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‘The build-up to 2023 election doesn’t give cause to be optimistic that things will go well’

By Obire Onakemu
06 August 2022   |   4:18 am
The build-up to the 2023 general election is chaotic; it doesn’t give us cause to be optimistic that things will go well. We will be lucky if only we can have reasonable, peaceful election.

John Cardinal Onaiyekan

Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, in this interview with OBIRE ONAKEMU, is of the opinion that if Nigerians genuinely want things to change in the country, we must change the way we do things.

So far, how do you see the build-up to the 2023 elections?
The build-up to the 2023 general election is chaotic; it doesn’t give us cause to be optimistic that things will go well. We will be lucky if only we can have reasonable, peaceful election. But I am not sure that the election will be free and fair in the sense that Nigerians will be able to choose the kind of leader that they want. This is the problem with what we now call party democracy. We are as it were hostage to political parties, especially the two major parties, which have practically taken over control of political power in Nigeria to the extent that whatever they want, we are bound to choose either one or the other.

My hope is that before February 2023, something new might show up in Nigeria that we may have a better range of choices; I have not seen that coming yet, but it’s still not too late and if we have other choices, then the question of free and fair election will makesense.

But in the case of recently held Ekiti and Osun states elections, don’t you think these elections were free and fair?
Well, I may never know; it depends on what you mean by free and fair. We have heard all kind of stories about vote buying, vote inducement in different ways. And politicians are very skillful at avoiding and going round the routes. What we can only say is that the Ekiti election came and went without serious stories of violence, killing and fighting. That already is a great feat and we must congratulate Ekiti people for realising that it doesn’t make sense to kill one another for the sake of a few power-hungry people.

The whole idea, for me, is not just for Ekiti election, but the whole idea of politics in Nigeria. What is the purpose of political leadership? Is political leadership meant for making some people powerful and therefore rich? Or can we arrive at the concept of political leadership to mean people who offer themselves to serve the public and work for the common good, even at their own expense? Is it too much to expect that the best people would emerge as our leaders? Or must we have to simply accept whatever the powerbrokers present to us to vote for? Is there a kind of dilemma or ambiguity? You give me two people and you say I must vote for one or the other and that I should vote freely and fairly. But suppose I don’t want any of the two, where is the fairness? Where is the freedom?

Before we can talk of free and fair election, there must be free and fair process for the emergence of candidates. I’m not the only one that is complaining; even party members have been complaining that political parties themselves are not operating a free and fair democratic process and what comes out of that process that is not democratic, cannot be democratic. At the end of the day, we vote for the motion of election. I think people should realise that if a vast majority of Nigerians are not participating in elections, it is because they have no interest and no confidence in the process.

I hope you know that this free and fair election of Ekiti is such that then umber of people who went to vote is just about 30 per cent of those who were expected to vote, where are the other 70 per cent? I imagine that it is this voter apathy that we must tackle. And if we can tackle and find out why people are not voting, then, may be we would be able to find a way to be able to pullout the 70 per cent who don’t vote.

If we can find someone or some processes that can generate their interests, may be that will give us a way out. We shouldn’t begin to think that we have now devised away of running elections in Nigeria and we must continue with that way. The only difference is that today, it is you; tomorrow, it is my turn. Then, we continue to take turns with bad governments.

Do you think money, not ideology, will drive the 2023 election?
We are seeing it now and they keep telling us that you have no business going into politics in Nigeria if you have no money. The politicians themselves have told us that the name of the game is money; that if you don’t have money, you have no business joining in this game of Nigeria’s democratic politics. That is what they are telling us.

Therefore, they are not looking for the best to run the nation, who have best interests to run the country for the common good. They are only looking for who will win an election for the party and how the party can continue to rule the nation and continue to share the dividends. A nation that is ruled like that cannot be great. The rule now is that if you have no money, you have no business with politics. That politics is what is taking us to where we are now. And if we continue with that, we cannot expect anything different to emerge.

So, we need to be able to convince ourselves that it is possible for a good person who doesn’t have money, but who have good ideas to hold position, not just of power but position of services for the nation.

Looking at what is happening at the local government level, are we also abandoning that area for those who can pay and buy up all the councilors? At least, at that level, people who are not too rich may be able to make an impact.
And finally, will Nigeria ever liberate itself from the stronghold of political parties and allow Nigerians to go into political race without being members of political parties? Can we make room for independent candidates for the level of president, but at least for the level of local governments and state governments? These are questions that we should be asking ourselves. Unfortunately, we are going around with electoral law, which we think nobody can change and we tie ourselves to it. When we tie ourselves to that electoral law, it means we are going to have the same thing and we cannot have any thing different. But we can only have a bit of variation between one party and another. If we want things to change in Nigeria, then the way we do things must change; the political process must change.

What do you think should be the basic component for a sustainable governance structure of a country like ours?
The leadership should understand that they are there to serve the common good for the country, irrespective of hatred, religious intolerance and whatever. They should also ensure that the best people are given the chance to do the job. Among the component too, if you don’t perform well, step outside and let others do the job. The issue of corruption is simple and clear. Then, the rule –honesty! Take only what you deserve; don’t take more than your shares.

All the issues we are talking about will not be resolved if we don’t follow the principle of the service of the common good– Honesty and Justice. If that is done, even security issues will not be difficult to resolve.

Do you agree with the call for a total overhaul of the current structure of governance in the country?
Well, what I concur with is that we should revisit the presidential system; it is not the only democratic system in the world. We should revisit what we had at independent; that is parliamentary system of government in which the power of the president will no longer be as it is now. And where politicians, including ministers, are responsible to their constituents. There is need to revisit it and look at it carefully.

Secondly, right now, we are having crisis within the judiciary. We have continued to pretend that we have a good judicial and legal system in Nigeria. We have to look at our legal system; we cannot make real progress if we continue with our legal system the way it is now. We cannot continue with a system of one nation–two courts. We must boldly and courageously visit the issues of what we called Common Law and Sharia Law.

We are only deceiving ourselves thinking that it is the way forward towards the 22nd Century. We cannot deceive ourselves with rules and principles that are looking backward to 6th Century again. These are issues that must be raised; there is every need to put our foot in the right direction.

With the huge foreign loans commitment by the Federal Government, do you see the possibility of implementing this year’s budget to a reasonable extent?
I may never know. We don’t have in details the accounts of the country. And the man who is supposed to give back the details of accounts of the country is now under arrest for stealing billions. Don’t you see where trouble lie? The question is, for what purposes are our loans being taken? What provisions do we have for repayment of the loans? Every loan must be paid, who is going to pay the loans? And the loans we are taking, how is it being paid? This is putting Nigeria into trouble.

The loans are taken, but not for the right reasons. And those who have stolen millions from the loans taken are not the ones who are going to pay back; it is Nigerians who will be told to pay back. Is this fair? Is this just? Nobody would complain if the loans are used judiciously and if provisions are made for it to be repaid. If the loans are taken for a right reason and calculated how it would be paid back, that is the work of a good government. But as we seen now, Nigerians are not too sure; we are in the dark.

Sometimes, we don’t even know how much we have borrowed. We are not told the terms of our loans, sometimes, they are very opaque. You take loans from the Chinese and they gave you their terms of contract in their Chinese language, which you cannot even read; we sign everything. If it is so, then, it is a pity!

What’s your take on the incessant kidnap and attack on the Catholic Church, priests and members across the country?
From the events of that Pentecost Sunday in Owo and attack of Catholic priests in Kaduna, Sokoto and Edo states, we are tempted to begin to fear. Is it that some people are targeting the Catholic Church? I’m reluctant to arrive at that conclusion. It may not be so; it may just be a matter of wicked people who looked for any church to attack and it happened to be the Catholic Church. Well, we shall wait and see if these attacks continue along this line.

The matter is not that the Catholic Church is attacked; the matter is that innocent people going about their legitimate business or sitting down in a place to pray are being killed. That is the issue. That Catholics are killed make me worry; that Nigerians are being killed is even more serious; our government at the states and federal should not find that funny. It’s not enough for Governor Akeredolu to be weeping in the church. A governor should not be weeping; he should be out there doing something. He should carry the Federal Government along if the federal government does not allow him to secure his own people.

We want to see action. We are tired of condolence messages; we are tired of donation for people who have died. We want to see action, change of direction and we should not give room for people to stay in the bush to come out to kill others.

Is Nigeria worth re-planning?
If Nigeria is not worth re-planning, then what is the purpose of all that we have been saying? We are unhappy! The way things are going, we are not moving in the right direction. The people who are ruling us are not following the wishes of the people. The security of life and property is not being properly looked after. The fact that we love our country is why we are complaining, otherwise, we would join the group of those who are asking for the nation to be dismembered; I don’t belong to that group.

In what ways can we make progress as a nation, foster harmony and grow our economy growth?
As you know, theoretically, there are many beautiful rules and regulations in our books about how to run this nation, though our constitution itself is a problem in many areas. But by and large, it is not as if our constitution as it is now is not workable; it is workable if we are serious. What is more important is the mind of our people, especially those who are managing our affairs. How much honesty and concern for the nation is there? It is not only rules but also the proper implementation of the rules.

When we have a situation when those who are suppose to observe the rules are the ones who are breaking it, what do you expect to happen? What do you expect when those who are supposed to keep our money save are the ones who are stealing it? Then, what do you expect? The rules don’t make sense, because they are not being observed. And it is not that we don’t know how to rule a good country, it is not that we don’t have people who can fix up the rules very well; they are there. But they have not been put in a position to do the right thing for us. The average Nigerians we meet everyday are all suffering. Let all of us change for good. We have people who can make this nation a great one; who can turns things around for good of all. The rest of the world is looking at us and we are a shamed of what we are telling them.

Do you agree with the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that Nigeria’s economy is fast digitalising?
I am afraid that I can neither concur nor disagree on what he meant by ‘digitalising.’ So, I have no comment to make. I imagine he knows what he is talking about; may be an area he has been very busy working on. For me, the question is not digitalising or not digitalising; the question should be, is our economy improving and making progress, in that we can see from the standard of living of the people and from the quality of life of our nation. That is where an ordinary person will judge how our economy is growing. Who cares whether it is digitalise or not digitalise, I people cannot live decent life; they cannot eat and their children cannot go to school?

What are the qualities you expect from the next president of this country and what should be his priorities?
The next president of this country should be somebody who sincerely go there to serve Nigeria with a clean heart; one who should not think that certain parts of Nigeria deserve more attention than others; who should insist that everybody around him must play according to the rules; one who will not fold his hands and allow people around him to be stealing. We need a president who would ensure that the rules that are made are obeyed and that the himself should be the first to give an example about how to be a ruler and leader to the nation.

In that case, that means it doesn’t matter whether he is a Yorubaman,Tiv man, Idoma man, Fulani man, Hausa man, Urhobo man or an Igbo man. There are such credible men all over Nigeria, but we are only praying that God should allow somebody like that to emerge. But for the rules on the ground, it seems it is very difficult for such a person to emerge. And even when they emerged, issues that make them difficult to perform properly surround them.

So, this is the kind of person we are looking for. He must be ready to move against the current; he must be prepared to take many unpalatable decisions, which will upset some entrenched interests and might even be ready to die for Nigeria. If he is not ready for that, then, he has no business going into Aso Villa.

All hope is not lost; I still believe in this nation. I have no hope in the present political democratic system in the way it is being practiced now, but I also believe that it is possible to do it differently. I am hoping that it is not too late. One year is not a short period and the months ahead are crucial and things may happen.

Let all those who have not been voting before come out; let them look fors omebody they think is good that they can vote for. Let them forget political parties. May be, if we have some good people coming up that person may be able to draw attention of 60 per cent of Nigerian voters who have not been voting. In away, win the so called mega parties who have boasting because 30 per cent of Nigerians have share their votes among them. As a man of religion, I always believe in the future and optimistic, because God is good and our God is with us.

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