By Luminous Jannamike, Abuja
The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Most Rev Ignatius Kaigama, is one of Nigeria’s most respected clergymen. He served as the President of Nigerian Bishops Conference (2012-2018), and currently chairs the Episcopal Conference of West African Catholic Bishops.
In this interview, Kaigama speaks on the spate of clergy kidnappings and murders in Nigeria and the new US President Joe Biden’s move to increase funding for international abortions, among other issues. Excerpts:
There have been many kidnappings and also murders of priests in Nigeria in recent past. In your view, what is the motivation behind these kidnappings?
Nigeria is a complex society with a population of more than 200 million people. The country has around 500 different languages and 250 distinct ethnic groups. Thus, uniting these complex groups into one unified socio-political entity since the amalgamation of the country in 1914 has proven to be a daunting task. Kidnapping here takes place in various contexts and for various reasons. The consequences are also many. However, it has been observed that people are kidnapped for two primary reasons: political bargain and economic gain. In Nigeria and other countries of Africa, political factors, poverty, and lack of employment opportunities among the youths are playing fundamental roles in the rise of the phenomenon of kidnapping.
What is the key to ensuring that those who are kidnapped are not killed?
Kidnapping has remained an intractable social crime in the country today. It is believed that most cases of kidnapping go unreported for fear of reprisals. Some people say they do not even have confidence that the police can help them out of their predicament. Each victim has so-called kidnap ransom value which makes him attractive target. This value is determined by a number of factors which include the victim’s socio-economic or political status, family, or corporate premium on the victim, the type of kidnappers involved, as well as the dynamics of ransom negotiation. Kidnappers persist in their activities even despite the present penalty for kidnapping which ranges from one to twenty years in prison, with the possibility of life imprisonment for extreme cases involving, for instance, murder. This does not seem a deterrent enough for kidnappers anyway.
Is the Catholic Church ever willing to pay a ransom for a kidnapped priest or bishop?
As a matter of principle, the Church does not pay ransom for kidnapped victims. To begin with, the Church does not have that kind of money and because our personnel are practically everywhere, paying a ransom will only encourage their regular kidnapping. What is more, paying a ransom means endangering the lives of the priests, nuns and collaborators of the Church who live and work in rural areas and shuttle between villages to serve the people spiritually, pastorally, and socially. Above all, paying ransom encourages criminality and invites the kidnappers to do more harm.
In my view, the efforts to stem the onslaught of kidnapping have been lackadaisical, coupled with the absence of sophisticated security equipment to track kidnappers who take to the hills and forests with their victims.
In your view, what will it take to put these kidnappings to an end? What needs to be done?
Firstly, government should, as a matter of urgency, come up with poverty alleviation programs and employment opportunities, targeting, especially the youths who mostly engage in abductions and kidnappings for economic reasons and due to unemployment. Secondly, to effectively combat kidnapping, government must give the phenomenon top priority and foreign governments could also support the war on kidnapping in Nigeria with good intelligence gathering equipment and the training of security personnel. Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are said to be compromised and even the resources released to tackle this and similar crimes are said to be wrongly or corruptly applied, which undermines even the feeble efforts the government tries to make.
Although the number of coronavirus cases is lower in Africa than in other parts of the world, it has still had a devastating impact on the economy and civil society. How can people cope in Nigeria?
In Africa, but also in the developed parts of the world, the coronavirus is still an enigma: the health complications it may cause; how far it has actually spread, and whether antibodies can deliver long-lasting immunity. Fake news and mistrust of government efforts mean that many Nigerians believe that the pandemic is a hoax, but a visit to the hospitals and isolation centers tells a different story. Sociologically, the pandemic has caused social disruption by limiting social relations. “Social distancing” has created more social gaps. The socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria include job losses, a sharp drop in income of the informal workers and the poor, food insecurity, business and school closures, a decline in oil revenues and economic uncertainties.
The homeless and internally displaced need practical help with food, water, sanitation, and healthcare in order to survive. Conflicts in Nigeria have also diminished our already fragile humanitarian efforts. We are now seeing an increase of malnutrition in children, and a health system at serious risk of becoming overwhelmed. A large number of people survive on daily income. Inflation in the country and government price increases for electricity; fuel, etc. are not helping matters.
What has the spiritual toll been on people in Abuja Archdiocese, and what can the Catholic Church do to reassure and comfort those who are struggling?
The COVID-19 pandemic is also giving us a time for reflection. What is new about our situation is that for the first time in world history, the economy is globalized – as the coronavirus is global. This is an opportunity to return to a relationship with God and follow his lead through the wilderness of the current crisis. Churches in Nigeria are reopening but with pretty strict restrictions, and no-one is quite clear yet how sustainable this “new normal” will be. There is a growing consensus that the virus does not hit everyone equally. If anything, it seems to be exacerbating inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting repercussions for the Church, but as Christians, we should continually rise to the many challenges the pandemic presents.
In the Archdiocese of Abuja, we are providing some support for persons who may need special spiritual, pastoral care and counseling by the clergy and other experts. Priests have been instructed to encourage personal and family prayers. Many priests use the social media to send messages of hope and words of encouragement to their parishioners, while keeping the parishioners and indeed the entire world in fervent prayer. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed strongly the inequalities of economic resources and the shortage of health services and qualified personnel. There is, therefore, the need for the provision of material assistance to the less privileged and marginalised among us, irrespective of faith, social standing, or ethnic background.
We have been calling on all our clergy and religious, members of sodalities and indeed all the laity including even children and teenagers to kindly make sacrifices and contribute to this cause. We have been following the directives of the government and public health officials and heeding the advice of medical experts. Christians are no different from others in this respect. We share the health challenges and personal anxieties of all our neighbors, and we bear the same responsibilities during this crisis. The time of the virus is both a gift and a provocation for Christians – not only for our personal faith, but for what we have to offer others.
Nigeria is expecting the arrival of vaccine. Pope Francis has often called for equitable distribution of the vaccines, with particular concern for the poor. Do you believe Nigeria will have enough doses to slow the spread? What role do you think the Church can play in ensuring the poor and vulnerable also have access?
Nigerian officials say the country is ready to receive its first COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of January. The government wants to vaccinate 40% of the country’s population by the end of this year. But experts say the cost and storage of the vaccine pose a challenge. Nigeria does not have adequate storage facilities to hold vaccines at the required temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius. Also, the demand and cost for vaccines are very high. It has been observed that the vaccines may go to the richer countries. This will be unfortunate.
All efforts should be made to ensure that vaccines are available to low and medium-income countries irrespective of their inability to pay. By this time, Nigerian authorities should be bargaining with vaccine manufacturers in Britain, Russia, and China about opting for vaccines that are easy to store and deliver. Immunization, as a way of responding to the pandemic, could be a global public good, provided that vaccines are adequate, safe, qualitative, efficacious and effective and should also be “free from ethical concerns.” The vaccines should be provided to all in a fair and equitable manner, giving priority to those who need them most, as Pope Francis has emphasized.
In an era in which travel is much more difficult, and in which many countries in the west are struggling with their own internal problems, is Africa at risk of being more isolated, and will it have to learn to become more reliant on itself?
There is no doubt that developing countries in Africa and their economies are already facing a harsh impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While some countries have in place economic stimulus plans to ease the financial burdens caused by the virus, most countries in Africa do not have the capacity to do so. There is, therefore, an urgent need for international support for African countries to effectively respond to the crisis as only a few countries have the capacity to put in place economic stimulus packages to ease the burden on people and businesses.
The COVID-19 emergency calls for financial resources to be made available immediately, including from external sources. The international community may also need to extend reprieve on debt and increase other external flows that impact the ability of African governments to extend and deliver effective public health services, transparently and equitably. African countries should enhance social support systems and build capacities to manage crises, natural or man-made.
New U.S. President Joe Biden has just reinstated taxpayer funding for abortions overseas. Are you concerned that under the Biden administration, there will be increased pressure on Africa to adopt contraception, abortion and other western customs?
As I understand it, President Biden’s memorandum reverses restrictions on abortion access domestically and abroad imposed and expanded by the Trump administration. It is intriguing that one of Biden’s first official acts is to promote the destruction of human lives domestically and in developing nations. This order does not stand to reason; it violates human dignity.
The President should use his office to prioritize the most vulnerable, including unborn children. Vatican II and all the Popes down to Pope Francis have described the deliberate killing of a child before or after birth as a most grievous violation of God’s commandments. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. As Bishops, we have always reiterated that abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family and, above all, it offends God.