British MP Carol Monaghan, of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and representing Glasgow North West, said on Tuesday that “Nigeria is one of the countries where Christians face the greatest degree of persecution”. The MP was speaking during a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on “Christians Overseas”.
The debate was called by the Conservative MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp, asking the House of Commons to consider “the matter of the persecution of Christians overseas”. Philp echoed comments made earlier this year by former defence minister Theophilus Danjuma, who accused the Nigeria army of collusion with Fulani herdsmen in committing mass murder. The MP said: “I deliberately chose the examples that I gave earlier because in all of them a Government—a nation state’s Government—failed to take action to protect Christians being persecuted, whether it was those army units in Nigeria standing by and doing nothing..”
Preet Kaur Gill, the Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston added: “We have clearly seen a considerable increase in attacks by armed Fulani herdsmen on predominantly Christian farming communities in northern Nigeria. To get an understanding of the scale of these attacks in the past three years, I note that the Fulani herdsmen, armed with AK47s and in some cases chemicals, are believed to have killed more men, women and children than Boko Haram.”
Her comments were supported by Jim Shannon of the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP), representing Strangford in Northern Ireland: “In Nigeria, Christian farmers and others have been murdered in their thousands by the armed Fulani militias.”
Conservative MP John Howell from Henley attempted to put a positive spin on events in Nigeria: “The largest Christian community in Africa is in Nigeria, a country for which I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy.
“The centre and south of Nigeria are tolerant places where faiths live side by side in happiness. The problem comes in the north and north-east of the country, where there is a great deal of radical Islamism. Christians are caught in the crossfire there between ethnic or illegal groups as they pursue their vendettas against other groups.
“Nigeria did not stand by, however, after an attack on a Christian church. The President was summoned to Parliament and he condemned the attack in the strongest possible language. The Parliament suspended its sittings for three days. Before it did that, it passed a no-confidence motion in the security chiefs. That is a strong indication of the feeling across the whole of Nigeria—we should not forget that the President is a member of the Islamic faith—that the attack on the church was not to be tolerated.”
Martyn Day, another SNP MP, responded with: “Earlier this month, I had the privilege to meet the Reverend Yunusa Nmadu, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide Nigeria and general secretary of the Evangelical Church Winning All, who gave me an insight into the awful situation facing Christians in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country. I was told of the worrying rise in the number of young Christian schoolgirls being abducted and then subjected to forced conversion and forced marriage. I heard about Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among the Dapchi girls abducted by Boko Haram on 29 February, who remains in captivity.
“The rise in attacks by the Fulani militia was also highlighted to me. It is reported that since 2011 such attacks have displaced some 62,000 people and left 6,000 dead and many more injured, in what observers have described as some form of ethnic cleansing. In the same timeframe, the Fulani herdsmen have destroyed some 500 churches in Benue state alone.
“I trust that the Minister will be able to use this Government’s influence to encourage the Government of Nigeria to meet their constitutional and international obligations to uphold freedom of religion and belief for all citizens. The examples that I have highlighted just touch on the issues in Nigeria, but there is certainly a great need to press the Nigerian Government to overhaul their existing security arrangements, so as to protect vulnerable communities from the threat posed by the Fulani militia.
“I hope that the UK Government are able to raise those concerns, and that the Minister will join me in urging Nigeria to tackle the proliferation of small arms and to address the violence caused by the armed bandits and the Fulani herdsmen, among others.”
Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP for Meriden added: “The 2018 world watch list names Nigeria as the country with the largest number of Christians who have been killed, at 3,000. In fact, 6,000 people in Nigeria have been killed by the radicalised Fulani herdsmen since 2011. Can the Minister give us some assurances that the Government will examine the spread of such terrorism into the centre and south of Nigeria, since those parts of Nigeria have ceased to be the focus of the Department for International Development’s responsibility? Nigeria is a vast country that lies on a fault line between Islam and Christianity. There should be very real concern in our country about Nigeria, which, after all, is a Commonwealth country upon which we should be able to bring some pressure to bear.”
But there is little concern about the human rights of Nigerians within British government circles. Theresa May’s government is more concerned about British business interests in the country. Mark Field, the government minister available during the debate, responded with what is known as “defensive lines” in Whitehall-speak: “I should at this point like to touch on the situation in Nigeria— an issue that a number of Members expressed concern about. In addition to the challenges presented by Boko Haram, particularly in the north and on the north-eastern border with Cameroon, Nigeria faces daily violence in its central regions between Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders. That cycle of violent clashes has resulted in countless deaths, particularly in recent years, and even in the destruction of entire villages, which we of course condemn.
“I fully understand the concerns that have been raised. I should stress that this is a long-running conflict with complex causes, including land, farming rights, grazing routes and access to water, as well as the religious divisions referred to. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I warmly welcome President Buhari’s engagement on the issue. It is imperative that the Nigerian Government and the military work together with the affected populations to bring perpetrators to justice and develop a solution that meets the needs of all the communities affected, as British officials will continue to encourage them to do.
“My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Caroline Spelman) wanted some reassurance. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Nigerian vice-president following the abductions of the Dapchi, and the Prime Minister herself, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, raised these issues with President Buhari on 16 April. Our view is that the attacks on schools must stop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is right, unfortunately, that the terrible events in the north-east of the country and the abductions—still—of over 100 schoolgirls have disappeared from the media, and this is an opportunity to raise the issue, as we will do in Abuja and beyond.”
It is instructive to note that despite Fulani herdsmen killing more people than Boko Haram, neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary made any representations to the Nigerian president or vice-president on the issue – at least by the minister’s account.
Incidentally, US president Donald Trump, perhaps with an eye on the evangelical vote, told Buhari during a White House meeting at the end of April: “Also, we’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria. We’re going to be working on that problem, and working on that problem very, very hard, because we can’t allow that to happen”. It’s not clear how Trump plans to stop the killing. But, unlike Theresa May, he is, at least, willing to talk about it instead of pretending the crisis doesn’t exist as hundreds are murdered in a country that is the UK’s biggest trading partner in Africa.