YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Nigeria’s bishops have once again called on President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to restore peace to Africa’s most populous country.
Nigeria has faced terrorism both from the Islamist Boko Haram militant group in the country’s northeast and raids by Muslim Fulani herdsmen against mostly Christian farmers in the country’s Middle Belt, where the predominantly Muslim north meets the mostly Christian south.
The south is not immune to violence: Bandits and kidnapping rings roam the region with impunity, often targeting clergy.
Last week, the Nigerian bishops’ conference held their second plenary meeting at Divine Mercy Pastoral Center in Abeokuta.
The bishops said if Buhari didn’t tackle the country’s security crisis, it would mean his presidency is a failure.
Crux spoke with one of Nigeria’s most prominent prelates, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto.
Crux: How would you assess Nigeria’s security situation today?
Kukah: There are too many conflicting signals and very little inspiration.
Clearly, there is a yawning gap between the high ambitions on which this administration rode to victory and the realities today. On May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari claimed in his speech that we cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls, and referred to Boko Haram as a case of small fires causing large fires. Today, large fires have spread, news of the Chibok girls is a distant whisper and despite the claims of the military of a technical defeat, the horrendous experiences of people suggest that things are not getting better.
Rather than defeating Boko Haram, other larger fires have been ignited, murderous gangs of marauders and bandits have engulfed the entire nation. Other forms of criminality such as kidnapping, assassinations have not abetted, so we do not need to look any further to know that we are far away from the goal post of victory.
Very often, the security crisis in Nigeria has been framed as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Do you agree?
Ours has been a binary world. No thanks to a conspiracy by a western media with little concentration and time for details, African battles are seen through these binary lenses. All our conflicts are either framed as tribal, ethnic or religious. We lose the nuances and context of these conflicts, we are unable to grasp the historical, sometimes both internal and external dynamics, that produce these conflicts, and as you know, no two conflicts are ever the same.
The notion that Christians and Muslims are always fighting in Nigeria has gained traction over time and has become a popular myth that hides the fraud that masquerades as leadership in most parts of Africa and especially Nigeria.
The Nigerian military frequently claims victory over the terrorist group, Boko Haram. How would you assess the strength of the insurgents today?
One of the saddest issues for me is the fact that this conflict has focused mostly on a military solution, and this may not be unconnected with the military mind of those who are in power. We have lost the human side of this conflict and because it has become a military operation, this has thrown up so many other distortions that go with these conflicts, corruption, interagency rivalries, sabotage, counter penetration of the security forces, treachery and so on. How many times have we had the Boko Haram getting information about movements of the military of planned attacks?
Military operations have often left bitterness as innocent citizens are often collateral damage and are also victims of both the military and the insurgents, who both often charge innocent communities with treachery or collaboration with either side.
Has the country’s military response been adequate?
I cannot say but as I said, the evidence suggests that whatever the claims, we do not sense that this war is about to end.
What do you think are the factors fueling the insurgency?
There are many factors. These include the very low morale of the army – the president extended the tenures of the current service chiefs even when their legal terms of service have ended – allegations of desertion, diversion of funds for salaries, lack of adequate welfare of the soldiers, lack of confidence of the communities, diversion of relief materials, and a general feeling of a lack of direction.
There are public allegations of conflict and infighting at the highest level between the various security agencies and the leadership.
One aspect that tends to fuel ethnic divides in Nigeria is the way elections are conducted. What would you say are the dangers of voters, for instance, voting along tribal lines so that elected leaders are seen more as representative of their tribes?
Again, one feeds the other. I do not think it is the case that ordinary citizens vote along tribal lines. It is rather the case that politicians across Africa continue to feed the demons of ethnic or religious rivalries and stoke the embers of hatred.
Take northern Nigeria, which has held on to power for so long in Nigeria, who today the current administration has privileged in an embarrassing manner by breaking away with tradition. For example, all security chiefs are Muslims, yet the north has been the theater of war. Northern Muslims have been assigned the key positions in government. For example, out of 23 Federal Ministers appointed last month, only two are Christians.
Yet, the north and its Muslim population remain the most impoverished part of Nigeria by every and any index of development. There are some 13 to 15 million children out of school and begging on the streets in the name of religion. So, it is the elite that play the ethnic card and then seduce ordinary supporters into believing that, first, they should not trust the other because he or she is not one of them, or that he or she is the enemy.
Ordinary people are poor across religions and ethnicities and the political thieves steal across ethnic and religious lines. It is the ordinary people that need to be rescued from this savagery. This is why people like us feel so betrayed by politics in our country, and why to be silent is mortal sin.
You have said that the problems in Nigeria stem from the inability to manage its diversity. Can you elaborate on that?
As I said earlier, ordinary citizens suffer because of their social conditions which are perpetrated by bad governance. It is the fickle-minded and corrupt political class which has used these differences as tools for manipulating the ordinary people and keeping them divided so they can perpetrate their criminality. If differences were a problem, why would the United States be the most powerful country in the world today?
In almost every case, then as now, it is largely the immediate families, friends and cronies of those in power who do well for themselves. The lot of the generality of Yorubas, Igbos, Hausas or Fulanis did not improve because their son or daughter was in power. Ordinary people simply feel a sense of false tribal or religious solidarity and an illusion that their son or daughter has joined Ali Baba and his 40 collaborators. The actors vary, but the text is always the same.
There have been calls, even from bishops like you, for Nigeria to be restructured. What form do you think that restructuring should take?
We are victims of language and of course, perhaps restructuring has become the catchphrase. It may not explain everything, but it at least is a simple way of saying, we are not happy.
Whether it is IPOB [Indigenous People of Biafra, a separatist group in southeastern Nigeria] or the Niger Delta militants or Boko Haram, Nigerians are not happy. That is why I have argued that what is required urgently is not the fuzzy and dubious promises to fight corruption even when the same corruption is the vehicle that has brought the government to power, but a clear message about national cohesion and how we can hold together.
I do not subscribe to the superficial saying that everyone should go their separate ways. The truth is that a majority of the Nigerian elite knows that most of them have been exiled from their mansions in the villages because of fear of kidnapping and banditry. So, the idea of ‘let us go our way’ is a bluff.
The reality is that years and years of military rule have created a regime of incentives for those in power which borders on outright larceny. Imagine that amidst all this poverty, the National Assembly has approved hundreds of billions of Naira for a mere 500 citizens, a good number of whom have no idea why they are in the National Assembly, and may spend their time there saying and contributing nothing.
[Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, the 469 members of the Nigerian National Assembly received a N4.68 billion ($12.7 million) “welcome package” to pay for expenses at the beginning of their term. This is in addition to their salaries and expense accounts.]
So, restructuring is another name for a sense of belonging, a sense of justice, a feeling of fairness, a feeling that we can measure the weight of our sweat, a sense that we must end what we say in Nigeria: The monkey works, the baboon eats.
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