Cardinal Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, is one of the most important figures of the African episcopate. Sixty-eight years old, born in Kabba, a town located in the geographical heart of Nigeria, monsignor Onaiyekan is – moreover – co-chairman of the Council of religious leaders of Africa. His indefatigable commitment for peace is well-known. Boko Haram, violence, dialogue, justice, and the role of the Church, are among the themes he spoke about in this interview with Southworld.
The radical Islamic movement Boko Haram killed more than 500 people, with a further thousand wounded only last year. According to you, what kind of solution can be found against this violence?
“First of all, it is important to remember that this extremist group is made up of only a few people and does not represent Nigerian Muslims. Boko Haram is an anomaly in our country. At the same time, we are worried by the picture of our country given by the media. Christians in Nigeria do not consider themselves the victims of a Muslim-led persecution. The population, about 160 million people, is composed of Christians and Muslims in equal parts, and these two groups have the same influence. We have managed to coexist in the same nation quite well. We believe we have learnt some lessons on the issue of Christian-Muslim relationships which can be useful to the rest of the world”.
According to you, what could the causes of this violence be?
“They are not found in the realms of religion but they have to be seen in a more general context. The Boko Haram matter is very complex, it has strong political and social elements in it. Millions of people are affected by unemployment and poverty and can rightly blame government deficiencies. A government that was unable to provide safety for the people. Having said that, social distress can never justify violence. Never”.
What are the possible solutions?
“We must know our Muslim neighbours and keep an open mind towards the good-willing ones, who are the majority. We must cooperate in order to be sure that fanatics will not determine the dynamics of our mutual relationships, pushing us to become enemies. We have many things in common: aside from the spiritual values shared by Christians and Muslims, the fact is that we are citizens of the same country and we have to face the same problems and the same challenges. That is why we must join our efforts, also the intellectual ones, to solve these problems. In such a way, we will be neither enemies nor rivals, but allies. I am sure that by doing this we will give an impulse to the Gospel”.
You have recently been created cardinal. What meaning does this have for the Church in Nigeria and Africa?
“I feel a renewed commitment to promote dialogue and peace in Nigeria. We must work for reconciliation, peace and justice. There is nothing exceptional in what I am doing. I have just one regret: that my own efforts and those of the Church often do not get the results we had hoped for. In Nigeria, in particular in the northern regions, violence continues. We, the bishops, try to do our best, also because one thing encourages us: most Nigerians want to live in peace. They want to live in peace independently of their religious faith, their ethnic belonging or other elements that mark a difference”.
We receive more and more alarming news coming from the African continent: DR Congo, Somalia, Mali…
“Many areas of Africa are still hostage of armed conflicts, both old and new. And the victims, in these conflicts are – nearly every time – poor, innocent people, women and children. The leaders that are capable of leading their countries and at the same time are gifted with a broad vision that embraces the whole continent, are too few! Often, behind wars in Africa there is an attempt to grasp natural resources. Our continent is one of the richest in the world, but we unfortunately are not yet able to govern it as we should. Our politicians want power and riches. They do not care about what people need and they do not work for peace. Take, for instance, DR Congo. One of the great problems – not only in Congo – is weapon smuggling. Who produces the AK-47s and light arms which are still killing Africans? Where do they come from? Who provides them? Is it possible, that the world powers do not know about it? The truth is, the arms trade is too big a deal and nobody cares if innocent people pay for it all. European countries know what is happening, but they are not doing anything. ‘If we do not sell them, the Chinese will’, they say in order to ease their conscience”.
How do you see the role of the international community?
“The international community could play a positive role. But it often does not, because it is ruled by world powers – both states and non-state entities – whose interests do not match with the Africans’. During the Synod which took place in the Vatican in October, we addressed a strong call to the political world and the governments of the different African countries for them to promote fundamental human rights and free the continent from the violence and conflict that still trouble it. To have a peaceful Africa is in everybody’s interests”.