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Persecution of Christians

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 1:52 pm, 6th February 2020

I will talk about our influence on Nigeria and the work of DFID and the Foreign Office, which is a very important point, but I will spend another couple of minutes detailing some of what is going on on the ground.

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 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.