Samuel Bello, Abuja
Former Archbishop of Abuja, His Eminence, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, has dissected the 21 years of Nigeria’s democratic march, saying that there is no sign of things getting better. He also spoke on the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic, the closure of worship centres and other national issues. Excerpt:
How has life been after your retirement?
I have not retired out of the pulpit. Nobody lives forever and nobody holds a position of responsibility forever. I have lived very long for 76 years and I have had the opportunity and honour to serve God and serve my church for the greater part of those 76 years. So, I only have to thank God that after hitting the age of 75 years, according to our rules, I retired from active responsibilities of charge of our churches specifically for the Archdiocese of Abuja. I always let people know that priests don’t retire, archbishops and cardinal. You don’t retire from what you are, you remain a priest forever. Once a bishop always a bishop and even a cardinal too. In my own case being a cardinal, wherever specific role I have as a cardinal continues even after 75 years. What it does mean is that my schedule of duties has considerably reduced. I have much more time on my hands and I need the time. I need the time because I need to rest, my body needs to rest, I need time for reflection, prayer because at my stage with no more ambitions; I’m not hoping for any promotion to anywhere. No more projects in hand, I’m not building anything. I have no children to bother about which means my life is just mainly to try and live in peace with myself, with my God and with my fellow men and women. Therefore, I spent a good amount of time praying, conversing with God. I must tell you it is very peaceful and joyful. I’m only looking forward to when Jesus would open the gate for me to enter into His eternal home. I tell everybody I’m ready with my boarding pass in my hand and I’m in the waiting room, lounge, waiting for the flight to be called. In the eyes of God it could be today, next month or 10 years’ time. I am completely resigned to the will of God. Thy will be done.
Since February, Nigeria has been battling to contain the Coronavirus disease. How do you see the efforts of the Federal Government and various states in this regards?
The most important thing to recognize is that this is not something anybody was expecting and nobody can claim to be expert in dealing with Coronavirus. We have seen now, whether they are Chinese or British or Americans or Nigerians. Anybody who says he’s an expert on Coronavirus is just telling lies. I make that very clear. God has allowed this virus to invade humanity and we have seen what it has caused in terms of almost total shutdown of all our wonderful activities. Anybody who believes in God must certainly see the hand of God in this. The important thing, therefore, is to listen and learn some lessons from the experiences of this lockdown. To your question, if the Federal Government, state government, is doing enough, you can see from my answer that it is not easy to say they are doing enough or not. It seems as if you have set an exam for them which they must pass. Like other people, they are doing their best trying here and there. Though there is a Presidential Task Force, you can even see from the way they are carrying on their jobs, that they are just doing their best. Even the rules and laws that have been put forward as necessary precautions against Coronavirus, we know now from experience that even if those rules were valid, the fact is that Nigeria were unviable. We could not abide by them. The very first rule, wash your hands regularly. For the members of the presidential task force and all the ministers and people like Onaiyekan who is living in a nice mansion with running water in every room, that’s no problem. At anytime I can get up and wash my hands. But when I think about our poor brothers and sisters who are living in Mpape, Kuje, even within Abuja city, who have to struggle with Merua to get enough water to drink. Telling them to wash hands regularly is asking for the impossible. They said use sanitizers, unless government is ready to supply it for free. It is still again ectopic rule. Face masks, as you can see we are trying our best in that regard. The fact that even that is not supplied by government to the poor, but the poor people just can’t afford to buy face masks. We have seen too lockdown, stay at home. It is easier said than done. You can stay at home and enjoy a good holiday if you have a comfortable bank account to fall upon and you can always order your food and somebody will bring it for you. But when you’re alone in your little one room, going out every morning to hustle to make your daily bread, ‘Stay at Home’ means wait to be killed. As you can see, many Nigerians simply ignored those rules. Not because they didn’t want to observe them, but because it is not working. Interestingly enough, despite the facts that Nigerians as a whole have not followed the laws of Coronavirus and according to experts, if you don’t follow those laws, you will pay the consequences and the consequences would be Nigerians would be dying like chickens everyday on the streets. By God’s Grace that has not happened. My own opinion, someone needs to think again, why is this the case. Could it be that the science behind those rules and laws is deficient. Could they rethink again and see. Find out why they did what they expect to happen. If you ask me, I will say it did not happen because everything belongs to God and God decides who will live and who will die. That’s okay for me and I’m happy with that answer. But if you claim to be a scientist who can give a rational explanation for everything that happens, you ought to get interested in finding out how it is that it did not happen the way it happened. Luckily, other people out there have also begun to make some claims, doing their research and reflection on this matter. Some are saying maybe the living environment of Nigeria and Africa in general is not the same and it’s not as serious as it is in those cold countries. It is mere speculations. Some are suggesting the virus itself by the time it moves into our country, it has become something else that doesn’t kill like the other one, but they have not proved it scientifically. Others are saying the virus is as dangerous as it is everywhere, but Africans, especially Nigerians have been subjected to constant bombardment by all kinds of diseases and epidemics. Whereas it were the people who are already used to epidemics and, therefore, our bodies are practically immune to it. The result is that every time they go to test they find many people. If you go and test anywhere you will find people with Coronavirus. I think from there we should say the majority of Nigerians are going about with the virus. I’m not sure we have drawn the right conclusion from this obvious empirical facts. Those who talk science must be consistent in their scientific discussion. So, where we are now, the government was hoping that after few months, one year or two, the thing will go. But the reality is that as they keep testing the numbers keep increasing and if indeed we are to test more we will test more. The question is are we to wait until we don’t see anymore Coronavirus positive people in Nigeria before we can get on with our lives. We will remain locked down, can’t move around. Obviously, that in itself will kill more than Coronavirus; which is why I believe the government has eventually arrived at the conclusion that you cannot continue with the regime we started with. Not only the Nigerian government, but other places. Trump is a good example of this. We must add too that we should not underestimate the fact that our environment we are used to suffering so much from viral diseases. We have developed a lot of traditional healing remedies which many people are using without going to any hospital. Whether it works or not, it’s only the person who uses it can claim it. If you say you’re going to wait until NAFDAC has researched into it and give it’s approval and you wait till you don’t know when. The reality is that Coronavirus, the bottom line has shown the limits of our human ingenuity. We should stop being proud thinking we know everything and solve everything, we cannot. For me, as a religious leader, it should have been a wake up call for us. All those who believe in God to wake up. Not only to start praying seriously for the end of Coronavirus, but start a new way of life that would be less selfish. Think of one another and help each other.
The battle against the virus has kept churches shut, some men of God want churches reopened, some arguing that since the markets are opened the same should be extended to churches, what’s your take on this?
It’s the same story. As you know, the task force, lockdown of every gathering and since we gather in church, they said churches can’t open, mosques can’t open. Even bank halls were not opening, markets were closed. At that time when everybody was closed, the church could not say we will open. Even though not everybody in the church agreed with that idea, many were saying if every work should close, let the churches and mosques open so that we would have access to our prayer to God, because we who believe in God believe that it is what God will do that will be much more important than what these scientists are doing. As you know, we live in a modern world. Governments all over the world imposed lockdown and closure of churches. We even heard that the highest places of Christian and Muslim worship also complied with the lockdown rule. The Pope himself closed Saint Peter’s Basilica for months and the King of Saudi Arabia closed the Islamic Shrine in Mecca. Those two gestures alone were enough to stop anybody from complaining against government. They will say how can you be more Catholic than the Pope. The Pope has locked his Cathedral Basilica, why can’t you keep your own locked at home. We followed those rules and government began to see that you cannot lock up forever. Then they started to talk about essential services because we must open the banks so that people can move their money in or out. It’s rules, but you have to open. Then they said we would open the markets, but only for this or for that, you have to open the markets. All along pharmacies were open because they are essential services. It was at that point the debate became very serious. Some of us were of not just opinion but conviction that going to church is also an essential service. It is as important for me to reach my church and pray as it is to find a pharmacy to buy my drugs from. But of course, it is we religious people who argue this way, but there are others who don’t believe that. These are people who don’t go to church or mosques anyway for anything. That is why we who believe strongly in the importance of prayer, insist that you cannot continue to lock people up forever. Whatever rules you have made or criteria you are using for opening up some places, you must extend it to places of worship. That is where we are now and I’m glad to say in all these debates we should give credit to not only the task force, but also to the churches and the mosques, religious leaders. We have tried to work out a viable solution on the basis of mutual agreement. It is not a matter of government sitting there and passing laws about whether you can worship or not. That in itself is something nobody wants to hear. Government has no business regulating worship.
Some are surprised that modern day prophets who claim power of divinity could not see the coming of Coronavirus nor could guess when it would end while others are wondering why you men of God cannot pray the disease away. What’s happening to our prophets and diviners?
Am I one of those people, because I have never prophesied anything. I’m afraid I will have to suggest that you go and talk to those people and remind them. They will have their reasons or explanations.
May 29 marked 21years of unbroken democratic march. How do you see these years vis-à-vis the democratic gains or otherwise?
Twenty-one years of unbroken democracy. Permit me to add, 21 years of broken democracy. Unless we want to deceive ourselves, all these 21 years, we have just been stumbling and wobbling along with democracy. Is it in the area of freedom of opinion. Is it in the area of ability to choose who we think are the best to rule us. Is it in the area of transparent and clear elections and is it in the area of use of democratic powers for the good of the people. Is it in the area of making sure that nobody should put himself above the law? If you look at the last 21 years, can we say we have had a functioning democracy? If by democracy you mean the the man in Aso Rock is no longer wearing military uniform and that every now and again we go through the motions of elections. At the end of the day, democracy is not an end in itself, democracy is judged as regards to the quality of governance that it provides. If you have a democratic system where governance and I mean ruling in the best interest of the people, that is not guaranteed, then you have a deficient democracy. I like the expression, unbroken democracy and I will say broken democracy. The saddest part is that there is no indication that things are getting better. I’m one of those who have said that the elections got worse and worse from one election to the other. This last election certainly is the worst we have seen. Of course, those who are profiting from this last election have every reason to rejoice that it was a very wonderful experience. We were all here in Abuja after the first election and the results were published and they told people to come back next Saturday for the remaining elections. The fact that the vast majority of the people didn’t bother to go to the polls, it was obvious. The polls were empty. I don’t know how anybody could pretend that this is not a loud protest on the part of the people. That you are putting us through a process that is absolutely irrelevant; and with that kind of election, the result is neither here nor there. If you have bad election, you cannot have a good government unless by miracle. I’m not saying the people who are ruling the government now are bad people. Even if you bring angels now to rule Nigeria, with the system, they won’t do any better. There is need to change radically the way we rule ourselves, the concept we have of power. Look at what is happening with the Edo state political atmosphere. We are seeing there exposed to the naked view that the politicians are just out there to struggle with one another to control power. One is not able to see anything in all these noise they are making that has anything to do with the good of our people. The health for the sick, relief for the poor in the villages, security in towns, villages and streets. In fact, people seem to forget those things once they are fighting for power. Edo State that is still famous for kidnapping, they are still doing it. You would have thought that would be their major concern, no. If this is politics and we are supposed to live under this, for as long as we accept it, then we must bear the consequences. I am one of those who believe firmly that politics needs not be that way, but for it to change, we must be ready to change the rules. Presently, there are those who are profiting from the present rules, but the rules are bad rules. Some people profit and they do well with the bad rules and good people cannot play the game because the rules are bad. But if the rules are bad the results cannot be good at least in terms of the good of the nation. When we shall understand that political power is meant to organize society in such a way that the common good is followed and that this is the main reason. In other words, I am going into politics because I have seen a problem in this society and I think I have the solution to it. I go into the politics and I ask people to vote for me and during the election campaign, I tell them if you vote for me this is what I will do and I say it sincerely. I will go in and try my best to do it. Not me alone because nobody can do it alone, but there are other people who will join hands and move the people along in the right direction. No, instead it’s political party. Are you APC or PDP. Now, Nigerians know that it doesn’t really matter. That there is really no difference between PDP and APC because they are the same crowd of players who have been moving from one place to the other. Obaseki moves as APC governor to PDP, wanting to be governor. He’s not the first to do that, Jonathan’s election because five governors of PDP moved to APC and then succeeded in convincing their people to move also and abandon where they were before and the result is what we call the victory of the election that brought Buhari to power. Even that election, I’m not even talking of the last one, even that election too. Anybody who wants to be sincere will know that it was not the best of all elections.
Activities towards conducting governorship election in Edo and Ondo states are in top gear. What is your advice so that the pitfalls of Kogi and Bayelsa elections will not repeat themselves?
Not just these two states because very soon we will be talking of Anambra also. Every time the same thing is being repeated. My fear is that there are those people who are experts at manipulating the system and they have become so good that many people think they are indispensable and because they are the same one who are always leading the show. They make sure that the outcome is always the same. Whether it is Edo or Ondo and finally even in 2023, the whole thing has started already. I’m not sure that before 2023, Nigerians would have changed their mind completely and politicians would be ready to embrace politics for the sake of the people. Theoretically, if the people cannot change their leaders freely in an election, you give them a government that does not deserve their allegiance because once you say this is a democratic dispensation, you must have good election which I can freely choose the person I want to vote for. As it is already, my choice has been restricted by the political parties. There are 200 million Nigerians, about 50 people, political stalwats decide which candidates are going to be presented to us. They end up and they decide on those candidates they think are the good party people and I may be left with a choice between five rogues.
There has been agitation in some quarters for a one world religion, whereby the whole world will be practicing one religion. How do you react to this?
It is not helpful to be shallow in this type of discussion because there is a way which you can that because there is one God, there can be only one religion namely those who believe in God and live a life of righteousness. When we look at it that way, the differences of Christians, Muslim, Catholic and so on becomes secondary and this is only in theory. So, we say that right really on ground there is a basic unity already among those who believe in one God. Whether this will mean we shall be going to the same place for worship or be led in prayer by the same group of people is another question. What I think we should be talking about is that we should do all we can to make sure that religion and religious affiliations will be positive elements in the society. Moving humanity to the unity that God has created. We were all created in one family and, therefore, religion should desist from taking any position that is there to separate people and put them at loggerheads with one another. Religion becomes a problem when I am too sure that I am the only one who is right and everybody else is wrong. I will be a fool if I follow religion that I am not sure is right. Only foolish people follow religion they don’t know whether it is right or wrong. So, personally, I have my conviction that not only my Christian faith is the right religion, but the Christian faith as presented by the Catholic Church is the best religion. It is correct. I am prepared to accept that somebody else may not share my conviction. He may be very convinced that for him, he can approach God only through the Islamic faith. For him, it is valid and I should agree that he is following the valid position. Now, problem arises when I say my own is only true, anybody with a different idea is wrong or he says he is right and anybody else who doesn’t follow him is wrong.