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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6 February 2024.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:30, 6 February 2024

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and for her other contributions to this debate.

When we visited Nigeria, I remember well the stories we were told by some of the Christians who had been displaced. Those internally displaced peoples informed us that when they were being attacked, the police station was only about half a mile the other side, but while the attack was ongoing, there seemed to be no movement, unfortunately, by the police or the army to reach out and help. It is frustrating that we should have to record such incidents, where the Nigerian police and army have been unable or unwilling to respond when they should. It also annoys me that sometimes the media are silent. It is time for the media to highlight the increasing numbers of murders, atrocities, persecution and kidnappings of young people, as well as the murders of their mums, dads and grandparents.

In Nigeria, 12 northern states have adopted sharia law, even though the constitution recognises the right of freedom of religion or belief—in other words, a right to have a different religion, and not to be subject to another religion in any place. Christians, however, are charged in sharia courts, even though such courts have no jurisdiction over them according to the Nigerian constitution, and even though Christians’ evidence and their testimonies are worth half that of a Muslim. Will the Minister give us some idea of what discussions have taken place between the UK and Nigerian Governments about ensuring that sharia law, contrary to the constitution, does not take precedence over Christians and their beliefs across Nigeria?

A predominantly Muslim ethnic group, the Fulani, have also experienced significant persecution and statelessness across west Africa for several decades. As a primarily pastoralist community, the Fulani have experienced growing disenfranchisement in the country. The marginalisation stems from federal and state government preferences for developing agriculture and the livestock sector, on which the Fulani solely depend. There are other issues, especially ecological shocks from climate change and growing competition for resources. Government authorities have failed to curb the flow of weapons—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—or to protect pastoralists’ property from growing criminality.

We need a strong hand from the Nigerian Government, through their police and their army, to protect their people. What is the duty of our Government here, and of our Army and our Minister? It is to protect our people. I commend our Government for their stance; Nigeria and its people deserve the same.

Open Doors, a charity that I support prayerfully and practically and whose information I highly regard—others in this Chamber have the same opinion—has provided information about other religious minorities that are also being attacked and abducted by the majority groups. Followers of African traditional religions are subject to attacks and abductions in their hundreds—not just ones, twos, tens and twenties, but hundreds. Muslims who do not partake in militant attacks are also vulnerable to attack, because they do not participate.

When we were in Nigeria, we made the case clearly. We met many people of the Muslim faith who told us that they were as absolutely disgusted at what was happening against Christians as we were. We have to divorce those who are involved in terrorist campaigns from ordinary people who have a different faith but do not try to push it on to others.

In the north-west and north-central states, many Muslims have been killed, abducted or forced to flee their villages. Ethnic Shi’ites are banned in Nigeria—again, they deserve to have their faith and to worship their God in the way they wish—and it concerns me when I hear of such things happening.

The Government response to extreme violence against civilians has been insufficient to meet their obligations to ensure security and justice for victims. In the north-east, communities have alleged that Government security forces deliberately avoid responding to warnings of violence until after attacks have taken place. Even when they do respond, Christian civilians have reported that they respond with stronger force to alerts about impending violence against Muslim communities than to violence against Christian communities. That institutional bias must be addressed, as the hon. Member for Congleton said. It is clear that what people told me on my visit to Nigeria happens regularly, which is concerning, so I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Due to the lack of a federal response, some state and local officials have called for civilians to take up arms and defend themselves. Although they do that with good intent—there is good reason to do it—the result is the militarisation of identity groups and an increase in the human rights abuses associated with poorly trained vigilante groups with little to no accountability, so that is not the best way of doing things. It is only right that there is Government enforcement; it is not up to individuals, paramilitary groups or church groups to carry out such actions, but they continue in the southern part of Nigeria.

What worries me is that a conflict that started in the north-east of Nigeria has moved into the centre, and is now moving south. In the south, the Igbo, a largely Christian ethnic group, have issues with political representation, given that the country’s quota system for state revenue distribution privileges the comparatively more populous north and south-west of the country. At the same time, more political, religious and human rights groups are the target of violence. It worries me that the Igbo, the largest ethnic group in the south, are being disadvantaged because they happen to be Christians. No group should be displaced or prevented from accessing aid, grants and advice for that reason.