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Drawing Back From Brink Of Chaos [Short Reflection By John Cardinal Onaiyekan]

Short reflection by John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja – Nigeria, The Wilton Park Conference on “Fostering Social Cohesion in Nigeria”

It was in Berlin, Germany, in April 2004, that I gave a presentation at a consultation very similar to this one on Nigeria, organized by the Catholic Church and the Government in Germany. My presentation was with the suggestive title: “Dancing on the Brink of Chaos”. Some years later, a pungent book was published on Nigeria by the former Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Prof. John Campbell, with a similar title. As I left home for this conference, my mind kept coming back to this ominous title. In recent times, many people in our country have been expressing grave concerns in one way or the other that the nation is not just dancing, but may actually be dangling perilously on the brink of chaos. Those who have lost faith in the survival of the nation are fatalistically waiting for the worst to happen. The media, social and mass, are agog with postings in this direction. Those of us who still believe that Nigeria is a viable project are passionately pleading that we need to join hands to draw the nation back from chaos. I believe that it is this stubborn faith that has brought me, and many of my compatriots to this conference in Wilton Park. We have been reflecting and talking among ourselves at home, and I am sure that we shall continue after we return. But the opportunity to meet out here in this English countryside, far away from the heat of events at home, in the company of others who we believe are friends of our nation, gives us great encouragement, for which we are truly grateful.

Fostering social cohesion in Nigeria is an urgent task that we must work seriously on before things deteriorate further. A special responsibility lies on those who have sought and taken up political power to manage the affairs of our nation. It is their primary duty to bring the country together as a nation united in justice, peace and harmony “under God”, as our constitution proclaims. We can only hope that they sincerely share the fears and anxieties of the Nigerian people in these turbulent times. This is certainly not time for stoking the embers of ethnic, political and religious polarizations. There is need to bring people together to work with a common heart and mind to restore peace and harmony in our land. Those who believe in and desire a successful Nigeria must come out to be counted, across our lines of diversities, We have every right to be angry and complain about things not going on well. And those who are in authority must allow those who are hurting to cry and tell their story. But we must go beyond crying and complaining. All hands must be on deck. Nation building is both the duty and the right of every citizen.

Beyond these words of pious exhortation, I don’t know what else I can say to this audience that you do not know already. However, by way of contribution to our discussion, permit me to raise a few issues that are presently causing grave concerns at home. I will also venture some suggestions on the way forward.


I will highlight some major challenges as follows:

1. Political. It is clear that there are many unresolved issues around our national identity and unity. Some people are saying that the country Nigeria is a mistake that needs to be dismantled. Others raise issues about the kind of federation we are practicing. There is an endless debate about “restructuring”, even though there is as yet no clear common definition of the term. There are calls for a renegotiation of the terms and conditions for our national unity, giving greater autonomy to the federating units. All these are expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

On the other hand there are those who are insisting that our unity is non-negotiable. Is their love for “one Nigeria” an ideological standpoint or merely the selfish attitude of those who are gaining beyond measure from the situation on ground? I tend to agree with those who maintain that we, as Nigerians, have never had the opportunity to decide what kind of nation we want in a democratic and free debate. This is reflected in the inadequacy of our constitution, riddled with lacunae, contradictions and ambiguities.

2. Ethnic Issues: There are growing problems with our ethnic identities in a modern state environment. There are unfinished tribal wars around the concept of ancestral lands, indigenes and settlers. How do we handle the historical legacy of “the right of conquest” claimed by some, and the agitation for freedom and equality, demanded by others? Can we resolve the clash between emirates and chiefdoms, especially in some Middle Belt areas? The claims of ethnic nationalities cannot be subsumed under a few lingua francas, like Hausa in the North and Middle Belt. The revolution of the great Usman dan Fodio surely means different things to different people, even today.

3. Religion continues to be seen as problematic. The long rivalry between Islam and Christianity for conversions and territorial dominance has reached a critical stage. The freedom and duty to propagate one’s faith must now be balanced by a mutual recognition of the same right and duty for those in the other camp. Otherwise clash and conflict become inevitable. Both sides need to temper their tendency towards superiority complex and universalistic pretensions. Many still find it difficult to acknowledge the fact of plurality of religions under one God. The right to be different in this area has to be accepted and respected, not simply tolerated. This requires a radical change of attitude that many are not yet ready to undertake.

4. In particular, the place of religion in public life continues to be a bone of contention. There are still in some quarters remnants of a theocratic mentality that can hardly be compatible with democratic principles of a just autonomy of religion and politics. The debate about the secularity of the Nigerian state has led to unnecessary confusion between our two faiths. There is a wide but erroneous perception that suggests that while Muslims do not separate religion and politics, Christians insist on the contrary. But let it be made clear that it would be most unchristian for a Christian to run his political life without – and worse still against God. That the will of God should guide all our human actions, including politics and public life is a value shared by both faiths. If we could agree to work on this together, we would save ourselves a lot of unnecessary conflicts and misunderstanding. It is in this direction that we should seek a just solution to the still lingering crisis over the position of the Islamic Shariah in our legal system.

When politicians use, abuse and misuse religion for their selfish interests, they bring out the worst aspects of religion. And when religious leaders collude with politicians in this regard, both religion and politics eventually suffer. The role of government is to be fair umpire and a just organizer of public interests, including religious interests.

5. Persecution of Christians: A matter of great interest and concern has to do with the frequent complain by some Christians that they are under persecution in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. The case has been made with copious statistics and evidence that many Christians sincerely see themselves as being under various kinds of disadvantage and neglect because of their Christian faith. The death of many Christian victims of the ongoing violence and insecurity has been attributed to hatred of their faith. The fact is that the perpetrators have often made this point clear in their declarations. (Eg. The outbursts of Boko Haram commanders). We hear the same from the evidence of many survivors. When gun men enter a Catholic seminary at night and drag out four innocent young men studying for the Catholic priesthood, keeping them in captivity for weeks and ending up leaving one 18 year old boy dead with wounds of torture and gun shots, there is a clear case of martyrdom and persecution.

It is true that not every injustice and violence suffered by a Christian automatically amounts to persecution. We live in an environment where injustice and insecurity is having a deadly toll on all categories of Nigerians, Christians and non-Christians alike. But it is not helping matters to try to deny the obvious. The victim knows what is hurting him or her, and has every right to cry and complain. This has given the nation a bad name, which should be of grave concern to our government.

The exploits of terrorists who kill, maim and rape chanting Islamic slogans in no way represent the Nigerian Muslim community. But we cannot close our eyes to the significant amount of hatred of the Christian faith manifested in many quarters. This is a dangerous attitude which both faiths must jointly work against. The same must be done if there are cases of hatred of Islam in Christian dominated communities.

6. Security: Right now, this is the greatest challenge facing the nation. The Boko Haram insurgence in the North East, with its trail of suffering and death among many innocent people, has refused to go, despite frequent claims by government to the contrary. The Fulani Herdsmen settlements that have lived peacefully with their hosts for years all over the nation seem to have suddenly been infiltrated by murderous heavily armed terrorists, going on rampage seemingly freely. Other armed bands called “bandits” have been on a killing spree in may parts of the North and Middle Belt. Kidnapping for ransom has become a thriving business all over the nation. Common criminals now seem to have freedom to rob and rape, kill and maim at will. While the people in authority move around with an army of security agents, the normal citizen is at the mercy of all sorts of criminal elements. The sad truth is that there is an unacceptable level of incidents, and an inexcusable level of impunity. We cannot understand that herdsmen drive farmers away from their lands only to settle on and occupy those same farms peacefully grazing while the farmers are in IDP camps begging for relief. How come kidnappers are able to collect and move around the billions of Naira of their ransom money and no one can trace them? This level of insecurity can only be found in nations that are at war.

7. Corruption: One of the main promises of this government has been to “kill corruption in Nigeria before it kills us”, a corruption that had become endemic, a mathetetised social cancer. After more than five years, we have well intentioned anti-corruption agencies like ICPC and EFCC, but with poor performance. There are wide allegations that massive stealing is still going on with impunity, and stashed away in the usual or new tax havens, including those in so-called respectable nations! There is the “legal corruption” of overpaid public officers, legislators and political office holders, in a nation still arguing over a minimum monthly wage of 30,000 naira. No wonder many youths have lost hope for a decent future in Nigeria and are ready to migrate to anywhere, by all means.


The picture painted above may appear desolate. But we refuse to despair. Nigerians are resilient and have always worked hard to pull out of difficult situations. Even though we have articulated the inadequacies of government, we still have a government in place. This government can perform better if it pays more attention to the cries and complaints of the people. President Buhari is in his second and last term of office. He has just about three more years, but long enough, to make a more felt impact on the life of Nigerians. If he vacates office leaving Nigeria the way it is now, or even worse, history will likely judge him very harshly. It is not too late to change course and attitude. In particular, the nation is in a crisis requiring the kind of emergency attention that should not be limited to friends and party members only. Government should find an effective way to open up to the contribution of the vast array of experts we have both at home and abroad. Nigeria is too big to be left in the hands of only those known to Mr. President.

In the light of all the above, I wish to propose a few suggestions by way of the way forward, away from the brink of chaos.

B.1. The several calls for a meaningful national discourse and dialogue about the present state and future direction of our nation ought to be taken seriously now. Whether or not we call it a “sovereign national conference”, it should be an open forum for free discussion of all relevant issues, with no restrictions or “no-go areas”. This should include, if need be, renegotiating the terms of our national identity. It may have to go beyond merely tinkering with the constitution, which in itself has become a major part of our problem.
The efforts of the national assembly to improve this constitution are commendable. But it seems to me rather futile, since, as beneficiaries of the status quo, they have lost the credential to reform themselves.

B.2. Government will need to do more to ensure a sense of belonging for every ethnic unit within the Nigerian state. The concept of federal character and quota system should be thoroughly reviewed to ensure justice and equity, no longer rewarding indolence and punishing hard work on the basis of place of origin.

B.3. We have to find ways of making religion an asset to our nation, and not a liability. We can start by seeking and celebrating the common grounds and shared values and principles of our diverse religious systems. We need to learn to accept and respect religious differences, under one law valid for all citizens. I am strongly convinced that it would be best for the nation if we gradually but surely dismantle the Sharia law as parallel legal system in Nigeria, aiming at one nation one law. This will in no way prevent Muslims from being guided by the moral norms of their faith, as they do in many places where government has no business with religious laws. In many cases, we may need to review the teaching of religious doctrine in schools and the language and content of sermons in Mosques and Churches, in such a

way that stresses One God; many faiths. The review we are talking about should start from the institutes where preachers and teachers are given professional and theological formation.

B.4. We need to increase our efforts at working and praying together to tackle the problems of our nation. While we are doing a lot in our respective communities, we can do better and more effectively if we work together on common concerns. For example, prayers for peace and security should at times be jointly with both faiths participating. It is a clear way to demonstrate that we worship the same God.

B.5. We need a sincere change in the idea of politics. Rather than it being a search for power for selfish gain, it must become an offer of self to serve the people, for the glory of God. Unfortunately, since politics has become a business investment in view of reaping profit like a financial dividend, it has become high-jacked by the notorious “money bags and godfathers” who assign and control the political space. For this to change, there has to be a drastic reduction in the emoluments of legislators and other political office holders. This will make the office less attractive and election race less desperate.

B.6. Finally, on security, it should be clear to the authorities, as it is to the ordinary Nigerian, that the existing strategy is not working and should be re-designed. It is hard to see how keeping the same people at the helm of the security apparatus for long time can ensure the kind of change required. The needful has to be done to make sure that terrorists are checkmated, criminals rounded up, bandits dismantled, and kidnappers put out of business. We have a right to move freely on our roads, and sleep with both eyes closed on our homes. This is not asking for too much. It is the least citizens expect of their rulers. The rise and proliferation of many forms of “self help” security organizations is a loud vote of no confidence in the power that be. This cannot be the final solution that we are looking for. It is only emergency measure.

Forwarded for publication by a Catholic Faithful, Attorney Carol Ajie.

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