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Drawing back from the brink of chaos – Part 2

By John Cardinal Onaiyekan
03 March 2020   |   3:44 am
It is true that not every injustice and violence suffered by a Christian automatically amounts to persecution.

John Cardinal Onaiyekan

Continued from yesterday
It is true that not every injustice and violence suffered by a Christian automatically amounts to persecution. We live in an environment where injustice and insecurity is having a deadly toll on all categories of Nigerians, Christians and non-Christians alike. But it is not helping matters to try to deny the obvious. The victim knows what is hurting him or her, and has every right to cry and complain. This has given the nation a bad name, which should be of grave concern to our government. The exploits of terrorists who kill, maim and rape chanting Islamic slogans in no way represent the Nigerian Muslim community. But we cannot close our eyes to the significant amount of hatred of the Christian faith manifested in many quarters. This is a dangerous attitude which both faiths must jointly work against. The same must be done if there are cases of hatred of Islam in Christian dominated communities. Security: Right now, this is the greatest challenge facing the nation. The Boko Haram insurgence in the North East, with its trail of suffering and death among many innocent people, has refused to go, despite frequent claims by government to the contrary. The Fulani Herdsmen settlements that have lived peacefully with their hosts for years all over the nation seem to have suddenly been infiltrated by murderous heavily armed terrorists, going on rampage seemingly freely. Other armed bands called “bandits” have been on a killing spree in many parts of the North and Middle Belt.

Kidnapping for ransom has become a thriving business all over the nation. Common criminals now seem to have freedom to rob and rape, kill and maim at will. While the people in authority move around with an army of security agents, the normal citizen is at the mercy of all sorts of criminal elements. The sad truth is that there is an unacceptable level of incidents, and an inexcusable level of impunity. We cannot understand that herdsmen drive farmers away from their lands only to settle on and occupy those same farms peacefully grazing while the farmers are in IDP camps begging for relief. How come kidnappers are able to collect and move around the billions of Naira of their ransom money and no one can trace them? This level of insecurity can only be found in nations that are at war. Corruption: One of the main promises of this government has been to “kill corruption in Nigeria before it kills us”, a corruption that had become endemic, a mathetetised social cancer. After more than five years, we have well intentioned anti-corruption agencies like ICPC and EFCC, but with poor performance. There are wide allegations that massive stealing is still going on with impunity, and stashed away in the usual or new tax havens, including those in so-called respectable nations! There is the “legal corruption” of overpaid public officers, legislators and political office holders, in a nation still arguing over a minimum monthly wage of 30,000 naira. No wonder many youths have lost hope for a decent future in Nigeria and are ready to migrate to anywhere, by all means.

The picture painted above may appear desolate. But we refuse to despair. Nigerians are resilient and have always worked hard to pull out of difficult situations. Even though we have articulated the inadequacies of government, we still have a government in place. This government can perform better if it pays more attention to the cries and complaints of the people. President Buhari is in his second and last term of office. He has just about three more years, but long enough, to make a more felt impact on the life of Nigerians. If he vacates office leaving Nigeria the way it is now, or even  worse, history will likely judge him very harshly. It is not too late to change course and attitude. In particular, the nation is in a crisis requiring the kind of emergency attention that should not be limited to friends and party members only. Government should find an effective way to open up to the contribution of the vast array of experts we have both at home and abroad. Nigeria is too big to be left in the hands of only those known to Mr. President. In the light of all the above, I wish to propose a few suggestions by way of the way forward, away from the brink of chaos. The several calls for a meaningful national discourse and dialogue about the present state and future direction of our nation ought to be taken seriously now. Whether or not we call it a “sovereign national conference”, it should be an open forum for free discussion of all relevant issues, with no restrictions or “no-go areas”. This should include, if need be, renegotiating the terms of our national identity. It may have to go beyond merely tinkering with the constitution, which in itself has become a major part of our problem. The efforts of the national assembly to improve this constitution are commendable. But it seems to me rather futile, since, as beneficiaries of the status quo, they have lost the credential to reform themselves. Government will need to do more to ensure a sense of belonging for every ethnic unit within the Nigerian state. The concept of federal character and quota system should be thoroughly reviewed to ensure justice and equity, no longer rewarding indolence and punishing hard work on the basis of place of origin.

We have to find ways of making religion an asset to our nation, and not a liability. We can start by seeking and celebrating the common grounds and shared values and principles of our diverse religious systems. We need to learn to accept and respect religious differences, under one law valid for all citizens. I am strongly convinced that it would be best for the nation if we gradually but surely dismantle the Sharia law as parallel legal system in Nigeria, aiming at one nation one law. This will in no way prevent Muslims from being guided by the moral norms of their faith, as they do in many places where government has no business with religious laws. In many cases, we may need to review the teaching of religious doctrine in schools and the language and content of sermons in Mosques and Churches, in such a way that stresses One God; many faiths. The review we are talking about should start from the institutes where preachers and teachers are given professional and theological formation. We need to increase our efforts at working and praying together to tackle the problems of our nation. While we are doing a lot in our respective communities, we can do better and more effectively if we work together on common concerns. For example, prayers for peace and security should at times be jointly with both faiths participating. It is a clear way to demonstrate that we worship the same God. We need a sincere change in the idea of politics. Rather than it being a search for power for selfish gain, it must become an offer of self to serve the people, for the glory of God.

Unfortunately, since politics has become a business investment in view of reaping profit like a financial dividend, it has become high-jacked by the notorious “money bags and godfathers” who assign and control the political space. For this to change, there has to be a drastic reduction in the emoluments of legislators and other political office holders. This will make the office less attractive and election race less desperate. Finally, on security, it should be clear to the authorities, as it is to the ordinary Nigerian, that the existing strategy is not working and should be re-designed. It is hard to see how keeping the same people at the helm of the security apparatus for long time can ensure the kind of change required. The needful has to be done to make sure that terrorists are checkmated, criminals rounded up, bandits dismantled, and kidnappers put out of business. We have a right to move freely on our roads, and sleep with both eyes closed on our homes. This is not asking for too much. It is the least citizens expect of their rulers. The rise and proliferation of many forms of “self help” security organizations is a loud vote of no confidence in the power that be. This cannot be the final solution that we are looking for. It is only emergency measure.

Onaiyekan, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja delivered this paper at Wilton Park Conference on “Fostering Social Cohesion in Nigeria.”