The Islamist group Boko Haram, is continuing to cause destruction and violence particularly in the north of the country. Nigeriaís President Goodluck Jonathan organized a National Conference. Religion will play a key role in the 2015 elections. We talked with Monsignor Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto.
Boko Haram has become one of the major topics in the Nigerian and the international media. What is the government doing in order to stop the bloodshed of innocent people? How do you see the decision to impose a state of emergency (back in May 2013)?
So much has been written and said about Boko Haram, but most of it was wrapped in myth, ignorance, misconception and misrepresentation. This led to the wrong diagnosis, and delayed the identification and deployment of the appropriate response.
For example, we spent too much time believing that this was a conflict between Christians and Muslims (some of us got labeled when we protested that the issues were not religious and the bombing of Churches was not indicative that we were dealing with a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians. I said we were faced with an evil and must team up as a country and people to resolve it!). So to answer your question, decisions to impose a state of emergency and other strategies were long delayed after this problem had festered. We also took too long to seek help from the international community. But so far, the state of emergency has reduced, limited and localized the problem, so to an extent, it has worked.
What is the Catholic Church doing and what should be the right way to help solve the problem?
We must remember that the greatest gift of the Catholic Church is its history, its wealth of experience and sense of universal mission for the salvation of all. To that extent, this message tends to get drowned when we behave as if the challenge is to defend Christians against others (a strategy that has only deepened the fault lines). We must appreciate how little we can do to stop the problem, but we must dig into the wealth of our message for justice and the common good for the other, to identify evil and its perpetrators and to work together to rid our society of it. Ours is a severely fractured society, and the Catholic Church must rise beyond all these, no matter how unpopular it may sound in the short term. This is why we are Christians.
What about the life of ordinary people?
Boko Haram has won the propaganda war here and elsewhere. The western liberal media thrives on the exaggerated stories, but are not keen on what ordinary people are doing to hang together, why our society has not gone up in smoke as they have predicted and how lives still go on beyond religion and violence.
Next to Lagos, for example we have the city of Kano which is the most commercially complex and tolerant city in Nigeria; it has the economic vibrancy and culture mix of New York City. About 90% of ordinary Nigerians continue to do the normal things they have been doing for years. So, Kano, Lagos and many cities are bubbling and full of life, beyond the smoke and fray.
Could there be a link between the Boko Haram crisis and the elections scheduled for next February?
Well, there is no doubt that this could be one of the many threads as far as local politics and even international politics are concerned. Nigeria is a prize and Middle East Islam, especially places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait and so on are not uninterested in the electoral outcomes. For, while we Christians have western brethren who now speak of a post Christian Europe and have no time for religion both locally in Europe and Africa, the Arab world is serious about who leads Nigeria.
Clearly, religion will play a key role in the 2015 elections because, unfortunately, the opposition party has had to fall back on religion. The All Peoplesí Congress, the APC as it is called is a motley crowd of largely southwestern politicians who have now teamed up with their northern Muslim counterparts (with the north having lost its alliance with the Northern and Southern Christian Minorities). The entire leadership of the Party, from the Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and all others are Muslim and there is talk that they might field a Muslim-Muslim ticket. Of course, were they to make this mistake, it would work in the interest of President Jonathan who seems almost sure to win the elections anyway.
What is your opinion about the National Conference? Do you regard it as a useful exercise or not?
The National Conference is mostly politics, but politics aimed at helping Jonathan reach out to the entire country. He has used his powers to appoint key delegates from the inner recesses of some of the opposition strong holds. Not many people expect that anything much will come out of it because there is nothing that is new in the debates and the Report of the 2005 Political Reform Conference still remains an unrivalled piece of work which was killed by politics (I was the Secretary).
What should we look at in the coming months in order to understand where Nigeria is heading to?
The Nigerian economy is picking up in the way that the international community has forecast. The rebasing of the economy has now placed Nigeriaís GDP at over $500b. This is a staggering development, for not only have these developments astounded the international community, the methodologies adopted for coming to these conclusions went through very rigorous standards. I spoke to the Minister for Finance after the release of the report. So, clearly, the rest of the world must sit up now and take another look as Nigeria seeks to lead Africa.
The challenge is for the country of course to institutionalize mechanisms for severely confronting corruption, deepening inequalities and violence. But the future does look very bright and if we can successfully turn the corner and have some good elections, this elephant will not only stir, but be poised to take its place in the forest.