SPEECH DELIVERED BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN SENATE, HIS EXCELLENCY, SENATOR (DR.) ABUBAKAR BUKOLA SARAKI (C.O.N) AT THE 137TH ASSEMBLY OF THE INTER-PARLIAMENTARY UNION (IPU) – ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIAN FEDERATION, 14-18 OCTOBER, 2017.
1.It is indeed my honour to lead the Nigerian delegation to the 137th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and to address you all today. Few locations offer a more pertinent setting for this debate than the storied city of St. Petersburg. This classical city of culture – home of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and other masters of world literature – bears its own testimony to War and Peace. This was once the scene of a siege, the longest in history, the causes of which are not far removed from some of the issues that confront us at the present time. This city of witness, where 11-year-old Tanya Savicheva once recorded the deaths of her entire family in a small diary, offers its own meditation on the theme of this General Debate, which is: ‘Promoting Cultural Pluralism and Peace through Inter-Faith and Inter-Ethnic Dialogue.’
2.This 137th Assembly is holding at a very critical period, the theme is most timely; the challenge, an urgent one. All over our world today, ethnic divide and religious antagonism have opened up new theatres of conflict and exacerbated existing ones, leading to humanitarian crises on an unprecedented scale. According to the United Nations, 20 million people are at risk of famine in countries including Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, 140million people in 37 countries are in need of aid. Earlier this year, in the Dhaka Declaration, the 136th IPU Assembly called attention to food insecurity in Yemen, Afghanistan and parts of Africa. Indeed, as the IPU President rightly observed, we are entering “the age of famine.”
3.In Africa, there are increasing episodes of hate speech directed at those who the perpetrators consider to be different – in culture, tradition and religion. There are rising inter-ethnic clashes with many fatalities recorded, and communities displaced from territories they once called home for centuries. The diverse cultural, traditional and religious colouration of many African societies has threatened to turn parts of the continent into new arenas of bloodletting, a sad reminder of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Nigeria herself experienced a civil war to keep the country together, when parts of the country sought to secede; and lately an increasing spate of hate speeches and ethnic conflicts is threatening unity of the country.
4.2017 has been a year of unremitting woes. Hardly any part of the world is untouched by trouble and strife – conflicts created by the apparent failure in many spheres to achieve peaceful coexistence in the service of human progress. In the United States of America, white supremacists engaged in pitched battles with anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. The country has been roiling since, as the fault lines widen between the various segments of American society, giving vent to long simmering tensions.
5.In Spain, the reverberations of the Catalan independence referendum are being felt. Whether it is sporadic bursts of xenophobic violence in South Africa, or election-related unrest in Kenya fractured along ethnic lines between the Luos and the Kikuyus, we see again and again the consequences of gaps in mutual understanding within our communities.
6.In Myanmar, tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya have sent a wave of human misery flowing to the border of Bangladesh. According to CNN report in September 2017, about half a million of the Rohingya people have been displaced in a matter of weeks. One media image captured an aerial view of the ruins of a Rohingya village; only charred rectangles remain on the ground where dwellings had been. The majority of the Rohingya have been expunged from Myanmar, with Bangladesh now hosting a larger number. This is human displacement of a magnitude that cannot be allowed to continue.
7.As we debate these issues, we must be careful not to entrench the perceived hierarchy of suffering, which concentrates global attention on some conflicts while neglecting others. The migrant crisis in Europe commands international coverage, but South Sudan – where a civil war has created Africa’s largest refugee crisis – is virtually ignored. This disparity led a recent British editorial to lament “the relative lack of international interest in the near-apocalyptic disaster currently afflicting the people of South Sudan.”
8.Fellow Parliamentarians, we have a duty to lift the cloak of silence over the conflict in South Sudan, which has driven 2 million people into neighbouring Uganda. According to the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “more refugees sought safety in Uganda per day in 2016 than many wealthy European countries received the entire year.” As for Uganda’s response to the humanitarian crisis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has hailed it “an example for the world.” Proof, as though it were needed, that Africa can show the way.
9.Let me at this point share some insight about my country, as well as the steps we are taking in the Nigerian National Parliament to promote cultural pluralism and facilitate peaceful dialogue. With 170 million people, 250 ethnic groups and up to 500 languages, Nigeria is a colourful tapestry of humanity. Our diversity is a tremendous blessing that has contributed to making Nigeria a powerhouse in Africa and the world – a country rich in human capacity and talent.
10.However, it is also true that we are faced with challenges that threaten our peace and sustainable development as a nation. Nigeria’s North-East region has suffered terribly under the brutal onslaught of Boko Haram insurgents. 2 million Nigerians are internally displaced or have fled to neighbouring countries in the Lake Chad region, where 4.4 million are threatened by food insecurity. Of the funds needed to address the problem, less than half has been raised. The UN has called the situation in the Lake Chad region the most neglected humanitarian crisis in the world.
11.Plateau State in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria has been a location of ethnic and religious conflict for many years, with more than 7,000 killed in the last decade. The climate change dimensions of some of these problems cannot be over-emphasised. The shrinking Lake Chad cannot sustain the thousands of displaced peoples camped along its receding banks. The adverse environmental impacts are multiple and wide-ranging, worsening the problem of desertification in Northern Nigeria. Faced with the loss of traditional grazing fields, herdsmen are venturing inland with their cattle; consequently, skirmishes between herdsmen and farmers have become a regular occurrence. These confrontations underscore the environmental component of peace-building between communities; and the need to give consideration to the issue of climate change as we work to foster better understanding.
12.We are deeply concerned about the ejection of Nigerian refugees who have sought shelter and safety outside our borders. We remind ourselves of the transformative legacy of Srebrenica and Rwanda, which is the Responsibility to Protect civilians, as adopted by the UN World Summit in 2005. We commend to all, the example of Uganda’s progressive refugee policy, as we work with our neighbours to find ways of fostering a greater understanding on the plight of refugees. We recognise that the presence of refugees can stretch already limited resources in host communities, giving rise to tension. We are therefore calling for increased international cooperation for assisting host communities, to cushion the effects of taking in refugees.
13.The Nigerian National Assembly is at the forefront of improved coordination efforts to overcome institutional and logistical impediments in the way of getting aid to those in need. We are working to pass a motion aimed at securing an additional $280million in aid to tackle the challenges, in collaboration with humanitarian and international organisations on the ground, to ensure that food relief and other supplies reach those in need as quickly as possible.
14.The 8th National Assembly has reached an advanced stage in plans for a development commission to tackle the crisis in the North East, incidentally the region with the highest poverty rate in the country. We have also made economic growth and greater investment the core of our legislative agenda. The sooner we deliver economic reforms and greater prosperity to all Nigerians, the sooner we can achieve a more inclusive society, and minimise societal divisions and grievances. Poverty, hunger and marginalisation can provide a breeding ground for extremism; when we ensure a safe and prosperous society, we prevent the radicalisation of vulnerable groups.
15.While we recognise that there is a lot more we can do, it is pertinent to note that we cannot do it alone. We are therefore calling for an international conference on North-East Nigeria and the Boko Haram threat, similar to those convened in London on Somalia and Syria.
16.Fellow Parliamentarians, 50 years after the Nigerian Civil War, we are facing renewed agitation in some quarters for a Biafran state. This is a cause of friction between some groups and the Igbos of the South East region, once the heartland of the Biafran secession. In one troubling instance, a northern youth group issued a notice requiring all Igbos living in the North to leave by October 1st. Happily, through inter-ethnic dialogue between youth groups representing the two regions, we defused the tensions, and the Quit Notice was withdrawn. This underscores the role of the youths in promoting cultural plurality and dialogue between disparate groupings.
17.Some weeks ago, I welcomed young Parliamentarians in Africa to Abuja for their regional conference under the auspices of the Young Parliamentarian Forum of the IPU. We were honoured to have the presence of Mr. Martin Chungong, the Secretary General of the IPU, at this forum, which was initiated by the Nigerian National Parliament two years ago. We are committed to the greater participation of the youth in governance. It was in this spirit that the National Assembly reduced the age of qualification to run for public offices to 25.
18.Still on the subject of Biafra, the Nigerian Army recently proscribed a group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), following confrontations with military counter-operatives in the South East. As President of the Senate, I pronounced on the unconstitutionality of the proscription, insisting on the legal process that ought to have been followed. We take very seriously the National Assembly’s role in upholding the rule of law and the safeguarding of human rights. We are committed to the ideals of a free and fair society that is equitable for all, regardless of culture, religion, gender and other identifiers. This is the bedrock of peaceful relations, mutual respect, understanding and tolerance.
19.Furthermore, we ensure the equitable distribution of resources through the National Assembly’s budgetary and oversight functions. We seek fair representation for all in governance. By so doing, we promote social cohesion and guard against alienation and marginalisation, so that no one feels left behind.
20.Inter-faith dialogue is one of the pillars of our efforts to promote cultural pluralism. We are in constant conversation with leaders of the Muslim and Christian faith groups in Nigeria, and we support their deliberations and initiatives through the legislative process. Inter-faith dialogue allows us to take the pulse of our religious communities, while commending to them the values of tolerance and mutual respect. The National Assembly not only facilitates and sets the ground rules for continuous inter-faith dialogue, we also promote inter-denominational services and related platforms, to cultivate and promote shared values.
21.Nigerian women are very active in faith communities in a variety of ways. The National Assembly, therefore, engages with women groups, to support their role in passing the message of religious tolerance to the younger generation. Education also comes into play, combined with the power of the media and art, to help bring about an attitudinal shift in people. Information technology is particularly effective in engaging the youth. In the North-East, for example, the innovative use of mobile phones is helping to track malnutrition, so that food aid can be supplied where it is most needed.
22.We believe in moving beyond statistics to emphasise the human story through education and the media, to inspire empathy. For example, the use of photography has brought the Rohingya crisis to the front rooms of the whole world. Which brings me back to the role of faith leaders in fostering better understanding: the Dalai Lama powerfully demonstrated this recently, when he declared that even the Buddha himself would assist the Rohingya Muslim. As Parliamentarians, we also strive to provide moral leadership with the instrument of the law.
23.In order to overcome prejudices and uproot stereotypes, and achieve the objectives and standards of modern civilized societies, there is only one option here and throughout the world – Dialogue. A dialogue that will make one culture, religion or ethnicity see the other as the same, all in pursuit of the same goals. I urge us to adopt the Tirana Summit Declaration of 2004, for a world in which religious leaders and communities create spaces where diverse religious faiths can not only coexist peacefully – but also work actively together to promote a sense of social cohesion and collective purpose. Religion should not be a problem, but part of the solution.”
24.In doing this, Parliamentarians can champion IPU’s core values of Equality, Inclusiveness, Respect, Integrity and Solidarity as necessary tools for bringing about peace through cultural pluralism. While national circumstances may differ, these ideals are still universally accepted as parts of the panacea for world peace.
25.Parliaments and Parliamentarians can help to ensure political reconciliation by highlighting the importance of political plurality and inclusiveness in decision making. We must redouble efforts at educating the youth, while inculcating in a new generation a new spirit that: accepts and respects others; builds Platforms for Inter-Religious dialogue; takes advantage of advancement in technology and communication to penetrate educationally deprived areas. Additionally, we should ensure the building of closer and lasting inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships at the grassroots level.
26.On a final note, a little story of what can happen when communities are able to share ideas and develop a better appreciation of one another. In the town of Colorado Springs in the United States, a former neo-Nazi, Michael Kent, had his case transferred to a black woman, parole officer Tiffany Whittier. In the process of their interaction, Mr. Kent abandoned his white supremacist views and had a swastika tattoo removed from his chest. He sees his new black friend as family. This is what happens when we build new bridges of human understanding.
27.It is my hope that our deliberations here will bring forth more of such heartwarming stories all around our world.
Thank you and God bless.