by Mark Amaza
I have a confession to make: My name is Mark Amaza and I used to be a rabid voltron for Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
I would vigorously endorse all his statements and actions; in my eyes, Papa Ayo could do no wrong. Before you start judging me, let me say I have what I believe to be a very logical explanation for it.
Being a Northern Christian, born and bred in the predominantly Muslim North, I had almost gotten used to having my life under physical threat and being denied opportunities because of my faith. In between growing up in Maiduguri and schooling in Bauchi, I can count at least 6 religious crises which I witnessed; and in each of them, I knew people who lost their lives. I’ve also witnessed how so many people are denied school admissions, employments and promotions because they are Christians.
This is not entirely new to Nigeria. We live in a country where nationhood is defined more by ethnicity, religious faith or place of origin. The pervasive scarcity mind-set makes us corner all the opportunities for ‘ourselves’ so that the ‘others’ would not deprive us of it. This causes a lot of tension to simmer just beneath the surface, and in cases where the tension breaks out into open confrontation, lives and properties are lost. The side with more numbers or that is better organized then ‘wins’.
The great disadvantage Northern Christians had and still have is their lack of being politically organized, their docility and their inability to stand up and challenge injustice where it is done. It was made even worse by the fact that at the national level, the Christian Association of Nigeria rarely ever made any attempts to exert pressure so that the status quo in the North will change.
As far as I remember, the tenure of His Eminence, Reverend Sunday Mbang, Prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, as CAN President, went by without any voice raised against the threat to the existence of Christianity in the North.
While Archbishop John Onaiyekan (now John Cardinal Onaiyekan) of the Catholic Diocese of Abuja was CAN President, the status quo didn’t change.
I remember when during the first clash between the Boko Haram terrorist group and government forces in July 2009, my church, the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nijeriya (EYN) in Maiduguri was destroyed by the terrorists. Cardinal Onaiyekan came on national TV and announced that no church had been destroyed. We were aghast by such declaration while we were mourning the destruction of our home church. It was the same line that most of our media, especially those with extensive Northern coverage such as Daily Trust Newspapers toed.
It took an article by my elder brother that was published on Facebook and other sites that somehow got into the Archbishop’s hand for him to be in the knowledge of what had actually transpired. This is despite the fact that like every other state, Borno State has a local chapter of CAN. To my knowledge, Onaiyekan did not come out publicly to correct himself.
Then came July 2010 and Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor was elected as the CAN President, even though he was also the President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN then too. I remember how even while he was still only the PFN president, he made a statement at a service that no religion had a monopoly of violence, and Christians in the North would no longer allow themselves to be sheep for the slaughter. That made me stand up and take note of this man of the cloth who was bold enough to say such.
After he became CAN president, Pastor Oritsejafor endeared himself to me by constantly speaking up about what Christians were going through no matter where in Nigeria. He spoke about Christians in a remote village of Yobe State who were once under attack; he was on the ground in Wukari, Taraba State after a religious crisis in 2012. Finally, there was a CAN president who wasn’t ignorant of what we were going through in the North. This mattered like everything to me. For me, my white knight in shining armour had come riding on his horse. In me, a voltron had been born.
I consistently defended Papa Ayo at every turn. When he said ‘Christians should defend themselves in attacks”, I was not in the lack of how to explain the context in which he made the statement. When he consistently threatened the Northern Muslim establishment to rein in Boko Haram, I remained mum even though inside me, my opinion was at variance with his. The man breathed fire from his nostrils and that was enough to make whoever made life for my people and I a living hell to think twice before doing anything.
I also felt that hopefully, that would be the push we would need as Northern Christians to learn how to be vocal when things were not done right towards us because of our faith; how to organize ourselves and make ourselves to be relevant and not just numbers.
Of course, Papa Ayo’s views were not the type to go away without leaving controversy in its wake. Whenever he spoke, it became the subject of many newspaper articles and analysis. He was severally accused of ‘overheating the polity’, and was criticized of not being a ‘peacemaker’ like his predecessors. I brushed away all such criticism; to me, it was the talk of people afflicted by guilt and fear by his words. As for the comparisons with his predecessors, they were pacifists to a fault and I felt we needed some brawns and a hand showing force for once.
However, of recent, I’ve found myself second-guessing my blind faith in the leadership of Papa Ayo. No, it has nothing to do with the private jet he was given as an anniversary gift recently. It’s about his bellicose nature and the volatile statements he throws around which I used to admire. I began to ask myself, “What is he trying to achieve?”
I kept examining his statements such as the recent ones threatening violence for violence if Boko Haram doesn’t stop attacking Christians or the ones previously saying that no religion has monopoly of violence, implying Christians in the North would retaliate if attacked. I had to come to the sad conclusion that Papa Ayo has been missing it.
Inasmuch as I would admit that many times, Christianity in the North is under physical threat, threatening violence in return would do nothing to make us more secure. This is because if, God forbid, an all-out religious war should break out in the North, Northern Christians would find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
On one side, they will be facing an ‘enemy’ which exceeds them in numbers and political organization. In majority of the states most prone to religious violence, Christians are minorities and they are not as organized as Muslims.
On the other side, they would not have support from Christians in the South, mainly because most Southerners are of the belief that the North is entirely Muslim, and all the victims of religious crises on the Christian side are from the South.
I have lost count of the number of times that after meeting someone from the South, introducing myself as ‘Mark’, even discussed the Bible, that I am asked my faith simply because I mention my state of origin as Borno State.
So whenever I remember Pastor Oritsejafor’s talk of returning violence with violence, I ask myself ‘who will be on our side?’ Surely, not his flock, the bulk of whom are from the South and are prone to the misconception that there are Northern Christians; neither can all Northern Christians uproot themselves and move to the South.
Our best shot at building inter-religious harmony and peaceful co-existence in the North is about not only speaking up at each and every wrong done against a religious faith, but also lies in building bridges of dialogue and understanding. Flexing muscles at all times would only serve to widen the rift and make achieving such peace harder, or even a mirage.
Pastor Oritsejafor can do well to learn from his fellow clergymen, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto and Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of the Anglican Diocese of Kaduna who have mostly devoted their work to building those bridges of understanding and dialogue between Christianity and Islam, while yet speaking truth even in difficult times. As a result, they have built for themselves enormous respect on both sides of the aisle.
Even more, he should learn from his opposite number, the Sultan of Sokoto and spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, His Eminence, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, who has distinguished himself as a maker of peace between the two dominant faiths.
Besides being criticized as being too close to government which makes CAN look like their appendage, Pastor Oritsejafor should also be made aware of the fact that his leadership of the organization over the past 2 and a half years has created more bad blood between Christians and Muslims instead of working to bring the two sides together.
The peace we need is not one that would be gotten by threatening violence at each and every turn.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.