Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
The Emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has disclosed what he will tell President Muhammadu Buhari if the president creates an avenue for an interaction with him.
Amongst the issues Onaiyekan outlined he would tell President Buhari, is that even though he was pronounced winner of the 2019 presidential election by the Supreme Court, many Nigerians still don’t believe the election was free and fair.
According to Onaiyekan, “that is the fact! And you cannot pretend that it is not, having a negative impact on government.”
Onaiyekan also said that he would tell President Buhari that instead of complaining that the people are always complaining, the president should do the right thing and there would be less complaints and government would move smoothly.
The former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), while assessing both recent and previous elections in the country, concluded that the nation’s democracy is in danger, even as he gave a damning verdict that the country is moving to a bad end. Excerpt:
Your Eminence, in this part of the world, we always see people, even in the Church, trying to cling on to power. Why did you refuse to hold on by quickly putting in your resignation letter?
Why did I? My simple reason is that this is what I see the will of God for me to be and everybody knows that my motto is ‘Thy Will Be Done’ – ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua.’
We witnessed elections in Bayelsa and Kogi states recently, but Kogi, your home state, particularly saw violence in which a woman was burnt in her home. What does that portend for our democracy?
We should not talk of only Kogi and Bayelsa. We should also go back to January, February of this year. Have we forgotten the kind of elections we had? Even the election that has brought the present crop of legislators to power, we cannot pretend that everything is going well. I am sorry that we are still where we are; that we are still unable to allow ourselves to do simple, straightforward voting and being voted for, conduct elections according to the rules without all these noise, without declaring war on the whole nation and flooding the place with hundreds of thousands of armed policemen. The very fact that the police are telling us that they have hundreds of thousands of police to parade the streets on the day of elections already shows that we are not talking about free and fair elections. People are intimidated. We’ve just witnessed a very critical election in the United Kingdom. Very critical! An election, which followed long debate over the Brexit, you would have expected if it were Nigeria, that this election will disorganise everybody, there will be rancour and at the end, there will be tribunal upon tribunal. But during that election, we didn’t see any policeman on the street not to talk of soldiers carrying guns in armoured vehicles. People went quietly to their polling stations, cast their votes and waited for the results. The results were being announced and people were following it electronically like civilised people. Even before the final results were brought out, the opposition leader conceded defeat that the British electorate have decided to give the majority votes to his opponent, Boris Johnson. And Boris Johnson readily started his work, but even reached out and said everybody now, we have finished election, let us put our heads together to push Britain to where we think we want to go. When we sit here in Nigeria and watch that; aren’t we ashamed that we couldn’t do something like that?
How can we be at par with those nations?
I am not even talking of being at par. I am thinking that we should be ashamed and start gradually, gradually to improve. I have been watching elections in Nigeria, especially since the last return to so called democracy; 1999 isn’t it? Well, all the elections since 1999, as far as I am concerned, all apologies to people in government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) people who keep saying that they are improving. As far as I am concerned, it has been one failure after the other. You referred to the Bayelsa and Kogi elections. I don’t think there was any election in Kogi State that was as bad as that one. We can continue in denial, thinking that that is how things should be or that is the best we can do. This is not the best we can do; this doesn’t represent us, Nigeria. We are praying, we are praying that this kind of thing that we inflict upon ourselves – And because of bad election, we cannot set up a good government. It is clear. We cannot set up a good government, we cannot tackle the issues that face us, and instead, we are getting all kinds of policies that don’t reflect the feelings of the majority of the people. And the country can’t progress in that way. We are hoping that we will find a way out of this and start gradually to improve. At least, gradually to improve so that we turn away from the direction that we are now facing which in my own view, I am not a pessimist, but I am a realist. I think it is carrying us to a very bad end. Those who speak about danger to democracy, I agree with them. Our democracy is in danger.
A former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, said recently that the war against corruption in the country is being fought along religious line, pointing out that all former governors and key former public office holders who have been convicted since Buhari came to power are Christians. Why is the Church silent on this?
Well, the Church is not silent yet. We have not finished talking. But the first thing that the Church is worried about is, all those Christians who have been convicted, have they been proven to have corruptly enrich themselves? If they have corruptly enriched themselves, there is no way we can defend them. That must be said first and foremost. We want a situation where we can stand up and say, he was a Catholic, he could not have done what you said he did. I am afraid for the moment, we cannot say that yet. Having said that, whatever may be the criteria they are using for whom to prosecute, whom not to prosecute, one thing is clear, one thing we’ve all agreed on is that corruption in Nigeria is all-embracing and that every governor, in one form or the other has done corrupt things. The question we ask is: What are the criteria for which ones they are going to prosecute and which one we are going to close our eyes to? If there are going to be such criteria, we need to know unless we are not serious with the war against corruption. And in a country like Nigeria, don’t blame those like Fani-Kayode who draw conclusions from the facts on the ground, namely, that four former governors have been dragged before courts, condemned and sent to jail and all four are Christians. And don’t blame some Christians if they begin to ask questions, namely, does that mean that only the Christian governors are corrupt? If there is any semblance of bias, then we can say that the whole story of fighting against corruption is standing on its head because selective justice is injustice. It is injustice. We have to find a way, therefore, of not giving cause to people to start thinking that the present government is biased against Christians. And I think the present government should take that seriously. It cannot afford to continue to do things that reinforce this feeling of alienation by a wide section of the Nigerian community. Whatever may be their ideas, whatever may be the interest they are serving, whatever maybe the way they feel they should be doing things, they cannot ignore this fact. It is the duty of government to make sure that every part of the nation feels part of government and no one feels alienated, marginalised, targeted; these are words we are now hearing. And those who are running government ought to be very careful. When we say that, we are not saying that thieves should be allowed to go for free, but what we are saying is that we should not pick which thieves to pursue and which ones to leave.
Looking at happenings in the country, do you still believe in the unity and oneness of the nation?
Of course, because as you know, let me look at it more from a spiritual point of view. If we are to think of the terrible things that are happening in Nigeria, the kind of crimes that evil people, inside and outside of government, have been committing against our nation, if it were not for God’s grace, we will not be where we are now. We would have killed ourselves. We’ve done all we can to disintegrate our nation, but God has been keeping us together. And my own spiritual reading of it is that God has been keeping us together because of the sincere prayers of the many poor Nigerians who have no fault at all in this matter and God is keeping the system alive for the sake of the many poor people who would be the first ones to pay the price if everything should collapse. So, on the basis of that, I still with all confidence pray and hope that Nigeria can survive and that we can still avoid the worst; that we can still avoid the worst. But we cannot take it for granted that we shall continue to be fortunate, that God will continue to pull us back from the brink of chaos when we are doing nothing, but simply doing everything wrong. I think while on the one hand we trust in God keeping us together, on the other hand, we cannot tempt God by doing the things, which will destroy our nation and hope everything will go fine.
Your Eminence, if you see President Buhari today, what will you tell him?
Depends in what context I see him. If, for example, we are there in a general thing and everybody is shaking hands and bowing to him and say: Good afternoon, your excellency, that will be all I will say too. But if he created a forum and says I hear that there are a lot of people who are not happy with my government, I am creating this forum now because I want to hear what people have in mind, then I will talk.
What exactly will you tell the president?
The things I have just been saying. I will tell him that the basic rules of governance, of democracy are not being followed properly; elections are not being run in a transparent way, the result is that even though at the end of the day, with his Supreme Court judgment, we accept the status quo and let it go along, the fact is that the people still don’t believe that the election was free and fair. That is the fact! And you cannot pretend that it is not having a negative impact on government. Instead of complaining that people are always complaining, do the right thing. There will be less complaints and government will move smoothly. Nigerians are not difficult to rule. It is the rulers who are making things difficult for everybody. And I will tell him that. I will also tell him that the religious factor in Nigeria is very important. You cannot say it doesn’t matter whether the person there is a Christian or a Moslem. You can’t say that. You must include that in the way you distribute positions of authority just as they have put the Federal Character in the constitution to make sure that one part of the country does not control everything in Nigeria. Despite what is written in the constitution, of course, we seem to be even still at a situation where a large chunk of the very sensitive positions in Nigeria are going in one direction. Again, if he gives me the opportunity, I will give him examples that he probably may not be aware of; or above all, to let him know that those who are accusing him all this time are not talking for no reason at all. The fact that we are not saying those things loudly because we want a little, minimum of peace to reign in the land, does not mean that the country is at peace.
If you see Babangida, Obasanjo and Jonathan, what will you tell them?
What am I going to tell them? They have done their own part and history will judge everybody. And I will wish them God’s blessing, good health of mind and body and if they have any channels of advice to help make the nation better, they should make full use of it. That is all I would actually tell them. Nothing really more than that. As former heads of state, I believe they have the power of access more than anybody else. Now, they should use that power of access. Probably too, as former heads of state, with the privilege of hindsight, they may be seeing things a bit better now than they saw it when they were there. And they can bring all those privileges of hindsight to bear on the present people who are in government so that whether they listen to them or not, they will not say that they didn’t get good advice.