Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.
Today, Thursday October 1, is the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British rule. Celebrating Independence Day is important for any nation and it is no less the case for Nigeria which, having moved on from the days of British rule, has become one of the continent’s most prosperous, most populous and fastest growing nations. It is estimated that Nigeria will have a larger population than the United States by 2050 and it is already the largest economy in Africa.
This diamond jubilee of independence is of great national significance as it celebrates Nigeria’s past ties and collaborations, as well as future opportunities to build stronger connections and trading relationships in this post-Brexit new world. There will be many socially distanced celebrations to commemorate this occasion – the International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice will be holding an online thanksgiving prayer event for example.
However, beyond the joy of Nigeria’s Independence Day celebrations, this prayer event has another purpose, a more sombre purpose – and that is to highlight, mourn and campaign for further positive progress in the ongoing battle against the Boko Haram insurgents and other militia groups threatening the peace of the nation and the region. Since the year 2000, it is estimated that there have been almost 100,000 deaths in Nigeria caused by internationally recognised Islamist extremist groups who have been targeting both Christians and Muslims alike. This existential threat could well have wider global implications if we do not pray and act against it in a timely manner.
This continuing tragedy is underrepresented in the UK media and the scale of the crisis is sadly not fully recognised by all. I commend the hard work of organisations such as OpenDoors, HART, PSJ UK, CSW and others working to raise awareness of the situation in Nigeria.
There has also been some good news recently in this respect from the UK government. I fully support Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement that he is considering diverting billions of pounds of foreign aid to bolster security. This would be a welcome early benefit from the new FCO and DFID merger and a step forward for many of us, who have been looking for an official recognition of the links between aid, security and development.
It is my hope that the UK government will move forward with this and use the aid that we give to Nigeria – almost £300m in 2018 – to ensure that Nigeria does more to safeguard human rights and protect lives. This strategy to help the millions of innocent citizens in Nigeria, trapped between some of the deadliest terrorist organisations, Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, as well as unidentified militias and bandits has broad public support. For example, a recent ComRes poll showed that requiring foreign aid to Nigeria be targeted on measures that safeguard human rights received over 50 per cent approval and rose to almost 60 per cent support for sanctions on individuals found responsible for these human rights abuses.
Of course, our foreign aid can do great work in countries like Nigeria, building schools, revamping hospitals and updating agricultural equipment. However, we must also continue to ensure that this funding does indeed go to those in need and does not disappear into a labyrinth of wasteful bureaucratic machines. Moreover, without support for persecuted and targeted groups much of our aid projects could simply be destroyed or rendered useless by attacks.
If the UK government embraces this bolder approach to foreign aid we will be able to genuinely use our position on the world stage to make life better for those in need all around the globe.
With the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s series of celebratory events in Nigeria and in the UK will be slightly muted with its citizens looking to governments in both nations to do more and follow through on its verbal commitments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their people and I hope to be raising more celebratory glasses to toast when this is fully achieved in Nigeria.