This is a two in one interview.
Luka Binniyat met the President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, in Abuja. Sam Eyoboka ran into the CAN leader in Lagos.
Both encounters produced this interview in which Oritsejafor bared his concerns on what he described as the treatment of Christians as second class citizens in their own country. He also spoke on Boko Haram, amnesty for the Islamists, their victims, and gay marriage. Excerpts:
You are now in your second term as the President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). What were the challenges you faced during your first tenure and what is your agenda for the second?
One major challenge was to try to reposition the Church in Nigeria to make sure that it is at par with other religions in this country. This is because what I saw was a situation where Christians were like second class citizens in a country where probably more than half of its citizens are Christians, yet Christian were like second class citizens.
So it was a big challenge and it is a challenge that we must continue to tackle. It is also a major goal that I intend to work on, to ensure that Christians are treated as true citizens of this country.
Because of my efforts to address this challenge, I am probably one of the most misunderstood persons in Nigeria today. I faced it for three years and I am hoping that in the next three years, probably many people will begin to understand me in this respect, especially when they gradually begin to discover the reality of the things that are happening in this country.
For example, the most recent one is when the Chairman of the so called Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North came out to say that they had met and struck a deal with the Boko Haram Islamic sect and I said ‘which Boko Haram?’ We have had experiences in the past where Boko Haram will come out to say they will stop the killings and the next day people were killed! When I heard what the Chairman of the committee said, I said, ‘Let us wait and see because Shekau (the leader of Boko Haram) is going to come out to tell us what the real thing is, whether they had a deal or not’. It didn’t take time; Shekau came out and contradicted everything the Chairman of the committee said.
He said they are working in the vineyard of Allah and that they will continue (with their attacks) until they establish Islamic state in Nigeria.
My believe is that with time, they will begin to see that I have no hatred for any group of people in Nigeria. Anything I say is not coming out of hatred, it is coming out of love and love does not hate truth. Love is a foundation for truth. The Bible says “tell the truth in love”. So I believe that within a short time, a lot of those who really thought I hated some people would begin to see that I have no hatred for anybody. I will love to work with Muslims, live together and do things together but that should not negate truth.
There are few things we are doing in CAN. We are building a Jubilee Centre that will have 50 bedrooms where people can come and pay a little money to be able to spend the night while in Abuja. At the same time, it will make some money for CAN because the association needs money to run its affairs. The Centre has a conference hall and different kinds of facilities. We believe God that, this year, we would be able to dedicate the Centre. We will continue to strengthen Christian unity among us because, as Christians, that will not stop until Jesus returns.
You spoke about Christians being treated as second class citizens in Nigeria. In what ways are Christians treated as second class citizens?
Actually, in my opinion, Christians are being treated as second class citizens in virtually every way! Let me give you some examples because if I begin to tell you everything, you will not even have space to publish it. In the education sector, Almajiri schools are being built everywhere in many states of the North. I don’t know how many of such schools, but everybody knows that in 2012, the Federal Government spent N5 billion to construct Almajiri schools.
The Almajiri schools are exclusively for Muslim children. There are millions of Christian children who cannot go to those schools. How are we giving those Christian children the same opportunity to be educated? So automatically they have been made second class citizens.
Don’t forget that the schools which Christians used their money to build were taken over by government and the same government is using public funds to build special schools for Almajiri Muslims. That shows that Christians are just second class citizens.
Government is running all those schools taken from Christians the way they want. Both Christians and Muslim go to those schools but the Almajiri schools are exclusively for Muslim children only.
When you go to the judiciary, it is the same story.
I read what a lawyer, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, said in the newspapers recently. He noted that the constitution is being reviewed and there are provisions for Sharia for Nigerian Muslims, there is customary court, what is the provision for Christians? The general courts are shared by both Christians and Muslims. When Christians have very knotty issues that are purely Christian in nature, where will they go to? The regular courts may not have clear solution to such cases. So Agbakoba has come out to say he may sue the Federal Government and the National Assembly. This, to me, is a very interesting move. I just hope that our Muslim brothers will appreciate what I am trying to explain. In the Sharia courts which are funded with public funds, only Muslims are employed there.
From the cleaner to the judge, no Christian can be employed in the Sharia court. In the regular courts, there are both Muslims and Christians as well. From the lowest level of the court, to the highest level, they are there. They are the ones that head the Supreme Court and most of the courts with the Sharia court exclusively for them. What is the judicial system for Christians? It is not there, so they are second class.
Nigeria Television Authority
Go to the government owned media houses and see what is happening there, especially the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA). I don’t know now because some of them retired at a point, but, before their retirement, the seven directors out of eight were Muslims. Turn that around and see what will happen. What do you call that? Second class citizens.
A judge in Abuja came out to say Islamic banking is illegal, but he added a caveat by saying that his hands were tight, he could not do anything about it because it was not the right people that came to court. I am still wondering who the right people to come to court are! But the important thing he said was that Islamic banking is illegal.
It is illegal but it is functioning at its peak, established and financed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), not Central Bank of Islam. The Governor of the CBN almost seems to be working for a section of the country and nobody can say anything about it. Yet it is something that is supposed to be illegal.
What the CBN ought to have done was to have one unified system for non-interest banking, but, instead of doing that, what it did is to specifically come out with a set of guidelines for Islamic banking, saying they had another set of guidelines for others. And who are these others? They are the Christians. It is amazing when you see these things happening. Every area you look at, it is the same story.
Admission into tertiary schools
Go to higher institutions of higher, especially in the North, there are courses that Christians will never be offered admission to study, that is if you even get admission at all because you are a Christian and that automatically makes you a second class person.
Ban on teaching of CRK and preaching on NTA
In some northern states, the teaching of Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) in public schools is prohibited. Why do you allow for the teaching of Islamic studies, but you cannot allow the teaching of CRK? I am puzzled. Let me even go further, if I go to NTA Sokoto today and say here is my money, I want to preach on NTA that is funded with tax payers’ money, they will throw my money away and say you cannot preach Christianity on NTA Sokoto.
We know that in some of the northern states, there is an unwritten law that you cannot sell land or building to be used for church or a brothel. So the church and brothel are put on the same level! How do you describe that? In the last 20 years, there is no church in some of these northern states that has Certificate of Occupancy (C of O).
This is one Nigeria, but it is like animal farm. Some animals are more equals than others. That is what we are seeing in this wonderful country called Nigeria.
Abduction and forceful conversion of Christian girls
They can abduct your daughter and forcefully marry her. They literally kidnapped people’s daughters who are Christians and give them out for marriage but they will never allow their daughters to marry Christians. Imagine a pastor going to abduct an Imam’s daughter; do you think we will still have one Nigeria?
In some of the northern states, the government spends millions of naira to sponsor Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca without extending same gesture to Christians who are even indigenes of those states.
We are aware that in some of the far northern states, foreigners, who are Muslims from Niger and Chad republics, are more accommodated and are accepted into the scheme of things than Nigerians who are Christians from other states of the federation.
Qualified Christian denied ABU VC Chair
You recall how a Christian was rejected for appointment as the Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria some years back even when he emerged as the most qualified during the interview for the position.
There are so many of these injustices against Christians, we can go on and on. That is why, in my own opinion, Boko Haram is just the latest manifestation of this same process of marginalisation and oppression that had taken place through the years. It has reached a point where it appears like we accept it.
I believe that the time has come for us to say NO!, it cannot be that way. This is not because anybody has hatred for anybody. You cannot call standing up for what is right hatred. We all have equal rights as Nigerians; I have a right to ask for my right. That does not mean that I hate somebody. I am only demanding that I should be treated equally and fairly like others.
So these are some of the few things that made me see Christians literally as second class citizens in their own country.
There is agitation for amnesty for Boko Haram in some quarters. But some other people are suggesting that victims of Boko Haram should be given succor first. What is your thinking here?
It is very unfortunate because, in any situation, I almost used the word conflict, but it is not a conflict because what we have is genocide. I call it religious cleansing. That is what we are actually experiencing.
In any situation where lives are lost, number one and overwhelming interest should always be about the victims. Look at the so-called Dialogue and Reconciliation Committee that was set up! There are 28 people, five are Christians, so who is representing the people who are the victims or the people you are supposed to be reconciling? Who are you reconciling with whom? It is difficult to comprehend. I think the approach is very wrong.
You can’t even talk of amnesty; it is not something to be discussed at all! What we should be talking about are these wicked people who have made orphans out of so many children, widows out of so many women. They should be able to come out when they realise that what they are doing is wrong and publicly say ‘we are wrong and we are so sorry, forgive us’.
If they come from that point, then you are ready to talk of reconciliation, you are talking of forgiveness, then there can be genuine meeting of minds, we can discuss and say, ‘since you feel this way, we can now start to talk because Christianity is a religion of peace, love and forgiveness.
That is what the Bible taught us. In fact, that is why Nigeria is so peaceful because more than half of the people in this country are a group of people who believe in love, peace and forgiveness. If they come from that angle, then we can now start talking and, at that point, there could be a discussion of any other thing that will take place, but not where we are now.
Where we are today is that we are having a group who are killing innocent people and coming out to boast about it and saying ‘ you who want to give me amnesty, I am the one to give you amnesty’. So which amnesty are you giving them? I don’t think there is room for that discussion right now. I think government should strengthen the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) which is doing its best to curb this thing and reduce it to the barest minimum. They military should be encouraged and empowered the more to address the situation. But they must be encouraged to operate within the rules of engagement.
We can see that since the state of emergency was declared in the three states, there has been tremendous improvement in so many areas, although we know that killings are still going on. So I am more concerned about the victims of the killings and I think anybody else should be, not about these criminals, these wicked people who are going out there and killing innocent people.
Look at those school children they killed in Yobe. Shekau came out excited about it and said they will do more. What he is saying basically is that, the fact that these children who are Muslims are sent by their parents to acquire western education, it automatically made them infidels. People must always remember to connect this with Christianity because when they say they are against western education, they are against Christianity.
It is Christianity that brought western education. They are against it and they are fighting it because western education has its foundation in Christianity…. That is why they are against Muslim parents that want their children to compete in the global village that we are today….. These are serious crimes that these people have committed against God and against man.
The Senate just voted to endorse child marriage in the country. What is your take?
I think it is one of the greatest shames of the century for Nigeria not just the National Assembly because the National Assembly is a reflection of Nigeria. I feel ashamed to call myself a Nigerian. I saw something in the newspapers; if it is true, where a senator said he was prepared to give out his six-year old daughter in marriage. These are child molesters that should be put behind bars. They should not be allowed to walk on the streets of this country; but what do you do? I’m just talking because I don’t know what is the solution to this now. I think the only solution is for Nigerians to cry out. But I don’t know whether we have suffered too much that we have no voice anymore to cry out, because it’s like we are so used to wrong things that everybody just accepts it when it comes.
Children don’t know anything; they can’t fight for themselves, so we’ll fight for them. May God save us.
When you say may God save us, that is begging the issue. Is there no way out? Is there nothing the Church can do?
I think what we can do and I believe we should do is to mobilize ourselves to protest. I don’t want to go further than that until I have consulted with my people, but I don’t think this is something we should sit down and accept. Nigerians, across religious lines, should mobilize against this.
One of the ministers admitted a few days ago that the international community is putting pressure on the Nigerian government to endorse gay marriage in the country…
I can assure you it will not happen. There are many reasons it will not and cannot happen. President Goodluck Jonathan was not voted into power by Americans, or by the British people, or by any other person except Nigerians. The only people that can put that kind of pressure on him are Nigerians.
Even as the British prime minister threatened to stop aid to the nation?
They can keep their aid. Nigeria does not need it. The aid that is going to be tied to changing the structure of this country: our culture, our belief system and our religious thinking, it’s not worth it. They should keep it, we’ll survive without it. Like I said, I believe the National Assembly will jointly put it together and send it to the president for his assent. And when it gets there, we will make sure he signs it.
The political crisis in Rivers State has degenerated to the extent where members of the House of Assembly resorted to fighting. How do you feel?
Again that is another shame. It’s as if we are heaping up shame upon shame in Nigeria. Obviously, there are people fueling this for political gain. They want to watch this drama play out, but they seem to forget that sometimes this kind of thing consumes everybody. It does not end with the actors, it extends to those who are watching and cheering on. At the end of the day, who’s going to remain standing? We are not talking about President Jonathan or Governor Amaechi now; we are talking about Nigeria.
My prayer is that the principal actors will look beyond themselves and think of the overall picture of Nigeria. We don’t need this type of thing in this nation. I plead with politicians to stop for a moment, put their politics aside and look at Nigeria. What do we want for this country?
What is our idea about the tomorrow of this nation? Or we don’t want Nigeria to exist? If we don’t want, why not gather those who are Nigerians to discuss it so that we agree that we don’t want Nigeria or we agree that we want Nigeria. To me, it’s taking us to that point. These two actors are from the same region. I plead with them to forget themselves and think of the region where they come from and then think of Nigeria as a nation. Nobody is bigger than Nigeria.