President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor in this interview with Ozioma Ubabukoh, bares his mind on controversies surrounding churches, the Boko Haram insurgency and sundry issues
Apart from being a general overseer in your church, you head Nigeria’s highest religious organisation, the Christian Association of Nigeria. How do you feel when people criticise you sometimes on all fronts?
Criticism is part of life. Anybody who does not expect criticism should think again because criticism can actually enhance a man’s capacity to do better. Criticism for me is not a problem. The only thing that is a problem, in my own opinion, is when you are not doing what is called constructive criticism. Disrespectful criticism is also wrong. It is a free world and people are free to criticise. I will also say that as a person, I believe that truth must never be mortgaged. That, perhaps, is one of the things that get me into trouble with some people. If you watch events in Nigeria, and if our Nigerian press would give me credit, they would realise that many things I predicted eventually came to pass exactly the way I said them.
Boko Haram has launched an onslaught on the church for some time now. How do you feel about this?
Boko Haram is an organisation of cowards. If you wish, quote me and print it boldly: Every member of Boko Haram is a coward. Cowards shoot people in the back. Cowards kill children, women and harmless people. They are cowards and I want to recommend that when such people are killed, their flesh should be given to pigs because they are not better than pigs. The cowards also include those who finance the activities of Boko Haram; those who give them moral and logistic supports. Anybody involved in Boko Haram is a coward and a nuisance to himself, to the society and to God whom they say they propagate or proclaim. It is difficult for any rational mind to believe that what they are doing is what God professes. I don’t know the God they are talking about. It is a disgrace to humanity.
Do you think government is doing enough to tackle this problem?
Members of the security agencies are Nigerians, like you and I. That’s the first thing I want to say and because of that, we must understand that the battle they are fighting, they are fighting on our behalf. But they have their constraints. First, they don’t have enough troops. They have said that they are overstretched. There must be a deliberate effort to recruit new people into the army and into the State Security Service and other intelligence agencies. While this is being done, the people being recruited must be properly screened. The second constraint they have and I think this is very serious, if not even more serious, is the constraint of sabotage within the different formations. I have been saying this for more than two years now. But I think eventually, a lot of people who used to criticise me are beginning to say the same thing. There is sabotage within. There are people within the security agencies who are sympathetic to Boko Haram. It is strange, but it is true. There are also those who think that Boko Haram is defending their religion and so would do anything possible to sabotage the effort of the military. There are people in the military who are more loyal to their religion than to Nigeria. I can’t imagine how a religion would encourage the madness that we see in our society today. We have these two sets of people within the military and within all the intelligence agencies. I believe the Nigerian military is capable. It has the capacity to win the war. I believe our security men can do it. I believe they would do it. But what I am saying now has to be looked into critically. The third thing, I will not call it so much of a constraint as such. I would rather suggest that the military should continue to upgrade its equipment. It has to be continuous because you are dealing with desperate, crazy cowards. To deal with this kind of people who are constantly looking for ways to get new equipment, the soldiers must also upgrade their own equipment. Then number four, I will say that the Nigerian government should start now to ensure proper policing of our very porous borders. It is a major problem. Where are all these military hardware coming from? They didn’t fall from heaven and we don’t manufacture them in Nigeria. They come from the porous borders and seaports. Emphasis is on the seaports because we have had more than two or three occasions when a lot of arms and ammunition were seized at our seaports. The land borders should be patrolled by people who are passionate about Nigeria, not people who are more interested and more committed to religion. These borders should not just be manned by people who really care about Nigeria, but by people who will not succumb to bribes. The fight against Boko Haram must never be left to the military and to the government. Every Nigerian, especially Nigerians who presently live in the affected areas, must tackle the Boko Haram problem. Muslim political leaders and Muslim religious leaders must help us; they should go beyond condemning the acts of Boko Haram. They must not allow themselves to be used or destroyed. They must help us begin to develop the structure of loyalty to this nation and among those in the local communities because if that is done, gradually we would begin to find people who will take the risk to come out and give information about Boko Haram activities. One of the reasons many local people do not give information is because they are afraid that if they do, they would be killed. There are also those who don’t give information because they think erroneously again that Boko Haram is protecting their religion. These people should be re-oriented. They need a re-education. I say all these with a high sense of love and responsibility and with the belief that my Muslim brothers are my fellow brothers and I have nothing against them.
I will now tell you a little story to show that I have nothing against them. About nine years ago, there was a religious crisis somewhere in the North. Many people were killed and majority of the people killed were from the South-East zone. When they brought the corpses back home, there was a reaction. People were sad. They were angry and went after some of our Muslim brothers in Onitsha. Many of them ran across the bridge. They passed through the Niger Bridge and crossed over to Asaba. I heard of it here in Warri. I bought relief materials and drove to Asaba. I located them and gave them relief materials. I apologised to them. I told them that they should understand it was the pain of seeing corpses of their people that made our people to react the way they did. I also added money to the relief materials. A man who hates Muslims would not do that. Nobody tells that part of my story. I have still not seen any Muslim leader that has done what I did and just said. If there is any, please I would like to know them. I hope they have seen the number of structures being bombed and destroyed. A Catholic seminary was just destroyed in Maiduguri. The businesses of Christians are being destroyed everyday. Schools and children of Christians are being killed and maimed. Many widows and orphans are killed almost every hour. I am still waiting to see when some of our well-to-do Muslim clerics, political leaders, and religious leaders would have a change of attitude to all these. I am waiting to see when traditional leaders would come out and approach these Christians who have been displaced and say let us do these to help out. I was reading in the papers that the men that killed a religious leader in Zaria had been apprehended. Within the last nine months, many Christian clerics have been killed and I don’t say this to take away from the fact that what those men did by killing that Muslim cleric in Zaria was bad. They killed him, killed his son and even killed his wife. It is a terrible thing for anybody to do. I pray that God would continue to comfort their family members that are still alive. But what I am trying to say is that in the last nine months, many Christian clerics in the North have been butchered and slaughtered. We know it is Boko Haram, but nobody has been apprehended. One of the victims was the secretary of CAN in Borno State. They went to his house, in the presence of his daughter, and slaughtered him. They sliced his throat despite pleas from his daughter. This was just barely a year ago. Just about a month ago now, the chairman of CAN in Kastina Local Government Area, Katsina State, was killed. They said they saw the corpse of a child close to his house. They went into his house, beat him until he became unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, yet they mobilised and went after him in the hospital where he was eventually killed. The police keep telling us they are on top of the situation. I cannot hate Muslims. They are my brothers. We are all Nigerians. What I am asking for is justice. Everyone should be treated equally in a nation that belongs to all of us. That’s all I am saying.
Do you think the declaration of state of emergency by the Federal Government is working?
I think it is working because all we have to do is look back to when the state of emergency had not been declared. We were all aware that Boko Haram had taken more than half of all the local government areas in Borno State, literally. In fact, it had brought down the Nigerian flag and hoisted its own flag in those local government areas. The governor of Borno State was governing less than half of the state before the state of emergency. But today, at least you can say he is the governor of the whole state. I just showed you about six or seven constraints confronting the military as at today. If those problems were not looked into, solving them would be almost impossible. Mainly, many of the people who are active in Boko Haram today are from the Republic of Chad. There are some from Niger and Cameroon. How are they entering Nigeria? These are the questions. They are recruiting some local people as well. The point is that a lot of these people are coming from outside.
Does CAN have any programme in place for orphans, widows and widowers from Boko Haram onslaught?
It is very shameful that the umbrella organisation of Christians in Nigeria has no money. I run CAN generally with my own money. It may shock you and some religious leaders, but it is the truth. CAN doesn’t even pay my hotel bills when I go to Abuja. CAN has no place for me to stay. I had to furnish my own office in CAN with personal funds. I do most of the things I do by myself without help from anywhere. Some of the richest people in Nigeria today are Christians, but they refuse to finance their own religion. It is a shame. But let me tell you that on my own, I have tried to reach out. For example, I told you just now of the CAN secretary in Borno State that was killed. Right now, as we speak, we are in the process of relocating his wife somewhere else that I can’t mention now. The first Christian cleric that was slaughtered was a gentleman by the name Oje. He was from Benue State. The Muslims talk about the founder of Boko Haram, Yusuf, who the police killed, but nobody talks about the people he (Yusuf) killed. I single-handedly relocated Oje’s family from Maiduguri to somewhere else – his wife and three children. I paid house rent for them for two years, bought her a car, a generator and established a little business for her. I also helped with the children’s school fees. As we speak, I still send them money constantly, especially during festive seasons. There are churches that are doing the same thing. It is not just me. But the point is, as an organisation, we have not started doing that directly. CAN consists of different denominations and some of these denominations are also making their contributions. If you look at it from that angle, you could say CAN is doing something. But as a body, we still do not have that means.
People claim churches milk the poor and live big on them. What’s your take on this?
It is cheap to criticise; even to criticise what you don’t understand. Let me put it this way, in every good thing, you would always find some bad people. The church is the greatest institution that has made the country today. If you look back, you would find out that the church brought education to Nigeria. The church brought hospital to Nigeria. I think the church should be given credit for that. People don’t understand what they say about the church milking the poor. Can a poor man have money to pay tithe? A man who has no job, can he pay tithe? No, he won’t be able to pay. So how do you milk a man who has no milk? In a church, you have both the poor and the rich. It is generally not the poor that finance the church. It is those with the means. A man, for example, who earns N10,000, how much is his tithe? His tithe is N1,000. A man who earns N500,000, how much is his tithe? His tithe is 10 per cent which is N50,000. How much would you milk from a man who pays a tithe of N1000? We won’t say things like this usually because the church is a level-playing ground. Whether you are poor or you are rich, God sees everybody as equal. It is because of a question like this that sometimes, we have to take time to analyse things. I even hear people say that the poor give money to start schools, but their children cannot go to the schools. How will they give this money when they are poor? The truth is that, the people who actually give this money are those who have the means to do so. Those people make it possible for churches to start schools. Now again, why do churches charge high fees in school? You didn’t ask me that, but I’m just throwing that in free. People must understand that there is a standard. The church wants to maintain the standard. In those days, some people will say that when missionaries started school, it was free. Don’t forget that those missionaries were being financed from different places. Who is financing us today? We are financing ourselves. If I got free financing, why won’t we make education free? You must also understand that at the time, the cost of living was not the way it is today. The educational system of Nigeria is in serious trouble, so we need to up the standards. And to do that, you should be able to hire the best hands. If you hire the best, how do you pay them? Where do you get the money to pay them? How do you put the right infrastructure in place? How do you do many of the things that need to be done? How do you run the generators?
Why do you think we have so many poor people in the church and many rich pastors?
Remember that the pastors are pasturing both the poor and the rich. They are all in the same assembly. Both the poor and the rich, those who have the means in the church take time to be kind to their pastors. That is something most people don’t realise. They give their pastors money, food and different things. For example, a member of the church goes to his pastor and says, ‘I feel led to give you a car. Take this car.’ Now the pastor has a car. Did he steal it? As I sit here talking to you now, I can tell you that I am training almost 100 people in institutions of higher learning. Nobody is going to broadcast that. On every 26th of December, I organise what I call poverty alleviation. I have been doing it now for about eight years.
Your children in the ministry bought aircraft for you recently, but Mallam Nasir el-Rufai claimed it was a gift from the President. How do you feel about this?
I am glad that there are people who challenged him. I would only be dignifying him if a person at my level starts exchanging words with a small person like el-Rufai. He is too small. I will not dignify him with a response. People responded. They told him that since he knew who gave the gift, he should provide the proof, which he hasn’t done till today. Obviously, he didn’t have any proof. That is the problem with Nigeria. We continue to celebrate people like el-Rufai. He is too small for me.
Are you considering legal actions against him?
If I did that, I would be giving him publicity. el-Rufai is too small for that. I shouldn’t have anything to do with him. If there are other Nigerians who will want to take him to court, they are free, but not for me. Going to court with who? el-Rufai? el-Rufai is too small. I won’t waste my time on him.
How do you feel when people accuse you of fraternising with the President?
I am ashamed of people who say that. I am a Nigerian and Mr. President is a Nigerian. I wonder why no one has ever made a comment on Muslim presidents who are close to Muslim clerics. So, why is it an issue with President Goodluck Jonathan? Why is it an issue with Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor? President Jonathan goes to every church now and people are criticising him for doing that. Sometimes, when I have a reason to give a report, I don’t get the opportunity to meet with President Jonathan. Mr. President goes to the churches of other clerics, so why aren’t they criticised for it? Some even said that I don’t criticise Jonathan. I was not called to the altar to criticise. I was called to preach the gospel. There are things the Federal Government has done that I criticised. Last year, at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, I made a statement and no newspaper carried it. I said I was appealing to all elected and appointed leaders in this country to donate half of their salaries for one year and that it should be put into a joint account. I said credible Nigerians should be allowed to manage the account for people to start small and medium scale businesses. If that statement had been highlighted in newspaper editorials and opinion articles, all these people would have accepted it by now. There are certain people who own the press and they use that to create certain perception about people like us who the press don’t like. These same people attacked the President last year for going to pray in Israel. What is so bad about the President going to the origin of his faith to pray?
People wonder why Nigerian pastors fraternise with politicians believed to be corrupt…
There might be pastors who do that, but there are also others who don’t do that. A church is an open house. Jesus said a church is supposed to be a house for sinners. Church is not just meant for people who have repented, but also for those who need redemption. Giving a corrupt person a position in church is wrong. It must never be accepted. As for anybody coming to church, whether corrupt or not, you can’t stop the person.
What is your assessment of Jonathan’s government?
You asked me if I were a politician and I said ‘No’. Now you are asking me my assessment of President Jonathan’s administration. If I say something here now, you would use it against me tomorrow. But I would say this: President Goodluck Jonathan is the President of Nigeria and Nigerians. In my opinion, given the circumstances surrounding him since he became the President of Nigeria, I will say he has done well. From the day he was announced President, violence broke out and it has remained so. Apart from the religious colouration, it is also political. In the midst of the challenges, he has been able to function. That does not mean it can’t be better. I think he has tried, but things could be better.
Former chief security officer to the late General Sanni Abacha, Al Mustapha, was here with you days back, what was his mission?
He said he came to partner with me and the church to build bridges of peace, love and unity among Nigerians. We had a very fruitful time and discussion. Ensuring justice in the country was also part of our discussion because that is the bridge between peace and unity. I appreciated his coming. We are with him as far as working for the peace and unity of Nigeria is concerned.
How will you react to the decision of Osun State governor to merge Christian schools with Muslim schools in line with the state’s new policy on education?
First of all, Osun is a very important state in the country, so we can’t take events there lightly. There have been governors in Osun but there was never a time we had religious tension in that state, why now? The activities of the present governor are very worrisome. I am not a politician, but one cannot but be concerned when a state that used to be peaceful is now full of religious tension. What does the governor mean by re-classification of schools? I am aware that when the state government handed over mission schools to their owners, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with schools; part of the agreement is that the names of the schools should be left intact. That is why the names of the schools have not been changed. It was agreed that the heritage of the schools should remain intact-whether it is Muslim or Christian heritage. Is the solution to dilapidation of schools in moving Muslims to Christian schools? That’s confusion. Government should either rebuild dilapidated schools or build new ones. This is high level confusion. I believe the governor has an ulterior motive. Students now trek four kilometres to get to school. I learnt a document was signed in 2011 by both Muslims and Christians in Osun State, where it was agreed that Muslims can’t wear hijab to a Christian school. Now if it is true that this document was signed by both Muslims and Christians, is the governor not aware of it. I appeal to the governor to reverse himself which is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. It will be a great mistake to think the tension in Osun is over. There are undercurrents still going on. The way to solve the problem is for the governor to reverse himself. If he doesn’t want to do that, then he should say categorically that Muslims can’t wear hijab to school. There is a case on this in court. These are avoidable problems, things that don’t have to happen. For the sake of peace, the governor should reverse himself.
For some time, there have been reports of Fulani herdsmen killing hundreds of people in Benue and other parts of the country, some people think this is another Boko Haram in the offing, what do you think?
If government at all levels especially the Federal Government do not critically look at the issue of Fulani herdsmen, we may be having a problem bigger than Boko Haram on our hands. They may be a link to Boko Haram. They are everywhere, not only in Benue. It is happening everywhere all over Nigeria-Delta, Plateau, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, Bayelsa. Who are these Fulanis? When I was growing up, Fulanis carried sticks and knives but today they carry AK 47. Where did they get guns from? Who taught them how to use guns, why is it that they are not being arrested in huge number and prosecuted? Who are the leaders of the Fulani community in Nigeria? We need to ask them what they are doing about this, you can’t forcibly take over another man’s land and expect them to keep quiet. That is unacceptable in any civilised community. What are they doing to tackle the problem? People in London eat meat, they eat meat in Indonesia, Turkey which are Muslim countries, they eat cow but cattle don’t roam the streets. We are aware that modern ranches have been built for these people. These people came from somewhere, why not take them back to where they came from? There are huge hectares of land where they could stay, even schools can be built for them, another business can come out of it. People can own trailers that would be carrying frozen meat to the south, it’s happening all over Europe. Frozen meat is packaged. We don’t need to be leading cows in the 21st century, it is outdated. We will have a worst situation on our hands than Boko Haram if we don’t move fast. This must be tackled immediately. Government must sincerely look at it, government should not be interested in being politically correct.