I See a Deadlier Boko Haram – Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president, Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN
He is conscious of the responsibilities his office demands of him. As a pastor in charge of a large ministry and president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, the Christian community expects him to be overtly protective of the flock, but the larger community expects him to minister to the needs of all, irrespective of faith. So even when he sees injustice done to any one and he reacts, he weighs the implications on the general well-being of the country.
However, he does that without allowing truth to suffer. Yet these are delicate times, when he is supposed to show as much concern, if only to ensure that lack of care does not heighten the frustration experienced by the people and therefore breed a more complicated crisis.
Ayo Oritsejafor, CAN president and co-chair of the National Inter-Religious Council, NIREC, is optimistic that the crisis of terrorism represented by the dreaded Boko Haram sect will soon be overcome. However, he believes that it would be too early in the day for Nigerians to sing hallelujah! His reason is that there is a deliberate and consistent recruitment process for even a more dreaded group of extremists through acts of religious indoctrination. And he tells the authorities that if the war on terrorism is to be properly fought, there is a compelling reason to stop that process of indoctrination now.
He is also proposing what he calls the progressive dialogue, where a universal objective will be set, the methods reviewed and efforts made towards achieving results.
Oritsejafor condemns some apostles of dialogue with the Boko Haram sect as apologists, who he believes do not mean well for the country. Not only that, he also frowns at the attitude of some people in the society, who fan the embers of discord, thus negating genuine efforts to make peace reign. For instance, he carpets Lamido Sanusi, governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, for mixing religion with his professional calling. He says the 2012 edition of the CBN diary bears the information that the country is made up of 50 per cent Muslims, 40 per cent Christians and 10 per cent of people of other religions.
When he was asked why he had not tried to talk matters over with Sanusi, Oritsejafor said the CBN governor is the one who had not fulfilled his pledge to meet with him. He said, ‘Sometime late last year myself and Sanusi met in the home of a very important person in this country and on the intervention of this person Mr. Sanusi took my (telephone) number and promised to fly to Warri two days after to see me for discussions. Apart from waiting for him that whole day, as I speak I am still waiting for Sanusi to meet with us.’
In a recent encounter with Wola Adeyemo, editorial director; Adejuwon Soyinka, associate editor; and Paul Kuyoro, photographer, the CAN leader takes a critical look at the state of the nation, efforts at making peace and the counter moves against such efforts. Excerpts:
In view of recent actions by the security apparatus, do you have confidence that we are getting somewhere in the war against insecurity?
I think we are winning the war. I think the security operatives are doing much, much better than they used to do. I must say that at this point because when you follow the trend of things and see the number of arrests they are making these days and the calibre of people they seem to be arresting too. They seem to be people who are prominent and strategic in the Boko Haram network. So I think they are improving and they have done much more, but we still have very serious challenges.
In what areas?
Well, I have been saying that the security agencies especially are polarised along religious lines. There are people in the security agencies who are more loyal to their religion than to Nigeria. There are people in the security agencies who if they get intelligence reports that will help in the war against these terrible people, they just throw it aside.
You said it last year. I wonder whether there have been certain signals that gave you that kind of confidence. Is there a way you can assist the leadership of the security agencies when you get those kinds of information?
We have tried, but I don’t want to talk more than that.
Do you get value for the effort?
Well, again you see Nigeria is such a complex place where some of the people in leadership positions in some of these security agencies sometimes are over-careful. They seem to want to tread very carefully because they don’t want anybody to misunderstand them. So you see, we have a very complex situation and even when we try to give certain information, they are afraid.
Who are the people you say are afraid?
When I say they are afraid, I mean some of the people in the security agencies are afraid of the implications of some of their actions.
Apart from sympathising with victims of attacks, is there certain support that they get from CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria)?
We are very quiet and we work a lot underground in the sense that we don’t want to make too much noise, but we are actually reaching out to some of them. But let me tell you the truth, what does CAN have? We don’t have the money. We don’t have the means, and if I may tell you the truth, Christians in Nigeria, unfortunately a lot of them, don’t care. They are not passionate about things like this until it affects their own uncle or their brother. It is an unfortunate thing. Let me just be honest with you, CAN has no money; everything I do, I do with my own finances. I have said it before and I am repeating it today, and if there is anyone who can come out to contradict me let them come out and say it now. We don’t get any help from anywhere. As you should know, government doesn’t help us and even Christians don’t. So until I became CAN president, there was no office for the CAN president. I had to create one. I had to use my money to furnish it and put it in place. When I go to Abuja, I pay my hotel bills. Sometimes, in one day I spend N500,000 and sometimes N1 million. CAN doesn’t have money, so it is ironic that you have over 80 million Christians in Nigeria and yet the umbrella body that looks after this over 80 million people does not have the resources that it ought to have to do the kind of things that it ought to do.
What gives you the confidence that we are getting close to solving the problem beyond the arrests that we have read about on the pages of the newspapers?
Well, let me just put it this way, I don’t know more than you. (Laughs)
Or you don’t want to tell us what you know?
I don’t know more than you and the reason I say I don’t know more than you is because probably, it’s not everything I know that I should say. But even from what we read, it is obvious because if you look at the way things had been about a year ago, it was hopeless because they could hardly lay hands on anybody. It just wasn’t happening. But when you look at it today, it is a little different. Today you hear that they have picked up one or two persons here and there. But you must understand that these people are also recruiting new people.
The Boko Haram?
Yes, at least that I can say. They are recruiting new people. Again someone may say the reason they are recruiting people is because there is poverty. But they forget that (Osama) bin Laden did not become a terrorist because he was poor. He became a terrorist because of religious ideologies. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that there are fantastic Muslims, men and women of integrity, people who believe in the sanctity of life, people who care for their neighbour, and I am always willing and will always be willing to work with them. The Sultan of Sokoto is my very good friend and I love him. We work together and hopefully we will do a lot more together. But I am still telling you that there is a problem on ground, and the problem cannot just be solved by putting food on everybody’s table. It will not just be solved by making sure that everyone goes to school, although all these things are very important. They are important issues that must be dealt with, not only in the North, but even in the South. I think government must work with religious leaders in the area of ideological indoctrination because the new recruits that they are getting are people that are going through certain kinds of schools and in the process of going through those schools they infiltrate those schools and they teach certain ideas and ideologies that are coined from the Koran. They must look at it from the grassroots to whatever level. They must begin to sanction preachers, imams, scholars, sheikhs and I don’t know how easy it will be for them. But if that is not done, even where everybody owns two cars each, even when everyone has three degrees, it is not going to change what is on ground, because what is on ground is primarily religious indoctrination. That is why you still have radical Muslims, Jihadists and Islamists in America, you have them in Europe and in the UK, you have them all over the place and most of them are not poor, they are not hungry. So what is driving them to do that? The Nigerian boy that disgraced Nigeria the other day and wanted to bomb a plane on Christmas Day, was it because he was poor? No. His father is one of the richest Nigerians, you know him. What has happened? It is religious indoctrination.
So you are saying beyond the current arrests and all that, we have to look at this issue?
Yes, we have to look at this issue of indoctrination. We have to look at it if we are going to finally put an end to this crisis. I will tell you what I mean. You may end Boko Haram but what about tomorrow? You may have another Haram of another kind on your hands. We must deal with the Haram of indoctrination.
You mentioned the Sultan. How satisfied are you about the level of leadership provided so far by personalities like that and other leaders in the North?
Well, I don’t know the other leaders much and a tree cannot make a forest. But he (the Sultan) is a good friend, and from at least some basic interactions I have had with him, we have done some good things together and he will tell you. For example, there was a time there was a situation in Edo State that would have blown up this country, he called me and I intervened and we were able to quell things. We have done things together in Bauchi and others. So he is basically a good man, but what I also observe by reading the papers and listening to the different things that come out from the different groups of these Boko Haram people, sometimes it sounds like not all of them accept him as their leader, not all of them would submit to him as a leader. So I can understand that he has his own limitations too. He has things he can do and things he may not be able to do. But what I will continue to appeal to him on is that he is still the head of Muslims in Nigeria, he must identify certain people in leadership in different groups that he can use to reach out to some of those that should be reached out to.
Talking about the Sultan again, the two of you sit on a Council together. On one occasion, he had to directly respond to one of the statements you made. Has your style not affected the way the Council operates?
You are tempting me to talk too much, (Laughs) and I will do my best not to talk too much. Well, what we have tried to do, which I think is a good thing, is that even outside the council itself, we have a personal relationship and I think that is very vital. Leaders must not be leaders in the boardroom alone, leaders must find ways to continue to interact and develop relationships that go beyond the room where you hold official meetings. I think we have succeeded in doing that and we are working together. I cannot say too much but I can tell you we are working together. We may have different views once in a while but that still does not change the fact that we are working together.
When those differences come, how do you tackle them?
Again like I said, we talk. And he is very frank and honest and I try to be frank and honest with him too. So we exchange views and we look at issues together and sometimes at the end of the day we agree at some point. But there are usually grey areas where we may not 100 per cent be in agreement, but I will always and continue to say that he is a wonderful partner to work with.
Does that suggest that you are looking beyond the Inter Religious Council?
Not necessarily, but it could be. I don’t want to go far into that but again as you know, there are some fantastic people within the council. They are wonderful people, we could start from there but I think it is an idea that we should look at very closely and start to develop. It will help all sides, including government, Christians and Muslims.
From your words and body language, it would appear that you are of the impression that the Inter Religious Council, as it is currently constituted, is incapable or insufficient for handling the current challenges?
I didn’t say so and I will not say so. But I just said that is a good place to begin. You can take it from there. That is a good place to begin. There are things that I don’t think I should start talking to the press about, I think I should be talking to my co-chair and others before probably one day, together we can be talking to you or as individuals we talk to you.
You have made a lot of passionate comments some of which have been misunderstood by some people. Do those comments come from the belief that Christians are being persecuted?
Seriously. We are the ones on the receiving end. It’s horrible, painful for me to be presiding over madness. I see my people before my eyes being killed every day. Look, let’s be honest, its only in Plateau State that once in a while you will hear of some of the natives coming out to retaliate out of pain and something like that. This is very painful. You go to Kaduna State, during the aftermath of the election, what happened? Did Christians come out and start killing people? No, they were attacked from everywhere and killed. At a point, some of them reacted but somehow some people will turn the table. Why would they go out and attack somebody when, probably, from the way our friends perceived things, the Christian candidate had won. So Christians never attacked anybody even in Kaduna State where the population is huge. But up till now, there are Fulanis who almost every day are going from village to village and I wonder where they even get these AK-47 from. They call them Fulani herdsmen and I wonder who taught them how to use AK-47. They are shooting and killing people from village to village and usually it is when they have completed their mission in a place that the security agents will get there. These people are getting more violent and we are appeasing them. Then the double violent ones are out there throwing bombs, who are the people that are being killed every day? They are Christians. Most churches have closed down in Maiduguri; there is no day that a Christian is not killed in Maiduguri but nobody cares much about it, it’s not news. So what I am telling you is that my people are at a very disadvantaged position and yet we are saying don’t retaliate. When you look at these things it is not a conflict between two people, it is just pure aggression. That is what we are experiencing in Nigeria. Christians are basically at the receiving end. Look at Cross River now, about 4,000 displaced Fulanis are there now and the people are afraid. This is because they are not sure that in the next few months you will not start hearing of violence there and the people they have accepted will turn around to attack them. Then the next thing you will hear is that “oh you are not nice people; after all this is Nigeria and we can reside anywhere.” They do want to but they will not give it to them. It is not happening. It may happen tomorrow but as at today, it has not happened yet.
What is the relationship between you as leader of CAN and the political leadership in the North like? For instance, how much of access do you have to state governors in the North?
I hardly have access. There are one or two of them with a big heart who have reached out to me and I am glad for that but generally it’s a no-go (area). Look at what happened in Yobe State in November last year. They (Christians) made attempt to see the governor and from the ministry of religious affairs they told them no, that the governor can’t see them. They made attempt to see the Emir of Damaturu, he gave them a time and they went. As they were going, they got news from him that they should not come, that he is no longer going to see them. But they went all the same, thinking that well if they get there he will see them. When they got there, he told them sorry he didn’t have permission from certain quarters to see them. So they had to go back. Now, I said this on television and some people thought that I was not being politically correct. But I said it and what happened? The next day, Yobe State government went on NTA to say that they disagreed with me and that what I said is not true. They claimed that government had reached out to the Christians but two days later the chairman of CAN at the state level did an advertorial where he said we stand with our president, what he said is true. Then a few weeks ago, they called me from Yobe State that they got a call from the state government that they should come and I said thank God I am happy, please go. But when they got there, it was the secretary to the state government that met them, not the governor. So they said no, we want to see our governor, after all they voted for him. They said no, they couldn’t see him. At a point, they were told that they could go and the state government would get back to them. Now we are still waiting, just to see the governor.
Don’t you think your views and comments on national issues, for instance your opposition to the issue of Islamic banking, may have contributed to widening the gap between you and some northern leaders?
Every time I address an issue, my intention is never to create a gap or divide between anyone and me. Unfortunately, in addressing issues, some unavoidable truths would have to be told, for example you asked me about governor Sanusi of CBN. The man is very intelligent and very articulate, but unfortunately (he) is a bad choice for governor of CBN. For over a year now, we have said to him as the governor of CBN you cannot use Nigeria’s money to promote a sectional banking system. Islamic banking is not synonymous with non-interest banking, so there should be one uniform guideline so that like the education sector, anyone interested in non-interest banking gets a licence, goes and does it with either Christian or a Muslim bias.
In the course of national development, politics and religion get inter-woven. Which one do you think pollutes the other?
I think it is politics that pollutes religion. This is because generally religion is pure, religion is for the uplifting of man; it is for the good of men. But it is human beings that have to implement, that have to practise religion, and politicians happen to be human beings. So sometimes what they do is to take their religion and use it when it is convenient to play their politics.
There is the feeling that when you have to talk about President Goodluck Jonathan, papa gets a little paternalistic?
Is that your last question? (Laughs) I think they are wrong. I think what has happened and what happens to most of us as Nigerians is that we approach issues based on our pre-conceived notions and biases. But if you listen to me, you will hear me. Most of the time, I address the issues and say government is failing. For example, I came out recently to say government should not negotiate with Boko Haram. I am sure you know that I stepped on a lot of toes when I said that. But I don’t say things because it’s nice or not nice. I say things because it is the truth and my reason for saying it was simple and straightforward.
Does this government listen?
I think Jonathan listens. I think he listens but I think not all the people around him are right. There are people around him that shouldn’t be around him because if you don’t have the right people working with you, no matter your intentions you can’t do everything by yourself. There are people around him that could twist things and do it the way they think it should go because he may not even have the details and they can explain to him why it should be done that way. So I pray for him every day. Sometimes, I am glad I am not Jonathan at this time. Some people promised him that they would make Nigeria ungovernable. I think those people are doing a good job, although nobody is asking them (why).