28 November 2018
British MPs held a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday titled: “Nigeria: Armed Violence (Rural Communities)”. Jim Shannon, who introduced the debate, asked fellow MP John Howell:”Given his knowledge of Nigeria, can the hon. Gentleman see any reason why the Nigerian Government have been reluctant, unable or unwilling to respond to the high levels of violence?” Howell, the Conservative MP for Henley replied: “That is an interesting question. There is an ethnicity element to it. President Buhari comes from the area that identifies with the Fulani. I am not going to make that point more strongly. I do not know the extent to which that ethnic belonging influences him and his actions. All I will say is that I agree that less action has been taken in this area than anyone would have liked.” It should be noted that Howell is the British government “envoy” to Nigeria. This may have influenced how he answered the question.
Government inaction in dealing with violence from the herdsmen was a running theme though out the debate. Earlier, Shannon, the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) member for Strangford in Northern Ireland, said: “According to some reports, herder militias have claimed at least 6,000 lives since 2011, whereas the number of herders killed is much lower. It is important that such evidence is gathered; one must question why the violence in certain areas of conflict has been so brutal, so devastating and seemingly so one-sided. Why is it that members of religious groups are so often the victims of what is happening?” He added: “On the motivation of certain militias, there seems to be unanimous agreement that the actions of the federal Government and state-level governments have been woefully inadequate, which is a key factor in the violence. The withdrawal of Government from rural areas has led to a collapse of the rule of law in many parts of the country. Security forces have hardly been mobilised—that is a fact—and perpetrators of violence operate with impunity. We need an active police and army presence in areas where these militia groups seem to roam at will. It is unacceptable that so many people should suffer simply because of a lack of political will to help them. It is imperative that much more pressure is applied by the UK and the international community to get the Nigerian Government to formulate a comprehensive and holistic security strategy that adequately resources and mobilises the security forces.”
Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton expressed a concern that the crisis may be escalating towards genocide: “In our meeting with the Minister last week …. I was pleased that she acknowledged that religion and religious identity form a part of the violence and are a cause of it. My concern is that the role they play is increasing, and we need to do more to recognise that; our Government must do the same and press the Nigerian Government to do so, too. There is a real risk of genocide, if indeed it is not already happening.
“I use as my sources of support two reports that have been published in the past week. The first was produced by Aid to the Church in Need and was published last Thursday; I was privileged to attend its launch. Every two years, Aid to the Church in Need produces a report about religious freedom in the world. It is very well resourced, with on-the-ground references throughout. It is a detailed publication, and I hope the Minister will read it. About Nigeria, it says:
‘Assessments of the violence have highlighted ethnic differences between Christians and the Fulanis and disputes concerning the grazing of the herdsmen’s cattle but’—
this is an important “but”—
‘religion seems to have become an increasingly important factor…violence by Fulani militants in Central Belt has terrorized Christians.’
‘Father Alexander Yeyock, parish priest of St. John’s Church, Asso, gave an interview after a Fulani attack in Easter Week 2018 left two of his faithful dead: ‘The attack has two dimensions. The first is to Islamize the Christian community…The second dimension is that Fulani herdsmen want to confiscate our arable land for grazing purposes.’
Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of Makurdi told the African Christian Network:
‘There is a clear agenda: a plan to Islamise all the areas that are…predominantly Christian in the…Middle Belt’.”
Bruce also said: “During a recent discussion, someone from Nigeria said to me: ‘The Fulani herdsmen are far more violent than Boko Haram. Boko Haram don’t mess with them.’”
Chris Law, the Scottish National Party MP for Dundee West made this contribution: “Without doubt, the farmer-herder conflict has become Nigeria’s gravest security challenge. The tensions and violence between nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslim, and farmers, who are predominantly Christian, over land and natural resources have a long history throughout sub-Saharan Africa.”
He went on to say: “Outside this Chamber, very few people are aware of the current conflict in Nigeria, yet we are all very much aware of Boko Haram. Indeed, when researching for this debate, I found only a small number of articles in the press, so the first question to ask is: why is this conflict largely unreported?
In June, 86 people died in just one incident in Plateau state after violent clashes broke out between farmers and cattle herders, and the violence has continued unrelentingly during the second half of the year. It is clear that this violence has evolved from spontaneous reactions to deadlier planned attacks, particularly in Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Nasarawa and Taraba states. The conflict’s roots lie in the degradation of land due to climate change, and increasing violence in the country’s far north, which has forced herders south. As farms and settlements expand, they swallow up grazing reserves and block traditional migration routes, and farmers’ crops are damaged by the herders’ indiscriminate grazing.
Three immediate factors explain the escalation of violence this year. First, there is the rapid growth of ethnic militias bearing illegally acquired weapons—that point has already been made. Second, there is the failure of the Nigerian Government to prosecute past perpetrators or notice early warnings of impending attacks. Third, there is the introduction in November last year of anti-grazing laws, which were strongly opposed by herders, sparking further clashes with farmers.
Nigeria’s Administration, led by President Buhari, have been accused of not doing enough to stop the violence.”
Responding to the points made by MPs, Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa said that “the situation is not a straightforward, binary religious dispute between farmers and herders or Christians and Muslims, although it is sometimes portrayed in that way, particularly in the local Nigerian media.”
Baldwin added: “Colleagues have asked about the role of the UK Government, who are of course extremely concerned about the violence. It is destroying communities and poses a grave threat to Nigeria’s stability, unity and prosperity. It poses significant risks to the peaceful conduct of next year’s important presidential elections; so we take every opportunity to raise our concerns with the Nigerian Government at every level. When the Prime Minister and I were in Nigeria in August, she discussed the issue with President Buhari, and I was able to raise it with the Vice-President and Foreign Minister.”
She concluded with: “What we have heard today is that the causes of this violence are many and complex, and have been fuelled by a wide range of factors. We have mentioned over-simplistic media reporting and inflammatory disinformation on social media, the political context and the frustration in communities with the official response so far. As we go into the Nigerian election campaign period, there is a real risk that intercommunal violence will only worsen and become increasingly politicised.
“The UK believes that Nigeria needs to put in place long-term solutions and that those solutions need to be addressed urgently, in consultation with all groups. That must be done in a way that respects the rights and interests of all groups and lays the foundations for a sustainable and peaceful future for all Nigerians. I can assure colleagues who have raised this important issue in today’s debate that the United Kingdom Government will continue to support the Government of Nigeria as they work towards that long-term strategic solution to the underlying and complex causes of this violence.”