From Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
The Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has said one of the serious problems with Boko Haram insurgents has been the fact that there has been no serious move to engage with the group.
Onaiyekan said this was despite all the talk Nigerians have been hearing about repentant Boko Haram, which he said, was not dealing with Boko Haram but with those who said they were no longer Boko Haram.
Onaiyekan stated this in a book: ‘Let the Truth Prevail: Nocturnal Conversations on the Church, the Nation and the World Today,’ written by Revd Fr Emmanuel Ojeifo, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.
The book billed to be unveiled today in Abuja, is a product of more than 20 hours of interviews with the former president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) between November and December last year on various subject matters.
The public presentation of the book also coincides with the 52nd anniversary of the priestly ordination of the former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN).
In chapter seven of the book titled ‘Religions, Peace and World Order,’ Ojeifo had asked Onaiyekan that many religious leaders and observers agree that Boko Haram has strained many years of relatively peaceful relationship between Nigerian Christians and Muslims due to its extremist rhetoric and violent activities.
Ojeifo further told Onaiyekan that the group has succeeded largely as a result of its mobilisation of a particular Islamic narrative of God, human beings, and the world, in which Islam is destined to conquer and rule the world.
He asked Onaiyekan, when you meet Islamic leaders, what do you say to them about what Boko Haram is doing in the name of their religion?
Onaiyekan said at first, the only thing he kept getting was denial, saying some Muslims just kept saying that the Boko Haram people were just criminals and should not be called Muslims, that if they were Muslims, they would not be doing things they were doing.
The Kabba, Kogi State-born Onaiyekan, however, said: “For as long as some Muslims took that position, what do I say? There was not much we could say. There’s a denial of any religious aspect to the phenomenon of this kind of terrorism, even though Boko Haram constantly claims to be doing whatever they are doing in the name of Islam. They have made it very clear that their ultimate objective is to create a caliphate, which means everybody will come under one Muslim leader – the caliph.
“In this situation, you see that we are dealing with a group that has completely thrown out our Constitution and is working towards the establishment of an Islamic State in Nigeria, a state where there is no room for any other religion but Islam. Thankfully, it is not only non-Muslims who are not ready to accept this. Many Muslims too don’t agree with Boko Haram. You could say that the level of acceptance of some kind of ownership of the Boko Haram phenomenon on the part of Muslims fluctuates. Some people do take it seriously and they tell you clearly how embarrassed they are by what Boko Haram is doing.
“I remember that in one of our big interreligious gatherings, a friend of mine, a Lebanese, said to his Muslim compatriots: My fellow Muslims, let us stop telling people that these Boko Haram people are not Muslims. We can say that for as long as you like but other people out there don’t believe us. They think we are not serious. I think it is futile to deny. If we do not take some kind of ownership, then there’ll be no way we can deal with this problem. I was impressed with this frank admission on the part of my Lebanese friend, because who else can deal with Boko Haram if not a Muslim?
“One of the serious problems with Boko Haram has been precisely the fact that there has been no serious move to engage with the group, as far as we see. Never mind all the talk we are hearing about repentant Boko Haram. That is not dealing with Boko Haram but dealing with those who said they are no longer Boko Haram. What are they doing with those who are the leaders of Boko Haram, but also the very many supporters of Boko Haram who are all over the place? The tragedy that happened some time ago of the forty-three rice farmers that were slaughtered by Boko Haram, one of the things we heard is that they refused to pay taxes to Boko Haram. Boko Haram was collecting taxes from the farmers as a condition to allow them to freely cultivate their land. Boko Haram has agents who go around to collect these taxes from the people and hand over the money to the leadership of Boko Haram. That is the money they use to manage their affairs. But those rice farmers gathered together and said that they can no longer pay taxes to Boko Haram. They refused to pay. Boko Haram came, rounded them up in their farms and slit their throats one by one.”
Onaiyekan further said the nation still have to find a way of engaging Boko Haram while also saying he does not see any way of engaging Boko Haram without the involvement of the Islamic community.
“When the government says that they do not negotiate with terrorists, very often they are not sincere. They do negotiate. An amount of talking has to take place because even the terrorist is a human being.
“There is no doubt, like you rightly said, that the activities of Boko Haram, including their utterances, have strained our relationship. I’m in a position to say that things are worse now than they were ten years ago. Ten years ago, I used to go round the world boasting that in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims live very well together, and that the only two problems are politicians who manipulate religious sentiments for their own selfish reasons and fanatics on both sides who ignite conflict, which when not handled properly becomes a conflagration that engulfs everybody.
“But basically, the average Nigerian Christian and Muslim are in very good terms. I can’t say that anymore. I see too many Nigerian Christians who have a very negative idea about Muslims. I don’t know whether the same thing has happened among Muslims vis-avis Christians. If we don’t find a way of dealing with Boko Haram and it continues to sow this kind of terrible hatred, it will affect all of us and it will take too much effort to be able to start thinking well of your Muslim neighbour,” Onaiyekan said.