Hope Floats in Nigeria

Interview with Father Godfrey Igwebuike Onah

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ROME, OCT. 25, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Although the Church in Nigeria faces many tough challenges on various fronts — such as corruption, violence, poverty — one challenge isn’t a sense of hopelessness, says the vice rector of the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.

Father Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, a Nigerian priest now living in Rome, reflected with Aid to the Church in Need on the Church in Nigeria, and explained that being hopeful and being a “typical Nigerian” go hand-in-hand.

“Nigerians don’t give up very easily,” he said. “We are a very resilient people.”
In this excerpt of an interview given to the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Father Onah gives an overview of the situation of the Church in Nigeria.

The full interview can be read here: http://members4.boardhost.com/acnaus/msg/1288056975.html

Q: Father, Nigeria has a population of about a 150 million and, for the most part, Muslims are in the north and the Christians in the south. Recent decades have seen a number of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. What is the situation on the ground now in Northern Nigeria?

Father Onah: Well, in the first place, we have to remark that statistics are a very tricky thing in Nigeria because it was politicized early enough in Nigeria. Already at the time of the colonial era, since allocation and distribution of amenities were always linked to numbers, people tried to manipulate numbers to reflect and claim some advantage, so it’s difficult really to talk about distribution of populations of various groups in Nigeria.

It is usual to talk about the majority of Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, but we also have to bear in mind that many of the southerners are migrant people, migrant traders and government workers. And so, many of the Christian southerners are already in the north and also a good number of the northerners are Christians. This is often forgotten, especially in the Zaria and Kaduna area; there are a good number of native Christians, not just migrants. Having said that, we have to bear in mind that there are Muslims in southwestern Nigeria.

Q: The problem seems to be in the north. Why, if you also have Muslims in the south?

Father Onah: Yes, the situation in the north has always been volatile. It is linked to the history of the country. Some historians claim that as early as the 11th century the northern kings and emperors — we had kingdoms and emperors in northern Nigeria — made contacts through trade and pilgrimages with Islamic scholars. Some of them became Muslims and even built mosques in Egypt and other places as well as centers of learning.

This type of exchange continued and Islam spread in northern Nigeria quite early, but in the 19th century something happened; there was a spread of Islam through jihad by Usman dan Fodio, and since then there has been an association of Islam with some form of violence, especially when it is politically advantageous for some people to do that.

Ordinary Nigerians, whether Muslims, Christians or traditional worshippers, have learned to live together. Recently, the disenchantment of the local people has been exploited by politicians to create problems.


Q: Can you put a finger today on what motivates this violence?

Father Onah: I think this would be presumptuous for anybody to put a finger on this; one can only name a number of factors that contribute. Of course, the first factor I would say is historical; historical, in that when the idea of mixing over 350 ethnic nationalities and forming out of them, one new modern state called Nigeria was conceived, and no attempt was made to create, of these ethnic nationalities, one people. What does being a Nigerian mean for a typical Nigerian today? So this is historical.

And added to that is the fact that education has not been evenly distributed among the population. A large majority of northern Muslim youth remains uneducated, if by education we mean the Western school classroom type of education. They have the Islamic education, which by the way, many of them regard as the only true form of education. That being so, many of the uneducated or the lowly educated youth will depend on whatever their religious leaders tell them, and again the economic changes in Nigeria now have made some of them very poor, but not only in the north, but everywhere in Nigeria. There are so many disgruntled and disenchanted young people, and the politicians and the government who are enriching themselves every day, manipulate these people daily.

There is also a struggle for supremacy among various Muslim trends in Africa. I would say, for instance, influences from Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; each of these groups wanting to dominate because everybody thinks that Nigeria is a strategic country not just for oil, but because of population for Africa. They would want, as much as possible, to finance groups, movements that have Islamic aspirations, but we also know that within the Muslim world, it is not a homogenous group, so there is often also infighting among the Muslims themselves before even spilling over to the non-Muslims.

So you have political, religious, economic and social; there are so many factors. But, I think, one would say, if we don’t know the cause, we would not even be able to begin to suggest solutions. I think part of the cause is the lack of proper catering to the programs that take care of the young people.


Q: The Sharia law has been introduced in 12 of the 36 states in Nigeria. What does Sharia mean and what does it mean for the Christians living in this context?

Father Onah: This is another instance of a political manipulation of a religious phenomenon. Already as far back as 1946, when the Constitution of Nigeria was drafted, the country then was divided into three regions and this regional division was maintained in the 1954 and 1958 Constitutions. What does this mean? By 1958, already the regional government had some regional autonomy and part of the autonomy granted to the regional government included legislative autonomy; the regional governments had the power to make laws, and so the Sharia was introduced in the northern states and as far back as pre-colonial era, I imagine.

I do not have documents to substantiate this, and this was not a problem, but it was clear that it was for Muslims. Somewhere along the line, especially during the military era, it became normal for some people to try to play into the Sharia thing in order to seem to represent Muslim interests, and it was at that time that Sharia became a problem for Christians. Let us not forget that a lot of the problems, or the negative effects of modernization, is often associated with Christians by a typical Nigerian Muslim, because for them Europe means Christian.


Q: Archbishop Kaigama of Jos calls for dialogue, the dialogue of life. Is this what you refer to when you say: We have to find a common ground?

Father Onah: The dialogue of life is already taking place in many parts of Nigeria; in some families you have Christians and Muslims in the same family, and by the way, Islam and Christianity are not the only religions in Nigeria. There are others. There are the traditional religions and sometimes relationships with traditional religion is more difficult especially in the south because the entire cultural fabric is woven onto the traditional religion and to be able to separate culture from religion is not that easy and sometimes it is the cause of tension, but with time through patience, dialogue and listening.

Now, what is happening in Nigeria between religions seem to be on a higher level of the leaders; the sultan of Sokoto and the archbishop of Abuja, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the
y are very good friends and they understand that there is no need for these type of clashes and so they go ahead. The common people seem sometimes to be shouting at each other and nobody is listening, and unfortunately Christians used to run away, but radical elements have also emerged in Christianity, especially among aggressive Pentecostalism.

Q: With all these currents that are flowing: economics, politics, corruption, interest, is there hope for an end to this?

Father Onah: If I wasn’t hopeful I wouldn’t be a Christian and again if I wasn’t hopeful I wouldn’t be a typical Nigerian. Nigerians don’t give up very easily. We are a very resilient people; otherwise we would have rebelled against our government long ago. I repeat, we need a responsible political class.

The total absence of government is sometimes responsible for this violence in which the young people take the law into their hands. If we have a responsible political class where the government is ready to do its work and responsible religious elite that will educate followers of different religions to respect the tenets of these two religions, Nigerians will continue their process of trial and error. It is not easy for any group of persons to come out of a crisis that arises from a religious misunderstanding, it is not easy but it is not impossible either. So I believe, the way forward is education, even though that means different things to the different religious groups — education.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

For the full text of the interview: http://members4.boardhost.com/acnaus/msg/1288056975.html

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