On Tuesday, May 22, 2018, the Catholic Church for the very first time in her history in Nigeria took to the streets in a nationwide peaceful protest against the incessant killing of Nigerians by a killer group widely suspected to be Fulani herdsmen terrorists.
The Church, as Most Revd Alfred Adewale Martins, the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, in his recent letter to the President, put it, The Catholic Church has a long history of enduring persecution even in extreme cases without crying out or protesting in any form.
Hear him: “Permit me, Sir, to say that without any doubt, the Catholic Church in Nigeria has a long history of restraint in its engagement with governments of the country over the years. As partners in progress, we have always maintained integrity and restraint in the manner we react and respond to issues bordering on security and religious harmony. We have always provided a cordial atmosphere for robust discussions and genuine efforts at ensuring national cohesion”.
Those who know the Catholic Church well will also agree that against the feelings and sometimes overwhelming opinions of Her members, She has always preached restraint and living out the virtues of love as thought by our Lord Jesus Christ and leaving vengeance to God as commanded by the Holy Bible.
So when the Catholic Church eventually decides to strongly express Her displeasure at the unabated killing of Nigerians, forceful seizure of their ancestral lands, raping of mothers even as some of them have had unborn babies wickedly harvested from their wombs, places of worship wantonly desecrated and destroyed, sources of livelihood of victims burnt in a macabre dance of blood festival, from Abia to Cross River, Nasarawa to Adamawa, Taraba to Zamfara, Borno to Ondo, Kogi to Ekiti, Yobe to Southern Kaduna, Enugu to Plateau, etc with Benue emerging as the “headquarters” of the killings, it is because under the Buhari administration particularly, life has become brutal and short.
While the Church preaches love she also has the Divine Mandate as a House of Priests not to look on while evil is being firmly rooted in the land. She is also required by God to reprimand political kings who by their actions or inactions bring sorrow, tears and blood upon the people created and freely given life, human’s most treasured gift. She cannot preach love without preaching rebuke to harbingers of hate and murder, especially murder on a large scale as we are currently witnessing in our country. The two responsibilities of love for neighbor and reprimand for evil doers are like Siamese twins in the discharge of the Church’s responsibilities to humanity.
When men shiver and quake before tyrants, the Church is expected to stand up for the people. She does not quake before kings nor shiver before despots. And that is because Her leaders, the clergy, have, by their ordination, been ingrained into the Lord so that to them, to “live is Christ and to die is gain”.
What is happening in Benue, Taraba, Adamawa etc is no doubt an agenda by some groups of people who share common desire to kill people, sack communities and forcefully take over their lands. Whether this is for ethnic, religious, political or religious purposes, whether they are foreigners or locals, what the Church is particularly alarmed about is that the perpetrators are not being brought to book. Rather government takes pleasure in explaining away why these killings have persisted and even why they would remain so. It is only an irresponsible government that does this. The primary purpose of government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens. On that front, this government has failed abysmally.
Even President Donald Trump of USA recognizes this fact and warned President Buhari in no uncertain terms during our president’s recent official visit to that country to stop the killing of Christians in Nigeria or “we will do something”. That is because the killing without arrests of the perpetrators has become too much to bear even by the international community.
It is an error of judgement to think that the Benue killing of two priests and 17 other worshippers while at Mass caused the Church’s nationwide protest which we witnessed last week. While that could have been a catalyst, it was not all about it.
Before the killings in Benue, the Catholic Church had lost a number of her priests, seminarians and lay faithful to kidnappers and herdsmen terrorists who operate in some parts of the country with reckless abandon. A number of churches have been razed down, altars desecrated and holy vessels destroyed. Christians and other citizens alike have been victims and now live in fear even if in perpetual suspicion of one another. The brotherhood that existed among Nigerians and that was the basis of our nationhood has been grossly eroded under the Buhari administration.
It is this seemingly perpetuity of evil by acts of omission and or commission by government that uncharacteristically enraged the Bishops of the Catholic Church who were in Rome on official visit to the Holy Father when the Benue killings got to its climax with the murder of Rev Fathers Felix Tyolaha and Joseph Gor, and 17 other worshippers during an early morning Mass.
From Rome, the Bishops wrote a letter to President Buhari strongly advising him to either shape up or ship out.
“How can the federal government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and armless citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway and now, even in their sacred places of worship?
“Now, our churches have been desecrated and our people murdered on their altars. Today, we Christians feel violated and betrayed in a nation that we have all continued to sacrifice and pray for. We collectively feel abandoned and betrayed.
“Since the President, who appointed the heads of the nation’s security agencies has refused to call them to order, even in the face of the chaos and barbarity into which our country has been plunged, we are left with no choice but to conclude that they are acting a script that he approves of.
“It is clear to the nation that he (the president) has failed in his primary duty of protecting the lives of the Nigerian citizens. Whether this failure is due to inability to perform or lack of a political will, it is time for him to choose the path of honour and consider stepping aside to save the nation from total collapse.
As if that was not enough, Most Revd Alfred Adewale Martins concluded in his own separate letter which he wrote later thus:
“Unfortunately, it is sad to note that we have frequently been at the receiving end of attacks; the most recent being the callous killings in Benue State. Mr President, we have been provoked far too many times and now we say again, ‘Enough is enough’”.
Before this, the Catholic Church known for Her meticulous, yet, forthright ways of handling matters, had earlier on visited President Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Villa where they told him in uncompromising terms that he was failing as a leader. The crux of that meeting was introduced early in the address read to Mr President by the Bishops.
“Nearly three years later, however, one has the feeling that this goodwill is being fast depleted by some glaring failures of government which we have the moral responsibility to bring to your notice, else we would be failing in our duty as spiritual fathers and leaders.
“…Just as we seem to be gradually emerging from the dark tunnel of an economic recession that caused untold hardship to families and individuals, violent attacks by unscrupulous persons, among whom are terrorists masquerading as herdsmen, have led to a near civil war situation in many parts of the country.
“We are saddened that, repeatedly, innocent citizens in different communities across the nation are brutally attacked and their sources of livelihood mindlessly destroyed. Lives are wasted and property, worth billions of Naira, including places of worship, schools, hospitals and business enterprises, are torched and turned to ashes.
“We are still more saddened by the recent massacre of unarmed citizens by these terrorists in some communities in Benue, Adamawa, Kaduna and Taraba States which has caused national shock, grief and outcry.
“The silence of the federal government in the wake of these horrifying attacks is, to say the least, shocking.
“…Herdsmen may be under pressure to save their livestock and economy but this is never to be done at the expense of other people’s lives and means of livelihood”.
Based on the foregoing, it should indeed be worrying times for the president who has declared an interest to run for another term of office unless his advisers and acolytes are deceiving him. The protest called by the Catholic Church was well received nationwide even by adherents of other faiths. The response from Nigerians from all walks of life to it was massive. The crowd that attended the protest march was huge. Unprecedented! It was a statement made and only the unwise would take such actions by the Church lightly and carry on as if it does not matter.
Steps have been taken and more daring steps might be taken. One can only hope that the Church would not be forced to enter into unarmed resistance against official incompetence, complacency and ineptitude in the face of continued extreme provocation. A stitch in time saves nine!
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.