Raphael Ede, Enugu
The Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese, Most Rev Dr Callistus Chukwuma Onaga, is worried over the state of the nation.
In this interview with the Sunday Sun, he declared that Nigeria is sitting on a keg of gunpowder. He raised the alarm that the level of blood-spilling in the country is frightening, noting that even during the civil war the country did not experience this kind of conflict and level of human carnage that have been seen in the last four years.
He said that the political leaders have taken leadership as a privilege for acquisition of wealth just as he spoke on other national issues. Excerpts.
My Lord bishop, how do you feel on the level of human carnage resulting from alleged herdsmen and farmers clashes?
The country today, as we usually put it in very simple language, is sitting on a keg of gunpowder. Whenever we discuss the issue of security of lives and property, we do not know where we are heading to. Everybody is afraid because they are not even sure of their own very surroundings, giving the spate of killings that go around these days. Actually, it is amazing that the country has gotten use of people dying now that even our own leaders don’t seem to be very concerned to visit spontaneously places where lives are lost no matter the number, as would be the case in other countries. One life is lost and the president of a country would even abandon state assignments to visit that place to know what is happening and at least feel with the people.
First of all, it is not just that things are happening indiscriminately and a little beat carelessly, but the reaction of those who are supposed to be in-charge of the people to take custody of the lives of the people when these things happen surprise a lot of people. It is only recently that our president summoned courage to visit some areas that his subjects were killed. Some governors have equally started doing the same. I remember very well in 2016, when there was a clash between these herdsmen and some villagers here in Atakwu, immediately the governor was there, I was there and the commissioner of police too. We were all there. Not to talk of the Nimbo incident. I would first of all want to see a leadership that has the feelings of the people at heart because we may say that some of these things are very light, but they are really not. Just visit the place and go, it tells the people how much you care.
Now to the real problem, more than ever, the issue of communal conflict has gone so high that not even during the civil war have we experienced the kind of conflict and the kind of carnage that we are getting now and it is not just one place; it is spread all over Nigeria since the past four years. Let us put it very clearly. We were talking about Boko Haram in 2010, but it was restricted; it was not that widespread, but now you are afraid to travel to visit your fellow Nigerian across the Niger. The level of insecurity has gone to such a stage that is very, very frightening and discomforting. Why would the issue of herdsmen now be a big problem? As a little child, I used to see the Fulani herdsmen travel through my village with their cows and during the Christmas period, we buy cows from them and they go. They do not settle in the town. They just pass by and go their way. If some of us who are now grown-ups will remember, most of the wild animals, what we called bush meat we ate then, were usually killed by these herdsmen; animals like Guinea-fowl, Grasscutter and so forth, which they come out and sell at very cheap rates to the community where they are.
So, there was a very good relationship between the host communities and the herdsmen. Everybody understood that we needed the meat of the cow and they needed the cassava and other food items from our farms for their own existence. It is only until recently that we began to experience the kind of hatred that we are seeing now among the so-called herdsmen because I still doubt whether these people who are doing this are the original people we use to know. These days you see cows marching on the bridges where cars are supposed to be moving brazingly without minding. The traffic will stop; whereas they know in the past, they usually passed through that area without disturbing anybody or anybody disturbing them. But these days, they act as if to tell us, you can do nothing; as if to say that their own trade is better than the trade of other people or that what they are using to sustain their lives is superior to what others are using to sustain their own lives. One wouldn’t know what kind of information that is feeding this type of behaviour. Could it be what many are suspecting? I want Mr President to consider this very seriously. Could it be they are picking their effrontery from the fact as we heard, that Mr President is the chairman of the Fulani herdsmen. If it is so, it is for him to tell them no. They should protect his office by behaving correctly and not mess-up the office. Yes, there may have been misunderstanding between those in the Meddle Belt like Taraba, Benue, Plateau and those people rearing cattle around their area, but before now they were living together, they were managing themselves together without this kind of blood letting that we are experiencing now.
Every day you open up a newspaper, somebody is either killed in Taraba, or killed in Benue or killed in Plateau or killed in nearby town or killed in Kogi. These were people who we grew up to see to be one Nigeria. Before now, we in the South had always confidently travelled to the North even in the night because we felt they have better security. Let me talk of the 70s and 80’s when we were really one Nigeria. I remember personally travelling to Jos in 1988 with a friend. We didn’t know where we were going to and we will stop at any point and ask people for direction and they would tell you with clean heart, but these days it’s no longer happening. From where did this hatred originate? Something is giving impetus to what is happening and we don’t want to be very honest about it. Could it be religion? Let us be very plain about this. People have been saying it has nothing to do with religion, but when you look at the statistics of those being killed you will see a kind of rhythm along religious lines. Here we have our traditional religion, we have Christians and we have Muslims and let our brothers understand that even within Christianity we have denominations, yet we live together. Now within
Islam we have the Shiites and the Sunnis. Are they not living together?
So, personally, I have always looked at this beyond ethnicity or religion, you would have wanted to hang it around poor economy, but the way it is happening now one cannot totally blame the economy because the kind of money these people that called themselves kidnappers demand is not the amount of money that would just sustain you for one day. Somebody is demanding for N2 million, N3 million; that kind of money! From where? Somebody may be wondering now, I am talking of kidnappers. Kidnappers have to do with other parts of Nigeria as well. Herdsmen now use kidnapping to get whatever they want from the society. How can we explain what happened in Dapchi last time? We have not finished with the Chibok girls. The case is still hanging. But how can a nation explain to the citizens that a group of marauders will walk into a village freely, arrest a good number of girls and go freely into wherever hiding place and whenever decisions or agreement have been reached they will bring them blowing their trumpet on the road to bring them back. No matter whatever you call the truce, or the kind of agreement reached, how can somebody that has committed such a big crime be coming in with every kind of pomp and pageantry? So something is there. Can we really tell ourselves the truth? Who is really fooling who in Nigeria now? Life is still the greatest value we have in creation. The life of a baby is as important as the life of an adult. The life of a poor villager is as important as the life of the president. People forget that the president is a president because of the poor villagers. If he were to be alone he wouldn’t be president to himself. As I am a bishop, I cannot say that my life is more important than that of the child baptized yesterday. No. I am bishop because of him. Without him, I cannot be bishop. But we are using some of these low class fellow citizens as shield and not calling their lives anything.
In Nigerian politics, we are mixing up a lot of things. Can we come up with a sincere discussion on it? That lives are being lost in Benue and we must not forget that there are many people from the North here in Enugu and there are many people from the East there in the North. We have been living together as brothers and sisters since amalgamation, even before the amalgamation in 1914. We have been together. But what I see now is that we joke with everything in Nigeria. We are playing with lives, joking with lives. So my first plea is for every Nigerian not only the leadership, but also those being led as well to take seriously the issue of life being lost in this country. I don’t see why a governor should sit-down in the state and people are robbing people passing through the state and you keep quiet. You are the chief security of the state, you are supposed to do something to secure lives and property and yet you expect allegiance from the same citizens that are not free. The same thing with the president and then ourselves who are being led. We should as well make effort to look at these issues very well because it is affecting everybody.
If I am celebrating the Holy Mass today, I am no more as relaxed as it used to be, even here in the South-east because anybody can fake anything and come in. Truly, some of the security agencies send us policemen. So, it is a problem, first of all as a man of God who believes in faith that every security comes from God, that God will provide us security, but he expects us to do something as human beings first of all. I would want the nation state, Nigeria to show some kind of concern for security. You cannot tell me if you have say 100 criminals trying to destroy a state and that 1000 policemen and members of the military joined together cannot confront them if we are not really joking. There was a time it was reported a whole street was robbed in one part of this country and the police when they were asked said ‘there are so many of them,’ in a state where you have over 1000 policemen, you have army in the same state. So, you cannot collect yourselves together and begin to confront 100 persons. What kind of ammunition have they? That is why I do not want to push the blame to one side. All of us are involved in it. I think we are cheating ourselves as far as our security is concerned. We are telling ourselves lies. Why wouldn’t I profess information to the police and the police if you are given information, why don’t you use it well. Why do you use it to sabotage somebody?
In your 2018 Lenten pastoral message you described crisis of leadership as political inferno. In your opinion what could have been responsible for the leadership problem in Nigeria?
Our leadership problem in Nigeria emanated from the wrong conception of leadership. In that very pastoral letter you quoted, I said leadership positions are positions of service not positions of lording it over the people because we are following Christ. Christ told us that he didn’t come to be served, but he has come to serve. If we are really very sincere with ourselves all these siren moving around protecting officials and the governors should not be there if the state is safe. I think all of them visit Europe and America. They see how their governors move around. For nine years I was in Germany, I can’t remember hearing serine in the city of Bonn. That is why I said there has to be a lot of work in the area of mentality. If you now send somebody whom you think is a common man here to become the governor of say Enugu State today, you will be surprised at what he will do. You will be wondering whether this man is not the same man worshipping in the Church. Very few of them can humble themselves and come down to say this is what is happening.
Should we restructure this country or should we continue this way?
These last days, we have been doing talking about restructuring. Just as always, when one thing begins to reign, it will begin to reign in this country. Since after the National Confab, everybody started talking of restructuring, restructuring. What are you restructuring? It is good if one understands the content of the restructuring. If you are restructuring Nigeria to be a true federalism; you think of decentralization of certain areas; if you say you want to restructure Nigeria now to give more money to the states, more money to the local government that is wonderful, but I wouldn’t like to understand restructuring to mean disintegration.
Our multi-ethnicity should be an advantage instead of being our disadvantage. So restructuring for me is what the content of the restructuring is. I will go for it if we know the content. It is not the question of Igbo of Biafra go and stay, Arewa go and stay and Oduduwa go and stay; no, a country doesn’t grow that way. We can bring our differences together and forge ahead.