Archbishop Onaiyekan on the State of Africa (Part 1)

“Things Are Worse for Us Now Than in 1994”

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ROME, NOV. 29, 2004 ( Archbishop John Onaiyekan thinks that another Synod of Bishops for Africa is a good idea, in part because of the number of new prelates in the continent.

In this interview with ZENIT, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) analyzes the world situation. The archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, is also a member of the Synod of Bishops. Part 2 of this interview appears Tuesday.

Q: How have you reacted to the announcement of John Paul II’s intention to call a second special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: When, during the audience granted by the Pontiff to the participants of the 10th Ordinary Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, this past November 16, I had the opportunity to shake his hand, I went up to him and said: “Holy Father, I am the President of SECAM, I would like to thank you, on behalf of the African Church, for having called the African Synod ‘bis.'” His face lit up and with a broad smile, he answered me: “Yes, the African Synod ‘bis’!”

This represents our state of mind, which can also be seen in the way the Holy Father announced it, saying that he took up the desires of the postsynodal council and made himself “interpreter of the wishes of African pastors.”

Two years ago, in fact, letters had arrived at the episcopal conferences requesting and affirming that it was opportune to begin to plan a second special assembly for Africa. The responses were later sent to Rome, where we took them into consideration during the council meeting for the African Synod.

The result of all this was that the majority of African episcopal conferences, obviously with some exceptions, were giving their consensus, affirming its usefulness. Those who had doubts said that it might have been better to study the first synod in greater depth, in the framework of episcopal meetings on Africa.

However, if the Holy See, and also the Pope, had not sent those letters asking us for our opinion in this respect, I don’t think that we would have taken the initiative to request a second synod, because we are still working on the first.

Q: What are the main reasons given by the various African episcopal conferences for the convocation of a second Synod on Africa?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: First of all is the fact that the ordinary synod has become a regular meeting. And then there is the fact that the European bishops have already had other special assemblies; consequently, it would not be very unusual to have a second Synod for Africa.

But, aside from this, the political, social and even the religious situation in Africa has changed in the last 10 years. At present, it would be worthwhile to undertake a new analysis and see what we can say as Church.

Something else that was explained to us in the synod secretariat is that more than 60% of the present bishops of Africa were not bishops 10 years ago. It is worth giving this large group the opportunity to live the experience of the synod — because it is true that it is one thing to be a bishop during the synod, and quite another to be a priest or professor.

This impressed me a lot because I had not realized that there had been so many changes in 10 years. Every day there is a new Catholic bishop. Some die, others reach their 75th birthday, some leave their office because of special health problems or others of a political order, etc.

Q: The postsynodal apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Africa” emphasizes the urgency of an evangelization that will face the coming of the third millennium. Now that we have crossed the threshold, and the process of globalization is deeper, what is the Church’s response?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: In the last decade of the 20th century, all were talking — and not just the Church but also the United Nations — of housing for all in the year 2000, health for all in 2000. When the year 2000 was still far off, one could think like this but, little by little, it arrived and passed and now it can be said that perhaps there were not many changes.

Now the United Nations is beginning to speak about the “Objectives of the Millennium,” while the Church speaks of “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” in a long-term view of what the Church would like to do in this new millennium.

But we know that the new millennium has begun with really terrible events. Suffice it to think of what happened on September 11, 2001, which has totally upset the world; and then the process of European integration and, moreover, the worsening of the security situation in Africa, the problems of the Middle East which have not improved.

Even more so, from the point of view of the world economy, the gap between the rich and poor has accentuated and become more dramatic, while the process of globalization continues at a frenetic pace.

The result is that the poor and weak countries are abandoned and are increasingly left behind, while the strong countries forge ahead, fly, almost thinking that the poor no longer count other than as objects of exploitation and to get what one wants.

In regard to justice in the world, which is very much tied to the problem of war and peace, the first years of this century have begun badly, so that one can say that now things are worse for us in Africa than in 1994.

In this situation, a second synod will be useful to address this problem and will allow us to really ask ourselves in what direction we are moving. Are we condemned to remain always poor, with stupid governments of exploiters that succeed one another without it being possible to constitute a well-planned government, in which the political leaders try to seek what is good for the people?

Without this we will not be able to ask, with coherence, for the justice that is continuously denied us. I don’t see how the rich countries can say: “It’s all right, Africa, now we will fix things.” No, because no one in the present world seems to offer gratuitous charity.

Q: How do you judge the policy of the United States vis-à-vis Africa?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: After the events of September 11, the Americans thought that Africa might be important. For example, think of the case of Nigeria. There is a whole policy of interest in this country, which extends to the Gulf of Guinea, because the alternative exists there for oil from the Middle East, which is increasingly problematic.

The United States sees that it must find a substitute. And, therefore, if they begin to speak of aid to Africa it is only from this selfish perspective, no more and no less. …

The danger looms in this new millennium of having a strong country commanding others which will have to obey it. But I think they must know that this cannot last “per omnia secula seculorum.” So long as the world thinks that we are all equal, but some more equal than others, there will never be peace.

For me, the prospect of the next 50 years is very worrying in this respect.

[Tuesday: Nigeria’s ordeal]

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