Thousands of Nigerians have been thronging the streets for more than two weeks to protest against police brutality, extortions and extrajudicial killings. The #EndSARS protest gradually evolved into broader anti-government demonstrations led by the country’s youths until it met a deadly crackdown in Lagos and some states. In this interview with the Acting Editor, NETA NWOSU, Most. Rev. (Dr.) Ignatius Ayau Kaigama, the Catholic Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Abuja, speaks on the #EndSARS protests, roles of Nigerians and the Church in addressing the country’s challenges, ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ and other contemporary issues as he also charged government to urgently take effective steps to arrest the situation. Excerpts
There have been crackdowns on the #EndSARS Protests leaving some killed and many injured in some States across the country. Let’s have your views.
I only heard that there was a crackdown; I don’t know the details. One has to be careful not just go by popular media announcement. So, I don’t know the full details. I heard the Lagos State Governor saying there wasn’t any casualty, then, some others are saying there are casualties. So, we don’t have any official figure. So, one has to be careful. But when we say a thing generally, whatever is happening, violence of such is not the best way, either on the part of security agents or on the part of the youths. We don’t encourage the use of force. I think we are talking of more cultured response to issues. We have reached that stage, at the level of ideas, we can communicate, not the use of brute force on both sides by the security agents, and by the youths; we don’t support that at all. That’s all I can say. Even if there have been any casualties, it’s most unfortunate. We thought this would be projecting to the world that we are capable of disagreeing to agree. If they have started the use of force, then, it has started destroying that picture. That’s the much I can say about it.
Did the #ENDSARS protest come as a surprise to you?
Well, I had always told people abroad when they ask me, “What are you doing about the situation in Nigeria? We hear of violence, we hear of corruption, we hear of poor governance?” And I told them, “Well, as a priest, we pray and we preach. And as a body of Bishops, we issue statements and communiques, but they don’t seem to have the desired impact. But, I always assured them that one day, change will happen naturally because of the result of our accumulated prayer and good wishes for this country. I told them abroad that it will happen one day, naturally, and perhaps, this is why this protest is happening now. As it were, there wasn’t any concerted effort or any kind of arrangement by the youths of Nigeria to start this protest. So, it has started, and the protest keeps increasing. As we can see, the youths are very concerned about issues that are of great concern to not only the young people, but to all, about our nation, Nigeria. So, I think this development was being provoked by the social, political and economic negligence that our country has witnessed, and which has affected our young people so terribly. So, this protest I believe, is a natural eruption borne out of our problems, and I am happy that it has been a peaceful protest widely. The youths are not adopting violence as a way of communicating their grievances. So, I hope that they will stay this way, protesting peacefully and keep communicating at the level of civilized conduct and level of ideas, and I think it will go a long way.
What do you think instigated the protest?
I told you it’s a natural evolution. You know when people have bottled their anger, coupled with the negative experiences they go through in this country, especially the young people. You see, some of these youths are very educated young people. It means they have been to school. Some have even travelled outside, and they have nothing meaningful to do. And on top of that, they suffer a lot of harassment either at home where they are lacking so many things, or on the street, where they are not safe. For the slightest reason, you are being treated like a criminal in your own country. I think the youths are tired. Their anger has been bottled for so long, and now, the bottle has burst, and you can see that many people are identifying with the young people because what the youths are doing, what the youths are saying now, is also what they would have loved to say or do, but just that the condition or the mood was not right, and the environment was a bit hostile then, perhaps. And now, that the youths have started it, others have a chance to also lay bare their grievances. And I hope that these young ones articulate their concerns as effectively as possible with the hope that the political authorities will listen, and will do something concrete, and not just wish them away as youths who are idle and do not know what they are doing. We hope that something good will come out of this.
Now, coming to the position of the Church, where is the Church in all these? People say that the Church is the conscience of every nation; why didn’t the Church help in stemming these issues in the nick of time?
The Church is not everything. Unfortunately, our psyche has been so brutalized that we think the Church or religious bodies are the ones to take up purview. For God’s sake, we (Church leaders) should be concerned about preaching conversion, teaching you how to pray, teaching you how to be honest and decent. It is not our duty to even invest so much in building hospitals and schools, and providing social amenities. It’s because of the failure of the system that we have to delve into education, building hospitals, and providing infrastructure for people.
Having grown up seeing the Church involved in all these things, people now believe that anything that has to with social change and otherwise, has to come from the Church. That is the result of a distorted psyche because the negligence by government promoted the Church to the forefront. Even when it concerns social issues, political issues, economic issues; people are saying, ‘What is the Church saying? What is the Church doing?’ You see, it is only now that I think you have to recover your duty as a Nigerian citizen, not just to be waiting for the Church. The Church was acting because there was no voice, and there was no help coming from elsewhere, so the Church didn’t have to fold her arms and watch things going wrong.
So, I want you to know that this is exactly what the Church has been praying for, and fighting for, namely; that we have good governance, and we have peace in the land. If you follow the communique of Bishops each time we met, the Catholic Bishops Conference, from 1960 to date, we have been issuing communique. The communiques were compiled into a book recently. So, you go back and read that, and you will find that the Catholic Church more than any group, has been actively involved in the process to help provide conducive atmosphere for people, created by good governance. What the youths are saying is what people have been saying since independence. The Church has been saying that, and it’s documented.
Whether it is education, whether it is security, whether it is good governance; everything; just go back and read the compilation of our communiques, and you will see that we have been at it for a very, very long time. So, there is a time for everything. I want to believe that God perhaps wants the youths to come in, and to realize they have a role to play in nation building. They shouldn’t just be passive observers; they shouldn’t just be indifferent, waiting for somebody to do it for them. And in this country, if anything happens, the next telephone call you get is someone asking, ‘What is the church doing about it?’ They don’t ask the question, ‘What are the Senators we elected doing about it? What is the National Assembly or these other groups; the counsellors, the Governors and all; what are they doing?’
No, they rather want to deposit all the problems at the front door of the Church, asking, ‘What’s the Church doing about it?’ We are happy that this is happening, so that people will know that everybody has a duty and responsibility to put things right in the country. We shouldn’t just leave everything for the Church. I suffer here more than those who work in the government, as a fall out of poverty and hunger. Every day, I get people here who don’t come to ask me for prayers or for blessings, which I have in abundance to give, but they come to ask for school fees, for hospital fees, for money to do business; they are hungry, they need food, and I spend my time more as a social worker than a preacher of the gospel.
And it is not my duty to provide the citizens with food, and everything they need. I can assist where there is a deficiency, but not to carry the load. So, I’m hoping that this thing will work, and we shall all be in it together, and all citizens will rise and take their individual responsibility seriously, rather than passing the bulk, ‘What’s the church doing?’ That’s not a good question. The question is ‘What are we doing as Nigerians.’ Whether we are Christians or Muslims, from North or South, we are Nigerians. Unfortunately, we get blinded by these divisions. North, south, we can’t agree. Christian, Muslim, we can’t agree. Even when a very good cause like this begins, before you know it, we are torn apart by some differences. You hear people say, ‘Oh, this is a Muslim agenda, this is a Christian agenda, this is northern agenda, this is southern agenda; we are nowhere. So, I hope for the first time, we should transcend all these narrow thinking and artificial divisions, and act as one people, one nation.
Okay, let’s come to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church instituted the JDPC for issues on justice development and peace, but in current situations that have to do with the police brutality that has been on for ages, where we have had violations of human rights by the police; extortions, and in all these, we didn’t feel the presence of the JDPC. I would like to have your take on this?
The JDPC is a child of necessity. If there was justice for everybody, and peace for everybody, why will there be JDPC in the church? We would only focus on preaching the message of the gospel. But because of the absence of justice and peace for all, the church had to come up with structures to help address prisoners imprisoned for no good cause, and are languishing in jail inspite of their fundamental human right. The body was also established for those deprived of their fundamental human rights, and so on.
They also see to the plight of widows and women that are marginalized, and so on. That was why JDPC was set up. If things were normal, I tell you, we wouldn’t be going into these social issues, we would just focus on the message of the gospel. So, you should rather commend the church for coming up with innovative structures that address situations on ground. And like I said earlier, it is not our duty to start going in protest, in demonstration; we will be deviating from our fundamental core. What are the citizens doing? What the youths are doing now is what they should have been doing long ago. What you as Nigerians, and all of us should do, then, the church can add her voice. The Church has a moral authority and has a voice that can be heard.
But in a situation where everything we say, I told you since 1960, doesn’t seem to have impact because they just hear it and say, ‘it’s one of those things they say’, and they don’t give any serious attention to those. So, it’s not that the Church has been quiet. If you expect that the Priests, the Bishops and all will just be filing out like the youths to say we don’t want this or that. That is not the role of the Church, for God’s sake; it’s the role of the citizens to do that, and the Church can back them up with prayers and support. Like now, I know in Lagos, when the youths had gathered in their numbers, I’m told the Archbishop authorized Mass to be said for them, and point them in the right direction; that’s our duty, but not to be protesters. And every time there is any problem with the economy, the Church will be the one to start to protest and march to the Aso Villa. And if there is problem with politics; rigging of election, the Church will be the one expected to solve it. If there is problem with unemployment, it is the duty of the Church to protest; we are giving too much to the Church. Unless we want to transfer the government of Nigeria to Ecclesiastical authority, then, we can take full responsibility. But as long as we are not members of the presidency, we are not of the judiciary, we are not of the National Assembly, we can only give our advice, and guide the nation on our moral authority.
Coming to the issue of ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’; the Nigerian Army has issued a press statement on the launch of ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, and it said that this time around, one of its functions is to launch a cyber warfare exercise to identify, to track and counter negative developments on social media, and we all know that #ENDSARS is strong online; it actually kicked off online. So, there is this suspicion that the Nigerian Army’s announcement seems to be a response to counter the narratives set online by the #ENDSARS protesters. I would like to have your views on this?
If there is honesty in checking what people write in the social media, one would not worry. I think even in advanced countries they would warn that what is given out in the social media is something authentic, something positive and useful, not something that would create confusion. And if crimes are being committed online, or using the social media, it is the duty of the government to stop that. You can’t say because the youths want to use social media negatively, then they should go on; that’s not it.
But if the government is setting this up, in order to counteract the activities of the young people, then, that is wrong also because using the social media is part of the freedom that everyone has. But, freedom has to be used responsibly. So, we can’t just say people can say anything in the social media, do anything, create stories, fabricate things, and believe that nobody can get at them. That is also wrong. It’s not good for the functioning of society’s discipline and progress. So, a responsible government would ensure that a law is in place to ensure that people will not misuse the social media. But, if in this particular case, they are setting up that organ in order to counteract the young people, I say it is also a very wrong approach. I have said that we need dialogue.
The young people own this country. The young people are the future and hope of this country. And so, we shouldn’t take the expression of their grievances lightly. There must be a meeting point. People must be talking, and I mean real, genuine talking, not just the type of talk that is political. Not the talk you discuss during panels or committees set up, and after that, nothing happens. It must be talks followed by concrete action. So, we are going to watch out if this organ you are talking about is mainly to target the young people, especially their use of the social media, we will know. Even if it’s just to control overall atmosphere that there would be peace, and orderliness and discipline; we will know. But I think the social media is a good thing if it is used well.
And if it has helped the youths to rally support, to get in touch with one another, to coordinate their activities, it’s good. The social media is one of the blessings we have received from God. We can use technology to do a lot of things, and it will be futile for the government to oppress or repress this trend. So, we are watching. And I pray it is not for the wrong reasons. I pray the organ you are referring to is set up to fight real crime, and to get at criminals, whether economic financial criminals or those who steal in the name of religion and other related matters. If it is for that reason, then, we are together. But, if it’s just as a pitched opposition against young people’s demands, then, there is a problem there.
I will like to have your views on the counter protest going on in some parts of the country?
You know in this country, just as I told you that for so long, we have been dilly-dallying coming together to do things as one people, as one nation. Before you know it, even something that is very genuine, useful and would have a quality impact on the country, when one group starts, one other section will say, ‘No, they are not part of us, we are not part of them.’ The disagreement is either on ethnic grounds or partisan political grounds, or on religious grounds. These are the things that break up, every good attempt to do something for this country.
Even when you want to pursue criminals who have wounded this country, exploited this country in every sense, before you know it, people rush to their defense, saying, ‘Oh, they are from our place, they are our sons, and thus, they can never do wrong. ‘Oh, they come from our religious group, how can they be allowed to be disgraced, and how can they suffer, and we are here watching.’ So, before you know it, either traditional rulers or religious leaders or even young people are being instigated to go and fight, and we don’t get anywhere.
So, let me hope that this is the beginning of a consciousness that transcends these narrow, religious, ethnic and political boundaries, that when issues come up, we should see them as issues, as ideas. When something is bad, it is bad. Whether you are a Muslim or Christian, Northerner or Southern, we should see things from the right perspectives. And when it comes to attacking what is evil, we should collectively do so without bringing up these artificial barriers and so on. So, I think it is a lesson for Nigeria that we can do a lot together. And if any group intends to use politics or ethnic sentiments to destabilize a good cause, we should know it. And I think our youths are sufficiently educated now to know when somebody is just a spoiler, and they should be aware, they should be alert.
What solutions would you like to proffer to these issues of human rights violations, extortions and extra judicial killings by the Nigeria Police Force?
Like I said earlier, let us keep talking. The conversation must go on, and each issue must be addressed promptly and effectively. I think what has happened in the past was that someone was shot at a roadblock, and nothing happened. They said it was accidental discharge. You find somebody was killed for no good reason, and they said, ‘Oh, he was a suspected armed robber trying to escape from the police’, and so on. Things like that have happened, and people also say, ‘Oh, the person’s time has come, it is God’s will’, and all that. But now, I think we have to ask fundamental questions. You can see that even in developed nations like America, a young man was killed recently as a result of police brutality.
It’s just that it can happen anywhere. So, we just have to be serious, and take things more seriously in this country. We must call people to order, and ensure that those who violate the constitution receive treatment that is appropriate. And those who are criminals, whether in government or out of government are also dealt with accordingly. And whether they are young people or adults, whether they are men or women, whether they are people of religion or not; anybody who does wrong or engage in criminal activities, there should be no sentiments, they must be apprehended, and they must be punished according to the laws of the land.
Let me hope that this is just a new beginning for Nigeria, that we begin to see things differently. We have been too careless, too callous, and a lot of things are going wrong, and we seem to accept them as normal. Now people think it is normal to be harassed on the road; and you give out bribe to SARS operatives. Even at the peak of the lockdown, when people were told not to travel, if you had money in your pocket, you could bribe your way all through, from one part of the country to another because the people stationed on the road will take money from you, and that is all. And they say it is normal. You go to an office now; somebody is sitting on files.
Maybe as a pensioner, you want to get your pension, but a clerk or a messenger is sitting on the file or hide the file. And then, it’s only when you pay some money that the file is released. And then they say it’s normal. Somebody does a little act of goodness in his place of work or her place of work, they expect financial compensation. Things are so bad that even sometimes, we as religious leaders, we tend to wonder what is happening. ‘Is God answering our prayers?’ We have been praying for Nigeria in distress for so long; we have been praying against bribery and corruption for so long. Perhaps, all these accumulated prayers are having effect now, by the youths coming out to declare, ‘We don’t want this, we want things to be done right. We are not violent people. We are not against the country or the leaders; we just want things to be done well for us and for the citizens. This is perhaps, prayers answered, and let us see how far it goes. Let it not be a sentimental show of the thoughts of youths. Let it be something serious, and I hope that it will bear good fruits.