With about 170 million inhabitants, Nigeria has the biggest population of any country in Africa—and one just about equally divided between Muslims (mostly in the north) and Christians in the south. Presidential elections, slated for Feb. 14, are pitting the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim.
The two also faced off for the presidency in 2011, when, after Jonathan’s narrow victory, charges of vote rigging by Buhari helped trigger Muslim attacks on Christian communities that left 800 dead. This month’s contest takes place against the backdrop of the reign of terror in the country’s northeast by jihadist group Boko Haram, which has destroyed some 1,000 churches in the past four years. This year alone, Boko Haram already killed 2,000 people, most of them Christians.
International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need spoke Feb. 5 with Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos.
Q: Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in Nigeria in February. What makes this so significant, not only for your country, but for all of Africa?
Archbishop Kaigama: Due to its large population of about 170 million inhabitants and its sheer size, Nigeria is considered a giant in Africa. The people look to the country. Everything has an effect on others, including the negative: consider the terrorist activity of Boko Haram, for example. It started in Nigeria and spread quickly. The neighbouring countries, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, are now also at risk. If the people flee the violence, if many millions were to flee, for example to Ghana or Cameroon, this would have a severe impact on these countries. It is very important to stop these kinds of developments. After all, when Nigeria is doing well, this affects all of West Africa. If war were to break out in the country, it would destabilise the entire region.
Q: Religiously motivated violence is on the rise. Some say that this is caused by the religions themselves?
Archbishop Kaigama: Everything has the potential to cause violence, including the daily struggle to survive. Religion involves the heart, the core, and is for this reason often very emotional. “Religare,” however, actually means ‘to be connected,’ and therefore, the people live in relationships, in friendships, as sisters and brothers before God. As I myself have experienced it, religion also means helping others, something that the Catholic Church does worldwide, for example through education or medical care. In the village in which I was raised we did not have streets, a school, a hospital until the Irish missionaries arrived.
Q: But why does it come to outbreaks of violence in the name of religion?
Archbishop Kaigama: Killing others in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction to everything I have just described. This is an abuse of religion. Some use religion for their own purposes because they want to draw attention to themselves. They resort to weapons and kill because they want to be seen or heard. Religion is their means to an end. If we look closely, we will find other reasons: destroyed families, a lack of education, social inequality, irresponsible government policies, bad economic policies and others. All of these things drive young people into the wrong hands. The violence of religious fanatics is a sign that many things are not as they should be.
Q: What matters now in view of the upcoming elections?
Archbishop Kaigama: It is time to show solidarity. We want to hold free and fair elections without violence. We want democracy, good government policies and that the militant Islamist groups change their attitude. We want to live together peacefully, as brothers and sisters. I therefore ask for your prayers that the upcoming elections can be held peacefully, without violence and without bloodshed.
This message was provided by Aid to the Church in Need. Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)