Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama is the Archbishop of Jos and President of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) – the highest decision-making body of the church in Nigeria. In this interview with Paul Obi, ahead of Bishops’ conference, he speaks on several issues including expectations from President Buhari, rule of law and Fr. Mbaka. Excerpts
Nigeria is in a critical situation both economically and politically. The Catholic Bishops met with former President Goodluck Jonathan and the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari during the electioneering campaign. What is your opinion about the President Buhari you met then and the current prevailing situation in the country under his leadership?
Now we have a new administration, an administration that has promised changes in different ways. We are waiting, Nigerians are suffering, it is not today the suffering started, we have been suffering a long time ago and this is because of the insensitivity of our leaders who see leadership as promoting self-interest rather than promoting the welfare of Nigerians and that is why we suffer, each direction you turn there is great suffering. Is it in the education sector, the children, the schools, and the university suffered? Is it in the area of infrastructure, see our roads; see just the way transport is. Basic amenities such as water and electricity, basic primary health care for people in the villages these are grossly lacking.
So it was with great expectations that Nigerians voted and we are quite hopeful that there will be very many changes in this regard and now we are impatient and waiting to have these changes brought about. I keep telling people that the damage done to this country economically, politically, socially and in many ways, is enormous and we can’t rush to proffer realistic solutions. Therefore we should give this administration a chance.
They are not yet one year in office and considering the enormity of damages done to this country I think it is only fair we give them a chance even though there were many promises made. I keep asking the question: were they aware of the enormity of the problems or were they just making political statements? If you say you will change this, provide this, didn’t you know beforehand? Why would you make a promise maybe based on speculations because you were not very conversant with the financial situation of the country and yet go on to make promises.
During the campaigns, President Buhari was presented as a changed agent and democrat. Eight months into office, there are accusations that his government is engaged in arbitrary abuse of the law, disobedience to courts’ orders, like Col Dasuki and Nnmadi Kanu, what is your take?
I am not a lawyer and I don’t have the full facts so I wouldn’t be able to say what has happened whether there is truly a violation of people’s rights, legal rights etc. I can’t say, but if that is the case then something is fundamentally wrong because once you begin to violate fundamental human rights, abuse court orders then we are drifting back, retrogressing back into dictatorship. We don’t want that we had to do away with the military rule in order to embrace democracy and the tenets of democracy must be upheld at all cost.
I don’t know in which areas these breaches have taken place but if there are and they are concrete facts, I urge the administration to seriously look onto this and ensure that their promise to make life better for the people is what the people experience. Governance is a complex issue and it is not just perhaps about the court orders. I think when you are looking at Nigeria and the issue of security etc, you have to look at things holistically. It is only fair that we should know. Otherwise we will read the situation as a violation of people’s human rights.
A member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption under this government, Prof Femi Odekunle, has called for a moderated form of rule of law in the country. Do you subscribe to such moderation; a haphazard form of rule of law?
Anything that it is haphazard is invitation to chaos, anarchy and doom and Nigeria is too big and too important for haphazardness. There should be due process, whether it is politician they are dealing with, it should be orderly and legal issues, social issues, and economic issues.
There should be orderliness and this is what can propel Nigeria to greatness. If we begin to apply jungle justice to situations, then we are heading for doom and we do not want to see that in Nigeria, we want to ensure that people have their human rights respected, that government despite the huge powers it has, does not infringe on the rights of the most little human beings in this country called Nigeria. I still pray and hope that this is not true that the reason why these two names you mentioned are still being held up till now simply because the federal government is reckless and wants to appear so.
Nigerians are baffled at how partisan, your priest, Fr. Ejike Mbaka, has become. This is against the Canon Law, specifically, Canon 285, 286, 287, where Priests are prohibited from being politically partisan. Even with this clear-cut law, Mbaka appears unstoppable?
I admired your knowledge of the Canon Law. It has to be clear when we are talking about the Catholic Church, it is very common to hear people say the Catholic Church has not done this, the catholic bishop conference has not said this or not done this but you need to be careful to understand the nature of the Catholic Church, the structure and the hierarchical composition.
Fr Mbaka is a priest of Enugu diocese even though as the president of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria, I hear him or see him make utterances that are at variance perhaps with ecumenical provisions or there are statements that don’t even present well the views of the Catholic Church in Nigeria because he does not speak for the Catholic Church, he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church Nigeria.
We have a structure, it is the Diocesan Bishop that will have to draw his attention to that, I don’t just jump Jos and cross Abuja to Enugu and say I am the President of the Catholic Bishop I have seen this. No! We leave that to the Diocesan Bishop and I believe that a kind of conversation is going on between him and his priest. I do not know exactly how but when people speak in that manner that we do not share in; we don’t just start jumping all over the place attacking them. Fr Mbaka is a priest and a young priest in the Catholic Church and I think his bishop has the capacity to contain him and to ensure that he only speaks about what edifices Nigerians and also speak about what brings unity.
How about the fact that, it has taken Bishop Callistus Valentine Onaga of Enugu too long to resolve this conflict with Fr. Mbaka?
I can’t tell you what he has done or what he has not done. But it was said by the cardinal some time ago, Cardinal Onaiyekan, when the priest in question made certain statements and people were even thinking it’s the Catholic Church speaking. We had to come out and say this is a priest of a particular jurisdiction, he does not represent the Catholic Church in Nigeria, so he cannot speak on our behalf, say, we support this presidential candidate or that one. We don’t have the right to do that even though we as bishops have met with different presidential candidates we didn’t assure anyone of them that we were going to line up or queue up behind them and we didn’t assure any one of them.
That is partisanship, partisanship is completely out of the order and therefore we expect some bit of moderation, maturity in utterances by priests, by bishops, me inclusive. Fr. Mbaka is an individual, even though as an individual he should be sensitive about the things he says, because you can’t separate his priesthood from his individual person. It is so difficult. So when he speaks naturally, people will think he speaks as a Catholic individual, so let us hope that something is being done at the home front and that we wouldn’t be forced as a Catholic bishops’ conference to talk about this matter mainly because it would have been adequately discussed in Enugu diocese.
If Fr. Mbaka was a priest under your jurisdiction, what would you do?
I would quote the relevant canons you have quoted, I will tell the Father that partisanship is out of the question for a Catholic Priest, partisan statements are not welcome. We must be very open minded with people who are engaged in different political campaigns etc. Just like it is our law that a priest should not be involved in commercial business. I will ensure that my priest is not in politics and that he is not being sentimental on issues and he should be sensitive to that small still voice that can trigger a lot of misunderstanding and create confusion so he should be careful.
The quantum of corruption that has been unearthed so far by this administration tells a lot about the collapsed of our moral fabric. Some say, by extension, it’s about the failure of the church. How true is that?
It is a very overwhelming revelation that we are seeing and if what we are told is the truth and really the truth, then we know that this country is really in trouble, that people act with impunity when it comes to handling the resources of this country. It is terribly sad.
This should not be a poor country, Nigerians should not be living below the poverty level but I am a grassroots priest and I know I encounter thousands and thousands if not millions everyday who are living on indescribable poverty, while a few wallow in total luxury and economic comfort milking his country dry, terribly dry. It is unfortunate to hear that the money meant to provide security of lives and property for the development of this country was being used recklessly to foster political interest. It is terribly sad and people say the president is pursuing this issue of corruption in a partial manner.
I say: is what is being unearthed true or not? It doesn’t matter whether he begins with the opposition or with his own party, let it be that Nigerians for the first time are hearing of the highest scale of corruption that has robbed them of enjoying economic and social lives. Something is wrong definitely and therefore, I think he needs our support, that nobody is denied the right of defending himself or herself.