Interview with Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Nigeria
Nigeria is Africa’s most densely populated country. About 20 million of a total of approximately 170 million Nigerians are Catholic. The greatest challenges currently facing the country are the terrorist organisation Boko Haram and corruption. In an interview during a visit to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need, the president of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, explained how the church is dealing with these problems.
Aid to the Church in Need: Presidential elections took place in Nigeria last year. Would you describe for us what the political situation looked like before these important elections?
Archbishop Kaigama: Before the elections, the pessimists were even predicting the disintegration of Nigeria. However, the elections went off peacefully and for the first time in the history of the country an incumbent president lost and accepted his defeat. Many expected change from the new government, because not everything had been good up until that point. Corruption especially has made life a hardship for the Nigerians. We needed change and this change came in the person of President Muhammadu Buhari. He has now been in office for about a year and we want to give him a chance to implement his promises to fight corruption and terrorism.
As president of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference you wrote the president a message in which you called for Nigeria to remain a “multi-religious country” in which everyone is free to practice their beliefs. Is religious freedom in danger in Nigeria?
Before the elections, there had repeatedly been the news that this presidential candidate was a religious zealot who wanted to advance the Islamisation of Nigeria. For this reason, the Catholic bishops invited him just before the elections were held and we asked him quite directly, “Are you a religious zealot?” He answered in the negative and told us that it would be misguided to believe that one religion would be able to dominate another in Nigeria. The people should be free to practice their religion without discrimination and without the hostility that we have experienced in the past.
What about religious education and church construction in Nigeria? Is there inequality in this respect?
Unfortunately, on the state level – and especially in the primarily Muslim North – this is in fact what happens in practice. There are signs of discrimination. For example, Muslim students have their own mosques, while the Christians have to hold their services in classrooms. There is religious instruction for Muslims, but what about for Christians? They do not have the same options. Furthermore, the government does not make it easy for the Christians in the North to build new churches and the Christians do not even have the authorisation to buy land privately. This discrimination does not help. If you refuse Christians access to a Christian education based on narrow-minded religious prejudices, then this is absolutely not helpful. It is even detrimental because this means that we create people without faith, without established morals, who can be dangerous for society. We want everyone to be strengthened in their faith and religious identity, to ensure that better citizens are raised for society.
Your message to the president also concerned corruption and the terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Why do you consider these to be equally dangerous?
Because they are so dangerous. They undermine the unity and the entire identity of the country. When you let Boko Haram be successful, you destabilize the country. Nigeria is then no longer Nigeria, the magnificent country that it should be. Corruption goes back much further than Boko Haram and it causes the same kind of damage. It eats its way deep into the system, prevents any kind of progress, destabilizes the work of the government and promotes suffering and hardship, which in turn give rise to violence and conflicts. We believe that President Buhari is tackling these fundamental problems.
Do you think that the president is doing the right thing to defeat Boko Haram?
Absolutely. We have long been praying for the embattled Nigeria. We also composed a prayer against corruption. We have prayed it for years and I believe that God has heard our prayers. Something is being done against corruption, Boko Haram is being combatted. Our prayers have been answered.
When one talks about Boko Haram, one immediately thinks about the girls kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014. What is the current situation of the girls, a few of which have been able to escape?
That is a sad story that makes the heart of every Nigerian bleed because these about 200 innocent schoolgirls were kidnapped. They were taken away from their families. We are praying that it all turns out well. The government has also tried to free these girls. But little progress had been made until last week, when one of the girls was saved. She has a baby and both were returned to her family. Shortly thereafter, the president received her as well. You could see that the president was very happy that she was back. We are now even more optimistic than before that more girls will be able to return with God’s help.
The media has criticized that the liberated girls are not received with open arms, but treated with suspicion because they sometimes come home with the baby of a terrorist. Is this really a problem or has this been exaggerated by the media?
Stigmatisation is a problem, especially in the villages, where the people do not have such high levels of education. They think, “These girls have surely been indoctrinated, they were forcibly made into terrorists, and so we must stay away from them.” But when you start thinking about it, reason makes you realize that it was not the fault of the girls. They have experienced terrible things and they should be seen as the heroes they are.
If the Catholic church has such a strong presence in Nigeria, then why do Catholics also take part in the corruption?
I have no idea why they do so. As a priest, however, I fear corruption. Christians are just as involved in it as Muslims. It is a national problem and something must be done about it. Corruption has set this country back. Why are the people so egotistical, so selfish, but we still talk about Christianity or Islam? The values of our religions should change something for the good of all. President Buhari is trying to come to terms with our corrupt past. We as a church are trying to impart positive values to the families. It is such a large problem that it will take time to overcome it.
To end on a positive note: In your archdiocese you have more than 300 students enrolled at Teacher Training College and about 60 candidates for the priesthood at the Theological Seminary.
We thank God for the gift of vocations. It may be that I can only accept 12 or 14 of the 50 or 60 applications submitted to the Archdiocese of Jos. And this after a very rigorous selection process. We take this very seriously. We have been blessed with vocations, our churches are full and we thank God for this. This is why I am here at Aid to the Church in Need, to express my thanks for its great support in training our seminarians and catechists. The aid organisation was always there for us, even when times were very difficult. We are deeply grateful. We would also like to return the gesture that we were given by the missionaries from Europe. The missionary work here is done and we have and we feel that we have something to give. The West should not be afraid to ask us for help. We are ready to help with our priests.