John Cardinal Onaiyekan, now Archbishop Emeritus, is a former Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese. He speaks with FRIDAY OLOKOR on some controversial national issues, including the Southern Kaduna killings and constitutional review
It appears the Federal Government may not review the controversial Company and Allied Matters Act which affects religious organisations especially churches. As a stakeholder in Christendom, are you comfortable with it?
Let me start by saying that the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council released a statement a few days ago on this CAMA. I read it carefully and agreed largely with the things they have said there. These include the fact that CAMA is not new. In other words, there has always been rules and regulations as well as laws on the issues that the CAMA is handling; namely financial transactions, control in terms of finances and even supervision of financial institutions, both private and public. Every country has those kinds of rules. However, the reason there is some controversy as regards this particular version, that is, CAMA 2020 is because it tried to add a few clauses to handle and deal with non-governmental organisations, charitable organisations and religious institutions; and all these are in one or two articles. It is just that it is Christian organisations that have complained the loudest about it. This is because we are probably reading what seems to us as the sweeping powers that this CAMA can put in the hands of any enthusiastic government officials in such a way that they will be controlling the internal affairs of churches.
This obviously is not acceptable to us and my own feeling is that it was probably not the intention of the lawmakers. I am sure many of them would be surprised at the reactions. Why I started with the statement of NIREC is that I believe it gave very good advice not only to those who have objections to CAMA but to any other person, including religious organisations. Here, we must not be talking simply of the churches alone. It also affects the mosques. So it is both Christians and Muslims, which is why NIREC came out with a common statement that says no law is perfect and when the law is made and you find issues with it, there are ways of seeking redress or bringing the attention of the lawmakers to the problems you have with the law. And I must say, I believe now that this is the way to go. I am particularly encouraged by the same statement made by the Vice President (Yemi Osinbajo) himself inviting or advising all those who have objections to any aspect of that law to prepare an amendment that should be taken to the National Assembly for it to correct itself.
I like to look at things from a positive point of view, particularly the public statement of the Vice President. For me, the Vice President is the government; the government is aware of all the noise and anger and the government finds it very difficult to come out and say ‘we are sorry, we made a mistake.’ Rather, they find a diplomatic and quiet way to extend an olive branch for peace, and I see the statement of the Vice President in that light.
NIREC is taking it up and I believe now that either NIREC, the Christian Association of Nigeria or even individual churches can now get their facts together by consulting their lawyers and experts. They can also gather together even members of the National Assembly who belong to their churches so that they can prepare a proper answer and amendment to this law.
One aspect of the NIREC issue I love is that we should avoid turning it into a major crisis. In my own opinion, there are still many serious issues hanging over our nation and we should try not to allow this CAMA to distract us from those issues of security and whatever they said about security in the land.
If CAMA should go ahead, do you envisage a serious crisis ahead?
What they are saying is that CAMA is a big law, part of which we object to. It is possible for the National Assembly to simply delete that. But the rest of the law is okay; let the law go on.
Recently, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), said he told President Donald Trump of the United States that the killing of Christians in Nigeria was caused by cultural and not religious or ethnic factors. Do you think he was sincere?
This is what the government has been saying all along. The government has been denying that there is anything religious about the killings going on but, at least, the government must agree and has agreed that there are killings going on and whether you acknowledge that the killings affect Christians or not, those who are being killed know that there are Christians that are being killed, although I know that it is not only Christians that are being killed. The bandits in Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto are killing largely Muslims.
The allegation that Buhari and his government are killing Christians is not new and there are many people of our country who have gone all over the world to make this complaint and maybe seeking sympathy and some kind of support. It is not President Trump alone who feels that way. I travel around a lot and it is the position of many people out there in the United States and in Europe that Christians in Nigeria are under serious persecution by Muslims. So, Trump happens to be a man who speaks very bluntly and said it that way to Mr President. In my own opinion, I think it is not fair to deny or to tell people not to complain when they are hurt. If people say, ‘we are being killed because we are Christians,’ nobody should say they shouldn’t say so, especially when they are Christians.
The Southern Kaduna crisis seems to have defied solutions. Do you think the Federal Government and Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State have handled the matter well?
The issue has been going on for years. There are still killings and so, obviously, they have not succeeded in solving the problem. The more serious aspect is that those who are on the receiving end have it very clear in their minds that there is no intention of solving their problem. Maybe a few days ago, there were meetings again in Southern Kaduna, which are a part of the efforts to find a solution; and the solution will also depend largely on whether the governor of Kaduna really acknowledges that a different approach has to be taken. You cannot solve a problem by repeating the same things which you have been repeating. Things won’t change unless you change your attitude, policies and strategies. We are hoping that maybe this exercise of late will make a difference. The fact is that the people of Southern Kaduna feel they are being oppressed, that their rights are not being acknowledged, that they have been disarmed and left at the mercy of armed attackers who seem to come anytime they like to attack villages and kill people. Above all, many of them have been driven away not just from their farms but also from their homes, and they are living in internally displaced persons’ camps. Their villages are occupied by other people and the government is aware of this and claims that they cannot do anything about it.
What is the solution to the killings, especially of Christians?
There are two possibilities, either you allow the Christians to arm themselves as well as the attackers are armed and then face them; which means an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, or you seriously disarm those who are carrying out the killings. As it seems, those who are carrying out the killings are not being disarmed and it is not possible to convince anybody out there that armed people can be going around and the government is impotent to deal with them.
To tackle insecurity in Yorubaland, the South-West governors have set the pace for others to follow with the establishment of Amotekun Corps…(cuts in)
Again, Amotekun, in my own opinion, is a clear demonstration of the failure of the government to perform and failure of security agencies to perform their duties.
Do you support it?
For as long as the people are feeling that they are left at the mercy of uncontrolled armed attackers, it is a matter of self-defence, which is a fundamental human right.
Churches have been allowed to open in some states after the total lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think the government opened the churches at the right time?
I wouldn’t know what reasons each state has. The churches in those states have always remained in contact and in dialogue with the government. The bottom line is that we want to control the coronavirus. However, we have not all agreed as regards whether the churches are the culprits for the spread of the virus. It is my strong opinion that the churches have done very well in maintaining the protocols for the control of COVID-19 and, therefore, the government ought to accept the assurance that church leaders have given that they shall make sure their members are protected.
The Igbo have complained of marginalisation and there have been clamours for political parties to zone the Presidency to the South-East in 2023. Do you believe in this political arrangement?
My view is that zoning it to the South-East or anywhere is not the solution. Zoning-as a way of ensuring a sense of belonging of every part of Nigeria – is hardly a democratic way of doing things. If we end up with zoning, it is simply an admission that we have failed in democracy; that we have organised our democratic process in such a way that some people have been clearly excluded. Can we rearrange our democratic system in such a way that nobody will be excluded? When you find people asking for zoning, it is because they know that the way the rules are now, there is no way we can get anywhere. Can we change the rules so that everybody will be on the same page and on an equal basis? And if we cannot, then people will begin to insist that ‘it is about time you gave us a chance to rule’ and once we start zoning, it will never end. If the South-East wants zoning today, the next time it is going to be South-West, North-East, North-West, and so on. And at the end of the day, we will begin to ask if we are looking for a situation where we elect the best person to be president.
Some sceptics feel that with the way things are going now, Nigeria may break up in 2023. What are your fears?
It can break up even before 2023, if we continue to be irresponsible and reckless. But if all of us who believe in the future of this country, a country that will be better for our children and grandchildren, if we really work hard and try to do things in a better way and reduce violence and insist on honesty and truth, we will not only achieve the right things in 2023 but much more beyond 2023. The fact is that with the situation as it is today, the rules of the game of politics in Nigeria cannot carry us far.
The National Assembly is collecting memoranda for a constitutional review. Which aspects of the 1999 Constitution do you think should be reviewed?
The National Assembly has sent out letters calling for a constitutional review and the fact that the National Assembly is, all the time, asking for constitutional review means clearly that they realise the constitution that we have right now is not serving us well and most of our problems I believe can be traced back to the problems with the constitution itself: inconsistencies, lacunas, sometimes clear contradictions – it says one thing in one place and the opposite in the other. The result is that somebody picks one side and another picks the other and they begin to fight, both of them accusing each other. My view is that the constitution is like an old car that has too many problems such as the engine, gear box, tyres and suspension; you can repair it alright and end up with a car that you can still use for a while. But, in my own opinion, if we are serious, we should consider how we can devise a new constitution that will be the result of the consultation of Nigerians so that, finally, we can have a constitution that we can sincerely say, ‘We, the people of Nigeria, have given ourselves this constitution.’ As you know, everybody has said a sentence in our present constitution is a big lie. That constitution was not made by us Nigerians; it is the product of the military regime.
Do you believe Nigeria should be restructured?
Restructuring is just a way of talking; it means that there are things that should change in Nigeria. The word ‘restructuring’ is neither here nor there; it depends on what you mean by it. We are back again to the constitution because the constitution determines the structure of the nation and if we say the constitution needs to be changed, it means we need to restructure.
Can you briefly assess the President’s regime since it came to power in 2015 vis-à-vis the present state of the Nigerian economy?
I think even President Buhari’s government agrees that they have not achieved that objective.
Edo State was somewhat a hotbed of crisis before the election. What are your feelings about the governorship election?
My feeling is that what is happening in Edo State has been what has happened in every election in Nigeria, there is nothing special with Edo. Is it violence? In every election in Nigeria, there is violence. Is it rigging? They are going to rig there and is the Independent National Electoral Commission going to perform well? We don’t know. The INEC chairman may be sincere in his heart but can he control the thousands of people that are working for INEC? The question of rampant corruption is all over the place. Who is going to stop policemen from taking bribes from politicians to do whatever they want to do? We are in a very tough and difficult country. We just keep praying that we manage to have an election there that will be peaceful enough.