Leaders of Nigeria’s Catholic bishops’ conference met on Wednesday with President Muhammadu Buhari, pushing the president for action on violence and insecurity in the country, and on Nigeria’s crumbling economy.
The meeting came as Nigerian Christians face ongoing violence from terrorist groups, along with employment and economic discrimination in much of the country’s northern and central region.
“The sad state of insecurity in the land…has consumed thousands of innocent Nigerians across all regions, creeds and ethnic groups,” the bishops said Jan. 11, in an 8-paragraph message delivered to Buhari during a meeting at his residence in Abuja, the country’s capital city.
While the bishops did not comment on the content of the meeting, Premium Times reported Wednesday that Buhari told the bishops that he agreed partially with their assessment, and insisted that his administration had made security improvements.
But according to Premium Times, the president also told the bishops that the Boko Haram terrorist organization - whose existence has been recognized by the United Nations - was a fraudulent organization contrived to discredit Nigeria in the global community.
“Boko Haram was just fraudulent and a plot to destroy Nigeria. You can’t say people should not learn; the people need to grow intellectually,’’ Buhari reportedly said, according to Premium Times.
The visit came amid staggering levels of violence against Christians in Nigeria by Islamist groups and other terrorist cells from the country’s northern regions.
Hundreds of Nigerian Christians have been killed in recent months, their villages razed or burned by terrorist groups, with violence spreading even into the country's predominantly Christian southern regions.
Catholic leaders and international observers have said the Buhari administration and other government officials have refused to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of terrorism against Christians.
The bishops used the meeting to continue the Church’s push for civil protections in Nigeria.
Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, president of the Nigerian episcopal conference, mentioned the killing of more than 40 people during a Mass last year.
“Our Church personnel have been frequent victims in terms of kidnapping or outright murder. The Owo – Ondo State Catholic Church massacre on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022, is still very fresh in our hearts,” Ugorji said, in a text obtained Wednesday by The Pillar.
Urging prosecution, the bishop said the onus lies on Buhari to “to make sure that our nation is effectively rid of these murderous criminals.”
Five bishops attended the meeting with Buhari, all members of the conference’s administrative board.
In addition to violence against Christians, the bishops also talked about economics.
Nigeria’s economy “has been put under serious stress by both internal and external negative forces, which has had serious adverse effect on the lives and livelihood of the average Nigerian,” the bishops said.
The World Bank predicted Wednesday that Nigeria’s economic growth will slow considerably in 2023, due in part to declining oil prices. Nigeria is the second-largest oil and gas producer in Africa; oil exports are a major contributor to the country’s economy.
But in addition to a stagnating oil market, Nigeria has suffered from rampant pipeline theft, reducing dramatically the amount of crude oil and petroleum the country can actually bring to market.
During their meeting with Buhari, the bishops spoke directly to government corruption, which is widely regarded as contributory to oil theft.
“The many loopholes and leakages of endemic corruption still need to be sincerely and adequately addressed, if our economy is to recover,” the prelates told Buhari.
The bishops also blamed deplorable economic conditions in the country on a growing foreign debt burden, and advised that “with better political and economic management, Nigerians have both the resourcefulness and spirit of hard work to turn things around.”
But according to Premium Times, Buhari pushed back on the bishops' assessment.
The president reportedly argued that foreign debt is a sign of creditor confidence in Nigeria's future.
“We are credible, that’s why the countries and institutions agreed to support our development with the loans,’’ he said, according to Premium Times.
“If you look at the economy, we are trying hard to rely more on ourselves. Nigerians rely more on agriculture for livelihood, and we are putting in our best to enable more people, and diversify,’’ the president reportedly added.
In recent months, bishops have criticized Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress, for nominating an all-Muslim presidential ticket for the country’s February general elections, bucking the long-standing Nigerian custom of political power sharing between Muslims and Christians.
But on Wednesday, the bishops commended the president for efforts to improve election integrity in the country, and urged vigilance “in making sure … relevant agencies of government carry out their serious duties to conduct peaceful, free, fair and credible elections.”
But the bishops also recognized that a fair election is not a guarantee in the country.
It is “the hope of most Nigerians that the forthcoming 2023 elections will be a watershed in the political history of Nigeria. Let our hopes not be dashed.”