The topmost layer of Nigerian religious leaders took the search for common grounds between religious identities in the country to its farthest reaches Tuesday in Abuja when Cardinal John Onaiyekan, for instance, insisted that the phenomenon of attack and destruction of holy sites cannot be understood outside of its roots. In defending the position, the Cardinal said the incidence could not be dealt until a way was found by which to change the attitude of some people who believe they have God completely and nobody else does. He said unless faithfuls on all sides were made to know that people who do not talk about God the way one does are not doing anything strange, the problem would remain. “If you don’t respect the religion of somebody, how can you respect what he or she calls holy”, he queried, adding that failure or inability to recognise that religion exists outside of one’s theory and practice of it was the root of the problem.
Emphasising that recognition of a site as holy can only come from believing that the God someone else worships deserve respect, Onaiyekan said this is, however, threatened by the narrowness of some people’s concept of God. Starting the critique from Christianity, he cited how Christians destroyed shrines of pagans. “We didn’t see it as anything bad”, he said, before moving on to cite what the Taliban did in blowing up Hindu temples in Afghanistan or the destruction of age-old holy sites in Timbuktu not long ago. Tracing these to lack of acceptance and respect for the other person’s concept and practice of worship or religion, he restated his disagreement with the notion of religious tolerance because being tolerated is not what is required but respect for each other.
Cross referencing what CAN President, Dr Supo Ayokunle who spoke before him at the National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites which opened at Abuja Monday had said about disturbing hand writing on the wall in Nigeria, Onaiyekan said it is worse than a decade ago. He said, on the whole, it is now such that many are saying that the God of Muslims is not their own God. He mentioned how Christians in the north of Nigeria have complained about the difficulty of getting land, partly because the church is put in the same category of brothels and beer parlours in regional governmentality. It is that mentality that the church is undesirable that explains why, at the slightest provocation, churches are burnt along with beer parlours and brothels, he maintained.
Onaiyekan said that there are also communities that find a Mosque such a strange thing in parts of southern Nigeria. In this regard, he pointed out, if there is anything that could be said to have come out good from Boko Haram, it is that they attacked both churches and mosques. Although they destroyed more churches than mosques, the message, for Cardinal Onaiyekan, is that fanatics are important because they can disrupt society. “If they are not important, how come governors answer them”, he asked, insisting that it meant that voices of peace and inclusion must be intensified. Not worshiping God in the way of the Muslim’s mosque or Christians’ church did not mean the two cannot pull together, he argued, saying that when Christians, for example, pray to God, they do not say “Oh God, take care of Nigeria but only Christians”. Rather, they pray for the totality of Nigeria, Nigeria of Christians and Muslims.
Onaiyekan located what he considered to be the other dimension of the problem of religious peace in the multiplicity of religious leaders, saying that nowadays, “everybody is a religious leader”, a reference to what he called imams and pastors preaching in the villages without anybody apparently checking what they are preaching.
While declaring fidelity to a standing protocol said to exist between Cardinal Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto to stand by whatever the other had said, Professor Sani Lugga, the Wazirin Katsina who spoke after Onaiyekan, however, insisted on an exceptionalist narrative of Katsina State in the destruction of holy sites during religious violence in Nigeria. Broadly agreeing with Onaiyekan on the imperative of educating believers on their own religion and the religion of other worshippers, all in the context of peaceful co-existence, the traditional title holder said there had been no case of religious killing in Katsina state. “It is only in Katsina this has not happened in Nigeria”, he asserted, giving the credit for that to the response of Muhammadu Dikko, the Emir of Katsina in the 1920s who rejected British colonial instructions to create two special areas. These were Sabon Gari and Tudun Wada. While Sabon Gari was meant to serve as settlement for non indigenes and non-Muslims, Tudun Wada was to serve as settlement for non-indigenes who were Muslims, such as Nupe and Yorubas.
The result, according to Prof Lugga, is that churches are so embedded in mosques in Katsina that burning churches also means burning mosques. So also is the case with shops, Prof Lugga told his audience, pointing out how this makes all the difference between Zaria, Kano and Ibadan (all of which have Sabon Gari settlements) on the one hand and Katsina on the other. He concluded that the Katsina community happened to be a truly combined community in which it is impossible for anyone to start a religious fight, contrasting this to where Sabon Gari is predominantly Igbos and, therefore, easy to attack.
Expanding this in apparent clarification of some points made by Cardinal Onaiyekan, Prof Lugga credited the late Muhammadu Dikko with donating and building the first and the biggest church standing in Katsina today and that this was also the tradition in Kano, Sokoto and Kaduna and everywhere else in those days. Revealing that the Mosque destroyed during a recent strife at Ile-Ife was built and maintained by the late Ooni of Ife, the speaker added how late Nnamdi Azikiwe was also the donor of the land for the Mosque at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka just as the late Chief Awolowo built a Mosque in his area additional to establishing the first Hajj Commission in Nigeria. The late Ahmadu Bello and Premier of the north, he said, allocated to the churches whatever lands they have today in Kaduna when he was a regional minister between 1957 and 1959.
Totalizing the evidence he amassed, Lugga argued that earlier leaders consciously built and maintained mosques or churches as the case may be and that the problem now is that politics and leadership have simply degenerated in Nigeria. This, in his analysis, is why security has also plunged to the lowest scale. Citing the case of rustling to illustrate his point, he said rustlers no longer steal cattles. Rather, “they steal the owner of the cattles and his family sell the cattles and take the money to them as ransom”.
Other contentious issues that cropped up at the session included the question of different uniforms for Christians and Muslims as well as the multiplicity of religious leaders in Nigeria today. Onaiyekan had first touched on that, with Lugga agreeing with him, saying that it had to do with the abrogation of the study of Religious Knowledge in the country. Then, unlike now, every 18 year old knew enough of his or her religion, making it impossible for anyone to teach him or her another brand of Islam. Instead of that situation, everyone is calling himself an Imam or a Pastor, teaching young people his own brand of Islam.
Hajia Rekiya Momoh-Abaji, a member of the Advisory team to the project of protecting holy sites expressed strong reservations about school children being made different uniforms corresponding to the religious divides in Nigeria. Participants shared her reservations, with some saying the problem is, however unique to government owned schools. Questions about why the project was restricted to northern Nigeria was answered with the response that it is only a pilot one and because the north has been the theatre of violent conflicts characterised by unrestrained destruction of churches and mosques in great numbers. Participants closed the conference with reflections on their take-aways.