“If we pay money because this priest or that sister is kidnapped, the Church wouldn’t be able to handle it because our workers are practically everywhere”
Desmond Mgboh, Kano
His Lordship, Bishop John Namawzah Niyring OSA is the Bishop of Kano Diocese of the Catholic Church. He belongs to the Order of Saint Augustine.
In this exclusive interview with Sunday Sun, the bishop speaks on 100 years of the Catholic Church in Kano and beyond – their faith, services and trials.
He also fielded questions on plans to establish a Catholic University in Kano, the global decline in the number of those willing to take to the vocation of priesthood and why Catholic priests and bishops in Nigeria are less political than clerics of other faiths and denominations.
Bishop John also said that the leadership of the Catholic Church would never negotiate for ransom with kidnappers of their workers and offers the reason behind the position.
He equally gave insight into the civil war years, the Boko Haram years and the impacts of these on the life of the Catholic Church in the diocese and Christians in the North.
The Catholic Church in Kano will be 100 years in the coming days, tell us a bit about these years, how it started. How has it been for the Church?
This year, the Catholic Church is a 100 years in Kano. It all started with the arrival of a missionary. His name was Monsignor Oswald Waller SMA. He was an SMA Missionary – SMA means Society of African Mission. And he also was the missionary who actually started the Catholic Church in the whole of Northern Nigeria – the land note of the Niger and the Benue. He took off in Shendam in 1907. In 1907, he arrived in Shendam with two others and then in 1918, he was asked to come to Kano. He arrived to Kano on the 15th December, 1918 and from the records we have, the following year, 1919, he started all that was required in order to establish a mission here in Kano. Eventually, a land was granted in 1922 and the person who was instrumental to this granting of land was the then Governor General of Nigeria, Sir Hugh Clifford. By 1925, he had his Church built and the people had started gathering and he continued to be here. Because he was the superior of the missionary activities in Northern Nigeria, he moved his headquarters to Kano. And Kano, in a way, became the seat of the Catholic Church in Northern Nigeria. That was until 1929. What happened was that in 1929, there were new developments. Kaduna had then become the principal city of Northern Nigeria and the center of its administration. And so, the headquarters of the Church was moved to Kaduna. But the Church continued to grow in Kano. And it became part of Kaduna Diocese and later part of Kaduna Archdiocese. In 1991, it became what was known as Independent Mission. Kano became independent of Kaduna. In 1996, it became a vicarage and eventually in 1999, it a became a diocese under another Irish missionary, namely Bishop Patrick Francis Sheehan OSA (1995- 2008), the Bishop whom I succeeded. Since 2008, I have been the Bishop of Kano and I would like to thank God for that.
It is quite a task convincing non-Christians or other denominations to accept services rendered by people of faith or denomination outside their own. But that is exactly what you have done successfully well in Kano. The question is how did you evolve strong educational institutions that attract people of all faiths and denominations?
I think originally since the 20s, beginning with Saint Thomas Primary School, which started in the 20s, our services in terms of education, the principal beneficiaries were members of our Church. Eventually other Christians started patronizing our services. And eventually, we moved from primary school education to the secondary school, which started with Saint Louis Secondary School in 1951 and later, Saint Thomas Secondary School in 1959. At that point, people, not just other Christians, but even members of the Muslim community started to embrace what we were doing. I think that when it has to do with education, our emphasis has been to give education to all, to give it to anybody who is interested in the kind of education we offer – which has so much quality in several ways. But also, it is an education we offer without actually demanding that those who access it should embrace our faith or should begin to do things the way we do things. However, there are some basic values we would ensure that everybody, I mean, is exposed to in terms of morality and good quality education. Those things are highly required. But we don’t expect children who are coming to our schools to be Catholics. That is not our own expectation. But we expect that when they come to access the kind of education we offer, then they should be willing to be obedient to our own methods in terms of giving education, without forcing anybody. There are no specific compulsions.
We have done so well since 1920 …
Yes, we have done so well, our education, there is no discrimination. People can come and we have educated Christians, we have educated Muslims and those who have made use of our education testify to the fact that they have benefited a lot. Apart from individuals, people in the government, especially the government of our immediate host community, Kano. For instance, we have had so many of people, men and women, who have benefited from our education and that are in highly placed positions in government. I think that has been a great contribution.
I‘ll ask you a double-barrel question. How many states make up this Kano Diocese? And the second question is when are we expecting a Catholic university in Kano giving the huge population of people in Kano looking for education at that level?
First of all, the Diocese of Kano comprises two states, namely Kano and Jigawa. And the headquarters, where we have the Cathedral, the bishop’s house, the secretariat, is in Kano town. Altogether, we have 37 parishes, with five of them in Jigawa State and the rest are in Kano State. We have tried to relate very well with the government, as well as the traditional rulers and the people within these two states and all of them have been informed of our own celebration. We have written to them, the government and the traditional rulers, telling them about our celebration. When you talk in terms of numbers, when I arrived here, our population was about 180,000 Catholics, but that population came down a bit as a result of the activities of Boko Haram. But it is building itself up. The other question where you talked about establishing a university in Kano, well, it takes a lot to establish a university. We have been successful in terms of primary school education, successful in terms of secondary education. For a university, the discussion concerning a university is part of the Diocesan Synod that we are planning to hold next year. So, we would be able to discuss and see the possibility of having a university in the state. I know that so many people have asked us about the possibility of opening a Catholic University in Kano State, but the argument is always, it is very difficult to open up a university.
To every success, there are sacrifices and trials. Tell us about some of those touching moments of trials and great challenges the Catholic Church and the Christian community in Kano have passed through in the last 100 years?
From the beginning, we can see that when Woller started here in the 20s, the missionaries that were there to evangelize the whole of Northern Nigeria were not up to 10. So, that was a big challenge in terms of personnel. And then Kano has been a major city for more than 1000 years and we have been here for just 100 years. We have gone through many crisis. We have found crisis, at times political, at times religious and so on. We do know that civil war was a big problem. That was a very big challenge and many of our Catholics from the Southern parts had to leave the state. That was maybe the first major challenge for the Catholic Community in Kano. Well, the most recent challenge is maybe the issue of Boko Haram. As I said, by 2014 and as result of Boko Haram, about 30,000 of our parishioners have relocated – but many have returned. So, we have that challenge. Religious crisis always affect us. Most times, they affect us. There was a time the missionaries, who were in large numbers in Kano Diocese, had to leave and we had to begin to build up our manpower. Thank God, we now have over 50 priests and at present, we have only one person who is missionary in the diocese that is from outside Nigeria. We still have one Irish missionary. Apart from that practically everybody – the catechist, the sisters, the priests and me, we are all Nigerians. That is a very good development because at a point, we thought that we may not be able to grow. But somehow, we have grown. We have had vocations from the indigenous communities who have become priests and sisters. So, we are happy with that. But by and large, we believe that we are a Church that is moving forward in spite of the persecutions of the world. Every time, there is a consolation that comes from God. So, we are always very optimistic.
There is growing fear that the number of young men taking to priesthood in the Catholic Church is dropping and it may affect the future of the church. How does this translate to our local experience?
I think that if we are thinking globally…but even when we are thinking globally, practically wherever you go, there is always the local content, the local Church. If you are talking of Europe, America and others, maybe you think that way. But here in Kano, we receive more than a hundred vocations and at the end of the day, we cannot take more than 10 of them every year. We have to take what we would be able to train.
Could this upsurge be on account of the economic challenges in town? There are accusations that many people go for the vocation, not because they are called, but because they want to survive?
Maybe, that is a possibility. We may not rule out everything. In every situation, you have all kind of reasons people go into priesthood or any other vocations. But what we have to consider is that we have a period of 10 years; 10 years of training to become a priest. And if it is the economic reason that is keeping somebody in an institution that has all the kinds of training and discipline that we have in seminars, then maybe that must be something very interesting we have to observe.
There is this claim that people leave the Catholic Church for the Pentecostal, but not much of the Pentecostals leave their churches for the Catholic Church. How do you see this phenomenon?
I don’t think it that way. I think that the migration is both ways. There are people that are going out and there are people that are coming into the Catholic Church. And there are people that go out and then, they come back.
That is in Kano here?
In Kano as well as in many other places. The thing is that you have many situations where the gospel of prosperity has been proclaimed, namely that if you become a Christian, you will have access to everything. You would have access to wealth, your business would do well and you would maybe, you will be able to marry the man or woman you want to marry or whatever, you know there are all kinds of people. Or even have children. So, all those things have been the part of the reason people move out of Catholic Church. And then, at times when they go there, they realize that whatever they were looking for was either in the Catholic Church or they don’t find it and then, they return to the Catholic Church. But there are people who genuinely are looking for the experience of the Holy Spirit. You have those people there who just say well, I just feel that when I go to this Church, I will have the real experience of the Holy Spirit.
Why do Catholics in Nigeria run away from politics despite their huge and commanding population?
Well, I think that Catholics are in government. Patrick Lakowa who was the first Christian governor of Kaduna State was a Catholic. When you look around, some of the governors, like the governor of Plateau State is a Catholic. Even before him, there are other governors like Ngige, Peter Obi, Obiano, Amechi, all are Catholics. I would not say completely that Catholics are not in governance or politics in Nigeria.
How do you feel about the rising wave of abductors and kidnappers targeting priests and sisters in the Church?
We have had our own experience here, one of our priests in 2016 was kidnapped and it was a big shock. We have also had situations where our parishioners were kidnapped in different places – some of them while traveling outside of the diocese. Whatever the situation, kidnapping is a serious offense against God and against humanity and what one can say is that those who are involved in it, should stop it because it is against God and against humanity. These people who engage in kidnapping, I don’t know their own understanding of who God is, their understanding of who the human person is and then their motives. But whatever is their understanding of God or humanity, I think that it is completely wrong to kidnap somebody. The Bible talks about serious penalties against those who engage in kidnapping. We should work against the flourishing of the phenomenon. We would also say that most times when people do this and succeed, it shows that the government would need to do more in terms of securing the lives of people. The point here is that if everybody is shouting, if everybody is experiencing kidnapping everywhere, then we should ask the government to do more.
There is this anger in the public that the Church does not like getting involved when a priest is kidnapped?
It is not that the Church does not like getting involved. That is not correct. It is that the Church does not like negotiating in terms of money. This does not mean that the Church is not interested in negotiating for somebody’s release. The Church is always involved in negotiating to ensure that the release of the abducted person. But the question is whether we should pay money or not. If we are to pay money because this priest or that sister is kidnapped and so on, the Church would not be able to handle it because our Church workers are found practically everywhere and practically in every community. If they become targets of kidnapping or whatever, we would not be able to pay. You know it is always large sums of money, where would we get the money? If you redeem the first person, then the second person is taken and then another person is taken? Where would you get the money? That is the reason. Our personnel are practically everywhere.
Your word of advice to Catholics and Christians in the state?
There is so many things to say… as we celebrate, I will urge my fellow Christians, especially Catholics to kind return to God, this is a time of conversion so that we look at where we are and return to God. It is also a time for us to assess ourselves, especially in the services we offer to humanity. In whatever situation, either in the area of education, in the area of health or in the area of dialogue, we need to re-strategize and ensure that the right things are done for the good of all. And in all situation, we should promote peace, peace and peace. If we don’t have peace, we would not be able to celebrate our 100 years. We need peace.