Nigerian state governments to improve their public sector education provisions. By continuing to offer assistance for the provision of safe and successful schools, we are ensuring that children in Nigeria have access to a proper education. We hope that in our efforts, we will encourage even more Governments to offer their help.
While addressing these appalling acts of terrorism, we must not in any way fuel Islamophobia. It is clear that the actions of such a group lack genuine ties to Islam, which teaches the benefits of an education for women. This group is based on an outdated and cruel ideology, at odds with morality and the modern world. It is our duty to do all that we can to ensure the girls’ safe return.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the International Development Committee, ably led by its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), on bringing this important issue to the House today.
I want to touch on some of the wider issues, following the line of argument made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on why what happened is a symptom of some of the other challenges in Nigeria. I have a very strong interest in Nigeria. I am proud to represent one of the largest diaspora groups in the UK. I am a former chair of the all-party group on Nigeria, which I chaired for five years, and I had the pleasure of visiting Nigeria on three separate occasions.
In 2014, I hosted an event on the issue of the Chibok schoolgirls; we had a representative from the Nigerian high commission and a lot of diaspora Nigerians present in the room, where there was palpable upset and anger. I will touch on this further, but this was really at the beginning of a rise in feeling from the Nigerians politically against some of the actions of their then Government.
It is also worth highlighting Nigeria’s huge importance both to the UK and to the region, as Africa’s most populous nation. It is a key player in security and potentially in trade in that region. Our last Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), signed a concordat in 2011 with the then President Goodluck Jonathan to double bilateral trade between our countries. Although that seems a bit distant from this tragic kidnapping—218 girls are still missing—it is related and I will go on to explain how.
The hon. Member for Henley, with his vast knowledge and experience, highlighted the issue of companies from Britain seeking to invest in Nigeria. We have heard on a number of visits and in events here how British businesses are put off going out and working with Nigerians and putting their energy into boosting the Nigerian economy because of security and other issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby set out the detail of the terrible, large-scale kidnap that took place. As so many others have eloquently highlighted, that act rightly shocked the world, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) rightly said, although this was the most terrible and awful action, it is not the only act of terror against children in Nigeria. Other schools have been attacked and pupils have been brutally murdered and abducted.
That was forcibly brought home to me when I was working with a group who had come to London at the behest of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. It was a cross-religious group of Muslims and Christians, working for a fortnight to develop skills to try and tackle extremism at its root cause. One of the members who had come over—her nephew had been brutally murdered in his school bed—brought home to us very firmly the human reality of what is going on in Nigeria. In 2014, more than 2,000 people were abducted, so although the Chibok girls are the visible sign of that and rightly attracted international attention, let us not imagine that that is the beginning or the end. Even if they are happily returned to their families, we should not rest there. I think we would all agree that we need to keep vigilant.
The key issue is how to tackle Boko Haram and stem the threat of extremism in Nigeria and the region. I welcome the UK Government’s support for military training and the commitment in December last year to increase that. Is the Minister able to give us an update? We know that it is a very challenging arena to work in and, of course, the issue is about collaboration and not about us going and telling the Nigerians what to do. Nigeria is a sovereign nation and it is important that we recognise that, but there is a resource issue and I would be interested to hear from the Minister what more is happening.
I am very pleased that DFID has increased its spending in Nigeria, although my love for Nigeria means I am sad that that is still necessary. However, the decision was made following a needs-based assessment and it is great that DFID is helping to tackle poverty, disease and to improve education, particularly for girls.
On one of my visits, I went to a school in the Kano area, in the days when it was easier for Members of Parliament to travel around the country. There was a training programme there, funded by DFID and delivered partly with Save the Children, to get more girls trained to be teachers, because girls were not going to school in parts of the north of Nigeria as their parents were not keen for them to be taught by male teachers.
The girls were in a compound with barbed wire—not particularly, in those days, because of the security threat from terrorism, but because their husbands and fathers would not have let them come to be trained as teachers if there was any risk to them in cultural terms. It was effectively a brutal chaperoning system—“brutal” in that there was barbed wire—to make sure that those girls were completely protected. They were ambitious young women. I was there with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), and we were talking to them as women to women.
We were quite shaken when the woman running the programme said to them, “Remember, when you go back to your village, be yourselves. Don’t try to be too ambitious.” Part of her role was to get them to go back and be teachers, and to stay doing that, but when we were talking to them we found that those young women had ambitions to go beyond teacher training and do other things.
As two British female MPs who have worked hard, and had a good education and the opportunities that life in this country has presented to us, we understood but were shocked at the limits being put on women around the world, although in that case, perhaps, that was to give more women opportunities. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East highlighted, an educated woman—the first educator of her children—can deliver so many things, including knowledge of healthcare.
On my last visit to Nigeria, I went to Minna, and saw parents taking control of the school in their area. They were helping to run the school, a bit like a super parent-teacher association, working with the headteacher to ensure that young women who might be hawkers on the roadside were scooped up, gathered up and put into education. I spoke to parents of three-year-olds who were keen for them to get an education.
Let us not kid ourselves: education is a huge prize in Nigeria. Why do schools in my area do particularly well? We always praise schools in Hackney and we know that lots of things have gone into that, but one factor is that we have a large west African population, who prize education and whose children strive to achieve with great parental support. That is no different in a village in Minna than on an estate in Hackney. I also had had the opportunity to visit some of the human rights policing work. Small scale but important activities are going on with the support of the Department for International Development.
I turn to inequality and sexual exploitation. During a visit to Nigeria with the former Africa Minister, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), I heard that perpetrators of sexual offences against young girls were getting off with a fine less than the price of a UK parking ticket because the shame on the family of having a prosecution and evidence that their daughter had been sexually molested was too great. That is some of the backdrop to the attitude and challenges for women in Nigeria, and they are big challenges.
There are other complications, such as security. Nigeria has a large and porous border. I have had security briefings and it is mind-boggling to imagine. It is not just that Nigeria is a huge and populous nation, but that the border with Chad and other countries to the north is long, porous and challenging to police. Will the Minister update us on any work that the UK is doing to support the Nigerian Government in managing those border challenges, as Boko Haram go in and out of the country causing havoc?
There is huge poverty in Nigeria. Most Nigerians live on less than $1.50 a day. There is a lack of investment in infrastructure because, sadly, so much corruption still exists. In fact, when I was in Minna with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, she bartered to buy some juicy mangoes. We worked out that they cost less than 20p each, but by the time people got them in Nigeria—if, for example, sellers got them to Lagos through various police checks by paying bribes—they would cost too much to make it worth the while to transport them.
A mango costs about £1 in Ridley Road market in Hackney and about £1.50 in Sainsbury’s. Challenges such as the lack of infrastructure and corruption create difficulties for things such as exports, which would help to boost the economy. I do not want to digress too much, but that is certainly a big element of tackling poverty, and I refer hon. Members to previous reports of the all-party group.
There is now a big north-south divide in Nigeria. The north is much poorer, less well educated and at greater risk from Boko Haram. It has a young population in great need of skills and training. Those girls who were at school to get the skills, training and education they needed to contribute and help to boost the north of Nigeria have still not been returned to their parents.
I mentioned the impact of the Chibok girls on the attitudes of Nigerians. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby highlighted, the situation had a big impact on the Nigerian election and was one of a number of factors that influenced the outcome, unseating the People’s Democratic party for the first time since the re-establishment of democracy. Yet, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said, women are still woefully under-represented in the Nigerian Parliament. From my visits, I know how much support is still needed to support democracy at all levels.
Women politicians in Nigeria face challenges including open discrimination and physical attacks. While we in the UK are sensitive to this, particularly recently since the death of our colleague, the situation is nowhere near the same. We do not feel that same fear when we walk out of our doors. We do not face the challenges that our female colleagues in Nigeria do. Although changing that would not have solved this issue, it is an important backdrop.
The poorest communities need hope, infrastructure, education and jobs. Although the Nigerian Government are doing their best to tackle the rampant terror in the north and the activities of Boko Haram, they are still some way off resolving it. I suspect it will be years, if not decades, before that is challenged. Perhaps the Minister can give us an update. The terrorists exploit poverty and it is important that the international community fights poverty with the same vigour as it fights the military might.
It is important that we unite to tackle Boko Haram. Think of the poor Chibok schoolgirls and the anguish their families are facing: there is a real risk that such things will continue to happen unless the root causes—poverty and terrorism—are tackled. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I rise, as the third party representative, to sum up this debate, which is a hard task. I congratulate everyone, especially the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—the Chair of the International Development Committee—and all the members of his Committee who have given such eloquent and heartfelt updates on their experiences of visiting Nigeria. I apologise if I miss out anything significant. I got so involved in the debate that I forgot to take as many notes as I normally would.
The work that Governments here do to support countries abroad is a great credit to them and to this House. However, today we are here to talk about the missing Chibok schoolgirls who were brutally kidnapped by Boko Haram. As all hon. Members have said, it is almost inconceivable and unimaginable to think about what those parents and families are suffering, and about what has happened to those girls—girls who are the same age as the granddaughter of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). I have grandchildren. In fact, I only have granddaughters, and it tears my heart to think that they could have been in such a position. As a developed country, we must and should do everything we can to support any country that has to go through this.
The Chair of the International Development Committee gave a full and heart-rending explanation of the Committee’s visit and of all the things that have happened. On the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, I confess that I simply tweeted, retweeted and did not know enough about what had happened. Rest assured, I will become more involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, the representation in this room is not representative of what this Parliament wants to do and the support it wants to provide. We need to think about how the situation affects us, but we must understand and address the basic concerns of what has happened in Nigeria and the reasons why. We are talking about poverty, cultural issues and the role of women and girls in society, which we really must push forward.
I will briefly mention those who have spoken. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) gave an emotional account of what happened to her when she went to Nigeria. She focused on the families’ suffering, as did many other hon. Members. It is really important that the girls are not forgotten and that the issue keeps getting raised so that more can be done nationally and internationally, and that it never leaves the public imagination here and abroad. It is only with continuous pressure and real hard work, which has already been done by the members of the International Development Committee, that the girls may have the possibility of being returned.
I return to the status of some of the girls who have come back from similar incidents and how the culture and society in Nigeria work against them. They are seen not as victims but as tarnished people who cannot take back their full place in society. That is an abomination in any country, and we need to fight against it.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) gave a good overview of his role as trade envoy and of how by having more trade with Nigeria, and by dealing with the trade issues there, we could produce more prosperity, which might help culturally and even educationally. If people have more money, they are likely to be more educated, which will also change cultural attitudes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East spoke more generally about the role of educating mothers. My parents were told many, many years ago, “If you educate your daughter, you educate the family.” That is so true. She gave the simple, illuminating example of a mother being able to read the instructions on a medicine bottle. What a difference it makes to a family if the mother can do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who is a member of the IDC, gave a full and heart-rending account of her visit and the security issues involved in making even a simple visit to northern Nigeria. All Committee members are to be commended for their bravery and dedication. To go through that and to come back with a burning desire to help even more is commendable.
It is also important that all those who have spoken have congratulated the UK Government on what they have done so far while appealing to them to do even more to help. We understand that forces have been sent to help, to train and to try to find and rescue these girls, but the girls have not been rescued because of the terrain and all sorts of other reasons. We must not give up on these girls.
Once again, I commend everyone who has spoken in this debate for substantially raising awareness. Two years on, these girls must not be forgotten.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will be brief so that the Minister has time to respond to the specific points that have been raised. I am grateful to the Chairman of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for securing this debate. As ever in Westminster Hall, this has been a cross-party and collegial debate.
I will press the Minister on a couple of points about the assistance that the Government are giving to Nigeria. Will he comment briefly on the larger number of 276? Is he aware of the services on offer to the girls who have returned, particularly post-traumatic services? Does he believe that the services funded through the DFID budget are of high quality? Will he briefly touch on both the Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office budgets being spent on assisting with the logistics of finding the girls who are still missing in this huge terrain?
Will the Minister comment on the sensitive matter of returned girls who want to terminate their pregnancies? What choice of healthcare is on offer? Will he comment on those who, through ostracism in society, are sadly facing destitution? What sort of basic welfare is available to these girls? Some of those who have returned are being ostracised. That information comes from House of Commons Library research and the Guardian article by Chitra Nagarajan, who has underlined that although some girls have been returned, and we hope more will, those crucial services must be in place. High-quality, long-term, ongoing care, in which the UK has expertise and which we are in a good position to offer, would be valuable. By providing such care we could rest assured that excellent services are available when more and more of these girls are returned.
I address my other short point not to the Minister but to our Government’s trade envoy, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). He has an important role to play, and I am pleased that he has emphasised that the Nigerian judiciary has a role to play in strengthening the effectiveness of the rule of law. Will the Minister outline how the roles of the trade envoy and the FCO will be co-ordinated so that we strengthen our messaging when officials and envoys are in Nigeria so that these issues are discussed at every single opportunity, not just Government to Government or military to military, but in a genuinely co-operative and co-ordinated response?
It depends on the cheekiness of whoever is the trade envoy. In my case, I take everything under my own banner and I do a bit of the co-ordination myself. If I can continue to do that, so much the better.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to be as cheeky as possible.
Once again, I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. I apologise for not having a chance to mention everyone, but I particularly thank the three Members who were there and who heard the chanting. They are wearing their badges today. Listening to their speeches was very emotional.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important debate. He does incredible work as Chair of the International Development Committee. He raises the interesting concept—I do not know whether we can formalise it—that when the Committee makes such a visit perhaps there should be a more formal opportunity to present its findings, rather than simply producing a standard report. Members on both sides of the House have articulated a sense of knowledge and expertise, as well as a commitment to really understand these issues and to press the Government, and indeed the international community, to see what more we can do. Hearing people say that is more powerful than any report, even though the report is valuable, too.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading the Committee’s visit in March. It was clearly very productive. I join him and other hon. Members, some of whom are wearing their “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign badges with pride to raise the campaign’s profile—as has been mentioned, the campaign has reached the White House and elsewhere—in reminding people that it has now been a couple of years since the horrible abduction of these missing children. I am pleased that we have this opportunity to debate the matter, which allows me, as the Minister with responsibility for Africa, to place on the record what the Government are doing.
There has been a huge number of questions, as there always is. I will do my best to answer them in the time provided but, as usual, I will write to Members in detail if I am not able to provide the necessary full answers here today. We were all very moved by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). She has a powerful understanding of what is going on, and she provides a level of expertise and a forthright understanding of what is actually happening there, not least the power of the campaign. I pay tribute to her for raising this matter again and again. We all owe her tribute for her work.
The hon. Member for East Kirkbride (Dr Cameron) made it clear that we know very little about what has happened to these girls in the past two years. We absolutely do not know. Anybody who is a parent or who has a sister can only guess what these people are going through and enduring. We need to provide mental support when the girls return because there is no doubt that they have been mentally scarred by what they are going through. That is very important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and I had the opportunity to discuss Nigeria only a couple of days ago, when we had our first meeting in the capacity of inviting trade envoys for Africa to the Foreign Office. It was timely for us to engage on that matter. I join others in paying tribute to his work. He reminded us of some of the underlying causes that must be dealt with, not least the economy. We can try to defeat insurgencies militarily, but ultimately, we must give the people and communities something better to look forward to. They need a way of life that is successful and more attractive than that offered by an extremist organisation. The detailed knowledge that he brings is much appreciated.
My hon. Friend mentioned the huge challenge that the size of the country presents. I will touch on that a little later. The scale for the military combing through the various parts of Borno and east Nigeria is immense, which is why the international community must work together. Once we have done that and created an umbrella of security, that is when an economic strategy needs to kick in. The ingredients are there. Nigeria is a powerful country in Africa. As he highlighted, there is much that we can do on bilateral relationships. He has illustrated clearly that he is the right person for the job, and we will continue to work with him.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), if I have pronounced that correctly, spoke about the value of the Committee’s visit in March. I have underlined why I appreciate its work. He emphasised that there are parents out there who are missing their children. We are debating the issue and highlighting it, and there are people watching and discussing it, but there are also parents who are aware every single moment of the day that their loved ones are missing, and we should be conscious of that.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) underlined the value of this debate. She is right that Thursday afternoon is not always the busiest—there are other things going on across the estate—but it is important that we debate such matters, and I hope that we will have a regular opportunity to discuss the wider issues to do with this part of Africa as well as the plight of these schoolgirls. She is right to remind us of that.
The hon. Lady also discussed the call for increased international assistance. At the UN General Assembly in a couple of weeks, we will hold an event to rally further support for what we are doing to assist Nigerians in defeating extremism and freeing the girls. She also highlighted the importance and value of education. If I may, I will write to her in more detail about the DFID programme that is in place and how we are making huge efforts to provide education, particularly to girls, so they can have the best opportunities in life. I will be in touch with her.
The Minister is making an important point. I am sure that Committee members will join me in paying tribute to the DFID and Foreign Office staff in Nigeria, who took us to meet the campaigners. No stone was left unturned; we saw at first hand exactly what the campaign is about and the programmes to make things better.
I absolutely concur. I am grateful that that could happen. Looking through my notes, I can see that we have provided support for more than 300,000 additional girls to attend primary school in Nigeria and that more than 50,000 girls have benefited from safe space interventions, which provide training and support to help their confidence and improve their skills, as well as the opportunity to seek work. DFID is providing a package of measures. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development visited Nigeria only a couple of weeks ago, I understand. I must catch up with him before my own visit there in the next month or so. This debate has been timely, as I will need to raise these matters when I visit the country.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) spoke of the international community’s wider requirement to work together. Members have been generous in supporting the Government’s initiatives, but ultimately, the more we can lead by example and encourage other countries to join us, the more leverage we have, not just in the military component but in all the other aspects that we have been discussing.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) gave another great example of the expertise that she brings to the house as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. She was also the first speaker to touch on the importance of the diaspora in this country and the relationships associated with it, separate from the bilateral relationship, the prosperity agenda and so forth. I pay tribute to the pioneering work that she does to ensure that those relationships are strong.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke about the underlying problems. I will come to that in a second, because it is important to dealing with areas of instability and conflict, which are an incubator for extremism. She gave an important list, including poverty, cultural issues and the role of women and girls in society. In the 21st century, it is important that we can articulate that from an early age, which is exactly what some DFID programmes are doing.
Finally, I turn to some of the questions raised by the Labour spokesperson. Her speech was quite short; she caught me off guard a little by stepping back, but she clearly wanted to give me the most time possible to answer the points. She spoke about post-traumatic services, which must be considered. I do not have the details, but the former Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, raised with President Buhari our concern to ensure that that package of measures is in place. Again, when I go on my visit there, it will be on my list.
I understood that the debate would finish at 3 o’clock, but we now have loads of time for interventions. Will the Minister write to the Committee members and to me about the exact provision for women, particularly in relation to some of the healthcare issues that I mentioned, including post-traumatic support and counselling and the depth of those services? It has been highlighted in press reports that some of that provision is not necessarily reaching the ground, and it should be ready in case other girls return who have been abducted or radicalised. We would like the detail.
The hon. Lady has explained why she made an uncharacteristically short speech, thinking that the debate would be curtailed at 3 when we actually have more time. I will certainly be able to discuss other things, if there are more that she was hoping to present.
The hon. Lady raises some important questions about post-traumatic services and the role of the envoy. If I may explain, when I invited a number of the Africa envoys to meet me as the Minister for Africa, I wanted to know what the formalities were and how we could utilise them. In his own way, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley put his finger on the point: it varies incredibly according to the enthusiasm of the individual tasked with the job of envoy. I would like to elevate it to a much more formal role, so that envoys are tasked by the Prime Minister, occasionally get access to the Prime Minister at No. 10 to share their thoughts and have to write reports. I understand that none of them has to do so. We have not only a gifted but a committed envoy, who has attended this debate, but there is no requirement for any of the trade envoys actually to produce any work. I think that that is wrong.
We are considering ways we can work together on a more formal footing to leverage the role, because it is important. As we have seen, envoys can get amazing access. Because it says on their business card “Prime Minister’s envoy”, they get incredible access, and that needs to be leveraged appropriately.
May I suggest that the Minister not only reaches officials but goes to small business communities, which provide huge opportunities for applying pressure in regional ways? They go into communities in much more depth.
Another point I want to make concerns linking the trade envoy with the all-party group and the Chairman of the International Development Committee and its members. We are all here, so perhaps we could establish a reporting-back system by trade envoys to the Select Committee and to the APPG on occasions, if that is permitted, so that the informal networks that operate among parliamentarians can be enhanced and we close the gap.
The hon. Lady is making up for the shortness of her speech with the length of her interventions, but they are welcome. There are useful observations and initiatives to be pursued there.
The Minister is absolutely right when he says that the trade envoy has unparalleled access in the country. It is unparalleled access to Ministers—indeed, right to the top—and to the companies that are there, big or small. I have already been twice to the APPG and I want to continue to do so, provided I do not have too many reports to write.
I think we have some momentum there and certainly some ideas that we need to formalise. That is very much appreciated.
At the core of the problem is not only the challenge of a country that has to deal with the corruption and red tape that we see in many countries in Africa, but the blight of extremism in the form of Boko Haram. Unfortunately, as we have seen with al-Shabaab, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis and Daesh itself, extremist organisations take advantage when there is a power vacuum. They offer something else to the local indigenous people. They say, “Believe in me and I can give you something else.” Unless there is something else as an alternative, they will always win. And—dare I say it?—we saw that in Northern Ireland with the IRA when youngsters saw nothing else on their agenda or in front of them but to join a club, extremist though it might be, because they felt part of something and they got cash and status. That is what is happening in the north-east of Nigeria, and that is what we need to change, as it changed in Northern Ireland. It is a challenge that the international community must face. It is the responsibility not only of Nigeria, but the international community, because the consequences are that the trouble bleeds into neighbouring countries, triggering a refugee crisis, which bleeds into other parts of the world and across the Mediterranean, as we have been.
Boko Haram’s violent insurgency has resulted in more than 20,000 people being killed in Nigeria and caused more than 2 million people to be displaced. I understand from the UN that 9 million people are in need of assistance across the Lake Chad basin. UN reports also confirm that about 250,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition in the Borno state alone.
As has been mentioned, 276 Chibok girls were abducted in April 2014; 57 escaped and one has been confirmed dead, which leaves 218 still missing. It is the figure of 218 missing that has prompted today’s debate.
Boko Haram has been around for some time. It was formed in 2002 as a Sunni fundamentalist sect, but it has developed into a Salafist jihadi group. It seeks to attract people to join it and to take over and push back the legitimate Government. Today Boko Haram officially refers to itself as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, because it has decided to join Daesh/ISIS. I am afraid that organisations that are not necessarily attractive themselves are joining that international franchise in the hope that they will then get further funding and advice on how to move their extremism agenda forward. That is of interest to all of us because of where it leads. That is why we have to work not only in Nigeria but in Libya, in Sirte, and wherever the black flag has been taken over by a local terrorist group to further its cause. It is why we are joining with others on the military side and providing intelligence as well.
The international community has responded, as we have heard today. In January 2015 a joint multinational force was formed with units from Benin, Cameroon and Chad, and with Nigerian forces as well. We have provided assistance in three forms, which have been mentioned in the debate. The first is in a military capacity. We have more than 300 personnel involved in training and advising the Nigerian armed forces. We are also providing huge levels of intelligence, although I cannot go into too much detail about that here. Thirdly, and of most interest to the International Development Committee, there is the humanitarian support. There is no doubt that the Nigerian military and the international force have made progress, but, as has been outlined, Nigeria is a massive country. It has often been the case that when the forces have been able to clear an area and move forward, they have not been able to hold it, and that has been a problem. We are getting far better, but it is a challenge. Unfortunately, Boko Haram continues. There was not only the event in 2014 that we are discussing; the horrific attack on the UN convoy that took place in August is an illustration that it remains very active indeed.
We are providing a wide range of support, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby outlined articulately. We have provided support in hostage negotiations, for example, as well as financial support, military support and humanitarian aid, which I will touch on in more detail. The UK has increased its support to £32 million over the next three years. It is not my call—it is DFID’s shout—but we are looking to see what more we can do. That will be subject to debates that we will have at the UN General Assembly, but there is a desire to do more, so I am pleased that this debate can help to frame where some of the extra resources can go.
There has been a series of ministerial visits. Baroness Anelay, the Foreign Office Minister in the Lords, visited in February. The former DFID Minister, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), visited prior to the change in Prime Minister. As I mentioned, the current DFID Minister with responsibility for Africa visited a few weeks ago, and I will be going in the next month. That shows Nigeria that we care about what is going on. It also allows us to influence in the best possible way how we can support that country along the three tracks that I mentioned—economic, humanitarian and military. We have pushed back Boko Haram, there is no doubt about it, but we have not completed the job yet.
Clearly, as many hon. Members have illustrated in the debate today, we will not defeat Boko Haram militarily. What we have done is not enough. Boko Haram will simply reform and recruit if something better is not put in place. There needs to be economic development and civilian-led security so that people genuinely feel safe. They want not military people in green uniforms but civilian operators, with gendarmes policing and so forth.
We also need improved governance. We need councils and mayors in place, and for governance to work, we need people who are respected and not corrupted to make the local decisions. We need better delivery of basic services such as education and health, which are the basic pillars for any community to be able to move forward. The Nigerian Government recognise that and have been open and have put their hands up about where support is required. That was outlined in the Abuja regional summit in May, and there will be further big conferences with a focus on that issue. Our support reflects that approach, in the sense that we are placing our focus not just on the military but across the piece. As I mentioned, these matters will be considered at the United Nations General Assembly, and I hope that that will deal with not only Nigeria but the whole Lake Chad basin, because there is a need to see things in context.
This has been an extremely important debate, and I am pleased to have listened to the contributions, because of the depth of knowledge shown in them and because Parliament is demanding a commitment from the Government to continue focusing on the matter and make it a priority for Africa.
The Minister has been very keen to get other people doing extra work—the Select Committee, the envoy and others. Does he intend that after the debate, in the new climate, a Foreign Office statement should be made so that the campaigners who asked for the debate—we are honouring a pledge to them—can hear that the British Government stand in solidarity with them?
I should be more than delighted. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are slightly disingenuous, as I was not trying simply to outsource work. I am going to go to Nigeria myself to see what I can do. I like to think that given my close relationship with my DFID counterpart I can again focus on this issue, which the United States is also keen to look at.
Mr Virendra Sharma
I hope that at this important time, with the visit next week, the Minister will be able to visit the group to show his solidarity and commitment.
I have actually made that request already. We will already have fed that in and said that it is important that I get to meet the group, as the Committee did.
As for a statement, I shall look at the best timing. Rather than simply providing an update, which I think I have done, we need to confirm that there are new steps being taken. I have spoken about our desire to do something, and when that is articulated and formed a statement can be made to update the entire House. I agree that that would be a useful move.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby for obtaining the debate, and to all those who have supported it and made contributions. I have outlined our commitment to continuing to support Nigeria in its quest to defeat extremism.
We have had an excellent debate, with powerful, well informed and sometimes, understandably, emotional contributions from across the House. I thank everyone for their participation, but particularly members, or those who have recently been members, of the International Development Committee, including those who are here in another capacity and therefore cannot take part in the debate.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Africa Minister. One of the themes of the debate is that it is important that we work together cross-departmentally. An increasing proportion of overseas development assistance will now be delivered through other Departments as well as DFID. The Select Committee wants to make sure that we work together to scrutinise the other Departments’ expenditure, which obviously includes the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I echo strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), a fellow Committee member, said in tribute to the Foreign Office and DFID staff on the ground in Nigeria. We had fantastic support from them for our visit earlier this year, and they are a fine example of how the two Departments can work together on the ground in an integrated way on behalf of the British Government.
Many broader issues were raised by several Members, and in particular by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I hope that we shall have an early opportunity to consider some of the broader challenges that Nigeria and west Africa face, such as economic challenges, the trade issues that he is working on, broader issues of education and women and girls, health challenges, and the challenge of supporting the Nigerian Parliament and further strengthening democracy in the country. I should welcome the chance to address in the House many of the issues dealt with in the Committee’s report published earlier in the summer.
I want to finish with two points. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) spoke about the diaspora voice, and it is important that it should be heard on such questions. My friend, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), is one of a number of Members who have Nigerian family connections, which added extra power to her brilliant speech. Just before the debate I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who also has connections in Nigeria, as does the new shadow Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor). Hearing those voices in the House is important, but so is hearing them in the wider community.
The debate has demonstrated the strength of commitment and feeling across the House. We need to get back to the focus of the Bring Back Our Girls message. I welcome what the Minister said in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn—that he will find a suitable opportunity to set out on behalf of the Government their continued commitment on the issue. I hope that we have demonstrated today that Parliament shares that commitment. We send out from Westminster Hall this afternoon this message—that we want, as our badges say, to bring back our girls now. I look forward to a future debate in this Chamber or the House, where we can celebrate the return, and the reuniting with their families, of those girls who are still alive; I look forward to making that stride towards gender equality, and towards education for all children, but particularly for girls, in Nigeria.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the missing Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria.
This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.