Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Yola, Revd. Fr. Stephen Mamza
In this interview with HINDI LIVINUS, fiery Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Yola, Revd. Fr. Stephen Mamza, speaks on the state of the nation
You are approaching your 25th year espiscopal ordination, as a Catholic Priest, 10 out of which you are celebrating as a Bishop. How has it been?
Well, thanks be to God that I have had the opportunity of serving in the church for 25 years. The Lord has been sustaining me. He has been very gracious to me. It has not been by my own strength or by my own power, but by the power of God that has been doing everything I did. I can say nothing but thanks to God.
You would be inaugurating an 86-unit housing estate built for the victims of insurgency to commemorate your 25th anniversary as a priest. Why is this important to you?
As you know, since 2014 the Catholic Diocese of Yola, has been involved in taking care of displaced victims of insurgency – those displaced from southern Borno and also northern Adamawa, who ran into Yola for refuge. So, the church opened its doors so that these people can put up. At a certain stage we had over 3,000 people living on our church premises. Most of them returned to their original homes after the military reclaimed their homes. But again, there are those who still face threat of insurgency, especially those living at the border of Sambisa forest and cannot go back to their homes because of the activities of Boko Haram since 2014. These people have been at the camp that we set up for IDPs at St. Theresa Cathedral. So, we thought of what we could do to improve their living standards. Because we were becoming weary of taking care of them and even for our donors fatigue was setting in. And the IDP themselves were getting tired of staying in the camp – it is not easy for anyone to live for seven years in a small tent in a camp with children. So, I thought of building a place where the IDPs could be resettled. And thanks be to God, through the support of Mesio in Germany, we started last year in January the construction of 86 units of houses to be built for the 86 families still in our camp. On the housing estate, we built a church and a mosque and a school for the IDPs, which will soon be inaugurated. Already some of the IDPs have been moved into the estate.
You have faced criticism from your fellow Christians for building a mosque for Muslim IDPs. How did you handle the opposition?
In the first place, when we played host to these IDPs, we did not discriminate against any one of them. We didn’t ask what religion the IDPs belong to; we didn’t ask for their church denomination; we just treated them as human beings who are in need of help, irrespective of their religion, denomination or tribe. Majority of the IDPs who thronged our camp were Christians but there was also a large number of Muslims among them. And if we were able to build houses for all of them, and also built a church for the Christians among them, then it is only a matter of justice and fairness that we also provide a space of worship for the few Muslims among them. There are about 10 to 12 Muslim families in the camp. I just felt that since we didn’t leave out the Muslims while providing food for the Christians or leave the Muslims out while building houses for the Christians, it is only just that we also build a mosque for the Muslims as we built a church for Christians. It is not something that is commonly done; it is not something that we have heard of being done, especially in our country, Nigeria, where everybody is conscious about their own religion.
What do your parishioners think about it?
Even from within, people did not see it as a good gesture, at all. But it is normal; I can also understand them. Some of them even pointed out that the Boko Haram insurgents are Muslims and they have caused a lot of the havoc for us; they ask, “Why should we even go ahead and build a mosque for them?” But I say, “Well, not all the Muslims are Boko Haram (members), not all of them (Muslims) are evil. Those that I know, that we have been living together and taking care of them for the past seven years, I know them to be good. So, there should be no reason why I should discriminate against them. I think that is the reason we built the mosque. People even ask, “Why should you, a Christian, build a mosque?” And my response to them is that, “I am a Christian, a pastor, a bishop and a priest, I shouldn’t deny anybody their right to worship.” I think that is the clear message I actually want to pass across. Religion is a matter of choice. One can choose to practise this religion today, and can equally choose to practise another religion tomorrow. People should not be compelled into the practice of any particular religion against their will. If as a Christian you decide to change to Islam, that’s your own choice, you should be allowed to do so. Also, if as a Muslim you decide that Christianity is better for you, you should be allowed to practise the faith of your choice. Nobody should be threatened or forced. If a Christian chooses to become a Muslim, that Christian shouldn’t be threatened. Same way, if a Muslim decides to become a Christian, that Muslim shouldn’t be threatened. That is what freedom of worship guarantees under our constitution, since it is a secular state that allows and tolerates freedom of worship.
What is your thought on the hijab crisis in Kwara State?
The root cause of the crisis in Kwara State is no other person than the state governor. If the governor had intervened right at the onset of the crisis, perhaps we wouldn’t witness the crisis, but he didn’t. He was quiet. He didn’t say anything, and later he ordered the schools reopened without addressing the concerns agitating the owners of the mission schools. The governor did not handle the hijab matter in a mature manner. Should anything happen in Kwara, he should be held responsible, because he has shown bad leadership.
If you actually look at the happenings in Kwara critically, you will see that the Christians in Kwara State, for quite a very long time, have been marginalised. And it is not only in Kwara State; it is the same in a lot of places, particularly in the North, where generally Christians are marginalised. That is what we are talking about; there should be freedom of religion. Let it be that as people are free to join any political party, so they should be free to join any religion that they love. It should be a matter of choice. No one should compel you and people should not use government resources to promote their religion, which is what is happening in Kwara State, just as in many states in the North, where governors use public funds to promote their religion, while other religions are neglected. There are so many places where it is almost impossible to get land to build a church, not to even to talk of getting a Certificate of Occupancy. So, there is serious, marginalisation taking place in Nigeria on the basis of religion.
As a priest have you been worried about the separatist agitations as well as insecurity in the country?
I am always worried because I don’t know where we are heading to. I will continue to be worried until we get solutions to the problems that we face. Our political leaders don’t seem to care; they don’t seem to be bothered, they are only concerned about their political careers. Despite the level of insecurity that is plaguing the country, the political class appears to be mute, their only concern is 2023 elections. Their concern is not about human lives, people being abducted, the mass killings take place or the destruction of properties. They don’t even bother, they are fixated on 2023.
In your Easter homily last year, you accused the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), of sleeping on duty as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Will you say you have been vindicated by the state of security in the country?
Everybody knows we are in a country that seems as if it has no leadership. This is the feeling that everyone has and I am not saying these things because Buhari is the person in power. I would say the same thing if it is someone else and things are like this. It is my duty as a priest, a prophet to make sure that the truth is spoken to power. If we don’t do it, what then is our work as priests and shepherds of God’s people? So, as long as the government does not do the right thing, and does not provide good governance that we are expecting, we will continue to ask questions. The questions we have been asking are yet to be answered, particularly by this administration which promised security. The first thing that this administration promised people when they came on board was the issue of security. The President was even very specific; he promised that by the end of that year that he came into office Boko Haram would be a thing of the past. But look at where we have found ourselves now. Everybody, including those in the present administration, knows and would admit the fact that the country has never found itself in a worse security situation in the history of Nigeria as we have now found ourselves now. It’s even worse than the Civil War because during the Civil War not everywhere in the country was affected. There were places that did not experience the war and, as such, were safe. But now, you hear of Boko Haram, you hear of bandits, you hear of killer Fulani herdsmen and other criminal groups, we never heard of before now. The home state of the President Katsina, is now one of the most insecure states in the country. So, what has the President got to say? Because before he came on board there was no issue of banditry in either Katsina or Zamfara State. Things have never been this bad. If you look at the whole of northern Nigeria, you will realise that insecurity in the North-West is now far worse than what is being experienced in the North-East. We know the North-East is faced with the challenge of insurgency, but it is not as bad as what’s happening in the North-West now.
Do you think that Buhari will be leaving Nigeria in 2023 worse than he met it 2015 in terms of security?
Who knows whether Nigeria will still be in existence by 2023? Who knows who will be around in 2023? I don’t know if I will be here (in 2023). I don’t know if Buhari will be there. Even those politicians who are agitating, how sure are they that they are going to be there in 2023. What we are experiencing now is even worse than the Civil War experience. Look at what happened in Ebonyi, the killings by Fulani herdsmen. Can we say we have a government in power and this is happening? There is no single day in this country that you will not hear of mass killings or mass abduction of people. I believe the government knows the root causes of all these things and they also know the solutions but the question is: why are they not fixing things? The simple reason is government has interest in everything that is happening. And inasmuch as the government has interest in what is happening, then government will not have the will to stop it. Something must be wrong somewhere.
What can Christian leaders do?
Christian leaders can try their best, in the little way they can, wherever they find themselves. A drop of water in the ocean is more important than no drop at all. My usual advice for Christian leaders is: whatever you are doing wherever you are, give it your best. Even if everybody is bad, and things are falling apart, don’t give up. Put in your best and continue to do the right thing, wherever you find yourself.