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Muslim Women Should Be Left To Wear Hijabs — Onaiyekan

Catholic Arch Bishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan
Onaiyekan
The Catholic Arch Bishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, speaks with The Punch on the $2.1 billion arms scandal, the ₦7bn allegedly paid to Christian leaders to endorse ex-President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 general elections.

In the fight against corruption, some critics contend that President Muhammadu Buhari is on a vengeance mission. Recently, you spoke in Nasarawa State where you warned that policies should not be based on vendetta. What point were you raising?

It is a matter of distinguishing between when you are politicking and when you are governing. When you are politicking, probably it is allowed that you say all kinds of nonsense against your opponent because the idea is to make him look ridiculous, but both of them (Buhari and Jonathan) did it to one another. Now that it is time for governance, we need to find a way whereby we can bring about a joint effort of the whole nation. When I used the word revenge in the church, I meant something. In the church, we don’t believe in revenge. In the church we know that there are evils, we know there are wicked people; there are people who do evil but we often simply insist that revenge doesn’t solve problems but creates another problem. What is true in terms of personal relationship is also true in terms of state or public relationship.

A nation cannot brand half of its population as enemies against whom it fights. It is not possible because that half of the nation will fight back and when they fight back, it is the nation that will suffer. People have suffered in the old regime because they were not in power; they still remember and maybe some people are still smarting under it. The question is: if you are now in power, is it that you are going to do to them what they did to you? If you didn’t like what they did to you and you were saying it is because of the bad way they treated you that is why things were not moving, one would expect that you embrace a change in the way you deal with this kind of thing. When people are using expressions like targeting or witch hunt, or some people have determined effort to bring others down and all they are doing is to look for evidence against others.

I think the people in government should be aware and try their best not to do things that will raise that kind of impression because impression is very important. Impression is reality; it can be good impression or it can be negative impression. As far as impression is concerned, it is real because it affects the people who carry such impressions. When we talk as religious leaders, we hope that we can bring in religious principles to help in the political management of our nation. All these periods we have been talking about anti-corruption, I want to see more efforts to involve religious leaders because if corruption is a matter of morality, you cannot handle morality only by laws, Police and Department of State Services. There must be somebody somewhere who can talk to the heart of the people and this is where I believe the religious committees in Nigeria too should be up and doing. And I don’t think we are being heard enough even in the condemnation of corruption. There are not many places of worship where they make it (corruption) a major aspect of their sermons and I think we should do that and also preach the message of forgiveness of reconciliation in our country.

At the end of the day, this country belongs to all of us. Today it is the All Progressives Congress; the next election might go the other way too. It is better we are able to work in such a way that whoever is in power, the primary objective will be what is best for the country, which means just as the country is indispensable, we cannot afford to consider any group of people as disposable. When it comes to the actual nitty gritty of governance, there are people who have been in government for the past 30 years and among them, many have reached top levels. For as long as they were there, they worked with the previous governments. As a new government has come, you cannot throw the previous people in the previous governments away, you need them and their ideas. The important thing with a new government is that you can carry on from the old and improve on it – add something there, remove something there, but all along the same line. I am hoping that such is going to be happening gradually.

Somebody was even accusing our present government of copying the budget of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. What is wrong with that? The important thing is the content of the budget because, normally, a good budget is not made for one year but to span a long period of time. And so, if a government has a good budget, that budget should be valid beyond his term of office, which means that the new person who comes should be able to pick it up and work on it. If we try and recognise as much good as we have done for ourselves, let all be put on board and recognise also the bad things we have done to ourselves and try to reduce them. We should try to lead people to change their ways of believing and try to pluck holes in the system so that if a lot of leakages were taking place before, let us block the holes so that leakages will no longer take place. Then, we can make so much progress. We can’t forget too that we have a totally new financial environment, with what is happening to oil. Don’t forget that oil prices have gone down. We are crying but those countries in Africa, who never had oil, are now thanking God that the prices of oil have gone down; it means different things for different people.

Last year, the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Alex Badeh, blamed the soldiers who were convicted of mutiny for their inability to defeat Boko Haram despite being equipped. But a month after Buhari’s inauguration, he admitted that the Army was under-equipped. Given this scenario, is Buhari right to call for the probe of Badeh and other ex-service chiefs?

The truth will set us free and part of the problems with Nigeria is that there is too much confidential business going on in government. Even the famous Freedom of Information Act, we are not seeing how it is working. Things done on our behalf and big decisions taken in our name are shrouded in mystery.

The whole story of our soldiers being sent to battle with inferior weapons is a very sad one. I am not able to comprehend that a commander will send his troops to go and get killed; either the commander is not aware of what level of arms he is giving to his people and totally unaware of the other side, in which case he is not a good commander, or he knows and he is just callous and he doesn’t care about human life. In which case, Nigeria is doomed with those kinds of commanders. The probe, I believe, is to bring out the facts. We will wait for the facts to come out. But unfortunately, we are suffering from a syndrome; once somebody’s name is mentioned and figures are mentioned, the whole world begins to call them thieves. This is not right. The rule of law is that on the basis of evidence, you will bring them (suspects) to the court and when they have been tried and found guilty, then, they are convicted. Then, we can shout. Before then, they are accused and it is possible to accuse an innocent man unjustly.

There are circumstances which immediately point out that something went wrong. It is not unusual therefore to find out from the person in charge who should have known. It is possible that the man on top didn’t know what was happening; it is possible that some other elements have found their way into the system and stole everything, but I would have thought that at some point, the top level of the military should have seen that things weren’t going on well. You wouldn’t need Buhari to come and make those statements. What we are seeing is that because Jonathan is not a soldier, he wasn’t in a position to assess the quality of information he was getting from his service chiefs. Buhari is a different kind of person; he is a soldier and I am sure he can ask the right questions using the right kind of words. So, from that point of view, you are right to expect that Buhari will turn a fresh page in this whole discussion. Many Nigerians are very angry, not only with the ex-service chiefs and the military commanders, but also with the politicians who were involved and all the businessmen who were making big money. If it is true that money was given to buy good equipment and the money was spent on buying second hand equipment at the expense of new ones, then it is murder.

Should all the people allegedly involved in the $2.1bn arms scandal be tried for murder?

I don’t know whether the law allows it. Most of the corruption ends up in murder. Most of the corruption in this country has led to the death of thousands and millions of people. The corruption in the system which does not allow for medicine in the hospitals, not even in the village hospitals but even in the big ones. It means a lot of people go to the hospital and they die; because they have not been able to get care, they die. From that point of view, there is a lot of killing that have taken place because of corruption. It is only that in this particular case, it is too obvious that you sent soldiers to battle ill-equipped and you sent them to go and die. And when they refused, they are arrested and accused of cowardice. Those who were accusing them didn’t go with them to the battlefield; that is what one would have expected, being in the frontline. The investigation will bring about the full facts and bring out too all other people who are involved in the decisions that have led to this kind of thing. All that is important is ensuring that it won’t happen again.

We are expecting that if the holes are blocked; if we make sure the order for arms are genuine and materials that are brought in are genuine, then, we can face the Boko Haram. I heard some people travelled to the North-East for Christmas. I also heard that Boko Haram boys still come once in a while to the villages and the soldiers take to their heels because the moment they hear the sound of their (insurgents) guns, they know the kind of guns that are coming and the soldiers leave the villages at the mercy of Boko Haram. In a particular story that I heard, Boko Haram was not even interested in the villagers; they went straight ahead to the (military) camp, destroyed the equipment they found, carried away as much of what was left of the ammunition and went back singing and dancing. When I heard that story in December 2015, it meant that even up till now, we cannot say that our soldiers are armed in such a way that Boko Haram will be scared of them.

Have you seen a major difference in the way Jonathan fought terrorism and the way Buhari is tackling it?

There is a difference. Even before Jonathan left there (office), there was a difference; results were already coming out because it seemed that at the end (of the last administration), Jonathan or whoever was around him realised that things had to change, especially when the government postponed the elections and said they wanted to deal with insurgency in the North. I wasn’t expecting any miracle but, at least, some changes happened. And when Buhari came in May 2015, we believed that whatever shortfalls existed would gradually be remedied and that by now we should know what kind of guns we need to face Boko Haram. Boko Haram is not bringing their guns from heaven. We should know what kind of guns they have and where we can get better ones. By the time you put this in a global perspective, we will know what we are up against.

What’s your reaction to the allegation by the APC that Jonathan’s administration was responsible for the dwindling fortunes of the country economically?

There is no government that is perfect and, certainly, the government of Jonathan was not perfect. Every government makes its own mistakes and that is the beauty of democracy. Having run government for four years or eight years, as the case may be, and you made mistakes and have not made much progress on the economy, it boils down to the fact that you do not deserve to continue ruling. It is normal in a democracy. Therefore, you can tell APC to stop blaming the past and say, ‘That is why you won the election. If Jonathan had done very well, you would not have won the election, so, stop complaining.’ Now, you have a golden opportunity to show Nigerians how to run a good economy and you better start doing it fast. And you may not be able to do it fast if you spend too much time putting every blame on what had happened in the past. We know things are not perfect, so we need to rectify them. This government has not only the burden of inheriting the economic situation that is riddled with corruption; it has also inherited an economy that is quite depressed.

There was a time when Jonathan was getting over a $100 for every barrel of oil. Today, oil is running down to $35, which means that the money that is available for the government to use is much less. Whatever the case or whatever reason, there must be a strict arrangement of our economic system such that with the little money available, something tangible can be achieved. I don’t know whether oil is still at $100 a barrel, work would have been much easier for the APC. But as it is, they have inherited a big job. I hope they are not going to say ‘I am sorry, I don’t want it. Please, let Jonathan come back because we didn’t know it was going to be like this.’ We Nigerians are prepared to cooperate and make sure that they succeed because they are there for us; they are there for the next four years. Certainly, if they perform well and there is free and fair elections, Nigerians will decide whether they want them to continue or whether there is a new group again claiming they would work better, because within the next four years there will be a new political party.

Is that your prediction?

I am not predicting. I am not one of those who predict, I am only speaking generally that with the situation on ground in the political landscape and especially with the problems within the Peoples Democratic Party, it doesn’t seem like PDP will wax stronger in four years time. On the other hand, APC is not without problems and only God knows what will happen to the APC towards the end of the four years and before the election. We may have new political parties presented to us. Nigerians again we will look at them, we will vote and the majority will carry the vote. I am hoping and praying that between now and the next elections, APC would have achieved a lot and also changed the electoral process. For instance, the re-constitution of the Independent National Electoral Commission in such a way that government in power does not have so much authority to determine what INEC does. INEC is supposed to be an umpire; it is supposed to be impartial. It is not easy but it is possible. Some other countries have achieved it. If APC achieves that, it will be wonderful, even if at the end of the day they (the party) is losing the election because it made it free and fair. People are blaming Jonathan for agreeing to lose; they feel he should have refused to agree to lose but now that he lost, he is being highly commended not only at home but also abroad.

Given the security situation in the country, a lot of people have suggested that hijab should be banned. Are you in support of this?

There are two kinds of those who wear the clothing: there is a hijab, which is just a veil that a woman wraps around her head but leaves her face and one can see who it is quite well. I will say if a woman wants to dress that way, there is no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I do know that the experience in the North-East is the big hijab. If you are going in that direction, then no Hausa man up there should wearagbada because the babaringa should be banned too if that is what we are saying. The average Hausa man’sbabaringa, a local gun can be put underneath it. What I believe ought to be looked at positively and without bias are the ones that cover the face completely; I believe that those ones, they (security agencies) could restrict it to when they are in the mosque praying. But when they are walking on the streets, especially when they are on the highway or approaching a check point, it shouldn’t be because the security operatives would want to know who are you, where you are from and where you are going.

The government might consider a way of making it possible for every Nigerian to be able to be recognised without necessarily covering their face. In the Arab lands and especially in the desert places, men too tie the turban in such a way that one can hardly see their face because of the sand and dusts. A woman who is covering her face in Abuja, what purpose will that serve? If your face is not to be seen by anybody else but your husband, then don’t go out of your husband’s house. I think that we will help us and make sure we don’t get involved into unhelpful religious debate over this.

Nowadays, clerics have private jets. Should it be so?

We don’t know what you mean by a man of God or a cleric because there are all kinds of people who claim to be clerics. The name cleric is now used for all kinds of people and there are people who practice their religious leadership in a variety of ways. I was with some students at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria and they told me about how clerics got involved in politics. It depends on what you mean by cleric and what you mean by politics. For example in Nigeria, the church to which I belong has strict rules. If you are a reverend father, a deacon or a reverend sister, you cannot be a card carrying member of political party, which means you cannot present yourself for election. But we all go and voter. I go to church and I tell my people ‘please make sure you have your voter card because you have a right and a duty to vote.’ And I make comments. Politics is for all of us. Anybody who says I should not be involved in politics is irresponsible. I am concerned about how my country is being ruled and I have every right and duty to comment, not only condemning what government is doing when they are doing the wrong thing but also to commend them when they are doing the right thing, and ask people to join hands with government in getting the right things done. But there are other churches where the reverends are all busy in politics.

After all, our vice president is said to be a pastor and I am sure it also happens among the Muslims. The whole question of politics and religion, and political leaders and religious leaders is a long story. For a long time, in many cases in history, the political leadership was in the hands of priests. And in many places in history, political leaders were considered as sacred. Even in Yoruba traditional religion, the king is a sacred person. So, we see a bit of the sacredness in the politician but we also see a bit of politicians being the priest because he has to direct and give directions. But sometimes, the same person combines both; sometimes it works, sometimes the combination can be confusing.

As for the money, huge mansions, private jets, plenty of bank accounts, it is not my duty to comment. Provided you make your money in a just way and you have reasons for what you are doing, and you are ready to explain to Jesus when you get to heaven, no problem. I will abstain from commenting not to talk of condemning anybody.

Before the elections, one Pastor Musa Dikwa alleged in Kaduna that Christian leaders got ₦7bn to support Jonathan. How much were you given out of the money?

I heard that story and I was waiting for my own share of the money but I didn’t get it. Nobody came from Kaduna to meet me to say ‘this is the amount we got from Jonathan.’ I think the matter was raised but the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria insisted that the person concerned should come and prove his case and he didn’t come up. It is one of those careless talks and N7bn is not a small amount of money. If you have that kind of thing, it will not be done too secretly that you wouldn’t know. That some politicians tried to give money to religious leaders is part of the game, especially when you want the religious leaders to speak very well of you to other people. You may not technically appoint him as a member of your campaign team, but a religious leader may have reasons to have the belief that this is the right person, and they believe that it is their duty to let the people know that this is the kind of person we should be voting for. But you should be careful.

During elections, what I cannot deny is that politicians often come with gifts and make donation to churches. The gifts and donation to the churches should not be considered as bribing you to vote for them. At least in the church to which I belong, the gifts and donations are for public usage by the church including charity to the poor. We don’t even get enough gifts to buy a private jet so forget about that.


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