His Eminence, John Onaiyekan, is a Nigerian prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He has been archbishop of Abuja since 1994 and has served as President of the Christian Association of Nigeria. He is a man at peace with himself and who seeks that the same peace be in the world around him.
Onaiyekan is a strong and stabilizing force and influence in Nigeria and his position on issues that affect the nation continually support the hopes and aspirations of the downtrodden in a country that continues to drift towards uncertainty. He is a member of National Peace Committee that has been playing a pivotal role in dousing political tension through a peace accord since 2015.
Restraint towards others even in the midst of provocation is Onaiyekan’s standing message of peace. This has been his leadership approach that assuaged possible reprisals by Christians, who have lost their loved ones as well as their places of worship under Boko Haram’s attacks.
Working with the principle that two wrongs cannot make a right, the archbishop is leading the way to correcting a wrong by sacrificially offering a right. His counter cyclical approach has been commended widely in Nigeria and internationally for preventing possible detonation of a religious bomb even in the height ofextreme provocation. Such leadership qualities have made his eminence a highly sought after resource person in forums for advocacy of peace.
Even the Muslim community world wide could not fail to be moved by Onaiyekan’s leadership approach of responding with love to one of the worst forms of human wickedness in the name of religion. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Worldwide, through its Muslim Television Ahmadiyya, MTA Africa in Ghana, conferred on him an international peace award in 2017.
The community was impressed by his style of intervention in religious and communal crisis that involves persuasions and town hall peace meetings between warring parties in the face of brutal killings. The award was also in recognition of the Cardinal’s media advocacy that clearly underscored the need for Nigeria’s government to be commitment to addressing issues of social justice as a fundamental approach to achieving lasting peace in the country.
Onaiyekan is renowned for building and extending inter-religious relationships, springing from his belief that all religions are ways in which humans seek to worship God. He has a vision of peaceful co-existence of various religious groups, which was shaped by a multi-religious background where he grew up in his native Kabba in Kogi State.
He sees no genuine reasons why Christians and Muslims and indeed people of all faiths should not live together in peace. He has a conviction that ordinary people really want to live together in peace irrespective of ethnic and religious diversities.
He traces most religious conflicts in Nigeria to political manipulation enabled by an environment of poverty. This informed his frequent dialogue with leaders of various churches and other faiths, especially Islam during his tenure as President of Christian Association of Nigeria.
He proceeded to establish a fellowship programme on inter religious dialogue and mediation, where 36 fellows, including 16 Muslim leaders and youth were trained in the art of conflict resolution and peace building initiatives among ethnic groups. He has taken his bridge building initiative to the apex of Muslim leadership in Nigeria – the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’adAbubakar III, who is also president of the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. Onaiyekan is working hand in hand with the Muslim leader to reduce religious tension in the country.
The Cardinal was so elated when the Sultan denounced terrorists killing people in the name of ‘Allah’, that he had to write him a commendation letter from his hospital bed in Rome. The Sultan had sent a powerful message to the Muslim community that terrorism has no place in Islam, calling on Muslims to rise up with one voice to condemn all acts of terrorism.
Commending the Sultan, Onaiyekan said it was a show of strength and commitment that has emboldened him to continue to voice out with all good intentions. It was to him a matter of hitting the nail on the head against the murderous activities of Boko Haram in the name of “Allah” and giving Islam a bad name.
Onaiyekanhas concernsas well as ideas as to how Nigeria could get out of this situation. He sees the various tragic events of Boko Haram activities such as abduction of school children as symptoms of the wider issue of terrorism that needs to be addressed from the roots.
He has identified the fundamental causes of religious conflicts as manipulation of religion by politicians and corruption that keeps people poor so that they remain a vast army to be exploited as conflict agents.He wants government to detract from the tendency to close its eyes to religious issues.
The Muslim community has,at several times, condemned Boko Haram. This is commendable but not enough, according to Onaiyekan. He also considers claims that the terrorists are not Muslims as unhelpful.Instead, he called for an in-house dialogue within the Nigerian Muslim community that would make it possible to deal sincerely with currents and movements that create the kind of religious climate in which Boko Haram and similar groups emerge and thrive.
Since Islam means peace, Onaiyekan expects such a dialogue to inquire if there is anything in the practice of the Islamic religion in Nigeria that makes violent extremism, radicalism and terrorism bloom.He has tabled it as a something to muse over whether Islamic clerics and scholars in Nigeria would undertake a critical self-examination of Islam vis-à-vis its respect for other faiths and its commitment to peaceful co-existence.
His definition of success of such a dialogue is not merely to tolerate people of other faiths considered perhaps as undesirables. It is to respect the religious convictions of everyone and accept the reality of Nigeria’s multi-religious structure, Onaiyekan said.
Securing peace and unity for the nation requires all actors to stand up and play the ball on their courts. Here, Onaiyekan focuses on the role of government in the realm of religion. Time seems to be running out for government to follow the path he has charted.
He has pointed out clearly that government can no longer safely maintain its back seat posture on religion when the minds of young people are being poisoned with prejudice. He has said it as strongly as he could that government cannot afford to stand aside and watch while undesirable elements use religion to destabilize the peace and security of the nation.