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Thursday, March 15, 2012

FACE TO FACE WITH ORITSEJAFOR

                                                                         Leonard Leo


My mobile phone rang. The caller was Archbishop John Onaiyekan. ‘Hello, Archbishop.’ I answered.

Ustaz!’ He said, ‘The Sultan is trying to reach you but he can’t.’

‘Yes sir, I know why he can’t. My Glo line is out of service; I’ve never called His Eminence with my Airtel number. He does not have it.’

I see. Do try and reach him then as you will be part of a meeting later in the day with some foreign participants.’

Thank you Archbishop; I’ll certainly do that.’

I understood from His Eminence, after calling him, that the colloquium that Archbishop Onaiyekan alluded to would take place at the Transcorp Hilton from around 8pm to 10pm on that day (Tuesday, 6th March, 2011). It would be attended, (with the support of some members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) by Christian and Muslim leaders in order to deliberate on the current security challenges in the country.

The drive to the Transcorp Hilton reminded one of the security challenges in the country when you see endless queue of vehicles at the entrance due to the stop-and-search superintended by armed military and police personnel.

The search at the Hilton Hotel is more meaningful as each driver has to come out and open their boot for thorough screening. It is not like what you see when you approach cities like Abuja, Niger, Kaduna, etc. where those manning the checkpoints hardly check anything but only take delight in causing hardship to hundreds of travellers who are forced to spend twice as much time as would normally take them to their destinations due to the holdup occasioned by barricades erected on the highways.

We all converged on His Eminence’s suite, and after self-introductions, Leonard Leo, Chairman, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said: ‘Your Eminence, we’d rather have this discussion in my suite which is, incidentally, adjacent to yours; we have ordered dinner, tea, coffee and other beverages for all.’

Mr Leonard,’ His Eminence said, ‘I don’t see anything wrong with us having our meeting here. Just look at the dining area; we also have ordered for dinner and beverages.’ We all laughed- a deft move pregnant with meaning from a former military attaché in several foreign countries, no doubt.

Actually, this offhanded intervention by His Eminence, and his insistence in having the meeting in his suite made me feel inwardly relaxed. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been comfortable conversing in a Hilton suite that was prearranged by a team of USCIRF hours before our arrival – thanks to what I now know about seemingly innocent meetings with US officials, the experience of which I shared with readers in my article called ‘How I was Wikileaked’. But for His Eminence’s summons, I wouldn’t attend any such meeting with foreign participation.

Leonard’s team had Scott M. Miller, Political Officer with the American Embassy in Abuja-a euphemism for a US secret agent; Tiffany Lynch, Senior Policy Analyst of USCIRF; and David Dettoni, in charge of protocol.

The Christian group had, among others, the CAN President, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor; Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese; The Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna; Reverend Dr Israel Akanji, Chairman, CAN, FCT Chapter; Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Primate, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion).

The Muslim group was led by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, President-General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic; and followed by His Royal Highness, Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, among others.

The Opening Prayers were led by Archbishop John Onaiyekan who beseeched God to bless the gathering, to guide us to workable solutions to the ills our time. Also, to bless those who come from far away climes to share in our problems by bringing their experience to bear on effective ways toward surmounting the challenges of insecurity and mutual distrust.

Leonard Leo, Chairman USCIRF started by giving a brief on the activities of USCIRF, mainly advising the US government on how to respect and achieve religious freedom. ‘We focus our attention on your country.’ He said, ‘It is important for your government to address impunity. Our records have shown that more than 14,000 people have been killed in religiously inclined crises in this country; the situation is now more complicated with the current threat posed by Boko Haram. We are about to make our final, on the spot report to President Barak Obama on the security challenge your country is facing. We are indeed privileged to have you here, to hear from you directly. Let us know what ways you think our government can help Nigeria to overcome the current challenge.” Somehow, I came away with thinking what the gentleman was trying to say was that whatever we said at that meeting would form the framework of their submission to President Obama.

Many seconds passed without any response to Leonard’s remarks, then His Eminence, the Sultan took up the gauntlet; ‘Let me help you,’ he said, ‘as it is apparent that most of us are not warmed up enough to be able to respond. Doubtless, there is violence in the land; we are all aware of this fact. We should not confuse the functions of religious leaders with those of a government. Our task is not intelligence gathering; that is for the government to do. We exhort right conduct on people. If a Muslim causes the death of other people by killing himself, it is my duty to tell him that suicide is unlawful. A suicide bomber plunges himself into the depth of Hell and not Heaven.

We are like classroom teachers. The pupil listens to you during lectures. You have little control over what he does outside the classroom. The duty of the messenger is to convey the message plainly; some people will accept; others may reject. I’ve been saying, time and again, that what is happening in Nigeria today is not a war between Christians and Muslims. It is, rather, a war between good and evil.  The good among us should come together to weed out the evil ones, and in that process let us avoid finger-pointing or imputing blame unjustifiably. We should search for the wrongdoers and allow the law take its due course. Let us also, as we do this, recognise our limitations. Nigeria is so vast. We cannot police everybody to ascertain what they do at any given time. That is the responsibility of the government. Most of us here have been meeting at the highest level of leadership at various times; we advise leaders on exactly how we see the situation, and what they should do. Christian and Muslim leaders are talking to themselves, and that is important. Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq are working under the aegis of Abuja Interfaith Forum, for Christian-Muslim mutual understanding. In spite of our current challenges the good among us have outnumbered the evil ones. We have been to America, lived there. You will agree with me that the crime rate in America is very high, but not all Americans are criminals. So, we believe in talking to ourselves, and given your experience, we wish to hear from your team.”

At this point Leonard Leo of USCIRF said he was struck by what His Eminence mentioned on government taking responsibility. He cited examples of places bedevilled by crises: Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. – ‘governments are not doing enough to combat the crisis.’ He said. According to him the internet is exporting extremist ideas to many countries; therefore, governments must be responsive. He ended by asking a question: ‘Is the government here responding…?’

The Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon answered with another question: ‘If I remember rightly, this is the third meeting I’m having with your group, and in each the issue of impunity has been mentioned, discussed. What progress have you made on that?

Well’, Leonard started, ‘we just can’t seem to make progress. The government said there were 41 people arrested in connection with the Jos crisis. They change attorneys as I change shirts. Nothing has been done since then. We’ve seen how religious communities in America come together to change governments – but what is happening here? We’ve spoken to the government on impunity time and again – nothing has been done.’

Since your team is on a fact-finding mission,’ interjected His Royal Highness, Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, ‘I want to assure you that we’ve been interacting on how to curb these excesses with the CAN President and other Christian leaders. We shall avail USCIRF of a copy of our report when it is ready. Yes, people have been arrested as you’ve alluded to, but you must concede to the fact that ours is a religious community. Rather than risk stirring up ill-feelings through protracted legal process, many people would rather opt for out-of-court adjudication or even forgiveness, as this is certain to douse tension and possible escalation of the crisis. Many people prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.’ He continued:

People should be educated on the limitations attached to their freedom and the sanctions to follow if they encroach on the freedom and rights of others. Your freedom stops from where someone else’s starts. Many matters of religion are put out of context; thus it is important that people understand very well the precepts of the religion they profess.’


                                                  Pator Ayo Oritsejafor and His Eminence, The Sultan

During informal discussions, minutes before the commencement of this meeting, the foreign participants informed us about how sophisticated the Boko Haram group has become. The group sends email messages to the embassy. ‘As we speak, Boko Haram knows exactly what is on the menu of the American Ambassador, with whom he’s likely to dine, and what his schedule is from hour-to-hour. They communicate precisely the outside-of-the embassy engagements of the Ambassador and time of each meeting.’

Could this be the Boko Haram we know or, will it be that this designation has been hijacked by a more advanced, high-tech and clandestine agenda hatched by those who desire this country to be split asunder? How can members of Boko Haram have access to the inner workings of a fortified fortress as the American Embassy? The embassy is either infiltrated by members of the group working as part of its personnel, or maybe the Ambassador himself is a member of Boko Haram! No organisation, private or governmental, not even the Nigerian secret service, can have access to so classified and restricted an information as the menu and hour-to-hour details of the schedules of the American Ambassador to Nigeria or any country. They take utmost pains to screen their foreign staff and give information on a need-to-know basis only. For the so-called Boko Haram to know so much in such detail puts a huge question mark on two things; the veracity of the claim that is Boko Haram’s doing and the veracity of the claim of the speakers. Either way, we are being told an economical amount of truth.

Back to the formal discussions at plenary; I thought that at this point Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor would speak, but he remained quiet, thoughtful and moving his gaze from one speaker to the next. I said to myself; I’ll be disillusioned if this meeting ended without hearing anything from the CAN President.

Father Cornelius had the floor; ‘I thank the US government for its interest in peaceful co-existence in Nigeria;’ he said, ‘but your mission should appreciate this: the problem of religious intolerance is not with these honoured clergymen at Transcorp Hilton – it is outside, within our followers. We have to make sure that whatever is discussed today reaches our flock. Let them know the level of respect and understanding that exists among us. Also, the problem is with how the media is labelling criminals as Muslims or Christians. The religion that they profess has nothing to do with the crimes they committed.'

But that is not right;’ cut in CAN Chairman, Abuja chapter, ‘criminals are criminals. They can be Muslims or Christians. Most of the time religious symbols or authority are used or quoted to justify a crime; in that situation we have to describe issues and the group concerned adequately.’

I would have had no problem with this labelling if the media would do so equitably, it is either they label each criminal by his name only or by his religion in addition to that. To say Islamic terrorist is puerile and shows naked ignorance - how can a crime be Islamic in any way? Christian terrorist is just as silly too.

What I understood from the two opposing views of Father Cornelius and the Abuja CAN Chairman was that, on the one hand, the media is quick to associate some criminals with their religion at the moment that the same media is silent on the issue of the religious affiliation of the perpetrators of the same crime if they happen to belong to another creed; and on the other hand, we have no option but to describe criminals as Christians or Muslims where they use religious symbols that show their adherence to Christianity or Islam. I prefer the position of Father Cornelius; even where criminals use Biblical or Qur’anic authorities to justify a crime, the fact remains: neither Christianity nor Islam preaches violence or the killing of innocent soul!

Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Primate, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) asked Leonard, Chairman, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this question: ‘Is there an international dimension to the issue of terrorism in Nigeria?

There are three dimensions.’ Responded Leonard, ‘1) International influence, 2) religious dimension, and 3) no religious dimension. I’ve my own opinion: certainly there is international influence, not least, limitless information on the internet. We met with the DG, SSS, and he said it is not uncommon to see, here in Nigeria, extremist leaflets produced in Pakistan, etc.’

Leonard went further to show how socio-economic issues assume political or religious dimension leading to the death of innocents. ‘No one takes responsibility for impunity. There’s a lot of finger-pointing between federal and state governments as witnessed in the Plateau crisis, but at the end of the day nothing happens. I don’t know, but in America the rule of law is respected. When people do wrong, they know that sanction will follow and the law will take its course. So, as I said earlier, if religious people come together they can effect meaningful changes in governance. Look at the South Sudan government that has every mark of a failed state, it’s now being influenced by religious communities, making sure that government is doing the right thing. Honestly, I don’t think the US government will be able to solve the problems in your country without you, the Christian-Muslim religious leaders, coming together and putting pressure on the government to do things rightly.’

Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese who, like Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, had not said anything, decided to talk. ‘Our country,’ he said, ‘is not as bad as it is being portrayed by the foreign media. And while the emphasis is on impunity about religious issues; what about stealing our money with impunity…? There’s not a single way of dealing with the problem, but we can isolate the criminal elements. Boko Haram is releasing pamphlets with verses of the Qur’an forming bases for violence. We should find ways of dealing with that.’

This is a challenge to us, the Muslims. We have a duty to counter these diseased and jaundiced interpretations of God’s words for the personal agenda of some half-educated men parading themselves as religious leaders.

Leonard came to the rescue, ‘You need to issue a joint declaration disowning Boko Haram and its violent activities. The government has the responsibility to protect the people. There has to be respect for the rule of law. You, the religious leaders must tell the government ‘We will put our house in order, clean up yours’. And as part of your housecleaning initiative, bad preachers and imams who spread hate messages must be deposed, and people shown the evils of such religious misrepresentations. If you do this, the US government will feel inclined to come to your aid in such areas as may be needed.’

It was time for His Eminence the Sultan to respond. ‘We must know our religion very well. What is the interpretation and context in which the word jihad appears in the scripture? If a verse has the phrase: ‘kill them’, then questions like who and how would be pertinent. Read the context of the verse properly; it does not refer to the Christians. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) lived with Jews and Christians, and whenever there was an expedition, he left them secure in Madinah, and confronted the enemy among the polytheists. There should be trust among us when we speak about these issues. If somebody composed and sent text-messages of impending jihad; such threat must be countered; some people are trying to play on our intelligence. Fear makes terrorists succeed (it is the only capital they have, by the way); we have to make sure that they do not. If there was going to be jihad, on what basis, and to be led by whom? Alarmists will fail when we are talking to ourselves as we are now doing. This is Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor; we’ve been relating with him even before he became the CAN President; and that is important. Nigeria cannot be divided along religious lines. How can the North, for instance, be divided on Christian-Muslim basis? We are intertwisted intricately that it is impossible to set us in twain. 90% of the victims of Boko Haram were Muslims including scholars; but whether Muslims or Christians, killing of innocents should be condemned. A criminal is a criminal; if Christians are caught with explosives in a church they should be questioned in equal degree as when Muslims are caught in similar circumstances. Solving this problem is not only in developing the North; we should also engage the recruits thereby starving violent groups of new entrants.’

I say, let there be pamphlets in Hausa, English, Yoruba, Igbo and Pidgin English to be distributed all over this country. Millions will read and be educated on what the two religions actually say about killing innocent people. For each argument of these merchants of doom and destruction, let us have a counter argument so lucid and direct that everyone can grasp it. There is too much at stake in our unity to allow mad men to make fools of us.

After this explicit elucidation of the matters at stake by His Eminence, what I have been waiting for happened; as if the Sultan’s words nudged Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor to talk. And when he did, I was not surprised by what came out of his mouth. He was every inch what I knew and read about him. ‘I thought I will not speak;’ the CAN President commenced, ‘I thought I will only listen and learn. But certain remarks have made it mandatory for me to speak. I must say from the outset that I entertain deep regard for His Eminence. We’ve done a lot of good things together, as he attested to that. Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Primate, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) spoke about messages making the round that Christians will be killed, and some of us here dismissed such concerns as rumours. It is not rumour; it has happened in the past. You only dismiss such threats at your own peril. People must be alerted to protect themselves. The government is afraid. The politicians are afraid that if they do certain things, some people will do certain things in return. So, don’t expect anybody to protect you. And all this talk urging security agencies using telephone networks to arrest Boko Haram is a stratagem. To some members of our security agencies, their religion is more important than Nigeria. They want to protect their own and their religion. I’m sorry if you judge me too blunt; but, I believe we have to offend ourselves in order to address some issues correctly. No Christian leader will teach violence. Now, you, as Muslim leaders, you said you’ve done a lot in curbing the excesses of these boys; that there was nothing you’ve not done. But in Kano Boko Haram said they wanted to bomb certain places but that when some scholars appealed with them they rescinded their plan.’

There’s nothing like that…’ interrupted His Eminence. That was the first time I witnessed the Sultan almost, I repeat, almost losing his temper. But, suddenly, he overcame it and was calm. That provocation in the presence of His Eminence was immense.

Allow me to finish, You Eminence;’ continued Oritsejafor, ‘these boys were under some scholars who taught them the Koran, etc. if you can help us. They must listen to some people. They must have teachers. Condemning them is not enough; somebody has to speak to them. I’m just appealing.’

Well, you have read what the CAN president said and as I wrote earlier, I am not in the least surprised. Let me not hasten to judge him harshly for in his shoes, I may talk in a similar way. Let us take a benign appraisal of his message: He said text messages purporting to murder all Christians in the north were making the rounds. As a human being first, a Christian second and the CAN president third, those messages must have a chilling effect on him. When you couple that with the fact that the press is not exactly unbiased in its reportage, he must be envisioning wholesale slaughter and destruction creeping like a ghost upon his flock. But that is where the traits of a true leader kick in; challenging the madness, building strategic alliances and foiling any menace. It was the reason the leaders met and not the followers. It was to form a strong front and to mutually reassure ourselves of a commitment to protect those who look up to us for that. To act in a jittery manner is unbecoming and to play the alarmist is not so edifying. We also get messages from time to time claiming among other things that food items from the south coming up north have been poisoned and that we should warn all Muslims, northerners of this plot to kill us all. I am sure we also know the ‘Nigeria for Christ ’99’ campaign which had pamphlets telling the Christians to get ready to take over the dominion of the country as it were back in 1999. All these messages are inconsequential when we work together as a unit to fight them.

Let us even submit for the sake of argument that the Boko Haram boys have people to whom they can listen, it does not mean that those people would advertise themselves nor would it mean that we can find the murderers themselves. I say, let us together form an indivisible entity to combat them on an intellectual level and let the government do its own part in stopping this madness. We gathered that in in the past, before this group went viral, they were invited by prominent clerics to debates. They would lose each debate and dig deeper into their trenches afterwards. It is not as if they had never been engaged before they reached this point of no return, so to speak. Even the people of Maiduguri are scared of these vermin; they scarcely know who is who among them. You report to the police about them and someone dies sooner or later for that- this is beyond us; let the government handle that part. If they have to bomb their lairs to high heavens to rout them entirely, let them do so; but let no one put around our necks an onus too much for us to bear.

When His Eminence’s ire abated, he gave the closing prayers. ‘O Allah;’ he started, ‘make us be conscious of You and speak the truth; the truth shall set us free. May the deliberations of today’s discussion enhance our efforts of lasting peace and mutual respect among the adherents of our religions.  O Allah, as You bring us to this meeting in safety, we beseech You to bless us and return all to their families in security.’

6 comments :

  1. Assalamu Aliakum, Malam Abubakar the title is provocative. You also do not quote yourself as having said anything during the meeting. These two issues are not helpful to this blog, or to furthering mutual understanding between us and Christians. I urge you to show true understanding to the position of the CAN President (as you already acknowledged why he could take the position he has or is taken). The CAN President's position is not valid, but how can you make him understand? Do you want him to just agree with everything said by the Sultan? I think to do effective Da'awah we have to use "wisdom and the best of speech"

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  2. Mal. My take is that at such a level people involved must be polished. Any religious leader who is not honest should not be
    Part. Mark you I am talking about the person, not his faith or followers. If a mad man or woman is involved at such a high level meeting then forget about progress. Oh by the way I want to say that I am glad that our Sultan was pretty smart for insisting on having the meeting in his room not that of the white house'

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  3. Assalamu Alaikum Ustaz Abubakar,

    I support Sagagi's view that the title is provocative, As a muslim I have seen anything bad or wrong in what the CAN President said. in fact if anything he's the only one trying to bring the real issues up for deliberations, Sultan was more political and economical with the truth and current realities. May be in another forum when the Americans are not part of the gathering, those issues raised by the CAN President are more Direct and correct to genuinely addressing the root and finding a way forward. to do that no information should be whisked away or ignored as a mare alarm, fear or exaggeration. I want to urge you as you acknowledged to look at it form the reverse, that is assuming what is happening now is from "Christian" Millitants to Nigeria and Sultan relayed similar message of texts going round?? cause we all know that BH had made threats (ignored or not taken seriously) in the past, but eventually came to pas e.g Police HQ, UN House, Churches, Kano etc.

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  4. Assalamu Alaikum..I am not really surprise with the position of the CAN president. My prayer is that all those behind this act be expose.All they want to achieve is to dent the image of Islam and Insha Allah they shall not succeed.

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  5. Assalamu Alaikum, Uztaz Sadeeq thank you very much for the accountability, I concur with your comment Dhikirullah!

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  6. Assalmu Alkm,
    May Allah (SWT) continue to be the Gaurd and Guide of the Muslims all over the world and give us victory over the enemies of Islam - Amin.

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