As recorded on House of Commons Hansard
Nigeria: Sanctions Regime
[James Gray in the Chair]
Here is the full transcript of the 23 Nov 2020 debate as recorded in Hansard.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 554150, relating to Nigeria and the sanctions regime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the 220,330 people who have signed the petition—when I last checked it this morning—especially the 853 who are my constituents in Chipping Barnet. This petition has been prompted by disturbing events in Nigeria over recent weeks. There have been widespread protests regarding the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian police, known as SARS.
That unit has a deeply controversial reputation and the hashtag #EndSARS started to appear prominently on social media in 2017. Reports of violence and human rights abuses by SARS date back several years, but these latest protests followed circulation of a shocking video in early October, which many believe shows a man being killed by SARS officers.
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.
My second ask of Ministers is that they provide reassurance about UK aid and security programmes which involve Nigerian police, military and security forces. In their responses to written questions on this matter, the Government have emphasised that these programmes are intended to improve transparency and accountability, as well as strengthen respect for human rights, the rule of law and protection of minorities. However, my constituents who have signed this petition want more clarity and certainty about what these UK programmes have achieved and how they are assessed. They will be reassured if we have a clear statement that UK taxpayers’ money cannot be misused by security forces in Nigeria or, in any circumstances, used on activities that suppress peaceful protests.
My third question for Ministers is what representations they have made, or are prepared to make, to the Nigerian Government about human rights abuses against Christians. Charities such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors have documented a worrying increase in attacks on Christian communities in Nigeria by terrorist groups over recent years, and their plight must never be forgotten.
Fourthly and finally, I ask Ministers to step up engagement with the Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom. There are many British Nigerians who want to deploy their knowledge and understanding of the country to help shape the UK’s response to unfolding events in Nigeria. Worried about the situation and distressed about the Lekki tollgate tragedy and other loss of life, they are brimming with enthusiasm to help, to make a difference, and to be involved in building a better future for Nigeria. In this regard, I particularly want to thank my constituent Lara Ayodeji Akindiji for contacting me to share her concerns and offer her help—her support and briefing for this debate has been invaluable. My final request is therefore to ask the Minister to meet me and a group of constituents to discuss these matters further.
Nigeria is a country with so much going for it: a young and hugely talented population, massive natural resources and a rapidly developing economy. If the #EndSARS protesters secure the reform and improved governance they are demanding, Nigeria could become a formidable economic powerhouse, and the diaspora community here can be a vital bridge linking our two countries in a brighter future of increased trade and prosperity in the years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her passionate opening speech. I also thank Silas Ojo for creating the petition, which now has more than 220,000 signatures, including from almost 2,000 of my constituents in Edmonton.
I am sure that I am not the only Member to have been inundated with messages from constituents in recent months urging them to do whatever they can to lend their voice to the #EndSARS protests. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, I was keen to speak in the debate and highlight the need for the UK to stand with the Nigerian people against an increasingly cruel and brutal regime.
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.
I ask the Minister to use this opportunity to end the UK Government’s neutrality on this issue. The UK must never be neutral when it comes to human rights abuses. Are the rights, needs and dreams of young Nigerian people not the same as those of young people here in the UK? The UK should not be safe haven for anyone who denies their own citizens the same freedoms they have come to enjoy in the UK.
All too often, when a repressive regime is targeted with economic sanctions, it is the civilians who pay the price, while the regime itself becomes more entrenched and less open to change. The UK Government can use the sanctions under the global human rights regime that targets individuals involved in human rights violations and abuses. If the UK’s position is as a global force for good, then I ask the UK Government to add the names of the Nigerian Government and the security services to the designated list of those responsible for the worst human rights abuses.
To close, it is time for the UK to change course and stand in solidarity with those fighting for a new Nigeria. Let us stand together and get rid of corruption, extortion, extra-judicial murders and massacres, because it is time for a new Nigeria.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who speaks quite rightly with passion about one of the world’s great countries, which is sadly being wracked by violence against young people.
There may be some debate about this, but I argue that the greatest book in the English language is “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian writer. The beauty of that book is the way it explains the challenge to changing generations of living together, and the way it speaks about values falling away and community being eroded by outside pressure.
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.
This puts a particular onus on my hon. Friend the Minister, and I know she knows it. Using Magnitsky sanctions today is not just about protecting Nigeria, although it is. It is not just about respecting Nigerian young people who have been robbed and murdered by the SARS units. It is about protecting the United Kingdom, because what happens in Nigeria matters fundamentally to us here.
This country is the third country of the Commonwealth and has 200 million people. It will be the great economic powerhouse of Africa and one of the great economic powerhouses of the world. Its wealth is not just in the oil of the Rivers state, but in the imagination and creativity of its people, as witnessed every day in Nollywood and, perhaps more my style, at the great University of Jos. It is a country that gives so much to the world already, despite the fact that it is ill governed, brutalised and robbed. Imagine what it could give if the Plateau state was not a scene of conflict and anti-SARS movements, but instead was the global centre of learning that it really and truly could be, and indeed was up until the 1960s.
This is an opportunity for the UK to do something real, not just in the interests of Nigerians, although it would be, and not just in the interests of Africans, although it would be that, too, but fundamentally in the interests of the British people. This is a moment when the petitioners have got it absolutely right. They are not just arguing for the rights of young Nigerians who are claiming their own rights, but for the rights of democrats, free people, and honourable people everywhere. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleague, the Secretary of State, will listen, look at the sanctions regime and choose carefully where they apply.
It is a pleasure to speak in this meaningful debate and to follow the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat).
The events surrounding the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria have caused global concern and outcry. Last month, mainly young Nigerian people took to the streets in a peaceful protest against police brutality. On 20 October in Lagos and in other parts of the nation, the military are alleged to have attacked peaceful protestors with disproportionate force, and to have killed and injured civilians. The world watched the horrific videos, saw the awful pictures from the scene, and heard the eyewitness accounts from survivors who managed to escape the horrors of that night. Human rights agencies such as Amnesty International have supported those claims.
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.
In July, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs introduced the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. Under this statutory framework, priority themes relate to cases that threaten media freedom and human rights defenders. Furthermore, another priority theme considers cases where the relevant jurisdiction’s law enforcement authorities have been unable or unwilling to hold those responsible for human rights violations or abuses to account.
The Government clearly have the tools to ensure that Nigerian state officials respect the constitutional and fundamental human right to protest and free speech. If those who ordered and facilitated the killing and harming of protesters are not held accountable, the UK Government should advocate for independent investigations to take place, and following such investigations any individuals found responsible for these atrocities against human dignity must face sanctions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is really good to see you looking so well.
I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for introducing this debate and for her passion about the subject. I also thank all my hon. Friends for their passion and expertise, and for the clear demands that we are all making today in this Chamber. It is good to hear that the demands are being made unanimously and across what is sometimes a divide.
As we know, the SARS police unit was suspected of abuses against thousands of innocent Nigerians over the past 28 years. Sadly, it is clear that Nigeria has a serious problem with abuses of state power and corruption that goes way beyond SARS. The protest movement that we are seeing rise in Nigeria wants all these abuses to be addressed.
SARS and other police forces in Nigeria were well known for targeting young people for arrests, extortion and beatings, almost at random. I am told that if someone is young and has the wrong hairstyle or clothes, or if they are driving a car and playing music, they could be targeted. Their money or possessions could be seized without any evidence, and people know that if they resist they will be beaten and possibly killed.
SARS created an environment of fear and injustice, and until the protests there was no real sign that those in power were listening or prepared to act. Sadly, it appears to be just the same with many other issues in Nigerian society. There is terrible unemployment, little access to healthcare or education and a poverty rate as high as 70%, according to Oxfam. The people of Nigeria have the right to come together and call for an end to those injustices. As we know, however, in recent months their powerful but peaceful actions have been met with horrific violence. Amnesty says that at least 56 people were killed during the recent protests, including at least 10 in Lekki.
I have been fortunate enough to hear from a young journalist with direct knowledge of what happened at the Lekki tollgate. I will read out her words: “It was devastating—something you don’t want to imagine. The protesters did not know that the cameras and the lights were going to be removed. There were no cameras to witness anything.” Then, as we have heard today: “The soldiers opened fire on the crowd of protesters, and my contact said, ‘One of the survivors jumped in the water, but the soldiers kept on shooting’. For days after, a friend of mine didn’t come online because of the shock and the fear, and it took him a long time to come to Facebook and say, ‘Thank God I survived. I did not think I was going to.’” She said: “Someone else I know left the tollgate with a bullet in him, and later they moved all the bodies so that there would be no evidence. For them to close their hearts and kill protestors like that is simply unforgiveable.”
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.
I want to hear from the Minister that a list of Magnitsky —I never say that word properly—sanctions is being created, and action against those on that list will be taken in weeks, not years. Our role must be to work with everyone we can to identify those responsible and ensure that justice is done. I would be so very grateful if, on this occasion, the Government act decisively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who spoke so passionately in favour of justice for Nigerians. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this very important debate. This was, of course, a popular debate, and it is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) was not called to speak in it. She sends her solidarity to the #EndSARS movement.
I must begin by addressing the horrific violence inflicted on young Nigerian civilians who were peacefully expressing their fundamental human rights against police brutality. We have seen on media platforms armed military officers discharge live ammunition at those peaceful protesters, injuring and killing them. It is unfortunate that, as of today, both the federal and state Governments in Nigeria have issued conflicting statements on the events that occurred at the Lekki tollgate, which has left us with a series of yet unanswered questions. Who exactly ordered the military to shoot live ammunition in a civilian territory? Why were the bank accounts of some individuals who partook in the protests frozen?
If a democratic country deprives its people of their aspiration, livelihoods and voices; strips them from their loved ones; forces them into hiding; and instils in them fear of retribution through violent attacks on free speech, that country can only be a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. Is Nigeria a dictatorship? Having asked the question, I will leave the Nigerian public to decide for themselves.
On sanctions, which we are here to discuss, if we can ensure that they will not negatively affect civilians—directly or indirectly—I support a travel ban and asset seizure sanctions for individual officials who are found responsible. Although our discussion of sanctions is crucial to determining how we as a nation respond to the violence that has cumulated in the recent #EndSARS movement, it can only be the tip of the iceberg. We must use our platforms to hold the Nigerian Government accountable through more than just sanctions. We must do the right thing by the people in Nigeria who are protesting for their human rights, and ask the questions that we have been given the platform to ask. What role do the Nigerian Government play in these attacks? Will there be an independent investigation into the 100-plus cases of torture, rape and extrajudicial executions throughout the #EndSARS protests?
The world knows about the violent attacks on Nigerian protestors because civilians at the Lekki tollgate massacre bravely risked their own lives to post videos on social media. Only a few Nigerian news outlets even reported the stories and were all subsequently fined, before the Nigerian Government denied the attack’s existence and began silencing reporters. Agencies and individuals have since blamed one another; no one seems to be taking responsibility. Nigerian civilians risked everything to give themselves a voice that they used to expose the atrocities inflicted upon them, and today, 4,000 miles away, the Nigerian Government propose to strangle that voice with a social media censorship Bill. We must demand transparency about what is happening to civilians and amplify that news using our platform.
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.
As we try to make sense of those incidents, we must ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. I am referring to the fact that British officials trained SARS officers from 2016 to 2020, as well as the Nigerian army. What did that training entail? Could it have prevented escalation of this kind? Standing here as a proud British Nigerian, I implore the Minister and colleagues across the House to pursue answers to those questions and to do what they can to facilitate Nigerians’ fight for freedom.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Gray. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for leading the debate in response to the petition, which calls for sanctions against the Nigerian Government and officials. It is a very timely debate that needed to be had.
The atrocities in Nigeria in recent months are, understandably, very worrying for my constituents, many of whom have friends and relatives in Nigeria and want our Government help to ensure their safety. I firmly believe that we have an obligation to condemn violence and human rights abuses wherever we see them, which is why I have publicly condemned the violence that took place on 20 October, when young people’s right to protest was tragically suppressed.
Some 4,469 from Erith and Thamesmead have signed the petition—the highest number of petitioners from a single constituency—and I have been contacted by dozens of individuals who want to see action to ensure that human rights are upheld in Nigeria. One constituent recently wrote to me to say she had watched a documentary on how the Nigerian military opened fire on unarmed children who were happily and peacefully demonstrating and carrying Nigerian flags. Many were killed mercilessly. She cried, and she said, “This could’ve been anyone.”
My constituents are right to demand long-term action. As hon. Members have said, a statement of condemnation is not enough. As a country that subscribes to international human rights law, we must be quicker to act to support those around the world who are having their rights infringed.
Accountability is the cornerstone of democracy. I was pleased that the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), wrote to me to confirm that the UK Government will continue to work with the Nigerian Government and international and civil society partners in support of police reform. However, it is clear that suitable accountability methods have not been implemented. It was only yesterday that the Nigerian military admitted that soldiers fired live bullets at anti-SARS protesters on 20 October. However, there is still no confirmation of the number of young protesters who tragically lost their lives. According to the Nigerian officials, two young people were killed in the shooting, but reports by Amnesty claim that 10 lives were lost. How can it be considered there is appropriate accountability if we cannot even reach a consensus on the number of lives taken at Lekki toll plaza in Lagos in October?
I do not believe that placing economic country-wide sanctions on Nigeria will help address the ongoing issues of police and military violence. The UK Government should first call for an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have followed the abuses taking place in Nigeria for years, should be consulted, with their evidence collated alongside an independent investigation to form a judicial review. Furthermore, that investigation should look at the wider issues of violence and human rights abuses by military and police across Nigeria.
The UK Government should regard the findings of an independent investigation with the utmost seriousness and take action to implement sanctions against individuals identified as responsible for those atrocities. They should also make appropriate adjustments to the overseas security and justice assistance funding and the training of any Nigerian military security and policing organisations that may have committed violations in line with their guidance to ensure that OSJA funding meets our human rights obligations and our values.
This issue does not begin and end at Lekki toll plaza on 20 October. There have been reports of violence by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad since 2017, and there continue to be serious consequences as a result of the protests that took place earlier this year. Young people have reported intimidation by the Nigerian Government and, as hon. Members have said, there have been reports of bank accounts being frozen, social media being banned and people being detained in prison for their involvement in speaking out against police violence and calling for accountability for those wrongdoings. Those actions are unacceptable in a democracy.
No action can replace the lives that have already been lost, but that does not mean that we should not take action. I hope, at the end of the debate, we will get a commitment from the Minister that the UK will follow up its actions by holding officials in Nigeria responsible.
Finally, I take the opportunity to raise the case of the Nigerian DJ and songwriter, DJ Switch, who has had her life threatened for her role in speaking out against military and police violence. The prominence of young Nigerian females at the forefront of the #EndSARS protests has highlighted the need to take more action to end violence against women and girls in Nigeria. Will the Government take this opportunity to ensure that their actions to uphold human rights around the world extend to protecting women and girls against violence?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to take part in such a cross-party consensual discussion. I am glad to have heard some excellent contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House about events in Nigeria. I, too, warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing the debate and the drafters of the petition. Above all else, I commend the #EndSARS movement, which has done so much to shine a bright light on the corruption and oppressive practices of the regime in Lagos.
I have read the Government’s response to the petition carefully and I have some concerns. Nigeria is not a far-off place of which we know nothing. The UK has clear links to the issue and to Nigeria, historically and in future. We have influence and we could use a lot more of it. We know that the UK funded, supplied equipment for, and trained the police and paramilitary forces that we now know have been involved in abuses. At the very least, we need an urgent review of the UK’s involvement in those programmes. I would be glad of an undertaking from the Minister this evening that such a review is under way.
On the Magnitsky sanctions that have been called for, the Government’s response to the petition says:
“This sanctions regime will give the UK a powerful new tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations or abuses.”
I have yet to hear any hon. Member speak against the Magnitsky regime; we all support it, but it is only a tool if it is used. I appreciate that speculation is unhelpful, but we need some announcements.
I am glad that in his discussion with the Governor of Lagos on 11 November, the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), called for an investigation into the specific instances that we have heard of. Can we have an update on how that investigation is going? Can we also have an undertaking that there will be consequences of the findings of that investigation and that if it has been insufficient, there will be an independent review?
More generally, we need to look in the round at whether the UK’s actions help or hinder the aims of the #EndSARS protests. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK licensed arms exports and riot control equipment to the tune of £43 million. At the very least, pending a review of our actions and the effect of the UK’s foreign policy and trade policy in Nigeria, we should surely suspend arms exports to the country.
The #EndSARS movement could be a new Arab spring for Nigeria. Given the demographic and economic forces in play, the enthusiasm is there. We must learn from history and not let the #EndSARS movement down as we did the Arab spring. That would be a tragedy and would bring culpability on us even more.
It is not enough to express solidarity while aiding, abetting, arming and funding the oppressors. The UK has a case to answer. We need to look at the consequences of our actions and make sure that we do all we can to ensure accountability on the ground. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for introducing the petition today and all hon. Members for their incredibly powerful and passionate contributions on a crucial issue. I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for his comments, and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who has done so much to speak out on the atrocities and, long before they happened, on the wider SARS movement and the brutality that it has exposed.
We have heard incredibly powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), and indeed the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith). As has been pointed out, other hon. Members would have been here who have been speaking out equally powerfully on the issue.
I also thank the more than 200,000 individuals who have signed the petition and its creators, which includes many significant signatures from the Nigerian diaspora in the UK and many others who share deep concerns about what is happening in Nigeria and about wider human rights abuses around the world. This is not a country that will turn a blind eye when such atrocities happen. The scenes we have witnessed and the reports that have come out of Nigeria of the response by the police and the army against protesters in the #EndSARS movement have shocked us all.
We have heard from colleagues about the events of 20 October, when it appears a group of #EndSARS protesters were fired upon by members of the Nigerian army at the Lekki tollgate plaza, after the CCTV was taken down and the lights were turned off. That resulted in tragic deaths and injuries. I spoke to those who had been in the vicinity of those incidents, who saw and witnessed first hand the brutality meted out by SARS and those attempting to defend them. I can tell you, Mr Gray, that they were shocking testimonies. Many of us have witnessed the video footage and pictures of the events, which are absolutely horrific.
Despite having denied it for over a month, the Nigerian army has been forced to admit at the judicial panel inquiry that soldiers were deployed to the tollgate protest with both blank and live ammunition. As many hon. Members have pointed out, some of those protesters are still in detention today, and many others have had financial restrictions on them and other actions taken against them. I would be interested to know what assessment the Minister has made of the situation of those who were involved in those protests.
As hon. Members have explained, this massacre and the other atrocities that we have seen are part of a picture of brutality that has gone on over a number of years—extraordinary brutality and violations by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS. The report from Amnesty International documented 82 cases of human rights violations between January 2017 and May 2020, including various methods of torture against detainees such as hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing victims into stressful bodily positions, sexual violence and rape.
That is a shocking record of behaviour, yet few of those cases have been investigated and hardly any officers have been brought to justice on credible accounts of torture and other ill-treatment. The authorities have promised investigations, but often they have not occurred. The Federal Government of Nigeria have repeatedly promised to reform SARS but have failed to do so. The recent protests originate not only in that record of brutality, but in other documented incidents across the country, in Delta and Oyo states. In recent days, I have received reports of extra-judicial killings, allegedly by the Nigerian army in Oyigbo in Rivers state. What assessment has the Minister made of the most recent reports? This is still carrying on after the shocking events we saw just a few weeks ago.
The violent repression of protesters in Nigeria is unacceptable and has rightly garnered international condemnation. President-elect Biden has called on the Nigerian Government to end the violent crackdown. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that Nigerians’ right to protest peacefully needs to be guaranteed and that police brutality needs to stop. The official Opposition absolutely agree with that sentiment. The violent crackdown on these protests must end and there must be accountability for those responsible for such brutality and loss of life.
The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), have made it clear that the UK must act as a force for good in the world, in line with our international partners and multinational organisations, whether the United Nations, the African Union, the UN Human Rights Council or others, to encourage and strongly advocate for the end of violence in Nigeria, to end police brutality in Nigeria and, crucially, to call for independent investigations into these violations by Nigerian policing, security and military forces. It would be better if we had confidence in the systems of investigation within Nigeria, but the ongoing failure and the record of the Nigerian Government in dealing with SARS underlines why many people do not have faith in that process. That is why independent investigations will be crucial.
The petition refers specifically to sanctions. The official Opposition welcome the Foreign Secretary’s establishment of a Magnitsky-style sanctions regime, which we have been calling for since 2018, to allow for targeted sanctions based on attacks on human rights, and to enable us to target the wider network of perpetrators, including all of those who facilitate, incite, promote or support such crimes. That extends beyond state officials to non-state actors, as well.
At that time, the Foreign Secretary told us in the House that those sanctions would be used to target
“those with blood on their hands.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 663.]
It is clear that individuals do have blood on their hands in relation to the activities of SARS and these atrocities over the past few months. Given the allegations against members of SARS and the growing evidence of the atrocities that were committed, we urge the UK Government to use their full investigative capacity, including by drawing on the evidence provided by independent human rights organisations in Nigeria and elsewhere, to identify individuals responsible for those atrocities and, if appropriate, designate them for sanctions under our Magnitsky regime. We cannot stand by in the face of such wilful perpetration of human rights violations and killings. Not least given our close political, economic and security relationship with Nigeria, we cannot be a disinterested or unconnected party.
I turn now to the UK’s role in relation to SARS. We have heard about this from a number of hon. Members in the debate. Despite initially denying it, the Minister for Africa has admitted that through the conflict, stability and security fund in Nigeria, SARS members were trained as part of the Nigeria policing programme and that the UK Government have been involved in training of members of SARS, despite that happening during a time when there were ongoing public, well-known allegations of extrajudicial executions, extortion, torture and rape by this unit. I am sorry to say that although this is shocking, it is not an entirely unexpected revelation to me. It is also not surprising—I have the review of the programme here—that this programme was led by the Foreign Office rather than the Department for International Development.
UK support for security and justice reform in countries around the world can have positive impacts, but what is absolutely obvious is that in a growing number of cases, it is not clear what impact we are having or whether, in the worst cases, we are actually supporting agencies that have a role in committing atrocities or human rights violations. What we are discussing today is just one example. Whether it is this example, the ongoing supplying of arms to the Saudi Arabian Government for use in the Yemen crisis or the training of the special investigation unit in Bahrain, which has been complicit in the torture of prisoners—of course, that country uses the death penalty—the UK Government are having to repeatedly come and justify their involvement with organisations and institutions that appear to breach our own standards, let alone international law and human rights.
Can the Minister tell me whether she has considered suspending support and training for such programmes for Nigerian security, military and justice institutions until she is absolutely satisfied that they are not supporting individuals and organisations that have been implicated in these atrocities, and will the Government commit to a review of the effectiveness of OSJA—overseas security and justice assistance—projects? It was extraordinary to find, while reading the summary, that the programme was listed as scoring an A and an A in 2018-19 and to read that the risk was only medium. That sounds completely out of kilter with the facts that we have heard today and have been hearing for many years.
Looking beyond Nigeria, given the deeply concerning news coming from locations across Africa in recent weeks, what measures are the Government taking to protect human rights across the continent and to tackle those responsible, whether it is those responsible for atrocities in Ethiopia, those who are involved in suppressing the democratic process in Tanzania and Uganda, or whoever? We cannot have impunity for those causing or carrying out atrocities or war crimes, whatever their role or status, whether that is official or unofficial—whether they are official Government forces, official military forces, or irregular forces who are acting on behalf of different groups, and whether those are central Government, regional government or rebel groups. It does not matter who they are—we cannot have impunity for the people who are carrying out these atrocities.
It appears to be a double irony that we are seeing support for wrong programmes like this one when the Government, we hear, are proposing to cut the right programmes; they are proposing to cut the 0.7% target and support to development and peace programmes across the world. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that that will not happen.
From the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA to the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, it is clear that any democratic Government must respond to the needs first and foremost of their citizens in providing policing and security. They must be accountable to the people they serve and not hold themselves above the law. They must defend the law and conduct themselves in line with the principles and values that underpin it. We stand on the side of all those in Nigeria who are calling for peace, for democracy and for the rule of law to be upheld. Killings must end. Democracy and the rule of law must prevail, and the UK should be a partner to all Nigerians seeking peace, justice and development.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your excellent guidance and chairmanship, Mr Gray, so thank you. Let me begin by saying that I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing the debate and to all the hon. Members who contributed today. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), from the hon. Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for West Ham (Ms Brown), and from others. I will endeavour to answer as many of their questions as I possibly can—I cannot say “within the time allowed”, because we are doing quite well on time at the moment, Mr Gray, but I know you will keep me in good order and not let me get carried away.
This is an important debate. The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), has asked me to offer his apologies to Members present, as he is away on ministerial business and is therefore not able to attend. However, he has a very close interest in this topic, and I feel sure that he will be paying great attention to this debate, as we would expect of the Minister for Africa. I will therefore respond in his place on behalf of the Government.
We are grateful to the nearly 220,000 members of the public who signed the petition and enabled this debate to take place. Quite rightly, there is significant public concern about the recent protests in Nigeria, especially the issue of police brutality. I also acknowledge the strong feeling about this issue in this place, and am thankful for the contributions made by all colleagues today. As I said, I will try to respond to all of the points that have been raised, but I will first set out the Government’s position on the protests and on police reform, and will then address the topic of sanctions.
I assure the House that the Government have been following developments in Nigeria very closely since the protests. We are deeply concerned about violence during the protests, which tragically claimed lives, and I am sure right hon. and hon. Members present will join me in passing on our condolences to the families of those affected. The UK supports the right to peaceful protest. We condemn violence by any party, and in doing so make an important distinction between the rioting and looting that took place and the original, peaceful protest movement.
We have raised the protests and the response to them at the highest levels in the Nigerian Government. The Foreign Secretary issued a statement on 21 October calling for an end to the violence. He called for the Nigerian Government urgently to investigate reports of brutality by its security forces, and to hold those responsible to account. The Minister for Africa spoke to Foreign Minister Onyeama on 23 October to reiterate his tweets that recognised the Nigerian people’s democratic and peaceful calls for reform, and encouraged the Nigerian authorities to restore peace and address concerns regarding brutality towards civilians. The British high commissioner in Abuja continues to raise the protests with senior representatives of the Nigerian Government, including our concerns about intimidation of civil society groups and peaceful activists.
We welcome President Buhari’s decision to disband the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the police unit at the centre of recent protests, and it is important that historical reports of police brutality and violence during recent protests are investigated fully. We also welcome the emerging dialogue between state governors and young people: in a country where more than 50% of the population is under 25, that conversation is important in understanding the concerns of the next generation. We also welcome the President’s request for his Cabinet Ministers to do the same in their home areas. Lastly, we welcome the establishment of judicial panels of inquiry to investigate all the alleged incidents.
I can inform Members that the Minister for Africa spoke to the Governor of Lagos on 11 November, and also spoke to the President’s chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, on 21 November. He stressed the importance of police and military co-operation with the panels, and expressed the urgent need for panels to progress investigations, including into the incident at Lekki. As Members can see from the Government’s written response to this petition, we continue to monitor these investigations and their outcomes very closely. We also continue to monitor progress on police reform, and support Nigerian-led reform. Earlier this year, for example, we supported civil society efforts to secure the successful passage of the new Police Act. Implemented effectively, that Act will be an important step towards a more transparent and accountable police force.
I would like to set out the Government’s position on sanctions. On 6 July, the Government established the global human rights sanctions regime. In a statement to Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out its full scope. It gives the UK a powerful new tool with which to hold to account the perpetrators of serious human rights violations or abuses. It is a long-standing practice not to speculate on future sanctions designations, as doing so could reduce their impact. The sanctions regime complements our ongoing human rights activities around the world and demonstrates this country’s commitment to being a force for good, and we will continue to keep all evidence and potential listings under very close review.
I am grateful to the Minister for being here this afternoon, given that the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), was not able to be with us because of foreign travel. All of us have asked for sanctions. It would be courteous if the Minister for Africa wrote to us to outline the Government’s position on this issue, and to explain why we are not being assured this afternoon that sanctions will be imposed.
Order. Although that is a perfectly reasonable question, and no doubt the Minister will read Hansard, it is not actually in order to call for that letter in this debate. It is a perfectly sensible thing to ask for, and no doubt it may well occur, but the Minister is not required to answer that specific point.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As I said, I am sure the Minister for Africa will be following the debate. I will make a few more comments about sanctions, but if the hon. Lady will bear with me, I want to answer a few more of the other questions.
I reiterate that it is long-standing practice not to speculate on our future sanctions, as it could reduce the impact of those sanctions. Right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of corruption; I agree that tackling corruption in Nigeria is absolutely critical to the country’s prosperity and security, and to reducing poverty and inequality. Work is under way to consider how a global corruption sanctions regime could be added to the Government’s armoury.
Several Members gave examples of intimidation that had been highlighted to them, and we are aware that some protestors have reported facing intimidation. The British high commissioner in Abuja continues to raise our concerns about the intimidation of civil society groups and peaceful protestors with the Nigerian Government, because it does not build an environment for groups and protestors to come forward and help build genuine accountability. I can assure Members that we are aware that some protestors face intimidation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and others raised the matter of UK aid. I reassure her that no UK taxpayers’ money goes directly to the Nigerian Government. The UK provides assistance to Nigeria to meet immediate humanitarian needs, and to address long-term structural issues. While I am on the topic of aid, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) tried to tempt me to speak about the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. As I am sure he anticipated, I will not speculate ahead of any spending review.
Will the Minister elaborate on that? I appreciate that she is not the Minister for Africa, and that she will be less familiar with the specific programmes, but it was very clear in the Minister for Africa’s letter to us that the UK Government were funding training programmes that directly involved SARS, despite the allegations. Does she not believe there is a problem with our wider security and justice assistance programmes across the world? There is example after example of their impact being questioned, or, worse still, of our being implicated in some way when organisations do not uphold our standards.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts part of my notes, as I will touch a little more on the SARS programme, and I hope to give a bit more detail about work that we are doing and supporting.
Before I come to that, I want to note quickly that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet raised the issue of the persecution of Christians. That is another important topic, and I reassure her that we have made clear to the Nigerian authorities, at the highest levels, the importance of protecting civilians, including Christians, and human rights for all Nigerians.
I will now discuss the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The UK supports police and justice reform in Nigeria. All assistance is compliant with our human rights obligations and values. Through our Nigeria policing programme, funded by the conflict, stability and security fund, which ended in March 2020, federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers participated in training on amended Nigerian police guidance designed to improve human rights, training on public finance, and community policing workshops. The Nigeria policing programme was part of our security and justice reform programme, which is working to help to deliver a criminal justice system that will better protect the human rights of all Nigerians.
As a result of the programme, relationships between communities and the police improved in four states. Trust was built, with communities and the police working together to resolve safety and security issues. The Nigerian police force’s recent adoption of the community policing framework developed by the Nigeria policing programme is a positive outcome. Our support to civil society was instrumental in the President recently passing the Nigeria Police Act 2020, which provides for greater citizen protections and improved police training, which we believe will benefit Nigerians.
Through the CSSF-funded north-east public safety and security programme, part of which is delivered jointly with USAID, radio equipment was issued to Borno police command. That was for police units working to improve local security, and to counter violent extremist organisations, including Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa. Borno police command distributed free radios to the local FSARS unit, which were returned after FSARS was disbanded. The north-east public safety and security programme is part of our north-east Africa security, conflict and stabilisation programme, working to help to stabilise one of Nigeria’s poorest and most fragile regions, affected by Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa.
I acknowledge and understand the strength of feeling in the House and among the public. The UK and Nigeria have a long and close relationship that extends beyond our Governments to our people, especially through the British Nigerian diaspora community, which contributes so much to this country. The diaspora was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. The UK is home to more than 200,000 members of the Nigerian diaspora, who contribute much to the country. As I am sure you will be aware, Mr Gray, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), was the first British Nigerian Minister.
As to communications and engagement with the diaspora, on 18 November my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa led a virtual business roundtable with members of the Nigerian diaspora business community, the better to understand challenges in increasing trade and investment between the UK and Nigeria. That roundtable was joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who is the UK trade envoy to Nigeria, and the British deputy high commissioner in Lagos. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet asked about requesting a meeting with the Minister for Africa, and it would perhaps be wrong of me to commit him to that, but I can certainly pass on her request.
This Government will continue to press the Nigerian Government and their security services to uphold human rights and the rule of law; to investigate all incidents of brutality, illegal detentions and the use of excessive force; and to hold those responsible to account. We will closely monitor the judicial panels of inquiry, and will continue to advocate for investigations of police brutality. The Government will consider their options as the panels’ work progresses.
The Government will also continue to work with the Nigerian Government, and international and civil society partners, to improve the accountability and transparency of the Nigerian police, for the benefit of all Nigerians.
Like others, I believe this has been an excellent debate, with well-informed contributions and real insight from Members on the Back Benches and Front Benches.
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.
In the debate, we heard disturbing accounts of what happened at Lekki, and about a long history of brutality and extra-judicial killings. Particularly grim accounts were given by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I hope that we also take away from the debate the optimism that everyone has shown about the future of Nigeria. It has so much potential. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) said, there is potential for a new Nigeria and a better future. I hope that these protests signal a change in addressing concerns around corruption, brutality and poor governance. If there is real progress on those issues and they are resolved, we will see a Nigeria that is successful and flourishing, not least economically.
It has been my privilege to lead this debate. I thank everyone who signed the e-petition. This is a great example of the e-petition process working effectively, because nearly a quarter of a million people signed that petition. We in the mother of Parliaments get the opportunity to urge and advocate for change and reform in Nigeria, and it has been my privilege to take part in that process.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 554150, relating to Nigeria and the sanctions regime.