In this interview with MUDIAGA AFFE, the immediate-past National Director of Caritas Nigeria and Justice Development and Peace Commissions of the Catholic Church, Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey, talks on the killing of priests and alleged persecution of Christians
The state of insecurity has continued to assume frightening dimension despite the government’s intervention, what, in your view could be responsible for this?
I think at a certain level, the present administration possibly underestimated the level of insecurity. At the same time, I am not really convinced that the government is doing all in its power to combat this insecurity. Recently, we have seen, sort of, clashes between the security forces coupled with the fact that there might be corruption along the line. In other climes, when apparently a team is not winning, you change it. People have been crying that the security chiefs should be changed; unfortunately, it has not been done. Maybe if we have new security chiefs they will have fresh perspectives. It is not only poverty that is making people go into banditry and kidnapping, there are other deeper issues because there have been situations where the rich have been identified to go into it. There are so many underlying factors which we cannot really determine, but I do not think the government is doing enough about the root causes.
Like you said, the call for the re-jigging of the security architecture has been on for a long time but the President has not looked at that direction, why do you think it is so?
I think the President has become very comfortable dealing with the present crop of security chiefs. Do not forget that he was ousted in a coup (the 1985 military takeover) as a military leader; so, he might have a carryover mind-set that it is those he absolutely trusts that he would have as security chiefs. Some people have, however, attributed the delay to the outcome of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal that is on-going; they are of the view that it is after the judgement is delivered that he may consider removing or retaining the present security chiefs. I do not know what is in his mind that will make him have that absolute trust in the security chiefs.
Part of the security situation is the farmers/ herdsmen conflict, how would you advise the president to handle it?
I do not think there is conflict between farmers and herdsmen because if there is, there should be two equal parties engaging themselves; but most often what we hear is a situation where these people (herdsmen) just go into communities when the people are asleep , oust the communities by killing pregnant women, children and other people. That is not to say that there have not been conflicts between farmers and herders; where there have been such conflicts, there have been genuine efforts by the communities concerned to bring about peace. The Catholic Church has engaged, even in Kano, with various communities and herders to address issues of conflicts. There was a study that the church carried out on this farmers/herders conflict. What is referred to as farmers/herders conflict is not really a farmer/herder conflict; it does appear like an invasion of mercenary soldiers on peaceful communities- that is how it is appearing. Unfortunately, with the way the government has responded to this issue, it is as if there was an ulterior motive. You will remember when the Defence minister came up to say what he said; sometimes, the government has shot itself in the leg. It might not be their intention but the way the government has come out to defend the herdsmen, it appears they are protecting them. Also, as it is being alleged, whenever these people (herdsmen) are arrested, they are out of the security agency’s detention or police custody before you know it. It makes it look as if there is something sinister about the motive. I do know, however, that if the government is really serious, they can contain this crisis. They may not erase it in one fell swoop; they can arrest the situation if they really want to be serious about it.
There is the belief in some quarters that there is a plan called Fulanisation agenda for this country, do you share in that view?
When you look at all the indices, it seems so. Saying that there is a Fulanisation agenda does not mean that it is the President or the government that is carrying it out, but that there are interests that want to ensure certain hegemony by a certain tribe. Those things happen where you could be in government and you are floating. There are powerful interests that have access to resources; they have all kinds of contracts and make all kinds of money. So, they can have a subterranean agenda which you, as a government, do not know about. I agree that there is a Fulanisation agenda, but what I do not know is whether a President that has sworn to defend the Constitution and uphold the unity of the nation can go ahead to pursue this agenda. Outside the government, I know that there are certainly some interests that have interest in entrenching certain hegemony of a particular race.
Do you think the Fulanisation agenda can work in Nigeria?
What does it take to bring about change? Out of one million people, if there are 1,000 persons that are well-armed and well-resourced, they could bring about change. So, if people are armed and the rest of us are not armed, they could bring about some changes. In those days in the traditional community, there was some kind of equality of force because the young men in every community were trained to defend their various communities because we did not have a central government that was in charge of security. So, if one community wants to invade the other, young men in the other community will resist it with their own weaponry- whether bows and arrows or machetes, they would clash and the side that wins will take over the land of the defeated community. But now that we have handed over this security structure to the government through a social contract, if the security apparatus is weak, and then there are interest groups that are well armed and resourced, they can entrench any agenda that they want to entrench. So, if you have well-equipped and well-trained Fulani marauders scattered all over the country, when the rest of the people are not armed, anything can happen.
Some Catholic priests were recently murdered in the South-East, how would you describe that unfortunate incident?
Well, it has been happening. There was a time we said why was it that Catholic priests were being targeted and a lot of the time it had been when they were returning from one function or the other. Many times we have accused the Fulani herdsmen of being behind the incidents, while some other times it had been unknown assailants. However, there may be other factors such as some priests going into business transactions with some individuals and when there are issues they (the individuals) might think the best way is to eliminate the priest. So, it is not every priest that is killed that should be blamed on the Fulani herdsmen, many of them that have been killed or even kidnapped might have been the outcome of hot quarrels. It is, however, very unfortunate that people who used to be regarded as sacred can just be defiled like that. A lot of it too is largely due to our (priests) own lifestyle. People see priests as those living well and driving expensive cars, but they do not know that most of these vehicles are gifts from members. A lot of times the priest does not buy the vehicle with his money because he does not have the money. Even if he buys it, someone would have given him the money to do so. It is a sad situation as there are no more sacred cows, anyone can be a victim. If priests could be killed, anyone can be a victim.
Why are they (priests) becoming frequent targets?
Sometimes, they break into a priest’s house and just kill him and go away without taking anything. This has happened even before this whole issue of Fulani herdsmen kidnapping came up. There had been cases of breaking into the residences of priests in the South East and killing them. A lot of these instances may be attributed to disagreement and in some few cases, it is dependent on what you preach in the church and a politician may be feeling that you are influencing opinion too much against him and he comes to eliminate the priest; it has happened in the past. However, most of the cases that have happened recently have been attributed to this herdsmen problem.
Do you believe that there is a systemic attack on Christians in Nigeria as perceived in some quarters?
There might be systemic attacks but I do not know who is fomenting this system. If you go up North, to get land to build a church for instance is very difficult; but if you come to the South, the Muslims are allocated lands to build their mosques. It does seem that there is a way adherence to some religion is such that when you are in authority, you do everything to suppress the other religion by not giving them the free reign to worship. Like I said, there may be many interests and we may not pin it to the government of the day as such but the government must take responsibility because it is in charge of the common good. It may also happen that when certain individuals get into government, they might want to use their influence to achieve that systemic discrimination against Christians, because their religion requires them to do that. However, if you go back to history, you will discover that Christianity is one of the most persecuted religions, not just in Nigeria, but globally. There are ways that we Christians feel that we are not allowed to exercise our rights to freedom of religion in this country.