The Metropolitan Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has said that just as Christians mobilized against corruption in the 2015 presidential election, the Christendom is going to mobilize against continued corruption and insecurity in the 2019 election.
Onaiyekan who spoke against the backdrop of happenings in Nigeria, particularly corruption and killings across the country, warned that “We will mobilize against evil, whoever it is. It is very interesting that we mobilized against corruption in 2015. We mobilized strongly against corruption and which is why some people thought that we supported Buhari, even though Buhari was a Moslem candidate. Just as we mobilized against corruption in 2015, we are going to mobilize against continued corruption in 2019 and insecurity and I will say also, against any effort to simply turn our country into an impossible place – polarization where people can no longer see one another as brothers.” He said his candid advice for President Buhari is to ask him to retire from politics in 2019.
Onaiyekan spoke on these and other thought-provoking issues ranging from the President’s re-election bid to his recent visit to the United States of America where he said, President Donald Trump disarmed Buhari on the killing of Christians. He spoke to IHEANACHO NWOSU and AIDOGHIE PAULINUS, in Abuja.
This appears to be a trying time in Nigeria. The Church, last Sunday, witnessed protests in many states. Did that have your endorsement?
First of all, we have been in this country now for a long time and somehow, from the military era till the time we were struggling to have democracy, almost every time, we keep saying these are difficult times. I think it is true to say that really, we have been having difficult times even though despite the difficult times, Nigerians, in all their resilience, have been moving on, making their efforts. It is like despite the governance situation, Nigerians just manage to keep going. So, you are right. These are trying times, but I just wanted to say that this is not the first time. We have been saying it. One would hope that we cannot continue running a nation on trying times. We should find a way of being able to organise ourselves better so that we can move with a good amount of assurance of where we are going, predictability and rule of law; those things – honesty because lies run very fast but they cannot go far. All the deceits, lies and propaganda that we hear, maybe deceive people alright, but not for long. Eventually, the truth will stand. I will talk about deceit later.
The point you raised at first that there were many protests and whether it has our endorsement, my brothers, you reach a stage when nobody is going to ask for anyone’s endorsement. You reach a stage where people are driven to the wall and they are not going to be asking whether Bishop, Cardinal is happy with what they are doing. They will do what they believe they have to do to express their feelings. When we keep shouting and asking those who are ruling us to do better, it is always because we are afraid that there is a limit to how far you can push people; to a limit to how much people can sustain and tolerate bad governance. The fact that people have kept quiet all this time, there have been no major crisis, well Boko Haram picked up arms as you know and one of their reasons is because they don’t agree with the government on ground. If things don’t also improve, we can’t rule out the fact that other people also expressing their dissatisfaction in a way that people will have no doubt as to the fact that people are not happy. And as a religious leader, I am not expecting people to come and get permission from me to express themselves legally and peacefully according to what they believe is their right. Nobody needs my permission to go out and demonstrate and for the same reason, nobody will come and ask my permission to carry arms and start fighting. It is your responsibility. But the only point I want to simply say is that when things are going wrong to a given extent, you can no longer stop people from not complaining. You know we have a proverb that you cannot be beating a child and say he shouldn’t cry. Let him cry. Let’s hope that when the child starts crying, the parents will realize that the child needs to be looked after.
When the Catholic Church in Benue said they will now defend themselves and whatever it will take to defend themselves, even carrying guns, they will do that, it means they have your support?
Honestly speaking, you know I have been away. I am not aware of it and all the Bishops of Benue State were with us in Rome. We only came back yesterday (Monday). That some people may be saying that at home, again, is what we are talking about. They are not going to wait for the Bishop to express their mind. Don’t forget that the people in Benue state are Nigerians. They are not only Catholics. They are also Nigerians who have their rights and can decide what they want to do. The issue about self defence is a very delicate matter and again, if you are living in a country that is guided by the rule of law, it means it is such that we expect to live in peace and that there will be security guaranteed by the institutions of state that are supposed to do that. That is the assumption and that is why we tell people to be law abiding and we tell people, don’t take the law into your hands. I think that is still true. But when you reach a stage where people become quite convinced in themselves that there is no law, that you are on your own, the first right of every human being is the right to life and with the right to life also comes the right to defend yourselves.
So, in this delicate situation, if the Catholic priests in Benue State take up arms to defend themselves, they are right?
They have not done so. That is not our way and I don’t think they will. And I am hoping that we have not reached that stage yet. But you could reach that stage. Yesterday, they killed us, the next day, they killed us, the policemen are around and they have done nothing. And the police are given guns and they don’t use them. The Army comes and moves around and nothing happens. They are not going to wait for me to tell them what to do. They don’t want that to continue and all we have been telling government is please, don’t push people too far. It is not possible to tell us that Nigeria is unable to secure our territory. We cannot believe it, to tell us that it is beyond the possibility of the police; that the whole Nigerian Army with the billion naira and the billion dollars budgets that we are spending; they still can’t keep us safe. And they want me to believe that? We can’t believe it, which is why we are saying no, there is something seriously wrong which must be addressed quickly because at the end of the day, everybody is going to suffer.
As you know, most of us, at least, are pleading that we live in peace with one another because living in peace is less expensive than going to war. Also, when you go to war, who wins? Whoever is stronger wins, not who is right. The Pope used to say that we must replace the right of force with the force of right. That is where we are now. Don’t forget that somebody (Gen. TY Danjuma) who ought to know did make a statement about get ready to defend yourselves. And he should know what he is talking about. And he clearly accused government of collusion. That is serious.
Are you happy with the way government handled his statement?
I am not worried how government handled his statement. What is more serious is, is his statement correct? Is he right when he said that there is collusion on the part of at least, a section of the Nigerian Armed Forces? When you say collusion, it means arming those who are killing innocent people. That is a serious allegation. Very serious! And the fact that we have not seen any major crackdown on him, it is not only because he is their senior, but because they know that there is something in what he is saying. I am hoping that since that statement, those who should think, have started thinking and realizing that water is passing garri oooo. The question I asked myself is not what government is thinking, but I was more of asking, thanks very much General, if I am not a cardinal, I am an ordinary farmer in the bush where herdsmen have killed my colleagues and I hear General say we should arm ourselves and defend ourselves, the question I ask is, please, how do I do it? I have no money to buy AK47. So, when that kind of statement is made, one needs to push it to a more logical conclusion.
The point which our Bishops made recently in our communiqué from Rome, a statement that is rather strong; but it is strong because of the mood in which the nation was, the mood we are, very, very hot. Even the statement said we are angry, we are hurt. It is not only about priests killed, human beings were killed, seventeen people killed. Each and everyone of them is a child of God and killed during service. It is very clear that look, government should make sure that people can be safe and that this is not the time to start disarming people while the criminals continue to be armed. It is very strange to us because this is not the time from what we are hearing that the police is going around, disarming people from the arms that many of them have even legally acquired. Rather, we believe that government should encourage and empower people to help the security agencies to be able to secure our environment. Given that the security agencies are unable to effectively do the job, they should allow the community. We have always had that before. Haven’t we? Before the Whiteman came, every village protected itself and this doesn’t mean taking the law into one’s hands. Vigilante groups have been set up in many places, even armed, in collaboration with the police. Since the police said they cannot alone, let the community organise themselves to defend themselves. And I think if that is not done, people are not going to just keep quiet. You don’t want to just sit down and not sleep or you go out small, you don’t know whether your wife and your children are still around. That is why you are right the way you started that these are very, very difficult times. I believe that things have reached a stage where it should be clear that we cannot continue like this.
The statement by the Bishops tends to suggest that they have exhausted their patience with the government. Why?
Well, the word we used was that we have lost confidence in this government.
That means you feel nothing good again can come from the government?
No! The ball is now in the court of the government to regain our confidence. This is what this kind of language means. We have always given government the benefit of the doubt: that they will protect us; that they will not allow herdsmen to be roaming around freely and every time it happens, we take it patiently and we say well, they will be doing something. But it has reached a stage now where not only we, many Nigerians are saying what is happening? What is happening? We have no confidence. Confidence means you can relax. Can I relax and sleep? Maybe in my house because I am here in Abuja and my house is fairly secured. I have one or two policemen here and so on. But, can I tell everybody out there, all those farmers to relax, have confidence in your government? So, the statement we are making is not only for ourselves, we are interpreting what we feel is the way our people are feeling. They have no confidence in the government.
What is your personal conclusion on the killings in Benue State?
The Benue issue is not special. There are killings going on in other states and interestingly, maybe it is important to mention it. It is also going on in very clearly Moslem states. We hear that Zamfara is constantly under attack and the victims of those attacks are largely Moslems. We are faced with a group of armed criminals who are killing people.
So, it is not a religious issue?
Whether it is religious or not, the people who go to Church and are killed in Church will certainly see it as religious. We came to pray and they came and killed us.
So, whether you say it is religious or not, the parameters are there and because the perception about religion comes in, it makes it even more dangerous. It is interesting that Trump said the killing of Christians must stop. It is interesting! I wouldn’t have said it that way myself for the simple reason that first, it is not only Christians that are dying. It will appear as if we don’t care about other people dying provided Christians are not killed. But there is no doubt that there are many Christians who have been targeted and how that news reached Trump… The fact is there: there is a general perception that although everybody is being killed, on the whole, it is the Christian communities that are being targeted by these people. A different matter for example, is the Boko Haram insurgency, which was killing in communities all over the northeast. But even there too, there seemed to be a greater targeting on the few Christian communities up there. All those in Gwoza! That is a place where there is a very strong Catholic community, which was ravaged. Chibok village was almost completely a Christian village. The only difference, of course, is Dapchi, in Yobe. It is a town that is largely Muslim and of the one hundred and something girls that were abducted, almost all of them were Muslims. But you see, they all came back soon. How? What is happening? And the only one kept behind happens to be a Christian. So, whoever is there, ought to know that these signals, bring in a religious sentiment that is not good for us. It makes the situation difficult. We should be able to just look at each other as Nigerians and insist that every Nigerian deserves to live in peace whether you are a Christian or you are a Muslim. And that is the position we have taken.
How much international pressure is the Bishops bringing into this, especially to make the government sit up?
First of all, it was not us who told the Pope about the massacre that happened in Benue state. He heard of it already even before we got to Rome. As you know, that event went round the whole world and it was reported that same day in Radio Vatican. So, it was well known. Actually, as we entered the Pope’s library, the first thing he asked me was, is the Bishop of Makurdi here? I said yes. I want to talk with him, the Pope said. And we brought out the Bishop of Makurdi and the Pope put his hand around him and the Bishop of Makurdi broke down, crying. The Pope was encouraging him. In other words, let nobody say we went to Rome to report Buhari to the Pope. The things happening in Nigeria have reported themselves. And they are still asking the question: how is that possible? Is there no government in that place? We find ourselves all the time trying our best to defend our government. And sometimes, we just don’t have any words, no way of defending them because things are happening that should not happen. If we don’t care too much about two priests and 15 parishioners slaughtered in the morning or indeed, about sometimes 30 Moslems praying in the Mosque, slaughtered with a bomb. If all that is not a major thing for us, for people out there in the world, it is a great thing. They take it seriously. And it is a bit shameful that others are more concerned about us than it seems we ourselves are. Maybe because we are getting used to these atrocities that they seem not to move us too much. We don’t have a situation where it is the bishops who are going to mobilize international reaction against our government. That can’t happen. What we do believe is that whatever we have that is called a government, should be sensitive to international feelings about the things happening in our country. And it is very interesting. Trump and Buhari are standing there before the whole world and Trump said the killing of Christians must stop. My president, what did he say? Did he in anyway remark on that statement? So, which means he was completely disarmed. Not only in front of Nigerians, in front of the whole world. This is a case where we must say silence means consent. President Buhari did not respond to Trump and said no, there is no killing of Christians going on. He cannot. That will be a blatant lie. The fact that we are not saying it much, that doesn’t mean it is not happening. But I do believe with that kind of attitude, with what we are hearing from other people about us, the Pope getting involved and praying that these things should stop, and with Trump and maybe he will go to another big country and the same problem comes up, at least, we should be ashamed and decide to do things differently. I still believe that we can do things differently.
With the Bishops having lost confidence in the government and elections just coming up, if the Bishops watch what is happening in the next few months and there is no change, are you likely to really stand up and mobilize against the incumbent administration to have a change?
You know that the Catholic Church never mobilizes against any political party. We mobilize against evil, whoever it is. It is very interesting that we mobilized against corruption in 2015. We mobilized strongly against corruption and which is why some people thought that we supported Buhari, even though Buhari was a Muslim candidate. Just as we mobilized against corruption in 2015, we are going to mobilize against continued corruption in 2019 and insecurity and I will say also, against any effort to simply turn our country into an impossible place – polarization where people can no longer see one another as brothers.
You see, it is very bad when government polarises the people and you begin to see yourselves first as Muslim before a Nigerian, or Christian before a Nigerian. It shouldn’t happen especially in a country where we are 50/50. Government should be seen to be bringing people together. That is why we are watching who is where. When we see that all the security heads ought not to be in one religion, it is so that Christians and Muslims will have confidence in the government. But if you don’t take any step and you think it doesn’t matter, people lose confidence. Can’t trust you, can’t trust what you will do.
So, you don’t think the present situation will encourage people to vote for Buhari in 2019?
I don’t know. People will vote according to how they believe. As you know, people vote for many reasons. You can be sure that between now and 2019, a lot of people will talk and 2019 also will depend on what options Nigerians have.
Any plan to support any Christian candidate vying for the presidency in 2019?
I have said it several times, in Nigeria as it is, I am not looking for a Christian candidate; I am not looking for a Christian president, I am not looking for a Muslim president, I am looking for a good president. I hope the good president will be a Christian. If he is, well and good! But if he is a good president, he will have my support. It is a bit difficult often to make this fine line of distinction.
Calls by notable Nigerians that the president should not seek re-election. What is your take on that?
For various reasons, personally, if he came to me for advice, I will tell him it is time for retirement. But as you know, constitutionally, he is free. He is free to go for a second term if his party gives him the ticket at the primaries and he goes out and does what it requires to campaign and Nigerians are allowed to vote and their votes are counted properly. These are the things we are very much concerned about. It will be terrible though if all kinds of manoeuvres are put in place and we are hearing bad news in this regard that somehow, things are being manipulated to practically make sure that the votes, election result will go in one way namely: in the return of the incumbent. We are hearing those stories and we are keeping our ears to the ground and we hope that nobody will try to carry that too far because he will make Nigerians too angry. We want a country where votes will count. Just as Jonathan created a situation where INEC ran election with relative autonomy to the extent that the president himself lost, the present government should run the election in such a way that even the president can lose because himself is a beneficiary of an electoral system that allows the incumbent to lose. And it is when the incumbent loses that we can really be sure that there is some amount of transparency. This comes to the point I was making about honesty. I am aware that there are so many accusations; so many rumours that terrible things are happening already that are more or less trying to make our election useless. And I pray every day that that will not happen because that will be a recipe for chaos in the country. We are hearing that even the exercise of registration is being manipulated and that there are certain places you can easily get your voters card and that in other places, you line up the whole day and they tell you no show. The result is that at the end of the day, there are certain places where people will be able to vote easily and in other places, they will not. There is no need for that. We are hearing that there are bus loads of foreigners being brought in and given voters cards to bloat up the crowd that will vote for a particular president. If this is being done by government itself, it is a shame. The government shouldn’t be doing that.
We have lived for so long under politics understood as manipulation so much so that Nigeria now, when you speak of politics, our dictionary meaning of politics is deceit. This is a tragedy, meaning that if you are a politician, you must deceive people, which means we are running a government based on deceit. You are telling lies, telling lies to the people. And we are hearing it every day. It must stop because the country cannot live on lies indefinitely. And we have been on this for more than 50 years now since the coup of Nzeogwu, right up to today. We don’t seem to have made much progress. But my fear is that we are reaching the…
The brink, which I hope everybody is aware of and we make sure that we can manage to do things properly. And there is no other way out but to try and do things properly, hold free and fair elections, tell people the truth, and let people express themselves. Therefore, the question of whether Buhari should run again or not run again is not really important. The important thing is whether when Buhari runs again, the elections will be free and fair. If there is a free and fair election and Nigerians decide that it is him they want, so be it! And as you know, the answer to that will depend too on what options do Nigerians have. Who are the other contestants? This is the problem with democracy because we can only choose between the available options and at some points, we just rely on God Almighty to protect us.
Your Eminence, looking at the decision you made in 2015, do you have any regret?
It is a simple issue. Some of us voted for a change, which we expected would be better. Nobody knows the future.
Are your hopes dashed?
The promises that I was given have not been fulfilled. The promises I was given which helped me to make up my mind, those promises have not been fulfilled.
So, Buhari deceived you?
Maybe he didn’t. Maybe some other people did. The fact is that the promises have not been fulfilled. The promises of security have not been fulfilled; the promises of economy have not been fulfilled and above all, the promise of a better Nigeria where we all can live together in peace seems to be worse.
So, APC deceived Nigerians?
It is difficult to say because APC is a bundle of confusion. It is a bundle of people from different, different directions. And as you can see, there are people in the APC who now find themselves almost strange. People came into APC with one objective to vote out Jonathan and in fact, among those who joined to vote out Jonathan were many who were working with Jonathan before. It has come out very clearly that by the time we look at the statistics, the number of former PDP people who went into APC, is preponderant. So, people went into APC because they saw it at that time as the party that was more likely to win and luckily for them, the party won and they have always been in power. And because they didn’t become APC because they love Nigeria, but rather, because they love themselves, that is why I am not surprised that they have not been able to do things for the sake of Nigeria. Maybe some of them have been trying their best, but the situation we have is certainly not the kind of thing that we expected. I am not the only person saying so. It is not easy to say APC deceived Nigerians. APC played the game that politicians play. So, politicians have been deceiving Nigerians and I say it is about time they stop.