Nigeria is a unique country whose citizens are distributed almost equally between Christians and Muslims. It comprises about one-fifth of the African population, so a crisis that is not seriously dealt with in Nigeria would end up affecting the rest of Africa.
Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze of Benin City, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, explains in an interview with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) the serious political problems arising from the current situation of insecurity in the country due to both the atrocities of the terrorist group Boko Haram and other radical groups such as the Fulanis.
Aid to the Church in Need: How would you describe the current situation of Christians in Nigeria?
Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze: I really do not know if I will be able to paint the true picture of Nigeria to you and the world in just one interview. I must admit that I am going to try to do so, knowing that I risk doing a great disservice because of time constraints and the complexities with regards to the nature of Nigeria.
The current situation in Nigeria reflects an unnecessary, unwarranted and self-inflicted tension. A politically polarized nation — unfortunately, some of our political leaders have made and keep making decisions, statements and appointments that make some Nigerians from some parts of the country question again and again the reason for the unity of the country. We live in a Nigeria where we have a constitution that recognizes the federal character principle, which means that in the administration of federal institutions there must be representation from every sector of the country. This was designed to make every Nigerian feel welcomed and to know that Nigeria belongs to everyone. In the face of the daunting challenge of a great insecurity previously never witnessed in Nigeria except during the civil war, the present federal government has decided to take a completely suspicious approach to appointments of people to sensitive positions. Virtually all the officials who advise the president are from the same Hausa-Fulani ethnic group — 95 percent of them are Muslims in a country where there are about 50 percent Christians. The authority to provide leadership in the security sector is led by one religious sect, one ethnic group, in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation. We at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria have repeatedly spoken out against this attitude of the federal government. We have met the president and expressed our complete disapproval at this position and action of the government.
ACN: But there has been insecurity for a number of years. Boko Haram has been threatening Nigeria for a decade. Can we say they are hurt but not defeated?
Archbishop Akubeze: Boko Haram’s attacks on Nigerians have continued for many years. This terrorist group that has sworn allegiance to ISIS operates in northeast Nigeria. But they have staged attacks even in Abuja, the federal capital. Their religious extremist ideology is to make the whole of Nigeria an Islamic republic. They resent and reject everything that is Western, except that they use Western-made guns and ammunition to attack innocent Nigerians. They have attacked both Muslims and Christians in the past. But presently, they are focusing mainly on the killing and kidnapping of Christians. For the majority of Nigerians, the government response has largely been unsatisfactory. As we speak, Leah Sharibu, who was taken captive by the Boko Haram and refused to renounce her Christian faith, is still being held. Only a few weeks ago, a local government chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria was beheaded by Boko Haram. Rev. Lawan Andima was 58 years old, married and the father of nine children when he was killed simply because he was a Christian.
ACN: Do you think the government isn’t doing enough to protect Christians?
Archbishop Akubeze: The president of Nigeria recently stated that he was shocked at the unabated killing of Nigerians, who are mostly Christians. Many Nigerians wonder whether the president lives in a parallel universe. How can he be surprised at this time, after some of us have attended mass burials of Christians killed by Boko Haram? The government is certainly not doing enough to protect both Christians and Muslims. A few days ago, the National Assembly unanimously moved that the president change the officials because they are not providing sufficient security for the lives of Nigerians. This legislative arm of the government has a majority of the ruling party as members. This speaks to the fact that Nigerians are dissatisfied with the level of incompetency shown by the government of Nigeria with regard to protecting lives and properties. We at the bishops’ conference already stated in our communique that a government that is incapable of fulfilling the constitutional obligation to secure the lives and properties of Nigeria will gradually lose legitimacy.
ACN: In addition to Boko Haram, we are witnessing more and more attacks against Christians by other radical groups such as the Fulanis. How does that affect the situation of Christians in Nigeria?
Archbishop Akubeze: In the past, the serious security challenges were confined to a particular area — namely, the northeast of Nigeria. But presently there is insecurity everywhere. People are kidnapped for ransom basically in every part of Nigeria. There are many instances of herdsmen and farmer clashes. The herdsmen are predominantly Fulani Muslims from the north, the same area as the president. The audacity with which they move to every part of Nigeria looking for grass to feed their cattle is unprecedented. There are too many cases of these herdsmen invading farmlands in every part of the country, and they are armed with guns and other weapons. These herdsmen, already designated by the international community as a terrorist group, act with impunity. The lack of significant prosecution of these men further fuels the belief that they have the backing of the federal government. I must admit that I do not have conclusive evidence to state that this group does have the backing of the government. But to do nothing, or what appears to be a lack of true willpower or motivation to stop these crimes increasing, makes it difficult to convince more Nigerians that there is no connection between one-sided appointments of officials and the lack of prosecution of perpetrators of these crimes against humanity and the seemingly selective killing of Christians. Justice and peace are always together. Anyone who wants genuine peace must work for justice. For peace and security to reign in Nigeria, there must be political justice, religious justice, ethnic justice, economic justice, judicial justice and justice for everyone.
ACN: Recently, we were shocked by the kidnapping of seminarians and the murder of one of them, Michael Nnadi, in Kaduna. We know that the other three were released. Can you tell us something about their health?
Archbishop Akubeze: We heard the news with sadness in our hearts. The kidnapping of the seminarians, unfortunately, comes amidst the kidnapping of priests and religious by the same group of people who are terrorizing Nigerians. Too many priests and religious have been kidnaped in the recent past. The seminarians who were released, I understand, are presently receiving treatment. As to their specific health conditions, I am not able to speak about that. But suffice to say, from the stories we have heard from those held in captivity, there is no doubt that the young men would have been greatly distressed and traumatized. We are pained and saddened at the killing of Michael Nnadi. And to know that he was an orphan is more painful. May his soul and the souls of all who have died in the hands of these criminals rest in peace.
ACN: How is it possible to ensure the security of places of worship or other places like seminaries and monasteries?
Archbishop Akubeze: Every institution is trying to provide security in these places of worship. Based on local intelligent reports, the religious leaders are responding to the needs of their people. There are some churches that request the services of the Nigerian police for Sunday worship and have to pay for the security provided for them. There are others who contract private security outfits. In some cases, the faithful themselves volunteer to provide security. It depends on the particular area. There is presently no homogeneous description of security plans for places of worship and seminaries. Most of the privately contracted security agencies are not well-armed to be able to deal with the level of threat posed by herdsmen and Boko Haram.
ACN: Is there anything we can do to help you in this area?
Archbishop Akubeze: I would like to thank you for the interest that your institution has consistently shown in the plight of suffering people — to be specific, the plight of the poor in Nigeria. Your assistance has been of great help to many Nigerians, especially our brothers and sisters in the northern dioceses.
One area that I think the Western nations and the media can be of great help is to cover the stories of these atrocities in Nigeria. The number of killings is just mind-boggling. Maybe with significant Western coverage, the government of Nigeria may be put under pressure to act. In the same light, the government of EU nations and America will probably see the moral obligation to seek ways to protect the lives of Christians and other Nigerians who are constantly being attacked by Boko Haram and the herdsmen.
Maria Lozano and Marta Petrosillo write for Aid to the Church in Need.