7th June 2023
Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I endorse everything that has been said in the debate so far, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. I particularly want to follow on from what the noble Baroness said to the Committee about the suitability of some countries in Schedule 1 as places to which people should be returned; my noble friend Lord Kerr and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, developed that point in their interventions earlier. I will take one example but the arguments I am going to put to the Committee could be applied to other countries on the list as well.
The country I want to talk about is Nigeria. In a later group of amendments, I have Amendment 85C in my name, which seeks to establish
“how the Secretary of State will assess Equality”
“listed in Schedule 1 and the potential harm to those with protected characteristics including victims of Modern Slavery”.
However, I want to ask the Minister specifically to engage with the issue of justice in Nigeria. This is a country to which we have said it is safe to return men but not women. I argue that it is not safe to return anybody to Nigeria, given the way in which the internal factors in that country currently stand.
The seriousness of the situation was underlined by the visit of Karim Khan KC, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, to Nigeria in 2020. He is continuing the investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetuated by Boko Haram and other factions—as well as the involvement, I might add, of the Nigerian security forces. That investigation began in December 2020 and continues. Whether or not the ICC will determine that a genocide or crimes against humanity are being perpetrated against the religious minorities in the north of Nigeria lies in the future, but the evidence of why this is a hostile environment in which people face outright persecution is overwhelming.
Simply consider the role of what are sometimes euphemistically called “bandit groups”. They have killed, abducted, forcibly converted and displaced vast numbers of people, many of whom end up in small boats. According to government figures, 4,983 women were widowed; 25,000 children were orphaned; and 190,000 people were displaced between 2011 and 2019, with more 3 billion naira paid to bandits as ransom for 3,672 individuals who had been abducted.
In one incident last year, IS West Africa killed eight people and kidnapped 72 people on a Kaduna-bound train from Abuja while, in 2022, Boko Haram killed at least 60 people from the community of Rann, in Borno State, and killed more than 15 women in Gwoza, also in Borno State. In June 2022, the United Nations reported that Boko Haram and splinter factions abducted at least 211 children, recruited at least 63 children, killed or maimed at least 88 children, raped or sexually violated 53 girls and attacked at least 15 schools. In September 2022, UNESCO estimated that 20.2 million Nigerian children were out of school as a consequence.
I think particularly of the plight of Leah Sharibu, who has just turned 20. At the age of 14, on 18 February 2018, she was abducted by Boko Haram, raped, impregnated and forcibly converted. She is one of 110 girls taken from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, in Yobe State. Here in your Lordships’ House, I met her mother, Rebecca. I promised that I would never miss any opportunity that might come my way to raise Leah’s case. I do so again today because it illustrates the dangers faced by people being sent back to Nigeria, whether they are women or men; indeed, if they come from religious minorities that do not fit a particular mindset or ideology, they are doubly endangered.
Elsewhere in the country, secessionist forces in the south-east of Nigeria and protests by the Indigenous People of Biafra led to gunmen killing, maiming and destroying the properties of citizens in the region. Armed forces against separatists have also been involved in at least 122 extrajudicial killings. Media reports suggest that more than 287 people were killed in the south-east between January and May.
Consider other rights that we take for granted. Some 75 years ago this year the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of which insists that everyone has the right to believe or not believe or change their belief. Theoretically, Nigeria is signed up to Article 18 and all the 30 articles in the UDHR. But Article 18 is honoured, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, has just reminded us, only in its breach in Nigeria, and there are no safe and legal routes for those who are subjected to persecution for their religion or belief. With a cap on total numbers, there should be a safe and legal route and no refoulement for certain categories of people.
I am particularly glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is in her place today, because this is an issue I have raised previously with her. As the Government now consider the creation of further safe and legal routes—I welcome what they have said about this—persecuted people might form part of that. If they allowed for, say, a maximum of 5,000 people per year, that would be a great step forward for many endangered people in many parts of the world.
The urgency of addressing this issue is illustrated by the case of Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a “blasphemous” post on Facebook. He received an excessive sentence but is at least still alive to challenge it. In most cases the extremist sentiment fuelled by blasphemy laws and accusations, coupled with the impunity surrounding blasphemy-related violence, means that many of those accused never get to have their day in court and are in effect lynched, as occurred in the case of Deborah Samuel in Sokoto state. In an indication of the degree of impunity surrounding blasphemy allegations, only three men among the mob who killed her were arrested for beating her to death and her immolation. They were merely charged with “public disturbance”, as opposed to murder. Moreover, they were freed by Chief Magistrate Shuaibu Ahmad in January 2023 due to the absence of the police prosecution during the scheduled hearings.
Nigeria is one of 71 countries that criminalises blasphemy in a law introduced during the colonial era that contravenes the country’s constitution which theoretically allows for the freedoms of thought, conscience and expression that we all uphold in this House. It is also incompatible with the nation’s international obligations with regard to those Article 18 obligations that I referred to earlier. In addition, the enactment of sharia penal codes in 12 northern states effectively rendered Islam a de facto state religion in violation of Nigeria’s secular constitution, which only theoretically recognises sharia courts for non-criminal proceedings. As well as contravening constitutional stipulations, this action effectively endowed the systematic marginalisation of followers of non-majoritarian expressions of faith that has existed for decades with quasi-legality.
The Tijaniyya Sufi singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whose death sentence was overturned on a technicality and following an international outcry, but who still faces a retrial and a possible death sentence, is currently petitioning the Supreme Court, challenging Nigeria’s blasphemy law and the legality and constitutionality of the Kano sharia penal code. He is not alone in facing wholly unacceptable penalties for simply expressing dissent.
Consider the denial of freedom of expression and arbitrary arrests—breaches of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For seven months there was a ban on Twitter, while the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission suspended Vision FM for criticising the Government, sanctioned four media outlets and suspended 52 broadcast stations. The Government shut down five pro-opposition media outlets.
Last November, a Kano court sentenced social media celebrities Mubarak Muhammad and Nazifi Muhammad to detention, flogging and a fine for defaming the governor. The blogger Bashiru Hameed was detained for publishing the criminal record of the Ogun state governor. Journalists Abdulrasheed Akogun and Dare Akogun were detained for WhatsApp messages that alleged corruption by the Kwara state governor. Peoples Gazette staff were arrested for a newspaper article said to “defame” the former chief of army staff, with Umaru Maradun detained for undisclosed reasons. Meanwhile, radio worker Casmir Uzomah was detained for airing an “offensive” song.
Recall that several prominent End SARS activists were obliged to flee the country in an irregular manner after surviving the Lekki toll-gate massacre in October 2020 and following a harsh crackdown. Among those who stayed, nine detained protesters were acquitted and released by a judge in Oyo state only in January 2023, and at least 30 remain in pre-trial detention across the country.
I am telling the Committee all this because we are going to send people back to Nigeria. We have said that it is a safe place for men. This cannot be right. Does anything that I have said to the Committee suggest that this is a safe country to which people should be returned? Many refugees or asylum seekers flee their countries after facing injustice, mistreatment, harsh imprisonment without due process and even threats to their lives on account of peaceful political protest or because of their religion or belief.
Nigeria is also a nation on the edge of a precipice. It represents nearly 3% of the global population in extreme poverty, with the emergence of a critical security vacuum that has resulted in citizens across the country facing terrorism or violent armed groups, and being commoditised, as abductions for ransom have unfortunately become a growth industry. The UN says that 1.4 million people are internally displaced. Over 95 million Nigerians are living in poverty, and food inflation reached 22% in July 2022.
As violence by non-state actors continues, the economic and political climate remains uncertain following the inauguration of a president whose victory remains disputed and who, in any case, belongs to the party that oversaw Nigeria’s critical decline. Observers warn of a final descent into failed statehood which in turn could spark an exodus of people legitimately in need of safety. In the absence of defined legal or regular routes for those seeking refuge in the UK who perhaps have family or other ties to the country, these people would also be denied entry. Not only does this suggests that what we categorise as a safe country does not match the reality, it illustrates why this Bill misses the point.
With over 100 million people displaced in the world, we need a strategy to tackle the root causes, not legislation which will do nothing to end the desperate journeys of people who are desperate to make better and safer lives for themselves and their families.