EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cardinal Onaiyekan: Nigeria’s Situation as Dramatic as It Seems? “Worse”

Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja Blames Government Failures for ‘Grossly Inexplicable Situation of Insecurity’ in Nation

Cardinal Onaiyekan & Pope Francis- Copyright: Vatican Media
Cardinal Onaiyekan & Pope Francis- Copyright: Vatican Media

When asked if the situation in Nigeria is as dramatic as it seems in the press, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, instead says it’s not, but “worse.”

In an exclusive interview with Exaudi, the African Cardinal illustrated the current turmoil plaguing the nation, terrorist resurgences and criminality, the targeting of innocent women for kidnappings, which he says can be explained only by the fact that the perpetrators are “evil,” and what needs to be done, also by the International Community, to address the advancement of Islamic fundamentalism in West Africa.

Moreover, Cardinal Onaiyekan reflects on Pope Francis’ strong words about the illegal supplying of arms in the continent on the return flight from Iraq, and its pertinence to Nigeria, the subject of countless Boko Haram terrorist attacks. ‘Our human cruelty,” the Pontiff said, “is unbelievable. In this moment, I do not want to say the word, it is starting over again.”

“Let us look at Africa! And with our experience in Mosul, these destroyed churches and everything, it creates hostility, war, and the so-called Islamic State is starting to act again. This is a terrible thing, really terrible.” When the Pope asked who is supplying arms to these “agents of destruction,” the Cardinal offers here his acute assessment.

In this interview, the former President of Nigerian Bishops reflects on the link between criminality and interreligious tension between Christians and Muslims and whether emigration is the answer to escaping the nation’s difficulties. He also discusses what it is like to be a practicing Christian in his country, and shares his hopes for this Easter Season and year ahead.

Here is Cardinal Onaiyekan’s conversation with Exaudi:


EXAUDI: Your Eminence, it seems for anyone following the news, that the situation in Nigeria is facing a period full of tensions. News coming from Nigeria report kidnappings (of priests, first of all), killings, the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in the North of the country… As former President of the nation’s Bishops and Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, is the situation as dramatic as it seems?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: Yes, the situation is perhaps even more dramatic than it seems to people reading the news on the mass media out there. The fact is that things are happening in our country that we have never experienced before, and that we never imagined could happen. The situation of insecurity, in a nation that is not officially at war with any foreign enemy nation, nor in a declared state of civil war, does not make any sense. We are at a state where it seems the government has given up on its duty to assure the security of lives and properties of citizens, the primary duty of any government.

More worrisome is that those in charge of government do not seem to be concerned at the plight of the people who are daily victims of bandits, terrorists, kidnappers, armed robbers and all kinds of violent killers. They surround themselves with battalions of armed security agents, while the general populace is left at the mercy of the killers. We are now asking ourselves: is the government really UNABLE or just UNWILLING to do the needful?

EXAUDI: What is exacerbating the problem of the criminality?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: I agree with the widespread feeling that this is because of the failure of government to take effective action, to pursue criminals, and to deal firmly with them and their sponsors even when they are caught. There are wide rumors that behind the criminality are some highly placed people who have become “sacred cows” or “untouchables”, who are getting away with all kinds of crimes, not only killings but massive stealing of public funds. It seems that among our leaders, there are some who have hidden agenda, parallel to or even against the true interests if the Nigerian nation. The grossly inexplicable situation of insecurity in the nation has led to this rather absurd point of view.

EXAUDI: What needs to stop and how?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: Political leaders need to exhibit greater concern for the common good. Security agents need to be put in the position to carry out their duties efficiently and professionally. In the last few years, since the regime of General Buhari, we have seen an obvious lopsidedness in the recruitment, appointment and deployment of security personnel, leading to strident calls for a restructuring of the “security architecture” of the nation. This lopsidedness in favor of elements close to the president’s Muslim religion and Fulani ethnic group, has cast doubt on the criteria for the appointment of key security officers. This has negative impact on the performance of our armed forces and other security agents. No effort is being made to address this genuine and well-founded complaint.

For example, it is more than mere rumors that huge amounts meant for buying military equipment to tackle terrorists have been stolen by high-ranking officials, military and civilian. Investigations tend to drag on and remain inconclusive. This does not help the morale of the men and women in the trenches.

EXAUDI: Is there a link between criminality and interreligious tension between Christians and Muslims?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: There is a link, but mainly marginal and superficial. The Boko Haram terrorists, like their ISIS counterparts, claim to be Sunni Muslims on a Jihad for the spread of Islam in Nigeria. But because of their atrocious behavior of killing, maiming, raping and kidnapping, they have been roundly disowned by the Islamic establishment in Nigeria. Besides, although they at times select and target Christians while sparing Muslims, on the whole their victims have been more Muslims than Christians. This is mainly because they have been operating among predominantly Muslim populations. The same can be said of other forms of criminality like bandits, kidnappers and armed herdsmen, largely Fulani. Criminality has no religion, even though it cannot be denied that most of the criminal groups claim to be Muslims. This is surely an embarrassing challenge for the main stream Muslim community, trying without much success to reach out to these erring brothers and sisters.

EXAUDI: The Holy Father returning from Iraq turned his thoughts to Africa. During the last question on the return flight, he reflected: ‘Our human cruelty is unbelievable. In this moment, I do not want to say the word, it is starting over again. Let us look at Africa! And with our experience in Mosul, these destroyed churches and everything, it creates hostility, war, and the so-called Islamic State is starting to act again. This is a terrible thing, really terrible. Before moving on to the other question. A question that came to mind in the church was this: Who is selling weapons to these agents of destruction?’…). Do you think that the words of the Pope were related to Nigeria?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: Yes, those words of the Pope well apply to Nigeria. The Islamic State phenomenon which started in Iraq and the Middle East, has spread into many parts of Africa; in the Sahel, including Nigeria, in Somalia/Kenya with Al Shabab, and more recently and virulently in Mozambique, in the Capo del Gado region. Everywhere, they are taking advantage of failure of government in many parts of Africa. Like the Pope said: “This is a terrible thing, really terrible!”

EXAUDI: To give an answer to the question of Pope Francis, who is selling weapons to the militias that are provoking unsafety and tension in Nigeria?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: First of all, these are not large regular armies. They are mainly small groups hitting and running, ambushing and attacking soft targets like remote villages. They do not need lots of weapons to cause great damage. Very often, they are about twenty terrorists on motorbikes, with a handful of AK 47 rifles. The Boko Haram is perhaps an exception to this, since they seem to have some heavy weapons and sophisticated military vehicles and equipment. But all this comes from a variety of sources.

EXAUDI: What are those sources, Your Eminence?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: The following: Weapons captured from security forces that they attack in barracks, field camps or on high ways. Second, Weapons bought with money raised from kidnap ransom payments, which at times run into millions of Naira. The Sahel region and many other areas of Africa are awash with those weapons available for sale. A lot is said about the Ghaddaffi’s substantial armory that was never accounted for. These are now said to be flooding the small arms international market at give away prices. Third, International solidarity among the various Islamic State formations. They seem to be exchanging men and weapons quite successfully across the continent into the Middle East. Fourth, we hear that they are also at times being funded by some Islamic NGOs and foundations that share their ideology. This will include some local (Nigerian) sources about which we know very little. Some were arrested and charged in Abu Dhabi some months ago, but none so far in Nigeria!

EXAUDI: The Pope also decried the treatment of young women, especially the kidnapped and exploited women. Why do the terrorists target usually women?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: This is one of the most inhuman aspects of the activities of these armed criminals; capturing unarmed, fragile and innocent women, generally young. The well known publicized cases like Chibok and Dapchit are only the tip of the iceberg. Women and young girls are routinely being captured and kept in their camps for all kinds of abuse and mistreatment: hard labor as carriers, servants and cooks, sexual abuse as forced marriage or simply sex slaves for the amusement of commanders and fighters, but worst of all as suicide bombers. Why do terrorists target women? For me this is simply because they are evil.

EXAUDI: What can the international community do in the face of the issue of the advance of Islamic fundamentalism in West Africa?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: Honestly, I find it difficult to know what is the International Community, what it does and why it acts in some cases and does nothing in other cases. It seems it all depends on the national interests of the big powers that control the UN institutions. So far, we are not seeing much from that angle. If France is active in Mali and Burkina Faso, it is certainly because terrorist activities are obstructing their interests in the natural resources in those territories. In fact, we do not know if there are hidden interests behind the terrorists who seem to be targeting mineral rich zones.  If so, are those interests supplying the guns and other resources?

For me the more important issue has to do with the responsibility of the African governments in these terrorist infested places. Poor or outright failure of government has often been the root causes of the breakdown of law and order. Corruption and greed for power often make it impossible to effectively address conflict situations.

EXAUDI: Many Nigerian people, especially young people, choose the way of the emigration, toward Europe, with the hope of finding a better life. According to you, is emigrating the right solution to the problems of your country?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: In our modern globalized world, movement across nations and continents has become the order of the day. Many Africans have taken advantage of this to migrate legally and willingly to their nations of choice, where they are doing very well. I always want to start any discussion of African migrants abroad from this positive perspective. The stranded migrants, with no legal status, naturally become dependent, as they are unable to take a job, develop themselves and contribute to the socio-economic good of their host countries.

Apart from those who are war refugees, most of the young people who leave home do so not because home is unbearable, but because they are seeking a greener pasture, often with the naïve conviction that “no matter how, it will be better out there”. They are deaf to any advice that they see as blocking their destiny.

What is necessary is to work hard to make our nation a better place for us, and for anyone who may wish to come and live with us. Then moving abroad will be a matter of choice, not of necessity. And people should be free to move wherever they like, without discrimination and undue rejection.

EXAUDI: Thinking of the coexistence in Nigeria, of the Christian and Muslim community, how would you describe the reality for a practicing Catholic in Nigeria?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: For a long time, I have been involved in promoting peaceful living together among the diverse peoples in Nigeria, especially across ethnic and religious lines. I can say that it was a most exciting and rewarding project – until the last few years when we have started to witness losing of grounds that we thought we had covered. In this matter, the government of General Buhari has done much to deepen distrust and increase polarization among Nigerians. The exploits of groups like the Boko Haram have also poisoned the minds of many across religious lines. We are however still managing to hang on together, hoping that we shall succeed in restoring trust and cooperation for a greater nation. I have not given up hope. But I am no longer as optimistic as I was about ten years ago.

EXAUDI: Cardinal Onaiyekan, what are your personal hopes for the Easter Season and year ahead?

Cardinal Onaiyekan: For this season, we wish ourselves the blessings of the victory of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the midst of all the challenges facing us, including the COVID 19 pandemic. Easter is a celebration of hope for a better future, and for the victory of good over evil, of life over death. That is my hope for this season and for the years ahead.