INTERVIEW(Part One): What Nigerians, govt must do to stop herdsmen, other killings – Cardinal Onaiyekan

John Cardinal Onaiyekan

In this first part of an interview early January with PREMIUM TIMES’ Evelyn Okakwu, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, John Onaiyekan, spoke extensively on violent conflicts across Nigeria and the danger to nation-building.

The cardinal also advised Nigerians on collective actions to ensure security of lives and property.

PREMIUM TIMES: Recently there was so much on the news regarding a corporate governance code which aims at prescribing a limit  for church leaders like overseers of churches to serve in that capacity. Would you like to comment on this development?

Onaiyekan: If there was ever such a law, it was not available to me. If for the purpose of argument we were to have a law in Nigeria that you cannot be a bishop for more than 20 years, we would not consider such a law as legal, because government does not determine who the head of a church is. You are not head of a church by government appointment. But like I said, I am not familiar with the pronouncement; but I have personally celebrated 34 years as a bishop. And we are doing our work. Every organisation has its own rules. Very soon they will say no traditional ruler should stay more than 20 years.

A Pentecostal church can decide to set a limit to how long a leader can stay in the office; our church has rules; that’s the Catholic Church has a rule in this matter; and our rule is 75 years of age. The Anglican Church I think also has its own rules, which I think borders on age limit. But even that is subject to the Pope, who is the only one that has authority over the tenure of a bishop.

I do not think it is right for any government to simply consider our churches as not for profit, we are not an NGO. Whatever the intentions of the law is, it has to be clarified.

 PREMIUM TIMES: Recently the Kafanchan Catholic Diocese was quoted as saying that over 800 people died from the ongoing crisis in that part of the country, can you explain how that figure was reached?

Onaiyekan: If you go to the Vicar General and ask, I am sure they would give it to you. They would not have come out with such figures without evidences. By the way, those figures have been published long ago. Because we have received it more than a month ago; it came like a memo to all the bishops; and I referred to it in various media, during the big ceremony at the National Christian Centre. If anybody is querying the number of deaths, they must have their own evidence, they must be able to tell us therefore that they have known all the people that have died. When you are writing a memo like that, you do not list all the names of the people, but they know the members of their families and the communities that were massacred. It is only in Nigeria that you will hear that so much as 800 people died, and instead of facing the issue, we are querying the number. Even if it is a 100 people, that is already too much.

Burnt house in Goska Village, southern Kaduna.
Burnt house in Goska Village, southern Kaduna.

The issue on ground is not whether the Diocese of Kafanchan is exaggerating or anything, the question is has there been a major break down of law and order? Were people killed? And I think now nobody is doubting that. It is only a question of whether they massacred 200, 400 or 500. And when it comes to that level, let no one say that they are not so many unless you can tell me that you went round all the villages, you have made your own count and found that it is not true. I believe we ought to give the diocese the benefit of the doubt if they came and said they have such figures.

PREMIUM TIMES: Many have accused the government of being unduly silent and encouraging the continuation of the menace; would you like to comment on that?

Onaiyekan: We have to put this in the context of a country where law enforcement is not at its highest. It is not only pastors that are killed with nobody doing anything to find out what actually happened. A whole Attorney General was killed and up till now, we do not know who committed the act. That kind of situation should tell us that we are in a serious situation where human life is practically negotiable. I am trying to put it beyond this point. I am Catholic, I am a Christian, I am a cardinal and I am sad when a Christian is killed presumably for religious reasons; but before that, we are talking about human beings. And that for me is even most important; that you kill a human being; whoever that human being is. And I think in Nigeria, if we don’t face that and let all of us express a sense of serious personal outrage over the death of any Nigerian; if we are able to measure that, then all of us will put our hands together to stop this nonsense

As long as we wait only for certain people; for example when an Igbo man is killed by herdsmen, we leave it for the Igbos to fight for themselves; the Fulani man in Kano thinks it is none of his business. As long as we keep talking about the fact that they are killing Christians; then it does not matter as long as the person killed is not a Christian; that is the attitude that I have not been slow to speak strongly against. Let’s not give any impression that we are only concerned when it concerns us. No human being should be killed for no reason.

Apart from the people you are mentioning, many have died in the hands of kidnappers, they won’t make headline news. It is only then that you can begin to put the issue of police investigation to the picture. To what extent is the police equipped to deal with this matter? We have even reached a stage where we do not even expect much from the police. And that is sad.

We watched the television some time ago when a young man drove a truck into the market in Germany, the whole of the German security and European security were out to seek for him. Three days later in Milan they picked him. If this had happened in Nigeria, nobody will talk about it

Another latest event happened in Turkey, a young man who went into a night club and killed many people and disappeared; but the authorities refused to admit that he had disappeared, his picture was all over the place. If it were to be in Nigeria, that won’t be the case, they would simply just go and arrest a few miserable people and when they take such a person to court, do not blame the judge when he lets the person go. The police should do proper investigation of suspects before taking them to court.


PREMIUM TIMES: So do you think Nigerians have a point when they place some of the blame on government, comparing these scenarios with killings that are practically left unattended by security operatives in Nigeria?

What we need to say and say it very clearly without any hypocrisy is that there is no law in Nigeria against blasphemy. And there is no better proof for it than the situation, the case where more often than not our Lord Jesus has been blasphemed against by those who do not believe in him but nobody has taken up a cutlass to kill them for acting irresponsibly and blaspheming against Jesus whom we believe to be God, ehn! Not to talk about Mohammed who is a human being.

Which means that we just have to take this matter seriously. Anybody who is believed to have committed blasphemy should not be allowed to use that as an excuse, because there is no law in our country against that. It is just like I am now hearing in the Middle Belt. Some people supposedly, who are spokesperson for the Fulani people, were quoted as saying that what happened in recent times in southern Kaduna was a retaliation of what happened in the past, 2011. My question is, ‘does that mean therefore that they were right to do it?

Are we now living in a country where if you killed my brother in 2009, I can walk into your house in 2017 and slaughter anybody I find there? There, I can say that there is silence that is very worrisome; silence in the sense that it is appearing as if we are even condoning it. Oh yes, they suffered in 2011. Do not blame them for doing it; they were provoked; they were angry. No country should allow itself to be ruled on the basis of such raw and barbarian emotions.

And I think this is where law and order comes in. If you want the country to go well and for people to continue to respect law and order; then government and those in power must not allow any doubt to remain concerning the fact that those who are law abiding are protected.

PREMIUM TIMES: How would you react to reports that the Kaduna State government paid certain persons to prevent the killings in Kaduna, before the attacks began?

Onaiyekan: The rumour I am hearing, which is very difficult to understand, is that the governor of Kaduna state was actually angry and complaining that these people had gone on rampage despite the fact that he had paid them to prevent the attacks.

If that is true; that the governor of a state is practically bribing criminals not to commit crime, then it is serious. That is serious! And indeed if it was true, and they went ahead and started to slaughter people, doesn’t he remember those to whom he has paid?

We are expecting that by now he would have rounded them up, and made it clear to everybody that he had given these people so much and yet they went about killing people.

Unfortunately when these things happen, we have all kinds of statements made, we never know how much to believe and the government of Kaduna state has not gone into much clarification about these issues. But I am sure they must have heard that there is this rumour going around about the government bribing Fulani herdsmen not to attack.

PREMIUM TIMES: Like you said, when things like this happen, so much information goes round and one of such is the seeming linkage between these payments, if the reports are true; with the amnesty given to militants from the Niger-Delta to prevent them from going on the rampage in the region. Would you like to say anything regarding this?

Onaiyekan: I am sorry I am not fully informed about what the so called amnesty is all about and under what terms, or what the legal bases are for it. All I know is that young men who had armed themselves were creating trouble and government asked them to lay down their arms and then they said that as condition for laying down their arms, they asked that capacity be given to them, to be able to do something else. You could justify that. After all, people are saying something similar about the North-east. Ex-combatants of Boko Haram, I don’t know if government has made enough efforts to convince them to lay down their arms. I hope that government does it seriously. Because if we do not convince them to lay down their arms; they are capable of keeping their arms and going about causing harm for many years to come.

If I am carrying arms, it is the only thing I have, even when they are hungry. They will just go to a road, go to a quiet area; set up check points and start taking things from people. If you want them to stop, you have to give them what to do.  I am sure I am not the only one saying that for example, you cannot close the case of the Boko Haram; except if there is a massive investment in that sector.

This is not bribing them; it is accepting that part of the cause of the problem is because of failure of government. This is also clear in the Niger Delta where government has not shown any interest in the young people there. They have been destroying their land; young men who are fishermen can no longer fish; and nobody cares about them; provided few are accessing oil money and enjoying themselves in their mansions.

Cattle herd
Cattle herd

The Fulani man who is looking after his herds of cattle should have a legal way of protecting his business. But as you know; what is causing the problem is that the farmers are saying that the Fulani herdsmen are destroying their crops and driving their cattle into their own means of livelihood. Therefore, if we cannot say that the Fulani herdsman have every right to be able to carry a gun to go and destroy people’s livelihood; just like the cattle is a livelihood of the Fulani, so also the farm is a source of livelihood of the people. Your right stops where my own begins.

In my talk during the Christmas and New Year period, I said that the Fulanis and those who are close to them should realise that the groundswell of hostility is brewing against the Fulanis all over Nigeria because of this kind of activities. If you love the Fulanis, you should find a way of convincing them to carry on with their activities in such a way that they don’t end up provoking others.


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