Reverend Jonah Hamidu Freeson is Borno State Chairman of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN). Freeson is also the General Overseer of Christ Shepherd House, Maiduguri, which he founded after quitting Nigeria Police as a counter- terrorism expert. In this interview, the PFN leader speaks on how insurgency, spearheaded by Boko Haram, has affected churches in Borno State and the response of the authorities.
BY NDAHI MARAMA
You have been in Borno for quite some time and seen the carnage caused by insurgency. In what ways are churches or the Christian community affected?
When the crisis began in 2009, Boko Haram attacks were targeted at Christians but, as time went on, the group expanded the attacks to our Muslim brothers and everybody. The insurgency has adversely affected the people of Borno State particularly Christians. Many houses have been burnt without compensation, businesses have been devastated, people have been killed and survivors rendered homeless while children and women became orphans and widows. But God is helping us; by His Grace, we are now forging ahead.
You said there was no compensation for victims of Boko Haram attacks. What has been the response of the state government, especially to the Christian community which is in minority?
To be specific, from 2009, there was no compensation to any Christian based on my understanding, but we are most grateful to the present government under the leadership of Governor Kashim Shettima who inherited the crisis from his predecessor in 2011. Let us put politics aside, we have never had any governor in Muslim majority Borno State building burnt churches until the coming of Shettima. The governor, based on my understanding and the realities on ground, has done his best in that aspect. Maybe government is doing its rebuilding process in phases because, as things are, the National Evangelical, the E.Y.N (Church of Brethren), Catholic Church and the rest of the churches in Maiduguri metropolis were affected by the crisis and I have not heard about intervention. However, based on a report by the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Borno State Chapter, Bishop Mohammed Naga, Governor Shettima has released money for the rebuilding of most of the burnt churches in Hawul, Askira-Uba and Chibok Local Government Areas that are predominantly Christian communities. Also, it would interest you to know that when the Bishop of Anglican Communion of Nigeria, Maiduguri Diocese, Most Rev. Emmanuel Kana Mani, died in February last year after a brief illness, Governor Shettima gave N10 million cash to the bereaved family. He also pledged to give a befitting accommodation to the family in one of the estates built by his administration. This is a departure from the experience of Christians under previous administrations. In fact, under the previous administration, some of our pastors were killed by terrorists and nothing was done to give succour to the families they left behind not to talk of those who died naturally like Bishop Kana Mani.
You seem to commend the governor for rebuilding burnt churches but how do you react to the position of people who think government should have no involvement with places of worship since religion is a personal issue?
Who told you government is not supposed to be involved in religious matters? Churches and mosques are public buildings because they are places where citizens, who are the public, converge. Moreover, we are talking about rebuilding. These places were destroyed. If government has the resources, it should assist in rebuilding places of worship that were destroyed. Citizens have the right to worship. Given the crisis, people don’t have the resources as their economy has been destroyed, their homes have been destroyed and they don’t have anywhere to live and worship, and so, it is good thing that Governor Kashim Shettima is doing that as part of government rebuilding processes.
Apart from rebuilding churches, in what other ways can you score the relationship between the state government and the Christian community?
Personally, I know that since Governor Shettima came on board in 2011, he has been sponsoring Christians on annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This gives Christians a sense of belonging the way Muslims are sponsored for Hajj. This sense of fairness enhances coexistence, builds love and inter-faith trust which contributes to peace in the society. This helps because, for example, Islamic scholars and traditional rulers in my area are very wonderful. We have been living as members of the same family. We are very cordial with them; anything I want to do, I will meet them and inform them, and also, anything the Bulamas (village heads) or the Imams want to do, they will come to me and inform me. Citizens of different faiths will only work together when their leader doesn’t take sides against one religion in a manner that shows clear injustice. What I think is most important about Shettima is that he is a leader who listens and this is very important to us. Anytime we call on him, he gives us listening ears on all issues. I am happy to inform you that this governor and his administration have not neglected the Christian community like previous governors did. Shettima is the best governor Borno has ever had in terms of relating with Christians. I don’t know other aspects of his personal life, but in relating with Christians, the man is excellent from day one. Let me give you an instance. Former Governor Ali Modu Sheriff did not relate with Christians, and that is why he refused to rebuild or compensate any church that was burnt in 2006. He felt Christians didn’t have good numbers in elections in Borno State. But Shettima’s body language is more about building peace. He has been very careful as an educated and refined leader. This relationship can be sustained if Christians would also pray for the governor to succeed. Although his tenure is coming to an end next year, we still have long way to go, because, it is through prayers by all and sundry that government can succeed. The governor also has a role to play in sustaining this relationship if he doesn’t fall for any biased influence.
Were you here during Sheriff’s tenure because you just spoke about what transpired in that government?
Yes, I was around and was also a living witness to what happened to the Christian community under Ali Modu Sheriff.
You also talked about inter-faith relationships. What is the situation in terms of the wider Borno society outside government?
There is clear extension of this. For example, recently the military called a meeting with Muslim and Christian leaders where we interacted on how we can work collectively for the peace and development of the state. We discussed extensively on issues relating to how we can pray together so that God will hear us and, if that can be extended to other states of the federation, it will go a long way to bring peace and Nigeria can be a great nation. The problem with us in Nigeria is that most people, especially leaders, do not think of the future. It is unfortunate as we only have a short plan rather than a long plan in our lives. The religious crisis in some parts of the North is caused by selfish people, people who don’t think of tomorrow. These people are fanatics who sponsor jobless and heartless people to achieve their selfish interests; these are people who do not respect humanity. And this situation can be curtailed if our leaders educate them, provide them with jobs, and incentives to make them engaged. It is unfortunate that any destruction we are doing now in the name of religion will definitely tell on our children.