Recent years have witnessed a more proactive Catholic Church in Nigeria. The persistent actions of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in speaking truth to power, affirms the Church’s sacred duty of providing the moral foundation, as well as the conscience of the nation. Nigeria is at the risk of becoming a failed state. Africa most populous country is teetering on the brink. Apparently there is leadership failure. “I cannot be silent when the action or inaction of government endangers the lives of Nigerians,” states Most. Rev. (Dr.) Augustine Akubeze, President, Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN). The CBCN has indeed proved its mettle in this regard. The Acting Editor, NETA NWOSU speaks with Most Rev. Augustine Akubeze, also Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Benin on goals of his leadership, experiences as CBCN President, relationship of the body with the Holy See, state of the nation and other contemporary issues. Excerpts.
What were your goals when you assumed leadership as President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN)?
First of all, I was humbled by the confidence my brother bishops had on me, by electing me as the President of the Conference. I had no pre-determined agenda because it was a surprise, even though, I was the Vice President of the Conference for six years, the Constitution of the Conference did not state that the Vice President becomes the President. The Conference members I thought, may have seen something in me before electing me to lead them. I thanked them for their confidence in me and promised to provide leadership through listening to the voices of the people. I think they have given me complete support and that has made it much easier for me. The first thing a leader should do is to recognise that all authority comes from God and that authority is meant for service. I embarked on the mission of consulting the members to find out exactly what path we needed to chat during our tenure. I wanted to lead by consensus building on major issues that affect the Church in Nigeria. This requires patience and the ability to listen to various opinions on an issue. I also asked our mother Mary to help me lead her children in such a way that they will all remain closer to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I am grateful to all the members of the Conference and in particular I am deeply grateful to all my worthy predecessors in the office of the President of the Conference. Indeed, you can say that I stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me.
How far have these goals been realized?
One is not the best judge in his own case. So, I hesitate to speak about how far I have been able to achieve my goal of leading through consensus building; of leading through listening to the members. But I can say, that all the decisions I have made during my tenure so far, have always been product of wide consultations. The soundness of the decision of a leader depends largely on the quality of information he had to process. The members of the Conference have truly showed great solidarity whenever I consult them. If you were to access our decision so far, you will certainly discover that they have been reflective of the mind of the people in the Church in Nigeria.
What are the notable experiences you’ve had as President of Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) since February 2018?
It is already over three years since I was elected President of the Conference. There are litanies of experiences I have had during this period. It is difficult for me to single out particular ones as more significant than others. I will just mention a few that I can remember. The Conference has exercised her prophetic role in speaking about the social conditions in Nigeria. For the first time in the history of the Church in Nigeria, the entire Catholic Bishops led a peaceful protest march to call on the Federal Government of Nigeria to stop the killing of Nigerians. For me this was important because we came out to protest not against a political party but against failure of Government to meet its constitutional role. We have spoken out against the injustice some of our brother Christians suffer in some predominantly Muslim areas of Nigeria. It is also heart-warming to know that some Muslim leaders have been very vocal in condemning the injustices. I do not take pleasure in criticizing any Government in power. But I cannot be silent when the action or inaction of Government endangers the lives of Nigerians. So, whenever, we speak because we feel that the moral hands of history will never forgive our generation for not speaking against the killing of innocent people. At various times we have spoken about the need to change the service chiefs, it took the Federal Government many years to realise that what many Nigerians were asking for was not out of place. Change the systems and structures if they are not working for the good of the people. I am glad that the President has come to the same conclusion we had long proposed, namely, bringing in new blood to effect radical change in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria. During these past years, I have had the opportunity to represent the Church in Nigeria in many international conferences. I have always drawn the world attention to the resilience of Nigerians; the industriousness of Nigerians. The need for the international community to speak and put pressure on the Federal Government to be more effective in fighting insurgency. Many priests, religious, lay faithful, Christians, and none Christians have lost their lives through the evil perpetuated by either herdsmen, bandits, cattle rustlers, kidnappers, and avoidable road accidents because of bad roads. The Church in Nigeria made available hospitals, medical centres owned by the Church for Government use to care for Covid-19 patients if there was need for it. This clearly shows our good will towards the Government. There is no Catholic Bishop in Nigeria who wants the Federal Government to fail. We know the consequences of a failed Government. But we also know that no Government can remain in power without listening to the cries of the people. The people do have the power through the ballot box to change any none performing Government. The Federal Government must stop telling Nigerians that the situation of the country was bad when they took over. Nigerians elected them to bring us out of the insecurity, the poverty and poor social infrastructure. We did not elect the Government to lecture us on how to justify none performance through excuses. Nigerians are seeing the increase in inflation, that does not match increase in wages. They are seeing a naira that is growing weaker to the dollar. They are seeing depletion of our foreign reserve. They are seeing over reliance on crude oil. They are tired of seeing politicians using ethnic and religious arguments to divert the attention of the people away from their lack of performance and to give them continuous cover without scrutiny. The #EndSARS protest which began peacefully points to the reawakened collective consciousness of Nigerians to hold their leaders responsible for systemic failure of leadership in the country. The cry for restructuring by almost every region of the country is a sign of the fact that Nigerians are tired of patching and managing a failing system of Governance. We need true restructuring that will give right to every part of the country to manage their affairs well and still pledge allegiance to our country, Nigeria.
How would you describe the relationship between the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) and the Holy See? How do you think you can enhance the relations between the Holy See and Nigeria?
The Conference has a very good relationship with the Holy See. We are always mindful that we are not a national Church. The Church of Christ, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared manifest itself in every local Church with all its elements of salvation. In that sense, we can speak of the Church in Nigeria, but we never speak of Nigerian Catholic Church. Nigeria does not own a Catholic Church but the Catholic Church subsists in Nigeria and therefore, we speak of the Church in Nigeria, the Church in Benin City, the Church in Abuja, Onitsha, Calabar, Kaduna, Lagos, Ogoja etc. This Church that subsists in Nigeria enjoys full communion with the See of St. Peter governed by the Roman Pontiff. We are connected to him through the Papal Nuncio in Nigeria. Through him we communicate our solicitude to the Holy See. There has been mutual and cordial relationship between the Holy See through the Nunciature and the Church in Nigeria. The Holy See has been of great help to the Church in Nigeria in many ways. We are grateful to the Holy Father, and all those who assist him. Several times, Pope Francis has drawn the world’s attention to the plight of the suffering poor in Nigeria. When some religious sisters were kidnapped the Holy Father prayed for them and called for their release. When some priests and lay faithful were killed in Benue State the Holy Father prayed for them. At various time the Holy Father has specifically mentioned the plight of the poor in Nigeria. We will continue to strengthen our relationship with the Holy See by letting them know our present situation and through private communication also suggests concrete ways we think the Holy See can speak to the Federal Government or through the Western nations put pressure on the Federal Government to ensure that there is prosperity for every Nigerian.
What is the attitude of the Holy See towards the incessant killings, kidnapping and banditry in Nigeria especially with regards to Christian communities in the North?
I have already mentioned that the Holy See has been following the situation in the country. The Holy See is concerned about the killing of any human being. It is not only about the killing of Christians. The Holy See spoke against the killing of Muslims in Myanmar. The oppression of any human being has always been of concern to the Holy See. In the same light, the Holy See has at several times condemned the killings of Christians in Nigeria. The incessant kidnapping of secondary school students in the Northern part of Nigeria is of great concern to us. The kidnap of the Chibok girls and the recent abduction of over 300 girls from Zamfara State, recently released and so on, do not mean well for Nigeria. We call on the abductors of the Chibok girls for their immediate release. Education is the bedrock of any development. If the Federal Government is not able to secure their release with the firm assurance that this will not happen again, then we are just heading for a terrible situation. Nevertheless, the entire Catholic Church in Nigeria will be praying for their release and the release of every person in captivity
What role can the Church in Nigeria play in the face of the pressure mounting on the Universal Church on gay marriage and women ordination?
The Church in Nigeria is in full communion with the Church in Rome. The Holy Father speaks for the Universal Church. On the issue of gay marriage, the teaching of the Church is clear; marriage is between a man and a woman. The Church holds this teaching as coming from God and therefore, not subject to societal changes. Marriage institution was created by God and society cannot reset the conditions or redefine it. The Church has always taught that we must not develop hatred towards any group of people. The Church does not hate gay people. The Church condemns the gay practices. There is no place for hatred in the Church. I think everyone must know how to make a distinction between the person and the act that is condemned. The Church in Nigeria has continued to speak against western pressure to impose a life style that is completely incongruence with our human nature and with our culture as Africans, and more importantly with our Catholic faith.
How can Nigeria witness to the truth of the Gospel and resist Western pressure affecting the faith of many other Christians who see such moves as abhorrent?
It is important to first of all point out that the Western nations are not homogeneous in their approach to the Gospel of Christ. To speak of resisting western pressure against the faith can be somewhat misleading. There are many people in the west who are still giving up their lives for the faith today. There are many families in the West who are still promoting the Gospel message through personal involvement, through financial support and through prayers. So, the entire Western nations are not against the faith. However, there are certain prevalent trends that seems to relegate the faith to the background and a growing anti-Christian Europe that Pope Benedict XIV often spoke of. Pope Francis has also talked about Europe rediscovering its Christian root. The best way to witness to the truth of the Gospel is to imitate Christ’s way of life, that is, the way of love. We must be a counter witness to the culture of death through abortion, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, ethnic bigotry, cultural hegemony, etc. The Truth is always objective and the witness to love is the witness to the Truth. Love is the weapon against every form of hatred.
On a final note
In conclusion, I want to thank you for interviewing me. I also want to encourage all journalists to continue to hold all of us, religious and civil leaders accountable for our decisions and actions. May God bless Nigeria. Amen.