The Metropolitan Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, speaks with FRIDAY OLOKOR on the killings of Christians in Southern Kaduna and the silence of President Muhammadu Buhari on the matter
Many Nigerians across ethnic and religious divides are worried about the killing of Christians in Southern Kaduna. What is responsible for these killings?
It would have been terrible if Nigerians were not worried. If we look back, we will find out that these things (killings) have been going on for quite some time. There was a major outbreak after the 2011 election. Southern Kaduna suffered a great haemorrhage during the post-election violence. The violence recorded numerous killings that were clearly ethnic and religious. We know that at the end of it all, many people were driven into refugee status in Kaduna. Many Hausa and Muslims had to take refuge in Kaduna because they were not safe anymore in the southern part of the state. What caused that? I don’t know if it was ever fully investigated. As usual, when they investigate an issue, we don’t get the full report. What we know is that late Governor Patrick Yakowa was said to have taken some effective actions that tried to calm nerves. We know Governor Nasir el Rufai very well. We expect that he would have devised ways and means of dealing with the situation.
I have passed through Southern Kaduna in the last few months, and when I travelled from here (Abuja) to Jos through those areas, my host in Kaduna was surprised that I passed through Kafanchan. He said, “That (route) is a very dangerous area, don’t take that road anymore.” It is a pity if the President is badly informed about the reality. I open my email and I see all kinds of horrible pictures. Maybe Mr. President does not have the time to check emails. But the President of Nigeria must have somebody who is checking emails for him and whoever is doing that should have the courage to let him see what he is seeing.
Of course, those who are being killed are Christians but whether they are being killed because they are Christians is another matter. For me, whether they are Christians, Muslims or pagans, what is important is that innocent people should not be killed. When did Nigeria become a place where we take the law into our hands? You say people did something wrong to you in 2011. Let us presume, does that justify the killing of women and children six years after? That worries me because in a situation like this, you need responsible leaders. I expected that these Miyetti Allah people, who claim to be speaking on behalf of the Fulani, will be responsible people we can discuss with, who can talk to their own people and let them know that if indeed they are the ones doing this, then it is not right.
Another news we got that made me worried and which the victims in Southern Kaduna have capitalised on was the allegation that the governor of Kaduna State said that he was surprised they are still killing despite the fact that he had given them money. If he said so, then the question is, so he knows them? You gave them money, then they still went ahead to kill? Surely, he can trace them and this is no longer a situation where you stay in secrecy. Bring them out into the full view of the whole world.
The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs issued a statement about the killings in Southern Kaduna and demanded an investigation. But the statement was signed by Ustaz Christian Isa Okonkwo, an Igbo man who claimed to be the Director of Administration in NSCIA. Are you comfortable with that?
When I read his name, I said, ‘Since when has this man reached that level that he is now speaking in the name of NSCIA.’ The Secretary-General of NSCIA, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede, has not spoken and this man who is an Igbo man called Christian Isa Okonkwo, is speaking. I don’t know when he became that and if he is a real Muslim, maybe he used to be called Christian and decided to retain the name just as we have Christians who used to be called Mohammed and have retained Mohammed in their name.
Some people think that it was mischief …
That is part of the problem, immediately you play into a religious matter, nobody can intervene in any serious way and that is really a pity. This is why the statement attributed to the Minister of Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (retd.), is generating ripples. He tried to say we should not give this any religious colouring but the fact is that there is now a religious colouring and that is what he must admit and tackle. Whether it is in Southern Kaduna or in Plateau State, all these conflicts are a continuation of the tribal wars of the last century and those tribal wars have some religious connotation. After all, they are called Jihad. We are in a situation now whereby, for historical reasons, any conflict in that area takes up a religious tone which is why it becomes very difficult to handle.
A Catholic Priest in the area stated that over 800 lives have been lost. Do you see it as a religious, ethnic or political crisis?
The whole thing goes together; now, it is political, ethnic and religious. The statement of the Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan was issued more than a month ago. I read it and I even referred to it at the message I delivered at the International Christian Centre at Christmas. This is a serious allegation from the Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan. It is clear (from), concrete statistics of damage done, lives lost, homes destroyed, people displaced and I am sure they have evidence of all these allegations. For the governor and indeed the President to still say everything is okay is dangerous because it means that it is okay that people are getting killed. For me, it is better, easier, and more effective if the president simply insists that no human being should be badly treated. Any Nigerian should have the right not to be killed.
I have no reason to doubt the statistics which my colleague has put together. I believe that he just did not sit back in his house and draw up those numbers. I believe in those numbers and I am very worried about them. He sent it to all the bishops in Nigeria and we are all in one way or the other reacting to it. What exactly can we do? I don’t know besides what I have been doing all the time; talking. Here I talk to the people in Abuja and we are considering getting a bit of interfaith work on this perspective. There should be a meeting of people who are not just Christians or Muslims. I will go beyond religion, just a group of well-meaning Nigerians who can sit and say ‘no, this shouldn’t continue.’ We believe that if what is happening in Southern Kaduna is not stemmed, it can become very dangerous for the whole country.
Do you intend to take this up at the Vatican?
The Vatican is very well informed about this because they are following the news about Nigeria and the memo which the Bishop of Kafanchan has spread round has been sent to the Vatican long ago. Pope Francis will sue for peace, he will beg people to please respect human life and the Pope certainly won’t concentrate on ‘please don’t harm my Christians,’ he will not speak that way. The Pope will simply say ‘do not kill human beings who are innocent.’
How can this violence be stopped?
We must find a way where we can all put our heads together and admit that this is wrong, like the statement attributed to the NSCIA says it is wrong. We will be more able to deal with it if we are ready to deal with it from the level of human dignity. Nigerians are being killed and whatever their religion, it is not right to kill.
Going by the prolonged silence of President Muhammadu Buhari, is he sincere in dealing with the Southern Kaduna crisis?
I am afraid, he is the only one who can take responsibility for his level of sincerity because sincerity is in the heart. But we can generously give it to him that maybe he is not being properly briefed. You know how difficult it is to get to Aso Villa, so it is possible for the President to sit there looking through all kinds of papers because there are a lot of issues to deal with in Nigeria: economic, climate change, diplomatic relations, Boko Haram and then somebody brings a file on Southern Kaduna and it depends on how the person who brings it presents it and it is possible that Mr. President can sit there and not know how bad the situation is. The President doesn’t send someone to the newsstand to buy newspapers. Somebody looks at the newspapers and brings him the items that he is supposed to pay attention to.
There is no excuse for Mr. President to be kept in the dark about it and if I were Mr. President and I finally found out that all these things have been happening and I was not told, then all those who should have informed me would be fired immediately. They are destroying his work. I am saying this because it will be difficult for Mr President to know all these things and keep quiet. If he does, it means that he is happy with what is happening. Some are even suggesting that maybe he is behind it all, well if he does nothing, he cannot stop people from speculating that.
Nigerians know the Sultan is your friend, but most times he seems to be on the defensive by insisting that the people who perpetrated the killings are not Fulani herdsmen, even when there is glaring evidence.
Well, if he is my friend, that doesn’t mean I won’t tell him the truth. I heard that the Sultan said that those who are doing these things are not the Fulani herdsmen. I will like to read that in the sense that we know those Fulani herdsmen with whom we have been living with. The Sultan may be probably right when he said those who are causing these problems are not the Fulani herdsmen that are on the road carrying sticks with small children. But he cannot deny that terrible things are happening and I would have hoped that my friend, the Sultan, would also be interested in the efforts being made to identify who they are. At some point, I heard he said they were terrorists, he also suggested they were coming from foreign countries. Which foreign countries? Because at this point, we want to know who they are. Where are they coming from? We cannot allow them to continue. Maybe if we give the Sultan time and refrain from putting him too much on the spot, he may be able to make some progress. If they are not Nigerians, where are they coming from? We have the immigration department to unmask these people if they are not Nigerians.
Do you think the security agencies have done well?
They have failed because they are supposed to stop these kinds of things from happening and if by chance they didn’t stop it from happening, they are supposed to pursue and bring back those who did it. Look at what happened in Turkey just this (last) week, one lone man came with a big gun into a night club and killed 40 people and maimed over 60. Within three days, they identified him. He ran away, they put his photograph everywhere and in another three or four days, they will know who he is and when they know who he is, they will also know who sent him. This is what security agencies are supposed to do.
In this case of Southern Kaduna, it is not enough for the governor of the state to declare a state of emergency and curfew. If you declare curfew, then you must be ready to enforce the curfew. You cannot say, ‘Let nobody come out after 8 0’ clock’ and then criminals are moving about freely with nobody stopping them. The result is that innocent law-abiding citizens are imprisoned in their houses while criminals come and kill them. This is what I am hearing that is happening over there and when people there say ‘we can’t sit down at home like this and let people come and kill us,’ and people come out as vigilantes to keep watch over their villages, some of them are even arrested for breaking the curfew. This is the kind of thing that creates doubt in the minds of people. The government cannot afford to operate in a way that people no longer trust government. If people no longer trust the government, they are left on their own and you end up with the law of the jungle and we have not seen the end of the story.
If this trend continues, do you foresee a situation whereby Christians being killed will embark on revenge?
I am hoping that this trend will not continue. I am hoping that efficient actions will be taken to stem the tide and stop the activities of these groups. I am hoping that efforts will be made to actually trace those who have committed those atrocities, prosecute them openly and bring to justice whoever is behind it, no matter how highly placed. What happens is that when the security agencies are doing their investigations and then they need to interrogate a big person, they are afraid, if he is an archbishop, an imam or emir. In this matter, the security of the nation is at stake, nobody should be a sacred cow and nobody should be exempted, everybody should be ready to explain his or her actions.
I foresee a situation where those who have been badly damaged and who are being killed daily will be saying, ‘I cannot sit here and be killed’ and they will organise themselves, not because they are Christians but because they are human beings who cannot sit down and allow themselves to be killed. If we put it in Christian terms, then we are making religion responsible and religion is not responsible. If religion is made to be responsible, it means then that we bishops are organising crusades to buy guns and distribute them to the people. Everybody has a right to self-defence when they are left without any alternative. This is why we are warning the government that they should not allow people to reach a stage where they can no longer count on government to protect them and this has nothing to do with whether you are a Christian or a Muslim.
If, for example, the Christian community in Southern Kaduna has lost confidence in government, they will not respond to any invitation from Governor el-Rufai who is a Muslim and who is seen as Muslim and a Fulani, and not as their governor.
It seems your members, Catholics, are the worst hit by this crisis?
The reason is simply because the Catholic Church is very strong in the Kafanchan area.
A mobile police unit was set up in Kafanchan to curtail the killings, do you have confidence in that?
I don’t know what this mobile police force is supposed to do but I imagine that when you have a situation where mass killing is going on by individuals that are not well defined, we expect the security agencies to marshal out adequate formations, whether mobile police or armed forces in the army to patrol even villages because a group cannot just enter villages at night without passing through somewhere. This is where the police and army must be complemented by good intelligence. Somebody must know where these people are coming from and must inform the right person who will inform the right people. Everything goes together. What is happening is that it seems that the government of Kaduna State has probably been looking at this thing as not very serious.
The Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, who had earlier faulted the 800 casualty figure, has set up a panel on the incident. Do you have confidence in him and composition of the panel?
He probably cannot believe it but he should not fault it until he has his own figures. I think what he should do is to challenge the Bishop to produce his records and I am sure the Bishop will produce the records. If he sets up a panel believing that nothing serious is happening, then nothing serious will come out of the panel. But if he sets up a panel to find out what exactly is happening, let us hope that the panel will try their best to find out what is happening. But I do not think you need a big panel to know what is happening in Southern Kaduna because we have seen dead bodies all over the place, that is what is happening. We know what is happening, that the area has been left at the mercy of marauding murderers. We don’t know whoever they are, where they are coming from or who is funding and paying them, and who has invited them. But the government should know and for government to know, it must do the needful, it must put in place the right kind of intelligence gathering mechanisms because you need all that before you begin to carry guns around marching and saying you are going to counter this kind of thing.
Do you have confidence in the present leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria led by Olasupo Samson Ayokunle?
I do not know what to say about the present leadership of CAN because our (Catholic) church is not fully involved now in CAN. We were not even party to the election that brought in the new leadership of CAN. The only position that I can take now is, I sit down and watch and by their fruits, we shall know them. I have been talking, I sent a copy of my message at Christmas to the CAN President and my message for New Year too, just to let him know what I am thinking.