(Vatican Radio) If dialogue is the path to peace, and if authentic dialogue consists in careful listening and frank speaking, then the Cardinal-Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, John Onaiyekan, is to be counted as one who “gets it”. In a brief, but intense moment of conversation with Vatican Radio following a panel discussion on terrorism, which took place Monday afternoon in Assisi as part of events in preparation for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Cardinal Onaiyekan made remarks that left no doubt regarding his own commitment to dialogue.
Listen to Chris Altieri's interview with Cardinal Onaiyekan:
Speaking of the terrorist insurgency of the Boko Haram group, which has killed scores of thousands of people since its founding in 2002 with the express purpose of overthrowing Nigeria's legitimate government and establishing Islamic law throughout the country, Cardinal Onaiyekan said, “These are religious extremists.” The significance of the assertion comes into focus when one considers the contributions of several panellists, who insisted that the real root causes of conflicts that appear to be religious, are actually quite mundane political and social issues of power, influence, enfranchisement (or lack thereof). While not denying these root causes, Cardinal Onaiyekan was at pains to recognize the sincerity of the extremists’ specifically religious convictions. “[They] have very bizarre, sometimes crazy, ideas, which they hold very firmly.” He went on to say, “We believe most of them are sincere: they are sincere, but wrong,” he said.
The “we” to whom Cardinal Onaiyekan referred in his remarks is the group of partners – mostly Muslim – with whom he and other Christian leaders in Nigeria are committed to dialogue. “The good news is that the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims, and the Islamic establishment in Nigeria, have consistently and clearly disowned [Boko Haram],” Cardinal Onaiyekan told Vatican Radio.
The lack of popular support – indeed the general disapproval of and legitimate hostility toward Boko Haram, is one of the factors, which, combined with vigorous government prosecution of military and security operations against the terror group, has greatly reduced their ability to wage war and wreak terror.
If the military side of the struggle against Boko Haram has been necessary, it has not proved sufficient.
“Government has not done enough to seek other ways of addressing the terrorist insurgency,” he said. “They have put too much emphasis and focus on military engagement, including spending lots of money – buying sophisticated weapons, and maybe even employing mercenaries at high cost. Now, that is partly necessary – and maybe Boko Haram has not been put in a position to be ready to talk.” Nevertheless, “We are not aware that government is making enough effort to create a forum for discussion – and I do believe that, at the end of the day, there will be a need to discuss – because the objective of killing off every Boko Haram [member] is first not possible, and secondly, not even desirable: we should rather seek a way of getting their leadership to finally begin to agree that they have taken the wrong course, so that we can start moving forward.”
With due regard for the gravity of the challenge Boko Haram poses (the group was responsible for 11 thousand deaths in 2015, alone), and while frankly recognizing their brutality (as many as 2 million people have been driven from their homes as a result of the insurgency, according to UN estimates) , Cardinal Onaiyekan also told Vatican Radio that the insurgency is dominating neither life in the country nor the national consciousness.
“The whole world keeps talking about Boko Haram, and even we in Nigeria are surprised at how much press Boko Haram is getting abroad,” he said. “They think the entire nation has been taken over, whereas in fact, it is just one section of the country,” Cardinal Onaiyekan continued. “The rest of the nation is busy with other problems.”