If the EU won’t stop the slow murder of "Nigeria’s Gandhi", perhaps Britain can ǀ View

As Boris Johnson moves into Downing Street, his first priority will be to demonstrate Britain’s strength beyond Europe – and its ability to survive and thrive after Brexit. The Commonwealth – Britain’s own international bloc that Johnson hopes can rival the EU’s soft power – is a logical place to start.

The UK’s legacy in Africa can be a source of strength – if Johnson can protect commercial interests at home as well as human rights abroad. Nowhere is this truer than in Nigeria.

I have been studying and visiting Nigeria for decades, but I have never been so worried about what the Nigerian government has planned for Africa’s biggest country. Corruption is rife, and political violence and extrajudicial acts abound. Boko Haram is on the rise, with accusations of support from parts of the Nigerian deep state. And human rights activists – particularly those who work across Nigeria’s ethnic and religious divides, rather than inside them – are being deliberately killed, along with their families.

One example is Ibrahim Zakzaky, someone I have known for 38 years and saw most recently when I led a delegation of British Doctors to provide his first medical exam in almost four years of detention.

Zakzaky’s release has been ordered by Nigeria’s highest court but the country’s intelligence services continue to hold him extra-judicially. He has 20 million peaceful followers, all of whom adhere to the movement’s code of non-violence. As his health deteriorates, one of Nigeria’s few civil society leaders who unites different ethnicities and religions could be lost.

It is time for Britain to use its diplomatic clout to avert disaster. As Boris Johnson settles into Number 10, the air of ineptitude – or even incompetence – will follow him from his time as foreign minister. A quick diplomatic win for him would be to follow in the footsteps of previous British administrations and pressure the Nigerian government on Zakzaky’s behalf. This support was as pragmatic as it was idealistic, and could help Johnson at the start of his premiership.

As a diehard Brexiteer, Johnson will need to quickly demonstrate that Britain’s role on the world stage – and his position as prime minister – can survive the Brexit process. This will mean asserting a role for the UK beyond Europe’s borders which is ideally away from the unpredictability of the Trump White House.

An obvious place to look for this is Africa, and Nigeria – as its most populous country – is at the heart of the continent. Britain’s trade envoys are acutely aware of this, even going so far as attempting to introduce naira-denominated instruments onto London’s financial market. This interest is not surprising: Nigeria is the UK’s fastest growing export market, but still accounts for only 0.2% of the country’s international trade.

Political responsibility goes hand in hand with economic opportunity. Britain has a particular obligation given Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth and the fact that the British Army trained Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s strongman ruler when he was a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant, accelerating his rise to the upper echelons of Nigeria’s military.

The short-term interest in certain quarters is to maintain the status quo; there are business elites in both London and Lagos that see Nigerian democracy as a problem that it doesn’t pay to fix. But in the long-term, economic liberalisation can only occur at the same time as political freedom. A fair economy can only exist at the same time as a just society.

At a time when the EU’s policy seems only concerned with its immediate financial benefit (continuing to provide the Buhari regime in Nigeria free trade access to Europe under its Generalised System of Preferences deal), Britain can set itself apart as a Western power that is as concerned with democracy abroad as it is with deal flows at home.

Massoud Shadjareh is the chair of the London-based NGO Islamic Human Rights Commission.

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