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#EndSARS: British MPs suggest sanctions against Nigeria

24 November 2020

British MPs yesterday debated sanctions against the regime of President Muhammadu Buhari following an e-petition against the shooting of unarmed EndSARS protesters in Lagos. The petition was signed by 220,330 people in the UK, many of whom were constituents of the MPS that contributed to the debate.

Theresa Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, started the debate, making the following observations: ‘On 11 October, President Buhari announced plans to disband the unit. However, such promises have been made in the past, yet SARS has seemingly continued to operate. This would be the fourth time the unit was abolished. Many protesters felt that disbanding SARS—even assuming it happens—would not be sufficient to tackle long-standing problems with police brutality, particularly if SARS officers are simply assigned to different parts of the police service. Activists are now calling a complete overhaul of policing in Nigeria. They also want police officers responsible for beatings, killings, extortion, unlawful detention and other crimes to be held to account.

‘The protests continued and thousands of Nigerians, mostly those under 30, took part in peaceful marches, candlelit vigils and multi-faith prayer sessions. People came together despite having different social, cultural and tribal backgrounds. Supportive comments flowed in from the Nigerian diaspora around the world, including from celebrities, and the #EndSARS movement quickly widened beyond the initial concerns about policing. It started to capture the general frustrations of a young population demanding an end to poor governance and corruption.

‘I am afraid, however, the situation became far graver on 20 October when the Nigerian army and police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the Lekki tollgate in suburban Lagos. What happened is disputed, but Amnesty International has tracked events through photos and video footage posted by protesters. These show army trucks approaching the protesters from both sides of the tollgate and blocking them in. Shooting with live rounds started almost immediately with no warning.

‘A local musician, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, was streaming the events live on Instagram as it happened. She later said:

“There was a guy that was running and he just…he fell, and we looked at him. He was shot in the back”.​

‘Several people are looking for missing loved ones, including Elisha Sunday Ibanga. An eyewitness told CNN that Elisha’s brother, Victor, was shot in the head during the protest and his body taken away. The US broadcaster reported that it has seen and geo-located a photo of Victor Sunday Ibanga lying in a pool of blood and wrapped in the white and green Nigerian flag, one of the same flags held by protesters earlier in the evening as they sang their national anthem. Similarly, and equally tragically, Peace Okon has not seen her younger brother, Wisdom, since he went to the demonstration on the night of the shootings. She said:

“I’ve gone to hospitals, I’ve gone to police stations, I’ve gone to everywhere. I can’t find him”.

‘It is not clear how many were injured or lost their lives at Lekki, but Amnesty International estimates that 56 people have died since the protests began, and it has documented many instances where excessive and disproportionate force has been used to try to control or stop protests. The shootings at the Lekki tollgate shocked many in Nigeria—it has seemed like the last straw. The Government there have promised judicial panels of inquiry to investigate what happened, but there is widespread scepticism about whether these processes will be effective in holding to account those responsible for the bloodshed and human rights abuses that have occurred. That concern, I believe, is felt by many constituents here in the UK, especially those with Nigerian heritage or family links to Nigeria. That is illustrated by the huge support for the e-petition we are considering this evening, which asks the UK Government to consider imposing sanctions.

‘As I read it, the petitioners are asking for Magnitsky-type sanctions against known individuals within the Nigerian Government and security forces. There is a recognition that generalised, old-style sanctions applied to the country as a whole might cause hardship to ordinary people not in any way responsible for the problems highlighted by the petition, so this debate is a vital opportunity to hear from the Minister and have her respond to the urgent appeal from the e-petitioners that the Government consider imposing targeted sanctions against certain individuals believed to be culpable in relation to the violent and excessive police response to peaceful protests in Nigeria.

‘The new Magnitsky sanctions regime started to operate in July, and I believe its creation is one of the best and most important foreign policy decisions made since the Conservatives returned to Government in 2010. It puts us ahead of many other countries in showing how seriously we take human rights abuses around the world; I gather that it even earned us praise from Guy Verhofstadt, which is undoubtedly a rare thing. I believe that the petitioners have a credible case for the imposition of individualised sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes. Of course, I appreciate that there are real sensitivities about anything that might be considered interference in the domestic affairs of another country, especially where there was a previous colonial involvement. However, I still hope that Ministers will give serious consideration to what the e-petitioners request.’

Watch a recording of the proceedings below:

Kate Osamor, the Labour MP representing Edmonton and of Nigerian heritage weighed in with: ‘The situation in Nigeria is incredibly serious, with tragedy after tragedy unfolding on the streets in state after state, as the Nigerian Government and their security forces take ever more repressive measures to end a protest movement that has given hope to millions across the globe. The #EndSARS movement is not just about ​disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad; it is a movement led by the youth of Nigeria who took to the streets peacefully to demand an end to brutality, extortion and extrajudicial executions, and a truly democratic Nigeria. The bravery of the youth-led movement will never be defeated.

‘Today, we need to consider how the Government should respond to both the movement and the violent actions of the Nigerian regime, but we must also take the opportunity to look beyond sanctions to the way that development funding is spent in Nigeria. Instead of funding corrupt security services and investing in projects that do not benefit ordinary Nigerians, we need a new focus on poverty relief and anti-corruption programmes.

‘It is vital that we recognise the role of the UK in how these events have unfolded in Nigeria. Despite previously stating the opposite, the Government have now admitted to funding SARS units for the last four years. That funding included not only the provision of training to those units, but the supply of equipment. At the very moment that Amnesty International declared SARS units to have been involved in extrajudicial killings, corruption and torture, the Government were using the aid budget to train and equip those units. In fact, between 2016 and this year, more than £10 million went towards programmes from which SARS units benefited.

‘That not only is immoral, but makes it harder for the UK to play a positive role in Nigeria during this vital period. How can the Government call for an end to violence against protesters with a straight face, having helped to train and equip the security forces that are carrying out the violence? I hope that the Minister will publicly apologise today for the decision to fund the SARS units, and pledge a full and independent inquiry into the matter.

‘The day of 20 October 2020 will be remembered for the Lekki tollgate massacre—the day a deliberate and coldly calculated attack on peaceful Nigerian civilians was carried out by the Nigerian army. The Nigerian Government have since taken part in an attempted cover-up of the massacre. Security forces in Nigeria make muted responses to the murder of protesters. While Governments across the world have called on the Nigerian Government and the security forces to stop killing protesters, the UK Government have hedged their bets and issued only weak and timid statements. It is therefore a gift to the Nigerian Government when our Government fail to explicitly condemn them for killing their own citizens. Will the Minister today finally condemn the Nigerian regime for its part in the tollgate massacre and the continued killing of peaceful protestors in Nigeria?

‘The Nigerian Government say that they have disbanded SARS, but the corruption and brutality of the security forces continues. The Nigerian Government’s violence against their own citizens appears only to be intensifying. The Nigerian Government need to stop freezing the bank accounts of key protestors and illegally detaining them. The Minister for the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture went on record to state that the CNN reporting of the massacre was “fake news”. That is undemocratic conduct that needs to be called out.’

Kate Osamor speaking during the debate

Perhaps the most controversial argument during the debate came from the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, Tom Tugendhat: ‘What we are seeing in Nigeria today is part of that story. It is a tragedy that we are all watching and witnessing. As we see things falling apart, the pressure this time is not foreign colonialism, but corruption, violence and attempts at control. I totally agree with my friend, the hon. Member for Edmonton, that we need to call out the corruption and use the powers we have in this country to stop those who are profiting from the wealth of that great nation, and hiding it here.

‘Some people will remember when General Gowon left Nigeria with half the Central Bank of Nigeria, so it is said, and moved to London. We know that today, even now in this great city of ours, there are some people who have taken from the Nigerian people and hidden their ill-gotten gains here. Sadly, we know that our banks have been used for those profits and for that illegal transfer of assets. That means that the UK is in an almost unique position in being able to do something to exert pressure on those who have robbed the Nigerian people.’

Janet Daby, the Labour MP representing Lewisham in Southeast London, an area with a strong Nigerian presence, added: ‘Despite overwhelming evidence, the Nigerian Government and military initially denied that the military were at Lekki and labelled the events as fake news. Media companies received a memorandum from the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission to silence them, telling them not to embarrass individuals, organisations and the Government, or to cause disaffection or panic in society at large, following reporting on the events of that dreadful night.

‘Some media houses that did report on the events were fined. The bank accounts of some organisers involved in the protests have been frozen by the Central Bank of Nigeria pending investigations. Some organisers have been arrested or harassed by the authorities. Such actions equate to the prevention and indeed stopping of free speech and the right to peaceful protest by the state. That is unacceptable. Peaceful protests are vital to the functioning of democracy and are a fundamental human right. Such rights should be upheld and respected.

‘Many of my constituents who have a Nigerian background are in great distress. Those that have relatives and friends in Nigeria are concerned about the safety of their loved ones and have contacted me about the situation. I have close friends in Nigeria who are also deeply concerned and have contacted me about this. They all ask for one simple thing: that the UK Government defend the right to peaceful protest and free speech and ​ensure that those within the Nigerian Government and army are held to account for the atrocities committed against peaceful protestors.

‘Given the shared history between the UK and Nigeria, and given that Nigeria is a fellow member of the Commonwealth and our ally, the UK has a duty to stand up for the human rights of Nigerian citizens. In the case where Nigerian officials are avoiding accountability over the killing of protesters, I believe that the UK should consider imposing sanctions on state officials involved in the human rights abuses of Nigerian citizens.’

EndSARS protests in London

Another Labour MP, Lyn Brown of West Ham, was specific on who should be targeted by the sanctions: ‘The response from the authorities, who feel threatened by the protests, has been insidious, as we have heard. Media agencies have been fined for telling the truth. Bank accounts of activists have been suspended because they supposedly finance terrorism, and Government spokespeople have even blamed the protesters for a rise in food prices. Those in power will clearly do anything to ensure that the movement ends now and that SARS is technically disbanded. They are terrified that the calls for action on corruption and police brutality will go on and on.

‘My plea to the Minister is that we stand with the young people of Nigeria who are demanding change far beyond the closure of SARS. They are demanding a future worthy of their courage and leadership, and here in the UK we need that too, because Nigeria is a massive, fast-growing, youthful country, which has massive potential. It is a country that will play a leading role in decades to come, not just within Africa but in our world. For that positive leadership to happen, the sense of justice that motivates the #EndSARS protests must prevail, to shape Nigeria’s future and our future too.

‘I do not think that words from the Government today will be enough. We have to demonstrate our solidarity by identifying and targeting those who we know are responsible for the terrible violence and abuses that the activists have faced. The least we should do is ensure that those who have murdered Nigerians and deprived them of their human rights cannot benefit from trade or travel to the UK. In my view, that should include the leaders of the Government and the military, who are even now refusing to allow transparent and fair investigations to happen, and justice to be implemented.’

Another MP of Nigerian descent, Taiwo Owatemi, Labour Party Coventry North West, said: ‘We must continue to seek clarity about what happened on 20 October, when power was cut from the Lekki tollgate, and SARS police forces began spraying with bullets the protesters gathering there. I am sure that many of us have seen the footage of peaceful protesters linked arm-in-arm, singing the Nigerian anthem, while they were indiscriminately gunned down. Now is the time to hold officials to account for the crimes against humanity that they have embarked on, so I am calling for an impartial UN investigation into those human rights violations, to begin a process of securing justice for the victims and their families.’

Wendy Morton, a junior minister for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs responded on behalf of the British government without making a commitment that strong action will be taken against the Nigerian government of any senior officials.

Theresa Villiers responded to the minister’s fudged statements with:  ‘I will take the last minute to urge the Minister and the rest of the team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to use all diplomatic means available to get the message to the authorities in Nigeria that they need to listen to what the protestors are asking for. While the Minister, for all sorts of reasons, has felt unable to make commitments on targeted sanctions today, there is a strong case for putting them in place. I hope that behind the scenes, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to pursue this, so that we see an announcement about it in the not-too-distant future.’

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