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On Thursday October 30th 2014 Baroness Cox asked a question in the House of Lords about what assessment Her Majesty’s Government has made of recent developments in Nigeria, with particular reference to the terrorist activities of Boko Haram. The full text of the debate can be found here. This blog entry is my reflection on the debate itself, as well as on my experiences of the House of Lords – an invitation for an imaginary visit, if you like.
Stepping into the House of Lords is an extraordinary experience for anyone, I believe. There is something magical in the contrast between the crowded streets of Westminster and the relative calmness of such a quiet and spacious building. But this visit was especially extraordinary for me, just as it would be for anyone, I would venture, whose national assembly has only got one chamber.
I come from Hungary, so my account is that of a person who is still amazed by traditional elements of British culture and life and who genuinely feels privileged by standing and walking among the noble Lords and Baronesses, even if every single footstep visitors take is coordinated with perfect politeness and merciless precision by chamber guards in tailcoat. Sitting in complete silence on the peeresses’ gallery, still in awe of the breath-taking venue, one cannot but feel both amazed and equally intimidated by how unexpectedly close and real everything is. And to be honest, I did find it challenging to get beyond the sophistication and seeming formality of even casual interactions, let alone heated debates, and focus on the subject of discussions.
It was in this environment that Baroness Cox raised the issue of recent developments in Nigeria, asking Her Majesty’s Government what assessment it had made of these developments, with particular reference to the terrorist activities of Boko Haram. This is a timely issue, particularly important given the dreadful events of the past few weeks. HART published a press release last week highlighting these recent events: Mid-October reports mentioned a ceasefire agreement between the government and Boko Haram – news received with great hopes, but at the same time deep suspicion and reservation. However, it was also reported that to the dismissal of this agreement Boko Haram was behind a number of recent attacks: at the end of October armed groups seized and renamed the second largest-town in Adamawa state, carried out attacks against churches, schools, universities, the police station and military unit – while killing or torturing many residents. Similarly, an early November suicide bombing, leaving 32 people dead and 119 injured, is also suspected to be linked to Boko Haram.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) replied to Baroness Cox’s question, reassuring the House of the government’s awareness of the serious threat posed to Nigeria by Boko Haram and continued efforts to monitor events closely. However, as Baroness Cox highlighted, it is difficult to monitor closely and report accurately.
Discussing this question with a Nigerian guest of Baroness Cox after the debate only confirmed this suspicion: reliable data is difficult to find even locally in Nigeria, let alone in faraway countries. Events frequently get misreported or are not allowed to be covered, and official estimates of causalities tend to understate the real scale of destruction. While precise information is hard to obtain, the John Hopkins University’s Connect SAIS Africa Programme estimates that 11,121 people have been killed by Boko Haram since 2009. In the first three quarters of 2014, 5,156 people have been killed, making 2014 the deadliest year of the conflict so far. Additionally 1.5 million people have been displaced in the six north-eastern states of Nigeria which are worst affected. Another 75,000 people were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. As a matter of fact this is a much larger-scale estimate than the figures the State Minister came up with.
During the debate not only the scale and destructiveness of the conflict, but many other aspects of the current situation, such as where support is coming from and how to cut it off, how to protect schoolgirls and other vulnerable groups, as well as the need for support and rehabilitation for victims of abductions, were touched upon. The full debate can be read on the Parliament publications website. Still, these are only a few of those pressing issues a conflict-affected region has to deal with in some way.
In her responses Baroness Anelay explicitly stated that it was the Nigerian government’s task to deal with the issue and the consequences of the Boko Haram activities. Britain provides support with surveillance and searching equipment (intelligence matters) – but the ultimate responsibility lies with the Nigerian government. Baroness Anelay’s responses were measured and she avoided making any direct action-related commitments that were proposed or implied in the questions.
This might make one wonder what the government is already doing in Nigeria. According to then Foreign Secretary William Hague’s announcement in June 2014 it is providing surveillance aircrafts and necessary technical expertise for a Regional Intelligence Fusion Unit, a cooperation between Nigeria, Chad, Benin, Niger and Cameroon to bring information together and tighten the grip around Boko Haram; providing advice, training and tactical assistance for the Nigerian Armed Forces and for regional security cooperation; increasingly supporting education, especially for girls’, and providing protection for those who are most vulnerable; as well as helping regional development and the provision of basic services and infrastructure to the communities at risk in Nigeria.
However, the ‘How?’s are often not specified, leaving outside spectators listening to high-sounding, but vague promises. And despite the apparent disappointment in my tone I am saying this with little or no judgement, but with great appreciation for already existing projects and past efforts and impatient enthusiasm for their improvement and continuation. It is a difficult task indeed: doing all one can but not going too far. Baroness Anelay is right in that the Nigerian government has the right and responsibility to protect its people from terrorism. But what if it fails to protect them either with passivity or by actively posing threat to them? The Nigerian Security Forces are indeed thought to have committed severe human rights violations, including torture, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and disproportionate use of force, in the course of their response to the insurgency. And it is not just Britain, and it is not just Nigeria. To what extent are countries responsible for the security of citizens of different nations?
Without diving too deep into the debate over this widely contested question, what this parliamentary debate made me realise is how difficult it is to actually act and not just keep the pretence of empathy and attention up. A government is tied with million ropes of international law, self-interest, security concerns and other, higher foreign policy priorities. Governments need to be extremely cautious: cautious when gathering and evaluating information, cautious when stepping in conflicts, cautious when making commitments, but above all, cautious not to ignore such tremendous issues, as the situation in Nigeria.
What the government already is doing is helping the people of Nigeria with specific, targeted programmes, which is great. At the same time the genuine question strikes me: as most probably no further official steps are going to be taken following this parliamentary question was there any point in asking it other than entertaining a handful of House of Lords visitors like myself? The truth is this question had a much more noble cause than my mere entertainment. It is by voicing one’s opinion, speaking out and standing up for a commitment that like-minded people can be gathered together and the public attention can be drawn and re-drawn to a particular issue. And it is vital to keep both the government and the public, including ourselves, informed and concerned, therefore not to let the issue and the people in Nigeria be forgotten and ignored. As William Wilberforce said “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” And this is where this imaginary visit leaves us, leaves you: Delighted to have seen such compassion among peers and hoping that this would make people give a helping hand and not look the other way.