Raphael Ede, Enugu
Most Rev. Dr Callistus Chukwuma Onaga is the Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese. In this interview he spoke on why priests are vulnerable to attacks just as he blamed many problems in the country today to the bastardization of the educational system. Excerpts:
The Church recently has come under attack such as kidnapping and armed robbery. Why are they now prone to such attacks?
I have tried to answer this question when we had the ugly incident that happened recently at Obunofia Nduno where one of our priests was kidnapped and eventually he died, that does not mean that priests are target. They are not target, but the nature of the priestly ministry exposes priests; one they are always on the road from one place to the other trying to administer sacraments. Two, they go to very remote areas where many people will not normally go; three, they don’t have the wherewithal to get the best equipment for protection. So, some of these things tend to make it look like they are the target. They are, therefore, exposed to some of these incidents not because people purposely attack them. To be honest with you the majority of our people respect Catholic priests, but because of these things I told you, it would look like priests are now endangered species because of the nature of their work. And remember again when you have about 500 priests working in a locality and one or two get kidnapped you wouldn’t compare it to about 20 or 30 of the other people that were kidnapped.
But this problem is not peculiar to Enugu Diocese. Priests have been kidnapped in Anambra, Nsukka, Delta, Benue and so many other places?
Yes, it is now happening more often than before. Priests have suffered even in the olden days, but not like now; the issue is that, unfortunately the society has turned to be very profane and too secular that the young boys have lost sense of sacredness, if it were not so, we would normally respect the priests. And like you said, now it is happening in almost every part of the country than it was happening before. I wouldn’t like to subscribe to the fact that they are the target, no, but what I will say just like the society is becoming a little bit too carefree; people have started disrespecting values that usually should not be tampered with.
What do you think should be done to mitigate such unholy attacks?
The issue is especially when it comes to people working in very precarious situations like this; I think more attention should be given to security apparatus. God so kind, in this country and all over the world it is easy to track criminals. If these tracking machines can be made available even to churches to operate on their own, it would help to reduce whatever crime that is being perpetrated on those who are taking care of souls. So, that is one aspect of it so that they will be part of the system and also part of the security outfit, they themselves will begin to address insecurity. Then the other one, of course, is that government can do more in terms of security. We have said time without number because if you have about 100 policemen just guarding the president, who himself is driving in a bulletproof car and then you see a man who is in contact with the people in danger every day; we don’t even want that at all because we are sacrificed. Priests have sacrificed their lives and they want to be with the people; they wouldn’t like anything to cut off their contact with the people, but they themselves have some work to do now to re-educate the people, build up good behavioural attitude in our people so that these will not be happening. Then, those who have the mandate to take care of things should as well do their own work. The security chiefs; the governors and the president, it is for them to now wake up. They should take care of the armed forces, if they are not taking good care of them, things would not work well. Then, I would suggest that even in the recruitment of the armed forces and the police; it should be people who are keen and have interest, not those who are just coming there to make a career. These are the ones that spoilt the work of others. So, the security apparatus that we have in the country should be reviewed so that they make sure they get people who are well trained and well equipped. If they are well trained and well equipped, they will see dignity in their work.
You will not just be working for whatever pittance; there are some places where if you give anybody who is called a policeman bribe, he will insult you; that should be the kind of thing we should see. Our policemen should be well paid, then let the correct personality be chosen because you can pay somebody so much yet he is not doing well.
Can you tell us how many of your priests were kidnapped in the last one year, this is because some said five of them were kidnapped while others said seven?
Point of correction, in the last six years we have suffered five cases of kidnap and in the last one year one was kidnapped. So, the whole issue is that as I said our priests should fill free to do their work. And because they go about doing their work they run into these people most of the time, but it is the general problem we have in the country and the state because in the remote areas where they are usually picked up such things should not be happening. If there are foreigners like so many alluded to, who are here let them be fished out and kept somewhere and then keep surveillance so that people will be free to walk normally. We should try to have neighbourhood watch so that they can do their work and security should not be left in the hands of criminals because even within a village, every village has its set of criminals – every village, every hamlet has its own set of criminals. That is why I find it difficult to just blame a group; everybody should do something about this security issue.
Let all hands be on deck to nip the whole thing in the bud. It has already gone out of hand. Our priests, we are telling them that they should not travel alone in very dangerous areas, but as I said how would they not go for sick calls? They will have to and they must go and look for somebody to take them; they must have to do it and we are praying because on our own when human beings have done their best we leave the rest to God. We are praying to make sure that they are protected while doing their work.
Since after the elections, the rate of killing and other forms of insecurity have increased across the country. What do you think can be done to address the problem?
Usually after every election so many people have arms in their hands, so many people are armed and that is why the kind of campaign they do in this country is not the best. You don’t arm people with dangerous weapons because you want to get some people’s votes.
We have to learn to build more on power of conviction instead of power of instruments and weapons, that is what our people should learn how to do. So, it happens almost after every election that crime will go high because those who have been armed to do harm still with have the weapons at their homes. It is an unfortunate thing that happens because it’s a miscarriage of democracy in the whole understanding of electioneering. If people are very sure of what they are looking for what they need to do is not to get people killing others. What they have to do is to convince others to vote for them. I will say that this our governor here, I will continue to say it, we don’t have that kind of record here. Throughout that election period only one incident happened. At times somebody may say someone is not so wonderful in infrastructure, but he has other ways of containing everybody here and people can live in peace and that is what I am expecting people should be able to do. Let there be another method of electioneering not arming, but convincing people.
What should be done to unite Nigeria divided across religious and ethnic groups?
It would be difficult for me to say that alone, but this is our country. In Nigeria we think there are so many ethnic groups and languages, but we are not as so many as America. America is so big so also many other countries.
Look at India, look at how many people are coming out for election in India, 900 million people going for election and we are not hearing crisis; maybe there might be one or two skirmishes, but the whole thing is that we need to re-orientate our people for a change of attitude. Let people know that people can live together. That somebody from the North can live with somebody from the South comfortably and let no one claim monopoly of any aspect of life; I cannot say I am from the North, leadership belongs to us, I cannot say because I am from the South, commerce and education belong to us. No, we have to learn that life is something like a symbiosis. It is a question of complementation; one complements; what you don’t have you get from the other. Our educational system should be able to do that; but unfortunately they abandoned the good educational system our colonizers and missionaries left for us and they are importing all forms of things. Instead of educating people they are certificating people. It is not correct, people should be formed to be human beings and not animals.
Should priests go into politics or take up political appointments?
Priests should not be partisan politicians, that means, they shouldn’t belong to any party, but it doesn’t mean a priest should not be interested in politics. I mean you should be interested in what is going on around you and remember man is a political animal and the priest is not excluded from this man. So, he should be interested in what is going on around him.
What kind of advice should religious leaders give to those in government?
The advice we usually give those in government is for them to remember that they are the mouthpieces of their people and they are there to represent the people; that they are there to help the people and to serve the people. If you are just coming to serve the people you will be ready to sacrifice things. You have to sacrifice everything in order to serve well, you must give up certain things; you do not use those you are serving as human shield why you are the one who is supposed to protect them. A shepherd would usually protect the sheep and not the order way round; the way it’s happening now. Let them make every effort to be really shepherd of the people.