Archbishop Onaiyekan on the State of Africa (Part 2)

Gospel «Finds Fertile Ground in the Traditional Culture»

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ROME, NOV. 30, 2004 ( Archbishop John Onaiyekan thinks the road to social justice will be a rocky one.

«Sooner or later, rich countries will see that things cannot continue this way,» said Archbishop Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja and president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), when analyzing the world situation in this interview with ZENIT.

«But before this happens, many, too many people will die and endure sufferings that could have been avoided,» he said. Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.

Q: What is the situation in your country, Nigeria, in the transitional phase toward a stable democracy?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: When our countries do not succeed in organizing themselves well, we cannot even begin to liberate ourselves. In my opinion, our task is to liberate our countries from those who subject us; only then will we be able to begin to speak in a coherent way and make ourselves heard. The problem is that we have corrupt, stupid leaders who rule, facilitating and even promoting exploitation from outside.

Q: How does the Church act in this context?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: It depends on which Church it is. If one thinks of the official Church, of the bishops and episcopal conferences, then it depends on the degree of influence that their statements have and it also depends on how many Catholics there are in the particular area. Because, in the last analysis, the archbishop of Abuja is not like the archbishop of Manila.

The archbishop of Manila has a whole army of Catholics at his side, and if he is able to get through to Catholics and they respond, the government must pay attention. The same thing happens when the Church in Poland decides to raise its voice, and we all know what happened there.

In Nigeria, instead, the situation is different. Our strength is not to speak out always as Catholics; we must present the good of the country. And then, when discussing the common good, we must try to do so in a way that people will listen to the intrinsic value of the social doctrine, and not just because it comes from the Pope.

What is lovely is that, at the base of our experiences, when we put at people’s disposition the strong ideas on which the social doctrine of the Church is founded — such as the common good, justice, honesty, the rights of man and of the citizen, and the duty to govern justly — we usually see a great consensus.

We also try to reach out to other people, regardless of the fact they are Muslims, so long as they accept that a given principle is just. I think that the Nigerian conference has been able to build a reputation by analyzing issues correctly and judging situations with hard logic, as well as by speaking out courageously.

What we don’t know is how many people will be bearers of these values. How many Catholics are there in the government to whom can we entrust this message? Sadly, we still cannot do this. The reason is that many of our Catholics in politics have not been formed in the social doctrine of the Church.

They are people who have attended state universities, in which politics is not taught in the light of moral values. Moreover, the political school they have frequented teaches the dirty politics we see around us.

Such is the case that many Catholics say that if they are to remain Catholic, they cannot continue in politics, as to be successful, they must put certain principles to one side, come to a solution of compromise, or betray their beliefs.

Q: In particular, how is the Nigerian episcopal conference acting to overcome this lack of formation in the social doctrine of the Church?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: It must be said that the Nigerian episcopal conference is trying to focus attention on and work with the people. Something that is very difficult because there is a need for a consistent network organization at the parish level and small schools, continuing with a catechesis based on principles that for me are obvious but that are not so for a population that has been subjected for 30 years to a military dictatorship.

For example, for a Nigerian to hear that military men have never had the right to govern, is something that they cannot even imagine. All Nigerians younger than 40 have had no experience of a government that has not been a military dictatorship. And that is why it is even more difficult to make them understand the value of elections. And politicians take advantage of this.

The majority of officials who are under a military regime are not military men but civilians who organized themselves in a closed circle; a group of mafiosi who hold power. At present, it is the same group that is in power. What is in common is that power is seized without the will of the people, whether done with arms or truncating the vote, or not allowing free elections.

You, in Europe, cannot even imagine the things that have happened.

Often, the day of elections arrives, without having had all that should precede them, which is, in itself, anti-democratic.

Then one might see a group of criminals escorted by the police who remove the ballot boxes, at 9 o’clock in the morning, without knowing where they are being taken. Later, at 7 o’clock in the evening, the results of the elections are published. The number of votes are shared among themselves but in the end the one who wins is the one who had to win. And we Nigerians look at one another and ask: «But when did we vote?»

Then, if one appeals to the courts, one does no more than throw one’s money away. So, in reality, the individual’s vote doesn’t count at all.

Q: How, then, can the evangelical message take root in African culture?

Archbishop Onaiyekan: Clearly, the evangelical message finds fertile ground in the traditional African culture. And the reason lies in the fact that evangelical values and the genuine values of African culture have much in common.

Beginning with the spiritual view of life, the existence of God the Creator to whom we owe everything and before whom we are responsible. In the African mentality, this means that there are things that «you cannot do» — you don’t do it and that’s it, because it is wrong. This doesn’t mean that no one does evil, but that whoever does it, attracts the critical look of the people.

This is African culture in its best expression at the level of social life. Here, in Europe, there is talk of the sense of community, but also of the sense of the public common good, so that a leader must live at the service of others.

European culture came to Africa and brought us some wonderful things. Among them, the most beautiful is Christianity, along with many ways of doing things, which have led to the destruction of the social situation and an end to balance.

As one reads in the title of a famous novel of Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian writer — «Things Fall Apart» — African history of the last century has been an effort to bring together again the broken pieces.

Suffice it to think, for example, of the current politicians. They are doing things today that, if they had done them in the past, they would have been expelled from the community. And now, if there is a corrupt government and one tries to eliminate it with elections, it’s not possible.

If one tries to eliminate it with a coup d’état, you meet with French Forces at the airport. Therefore, things are happening that did not happen before.

And this is the case because we are no longer what we used to be. There are other forces, from outside, which have great influence on us, so that the African is not allowed to take care of his own interests.

This takes us back to the question addressed at the beginning on the world system, the «world order,» planned in a way that there will always be people who are subject and p
eople who will be on top, and the hope is to keep them on top as much as possible.

All the norms of the modern economy are part of this logic: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc. But our children die of hunger, «you must pay the debts …,» but we cannot keep them in school, «you must pay the debts …» This means that there are people on top who do not care about this situation. …

The European countries themselves have not succeeded in donating 0.7% of their gross national product for the world’s development.

It is said that Bush has done well to give $500 million to combat AIDS in Africa. And what does this mean? Every day he spends more than this figure in Iraq. And then, even this announcement is only noise. The system to access the little that he is willing to pay is so configured that no one can receive the money. …

However, I am certain of one thing: sooner or later, the rich countries will see that things cannot continue this way. But before this happens, many, too many people will die and endure sufferings that could have been avoided.

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