By Imanuel Jannah
President of Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama, recently paid a visit to the International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need Organisation and spoke with the media on religious freedom, Boko Haram insurgency, Corruption, Chibok Girls and other matters affecting Nigeria.
How would you describe the political situation in Nigeria before the 2015 general elections that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to Power ?
Before the elections, the pessimists were even predicting the disintegration of Nigeria. However, the elections went off peacefully and for the first time in the history of the country an incumbent president lost and accepted his defeat. Many expected change from the new government, because not everything had been good up until that point. Corruption especially has made life a hardship for the Nigerians. We needed change and this change came in the person of President Muhammadu Buhari. He has now been in office for about a year and we want to give him a chance to implement his promises to fight corruption and terrorism.
You wrote President Buhari a message advocating for Nigeria to remain a “multi-religious country” in which everyone is free to practice their beliefs. Do you think religious freedom is in danger in the country?
Before the elections, there had repeatedly been the news that this presidential candidate was a religious zealot who wanted to advance the iIslamisation of Nigeria. For this reason, the Catholic bishops invited him just before the elections were held and we asked him quite directly, “Are you a religious zealot?” He answered in the negative and told us that it would be misguided to believe that one religion would be able to dominate another in Nigeria. The people should be free to practice their religion without discrimination and without the hostility that we have experienced in the past.
Do you think there exists inequality between christians and muslims in terms of religious education and construction of worship centres in Nigeria?
Unfortunately, on the state level – and especially in the primarily Muslim North – this is in fact what happens in practice. There are signs of discrimination. For example, Muslim students have their own mosques, while the Christians have to hold their services in classrooms. There is religious instruction for Muslims, but what about for Christians? They do not have the same options. Furthermore, the government does not make it easy for the Christians in the North to build new churches and the Christians do not even have the authorisation to buy land privately. This discrimination does not help. If you refuse Christians access to a Christian education based on narrow-minded religious prejudices, then this is absolutely not helpful. It is even detrimental because this means that we create people without faith, without established morals, who can be dangerous for society. We want everyone to be strengthened in their faith and religious identity, to ensure that better citizens are raised for society.
Why do you consider Boko Haram insurgency and corruption to be equally dangerous as contained in your message to President Buhari?
Because Boko Haram insurgency and corruption are so dangerous. They undermine the unity and the entire identity of the country. When you let Boko Haram be successful, you destabilize the country. Nigeria is then no longer Nigeria, the magnificent country that it should be. Corruption goes back much further than Boko Haram and it causes the same kind of damage. It eats its way deep into the system, prevents any kind of progress, destabilizes the work of the government and promotes suffering and hardship, which in turn give rise to violence and conflicts. We believe that President Buhari is tackling these fundamental problems.
Do you think that the president is on track to defeat Boko Haram?
Absolutely! We have long been praying for the embattled Nigeria. We also composed a prayer against corruption. We have prayed it for years and I believe that God has heard our prayers. Something is being done against corruption, Boko Haram is being combated. Our prayers have been answered.
When one talks about Boko Haram, the girls kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014 comes to mind. What do you think about the current situation of the girls, a few of which were report to have escaped?
This is a sad story that makes the heart of every Nigerian bleed concerning the innocent schoolgirls that were kidnapped. They were taken away from their families. We are praying that it all turns out well. The government has also tried to free these girls. But little progress had been made until recently, when one of the girls was saved. She has a baby and both were returned to her family. Shortly thereafter, the president received her as well. You could see that the president was very happy that she was back. We are now even more optimistic than before that more girls will be able to return with God’s help.
The media reported that the few liberated girls are not received with open arms, but treated with suspicion because they sometimes come home with the baby of a terrorist. Is this really a problem or has this been exaggerated by the media?
Stigmatisation is a problem, especially in the villages, where the people do not have such high levels of education. They think, “These girls have surely been indoctrinated, they were forcibly made into terrorists, and so we must stay away from them.” But when you start thinking about it, reason makes you realise that it was not the fault of the girls. They have experienced terrible things and they should be seen as the heroes they are.
If Christianity has such a strong presence in Nigeria, then why do Catholics also take part in the corruption?
I have no idea why they do so. As a priest, however, I fear corruption. Christians are just as involved in it as Muslims. It is a national problem and something must be done about it. Corruption has set this country back. Why are the people so egotistical, so selfish, but we still talk about Christianity or Islam? The values of our religions should change something for the good of all. President Buhari is trying to come to terms with our corrupt past. We as a church are trying to impart positive values to the families. It is such a large problem that it will take time to overcome it.