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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on violence against farming communities in Nigeria

27th November 2018

In her role as Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a Parliamentary debate on armed violence against farming communities in Nigeria.

The Minister for Africa (Harriett Baldwin)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, on a matter that he has pursued tirelessly not only in the Chamber but through his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on religion or belief. He has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to Nigeria and to the issue that we are debating today. I pay tribute to the wisdom and experience of the hon. Members taking part in the debate, as they have shared a range of perspectives, and made excellent points based on their own engagement with the issue—the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Henley (John Howell) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), and of course the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). I also thank Mr Wilkins for his continuing engagement with what is an important, complex and complicated issue.

We have heard the concern of all the hon. Members who spoke about the current situation. That concern is well founded because intercommunal violence is the biggest internal security challenge facing Nigeria today. In fact, as we heard repeatedly, in 2018, more lives were lost as a result of that conflict than in the separate conflict with Boko Haram. As the UK is a long-standing partner of Nigeria, it is right that we seek to understand the reasons for the violence, and I appreciate and welcome the inquiry undertaken by the all-party parliamentary group.

The key point that I want to make clear, as I did last week when I met the all-party group, is 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. We heard from colleagues that there are a range of causes. We also heard—and it is true—that farming communities are not the only victims, as the rather unequal media reporting tends to suggest. Sadly, there have indeed been a number of reports this year of attacks by Fulani herders on farming communities in Benue state, Berom and Jos that have led to serious loss of life and deserve clear condemnation.

The causes of the conflict are complex. Herder communities have also been victims of the violence, and both communities are believed to have suffered hundreds of casualties. Colleagues have cited assessments, and Amnesty International assesses that last year intercommunal clashes resulted in about 550 deaths. This year, the number of incidents and the level of violence are rising. Reports suggest that the number of deaths has already exceeded 1,850. The source for that figure is the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Incidents have been reported in all regions of the country.

Why is the conflict escalating, and what are the underlying reasons? As we heard in the debate, one reason is that herders, who for centuries have followed ancient migration routes across west Africa, have been ​forced to divert south, owing to a range of factors including population growth, urbanisation, desertification and failures of governance. That has brought them into direct competition with farming communities for scarce land and water, and their cattle have encroached on farms, causing costly damage to crops. That has understandably led to tensions, then to a cycle of violent reprisals, criminal banditry and cattle rustling. The religious identity of the groups involved is certainly a factor, but again it is not as clear-cut or as dominant as it might seem. Not all herders are Muslim Fulani, and not all farmers are Christian. If religion were taken out of the equation completely, the violence would not go away.

That is because other issues are also involved, including ethnic prejudices, the growing availability, mentioned by several colleagues, of weapons—many of them smuggled through criminal networks from neighbouring conflict zones—and discontent with the way in which the violence is dealt with by the authorities. Both farming and herding communities complain that their demands for justice have not been met. That is feeding a sense of victimhood and encouraging vigilantism on both sides. All those factors and grievances, some old and some new, are fuelled by partial media reporting and a narrative that portrays what is happening as a religious conflict. There is a real risk that the violence could escalate further if it is not addressed effectively.

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. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked about the defence and security partnership. Of course we have a strong defence and security partnership with Nigeria—specifically focusing on joint work to defeat Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, in the north-east of the country. In addition, we have offered UK assistance and repeatedly called on the Government to demonstrate a clear strategy for ending the bloodshed, resolving the conflict and ensuring that the needs of all affected communities are met.

Jim Shannon

May I ask the Minister, as I asked the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) when I intervened on him, about the abduction and kidnapping of schoolchildren? What is happening—kidnappings and abuse—is abhorrent. I am ever mindful of Leah Sharibu, a young Christian schoolgirl, who was abducted and is still in that situation. Did the Minister or Prime Minister have an opportunity on their visit to Nigeria to raise her case, and the issue of protection for schools in northern Nigeria? I am a father and grandfather and I ask the Minister, who is a mother, what could be worse for anyone than knowing their child or grandchild had been abducted and taken away, never to be seen again.

Harriett Baldwin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case, which, in relation to the conflict in the north-east and Boko Haram and Islamic State in West ​Africa, would merit a debate of its own. Our hearts go out to Leah Sharibu and the 113 kidnapped girls, some four years after the original kidnapping. Of course the hon. Gentleman will know that the UK is passionate about promoting the value of education for girls around the world, in particular.

Our high commission in Abuja is engaging closely with religious and traditional leaders from a range of communities and faiths. We are working with international partners to support the Nigerian Government in their strategic response, and encouraging them to address all the complex causes of violence. Colleagues asked about the role of DFID programming. Of course that is focused very much on ending poverty and tackling the drivers of poverty. In that context, this year, our programming bilaterally in Nigeria is some £235 million, but that would be added to by the multilateral programming that we engage in through other organisations. The emphasis is on the kinds of approaches known to be best for addressing the causes of poverty in the long term, such as education, nutrition—particularly for under-fives—and healthcare programmes. There are programmes on adaptation to climate change; access to safe water and sanitation for many communities; governance at federal and state level and, for next year, ensuring that free and fair elections are held. Many programmes are about human trafficking. There is an extensive range of DFID programming in Nigeria, but it requires political will in Nigeria. Political will to deal with the situation at the federal level is vital.

We have heard clearly in the debate that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The causes of the violence vary across all the states, and so must the solutions. I welcome the call from the hon. Member for Strangford for objective journalism to play a role. He will be aware that the BBC World Service is expanding its footprint in Nigeria, based in Lagos but broadcasting on a wide range of Nigerian issues. I draw colleagues’ attention to an important report by the BBC’s “Africa Eye” that was put out recently on the role that Facebook and fake news are playing in spreading unreliable reporting and inflaming tensions in this area.

Jim Shannon

I asked the Minister in my contribution, as have others, whether it is possible to have an independent inquiry in Nigeria, bringing together the evidential base of what is happening and the reasons for it, and then to present that to the Nigerian Government, while ensuring that the inquiry takes place without the overbearing influence of the Nigerian Government—that it is independent, in other words. Is that something the Minister could help us to achieve?

Harriett Baldwin

I welcome the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman’s committee is undertaking, but in terms of an inquiry within Nigeria, which I think he is alluding to, we are exploring options for how the UK could support the dialogue and peacebuilding efforts, working closely with like-minded international partners. That offer is definitely on the table and we would welcome ways of providing constructive engagement on this issue.

Chris Law

I thank the UK Government for the support they give in Nigeria through DFID. The Minister has listed a number of key areas—education, nutrition, ​health and governance, but also adaptation and saving water, which I want to focus on specifically. A number of hon. Members in this House are concerned about the root causes of the security issues in the north and the bloody violence that has ensued, and I want to know specifically how much of that funding goes toward adaptation and mitigation in the north, and what lessons could be learned about what funding will be needed in future to support a peace process?

Harriett Baldwin

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as he will know, the focus on this important area is one where the UK has been at the forefront of international commitments. He will know that we are committed to spending some £5.8 billion on the international climate commitments we have signed up to through the Paris accords. That means that there is a range of programming and we can increase the programming in parts of the world that are particularly vulnerable. I do not have time in this debate to go through the long list of ways in which we work in this area, but he should be reassured that it is an area where UK Government commitments and programming are only growing in the years to come.

Jim Shannon

Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin

It is almost like a conversation. I give way to the hon. Gentleman once more.

Jim Shannon

It is always a pleasure to be in a conversation with the Minister. One of the things that I and others have mentioned is how different faiths can react better together. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I, along with others in the audience and around the Chamber, see that we need to have that dialogue. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the Nigerian Government to encourage that dialogue between Christians and those of Islamic faith? Sometimes when we talk and have a dialogue about things, there is a respect, tolerance and love that come from that. Can I get her thoughts?

Harriett Baldwin

We are exploring options for how we could support that dialogue and those peacebuilding efforts. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the next two to three months in Nigeria are part of an election campaign and that the UK is concerned that the politics around this issue sometimes exacerbates and drives the conflict. We welcome the commitment of both main candidates for the presidency to tackling this important issue.

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.


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