From Timothy Olanrewaju, Maiduguri
Bishop Naga Williams Mohammed is the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Borno state. The former head of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) in the state hails from the hilly town of Gwoza once captured by Boko Haram and declared as their caliphate. He is known in Borno for his frankness and radical preaching.
One will be surprised to see Mohammed in your name even as a Christian leader. How did you come about the name?
In Southern Borno, it is common to see a family mix, with both Muslims and Christians. My father was a Muslim and my mother was a dedicated Christian. I was born into such mix family. We were living in the same house, eating the same food. When it is Christmas, my mum would give money to my dad to buy whatever animal for us to slaughter. The same thing when it was time for Eid el Kabir (Sallah) celebration, my dad would buy ram for us to slaughter. We lived together in harmony and nobody talked of being a Christian or Muslim in those days. Now the fact that I am a religious leader now won’t make me remove Mohammed from my name because it is Islamic name. My father’s name is Mohammed and this is my identity that I am his son.
You talked about the religious harmony in your family, how will you compare that with instances of religious suspicion all over Nigeria today?
In the past there was absolute tolerance to the extent that you don’t know this man’s religion and the other one’s religion. We all trust one’s religion. In fact, in my Mum’s house, she had a kettle which is called ‘Buta’ in Hausa. Muslims use it in performing ablution. While growing up, I was raised to see Muslims from a positive light. All I knew was that Muslims were doing what they were supposed to do, and we Christians were doing what we were supposed to do in terms of worship and coexistence in our communities.
In Southern Borno where most of the Christians in Borno state hail from, most of our families are inter-faith based; that is mixture of Muslims and Christians. I used to know of a family where the father and his six children were Christians, while his three wives were Muslims, and they lived peacefully.
Christians are in reasonable population in Borno state but they still constitute a minority in the state, tell us how much successive governments have been responding to challenges faced by Christians in the state including the Boko Haram insurgency?
If you go back to recent history, our first major problem was in February 2006, when a Danish man whom I learnt was not even a Christian, portrayed a picture of the Prophet of Islam in a bad light. Unfortunately, there was protest here in Maiduguri and Christians received the repercussion. To recall, in 2006, they were saying miscreants, arsonists, hooligans, bastards and all sort of names perpetrated the destruction and killing. I pity those who call them with these names, because, these bad guys when they see an opportunity to do what they have been brainwashed to do, they execute it properly. A total of 56 churches were razed in Borno, and so many shops belonging to Christians were destroyed and there was no compensation from the then state government.
But the then Governor Ali Sheriff announced government’s plan to compensate those, mostly Christians that lost their churches and means of livelihood, are you saying it was never done?
Absolutely not! There was no compensation. And I repeat, no compensation, nothing was given to Christians except promises made by then Governor Ali Modu Sheriff. He promised he would compensate for all those properties destroyed but to no avail. I was among the High Powered Administrative Committee as representative of the Christian community constituted by the then Governor Sheriff. I think only N150, 000 was given to each pastor whose entire church was destroyed. At a point, we compiled all the destroyed properties including churches and submitted the report to the Borno Government.
If Borno state government did not compensate Christians after the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis, one wonders what the situation will be with the Boko Haram and massive destruction of religious centres especially in most of the communities in Southern Borno with high Christian population. Can you share your recent experience with us?
The situation is far better now than what it was then despite the fact that more churches have been destroyed now than the scenario in 2006. The current government is making effort to be fair to Christians and I must acknowledge that. Let me say for the benefit of critics that I do not receive any patronage from the Borno government in whatever form. I am just saying what the reality is, compared to what it was in the past for the Christian community here in Borno. Those who are not in Borno state may not know, but you and I know better.
In the history of Borno state, there is no governor that has been fair to the Christian Community as much as Governor Kashim Shettima. I am saying this in the presence of God almighty and this is nothing but the truth. Governor Shettima, in the history of Borno, is the only governor that has sponsored highest number of Christian pilgrims every year since 2011. I am speaking boldly without fear or favour because as CAN Chairman I do not receive salary or kobo from government or any institution, but facts must be told. This governor has shown compassion to the Christian Community.
For example, when Gwoza people were driven from their ancestral homes, they fled to Maiduguri, and the governor personally came to CAN Centre in Jerusalem ward two times in June and July 2014. He gave N10 million for their upkeep at first instance, by that time, the victims were not many. By the end of October 2014, the IDPs from Gwoza increased to 42,000 in that camp alone. Governor Shettima came again and gave another N10 million. He also gave additional N5 million for Christians from Borno who fled to Cameroon to be returned home. He gave another N5 million for non-indigenes who fled to Cameron to come back to Nigeria. The governor even directed the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) to be supplying food directly to the IDPs under the Christian leadership. In fact, the governor insisted that he wanted Christian IDPs to stay together with their Muslim counterparts in various designated IDP camps here in Maiduguri but we the leaders felt it wise to separate Christian IDP’S to avoid frictions between displaced persons dealing with trauma.
Are the churches too being rebuilt under this government, since it is rebuilding communities destroyed by Boko Haram including worship centres?
On the Churches that were razed, we had a meeting with Governor Shettima on how his administration can come in to assist in rebuilding some of these churches. Last year when the governor visited Gwoza, Askira -Uba and Chibok local government areas for assessment on the level of destructions, he saw how some of these churches were dilapidated, some burnt down to ashes. In fact, some churches were not only razed but grader machine was used by Boko Haram to pull down the whole structures to ground zero as if that church never existed there.
Like in Gwoza, the report we received was that after some of the churches were demolished, the terrorists packed the whole debris and threw it far away from the premises. During Governor Shettima’s visit to these areas, he released N100 million for the rebuilding of some of these churches. A committee was set up for that purpose, I am a member of the committee headed by a Permanent Secretary, Mr. Justus Zare as Chairman, and I am happy to inform you that presently we have used that money to rebuild 11 key churches which our people are now using for their worship services.
I am surprised when some people were saying why not rebuild all the churches, we cannot do that because there were so many places that are still unsafe for people to return, and you cannot expect us to go to the Christian communities of the fringes of Sambisa Forest to start rebuilding their destroyed churches, when the security situation has not improved. After, the initial N100m, Governor Kashim Shettima graciously approved another N105 million for the 2nd phase of rebuilding destroyed churches. This was made possible when CAN officials led by my humble self had a meeting with him on Thursday 30th March, 2017 at the Government House. So far, the governor has released N210 million for reconstruction of our burnt churches.
He also approved the sponsorship of all our pastors in the local government areas to participate in the 2017 Jerusalem Pilgrimage. During the meeting, Governor Shettima approved allocation of Certificates of Occupancy (C of O) and land for church buildings in the state. This has never happened in the history of Borno since 1979. When Archbishop Emmanuel Kana Mani (whom I succeeded as CAN chairman) died, the governor visited the family residence in Maiduguri and supported the family and his burial ceremony with money. He also sent representative to the burial activities. There was a time we complained to him to give us additional Christian Permanent Secretaries, initially we had only one in the state, and he immediately approved additional three. As it is now, we have five Christian Permanent Secretaries in Borno civil service and we have to appreciate him.
His government has given us the opportunity to even run a collective programme on Borno Television and Radio which has never happened before in this state. We work with the Jama’atul Nasril Islam to sensitize our people on peaceful coexistence. They trust us, we trust them. The government under Shettima is bringing harmony between religious leaders through his fairness and graciousness.