Thursday 5 November 2015

"When I got home, my cassock was covered in blood"

This is a full transcript of my interview with bishop George Dodo, of Zaria, in northern Nigeria. The bishop speaks of life under the threat of Boko Haram, how he survived an attempt on his life in 2012 and also about the problem of polygamy in Nigeria. The news story, in Portuguese, can be read here.

Your diocese is one of the ones which suffers with the rebellion caused by Boko Haram. Geographically, where is it situated?
It is situated in the North. If you are familiar with Kaduna, which was the headquarters of the Northern Region, when the British colonized Nigeria, and is now the state capital of Kaduna State. Zaria is a little bit North of Kaduna.

Being in the North, the majority of the population is Muslim?

Are most of the Christians originally from there, or mostly from the South?
It is a little bit cosmopolitan. While Muslims had the majority in the North, Kaduna, in particular , is the home of almost everybody in Nigeria, it is a smaller cosmopolitan city.

How exactly have the actions of Boko Haram affected your daily life and that of your faithful?
In terms of security, some people have had to relocate, so there is emigration out of the state, from Zaria in particular to places which are considered safer. This was noted especially in the last quarter of last year, up to when the elections were conducted last year until the elections were conducted on the 29th of May. At that time the fear of the unknown, in terms of the state of insecurity, followed by the kind of statements which came from the supporters of the present ruling party, with such utterances as "If Buhari doesn't win we will make sure we slaughter all of you", and considering what had happened in the past, a lot of people from the Southern part of the country thought it was better for them to go to where they feel safe.

At that time, I think practically every church worshipping community lost about 50% of its members. That is one aspect.

The economic life of the people has also been affected, because the people can no longer sell their goods, it means economically it is affecting the social life. Whereas people would sometimes go out in the evenings to relax, there have been instances where in the course of relaxation a bomb explosion goes off and lives are lost, so that has also affected the social life of the people.

In terms of education, a lot of schools barely managed to survive, because in tertiary institutions students felt it was better for them to remain where they feel safe, in the elementary, primary and secondary levels of education, parents would withdraw their children and take them to where they felt they were safer, so that has also had its own affects on the people.

In terms of worship, when it is time for worship, especially on Fridays and Sundays - Fridays for Muslims, Sundays for Christians - you have to have a security presence and while you are worshipping there is security outside, just to make sure nothing ugly happens. This has had a serious adverse affect on the generality of life in the Northern part of the country.

You mentioned "ugly things" happening... You had a very close experience with that yourself...
Yes I did.

It happened on a Sunday morning, 17th of June, 2012, the eve of my ordination anniversary. I was actually celebrating the second mass of the day, we started at 8h and somewhere around 8h30 or 8h45 we heard a very unusual sound, "boom", and the whole church was thrown into darkness. You could only feel electrical fittings from the ceiling falling down on us.

I think I must have blacked out at the time, so when I regained consciousness, all the alter servers were around me, asking me if I was ok. It was then that I became conscious again and said that I was ok. They said that it was not safe for me there, and that it was better for me to go out.

The sound was from a bomb explosion. When the dust that had been raised as a result of the explosion finally settled I could see through the windows that there were flames rising up to the roof of the building, and of course thick smoke. Then I heard parishioners saying "suicide bombers, suicide bombers".

What happened was that the suicide bomber had actually come in a car, heavily loaded with explosives. We had trained some of our young people to make sure that whoever was coming to these places of worship were properly screened. So they wanted to inspect the car, but the man said no, that he had an urgent message for the priest in the cathedral. So they said "ok, we don't dispute that, but nobody goes in here without us checking".

So I want to believe that the bomb must have been timed and he realised that he was wasting time, so he made as if he was reversing - even though he pretended to be a learner, with a capital L hanging on the car front and back - and then he came back at full speed, thinking he would just knock the gate off and get into the cathedral. But unfortunately for him that didn't happen, because the gate was solid, and the pillar on which it was hanging was very solid. So he hit the pillar and the explosives went off there and then.

I was reluctant to go out until I was dragged, and was trying to reach the commissioner of the police, but the number wasn't working. I was trying to reach the Governor, but the number wasn't working, I tried to reach some other security people but the numbers weren't working, until one parishioner, who happened to be working with the state security services introduced himself, he said bishop, this place is not safe for you, I am a security man, come, let’s go, I will go to my office and report what's happened.

So they dragged me out and then people came and told me there are dead bodies of our young boys, so I couldn't reach the place immediately, because of the fire, so only when everything started subsiding did I go and there were three of our young worshippers lying down, who were actually trying to check the vehicle.

So by the time one of the boys realised, and shouted "suicide bomber, everybody lie down", the bomb had exploded. These were the ones who died immediately.

At the end of the day, that very day, there were 13 dead bodies taken from the place. The motorcyclists who do that for commercial purposes, we tried to beg them to help us evacuate the wounded, to take them to the hospital, but they wouldn't even help. Instead they were sitting on their motorbikes, hands folded, and laughing. So it looks like they knew what was going on and were happy with what had happened and I was made to understand that in some parts of the town some of the supporters of the terrorists had gone into celebration because they had succeeded in reducing our number, including the big shot among them, who was inside the church. But unfortunately, when they started hearing my voice again, on the electronic media who were interviewing me, they knew that I was not dead, and so there was nothing for them to celebrate.

From this story you are telling me I get that this is not only a problem with some extremist elements like Boko Haram who are targeting Christians; there is a more general problem between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority. It may not be everyone, but there seems to be some members of the Muslim population who as you say were rejoicing with these acts.
Yes. Those who are not happy with the presence of Christianity, possibly they would celebrate in that sort of a situation. And you know, because of the frequency of the eruption of violent crises, in the Northern part of Nigeria, the sense of mutual trust between the Christians and the Muslims, which we had when we were growing up has more or less been destroyed.

Because when that happened, another church which is very close to the house where I was living, which is a Protestant church, was bombed within an interval of five minutes, and then in the city of Kaduna another Pentecostal church was bombed. So the youths, when they heard what had happened in Zaria, with the information that I had been killed, just went on a rampage.

You mean the Christian youth...

So there was revenge.
It was a reprisal attack.

When you hear about these reprisal attacks, and there have been others, what do you say to your faithful?
We try to teach our people not to go on revenge missions. We understand life is sacred, at all costs. Even on the day we were bombed I was trying to save lives. When I got back to my house my cassock was soaked in blood. One young boy, I don't know where he came from, but he happened to be a Muslim, as soon as people saw him coming out of the Church they stormed at him. I said no, the most you can do is hand him over to the security, so I embraced him, trying to shield him and protect him, but because of the sort of beatings and stones used on him, he sustained some injuries and was bleeding. That is how my cassock was stained in blood.

Then I left again, because some people were already weeping because they had heard that I was dead. The security came and dragged me, saying that they could not control the crowd. I told them to let me go so that they could see my face, so that they would know that I was fully alive. So I left the boy in the hands of some young people and I showed him the security van was there, and I went to show my face to the people who were mourning and wanting to go on rampage, but I said "No. Just keep your calm, I am alive".

When they saw the blood they supposed I had been seriously injured, but I said "No, its not my blood. Its the blood of a young man I was trying to save. Now that you have seen my face, please listen to instructions from the security people, on the preventative measures you have to take in a situation like this. Because you never can tell."

I later realised that there were some individuals who had also come with explosives, but unfortunately for them they were identified. What happened is left to be imagined, because in that kind of a situation, emotions usually take the place of common sense and reason.

Your grace, this was in 2012, since then there has been a concerted effort with neighbouring countries to try and wipe out the threat of Boko Haram. It has been presented by the government as working, and being successful, do you agree? Has the situation improved on the ground?
I think to a certain extent I would need to congratulate the government, because they have been able to demystify the mind-set of the Boko Haram people. Initially, when this started, it was like they were invisible human beings. It was not until concerted efforts began to yield good results and they started arresting some of them, who in the course of interrogation would also reveal certain information to the security people. So it was at that level that demystifying the belief that they were invisible people began to take place.

Now the present government has been able even to go into the forest, which has been their major hideout, or enclave, where they sit, plan and go out to execute. And possibly, whoever has been there suppliers and financiers, the ammunition that they use and the resources they use to pay themselves and others to go into destructive mentalities. That was a no-go area, but thanks be to God, with the present government, and I want to believe, that the previous government which was replaced on May 29th started making the moves and advancing money for the supply of modern weaponry, now some of those things have started arriving and that has allowed the Nigerian military to really hit the Boko Haram people hard.

They are able to get into the forest and kill some of them, and some of them scatter. They have been able to recover many of the towns and suburban areas which had been under their control. So that shows that there is some success being achieved in the war against the insurgency.

Recently a Nigerian bishop floated the idea of an amnesty for fighters, to try and draw out those who are not convinced by the ideology and weaken Boko Haram. Do you agree with this approach?
Forgiveness is God's grace, or divine gift, and especially beneficial for those who realise their actions probably are misguided and have very deep regrets for whatever they have done in the past. And deep down in them there is this resolution never to allow the past to repeat itself, either in the present or in the future. Whenever these people are identified and you can see this kind of remorse in them, I wouldn't say no to that.

But to grant amnesty people have to make themselves identifiable. Then you know who you are talking to. But for an enemy whose face you do not know, how can you talk about amnesty?

It is when you see the face, and you are able to talk face to face, that you are able to see, from the body language, and movement, and gestures, whether this person really deserves this amnesty you are talking about. I know that in Nigeria some people have tried to equate the request for amnesty for Boko Haram with what happened with the militants in the Niger Delta. Destruction of human life is destruction of human life. But the scenario, I think, is a bit different. With the Niger delta militants, you are dealing with people you know. You know their faces, you can call their name, you know where they come from, you know who their parents are, and you can sit around a table with them. That is a different scenario compared to Boko Haram, whose faces you do not know, you don't know who is their mastermind, who is their leader, except video clips you can find on the internet. Apart from the face of Shekau, who has always been in the newspapers, who else, can somebody confidently say is a Boko Haram person?

That is why at the beginning I said they are a kind of invisible people. So if you want to talk about amnesty, which will be the fruits of an initiative towards dialogue, dialogue to be able to understand and then to find a common path, that will lead to a resolution. If you don't have that kind of person, how can you talk about amnesty?

I'd like to ask a couple of questions, changing topic, about the Synod for the family. We hear a lot about polygamy as a specifically African problem, is this a case in Nigeria?
There are two categories of polygamists. One category is those who embraced Christianity after they were already in polygamous marriages, but normally the stance of the Church will have been explained to them, and many of them understood it and, because they really wanted the sacrament, discussed it amongst themselves, the husband and the number of wives he has and once they reach that conclusion that they are all eyeing for heaven, and if this will stop us accepting this other way, then you choose whatever you wish. To have your marriage blessed in the church, we will stay for the sake of our children, no marital relations between us again, we are staying. And whatever the husband is able to contribute he does. There are situations where the husband still gives something for the upkeep, and they are happy with themselves.

Then there are those who I call deliberate polygamists. They are the ones who have been in the Church even a long time before they got married, then, for reasons best know to them, one of which would be that because my wife has only given birth to female children, and in my own culture my house is not complete unless I have a male child to inherit whatever I leave behind and carry on my family name, that has forced some people to go into a second marriage, to become polygamists, and that keeps them from the sacraments.

But there are those who accept that, whether it is a male or female child, a child is a precious gift from God, and there is no amount of money in this world which can buy one. So they find themselves in this situation, they are kept away from the sacraments, it is a free choice, but an unfortunate one.

But it is not something commonplace, no. So the people I really have sympathy for would be people who were polygamous before Christianity met them, and they have that difficulty, because you find some where the husband says that if that is what the Church wants, and I know in conscience that I have never had any quarrel with any of these women, none of them has offended me, and I have offended none of them, how can I just tell them to go?

Instead of offending their conscience and telling somebody to go, they will simply remain like that. I would hope that one day the Holy Spirit will reveal something to the church to handle these cases of polygamy. But for those who know what it is, and on the day they married their first wives knew the commitment they were getting into, just for social and cultural reasons, now say they are going to break that commitment, there is something wrong somewhere along the line.

How many generations back did your family embrace Christianity?
My father became a Christian when he was a young adult, so in my own village he is the first generation of Christians.

Bishop Dodo visited Portugal at the invitation of the local branch of Aid to the Church in Need.

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