Threatened Nigerian Bishop Pleads for Attention From the West

March 24, 2023

Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza of Yola Diocese in Northeast Nigeria at displaced person camp in Adamawa State, November 2021.
Photo by Stephen M. Rasche.

Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Yola in Adamawa State in Northeast Nigeria. He is also the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for Adamawa State. In 2014, much of his state was overrun by the Boko Haram terrorist group. Bishop Mamza gained wide acclaim for his protection and care for all victims during this time, Muslim and Christian alike. This week, in the aftermath of heavily criticized presidential and gubernatorial elections held in Nigeria on February 25th and March 11th, Bishop Mamza spoke with RFI Senior Fellow Stephen Rasche regarding the current, dangerous mood in Nigeria generally and Adamawa State in particular, where limited re-run elections for the gubernatorial race are now scheduled for April 15th. The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Rasche: What were the hopes in Nigeria leading up to the Presidential elections on February 25th?

Mamza: Over the past several years most Nigerians had completely given up on the leadership of the present administration. Basic security had disappeared in so many areas. Highways and even trains and airports were not safe. Violence came from many directions — Boko Haram, ISWAP, so-called bandits, and working together with these groups in many areas were armed herdsmen. And to most Nigerians it appeared that the administration either did not care or was incapable of addressing this violence. And while this violence often had a religious element, which mainly targeted Christians, they were not the only people to suffer. So the feeling all across Nigeria was that people were ready to clear out the present administration and bring some stability back to the country. At first there was hope in this.

Secondly, INEC (the Independent National Election Commission) had been preparing for the past four years to implement a new national system of voting using bio-metric voting cards and instant, transparent uploading of election results from polling centers. INEC had widely assured the people that this system would be fully implemented for the national elections and that it would be a new era of fair and transparent elections for Nigeria. This also gave the country, especially our young people, a sense of hope that this time their voice might actually have meaning.

In what way is all this connected to the ongoing persecution and violence against Christians?

Again, the utter lawlessness of the country, especially throughout much of the north, had left so many people unprotected, and this affected the Christians most of all. And so much of this violence is clearly motivated by religion. In particular, the violence against Christians from armed herders has grown in the last four years with complete impunity from the present administration. 

And I would really like to highlight this word “impunity” to the U.S. government, which removed Nigeria from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) last year. The Christians of Nigeria have still yet to hear an answer from the U.S. State Department as to how they have determined that the present administration in Nigeria has not created a climate of impunity concerning violence against Christians. 

Were the hopes you have just mentioned for the presidential elections realized at all?

In fact, these hopes were not realized in any way. Instead, I can say they were mostly destroyed. It became clear very early in the vote counting process that the new electronic voting system was not just failing massively, but evidence appeared to show that much of this failure may have been intentional in order to force the use of manual vote counting, which could be easily manipulated. 

What was the reaction from the people as the results began to come out?

As I said, for so many of them, especially the young voters, their hopes were destroyed. They felt they had been used and lied to about the possibility of fair and transparent elections, and they felt now that the whole process was being manipulated and corrupted once again. The two main opposition parties, the LP and PDP, almost immediately denounced the process and did not accept the results. Both of them have filed their formal petitions this week contesting the results and so it will now go to the courts.

Despite the situation as you have explained it, the West – including the U.S., UK and the EU – quickly recognized the results declared by INEC and sent congratulatory messages to President-Elect Tinubu. Can you comment on this?

Among the official observers to the election, including foreign embassies and members of the international community, it became clear to everyone very early on that the process had crashed or been sabotaged, and there were very serious problems in the vote counting. Certainly the foreign observers saw and understood this. And yet we saw these same countries immediately recognizing the results as if there was no concern at all. Coming with the history of the CPC withdrawal, which still remains unexplained, it becomes very difficult to understand what actually is the policy of the United States and the West towards Nigeria. There are many in Nigeria right now who believe that this quick recognition of the election results provided a green light to the worst elements of Nigerian politics to return to the old patterns of violence, intimidation, and corruption, which we unfortunately saw two weeks later in the gubernatorial elections.

The results of the presidential election are now being contested in court by both of the leading opposition parties, the Labour Party under the Catholic Peter Obi, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) under the Muslim Atiku Abubakar. How important is this process to Nigeria and its Christians?

I think many Nigerians, especially the young, feel that this court review is the last chance to give the people a government that can be accepted as legitimate. If the people see that the court has done its job transparently, independently, and fairly, then there is still hope for a path to move forward. But there is great fear about what will happen if the court review is not viewed as having been a transparent, fair, and just process. We are seeing the young people of Nigeria moving so close to permanent despair and hopelessness concerning the government. With the large population of young people we have in Nigeria, and it is certainly over 100 million, this is a very, very dangerous situation.

What is the most important thing the West can do now to help prevent further instability regarding the Presidential election?

The West can make it clear that they are paying close attention to what happens in the review of the election in the courts. I can say that this is truly critical.

Now this past weekend, on March 11th, a second round of elections was held nation-wide to elect governors and members of the Senate. What happened there?

How can I say that this was worse than the presidential election, but it was. The difference is that in the first election, it was the vote counting process that massively failed. But in the recent elections we saw a return to the old days: violence, intimidation, vote buying, ballot stealing, all of it. It is as if the worst elements of Nigerian politics saw what had happened in the presidential election and decided they were free to act as they always had and do so with impunity.

International observers have condemned the widespread violence and other disruptions that surrounded the gubernatorial elections throughout the country. Can you comment on the impact of this condemnation?

Well, this condemnation is certainly warranted and justified. But again, the quick recognition of the presidential results by the international community appears to have played a part in encouraging the violence and thuggish behavior that followed in the gubernatorial elections, so there is a mixed message here that in a real way contributes to the chaos. 

It is important also to note that the leaders of all the parties in Nigeria signed the National Peace Accords prior to the elections, in which they pledged to keep their parties from engaging in exactly the sorts of behavior we are seeing. So it does no good in Nigeria for the West to threaten local wrongdoers only while appearing to excuse or even support their national leadership. This does not help anybody’s credibility.

Is there anything the international community can do ahead of the re-run elections scheduled to take place in Adamawa on April 15th?

I urge international observers and embassies to pay attention to what is happening in Adamawa with utmost seriousness. If this process on April 15th is not open and transparent there could very well be serious violence here. I have never seen the situation as tense as it is at this moment. I can say as Bishop that I fear what could come now as a worse threat to our stability and security than the time of Boko Haram.

These are perilous times for Church leaders in Nigeria. Priests and Pastors have been regularly targeted for kidnapping and murder, and Bishops including yourself are regularly threatened with violence. How do you lead your people in such times, and where is the line between engagement in politics and the Church’s pastoral role?

You are right that these are most certainly difficult times for pastoral leaders. Where is the proper line for us between our role as pastors and our role as shepherds protecting our flock?  All this while we are threatened and targeted personally, again with seeming impunity. But please understand, it is far worse for many of our people, and we must do everything we can, even at the cost of our lives, to remain close with them. While the larger atrocities against the innocents do make the news, there are so many other cases which take place in isolated villages, where one or two people just simply disappear one day, and nobody hears anything about these cases in the news. And yet the churches know, and as church leaders we cannot turn from these realities. It is a time of almost biblical darkness and we cannot remain silent about it. Our people must see the Church as protector and not merely as refuge.  

What should policy makers in the West understand right now about Nigeria?

Nigeria is the largest country by population in Africa, over 200 million people. This recent election process, begun with so much hope, could now be the event that completely tears our country apart. This would immediately affect all of West Africa, and from there who can say?  There is still a hope in the judicial review, and we Christians will always do everything in our power to keep our people peaceful. But the West needs to take the dangerousness of this situation much more seriously. I am praying for it every moment.