Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso, of the Diocese of Kaduna, laments that there is no religious freedom in the north of the country but dismisses the idea that the conflict between Fulani herdsmen and farmers is a religious issue.
The image that Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso paints of Nigeria at the moment is bleak. “For the past 14 years, the nation has been grappling with Boko Haram, mostly in the northeast. While we were dealing with that, we had the issue of banditry in the northwest. And while we were wrestling with this, we had the issue of kidnappings for ransom, which was becoming more widespread. And while struggling with this, we have the old conflict with the Fulani herders.”
During an online conference hosted by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the archbishop of Kaduna indicated that many of these issues aren’t new, but that they have recently taken on more serious elements. “Banditry is an old trade for some evil people, but a few decades ago, they were using bows and arrows, whereas in the last four years or so, they have acquired weapons and have the ability to destroy massively. As for the Fulani herdsmen versus farmers, this is as old as our region, but in the last 10 years, it has also taken on a different dimension. The herdsmen used to be armed with sticks and bows; now they have AK47s, which flooded the country after the fall of Gaddafi, in Libya.”
The result, he explains, is a general lack of safety. “You are not safe in your house, on the road—not even in the air! Two months ago, bandits attacked a plane on the tarmac in Kaduna, and for almost two months we had no flights.”
Although the problems come from a variety of directions, Archbishop Matthew has no doubt as to who is to blame.
“The government has failed us completely; it is the absence of good government that is causing this. Bandits, Boko Haram, kidnappings—these are all symptoms of injustice, of the corruption that is in the system. Unless we can get to the root of the issue, we will be fighting a losing battle.”
And while the problem may be mostly internal, the West, says the archbishop, is also to blame. “It takes two to tango. Our leaders steal our money and take it to the West, to Switzerland, Paris, London, Frankfurt. If the West didn’t accept their money, they would leave it at home. The Western governments collaborate with our leaders.”
“Catholic priests are easy targets”
Nigeria is more or less evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The former are the majority in the south, and the latter in the north. The Fulani are mostly Muslim, and the farmers in Central Nigeria mostly Christian, so the conflicts between them are often framed as religious in nature. But this is incorrect, says Archbishop Matthew.
“In the northwest, the farmers are mostly Muslims, and they also have conflicts with the Fulani. As you move to the middle belt, it is inhabited mostly by Christians, so there it will most likely be a Christian farm. Religion and ethnicity are very sensitive problems in Nigeria; they are always used for convenience. But primarily this conflict is not religious, I am absolutely sure. If you apply for a job and you don’t get it, you might say you were rejected because you are a Christian, and the same for Muslims. Opportunists, such as politicians, use these factors to their own advantage, but if you go to the root, you discover it has little or nothing to do with religion.”
The same applies to banditry and kidnappings, where priests are often targeted not necessarily because they are Christians, but because the criminals believe that the churches can afford ransoms to free them, explains the head of the Diocese of Kaduna, which has also been severely affected by this problem.
“In the last three years, seven of my priests have been kidnapped, two have been killed, and one has been in captivity for three years and two months. Four were released. In 50 of my parishes, priests cannot stay in their rectories, because they are targets. They are seen as an easy source of money for ransom. I cannot go on pastoral visits like I used to. Priests cannot go to villages and say masses. People cannot go to farm, so they cannot feed themselves. With this insecurity, people are starved of the sacraments.”
“If we had 30% of religious freedom, we would be happy”
This is not to say that there is no religious discrimination in Nigeria, Archbishop Matthew clarifies. When asked about the fact that many northern states have Sharia law, and therefore do not have 100% religious freedom, he laughs. “100%? If we had 30% religious freedom, we would be happy!”
“Religious persecution in the north is systemic. For you to be able to practice your religion freely, you should be able to preach anywhere. That is not possible in the north. I cannot build a church. Even if you buy land, you cannot get a Certificate of Occupancy, and therefore you cannot build. In many of these states, they do not allow the teaching of Christianity, yet the government employs and pays Imams to teach in schools. Every year, they have money to build mosques in the budget but will not let you build churches. In my state, there is a university and across the street there are five mosques. No church. We wanted to build one; they didn’t allow it. If you build a church without permission, the government can tear it down. This is what we are going through. It is serious. We want our government to be held accountable, for people to be treated equally,” he explains.
For things to improve, Archbishop Matthew says people must be educated to make wiser choices during elections. The Catholic Church has been doing its part, he explains. “In the last elections, there was voter apathy; people lost confidence in the system. As a leader, I have to give people hope. We hope that with electronic voting, the transmission of results will be safer and therefore people will come out en masse to vote. Four years ago, we summarised the Catholic Social Teaching about the common good, and we have been using it to raise awareness. In recent months, there have been by-elections, and the electorate has become wiser; they are not just choosing anybody. Using the Catholic Social Teaching, we have shown that you have to hold people accountable.”
ACN is deeply involved in Nigeria, operating many projects, which range from construction or reconstruction of infrastructure to material support for priests, seminarians, and other pastoral agents. In 2021, the country received close to three million dollars in aid from ACN.