The Cardinal Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, spoke to some journalists in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. Success Nwogu was there
What is your reaction to the recent arrest of judges by the Department of State Services over corruption allegations?
The arrest of the judges is a sad story. It is terrible. It is not good for our country. The news that our judges are corrupt and collect bribes to influence judgments is not good. We are not talking of magistrates in the villages. We are talking of Supreme Court judges (and Federal High Court judges and other judges). That is bad news. Our friends abroad will say, ‘what kind of a country is that where the judiciary is rotten.’ There ought to be another way of handling this matter. Maybe, this is a matter of (someone) looking for medicine after death; because the damage has been done. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would insist that all these allegations should be thoroughly and transparently investigated – not what the National Judicial Commission has been doing in a closed-door session.
It (investigation) should be made public so as to expose those judges who are corrupt and hold them accountable. Now, if I have a case in court and I see a judge there, I will be asking myself, ‘is he one of them?’ And whatever judgement, he passes, if I do not like it, I will say, ‘look, he collected money.’ That means that the whole idea that judges are incorruptible gentlemen, is no longer so. We must do everything to be able to restore that reputation, to have judges that are incorruptible; who will tell the truth.
In view of the economic recession in the country, do you think President Muhammadu Buhari should dismiss his economic team and reconstitute it?
We have to admit that there are certain causes of this recession that are outside our control, which will not change even if you brought the most brilliant economic gurus. A good economic team is not going to change the price of oil from $40 per barrel to $120. So that is the reality we have on the ground. We have equally said even if (ex-President Goodluck) Jonathan had won the election, he would have had to face the problem of how to balance a budget on incomes that have considerably reduced. The issue then is: with reduced income, government needs to take measures that will balance the budget and at the same time cause as less pain for the ordinary people as possible. Included in this also, government ought to look at all the areas where costs can be cut. It is not enough to have a change of faces in government. We need a change in the way the government is run.
Buhari’s government is being accused of favouring Muslims more than Christians in terms of key political appointments. What is your view on that and allegation that the president intends to Islamise Nigeria?
Those accusations, in my own opinion, are neither here nor there. I know there was a time a group of Christians came out with a long list which showed how lopsided the appointments have been not only in favour of Muslims but particularly in favour of a particular part of the country. Afterwards, a group of people – they did not say they are Muslims – came out with another list focusing on other areas of our national life, with figures and names to prove that Christians have been favoured more than others. Once you start that game, you are neither here nor there. The real questions are being avoided. Are we putting the right people in the right place? Are they serving well? In my own opinion, those are the issues to be raised. If I were a president in a nation like Nigeria, I will do my best to reduce as much as possible the likelihood that anybody will abuse me of not being balanced. It is incumbent on government to do its best, while maintaining the necessity of right appointment and quality of performance.
On the issue of Islamising the country, if by that you mean somebody is gradually working to make me become an Alhaji, I will say, it is a long way away. Whenever I hear this kind of accusation from Christians, I tell my fellow Christians that ‘if anybody Islamises you, it is because you are ready for it.’ By the way, I am a cardinal archbishop. It is my job to do my best to make as many Nigerians Christians as I can. So, I have an agenda of Christianising the whole of this country. Nobody can stop me from having that idea and desire. But I am not a fool. I know that I can try whatever I can, but I will have to live with Muslims. Any Muslim who thinks that he can even shoot his way to make all Nigerians Muslims should have his head examined because it is not possible.
What is your view on the call for the sale of national assets?
This is one issue I believe government must give Nigerians adequate information to be able to make an informed position. There are enough people and economists in Nigeria who can analyse whether selling the assets is a good thing for this country or not. I will say basically that national assets should remain national assets and should be disposed of normally. If you are going to sell off national assets, I do not think that the reason should be to plug in a hole in recession. It should be part of the national economic policy. It is the same thing when government privatises. It is part of a national economic policy.
What do you think of the crisis between the Shiites and Kaduna State government? What can be done to resolve the issue?
The Shiites affair in my opinion is sad. Do not forget that this same group had sometime last year been subject to major clash during which – we were told – hundreds of them were killed and buried in mass graves. Nigerians generally kept quiet. But it is a shame that when this kind of things happen the only complaint that we hear are from international human rights groups. I am informed their leader is still in detention. My advice to the government is that we should first of all respect the fundamental religious rights of anybody who wants to be a Shiite. My understanding is that the majority of Nigerian Muslims belong to the Sunni. And for a long time, we did not know that there were differences in Islam. The only difference we used to hear about is that of the Ahmadiyya, who also suffered a lot of discrimination in this nation and we kept quiet. I believe that if the government wants religion to serve a positive and peaceful purpose, it should protect religious freedom and rights of every Nigerian – which is why I disagree with the decision of Kaduna government to ban the group. How can you ban a group? I am worried because the same government might decide to ban the Catholic Church in Kaduna.
I am shouting now so that when the government plans to ban the Catholic Church, at least it would be said that when they banned the Shia group, I shouted. It is not right. We have reached a stage in Nigeria where we should be able to accommodate different religions. We should begin to talk about harmony within our religions. In the Christian fold, we are not the same. Not only do we have Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal and Aladura churches, we have different approaches to Christianity. When you ban a group of people on the basis of religion, they would resist it. It is then they will do things which the same government will interpret as violent reaction and we will then need to impose more violent remedies. We should have learnt a lesson from Boko Haram insurgency. I am hoping that my friend, the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, (he used to be my friend in Abuja) would get better advisers. I think the presumption is that Shia in Nigeria is a terrorist group and that they are lawless. There must be another way of handling them. I hear that there is a reaction from other states because if Shiites were few before, they are many now. And there is no better way to make a religion to grow than to ban it. I am talking as a Catholic who knows the history of Christendom. The Christian Church grew rapidly in the Roman Empire, when the Roman government banned it. By the same token, I will appeal to my friends of the Sunni persuasion to find it in their hearts to protect their Shia brothers. I am sure if the Sunni leadership spoke to El-Rufai, he would change his stand.
How receptive is president of the Christian Association of Nigeria to the Catholic community?
On (the issue of) Christian Association of Nigeria; we had disagreement with the way CAN was being run. We also had disagreement about the (last CAN) election. We did not participate in the election. We did not withdraw totally from CAN. And we have sent a clear letter to the present CAN leadership, letting them know why we have kept away in the light of our own understanding of what CAN is supposed to be. We also asked that CAN should once again revert to its original position – the CAN that we formed. We (the Catholic Church) are founders of CAN. When that is done, we will once again resume not only our participation in CAN, but also our leadership position. The letter is receiving attention. Until we get a reply to our letter, we siddon dey look. We are not participating at national level in CAN activities. In view of this, nobody should expect us to write a letter of congratulations to anybody. But we have acknowledged the man (CAN President, Olasupo Ayokunle) publicly. We are doing all we can to save CAN because we have a strong belief that any CAN without the Catholic Church, they are only joking. It is not pride; it is reality. If I were the new man heading CAN, I would do my best to make sure that the Catholic Church comes back to its rightful position.