The retiring Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, His Eminence Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan recently held an interactive session with select journalists at his residence in Abuja as part of the 50th anniversary of his priesthood. He gave his views on some touchy national issues. Onyebuchi Ezigbo presents excerpts:
Although Ruga has been suspended for now, what is your take on it?
This RUGA thing is reminding me of the prescription of Shi’ites. Again, government makes a flamboyant statement ‘we are going to establish RUGA settlements all over Nigeria, then they provoke major crises, confusion and they begin to withdraw and say they are suspending it and some people say don’t suspend just cancel. Again, at that time, I remarked that let us thank them for suspending it. It is already a step and maybe suspending it is government’s way of saying we are sorry and therefore, we should pursue the suspension to its logical conclusion.
That was what happened during the RUGA controversy and that is the same thing with the prescription of Shi’ites and later telling us ‘no, it is not the religion that we are proscribing but the violent and criminal activities of their members. In that case there is a law for that, you don’t need to proscribe the group, you pursue them based on the crimes they have committed, using the law on the ground.
The major problem I see with RUGA is that it is a very vague kind of project. What exactly it means wasn’t made clear by government and since the government isn’t clear they left room for all kinds of explanation of what the RUGA is, what its objective is, how it was going to work and free grounds for all kinds of conspiracy theories, which you can see has generated a major crisis in the nation.
The worst of that kind of conspiracy theory is the idea that the RUGA was supposed to be the epicentre of the Fulani colonisation of every part of our country as a prelude to the eventual takeover of Nigeria by the Fulani race. Have you heard that? I have heard that but do you blame people for arriving at that conclusion, when we haven’t been told what exactly it is. So, it isn’t surprising that eventually, the government decided to suspend it and of course, there was reaction and counter-reaction – some people saying you can’t suspend it and some others saying you must suspend it, you must cancel it.
We even have some state governors wanting to show that they are very loyal to the federal government, saying no we want it and some other state governments find themselves in a tight corner not wanting to appear as bad boys so they want to appear as they would give land for RUGA even if they know that they can’t do it peacefully but it is creating unnecessary problems and I believe these things could have been avoided if there had been clarity.
You can deceive some of the people some of the time but you can’t deceive everybody all the time and sooner or later lies have their lifespan. Lies run very fast but it can’t go very far sooner or later the truth will overtake.
The great controversy that the RUGA generated, which the government should take as a point of lesson is that whatever policy they are bringing out especially, in the present context should be properly explained. Secondly, a policy that is being brought out by the federal government should be for the good of all Nigerians.
They should not leave room for us to believe that this is something to just help Fulani. Why can’t you help Kabba people too? Why only the Fulani and especially, when you are a Fulani? It is very easy for people to think you are being partial. These are basic rules of governance and I hope we have learnt our lessons.
Now that the RUGA policy has been suspended, what is the way forward?
Now, I would like to hope that this controversy shouldn’t just go like that; that we will find again to look at what was the good effect that the RUGA wants to achieve even if it wanted to achieve it just for the Fulani. We can make a case that if it is good for the Fulani, then, it must be good for everybody. I can envisage a situation where every state could decide to setup settlements, where all their young people, who are ready to go into agriculture and animal husbandry can be brought together with housing, power, with everything as I heard they wanted to do with RUGA – set it up for every state – for its young people, who want to go into agriculture instead of walking up and down the street of Abuja looking for stupid jobs that don’t exist and if that was really pursued with commitment and with the kind of resources and money we hear they want to pour into RUGA, that would be a good thing that we have started this kind of thing.
And if you put it that way and for example the government of Kogi says we are going to set up a settlement, any Kogi young man or woman that wants to go into agriculture and animal husbandry apply, we will admit you and you will be given good housing; there would be water supply, there would be equipment brought in, there would be possibility of learning how to run the farm. Each one will have his own and become a comprehensive farmer, where you don’t only plant crops but also raise animals.
There is nothing impossible about that and for me that would be one of the good things that the RUGA controversy has brought. So, my own suggestion is that let’s not throw away the RUGA like throwing away the baby with the bath water, but let us apply it positively to every part of Nigeria and let the government make available to every state from the money they have in mind to spend on RUGA, send it to state governors hoping that state governors will not ‘eat’ the money like they do in everything and set up farming settlements for young graduates and non-graduates.
There is nothing in animal husbandry that is in the genes of only Fulani, anybody can raise animals that are even better especially with the fact that the animals won’t have to walk from Maiduguri to Aba. They would stay in an area and you can feed them. This doesn’t exclude the Fulani.
They would stay in whatever state they are and carry out these duties or they can even be part of the settlements in the states where they have traditional camps and so on but these are matters that if we put our heads to it, we agree to the idea and we sincerely and transparently pursue it. I am hoping therefore that all the war cry and the drums of wars we have been hearing in the past few months will eventually subside so that we can come and live together in peace like we used to.
Recently, federal government proscribed the Shi’ites movement. But do you share this position of government?
I heard the news on my way out of the country and I said, ‘No I can’t believe it, it is not true’. The proscription of a religious group is certainly not in our character in Nigeria. I am happy to hear the government making some statements after that occasion. I read somewhere that the government is saying ‘no, they are not proscribing religion they are only proscribing the trouble makers’.
Why do I say I am happy? I feel that somehow some people in the government have realised that it is not good news to tell the whole world that our government has proscribed a religious organisation and I will like to see that statement as a tentative step to backtrack. That government has an allergy to admitting that they have made an error. So, instead of making a stupid mistake and agreeing that we have made a mistake, they look for excuses. So, let’s believe that they are crawling back and I hold to the statement that they are not proscribing any religious organization.
So, if that is the case, we should presume that they are not prescribing the Shi’ites movement, which is a religious organisation. Only people who have never moved out of their village, those of us who have moved around know that there are different kinds of Muslims. Majority of the Muslims you have in Nigeria happen to be Sunnis but there are nations where all the Muslims are Shi’ites. The whole world believes that there are Sunnis, there are Shiites and if you take the Nigerian situation, there are Muslims, who are neither Sunnis nor Shiites.
We have the ones who are common in Southern Nigeria who are also Muslims. So, I think the issue now is to press the government to reconfirm the commitment of the government to respect the right of every religious group to exist and operate in Nigeria and that right should be given not only to the Catholics, to the Sunnis, the Anglican, the redeemed but also to Shi’ites. I am not a Muslim but if I was a Muslim, I will also fight for the freedom of any kind of Muslim, because the freedom of religion is not only the freedom between different religions but also freedom within religions.
What’s your take on restructuring, and the apparent divergent interpretations Nigerians are giving to it?
Call for restructuring has almost become a recurring decimal but I think here again, we have a situation, where people are throwing around the words without stating exactly what you mean. As you have noticed, different people are now giving us different definitions of what restructuring means. My own understanding of restructuring means that we admit that we have a problem; must admit that the structure we have on ground is not working well.
No country has a perfect structure. Every country keeps working to improve their structure. Look at the United Kingdom, the Scottish are still doing referendum whether to remain with the United Kingdom or to go on their own and even some Walsh people want to leave the United Kingdom. Even in Italy, the northern Italians want to leave Italy but in the meantime, they are moving on. So, the fact that we have difficulties with the structure that we have inherited, there is nothing special about that but we must be prepared to improve it.
The call for restructuring I think means an effort to look at our structure and see how to improve it. In using another term, there is the architecture of our state and the architecture is wrong therefore the pillars are shaking, the windows are breaking, the walls are cracking and if you don’t have a good architecture this will likely happen, no amount of patch up will do and we seem to arrive at a situation, where we can’t continue to patch up this system. We need to find a way to improve the structure and improving the structure means may be finally we want to have a situation where we have to sit down together and decide what kind of federation we want.
That is where the whole discussion of a national forum, National conference, call it whatever whereby it is not going to be easy but Nigerians will have to agree to live together and at least make an effort to improve it. So, it is the content that is the problem and not the idea – the idea to improve the structure of our nation and especially to be sincere about the idea of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Federal means there is federal government and there are state governments and each has its own level and I must say we must not forget the local government level, which by the way has been abolished by many of the state governments. That is restructuring.
How do feel about the security situation in the country?
Let me talk as a man of God. We don’t tell lies and the truth of the matter is that we are in serious trouble. The security of this nation is in serious critical condition. Not only do we know and suffer it and that we travel every day on the road with our hearts in our mouth and if a loved one of yours goes to the motor park and is travelling across the nation, you are not at ease until they reach where they are going and call you to inform you that they have reached.
Just like my sister had mentioned earlier, it wasn’t always like this. There were dangers on the road; you could have accidents. There were also cases of armed robbers that were stopping cars and so on but that was different. We have on our hand a permissive system of insecurity on ground. The government obviously congratulates itself that they have done the best and that we Nigerians should be grateful, but for me, that is where the problem is.
Until the government acknowledges that there is a problem, until the government recognises that a problem has emerged on our lands – that in terms of security our situation has changed for the worst in the past five years. Until government recognises that it is unlikely that they will put forward the needs to reverse the trends. You have to admit the situation before you can tackle it. So, I am praying to God that they would be able to see what all of us have seen and this ground of 43 people who have joined the executive, that we hope they would go in with the mind and not allow anybody in the executive council and above all not allow the man on top, Mr. President to forget that Nigerians are not safe.
Again, we are not the only nation in the world nor are we the least that have security challenges. Yesterday on television they were shooting in the air in a school in America but that is a different type of insecurity and we have enough people and resources in this nation to put things right. My fear is that because of the long task to accept that we have problems that is why we are not addressing it with all the means available to us. As a Bishop, I pray to God that he will keep my people safe and we pray that those who it is their duty to secure the nation will carry out this duty.
How do you see the new ministerial list, which has more politicians than technocrats?
According to you in your own estimation, the country needs technocrats. Your question presupposes that only a government of technocrats can redeem the Nigerian situation. This is an opinion and if you ask what do I think, for me what is happening in the National Assembly whatever they are doing they seem to be doing it in line with the rules they have made for themselves so in order words, you can hardly accuse them of not doing the right thing.
If in their wisdom they believe that whatever name Mr. President presents to them must be good, therefore ‘take a bow and go’ and the rules allows them to do that, it isn’t for me to start quarrelling with them unless they change the rules and say you can’t do that but for the moment the rule allows that. For me, I think the issue is not whether you take a bow and go or whether they are technocrats or non-technocrats, for me the problem still comes to what kind of people eventually are going to be determining how our country moves forward and moves in such a way that the problems that we are facing are addressed effectively.
As a Nigerian watching, I am looking forward to the Federal Executive Council that would move into action so that within a month or two, we would be able to say ‘oh yes we have a good team up there’. If this team that has been brought together to help Mr. President put the country on a better level than we are now, then, we’d thank God for them. But at the moment, they have my prayers.
How do you see your 50 years in the priesthood?
All I can say now is that we have seen it all and if I look back at the last 50 years, my first feeling is that of gratitude to God. We thank God. It is not every priest that can celebrate 50 years, many priests die before 50 years in the priesthood. I thank God that I am 50 years even though every moment hasn’t been rosy and sweet which I can’t complain. I think I have had God’s grace and support all the way and I have had wonderful experiences being a Nigerian, living with Nigerians and interacting with Nigerians at all levels.
The beautiful thing with being a Catholic Bishop is that we are shepherds of Nigerians from all parts of Nigeria, so it is not possible for you as a Nigerian Bishop to be anything less than Nigerian. That is why I can’t be a local champion or the commander of any sectional cultural organisation. I can’t be a leader of the Afenifere or even the Arewa in which some people are trying to make me and I refused to say God has put me in a position, look at the members of my church, which comes from everywhere and that already disposes me to open my heart and to tell them ‘open your hearts to one another’, because it is wonderful when we can see one another as brothers and sisters which is what we are.
First, it was the challenge of democracy and we used to believe that once the soldiers are out of the way, that the country will start moving and making progress. But very soon it became very clear to us that there is democracy and there is democracy. That there are many kinds of democracy and that democracy doesn’t mean going to the polls every four years and pretending to be casting votes or maybe not pretending, because we who cast votes are serious and sometimes those who count it have other agenda.
But that has become very clear to us that democracy is meaningless if it doesn’t deliver the main fruit of democracy, which is good governance. At the end of the day, whatever democracy system we have on ground would be judged on how it delivers good governance and good governance is described in terms of the common good of everybody, an atmosphere of peace, tranquility, security and I must say affluence – a minimum level of human dignity for all citizens. Of course, there would be the few who are very rich and they say nobody should be jealous of those, who become very rich, hoping that they become very rich too but not by stealing but by working hard or by good luck.
You know you can be rich either by hard work or by what we call it, good luck being at the right place at the right time. Whoever is rich in that way should thank God and we thank God with them but the rest of us at least deserve to have a minimum of standard of living, where we can live like decent human beings and when we ask for that, it is like we are asking too much. It is the minimum that someone expects from any group that takes control of the government and being in control of government have all the access to the nation to make sure the right thing is been done.
In my own opinion, I would say this is the challenge before all of us now. I don’t really see any danger that some soldiers will come to take us back to military rule. What I see that is more dangerous is if we continue with a democracy that is only fake, that doesn’t deliver good governance. The wonderful thing with this is that whether we have good governance or not, it is not a matter of academics or not, we don’t need a doctorate to know whether we are living in a peaceful and harmonious nation and those in government from the top to the bottom must realise that this is their major responsibility. I will say that looking at the logistics towards that is simply to pursue the common good of all and the common good isn’t too difficult to identify.
One of the best ways of knowing the common good is to see the state of those who are the weakest and poorest, because the strength of a chain is judged by its weakest link. No matter how the nation can consider it is big, no matter how many big buildings and big structure we put up; if there are too many people who are in abject poverty, then, the nation isn’t great. Our nation’s greatness will be judged by how we treat our poorest and weakest members including our most disabled. In this, the issue of gender equality comes up but we are not looking at as a priority as the social inequality we have cuts across gender. As I have reached my 50 years of priesthood I look back and ask God give me whatever more years you wish to give me. I pray you give me good health in body and mind to be able to continue the task of working for a nation that would be really united and prosperous under God, and our constitution says something close to that. So, it has been there for long and I am not inventing anything; we already have it in our constitution. I want to thank you again for this coming together and want to tell you that it is our job to pray to God to help all of us that are in this country but I also give special blessings and assistance to those, who claim to be our rulers so that they may do the right thing for the sake of all of us and let the Lord bless the city. May we not labour in vain!