…says 2019 elections were terribly rigged
say Buhari must take blame for oil theft as Minister of Petroleum
says people in power steal Nigeria’s money
The Christmas season is usually a period of merriments, celebrations and exchange of gifts, but Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, says there is more to it. In this chat with ONWUKA NZESHI, the respected cleric delved into the deeper meaning of Christmas, its universal significance and political developments in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Every year, Nigerians celebrate Christmas with so much fanfare. But what exactly is the reason for the festival?
Every year, once we are getting close to December 25, the whole world goes into a festive mood. In Nigeria, our government even makes provisions for Christmas to be celebrated by giving two full days of holidays. It is considered as one of the two main Christian festivals and in a way, it is true. I said in a way because in another way, it is not a festival for Christians alone. It is a Christian festival that has resonance and significance for everybody. That brings us to what exactly is the meaning of Christmas? The true meaning of Christmas, beyond the lights, the Christmas carols, the celebrations and razzmatazz. What exactly, is Christmas? If we know the exact meaning of Christmas, then we would not be surprised that a Christian celebration has become a universal celebration for the entire humanity. We all know that Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s true. The story is clear. It’s there in the Gospels. Even the stories are reflected in secular historical sources. So, there was this child born, more than 2020 years ago. The details of the circumstances of his birth are well known. He was born in a very poor environment, a manger, unknown to the rest of the world. If it was these days, it would not even feature in any of the news sites. He was born to a poor couple, Joseph and Mary. However, beyond this little child, there is something higher.
How did the birth of a child to a poor couple become something higher than the usual?
He was born in Bethlehem of Judea. The same record of that story also tells us that he was born at night and that when it happened, shepherds in the field got the vision of an angel who announced to them that: “I bring you news of great joy. In Bethlehem, the City of David, a Saviour has been born for you. The way you can find him, there’s a sign for you to know.
You’ll find him wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.” Along with the vision of the angel, the same shepherds, we don’t know who they are, anonymous shepherds, also announced that they heard songs of choirs of angels from heaven. They also heard what the angels were singing. They were singing Glory to God in the highest Heavens and Peace on Earth to men and women of goodwill. This is Christmas at the two levels.
The first level is just the birth of a baby. I’m sure that that same night many other babies were also born, but the second level which is higher is the spiritual meaning of Christmas. It is that something entirely unheard of happened. A saviour has been born, Jesus Christ. The same record we have in the Bible tells us that the birth of this same child had been preannounced, not only 600 years earlier by the prophets, but nine months earlier when he was conceived. Again, angels appeared and announced that a virgin shall conceive and deliver a child. This same announcement that a virgin shall conceive and deliver a child was again repeated to Joseph in a dream by an angel. These are all contained in the story of Christmas. Therefore, we, who are Christians, will do well to remind ourselves of this great event which is why we celebrate Christmas.
How do we reconcile this story with the way Christmas is celebrated today?
Yes, around the birth of Christ, all kinds of celebrations have grown, many of them cultural. But the reason at the centre of it is still there. Those of us who are Christians, when we celebrate Christmas, we are not just celebrating the birth of a child, we are celebrating the coming of God himself into our world. Again, an event that is unheard of, an event that is unrepeatable and an event that is so completely unexpected. Up till now, many people cannot accept it, even when you explain what it is to them.
They will tell you, it is not possible for God to become a man because the distance between God and man is wide. Christmas precisely goes to bridge this infinite distance between God and man. When we are discussing with people, as Christians, we must be aware that what we are celebrating is totally beyond our human expectations and imaginations.
Nobody could have come out with that kind of idea that God became a human being. Some would argue that even if God decided to become a human being, why did he have to go through this process of being conceived and born in a manger. But if you continue the story, you’ll find that after his birth, a lot of other things happened. After that, there was a long period of 30 years when we didn’t hear anything more about him until he started coming out after the preaching of John the Baptist.
Then, we had Jesus as an adult, a teacher and a rabbi who preached wonderfully and did wonderful miracles for a period of just three years and ended the way he ended. The end is what we celebrate at Easter. So we have to distinguish between what Christmas means to Christians and what Christmas means to other people. There may be other people who might share our faith in who Christ is, but even those who do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, do believe that Jesus is somebody special. This is probably why everybody is ready to celebrate Christmas.
Does Christmas hold any special relevance for Nigeria?
It has a lot to do with Nigeria because this is a story that has impact on the whole world. Jesus came into Bethlehem, which is a City of Judea in modern day Israel, but by extension he came into the world as a whole. Saint John said it in the Gospel: The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us and later Saint Paul said it in his letter to the Galatians that: When the appointed time came, God sent his only begotten son, born of a woman. So, for those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have every reason to make it a festive occasion, because God has come to stay among us.
We have every reason to make it a time to think about the poor because Jesus came as a poor person. Joseph went around knocking at the gates of different hotels and places to find a place for Mary to sleep but couldn’t find one. He had to take her to that little place, the manger, because it was the only available accommodation for them that night. That manger is still there and is venerated there in Bethlehem today. If you go to Bethlehem, you’ll be shown the Grotto of the Nativity, which goes to still show that we are not talking about something mythological but the reality of our world.
What should be the right attitude of Nigerians towards Christmas?
Everybody should be able to find joy in Christmas. If you’re rich, just know that God has blessed you. If you’re poor, just know that God has time for the poor people. In fact when God came into the world, he decided to come as a poor man. He didn’t come as a king, which is why we have every reason to believe that God has a special interest in poor people. In our church, we speak about preferential unction for the poor, that we should do all we can to give a preferential care to those who are poor. The reason maybe because if we don’t, they really cannot help themselves.
What message do you have for Nigerians as we celebrate Christmas?
We used to have a country where we had the rich people, the middle class and the poor. Somebody is telling now that we now have just two classes – the extremely rich and the very poor. All those who used to be in the middle are no longer there, they have been brought down to the poor class. Which is an opportunity for us to look again at how we run our nation; how we should have more concern about those who are down there in order to pull them up. We have heard some people talking about pulling people out of poverty, but after that nothing happens.
They are saying it by word of mouth, but the reality around us seems to be quite different to the extent that we are now regarded as the poverty capital of the world. We are talking about the high percentage of Nigerians who have moved into multidimensional poverty.
The say that out of the estimated 220 million population in Nigeria, there are 133 million people who are multi dimensionally poor. This means we have a lot of poor people in Nigeria, people with whom, Jesus of Bethlehem will feel very much at home. It doesn’t mean they should remain there. It just means that we should recognise that the poor are also children of God and need the attention of all those who can give it because the wealth of the rich is coming from God. If they don’t spend it well to the glory of God and for the common good they are misusing God’s gift.
What should the government do to alleviate the sufferings of the poor?
The governments are those who are in leadership positions and have political powers. They are the people who can take decisions and carry out activities that can be meaningful to the lives of the people. If you look at our constitution, you’ll find out that it is the function of the government to secure lives and property. It is also the responsibility of our government to organise the economic situation in such a way that the living conditions of our people are improved in a way that we can say that we live in a decent society.
The whole issue of ensuring equity is part of our constitution. Our constitution did not say that the rulers should steal all our money and then tell us lies. This is the only country where a government agrees that there is stealing going on but will not tell us who the thieves are. We’re told that there is a lot of money lost through budget padding and nobody is telling us who did the padding. Surely, somebody did, people know them and the government is supposed to know.
We are told that a good chunk of our oil is being stolen on the high seas and in the creeks of Nigeria.
In the year 2022, we know very well that scientifically, even a small boat cannot enter the shores of Nigeria without being spotted on the radar. So they know those who are bringing huge ships to take away large quantities of our oil. They know them because they are the people whom we have put there and pay them salaries to make sure that our oil industry runs well.
They have turned their eyes away from what is happening; they’ve refused to do their duty. Instead they collect their salary and still steal plenty of money while retaining their privileged positions. The case of oil theft is even more devastating when we realise that the Minister of Petroleum Resources is the President himself.
He has nobody else to blame for this. It is no longer possible to expect Nigerians to believe that government has no hand in the so called oil theft. That kind of thing should not be allowed to continue indefinitely because it ruins a nation. Even those who think they are making big money and having fat bank accounts abroad should know that if this country collapses whatever they’ve stolen may not be of much use to them. It is better to make this nation a better place so that the citizens can enjoy what God has given to them.
We have seen what happens to corrupt rulers who run away from their nation and are living in exile even in Europe. Yes, they may be living in nice houses but that is not the best way to live. The life in exile is not what anybody should aspire to live. What does it mean? It means that there is more to life than riches and wealth. If you really want to have a life that is satisfying, a life that is meaningful, then live in a clean way. Live a life of sincerity and you will live peacefully. At least you and your family and other people around you will not be so badly treated if there is anger all over the place. When there is anger all over the place, it expresses itself in all kinds of social ills including armed robbery, kidnapping or people joining all kinds of groups that are out to simply bring down the system because the system according to them is not serving any purpose.
How did we get to this stage where government seems incapable of delivering on its mandate?
I’m 78 years old. That means I was born during the colonial era, I witnessed the Independence of Nigeria. I was a young student of about 14 or 15 years old in 1960 and my College sponsored me to go to Lagos to witness the hoisting of the Nigeria national flag on Independence Day.
So as a young boy in Form Four, I was at the Race Course, now Tafawa Balewa Square, for that historic occasion. I came back to school and told my fellow students that we (Nigerians) were now independent. In the next few years we shall be like Britain, America, Germany and United States. Those were our thoughts at that time. But here we are, still crawling behind those nations we wanted to catch up with and even our contemporaries who got their Independence about the same time. The problem of Nigeria is clear – we have not had people with serious democratic credentials leading the country. It is like the same group of people coming and going; just playing games with us.
What are your thoughts about the forthcoming General Elections?
Looking at the forthcoming elections, my fear is that there are too many people out there who do not want any serious change in this country. They don’t want a serious change because they have been doing well under this unjust system that many of us are complaining about. Even in the course of the campaigns that is what we are hearing.
Those who have been ruling our nation since the return of democracy in 1999 should accept responsibility for where we are now. For me, it appears strange that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that ruled for sixteen years and the All Progressives Congress (APC) that has been ruling for the past seven and a half years should be telling us that they are going to make everything new.
APC is talking about giving renewed hope to Nigerians. What have they been doing with us for the past seven and a half years? The PDP talks about restoration, they want to restore or return us to where we were when Buhari came in 2015. They give the impression that everything was wonderful under them. I beg to differ. If everything was wonderful under the PDP government of President (Goodluck) Jonathan, would Buhari have had such a large followership? Of course Buhari became President and during his first tenure many of us saw that this was not what we wanted but in 2019 we were not allowed to vote or rather our votes failed to count.
What do you mean by that?
The 2019 elections were terribly rigged, if we are to tell the truth. We are in Abuja here, we saw what happened. But we allowed peace to reign, the system continued and got worse and worse until now. Thank God, our constitution says that after eight years, somebody else must come. We presume that somebody else better than what we have experience should come. Something different should come.
In my own opinion, those who have been ruling us until now have no moral credentials to continue to rule us. If we allow them to continue, what it means is that we have mandated them to continue as they have been doing. The only way I can believe them, is if we begin to hear campaign messages saying: ‘We committed a lot of errors when we ruled.
These errors are XYZ. We are sorry for what we have done. We promise that we will not do it again. Please, give us a second chance.’ I will believe that kind of campaign. But for the PDP to tell us: We’re going to continue where we left off and APC telling us: We shall build on the legacy of Buhari, show they both have nothing new to offer Nigerians. I’m only giving my personal opinion. I don’t believe them. Which is why you’ll wonder what these campaigns are all about, all these posters all over the place? Are they supposed to convince me that white is black and black is white? Are they going to allow me vote freely without any hindrances?
If these two dominant parties lack moral credentials to seek the votes of Nigerians, what is the way out?
I dare to say that unlike in the past when we had just the two of them to choose from, there are now other political parties that are coming up with vigour and we now have a third force. If I’m to look at what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, it appears that the third major party that can challenge them in any way is the Labour Party where Peter Obi is the presidential candidate. For me, that is important; that we have a choice. Whether the choice will go that way or not is another matter. But I’m sorry to keep hearing those who have been ruling us having the guts to say publicly that: ‘We have enough money to make sure that we win this election.’ In other words, there is enough money to buy up Nigeria.
How do you see the same faith ticket which one of the parties is promoting?
The stage at which we are now, we ought to realise that the problem of Nigeria is neither religion nor ethnicity. The only thing is that the political class has managed to manipulate the strong feelings of our people in terms of their ethnic and religious identities. The real issue is between good governance and bad governance and between thieves and honest people. As far as same faith ticket is concerned, I really don’t bother.
In recent times, Catholic priests have become easy prey for the terrorists and bandits who abduct them for ransom. How do you see this scenario?
I must say that we are worried about it. We have had many priests who had been kidnapped; some have actually died in the hands of the terrorists, and some were killed in the process of their abduction. We are really pained and sorry about it. Before now, we used to think that even bad people respect religious people and so we used to think that being a Reverend Father, we can feel safe. Now we know that even if Jesus were to come down to Nigeria today, he would still be liable to been kidnapped like everybody else. Of course when priests are targeted …
I don’t know whether they are actually targeted…but when priests become victims of kidnapping, we do what we can to get them released. We call on all security agencies to help us to secure their release. What we must not also forget is that the priests even though they are priests, they are living in this same Nigeria that is not safe for anyone. We cannot be expecting to be living in an oasis of security in a nation that is thoroughly insecure. So, from the point of view of the church, we take the cases of priests being kidnapped as a reason to make us even more concerned about the state of insecurity in our country.
We have to do what we can; to pray and give advice to the rulers on what to do. Nobody should be kidnapped; priest or no priest; pastor or no pastor. These kidnappers pick at innocent persons and put them and their family through terrible tortures. This is a great crime and those who are behind it ought to desist from it. If they don’t, the security agencies should ensure that they are properly brought to justice. I believe that it is possible for our nation to be restored to a state of sanity and security. The rest of the world are living their lives in peace, why should we continue to wallow in insecurity?
It is because government had not been able to deal with the root causes of these things. It just shows that the government has not lived up to its mandate. This is where the 2023 election, comes in again. Are we going to get a fresh set of rulers that will now do the right thing to deliver Nigeria from banditry, terrorism, kidnapping?Are we going to have a government that will make sure that our industries resume production and create jobs for our people? Are we likely to have a new government that will promote industrialisation so that we don’t continue to export raw materials instead of finished products? Are we likely to have a government that will create a conduciveatmosphere for the private sector to thrive and create millions of jobs for our young people who are anxious to work rather than migrating overseas for greener pastures? It is possible. I’m a man of faith and I’ll continue to hope that it will happen in my own life time.