John Cardinal Onaiyekan is the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese. In this exclusive interview, the former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) bared his mind on a variety of burning national issues, including his thoughts on the build-up to this year’s general elections.
The countdown to this year’s general elections has commenced in earnest with the major political parties intensifying their electioneering campaigns. What are your thoughts on the build-up to the elections?
One would have said that by now we should have gotten our acts together and be able to conduct democratic elections as a routine process in our political history, just as it is in most developed and civilized nations.
But I am afraid that, unfortunately, even as we approach the next general elections, there is general air of fear and anxiety in the atmosphere; expressed by the fact that many people are moving their families to where they consider safe havens. Many Nigerians are sending their families back home to their villages, especially southerners living in the far north. They are relocating back home. This is internal movement and I have been told that other Nigerians at the top level are also sending their families abroad until the elections are over.
Some of them are even top level people within the political environment and I think we cannot deny that this is happening. The only thing we can also affirm is that the vast majority of Nigerians are not running away; they have nowhere to run to. This means most of us will all be here in our respective places of domicile and this is a question that concerns all of us, whether this election would be free, fair and non-violent. That does not only depend on the politicians or government alone, but also on all of us.
What I have been preaching all along is for our people, the ordinary Nigerians to reject violence, refuse to be intimidated, stand their ground and perform their civic duty and not to allow anyone to disorganize their mind. Even then I also still believe that it is the responsibility of government to conduct elections.
But the way our government has always been, the institutions of government that should ensure impartial, independent electioneering have often found it difficult to remain totally neutral in relation to the contending parties. I think we need to admit that it is difficult because by the very nature of things, by the way the INEC is constituted and by extension the kind of control from the government, which makes the ruling party have control over national security agencies, namely the police, army SSS.
Because of that the tendency has always been for the government in power to enjoy undue advantage over the others. As you know, Nigerians can rightly refer to the weight of incumbency; the idea being that it is difficult to dislodge the government in power, almost as if it is only a stupid government in power that allows it to be defeated.
The question is, is this changing? Mr. President has repeatedly vowed and avowed that he will do everything in his power to ensure a free, fair and non-violent election. He also facilitated the famous meeting of all the political parties; particularly the leading presidential candidates on ground, at which meeting they signed an accord to ensure the election is free, fair and nonviolent.
For me that is good news although I am aware there are people who are skeptical. I remember speaking here in my hall with a very prominent opposition politician who said it is a mere ritual that they perform during every election. I can’t remember it happening in previous elections and even if it did, it did not get the attention that this one attracted.
Therefore, the message it sent at that level so far is very encouraging that we may indeed have a free and fair election devoid of violence. But that cannot happen only because you signed a piece of paper and I think the government who is largely responsible must take actions that speak louder than words such that the opposition is given a sense of confidence that yes what we signed will be properly implemented.
I really believe that the government in power has to do that and Mr. President, having given his word of honour solemnly, he should do his best. This means he may have people around him who don’t believe in the pact or who are already planning strategies. He should find a way of eliminating them from the system and allow the process to go.
There is no doubt that there is a link between the quality of the election and the possibility of post-election violence. Generally, as you have seen post-election violence is often an expression of disappointment or even anger at election results that are perceived to be not in line with the reality of the votes cast.
It means that INEC must go out of its way to be clearly non- partisan and independent; it should be independent as its name says and seen to be independent. The security agents should be for the security of all of us; to protect all political parties without bias.
Talking about the peace pact are you satisfied with the conduct of the two major parties in their presidential electioneering campaigns so far, in terms of the language and messages they are passing across?
We still have to come back to the point I earlier made that President Jonathan and General Buhari embraced each other warmly with big smiles and that photograph has gone viral. I would like to believe that those smiles were sincere; but they should also realize that there may be others on both sides who may not share the same sentiments.
This is where each of them must demonstrate true leadership to be able to bring in their members to the extent that such smiles, embrace and spirit that we saw on that photograph would be reflected in the conduct of the campaigns. It is not surprising that some persons, here or there, with misguided enthusiasm, may see things and carry out certain acts that are anything but civil.
But what we do expect is that when that happens they would be called to order. It boils down to not using foul language and addressing issues. I wouldn’t say we should avoid addressing personalities because personalities are important; we have to address both.
Personalities in the sense that, this guy has the qualities to rule or lacks the qualities to do so. But even when you are discussing personalities during campaigns it should not be insults. It is allowed for politicians to assess the past performance of their opponents as a way to indicate how much they fit power or not and this can be done without insults.
It is up to the electorate who are listening to them to weigh the weight of the argument one way or the other and to decide who to vote for.
What is your personal take on the performance of the current PDP led administration in terms of security, fighting corruption and managing the economy?
Let me say that before the build up to the elections we have been talking, it is not to be unexpected that whatever problem that is on ground we put the responsibility on the government in power; they are the ones who have asked to be our rulers, therefore, if we go into serious issues like that of corruption we must be the ones to say much has been left undone.
Even the government itself admits, though they may give excuses like, for example, saying that every nation is saddled with corruption. They might even say we have set up EFCC, ICPC and so on, but the question is there are too many people who are getting away with corrupt behaviour and there is no point asking me to bring proof of accusation of corruption.
There are agencies that should be able to track how people acquire wealth and how far such wealth can be justified on the basis of their income. It is the job of government agencies to do that, there are obviously a lot of people who have acquired wealth that it is not too difficult to explain how they came about such wealth.
Take the area of security; the Latin people have a proverb which says “you don’t argue with a fact before you.” For example, that you came to my house today at 5.15pm is a fact that we cannot argue over. In the same way it is obvious that there is insecurity in the land, what is even obvious is that there has been a trend of growing insecurity in respect of Boko Haram.
I don’t know whether there is less insecurity in other areas, like kidnapping and armed robbery, or is it that Boko Haram has completely taken our attention. But I am told that kidnapping has not even been arrested, it is still going on. In fact, somebody phoned me last night that her brother was kidnapped in Gboko of all places, which means whatever efforts the government is making to ensure that all of us are safe, those efforts have not achieved adequate success.
The first responsibility of every government is to ensure the security of lives and property of citizens. In a situation like elections, you cannot say since this government has not done XYZ then I am going to the other person or you say this government has not done XYZ but we have no confidence in this new person. The opposition does not have to prove how much they have done because they have not been in power.
This is why in developed democracies, incumbency is always a liability in elections and generally the opposition is at an advantage because they can always put the blame of everything on the ruling party and claim that if you put them there you will see wonders. This is why in Europe and America you seen this ding-dong going on and I think there is something good about that. If you go try your best and people would say let us try some other persons and the next people would come and do their best and by the end of the day the whole society is much better.
Therein lies the strength of democracy; you can always change your mind and you can always bring people back. Why I am going through this is that at this point there is no reason asking me whether Jonathan has performed well enough because that is going to be the major question for the election and I don’t want to pre-empt that.
You earlier expressed concern about reports about people moving away from the north and vice versa. Are you particularly afraid?
I am living in Abuja and if I am not particularly afraid, it is not because there is no reason to worry. It is simply that my own emotional make up, especially with regards to the Nigeria project, is such that I am very optimistic.
You are here in my house; did you see any policeman or soldier? But there are people who cannot do without them because they are always afraid. I go around freely without carrying a platoon of soldiers to protect me and there are people who are telling me that I am being very naïve.
Some people have noted that my jeep is clearly inscribed with Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja and they say look, you are advertising yourself for attack. I have been advertising myself for the past many years and no attack has come. Instead I have made myself liable to be recognized and treated very well.
Therefore, you have to weigh the consequences and make up your mind. Personally, I have a strong conviction that we will get over it. That is why I always encourage that we, in the churches, should keep talking to our people to resist violence.
Let election campaigns be done with conviviality, we are not enemies.
What roles should religious leaders play in times like this? Are they living up to such roles in Nigeria, given our current situation?
In Nigeria today who is a religious leader? So many people claim to be religious leaders and there are many religious leaders who are politicians and who carry on mixing their religion and politics.
It is something you cannot really avoid and that makes your question difficult. I can only talk for myself.
Fortunately, I belong to a church which has rules that we who are clergy abide by. Those of us who have chosen to be clergy cannot be part of any partisan organization. I can’t be a card carrying, advertising member of one party.
That doesn’t mean that I do not have an obligation to vote, but I cannot go up to the pulpit and say vote for X or vote for Y; that is what my church says. But you know there are other churches which don’t have such rules where reverends are themselves strong members of political parties and right now we have it in our hands. So when you then talk about religious leaders, the question becomes difficult. We hear that the vice presidential candidate of the APC is a pastor in a particular church.
Do you describe him as a religious leader? I don’t know! But he is definitely a politician and there are many like him. In our church, if you are so disgusted with the system and you want to go into the battle of politics and engage in the political battle so as to capture power to rule, then you have to suspend your membership of the clergy for the simple reason that the church cannot be seen to be partisan. In my church, we have members who belong to APC, PDP and other political parties and I have to have a message that appeals to all of them.
Talking about your church (I believe you are referring to the Catholic Church), one of your reverends, Emmanuel Mbaka, recently came under criticisms for his sermon against President Jonathan’s government and you were one of those that criticized him. Why?
I am happy with this opportunity to balance the report that emanated from an interview I had with one of your colleagues.
Assessing the performance of the government is what we do regularly and the reverend father in question was well in order to point out, especially the gap between declarations and real achievements. It is part of our duty to denounce deception and lies and to that extent I have no problem because I have been doing that myself.
But when it reached a stage where he says you have to vote for X and not for Y he has crossed the boundary; he should have left those who were listening to him to make up their minds on that because they have every right to freedom of choice and not to be pressurized with spiritual power to go one way rather than the other.
Of course, it is not every Reverend Father that is like the one you are talking about because in every group there are always those who are on their own.
So has he been punished or sanctioned for violating the rules of the Catholic Church?
I was reported to have said if he were a priest in my diocese I would sanction him, but I would not deny that. But the question is what do I mean by sanction?
Sanction may not necessarily mean punishment; it may not be more than calling him for a discussion to point out to him that what he has done is not in order. That is already a sanction. Has he been punished? I don’t know because that is up to his bishop.
Given the concerns you earlier raised over the forthcoming election, do you foresee a situation whereby there would be another post-election violence?
The only thing I foresee is that our next president would either be Jonathan or Buhari; that is all. We are hoping that the conduct of the election would be so transparent that there will be no much room for quarrel when the result is announced.
I think even the mechanism for our election, despite the inadequacies here and there, has been done in such a way that we can really transparently follow the movement of our votes.
From what I understand, the votes are all counted at the polling booths, which are not secret locations. They are open and at each of them there are the agents of the political parties. Even those of us that are ordinary people have the right to stand around and ensure that things are done well.
There should be no difficulty in counting votes. There should be no difficulty in collating votes in these days of advanced technology. Our Catholic Church was involved in election monitoring and we gave all our boys and girls cell phones, and from each polling booths, they were sending us the results as they were being announced.
Somewhere along the line, we went into trouble because the result that was announced from the collating centers did not tally with what we independently collated. We have specific cases where our collations were used in election petitions and we succeeded in getting the elections overturned because it was clear that someone out there decided not to do the right thing.
And this is what we have been saying, namely that if everybody involved with the electoral process is aware that this is a matter that is very important for Nigeria; that we cannot afford to leave ourselves in a situation of anger, frustration; that our votes have been badly handled, then they would do the right thing-transparently.
And if it is clear that I didn’t win the election, there is no need to resort to violence. What is not good is to play monkey games, ballot box stuffing/snatching and at the end come up with a result. At the end of the day, you expect those who are declared losers to accept such results? They can’t accept it because it is not feasible.
Sometimes the contestants may agree with the bad process, but their followers may not agree and they have every right to protest because at the end of the day it is their votes that are being rubbished.
Should religion be a factor in deciding on choices during elections in Nigeria?
A whole lot of things go into your choice of whom to vote for and what to vote for. Everybody has his or her own convictions and interests. There are people whom the most important factor in election is what religion the contestant belongs to. I have heard people telling me I will never vote for a Muslim and they are entitled to that position and there are those who say they won’t vote for a Christian.
But if you ask me I would say you are wrong if you say you are a Christian and won’t vote for a Muslim. Supposing you have a rogue as a Christian candidate and a very good Muslim as a candidate, can you still say the same thing? Someone would say yes, but they have every right to their choices. But if you ask me I will say that our job as religious leaders should be to constantly tell people to vote according to their conscience and the person who would do a better job.
Of course, who would do a better job depends on how you see it. There is also the other question of ethnic identity. Some people would say no matter what I will cast my vote for the man from my area. I am from Kogi State, which is very mixed with regards to tribes.
The Igala is largely on the east and some of us Yoruba, Egbira and others. Every effort you make there it is difficult to remove ethnic politics. The Igala group is in the majority and every politician knows that once he gets the Igala people around him, then he has won the election.
I hear the same thing is happening in Benue State between the Tiv and Idoma and what can you do about that? Politics is a game of number and once people have made up their minds to vote it is their right to do so, whether it is the right thing to do is another matter.
But if you continue voting like that you are likely not to be getting the right candidates, because it is not likely that the person from your tribe is the best. Are you interested in the good candidate; the best person who will do the best job? That is the irony that makes elections difficult in Nigeria.
One of the presidential candidates recently went into a church, thereby drawing comments from many people. What is your take on that?
The fact that a Muslim candidate went to a church, there is nothing against that. In my own church I have received many Muslims for various reasons: weddings, funerals, thanksgiving services where you come with your friends including Muslims. So, that a Muslim visited the church there is no problem about that.
The problem will only arise over what role he is given to play, otherwise there might be no difference between him and a Christian politician. If a Christian politician begins to campaign in the church, he is certainly wrong because the church is not a campaign podium.
For the same reason, if a Muslim comes to Church to start campaigning it is wrong. You may say that his very presence there is interpreted to be campaign, but I am afraid that interpretation is uncalled for. Don’t forget that whoever will be our president would be the president of all Nigerians and he is going to be either Christian or Muslim.
If my president is a Muslim I will be more comfortable if he is the kind of Muslim who has no difficulty coming to my church. But if I have a Muslim president who is so fanatical to the extent of not being able to stand the Christian faith and cannot enter the church, then there would be problems. Christians, also, go to the mosque when they are invited; you don’t pray with them, you just go there as a sign of solidarity.
I can imagine that this politician you are talking about was brought to the church by his friend who happens to be a member of that church.
With barely three weeks before the elections there are fears in the North-East where insurgency persists with many of the people there now living elsewhere as IDPs. This has made others to call for the suspension of elections in those states. What is your take?
Let me tell you frankly I really do not know what to say. This is a serious problem! It is like whichever way you go you are wrong. Some people have canvassed the idea that we postpone the election until there is calm in the North-East, but as you know postponing election means prolonging tenure, so it is untouchable because a new government is expected to takeover on May 29, with a new president.
To that extent, there is no way of postponing election. Even though Mr. President told them in Maiduguri the other day that all the IDPs will soon return to their homes, I think you would need a miracle for that to happen that soon.
From the time he made that statement I have not seen any action on ground to give even the IDPs the confidence that they would soon go back to their homes for the election. Now, that it is obvious that first of all you cannot set up polling booths or polling stations in those areas because when you say a place is under Boko Haram insurgency it doesn’t necessarily mean their soldiers are stationed all over the place. No.
They can launch attacks from anywhere, so the place is not safe and which means you cannot conduct election in that whole zone. That is not the only problem. They said arrangements would be made for IDPs who are in camps within their own states to vote and I think and hope they would go further on that arrangement for the simple reason that the vast majority of IDPs are not in camps.
We have heard that not more than 10 per cent of them are in camps and to say that because you are not registered in camps you cannot vote is tantamount to deliberately disenfranchising the IDPs. I believe INEC should still put its thinking hat on, go back to the drawing board and open the space as much as possible to permit as many as possible for IDPs to vote.
Are you confident that INEC would deliver in these elections, especially with the problems associated with PVC distribution?
Was it last week or so that a governor , at a rally, was encouraging the people to please go and collect their PVCs. INEC said there were millions of PVCs that were waiting to be collected, but I am seeing the problem from the other hand.
I am not putting the blame on these people who have not collected their PVCs, but I am putting the blame on INEC who has made it rather difficult for them to be collected.
There should be a way of making the PVCs easily accessible and it is up to INEC and I put the blame on them. If you have a situation whereby you have hundreds of thousands of PVCs uncollected, it means that those uncollected PVCs can be put to sinister use on the day of election. The sooner we get done with our national ID cards the better, because most countries that is what they use for elections and in those countries every citizen has an ID card.
What do you make of the controversy generated over the certificate of the APC presidential candidate?
To me, this is an uncivilized attitude towards the election. As you know this whole story of certificate is being blown up as part of electioneering campaign. If you ask me I would say what has secondary school certificate got to do with whether either of the two candidates can rule the nation, especially when you are talking about somebody who has ruled the nation before and had reached the level of a General in the Army?
Are we saying that he has not got the level of education of a secondary school? Those who say so are simply looking for reasons to score political points. It is just like the story about the condition of his health which is very sad. I am 71 years of age and all of us at this age have something in us; one form of terminal disease or the other, which is normal at that age.
The Bible says the sum of our years is 70 and when I marked my 70th birthday, I went to my doctor and told him that I have reached the sum of my years and I am expecting death anytime so he should please help me find out which disease can kill me so that I can prepare. This is normal that anybody at 70 and above has something, but the election law does not say you must bring out all your medical records; everybody keep their medical records.
We have even seen sick presidents who have performed very well; we have even seen blind presidents who have performed very well in their countries, so let us be very serious. I am very sorry that these issues are being raised. Those who are raising these issues are the ones dragging the level of political discourse to the mud and they are getting on our nerves.