Yearning for Cardinal John Onaiyekan to become the Pope at some point is moving from a matter of silently borne to open sentiments in Nigeria. Both Muslims and Christians at the just concluded National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites at Abuja in Nigeria found it impossible to hide their preference for that to happen. While some are boldly mentioning it, others are still doing so through applause, nodding and other non-verbal signs with communicative import. Surprisingly but perhaps understandably, all the two who mentioned it frontally at the just concluded conference on a universal code for protection of holy sites are Muslims. Understandably in the sense that Christians are most likely to be more sensitive to unwritten protocols of the Church in such matters.
The first shot of the sentiment came when Cardinal Onaiyekan surprisingly walked into the second day of the conference after it was thought he wasn’t going to show up. That thinking was strengthened by the circulation of two different programme papers, one containing Onaiyekan’s name while the other did not, creating more confusion as to whether he was coming or not. When he did one hour or so behind time, Dr Sani Suleiman, the Master of Ceremony and a Program Officer of the INGO, the Search for Common Ground, described him as the epitome of humility and a model for inter-religious engagement. He then expressed the hope of Onaiyekan becoming the first Pope from Africa who, in his own view, “should be from Nigeria”. Obviously caught unaware by that frontal declaration, the applause was still muted. Only few in the audience at that point knew that Dr Suleiman, though a Muslim, had attended a programme at the Pontifical University in Rome and might be sure he was not offending any sensibility in Christendom or Roman Catholicism by expressing the wish.
Professor Sani Lugga, a Katsina traditional title holder took the yearning further by mentioning the idea four times, calling Onaiyekan “the Pope in waiting” twice. When he forgot to mention it, he got up to say how his first text message in the on-going Ramadan, (Muslim fasting) came from the Cardinal. He is, therefore, praying for Onaiyekan whom he called his uncle to be crowned one day. Each expression of such sentiment carried its approval in sometimes muted, sometimes loud audience chorus which, in dialogic terms, communicated a consensus with the sentiment. If the sentiment is also that strong in other social domains across Nigeria, then a case of popular desire can be said to exist for that reality.
Understandably, neither Supo Ayokunle, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, (CAN) nor Onaiyekan himself made any remark connected to the sentiment. In fact, Onaiyekan protested to the Wazirin Katsina when the title holder went back to his seat after calling him “the Pope in waiting” repeatedly but only those seated nearest to them would have heard the substance of his protest.