Freedom of Religion and Belief in Nigeria — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:23 am on 6 February 2024.

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Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:23, 6 February 2024

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case, which is one of gravity and importance. I will ask the Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, to write with an update on the representations that we are making through our high commissioner in Abuja.

The UK Government are committed to supporting Nigeria to end faith-based persecution and violence, and to uphold its constitutional commitment to religious freedom for all, as we have discussed. This is a long-standing priority in our partnership with Nigeria. The British high commissioner and his team in Nigeria work closely with local authorities, communities and faith leaders to address these issues, which include wider inter-communal violence and insecurity that exacerbate the threats to religious groups. Some of those trends have been discussed very usefully this morning.

We regularly raise these issues at the highest level. Last July, the British high commissioner raised the report by the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, which was entitled, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? Three Years On”, with the Nigerian President’s chief of staff. In August 2023, the former Foreign Secretary discussed insecurity with President Tinubu and the Nigerian national security adviser. Most recently, the British high commissioner has raised the attacks in Plateau state with the national security adviser and discussed solutions to intercommunal conflict and insecurity.

In all those meetings, we have reiterated the need to uphold the security of all communities affected by violence and to bring perpetrators to justice. We continue to underline our commitment to supporting the Nigerian Government in tackling these persistent security issues.

Meanwhile, we are working to advance freedom of religion or belief through our work on the world stage. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, is here today; she remains closely involved in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries including the UK that are dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

The United Nations Human Rights Council undertook its universal periodic review of Nigeria last month. The UK Government were an active participant in that process, and we remain committed to protecting all human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. It is important to recognise the complex factors that increase insecurity between communities, which have been laid out in this morning’s passionate debate. Religious belief is one such factor; others include economic disenfranchisement, historical grievances and natural resources.

We should remember that this insecurity in Nigeria is deadly both for Christians and for Muslims. We should also remember that intercommunal violence and criminal banditry are a significant factor causing a rising death toll and therefore increasing tensions between communities across Nigeria. These grievances are very easily tied to a community’s religious or ethnic identities, which are of course closely associated in Nigeria; conflicts can therefore take on a religious dimension as tensions build between communities and reprisal attacks take place. I am very grateful to the Opposition spokesperson, Ms Brown, for elegantly laying out the complex set of factors that often escalate economic or geographic conflicts into conflicts of a religious nature.

The hon. Members for West Ham and for Strangford asked about our support more broadly. The UK is supporting peace and resilience in Nigeria through a new £38 million programme that aims to tackle the interlinked causes of intercommunal conflict, including security, justice and natural resource management challenges. That is even more important in the context of climate change and grave water shortage: it will help farmers to access and collect water more efficiently and to provide better routes for livestock. Together, we expect that our support will help 1.5 million women and men to benefit from reduced violence in their communities and will help 300,000 people to better adapt to the increasingly pernicious effects of climate change.

The FCDO has also funded peace-building projects in Kaduna, Plateau, Niger and Benue states that aim to promote tolerance and understanding between communities affected by intercommunal violence. Those projects have included work to train peace ambassadors, including faith leaders, to engage with young people—the vast majority of the population, as was raised in the debate—who are at risk of becoming radicalised.