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It's hard to stay neutral during the Nigerian election campaign: interview Catholic Church leader

Photo: Daniel Finnan

Remaining impartial in the run-up to Nigeria’s presidential polls is a challenge, a leading member of the Catholic Church told RFI on Monday. Archbishop of Jos Ignatius Kaigama says Nigerian politicians are too self-interested and must do more for the people. Kaigama, who heads the Bishops' Conference of Nigeria, says he’s trying to draw the government’s attention to the plight of refugees displaced by Boko Haram’s insurgency in northeast Nigeria.


Has it been hard for you to be non-partisan during this election campaign?

Very hard. My ministry embraces everyone from different cultural, linguistic, political and social backgrounds, and trying to stay neutral is very tough. But we already have a rule, the priests and the bishops: [we] are forbidden from participating in partisan politics. So that helps me a lot to keep straight, to be limited to my ministry to preaching the word of God and supporting people and showing them where to go and what to do at the right time.

There have been allegations that clergymen have received money to support President Goodluck Jonathan.

This is election time, there is a lot of propaganda and we want facts, not just gossip that doesn’t have a foundation. I am a member of the Christian Association of Nigeria and we are told that, how many billion was given by the government to this body to share. I tell people that I’m yet to see my own share, it’s only when I see that money and they tell us this is a bribe from government or from any individual, then I know how to react because that money should not be going to us.

politics in Nigeria is about 'me, myself and I'

The Conference of Bishops has met with both candidates, how would you describe them as people, their characters?

They’re good human beings, good Nigerians, they have a legitimate aspiration to lead the country. Everyone’s promising to offer something. The taste of the fruit is in the eating. So we want to be able to know who really can redeem Nigeria. Nigeria has problems, we must admit, there are issues that have to tackled head-on. We need a dynamic, dependable, reliable leader who also fears God and is concerned about the common good of the ordinary people. I tell you, there is so much suffering in the mist of plenty. These candidates must convince us beyond reasonable doubt that they have something to offer and they’re not going in for their own interests because politics in Nigeria is about ‘me, myself and I’. It’s not about the people. We want politicians who go in to work and use the resources available for the people, with the people and make it available to everybody.

Your archdiocese Jos has frequently been the scene of sectarian violence – hundreds of people killed in 2001, 2008, 2010. In the run-up to the vote, has enough been done to prevent this from happening again?

On the side of government, they do what they do on radio, on television, but we as a religious body we try our best. Like in the archdiocese of Jos I have established a centre called the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace Centre. That centre is meant to be proactive in curtailing the violence that we witness during elections and even religious misunderstandings. We bring in elders, women, young people and we try conscientise them that dialogue is better, let’s resolve issues in a civilised way around the table, not by hostile confrontation. For the elections we had a programme for the youths, for the security agents, for the electoral officers, we invited them to this centre on different dates to conscientise them to create an awareness that we must do it right this time. This is just a humble effort of the church, we are not politicians, but we try to ensure we’re contributing in creating a very friendly and favourable environment for politics to take-off and let it be functional politics that is meant for the development and progress of our people.

The Nigerian government says that 1 million people have been displaced by the fighting in northern Nigeria linked to the Boko Haram insurgency. The church is helping those who’ve fled into Cameroon. What are you learning about the conditions for those Nigerian refugees?

I’ve just received a report, as president of the Bishops Conference of Nigeria, I asked a delegation to visit northern Cameroon, where we have 26,000 Nigerian refugees. They have just returned from their mission and it was a very successful one. In collaboration with the bishops of Douala, Maroua and so on, they went to give hope to the people and to be able to also study the situation, what is really happening on the ground. Not just reports we get without basis, but something they can verify and they’re going to compile a report that will be helpful to us as a church and we can also share it with government. Because I announced this visit and they [the government] even offered to help us financially so that we can help the refugees. We contributed money from the church, adding to what the government gave us - hopefully we will find a very good way of helping them with the money that we have collected. The church is very concerned that these people should be helped where they are, and by the grace of God, that they should return home, to their homes and be supported by government to settle properly back home.

You mentioned the money. The federal government has given you $250,000. It doesn’t seem enough.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness - there is so much darkness. What is at stake now is not just to supply the needs of everybody, but it’s to give hope. The church is just there as a light, as a candlelight. It’s not bright enough, but it’s still light. So we are trying to draw the attention of government that they should do more. We believe there are resources available, that rather than channel these resources elsewhere, recklessly for election purposes, or other personal purposes, we should help these Nigerians. That is the point we are making. Right now, it’s not about how much they receive, but to draw the attention of government and well-meaning people anywhere in the world that there is suffering, there are refugees who are stuck out there and they need help and something needs to be done very, very fast.

You’ve said that the government hasn’t fought religious fundamentalism with enough zeal - why haven’t they?

I’m asking the same question because the resources are there. If they had done enough, we wouldn’t have been having these serial attacks every day that are progressively getting worse and worse. So there must be a problem and I don’t know what the problem is. Like I told you, I’m a priest, my job is to preach, to pray and to encourage people. As for the military, security and other technical issues, I have no answer. I look up to government and they are campaigning now to become president and governors - they should have those solutions. When you aspire to lead a nation, you should have the solutions to the problems of the nation and we look up to them, so that they find authentic solutions that will bring these problems and crisis to an end.

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