Sunday, 28th May 2023

Drawing back from the brink of chaos

By John Cardinal Onaiyekan
02 March 2020   |   2:58 am
It was in Berlin, Germany, in April 2004, that I gave a presentation at a consultation very similar to this one on Nigeria, organized by the Catholic Church and the Government in Germany

It was in Berlin, Germany, in April 2004, that I gave a presentation at a consultation very similar to this one on Nigeria, organized by the Catholic Church and the Government in Germany. My presentation was with the suggestive title: “Dancing on the Brink of Chaos”.

Some years later, a pungent book was published in Nigeria by the former Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Prof. John Campbell, with a similar title. As I left home for this conference, my mind kept coming back to this ominous title. In recent times, many people in our country have been expressing grave concerns in one way or the other that the nation is not just dancing, but may actually be dangling perilously on the brink of chaos.

Those who have lost faith in the survival of the nation are fatalistically waiting for the worst to happen. The media, social and mass, are agog with postings in this direction. Those of us who still believe that Nigeria is a viable project is passionately pleading that we need to join hands to draw the nation back from chaos. I believe that it is this stubborn faith that has brought me, and many of my compatriots to this conference in Wilton Park. We have been reflecting and talking among ourselves at home, and I am sure that we shall continue after we return. But the opportunity to meet out here in this English countryside, far away from the heat of events at home, in the company of others who we believe are friends of our nation, gives us great encouragement, for which we are truly grateful. Fostering social cohesion in Nigeria is an urgent task that we must work seriously on before things deteriorate further. A special responsibility lies on those who have sought and taken up political power to manage the affairs of our nation. It is their primary duty to bring the country together as a nation united in justice, peace and harmony “under God”, as our constitution proclaims. We can only hope that they sincerely share the fears and anxieties of the Nigerian people in these turbulent times. This is certainly not the time for stoking the embers of ethnic, political and religious polarizations. There is a need to bring people together to work with a common heart and mind to restore peace and harmony in our land. Those who believe in and desire a successful Nigeria must come out to be counted, across our lines of diversities, We have every right to be angry and complain about things not going on well. And those who are in authority must allow those who are hurting to cry and tell their story. But we must go beyond crying and complaining. All hands must be on deck. Nation-building is both the duty and the right of every citizen.

Beyond these words of pious exhortation, I don’t know what else I can say to this audience that you do not know already. However, by way of contributing to our discussion, permit me to raise a few issues that are presently causing grave concerns at home. I will also venture some suggestions on the way forward.
I will highlight some major challenges as follows:

1. Political. It is clear that there are many unresolved issues around our national identity and unity. Some people are saying that the country of Nigeria is a mistake that needs to be dismantled. Others raise issues about the kind of federation we are practicing. There is an endless debate about “restructuring”, even though there is as yet no clear common definition of the term. There are calls for a renegotiation of the terms and conditions for our national unity, giving greater autonomy to the federating units. All these are expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo. On the other hand there are those who are insisting that our unity is non-negotiable. Is their love for “one Nigeria” an ideological standpoint or merely the selfish attitude of those who are gaining beyond measure from the situation on ground? I tend to agree with those who maintain that we, as Nigerians, have never had the opportunity to decide what kind of nation we want in a democratic and free debate. This is reflected in the inadequacy of our constitution, riddled with lacunae, contradictions, and ambiguities.

Ethnic Issues: There are growing problems with our ethnic identities in a modern state environment. There are unfinished tribal wars around the concept of ancestral lands, indigenes and settlers. How do we handle the historical legacy of “the right of conquest” claimed by some, and the agitation for freedom and equality, demanded by others? Can we resolve the clash between emirates and chiefdoms, especially in some Middle Belt areas? The claims of ethnic nationalities cannot be subsumed under a few lingua francas, like Hausa in the North and Middle Belt. The revolution of the great Usman dan Fodio surely means different things to different people, even today. Religion continues to be seen as problematic.

The long rivalry between Islam and Christianity for conversions and territorial dominance has reached a critical stage. The freedom and duty to propagate one’s faith must now be balanced by mutual recognition of the same right and duty for those in the other camp. Otherwise clash and conflict become inevitable. Both sides need to temper their tendency towards superiority complex and universalistic pretensions. Many still find it difficult to acknowledge the fact of the plurality of religions under one God. The right to be different in this area has to be accepted and respected, not simply tolerated. This requires a radical change of attitude that many are not yet ready to undertake.

In particular, the place of religion in public life continues to be a bone of contention. There are still in some quarters remnants of a theocratic mentality that can hardly be compatible with democratic principles of just autonomy of religion and politics. The debate about the secularity of the Nigerian state has led to unnecessary confusion between our two faiths.

There is a wide but erroneous perception that suggests that while Muslims do not separate religion and politics, Christians insist on the contrary. But let it be made clear that it would be most unchristian for a Christian to run his political life without – and worse still against God. That the will of God should guide all our human actions, including politics and public life is a value shared by both faiths. If we could agree to work on this together, we would save ourselves a lot of unnecessary conflicts and misunderstandings. It is in this direction that we should seek a just solution to the still lingering crisis over the position of the Islamic Shariah in our legal system. When politicians use, abuse and misuse religion for their selfish interests, they bring out the worst aspects of religion. And when religious leaders collude with politicians in this regard, both religion and politics eventually suffer.

The role of government is to be a fair umpire and a just organizer of public interests, including religious interests. Persecution of Christians: A matter of great interest and concern has to do with the frequent complain by some Christians that they are under persecution in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. The case has been made with copious statistics and evidence that many Christians sincerely see themselves as being under various kinds of disadvantage and neglect because of their Christian faith. The death of many Christian victims of the ongoing violence and insecurity has been attributed to hatred of their faith. The fact is that the perpetrators have often made this point clear in their declarations. (Eg. The outbursts of Boko Haram commanders).

We hear the same from the evidence of many survivors. When gunmen enter a Catholic seminary at night and drag out four innocent young men studying for the Catholic priesthood, keeping them in captivity for weeks and ending up leaving one 18-year-old boy dead with wounds of torture and gunshots, there is a clear case of martyrdom and persecution.
To be continued tomorrow.

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