Cardinal John Onaiyekan has made an adamant appeal for peaceful solutions in Niger, and against solutions that bring death and war.
In an interview with Vatican News, the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja expressed this, as he offered an update on the current situation in Nigeria, especially for Christians, and reflected on West Africa at large.
Reuters has reported that the African Union (AU) has suspended Niger from all its activities following last month’s military coup there and told its members to avoid any action that might legitimise the junta. The coup, the agency maintains, has caused alarm among Western allies and democratic African States who fear it could allow Islamist groups active in the Sahel region to expand their reach and give Russia a foothold to increase its influence. While the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has been trying to negotiate with the junta, it says that, if diplomatic efforts fail, it is prepared to send troops into Niger to restore constitutional order.
The African Cardinal offers Vatican News an examination of the migration phenomenon in his country, in a particular way, he draws attention to all those displaced within the country. He addresses what ought to be done for them, and for those who feel a better future lies outside the borders, but find themselves disappointed by the often grim reality. He also mourned all those who die along the journey, after chasing a false narrative.
Frequently, Nigerians, including clergy, are abducted and killed. “The increase in kidnappings, murders and general violence against civilians, including members of the Catholic clergy in many parts of Nigeria, is a scourge that is yet to be properly addressed by the local authorities,” ACN reported. While the Cardinal draws attention to Christian suffering, he says, all, including Muslims too, have their own issues caused especially by bad governance, and warned against Christian politicians, who, he warned, are “only Christian in name.”
Cardinal Onaiyekan, do you have an appeal for peace, given the events occuring in West Africa, and in a special way, given the situation in Niger?
Well, it’s on record now that a lot of people within our West African region have pleaded that the ECOWAS Organization should give up the idea of force on the regime in Niger, and rather to pursue another, non-violent means to resolve the crisis in the best way possible. The groups that have made these kind of statements publicly include the Bishops Conference of Nigeria speaking through our bishops, our conference President, Archbishop Lucius Ugorji of Warri, and also the Bishops Conference of West Africa. The West African Bishops Conference have also come out with a powerful statement. From the point of view of the Catholic Church, our position is clear no war, no killing. It is not a solution to the problem of military coups, and that is certainly my own strong position, too.
From the point of view of the Catholic Church, our position is clear no war, no killing. It is not a solution to the problem of military coups, and that is certainly my own strong position, too.
In the news recently was the fact that numerous Nigerians, mostly women and children, were deported from Libya. Could you shed some more light, in general, about the situation for Nigerian migrants?
There is a constant flow of people leaving our country, Nigeria, through the desert, heading for Europe. Women and children, but mainly young men and young ladies. We hear every day about shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and the difficult situations of migrants. We try our best to discourage our people from undertaking these dangerous journeys, but unfortunately, we don’t succeed. They are always especially young people, young men who feel that their situation in our country is unacceptable, intolerable. Somehow they believe, naively, that they will make it to Europe, where, according to them, everything will work well. Our efforts to tell them that this is not true, are not yielding much fruit.
This has led to the death of thousands, not hundreds, thousands of people. These are human beings. There is need for more serious efforts on the part of everybody concerned, including Europe and the European government, to put an end to this regular, tragedy of loss of human lives.
“This has led to the death of thousands, not hundreds, thousands of people. These are human beings. There is need for more serious efforts on the part of everybody concerned, including Europe and the European government, to put an end to this regular, tragedy of loss of human lives.”
I am of the opinion and I have expressed it several times in the past that people undergo dangerous trips through the desert and in rickety boats because they are unable to get regular legal visas to go to Europe or America or elsewhere. If there were a way to give them visas, they would have been traveling in a very normal way without the kind of terrible situation we have on our hands.
Actually, more people are refugees within our countries, than those who are going to Europe. Many people have been displaced from their homes and are living as internally displaced persons within our borders. These people require attention, but perhaps they are not getting so much attention since there is no international aspect to their tragedy. This phenomenon has at its core the same issue, people displaced from their homes, living in precarious and deadly situations.
What should be done to help the displaced people within the borders of the country?
I’m sorry to say that it just happens to be a matter of bad government. When the government is not doing its work well, when most of the displacement are caused by either internal and external violent fights, little wars, or sometimes by the activities of terrorists that are killing people and making their homes unsafe, this happens because the government who should ensure the security of lives and property, is not carrying out their work well. Laws are never kept and there is much impunity. Those who should be making sure that the people are safe are busy making themselves profitable. That is the basic problem.
Those who should be making sure that the people are safe are busy making themselves profitable. That is the basic problem.
In Nigeria, most of our internally displaced people are farmers and villagers whose villages and farms have been rendered unsafe by armed wielding terrorists, herdsmen, and all kinds of bandits. Why are those people able to continue to do this? Why are the police and the armed forces unable to restore a minimum of safety and security? The answer is difficult to find, except to say that we don’t have a government that knows that can do that can carry out the duties which they ought to be able to carry out. It is very sad to see this.
Cardinal, before you discussed those who have left home to come to Europe, and later face great disappointment, some losing their lives. What argument is there for them to stay in Nigeria? What should be keeping them? If you had to convince a young person who’s about to depart, to stay, what would you say? What should be done, or what is being done to help them in their own country?
Well, I have had various interactions with young people here in Nigeria on this matter. I have to agree with them that the things in my country are not going on well. There is no job for the youth to be able to make a living. They are unable to maintain themselves, never mind taking care of their aged parents or setting up a family. The young people look in the future and they do not see any bright spots from the country of Nigeria, and say, we can’t continue in this country anymore. We will go anywhere else, and according to them, it will be better.
Anywhere else we go, you find a young man who has a degree, a master’s degree in engineering or in history. He says, I don’t mind going to Europe to be a barman, to pick potatoes provided I’m out of this country. They go abroad not even to make use of their knowledge and talents, but to do any kind of menial job whereby they can, according to them, earn some money in foreign currency and they just believe that this will be the beginning of a better life for them.
They don’t agree when I tell them that life can be as bad abroad for an illegal immigrant as it is for them here at home. They don’t believe you. They say if they can make it, they will make it. They are annoyed with me that I’m not helping to give them some money to be able to pay the agents who will carry them across. They say I’m not caring about them.
They don’t agree when I tell them that life can be as bad abroad for an illegal immigrant as it is for them here at home. They don’t believe you.
We can only hope and pray that things will change so that young people ready to work can remain in this country, find good jobs, make good money, and prove themselves. Unfortunately, now that is not happening. Only the children of the very rich, who are also largely the children of those in power, can expect a very good job in the government or elsewhere. For the poor, people are left on their own and the future is very bleak.
Your Eminence, you have been a vocal advocate for increased security, more protection for the Christians. What is the current situation? Has it improved for Christians, or not? Does something still need to be done?
I often hear a lot said about how much Christians are being persecuted in Nigeria, how much Christians are suffering there. To some extent it is true, there are many parts of Nigeria where to be a Christian is a liability, and if you are a Muslim, you stand a better chance of having a better life, but the fact is that the whole nation is in a bad shape and Christians and Muslims are suffering in the situation that I described before.
It is not as if Muslims in Nigeria are having a wonderful life. They are doing very well. Their children are getting good jobs while Christians are left on the margins. No, it is not true. There are Christians, also in the corridors of power and who are among our nation’s rulers. Unfortunately, most of them are Christians only in name in name. In my own opinion, I do not think we need to exaggerate the item, the issue of Christians suffering because other people are also suffering.
We ought to rather emphasize the fact that everybody should do what they can, to make our nation a better place, and Christian leaders, rulers, politicians, have a double mandate and a double responsibility to improve the situation of life in our nation.
Many of the situations where you have conflicts between Christians and Muslims are due to bad government, just as for the same reasons we have clashes between different tribes, ethnic clashes. You have ethnic clashes because of failure of government. Where you have Christians and Muslims clashing, it is precisely for the same reason. I’m not denying that there are many Christians who have a difficult time in Nigeria, but suffering extends beyond Christians. If it comes to direct persecution against the Christian faith, there may be occasions and cases, but they are not so many, and it is certainly not an official policy of the government to persecute Christians like we have in some other countries.
Is there is anything else you would like to add?
Whatever we say about bad governance in Africa, we must also challenge the powers and the governments in Europe, America, the so-called international community who are dealing with our governments in these countries and who see what is happening. They see the wrong things that are happening and they continue to do business with them as if nothing is wrong. They allow bad behaviors to take place in our country, which they will not allow or which would not be allowed to happen in the countries from which they are coming.
I’m talking now of financial institutions, companies, the trading companies, who are doing business in our nation. You take a typical example, the oil sector. We know that Nigeria has quite a sizable amount of petroleum. International companies are exploiting oil in our nation in the most irresponsible way.
International companies are exploiting oil in our nation in the most irresponsible way.
Turning all those oil rich nations into absolute chaos where there is a lot of degradation of the lands and the forests, villages, all over, because they want to take away the oil as cheaply as possible without taking any precautions the way they will do when they are taking oil from the North Sea or from the Bay of Mexico. There, they will not do such things. But when it comes to the Niger Delta, they will do all kinds of very, very wicked ways of exploiting oil.
In this matter, while we, as Nigerians, blame our own Nigerian leaders, we also expect that people abroad will come to order their own institutions, and challenge those enabling the miserable situation in our countries to continue. They may be gaining from it, but they will gain much better if they made our country, a better country. The gains for Europe and America will be better, if they let us rule ourselves well.