Former president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Cardinal John Onaiyekan, in this interview with BIOLA AZEEZ in Ilorin, speaks with the return of 21 Chibok girls, the recent arrest of judges and other issues affecting the polity.
Twenty-one of the abducted Chibok girls were freed recently, triggering celebrations around the country and beyond. Do you think Nigerians should be celebrating the release of 21 girls?
Yes, of course. Every life is worth celebrating. It’s more than 900 days that more than 200 of our girls disappeared and were taken away. The whole world has been asking what’s happening. Twenty-one out of over 200 is not really a big deal any way but for the parents of those 21 girls, they can at least rest their shoulder that they’ve found their daughters. It’s worth celebrating. But the whole thing in itself is still a shame on our nation. And it’s still a greater shame that they are not explaining where the other girls are. Have they died? Have they given them to someone else? And the conditions for their release, I don’t know and we’re asking for the truth whether the government released their men or not.
But I am one of those who have always said that if what it takes to release those girls is to release some Boko Haram terrorists in detention, we should have let go of those criminals since. We should not have waited till now. Again, the problem with our government, something that has generated so much interest, not only in Nigeria but abroad, I hope the government would deal with it in a transparent way and tell us the truth about it. That’s the least we deserve to know, because it will not be wise to still be telling stories and playing games at this stage. If the government admitted that they released some terrorists, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, because the shame already on ground is big enough. So I am hoping that those who are advising government or speaking on its behalf will realise that the matter that has generated attention worldwide must deserve questions from people out there.
There were reports that the rest of the girls had been married off by Boko Haram terrorists or killed during air raid. Do you see an end in sight to this security challenge?
I wouldn’t want us to focus too much on the acts of omission or commission of our government in this matter in such a way as to forget that the main culprits in this whole affair are Boko Haram terrorists. They were the ones who kidnapped the girls for all this while for no just cause. So, whatever criticism we have for government should not block our minds to this major crime against humanity, which this group of people has committed, irrespective of discussion of Christian or Muslims. This means that anything Boko Haram is saying anywhere or on social media now, unless they come clean of everything, they are not just serious. They are not. And the onus lies on them to explain what has happened to the 200 girls they took away. If they’ve been sold out, they should give us a list of the children sold out. They should give us list of those they sold them to in Sweden or anywhere in the world. And these are no small children of two or three years old; these are young girls preparing for school certificate exams. They would be 17, 18 and now they are 20, 21. What part of the world are you now to go and you are married and no access to phone to call your father? If they are married out and they are wives and they are no slaves, there’s still a lot of explanation to make and I don’t think we should be demanding this explanation from our government. We should demand explanation from those who kidnapped the girls unjustly.
As for claims about trying to Islamise the country, in my own opinion, we have already passed that stage in the sense that Boko Haram claims not only that they want to Islamise the whole of the North-East, but the whole of Nigeria. That’s their claim. Fanatics make claims and they make atrocious claims; things that are absolutely unrealisable. We are not surprised that they are making such claims. What’s important for me is what do the Nigerian Muslims say? And from what I hear from the Nigerian Muslims, the recognised leaders of Islam in Nigeria, is that these people don’t represent Muslims. For me, that’s important.
Recently, there were calls for the sale of some national assets as a way out of the economic recession facing the country. What is your take?
This is one issue I believe government must give Nigerians adequate information to be able to take an informed position. Furthermore, since this issue has been generating debates, I believe that’s one good reason that government must throw it open for clear enlightened and professional debates and discussion before taking any decision. There are enough people, economists and so others who can let us know whether selling the assets is good for this country or not. Obviously, those who proposed it think it’s good for the country. Whatever reason they have for thinking it, they must be able to put it before us so we can see and agree with them or see and tell them why it does not work. I’ve seen those who are against it and I would say basically that national assets should remain national assets and should not be disposed of normally. If you are going to dispose of national assets, I do not think the reason will be to plug a hole in recession. It should be part of a comprehensive economic policy. It’s the same thing when government privatizes; it’s part of a national economic policy.
Some Nigerians have begun to fear that treatment of the Shi’ite sect and the eventual ban by the Kaduna State government might be another Boko Haram waiting to happen. What is your take?
The Shi’ite affair, in my own sincere and considered opinion, is sad. It’s very sad. Don’t forget that this same group had, earlier last year, been subject of major clash during which we were told hundreds of them were killed and some said massacred and their dead bodies were allegedly thrown into mass graves. Nigerians generally kept quiet. And it’s a shame when this kind of things happen and the only complaint and the only outpouring we hear is from people outside, such as human rights international groups. And it’s this same group we’re talking about now that its leader is still under police detention in a condition that we’re not even sure of.
That’s why I say it’s very sad. Now, what advice do I give to government? My advice to government as a religious leader and a Christian is that in this country, there’s freedom of religion/worship. And what I understand by that is that any group can profess any religion that it wants to practise, provided they carry everything out within the ambit of the law of this country. My advice to government is that we should, first of all, respect the fundamental human and religious rights of anybody who wants to be a Shi’ite. My understanding is that the majority of Nigerians belong to the Sunni group. And for a long time, we didn’t know there are groups within Islam. The only difference we used to hear about was that of the Ahmadiyya sect which has also suffered a lot of discrimination in this country and we kept quiet. I hope luckily they are beginning to be allowed to raise their heads now. And I believe if the government wants religion to serve positive and peaceful purposes, it should protect the religious freedom and rights of every Nigerian, which is why I thoroughly disagree with the decision of the Kaduna State government to ban the group. How can you ban a religion? I’m worried because, you see; the government might decide to ban the Catholic Church in Kaduna. So I’m shouting now so that when they start banning Catholic Church, at least it will be said that when they banned the Shi’ite, I shouted. It’s not right. We have reached a stage in Nigeria when we should be able to accommodate different religions. Up till now, we have been talking of Christians/Muslims harmony. We’ve now begun to realise that we must also talk of harmony within our religions.
The raid on the houses of some judges and their eventual arrests by the Department of State Service (DSS) has been generating different reactions. Where do you stand on this matter?
Oh my God, another sad story. My answer will be a bit free and very short. First thing, it’s terrible and not good for our country for the news to go round the whole world that our judges are corrupt; that they steal money; that they take big bribes in order to pass bad judgement. And not just small judges like magistrates in the villages but Supreme Court judges. That’s bad news. Our friends abroad will be saying ‘what kind of country is that; where the judiciary is rotten?’ But there ought to be another way of handling that matter instead of the way it was handled. Maybe this is not a matter of looking for medicine after death, because the damage had been done.
After that, the rumour is all over the country that there are judges who are collecting big bribes for passing tainted kinds of judgement. And rumours of this kind are not good. Therefore, if I were a Supreme Court justice, I would insist that all these allegations be thoroughly investigated and transparently investigated and not what the National Judicial Council (NJC) has been doing in closed door discussions. Make it public and expose those judges who are corrupt and hold them accountable. I said if I were a just judge, I would demand that so the rest of us could go about our businesses in peace. If that’s not done and this cloud, not even a cloud, this stench of corruption is allowed to be floating around our courts, and I have a case in court and I see a judge there, I will begin to ask myself, ‘is that not one of them?’ Whatever judgement he passes, if I don’t like it, I will say ‘I know, he collected money now.’ I hope we know that this is serious. It’s going right to the root our justice system. The whole question about whether DSS did the right thing or not, I think we can handle that later. My advice is that let this thing be thoroughly investigated; the reason being that there are rumours which seem to suggest that something is actually happening. Not only are there rumours but we’ve heard of cases of certain judges that have been expelled recently.
Different suggestions have been advanced on how Nigeria can get out of recession. Do you have any suggestion too?
We have to admit that there are certain things, causes of this recession, that are outside our control and which will not change even if you bring the most brilliant economic gurus. A good economic team is not going to bring up the price of oil from 40 to 120 dollars. That’s a reality we have on ground; I’ve often said that if Jonathan had won the election, he would have had to face this problem of balancing a budget on income that has considerably reduced.
The issue now is that with reduced income, government needs to take measures that will balance the budget and at same time cause as less pain for ordinary people as possible. Included in this also is that government should also look at all the areas where cost can be cut. The stories we are hearing, for instance, about the salary of ministers, members of National Assembly and extended down to Houses of Assembly and even local government councillors, not to talk of governors, are outrageous. The story we are hearing is that all these categories of people are completely immune to what we are calling recession. And so no matter what kind of economic team you put together, if those people in charge don’t feel the pain of recession, they can’t understand what we are talking about. They’ll be dealing with figures and coming out with rather theoretical solutions to the problem. They may even succeed in churning out figures showing that the economy is recovering, whereas people are suffering. So, I think that Buhari government should push this change thing much further than it is doing now. It’s not enough to have a change of offices in government. We need a change of government and governance; a change in the way government is run. And I think our president and all his teams should know that the majority of Nigerians are complaining that those who should be looking after their interests are immune to the consequences of recession and are overpaid. Some people are overpaid twice over. I hear governors who are senators are still collecting their pensions. They collect pensions for being former governors and they are collecting huge salary and allowances as senators and nobody sees anything wrong in that. And of course, when it comes to that, there’s no APC or PDP. And you begin to ask, who is going to fight for us? They are supposed to represent us. Until we get a government that can face this head on, the talk of change is only cosmetic. Even if you reduce their salaries by half, they are not going to be hungry. And I am sure most of you’ll be happy with half of their salaries.