British MP Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party, representing Strangford in Northern Ireland, opened a debate on “Freedom of Religion or Belief” yesterday in Westminster with: “I want to speak about five issues; other Members will speak about others. They are: the mass violence of armed Fulani Muslim herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria; the criminalisation of blasphemy and religious conversion in Nepal; the continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran; forced conversion in Pakistan; and abuses of freedom of religion by the Eritrean state and the ongoing imprisonment of Patriarch Abune Antonios.
“Sessions of the UNHRC [United Nations Human Rights Council] represent an excellent opportunity to increase international attention on an issue, so it would be remiss of me not to use this debate to shine a light on the growing violence of armed Muslim Fulani herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria. Since 2001, climate change, over- population and extremist religious interpretations have combined to cause mass violence between those two groups in Nigeria’s middle belt. Despite rarely being discussed in the media, the global terrorism index estimates that up to 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began 17 years ago. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of villages, churches, mosques, livestock and businesses have been destroyed, at great cost to local and state economies.
“There is no doubt that violence has been committed by actors on both sides of the conflict, but the Fulani herdsmen militia, armed with sophisticated weaponry including AK-47s, is thought to have murdered more men, women and children in 2015 and 2016 than Boko Haram. We all know how cruel, brutal and violent Boko Haram is. In 2014, it was recognised by the global terrorism index as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world. The scale of the violence is unprecedented. At the federal and state level, the Nigerian Government have long failed to respond adequately.”
Shannon has always taken a keen interest in Nigerian issues and was at an event hosted in Parliament at the end of January this year by Nigeria’s Emerging Political Leaders Forum (NEPLF). His party, the DUP, is a minority partner in coalition with the ruling Conservative Party in the UK. He is also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
Another MP, Bob Stewart, a Conservative representing Beckenham, said: “I am most concerned about what is happening in Nigeria because I do not think we know how many people in the country have been displaced by the violence. It is largely unsung in the press, but having looked at it, I would estimate that at least 50,000 or 60,000 people are displaced for religious reasons within Nigeria.”
Fulani herdsmen-related violence has largely been ignored by the media in the West.
Shannon continued with his criticism of the authorities in Nigeria: “The Nigerian Government have developed neither early-warning systems nor rapid response mechanisms to violence, and the federal police are rarely deployed. That worries me. Actors on the ground who spoke with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom universally reported that when the police are deployed, they stick to main roads and do not venture into more rural areas where the violence occurs. If they do not go where the violence is and try to stop it, it does not work. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the problem. As Nigeria is a member of the UNHRC, I hope that the Minister and his team will urge the Nigerian Government to do more to defend their citizens. I hope the Minister will offer support to help them do just that.”
Fabian Hamilton, the Labour MP for Leeds North East echoed the absence of media coverage in the West: “The violence is on an unprecedented scale, and we do not often see it reported in the media here.”
Mark Field, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister, who was tasked with responding to the issues raised in the debate, spoke about Nepal, Pakistan and other countries, but said nothing about the specific references to Fulani herdsmen and their human rights violations. He said: “The right to freedom of religion or belief is one of a range of human rights that DFID [Department for International Development] takes into account when providing direct financial support to foreign Governments. I cannot speak for my ministerial colleague and hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) or for the Secretary of State, but I know that they will be made well aware of concerns raised in our debate. DFID and FCO officials work closely to focus the minds of Governments of countries that receive aid on the fundamental importance of respecting all human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Shannon ended the debate waxing biblical: “I will just say thanks again to everyone for contributing to the debate, and finish with a quick quotation from Scripture. It is from James 3:17-18:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure;
then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit,
impartial and sincere.
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”