In recent weeks, frightening tension has been growing in Nigeria, with ethnic clashes, insurgency, banditry and kidnapping spreading across the country at a fast pace. On Wednesday, the Senate called on President Buhari to declare a state of emergency over the escalating insecurity across the nation. What has happened to Nigeria? How did the country get to this seemingly disintegrating state? What is responsible for the current dreadful security situation in the nation? How can Nigeria deal with the country’s rising insecurity? The Acting Editor, NETA NWOSU put these questions to a religious scholar and theologian famous for kicks against mal-administration, injustice and racial discrimination. His Grace, Most Rev. (Dr.) Anthony John Valentine Obinna, Archbishop of Owerri traced Nigeria’s current insecurity to as far back as 1967. “And with that violence was officially commissioned into Nigeria and since that time violence has not left us,” the Chief Shepherd stated. And he warned, “If you negotiate with bandits, you are legitimizing evil.” Read excerpts of the interview.
How is the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri coping with the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic?
Well actually, we don’t know where to draw the line between the first wave and the second wave, the only thing we realize is that people are now observing the COVID-19 measures a little more strictly than at first. We had a panicky approach initially because of global anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the temporary closure of Churches but that closure lasted for only three or four weeks and we’ve gone back to celebrating Holy Mass normally and we continue to receive Holy Communion on the tongue as we have been doing. Here we are observing the directives quite well. Only yesterday, this particular this week or few days ago, there was an update of the Owerri Archdiocesan directives in view of Lent and Easter celebration. We are taking the matter seriously, for example the number one directive is a repeat of an earlier one, because initially, we were not emphasizing the wearing of face masks; we were emphasizing more of social distancing. But now we are directing all Christ’s faithful to wear their face masks as they come for Holy Mass and other Church activities. And I see almost everybody now wearing the face mask coming to Church and there is a greater enforcement of the provision of handwashing containers with soap and sanitizers. I can say we have kind of upgraded our attention towards this matter by the measures that we are taking. And today at the celebration of Mass, we insisted that people should sit only in threes on the long pews and two on the shorter pews. So all in all, we can say that we are doing quite well in terms of respecting the COVID-19 directives in the Church but not outside, in the market, it’s a different world.
What is the rate of death of Catholics resulting from COVID-19 within the Archdiocese, is it high?
Although still debated by some people we seem to have had one case of death by COVID-19 of one of our Priests, outside of that we haven’t had a clear indication that death has occurred because of COVID-19. For example the one that we buried today has been sick for over 10 years but it had nothing to do with COVID -19 and we buried him normally, bringing the remains into the Cathedral. Among the lay people, it has been quite a few who have died but generally most of the deaths occurring around us are still considered normal deaths from normal sicknesses. It is only in one case that we were pushed by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to take measures in the process of burying but that burial has remained controversial because we were experiencing the intervention of NCDC, Imo State for the first time, so we didn’t quite know how to move on, since they had come in. But I hear that even when a person dies of COVID-19, there is a way of packaging and the person can still be brought to the Church and that happened recently. A Religious died in another state, not Imo, she died from COVID-19 in Lagos and she was well packaged and the remains were brought into the Church but not opened for viewing by people. So we have only had apparently one clear case of COVID-19 death among us that I have been closely involved in. Within the lay people we haven’t had much really.
1n December 2020, gunmen abducted Most. Rev. Moses Chikwe, the Auxiliary Bishop of Owerri Catholic Archdiocese. His car and official regalia were later found at the premises of Assumpta Cathedral also in Owerri. This really caused quite some stir that if a Catholic Bishop can be kidnapped then the country is in trouble. Although Bishop Chikwe was released five days later but the criminal act poses the frightening dimension that insecurity is increasingly assuming in the country. What do you think is responsible for the current dreadful security situation in the country? How do you think it can be resolved?
First of all the fact that the Bishop was kidnapped definitely was big news because the Bishops in our country have not been generally kidnapped but Priests have been kidnapped, so the addition of the Bishop to it means that nobody is being respected whether Bishop or Priest. Reverend Sisters have been kidnapped too, so it’s a signal to us in the country that really nobody is safe, nobody is untouchable. Coming to the reason or the genesis of it, Nigeria is the reason for what is going on because Nigeria is a failed nation, a nation in which violence from the military, that took over government at some point, serially, and then violence from politicians who empower thugs has been elevated to quasi-official policy. Both the military and civilian government have been responsible for promoting violence which has now spiraled out into what you might call democratic violence that comes in all forms or shapes. The leaders of our nation have failed to shape Nigeria into a humane and civilized nation and even people wonder why Nigeria fought to bring back Biafrans to a Nigeria that is now a nightmare. Why did the leaders at the time disregard the Aburi Accord worked out in Ghana that was meant to bring about peace among Nigerians sometime in 1967 shortly before the war broke out same year? The failure to implement that Accord led Nigeria to the brink of war. The actual war took place between Nigeria and Biafra and lasted for three years. And with that violence was officially commissioned into Nigeria and since that time violence has not left us. Even when General Yakubu Gowon declared at the end, ‘no victor, no vanquished’, that there will be reconciliation, rehabilitation, reconstruction, all we have seen is more and more of discrimination, hatred, killing, nepotism and all kinds of ethnophobic and ethnocentric pressures in the land. So things have not just fallen apart but have fallen to pieces because of what Chinua Achebe called the failure of the leadership. Both the military and civilians have failed us so our help is in name of the Lord who made heaven and earth; that is where we are. Violence is on the ascendancy in Nigeria and you can experience it anywhere and in every part of Nigeria. I can’t travel easily now, well, maybe I can travel more within Igbo land but then one is not sure if the kidnap will take place even in my own locality so, that is where we are.
For several years, the conflict between the herdsmen and farmers has continued to persist with increasing loss of lives and property while many people have been displaced from their homes. What do you think are the causes and the social, religious and political effects on community and national development? Please make recommendations on resolution of this issue that has become a threat to peace and safety in our communities?
We are back to a fundamental reason, there is no sense of united purpose in Nigeria. There is more of mutual hatred of one another because the leadership has allowed hatred to become a national pastime. The leaders go to the National Assembly or the House of Representatives, they get their money, they fight a few times but they are not really concerned with administering this country with any sense of common purpose for the good of all. There is no sense of the common good of the people, otherwise they would have found ways of giving farmers what is their due by way of respecting the land so that the farmers can farm. And then ranching the cattle so that the owners of the cattle do not come and destroy crops that farmers have painstakingly planted so that is the problem. Those who should restrain the herders or find alternative ways of enabling the cattle are not doing what they ought to do. Yes, we need the cattle, we need the milk but then is it at the expense of the crops, the yams, the vegetables that are planted? We need the herders, we need the farmers but then it requires more respectable handling of their needs and their concerns without allowing them, particularly allowing the herders to create a situation of rampage. They feel that anywhere they see food whether they cultivated it or not that the cattle has priority over the farmer. That is the problem. Nigeria is a problem to itself.
Recently, Zamfara State Governor, Bello Matawalle, said negotiating with bandits had significantly reduced the frequency of their bloody attacks in his state. Islamic Scholar Sheikh Mahmoud Gumi visited some bandits in Zamfara forests, had pictures with them and then came out to inform us that negotiating with bandits was the best thing that would happen to this country. Wouldn’t such negotiations fuel more banditry? What is your advice to government in addressing this issue of banditry?
You don’t make friends with evil, you don’t legitimize evil because evil will only have more room for rampage. Evil is to be restrained, good is to be promoted. You don’t go to congratulate bandits, negotiate with them, you are legitimizing evil. As far as I’m concerned that is not the way to go. These bandits are ruffians, who need to be educated, who need to be directed towards doing good rather than stealing or attacking people. These are people that could have been taken to school, given more discipline, and oriented towards doing some professional or vocational work that would benefit the society at large but because they have been allowed to roam around like wolves they now claim legitimacy in a nightmarish Nigeria. They go anywhere they want and in the process having gained a lot of money from banditry they would have love to continue it. So you are now begging criminals not to be so criminal, you rehabilitate them, they may for a while seem to be nice but in the long run they are kegs of gun powder left to explode whenever they feel like. So you cannot just legitimize people who are into evil profession. To do so is to turn the society into a society of robbers so that both the leaders and the led become reciprocal robbers. And then you say don’t steal so much, don’t be so violent, we pamper you because we understand you, we will help you, hoping that you will keep quiet. For how long would they keep quiet when there is no in depth formation of these humans because without the formation of conscience, without transformation like those in the past that we have read about who were criminals, who were sinners, that had to be converted. Take Saul, Saul was a criminal, he was a murderer, he converted and we can see the positive fruit of his conversion. Over the years, up till today we read of St. Paul because there was a radical transformation. We will like you to recommend some solutions on how the banditry issues can be resolved in Nigeria. In the past we used to talk about reformatory, there were reformatories in the past in Nigeria apart from prisons, created with a view to spiritual, social, mental, professional reorientation and equipment. These are the things that would help the bandits but treating them with kid gloves would only postpone the day for further rampage. All of us humans in our different native localities were living with various levels of wild tendencies but through education, through formation in regular schools, particularly religious primary and secondary schools, we acquired more humane and refined characters. Tertiary education today is a bit of a wide goose chase. There isn’t much of moral formation or spiritual formation in higher institutions. That is why you also have a lot of crisis in universities and higher institutions. It is basically in the nursery, primary and secondary level, that human beings are given the orientation of what they would do, you train the child in the way of discipline early enough, he internalizes it, even if he is failing or falling, he wouldn’t fall all the way into the gutter. I believe that reformatory should be reestablished where these bandits can be trained into more useful citizens with the military and the police if they are honest and patriotic guiding them until they are able to be responsible citizens again.
Some Nigerians see the controversial Water Resources Bill as an attempt to reintroduce the rejected RUGA policy. What do you think?
Since Nigeria operates on a deceptive note as official policy, people are bound to see all these attempts to establish riverine routes for cattle or what you call RUGA settlements, as attempts to appropriate water courses, water zones that belong legitimately to other people who need the water either for their livelihood or their farms or for other reasons. So it has been proposed that the cattle needs water, they need vegetable but there is a modern way in which the cattle are treated. So anything that brings about confrontation between various segments of Nigeria is an indication of the bad blood that exists in the nation, so people are suspicious of the moves because they haven’t seen an open way of relating with one another across Nigeria and thinking for all Nigerians in every segment of Nigeria and doing the good for every state of Nigeria. Nigeria is a volatile nation, it is not a cohesive nation. That is why there no true nationalism, there is no true patriotism. Any of us who is doing any good in Nigeria is not doing it because of Nigeria but because of God. God loves us, God loves everybody so we are more Godfilial or patrifilial than patriotic. We relate with God the Father, we relate with God the Son, we relate with God the Holy Spirit; this is from where we draw our inspiration. We don’t draw our inspiration from Nigeria, Nigeria doesn’t give you reason to be proud of it, but we are ready to serve Nigeria and Nigerians like I do here. I do whatever I do for the good of Nigeria not because of Nigeria but because God has placed me here to help the people located in this geographical place.
President Buhari’s nomination of the immediate past service chiefs for ambassadorial appointment has attracted a huge debate with majority alleging that the nomination is a plot by the Presidency and APC to shield the immediate past service chiefs from investigation over the alleged killing of innocent Nigerians and crimes against humanity under their watch? What is your take?
Well, talking about Nigeria whose system of appointment has been flawed in many ways because of nepotism or because of certain sectionalistic advantages appointing these service chiefs raises questions. Are there no other persons who are qualified to do this service? Must it be these ex-service chiefs who have already played their parts for better or for worse in Nigeria? And that is why you have this ambiguity and people are raising questions why these people who already are leaving office on the basis of controversy and innuendos are being rewarded with ambassadorial appointments. It is rather mind-boggling. If they have not been good ambassadors in Nigeria, would they be better ambassadors in a foreign country as they would carry part of the badge of contempt and shame to other countries. So you need people who are honourable, who are distinguished in character and learning to represent the nation so that the nation can have respect. See a person like Okonjo Iweala, she has a track record of working effectively as Finance Minister of Nigeria twice and has worked with the World Bank. Now she has been given the position as the first woman and the first African to be Director of the World Trade Organisation. It is not because of Nigeria that she got that position it is because of her personal track record, we are acclaiming her and the world is acclaiming her, so that is the kind of thing we need to make Nigeria great.