Nigeria: Sanctions Regime — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:00 pm on 23 November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 6:00, 23 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 554150, relating to Nigeria and the sanctions regime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the 220,330 people who have signed the petition—when I last checked it this morning—especially the 853 who are my constituents in Chipping Barnet. This petition has been prompted by disturbing events in Nigeria over recent weeks. There have been widespread protests regarding the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian police, known as SARS.

That unit has a deeply controversial reputation and the hashtag #EndSARS started to appear prominently on social media in 2017. Reports of violence and human rights abuses by SARS date back several years, but these latest protests followed circulation of a shocking video in early October, which many believe shows a man being killed by SARS officers.

On 11 October, President Buhari announced plans to disband the unit. However, such promises have been made in the past, yet SARS has seemingly continued to operate. This would be the fourth time the unit was abolished. Many protesters felt that disbanding SARS—even assuming it happens—would not be sufficient to tackle long-standing problems with police brutality, particularly if SARS officers are simply assigned to different parts of the police service. Activists are now calling a complete overhaul of policing in Nigeria. They also want police officers responsible for beatings, killings, extortion, unlawful detention and other crimes to be held to account.

The protests continued and thousands of Nigerians, mostly those under 30, took part in peaceful marches, candlelit vigils and multi-faith prayer sessions. People came together despite having different social, cultural and tribal backgrounds. Supportive comments flowed in from the Nigerian diaspora around the world, including from celebrities, and the #EndSARS movement quickly widened beyond the initial concerns about policing. It started to capture the general frustrations of a young population demanding an end to poor governance and corruption.

I am afraid, however, the situation became far graver on 20 October when the Nigerian army and police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the Lekki tollgate in suburban Lagos. What happened is disputed, but Amnesty International has tracked events through photos and video footage posted by protesters. These show army trucks approaching the protesters from both sides of the tollgate and blocking them in. Shooting with live rounds started almost immediately with no warning.

A local musician, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, was streaming the events live on Instagram as it happened. She later said:

“There was a guy that was running and he just…he fell, and we looked at him. He was shot in the back”.

Several people are looking for missing loved ones, including Elisha Sunday Ibanga. An eyewitness told CNN that Elisha’s brother, Victor, was shot in the head during the protest and his body taken away. The US broadcaster reported that it has seen and geo-located a photo of Victor Sunday Ibanga lying in a pool of blood and wrapped in the white and green Nigerian flag, one of the same flags held by protesters earlier in the evening as they sang their national anthem. Similarly, and equally tragically, Peace Okon has not seen her younger brother, Wisdom, since he went to the demonstration on the night of the shootings. She said:

“I’ve gone to hospitals, I’ve gone to police stations, I’ve gone to everywhere. I can’t find him”.

It is not clear how many were injured or lost their lives at Lekki, but Amnesty International estimates that 56 people have died since the protests began, and it has documented many instances where excessive and disproportionate force has been used to try to control or stop protests. The shootings at the Lekki tollgate shocked many in Nigeria—it has seemed like the last straw. The Government there have promised judicial panels of inquiry to investigate what happened, but there is widespread scepticism about whether these processes will be effective in holding to account those responsible for the bloodshed and human rights abuses that have occurred. That concern, I believe, is felt by many constituents here in the UK, especially those with Nigerian heritage or family links to Nigeria. That is illustrated by the huge support for the e-petition we are considering this evening, which asks the UK Government to consider imposing sanctions.

As I read it, the petitioners are asking for Magnitsky-type sanctions against known individuals within the Nigerian Government and security forces. There is a recognition that generalised, old-style sanctions applied to the country as a whole might cause hardship to ordinary people not in any way responsible for the problems highlighted by the petition, so this debate is a vital opportunity to hear from the Minister and have her respond to the urgent appeal from the e-petitioners that the Government consider imposing targeted sanctions against certain individuals believed to be culpable in relation to the violent and excessive police response to peaceful protests in Nigeria.

The new Magnitsky sanctions regime started to operate in July, and I believe its creation is one of the best and most important foreign policy decisions made since the Conservatives returned to Government in 2010. It puts us ahead of many other countries in showing how seriously we take human rights abuses around the world; I gather that it even earned us praise from Guy Verhofstadt, which is undoubtedly a rare thing. I believe that the petitioners have a credible case for the imposition of individualised sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes. Of course, I appreciate that there are real sensitivities about anything that might be considered interference in the domestic affairs of another country, especially where there was a previous colonial involvement. However, I still hope that Ministers will give serious consideration to what the e-petitioners request.

My second ask of Ministers is that they provide reassurance about UK aid and security programmes which involve Nigerian police, military and security forces. In their responses to written questions on this matter, the Government have emphasised that these programmes are intended to improve transparency and accountability, as well as strengthen respect for human rights, the rule of law and protection of minorities. However, my constituents who have signed this petition want more clarity and certainty about what these UK programmes have achieved and how they are assessed. They will be reassured if we have a clear statement that UK taxpayers’ money cannot be misused by security forces in Nigeria or, in any circumstances, used on activities that suppress peaceful protests.

My third question for Ministers is what representations they have made, or are prepared to make, to the Nigerian Government about human rights abuses against Christians. Charities such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors have documented a worrying increase in attacks on Christian communities in Nigeria by terrorist groups over recent years, and their plight must never be forgotten.

Fourthly and finally, I ask Ministers to step up engagement with the Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom. There are many British Nigerians who want to deploy their knowledge and understanding of the country to help shape the UK’s response to unfolding events in Nigeria. Worried about the situation and distressed about the Lekki tollgate tragedy and other loss of life, they are brimming with enthusiasm to help, to make a difference, and to be involved in building a better future for Nigeria. In this regard, I particularly want to thank my constituent Lara Ayodeji Akindiji for contacting me to share her concerns and offer her help—her support and briefing for this debate has been invaluable. My final request is therefore to ask the Minister to meet me and a group of constituents to discuss these matters further.

Nigeria is a country with so much going for it: a young and hugely talented population, massive natural resources and a rapidly developing economy. If the #EndSARS protesters secure the reform and improved governance they are demanding, Nigeria could become a formidable economic powerhouse, and the diaspora community here can be a vital bridge linking our two countries in a brighter future of increased trade and prosperity in the years to come.