It is a privilege to work in the House of Lords. I’ve been here since 1982 – previously serving as a Deputy Speaker for twenty years and now sitting as a Crossbench Peer – and every time I make my way to Westminster, I always try to remind myself of two simple facts: this is the heart of UK democracy; and here is my opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless.
Outside the Westminster bubble
Today, Saturday 12 November, I am not in the House of Lords. I am 4,000 miles away in a city called Jos, situated in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. I am here because the Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram continue to claim many hundreds of lives. Fulani militants have forced vulnerable rural communities to abandon their homes. And the imposition of Islamic law in several northern states has exacerbated deep-rooted religious divisions, causing thousands of Christians to flee.
In order to witness the extent of their suffering, I visited four farming villages which were attacked in May last year: Lo-Biring, Jong, Rabuk and Zim. Their crops were destroyed and their buildings were literally smashed to pieces.
Speaking with a handful of families who have chosen to return, either to bury their dead or rebuild their homes, one local pastor explained: “People were just sitting when the enemies came. They started cutting them. 21 people were killed.”
Another said: “They were trained terrorists with guns. They killed those who couldn't run – the aged, the children and the blind. A pastor was the first casualty. They surrounded him. They killed him and then they rejoiced, shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and ‘we have got a hero’.”
Someone else later told me: “The conflict between herdsmen and farmers has existed for a long time. But the menace in recent times has jumped from a worrisome itch to a cancerous disease, spreading throughout the country, claiming lives and threatening to spiral into a monster.”
Shortly after I left, my guide received a phone call explaining that the villages were ambushed by Islamist Fulani herdsmen. He explained to me that gunmen emerged from the hills barely thirty minutes after we had driven away: “They were shooting at the vehicles that passed the road. They must have thought it was our vehicle because they were mostly headlights of the cars shot at. We knew we were the target because while we were out in the village, we saw the cattle herders, young children run off in a direction.”
Thankfully, none of those we spoke to were injured. But it does go to show the battles that so many face on a daily basis.
The Nigerian people show astonishing courage in the face of adversity. Yet they are crying for help. It is our duty, wherever we are from, and whatever our day job, to make their voices heard.