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Bishops of Nigeria’s Ibadan Province Urge Government “not to see criticism as crime”

Flag of Nigeria. Credit: Public Domain

Catholic Bishops of Nigeria’s Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province have come to the defense of the Local Ordinary of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah , whose recent address to the U.S Congress triggered harsh criticism from the Presidency of the West African nation.

The government of Nigeria has allegedly accused Bishop Kukah of “spreading false information with the intent to discredit the administration.”

In their Tuesday, July 20 statement shared with ACI Africa, the Catholic Bishops of the Nigerian Ecclesiastical Province that include the Archdiocese of Ibadan and the Dioceses of Ondo, Ilorin, Oyo, Osogbo express their support for Bishop Kukah who they say is keen on improving the situation in Nigeria.

“We support Bishop Kukah in his effort to unveil the truth about the Nigerian situation in order to ameliorate things. We call on the Nigerian government to learn not to see criticism as an attack or a crime,” the Catholic Bishops say. 

In his virtual address to the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C on July 14, Bishop Kukah criticized the Muhammadu Buhari-led government for failing to address insecurity, saying the laxity is either due to helplessness or disinterestedness.

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The Local Ordinary of Nigeria’s Sokoto Diocese added that Nigeria’s Federal government has failed to handle insecurity that was promised before ascending to power in 2015. 

According to Sahara reporters, a Nigerian publication, the President’s spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, said Bishop Kukah was doing his “best to sow discord and strife among Nigerians.”

“It is unfortunate, and disappointing, for citizens of Nigeria to bear witness to one of their Churchmen castigating their country in front of representatives of a foreign parliament," Shehu has been quoted as saying, castigating Bishop Kukah’s July 14 virtual presentation that was titled, “The Crisis of Religious Freedom in Nigeria.”

The Nigerian government official added that the Buhari-led government is not biased as it comprises both Muslims and Christians.

The President's spokesman also said that Bishop Kukah's "assertion that only Christian schools are being targeted by bandits or terrorists is not supported by the facts on the ground."

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In their July 20 statement, the Local Ordinaries of Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province say the effort by Nigeria’s Presidency to malign Bishop Kukah “is laughable to say the least.” 

“Bishop Kukah, in his patriotic and frank presentation, called attention to some verifiable data and statistics about the Nigerian situation on that privileged international platform,” they say.

They add that the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto spoke for "authentic" Muslims and Christians who are being persecuted in the West African nation. 

“No doubt, he intended to solicit the support of that forum which many Nigerians believe holds the promise of some assistance and relief from our current national crises,” they say in reference to their brother Bishop, adding that the Federal government of Nigeria “has characteristically gone up in arms against the person of Bishop Kukah and his purpose."

The Editor of the Choice Flame Newspaper, Anthony Aneke, has also come to the defense of Bishop Kukah saying his address to the U.S Congress only spoke of the facts in Nigeria. 

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“I am yet to fathom what was false in the above Bishop Kukah's message that required such a fierce rebuttal from Garba Shehu's ‘Presidency’. The fact that Nigeria is becoming a failed state is in the public domain. The facts speak for themselves. Black is black and white is white. It doesn't even need a spokesman like Bishop Kukah," the Editor of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu-owned newspaper says in a message obtained by ACI Africa.

In their July 20 statement, the Catholic Church leaders of Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province also express concern about the amendments to the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act, which, they say, could limit press freedom in the country. 

In their statement co-signed by the Chairman and Secretary of the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria’s Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province, Archbishop Gabriel ‘Leke Abegunrin and Bishop John Akin Oyejola respectively, they say that the Parliament's attempt "to silence the press and penalize journalists for merely doing their job is to be completely rejected." 

"We hold that the freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, guaranteed by the constitution and cannot be alienated by any government, least of all in a democracy," the Catholic Bishops of Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province say. 

For the sake of Nigeria’s democracy, they further say, freedom of expression, which should be exercised with responsibility "must be protected." 

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