Mourners at a funeral in Nigera for 17 people allegedly killed by Fulani militants
This description of the devastation of Christian communities in Nigeria was delivered in the British Parliament earlier this month by Sir Edward Leigh.
I had a quick look through Hansard and discovered that I first started speaking on this subject 20 years ago in a debate on the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Frankly, there was little interest from the Government then, but we see much more attention now, which I welcome. There is a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. Numerous charities, such as Aid to the Church in Need, Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, work on the frontlines and raise awareness here, and Red Wednesday, of course, has become an annual fixture. However, I believe that the Government, for all their efforts, could still do more.
We continually underestimate the clout that we have. We gave £463 million to the Government of Pakistan in 2016. The Department for International Development’s planned budget for Nigeria in 2018 was £235 million. We have a long history and tradition of humanitarianism, which we want to continue. These countries have problems and we want to help them, but how are we helping when we are sending hundreds of millions of pounds to Governments who completely fail to protect their Christian citizens?
We should not be afraid to turn off the tap when lives are on the line. We need to question countries with Islamist Governments on why they will not allow the total freedom of worship and religion and equal rights. Surely people everywhere, in every country, province and land, of every faith and denomination, should be able freely to practise their religion or belief in accordance with their conscience—it simply does not happen in the world today. How can we say we really think that if our aid budget does not reflect our thinking and we are not prepared to use our clout?
We sit here today in the heart of a country renowned across the world for our resilience in the face of challenge, and our magnanimity, fairness and concern for the vulnerable—that is all very good. We command one of the most capable militaries on the planet. We are a financial heavyweight, giving hundreds of millions of pounds each year to countries that are poorer than ourselves. That is fantastic, yet in the face of another radical threat to stability in the developing world, our resolve appears to have dimmed and our desire to help been neutralised.
Aside from questions of war fatigue, which I entirely sympathise with, we ought to consider how much more difficult it will be to solve this crisis in 10 years’ time if we do not act swiftly now. Some of us were in the Chamber as our predecessors decried the actions of Saddam Hussein against his own people and the malicious rule of Gaddafi, and we took action. I ask the House: where is that same commitment when it comes to the persecution of Christians? Where is the same loyalty to the victims of the repressive proto caliphate that is developing in the Sahel?
Perhaps we should take some money away from the Governments who are not doing enough and give it directly to people on the ground.
We could spend hours going over many countries in the world, but I want to talk about Nigeria, to take one example. It is a wonderful nation on the west coast of Africa. It is a close partner in the Commonwealth. It is forecast to be the continent’s “breadbasket” within a generation. The UN predicts that Nigeria’s population could be 411 million by 2050 and 794 million by the end of the century. We have many people born in Nigeria or of a Nigerian background living in Britain today, and we welcome all this.
However, in the same way that the recent expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could not have been so easily predicted, we should be careful not to exclude from our view the painful reality that parts of Nigeria are now ripe for an ISIS takeover. I will talk about a few distressing examples—all well documented—from Open Doors and other organisations.
Some 1,300 Nigerian Christians have been killed in the past year, in addition to the more than 6,000 deaths since 2015. The Islamic Fulani, a nomadic ethnic group of about 20 million people across 20 west and central African countries, are, I am afraid, largely responsible for this new wave of attacks. In the last four or five years, growing numbers of them have adopted a land-grabbing policy—motivated by an extremist belief system and equipped with sophisticated weaponry—leading to the massacre of thousands of people and the permanent displacement of vulnerable rural communities.
Despite centuries-long tension between sedentary farmers and the nomadic Fulani herders, recent attacks have exposed the Fulani’s improved military capability and ideological fervour. The Global Terrorism Index in 2016 and 2017 named Fulani militia as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world, with only Boko Haram, ISIS and al-Shabaab considered deadlier. Targeted violence against predominantly Christian communities suggests that religion and ideology are key drivers in the massacre, which is going on in our time and, we might say, on our watch.
In Christmas eve in 2010 in Jos, at least 86 people were murdered and 74 injured in a series of Islamic bomb blasts and attacks, most of them targeting church services. Choir members were hacked to death in their pews. A year later in Madalla, Islamic bombers struck a Catholic church during a morning Christmas mass, slaughtering 45 worshippers and injuring 73 more. The day before, 11 were brutally murdered in Maiduguri, including a pastor and his young daughter who were incinerated in the fire-bombing of three churches. Life can be unpredictably and unbearably short for Christians in the killing fields of northern Nigeria. On the Epiphany of January 2012, 20 Christians who had gathered for a funeral were machine-gunned to death at close range by Muslim terrorists shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and a further 15 were brutally injured. In Rivers State in 2018, Islamic gunmen invoking the name of God opened fire on Christians returning from a church service, killing 17 and raping any vulnerable woman who could not escape.
I could go on and on.
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 has 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 mean 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.
Sir Edward Leigh has been the UK Conservative Party MP for Gainsborough since 1983. This article was first published in Conservatives Global.