Nigeria’s Only Active Cardinal Laments Destruction of Churches on Eve of Election Results


As further attacks from the radical Islamist group Boko Haram have disrupted Nigeria’s presidential elections, officials now say that the results will not be released until Tuesday. Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja and Nigeria’s only active cardinal, has said that the situation in Nigeria is so serious that no matter who wins the election, a major “turn of page” is needed.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Onaiyekan said that the list of grave problems in Nigeria is extensive: from the violence of Boko Haram, to the failing Nigerian economy, to the general political and social disarray. All of this points to the need for a radical change, Onaiyekan said.

Nigeria is home to Africa’s largest economy and is its leading oil producer, as well as the most populous nation on the continent with the number of inhabitants topping 170 million. Early results are showing the challenger, retired general, Muhammadu Buhari with a slight lead over the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan.

According to Cardinal Onaiyekan, despite the heightened activities of the armed forces in Nigeria’s northeast, the area is still not safe. “People cannot return to their homes, many of which have been destroyed, but beyond that it does not feel safe,” he said, noting that the terrorists of Boko Haram are still at large in the region.

Onaiyekan said that the jihadists seek an Islamic government based on the “sharia,” and have tried to achieve their goal by establishing their Islamic “caliphate,” a geographical Islamic-ruled state. “Thank God,” said Onaiyekan, “their intent is not shared by the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims, many whom were in fact victims of their terrorist acts.”

“All Nigerians—Muslims and Christians—are involved in efforts to remove them from our territory,” he said.

The cardinal called the situation in the Northeast of the country “truly dramatic.” Two dioceses, he said, those of Maiduguri and that of Yola, “were largely destroyed by Boko Haram.” Many were forced to flee, trying to find refuge in safer areas, he said.

Though the Church has tried to stay close to these people, “many of our churches and parishes have already been destroyed, even monasteries, convents and schools,” he said.

Onaiyekan did not tip his hand regarding who he thought made the better candidate, but simply stated that “whoever wins will face serious problems in this country.”

The first of these, he said, is that of security. “The least safe is the Northeast where Boko Haram is present, but also in the rest of the country there are bandits running almost out of control,” he said.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center confirmed this, indicating that the main things on the minds of Nigerian voters were ending corruption and putting a stop to crime and Islamic terrorism.

The most important finding of the survey was that “Nigerians detest Boko Haram,” with 82% of Nigerians expressing an unfavorable view of the radical jihadist group Boko Haram, and a full 79% holding a “very unfavorable” view. The Pew Center found that Nigerians’ antipathy toward the terrorist group is not based on confessional partisanship, but is shared by Christians and Muslims alike.

The cardinal also noted the “big problem” of corruption, which requires above all “knowing how to govern.”

Onaiyekan expressed his gratitude for the economic aid that Pope Francis had sent to Nigeria, which, he said, was “a great comfort and a great encouragement.” He said that the Pope’s recent letter to the local bishops “brought great joy not only to us Catholics bishops, but also to the rest of the country, because people saw this text as the demonstration of the Holy Father’s concern for Nigeria,” he said.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.