Parliament debates persecution – and a new International Religious Freedom Alliance

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“In the wake of recent news that 30 more innocent people were massacred by Boko Haram in Borno State, we reconfirm our desire to work for the freedom of all Nigerian Christians to practise their faith without intimidation, violence and discrimination. We are also calling on the government to step up it’s efforts to stop the killings and abductions of all its citizens.

“To this extent we are pressurising the British, French and American Governments to act swiftly and stop the persecutions taking place within the current government’s administration.

We welcome the recent debate in the UK Parliament, the highlights of which you can read below. During the debate, various prominent MPs spoke of the need to leverage the UK’s influence in Nigeria to defend Christians under attack.

“PSJ UK urges President Buhari to go beyond ‘mere words’ and begin the actual service of robustly protecting all citizens. The longer he ignores vulnerable Christians in the sharia states of the North East, the more innocent lives such as those in Borno will be lost in the harshest ways imaginable. With this tragic loss of life, will come a loss of reputation both for the Buhari government and Nigeria as a whole.

“We commend our British allies for doing everything they can to stop the silent slaughter of Nigerian Christians. By beginning to threaten sanctions (against individuals or the Government as a whole), withdrawing Commonwealth status and making foreign aid conditional on defending subjugated Christians, British MPs are leading the discussion we urgently need.”

Highlights from UK Parliament debate on Persecution of Christians (Thursday 6 February 2020)

Sir Edward Leigh

Warnings have been given by organisations such as PSJ, the Organisation for Peace and Social Justice. That organisation, which campaigns in Europe and the United States and is supported by many leading Nigerians, urges President Buhari to change course and raise his game. Its work is striking a chord with millions on the ground in Nigeria today. So many Nigerians have had their churches, homes, farms and even families taken from them in the harshest way imaginable. I commend the work of PSJ and other organisations, and hope that it can mark the beginning of a new era in Nigerian politics.

An ineffectual Government led by President Buhari have shown little sign of stopping the silent slaughter of the innocent. He has repeatedly paid lip service to possible solutions, but has failed to deliver on any of those vague promises. There are also geopolitical consequences. The President appears exceptionally relaxed about the fact that his border with Chad is porous and undefended, and, as such, it has become a transport hub for Islamist weaponry, intelligence and recruits. Our long-standing connection and friendship with Nigeria means that we are well placed to do something about the unravelling situation. Whatever we do—if we save just one life—it is worth doing. At the same time we can respect national sovereignty, which, of course, we always do. Britain is one of the biggest donors of foreign aid to Nigeria: we give it £300 million each year. Is it not about time that we started to review the conditions attached to that aid, as our partners in America and Europe have been doing so in other contexts? One prominent example was in 2017, when the United States withheld nearly $96 million in foreign aid to Egypt and refused to commit itself to a further $195 million as a penalty for the country’s abysmal human rights record.

More recently, the US Government have proposed basing the apportionment of foreign aid on the way in which countries treat their religious minorities—all religious minorities. The scheme would involve designating a ranking system under which foreign aid handouts could be reviewed depending on the severity of the situation in each country. At this moment, the European Union is also preparing a human rights sanctions regime, which would allow the bloc to target specific individuals in breach of good practice. That regime could be readily applied to many in the Nigerian Government.

We might also consider using such mechanisms to hold Nigeria to account. Adopting that approach would place its Government under pressure to improve. The argument that Buhari needs British handouts to solve ​the problems facing him does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that after years of generous aid packages the massacre of Christians is escalating is a sign that the money we have given him has not been used well. Continued and unquestioned support puts a seal of approval on his inaction. Undeserved aid packages of that kind provide a false sense of security, even when the situation on the ground is worsening.

We can help Nigeria greatly by incentivising it to use its natural wealth more effectively and equitably. It is 146th on the 2019 Corruptions Perceptions Index, and scores an abysmal 26 out of 100 for transparency. By contrast, Pakistan, which has seen horrendous human rights abuses towards Christians—most notably the poor woman Asia Bibi, imprisoned for years under an extremist blasphemy law—is 120th on the index, nearly 30 places higher.

One of the key policy aims of our Prime Minister and his new Government must be to defend persecuted Christians, at home and abroad. He has made some good moves so far, but they need to be backed up with more muscle. It is not that our impression of Nigeria as a resource-rich, joyful, and energetic part of the world is entirely wrong, but if we do not intervene soon, it risks becoming so. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Brendan O’Hara

Last year in Nigeria, more than 1,300 Christians were killed for their faith by ISWAP—Islamic State West Africa Province—or Boko Haram. In Nigeria, more people were murdered for their faith than in any other country in the world. Among them were the 10 Christian men who were beheaded and whose murders were graphically shown to the world in a video released on Christmas day, of all days. Tragically, 2020 has started where 2019 left off. On Monday of this week, the body of 18-year-old Michael Nnadi was found by a roadside. Michael was a seminarian with the Good Shepherd seminary in Kaduna and had been missing since being taken hostage, along with three brother seminarians, by Boko Haram on 8 January. Michael’s abduction and murder are the latest in a long line of atrocities committed by Boko Haram that include the murder of Father Clement Ugwu, the kidnapping of Father John Shekwolo and the continued detention of Leah Sharibu, the only one of the 109 young girls who were kidnapped in 2018 who is still being detained. She is being held because of her refusal to convert to Islam.

Fiona Bruce

First, despite the scale of violence in the farmer-herder conflict, few perpetrators—if any—have been brought to justice. What actions will the Nigerian Government take urgently to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of violence, and what can the British Government do to help?

Secondly, in the farmer-herder conflict there have been many accounts of security forces not being deployed, not acting to prevent impending attacks or, worse still, being complicit in violence. What are the Nigerian Government doing to ensure that security forces respond to violence, and that any members of the security forces who perpetrate human rights abuses or wilfully ignore attacks are investigated and prosecuted?

Thirdly, targeted attacks against churches and heightening religious tensions indicate that religious identity plays a role in the farmer-herder conflict. What are the Nigerian Government doing to address the religious aspects of this violence, and to promote reconciliation between religious communities in Nigeria at a local level?

I turn to the Bishop of Truro’s report, which I warmly welcome. I am appreciative that it is being given attention at the Foreign Office. Specifically with regard to Nigeria, how will the Government ensure that recommendation 7 on genocide prevention and determination and recommendation 21b on bringing Daesh to justice are given full and proper consideration, with particular reference to the increasingly violent attacks against Christians in Nigeria? May I politely suggest that if the Foreign Office is serious about its intention to implement the review’s recommendations, as I believe is the case, its approach could be analysed by a subsequent independent review, with particular reference to Nigeria as something of a test case? Might the Minister be willing to ask her FCO counterpart whether they could rise to that challenge? How will the Government ensure that Boko Haram, Daesh and other perpetrators are brought to account for the atrocities they are involved in? With regard to the Bishop of Truro’s report, what steps will the UK take to ensure that it prevents and suppresses the crime of genocide in Nigeria?

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