Nigerian cardinal-designate known for his work against fraud, for peace

By Samuel Olu Job

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Cardinal-designate John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan has been an ardent promoter of dialogue among Christians and other religions and a vocal advocate for peace and cooperation, especially in Nigeria.  As president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria from 1999 to 2006, he was known for his criticism of government corruption and of some leaders’ attempts to twist the constitution to fit their own ends. He was once referred to as “a fiery clergy” by a Nigerian daily because he was not afraid to go against the current — he asked then-President Olusegun Obasanjo not to violate the Nigerian Constitution by running for a third term.

Pope Benedict XVI named the archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, one of six new cardinals Oct. 24. They will be elevated in a ceremony at the Vatican Nov. 24.  During an interview in 2009, Cardinal-designate Onaiyekan replied to a journalist’s question regarding the government granting amnesty to the Niger Delta militants, who were fighting to keep more oil profits in the region.

“In fact, I think the executive thieves and robbers have caused far more damage to our economy than the Niger Delta militants,” the cardinal-designate said. “If they repent, I think Nigeria will be ready to grant them amnesty. And, just like they asked the Niger Delta militants to hand in their guns in exchange for amnesty, all those thieves and rogues should bring back our money and we would forgive them.”

His stance on corruption is manifest in his own lifestyle. Despite being surrounded by the opulence common to Abuja, he lives in a simple residence. Each December, he seeks donations for prisoners and spends Christmas with them.  Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of Oyo, chairman of the Nigerian bishops’ communications committee, said the archbishop’s appointment gave the Catholic Church in Nigeria “both a nod of recognition and encouragement — recognition for what the church has done and become through her lay faithful, clergy and the religious.”

He said the church needs encouragement because of difficulties the country faces, including poverty and ongoing violence, often described as Christian-Muslim in nature.  “The church, under the challenges of violence and corruption, has continued to preach good governance, repentance, forgiveness, and hope for the country’s teeming population,” Bishop Badejo said. “The new cardinal has been at the forefront of all that, delivering all over the world the message that majority of Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians have nothing to do with violence and bloodshed but are to live in peace.”

The cardinal-designate addressed the violence in his intervention to the world Synod of Bishops Oct. 19.  “Despite the impression often given by the world media, I want to stress that Christians in Nigeria do not see themselves as being under any massive persecution by Muslims,” he told the synod. “Our population of about 160 million is made up of Christians and Muslims in equal number and influence. We have not done too badly in living peacefully together in the same nation.”

He said that while there were many differences between Christianity and Islam, the two religions also had much in common.  “In the new evangelization, we need to know our Muslim neighbors and keep an open mind to those who are friendly, and they are in the majority,” he added. “We have to work together to make sure that the fanatics do not dictate the agenda of our mutual relations, pushing us to be enemies of one another.”

Those close to him describe the cardinal-designate as a humble and down-to-earth pastor who had a sincere concern about people.  Father Patrick Tor Alumuku, director of social communications for the Abuja Archdiocese, described the cardinal-designate as “one of the most approachable church leaders that I know.” He said the cardinal-designate commands such respect that “on every issue, Nigerians want to hear his opinion.”

Cardinal-designate Onaiyekan has been involved in Africa’s regional and continental bodies. He has served as president of the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar. As president of SECAM, he pressed for a more concerted effort to enable African bishops to “speak as one unit.”

John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan was born Jan. 24, 1944, to Bartholomew and Joanna Onaiyekan in the Nigerian town of Kabba. As a student, he did exceptionally well in his studies, but he turned down a scholarship to study in any university to join the seminary at age 19.

When he was 21 he traveled to Rome for his licentiate in theology at the Pontifical Urbanian University. He also earned a licentiate in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1973 and a doctorate in biblical theology in 1976.

He has always had a keen interest in Scripture and fundamental questions of theology, in particular the theology of non-Christian religions in the Nigerian context.

Contributing to this story was Peter Ajayi Dada in Lagos, Nigeria.