in Africa Today
Address to the
Catholic Social Ministry Gathering
Washington Court Hotel, Washington, D.C.
24th - 26th February, 2002
Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria
In April 1994, there was a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa popularly called "African Synod", which took place in Rome for a whole month. One of the most significant contributions during the period of listening to the interventions of the Synod Fathers was the contribution of His Grace, Most Rev. Jean ZOA of blessed memory, at that time Archbishop of Yaounde, Cameroon. Among other things he compared the continent of Africa to the way-farer, who was attacked by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, left wounded and dying on the side of the road. He looked forward to assistance and found none until a stranger, indeed one who should be considered an enemy stopped over and helped him. The Archbishop asked, "Who will stop to look after Africa in its present moment of distress? Who will take her for attention and care? Who will pour oil of healing over her wounds?" The reference of course is to the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. (Lk 29-37) In that parable the emphasis is not on the attacker who caused the traveler to be in distress, but rather on those who passed by and whether they did something or did nothing. The image of the injured man lying helpless on the side of the road caught the fancy of the Synod Fathers. In fact it featured in the final document of the Synod, the Apostolic Exhortation: "Ecclesia in Africa" (EIA) promulgated by His Holiness Pope John II in Yaounde a year after. (EIA 41)
It is almost eight years now since the African Synod and yet the image of Archbishop Zoa is still very valid. Africa is still lying prostrate and wounded on the road side of the modern world. She is being left behind and waiting for who will rescue her.
Many people are now talking about the problems of Africa and different solutions are being proposed towards solving them, though one is still to see real and concrete action. The church of the United States of America through its bishops have come out in a strong way to offer a hand of succour to this sick and wounded continent. The recently published document of the United States Bishops "A Call to Solidarity with Africa" (CSA) is certainly a great encouragement to Africa. We know now that we are moving gradually to an era of solidarity. His Holiness Pope John Paul II has often appealed that Africa be not forgotten. Just a few weeks ago, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair was preaching the same gospel. It is still to be seen whether his words will ever be matched by any concrete action. As for the call of the American Catholic Bishops, I have great confidence that there is indeed a strong wish and commitment to do something.
It is in this context that I thank the organizers of this gathering. I thank all those who have made it possible for me to be with you this afternoon. The letter inviting me has given me a clear mandate to inform and challenge this audience in such a way that there will be a concrete follow-up to CSA. As for information, that document already contains a lot; certainly enough for the time being. I will say more or less the same thing but from point of view of an African who is at the receiving end of so much injustices. I believe that this would somehow challenge this audience to appreciate the urgency of the problems that beset your brothers and sisters in the continent of Africa.
I have decided to arrange my reflections with you along a largely historical framework. First, we shall look into the checkered history of Africa and how this history has determined and continues to influence the present. Then I will describe briefly the gloomy present we are living in. The CSA document has a fairly comprehensive and accurate description of this. I will concentrate more on putting flesh and blood on the facts and figures mentioned in the document. Then we will look into the future, which we hope will bring something better and brighter for our continent. Finally, in the fourth stage, I will suggest some ideas on how the Church of God in America could work in solidarity with the Church of God in Africa in bringing solace to our people.
Before I go any further, I will like to specify that most of my experience comes from my home country, Nigeria. However, I have an appreciable amount of interaction with colleagues from other parts of Africa. I have also had opportunity to visit many other countries. To that extent, I shall venture to speak about the continent as a whole. In any case, there is a lot that we share in common, especially as far as the fears and anxieties, the pains and problems of our people are concerned.
1. A Checkered History:
The continent of Africa often appears like a continent with an unknown past. Lack of literary documents and the meagre survival even of archeological remnants mean that the documented history of the continent goes often only a little beyond living memory. Especially in sub-Sahara Africa, we deal mainly with oral legends. And yet, we know that Africa is perhaps the cradle of human existence on our planet. We also know that there are age old customs and practices dating to remote antiquities. Such ancient customs and practices have a deep impact on the people even today. But the history of the past is not easy to recall today. This fact has its own negative implications on our sense of identity and cultural confidence.
1.1. The Classical Glories. Ironically, the same continent of Africa has seen a tremendously high level of human civilization in long ages past. We can think immediately of the ancient Egyptian civilizations. The pyramids were constructed over two thousand years before Christ, when Europe was still in the stone age. These monuments have continued to be a marvel of science and technology even today. The civilization of Egypt spread down south into much of what is today Ethiopia and the Sudan. The ruins of some ancient empires have also been discovered in Southern Africa, especially around Zimbabwe. In Nigeria, the classical arts of ancient Ife, in the South West, and Nok in the central North, date back to about the time of Christ. So it is not as if our continent has not had its own golden age.
As for the history of the church, we cannot forget the frequent reference to Africa, especially Egypt and Ethiopia in the Old Testament. Among those who listened to the apostolic kerygma at Pentecost were pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from"Egypt and the parts of Libya round Cyrene". (Acts 2:10) The "Ethiopian Eunuch" mentioned in Acts 8:26-39, continued his journey home, carrying his new faith with him. Africa was there at the very beginning of the Christian faith. We only need to think of the great names: theologians like Tertulian and Cyprian of Carthage, Origen, Cyril and Athanasius of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo; Paul, Anthony and Pachomius of the Egyptian deserts, founders of monasticism, Frumentius of Ethiopia, and martyrs and saints like Perpetua, Felicitas and Monica. This glorious history is solemnly celebrated in EIA 31. The decline of the Roman Empire and civilization in many parts of North Africa and the subsequent take over of the whole region by Islam as from the seventh century ushered in an era of great challenges especially for the church. During all this time, little or nothing was known of the reality of Africa, south of the Sahara. The break-through was to come much later in the fourteenth and fifteenth century through the Portuguese adventurers seeking for a route to India around the continent of Africa.
1.2 The Critical Encounter: The first encounter between Africa South of the Sahara and Western Europe through explorers, and later traders was largely on the basis of mutual trust and equality. The history of the relationship between the Portuguese on the one hand and the African kingdoms of those days in Benin, Warri and the Congo on the other, is very instructive. At the same time too, efforts were made at Christian evangelization, most of which collapsed with the decline and consequent demise of Portuguese influence as a world power. However in places like present Angola and Mozambique those contacts as well as the Christian influence that they brought along, have remained un-interrupted for over 500 years. Today, the Portuguese colonial settlers have largely abandoned Angola and Mozambique yielding way to purely African nations. But, their impact especially in the Catholic faith, has remained in those nations.
After the initial contacts however, relationship took a wrong turn, as the era of human trafficking, referred to in history as the Atlantic slave trade took over. This is one of the greatest crimes of human history. Literally millions of able bodied men, women and children were forcefully transported across the oceans to the Americas. The massive presence of peoples of African origin in these lands is a testimony to this historical event. The legacy of slavery has, among other things, caused lingering perceptions, with negative impact on the psyche of the descendants of those involved. It is still difficult to get out of the sub-conscious feeling of inferiority/superiority of the races. The gesture of His Holiness Pope John II during his visit to Senegal at the Island of Goree went a long way to healing the deeper wounds of the past. The frank and humble admission of the horror of the slave trade and the Pope's own apologies on behalf of those who perpetrated these atrocities while calling themselves Christians, was a welcome gesture indeed.
We should, by the way, note too that the crime of the enslavement of the black race is not to be laid at the doorstep of only white Europeans. Arabs too have been involved in these criminal activities even before the Atlantic slave trade. And the atrocity has continued even today in some places. Those Arab slave traders claim to be Muslims. Is there a "Pope" in the Islamic faith to make the same apologies as the Pope has made for Christians?
While apportioning blames, we cannot exempt our ancestors who at times sold their kith and kin into the unknown, in exchange for valueless toys and trinkets, a tragic scenario that is still going on even now, in different ways.
It is on record as a merit to the Western European nations that they also took steps for the abolition of slavery, a programme that was pursued vigourously during the 18th and 19th centuries. But unfortunately the end of slavery did not lead to better and more fruitful relationship between Africa and the European world. Rather the age of colonialism set in, as the European powers partitioned the land of Africa among themselves at the 1884 Conference of Berlin. That was the beginning of another form of slavery, which continued till the middle of the 20th century. Although colonialism has ended in most of Africa since over 40 years ago, its impact and scars remain even today. The present balkanised geography of the African continent is a direct result of colonial partitions. The project of African Unity has met extreme difficulty, partly because of colonial boundaries, which have in many places torn the same families apart. On the other hand we acknowledge the fact that colonial boundaries have also brought together within a modern state peoples who have been at each other's throats and would perhaps never have come together as a nation. The colonial period has positive as well as negative dimensions.
Although the European colonial powers did not set out to evangelize Africa, the conditions of relative peace that they created facilitated, in large measure, the work of Christian missionaries. Thus it has to be admitted that much of what is the Christian faith in Africa today, especially south of the Sahara, owes its origins and early growth to the colonial era. This however is not to say that the colonial powers necessarily facilitated the spread of the Christian faith. There may have been few cases where this happened. But there were also many instances where the colonial powers put an obstacle in the way of Christian evangelization. A typical example of this later case is in the northern parts of Nigeria where until our independence it was forbidden for Christian missionaries to evangelize any areas that the local Muslim leaders considered as Muslim.
1.3. Hopes Unrealised The late fifties and the early sixties ushered in a new era in the continent of Africa, the era of political independence. In some cases this was achieved peacefully through negotiation with the colonial masters, e.g Nigeria and Ghana. In some other places, it was not without bloody struggle, e.g. . Algeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, all having to fight sometimes long wars of colonial liberation. However, sooner or later, one country after the other achieved national sovereignty as independent nation. At the beginning hopes were very high. With political independence, one expected that Africa would begin to develop fast. It was Kwame Nkrumah the great leader of Ghana who used to say: "Seek ye first the political kingdom and everything else will be added unto you." Looking back now we have realized that the political kingdom does not necessarily carry with it everything else. Looking back over the years of political independence in Africa, it is clear that the hopes of the people have in most cases been betrayed. Very often the same leaders who fought for freedom against colonial domination became in their own turn vicious dictators and oppressors. Many of them declared themselves presidents for life. Most of them did not relinquish power voluntarily but had to be chased out, alive or dead. Military rule soon became the order of the day, with its attendant instability, as one regime succeeded the other. My country Nigeria is a typical case in point.
In the meantime bad government became rampant, and the people suffered the horrible consequences. In some countries in fact, the quality of life of the people had become worse than it was under colonial regime. Often social infrastructure like roads, schools and water supply were never maintained. In this period too which coincided largely with the cold war era, bad rulers often received support from the super- powers seeking strategic advantages. As a result, dictators often got away with all kinds of crimes with full support of foreign nations. A typical example was the late ruler of Zaire, Mobutu, who became a darling of the western powers and was able to continue to win one fraudulent election after another. This seems to be still happening in some African countries where the same ruler has been holding unto power for over 30 years.
However, it was not all bad news. In many countries, despite political turbulence, instability and bad government, some progress was made. There were also rulers who made commendable efforts to serve their people, often in the face of a hostile international environment. One could mention here Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and to some extent, Felix Houphuet-Boigny of La Cote d'Ivoire.
In the midst of all these however, the church of Christ continued to grow. Along with political independence, there was also a visible and clear move towards the indigenisation of the leadership of the church. Gradually, foreign missionaries were replaced by local pastors. In the process of transition from missionary to local church, the Holy See demonstrated admirable faith in the Holy Spirit and confidence in the young African clergy. Many of the young pastors to whom the African churches were entrusted would have been considered elsewhere immature or not sufficiently experienced for the job. Looking back now the church in Africa has no regrets about the development. The experiment was largely successful.
2. The Gloomy Present.
The fore-going is the background of the contemporary situation in Africa today, a situation which has been very well laid out in the CSA document.
There are a few countries where we can talk of some good news. South Africa finally came out of the tunnel of apartheid around 1994. Since then not without difficulties, it has been making serious efforts to stabilize its social environment. Although crime wave is still a major preoccupation in that country, it has the potential to be one main focus of development in Africa. The people of Ghana finally managed to make a peaceful transition from a military rule to a one party civilian government and to a proper full blown multi-party democracy. The new government is now in the position to tackle the long standing problems of that nation. My country, Nigeria should have been one of the success stories but unfortunately we still have not found our feet in our new democratic process. La Cote d'Ivoire managed to draw back from the brink of a political precipice almost at the last minute. It seems that the new government is making serious effort at national reconciliation and peace, which would guarantee prosperity and progress in a nation that has for a long time enjoyed a good record of civil government. Of recent, it seems that Sierra Leone has turned over a new leaf, after years of atrocious civil war.
But there are still many centers of acute problems on the continent. The wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan, and Liberia are tragic cases. It seems that the most common denominator is the challenge of good government. Some countries have been under a long rule of the same person, giving a false impression of stability. It is obvious that things are not as stable as they seem. As examples, one can mention the cases of Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Arab Moi in Kenya, Eyadema in Togo, and Omar Bongo of Gabon. These are all rulers who have been running or are they mis-running - their countries for over thirty years. They seem to believe no one else can do the job except themselves, even when age is taking its toll on them. The result is that the people suffer from poverty, disease, and lack of basic amenities. In some cases, war and armed conflict become the order of the day, with its attendant consequences of refugees in their large numbers. The CSA documents rightly draws particular attention to this great scourge of refugees in our continent of Africa. And in most cases, this has been provoked by causes that could easily have been avoided. Very often the rulers have not been able to harness the resources of the nation for good. Natural resources are squandered or even given up to be plundered by others who have not got the interest of the people at heart. The human resources remain largely un-harnessed because of policies that generate and maintain conflicts among peoples. Very often these conflicts take the form of ethnic or religious rivalries. But the bottom line is always political and economic.
In this regard we must refer to the rivalry between Christianity and Islam in many parts of Africa. Both faiths are imported into our continent. They are both claiming to be absolute religions. Both are targeting the same people for membership. Again my country Nigeria is a typical case, where Christians and Muslims are about of equal strength. There are fanatics on both sides who try to insist that their way must prevail. This causes unnecessary quarrels between the adherents of both faiths. More often, political manipulations lead to conflicts that on the surface look like religious. It is always necessary to stand one's guard lest legitimate religious sentiments and affiliations become instruments in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.
As if Africa had not enough troubles, we now have to face the new implacable onslaught of the pandemic HIV/AIDS ravaging the continent and taking a high toll of the most productive segments of the population. In Africa, HIV/AIDS goes hand in hand with rampant poverty, which results in poor health facilities and ignorance. When a nation cannot guarantee ordinary safe drinking water and adequate food for its citizens, or control simple diseases like malaria and dysentery, how is it ever to deal with HIV/AIDS? The problem is not solved but compounded by mass importation and distribution of millions of sub-standard and carelessly handled condoms. Especially for the youth who are most affected by this scourge, this merely encourages more sexual recklessness and gives false security. The prospects are frightful and the difficulties are enormous. We are doing all we can in the Church. In Nigeria, we have formulated an HIV/AIDS policy. The thrust of our action against AIDS is in proper information, breaking down prejudices, stressing prevention through wholesome sexual life, encouraging behaviour change, especially among the youth, urging them to sexual discipline. We consistently challenge them to have confidence in their ability to live chastely, instead of presuming that they cannot control themselves. This is gradually catching on in their peer groups. We have also put up programmes for counseling and caring for people infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. But after all is said and done, one feels like crying, with my old auntie, "Only God will save us."
In the midst of all these, the church continues to carry out her mission and witness of healing the wounds of the people. In many countries, she is perhaps the only agency that is still willing and able to serve the people in their most basic needs of health, food and education. In most cases, the church has been able to perform largely through its own internal discipline but also through assistance from sister churches abroad. There is however a limit to how much the church can take over the role of government especially as the church does not control the main sources of resource of the country. More and more it is clear that the church must train her own members so that they can move into the running of public affairs as an apostolate for the establishment of the kingdom of God on our continent. In our country Nigeria, this is one of our greatest priorities, to challenge Christian elite not to stand by and watch a nation being run in the wrong way. It has not been easy to break through the stranglehold that certain undemocratic and corrupt powers have on the nation. Members of the Church have been constantly exhorted to be courageous and to patiently continue to fight, despite the fact that the forces of evil are well organized and united in their activities. This is where we are at present. What are the prospects for the future?
3. The Future in God's Hands:
Despite all our present problems we still look forward to the future with a great hope. We believe that a new Africa shall rise from its present ashes. We believe that God will save us from our present woes. As we look around us, we notice that the continent is a land of young people. Most countries have over 60% population under 30 years of ages. That gives us courage to look forward to a greater future. The last generation of African leaders have largely operated on the basis of trial and error most of them on the basis of error. We have learnt a lot of lessons from the experience and the sufferings of the continent. We have reasons to hope that the new generation of leaders would learn from the mistakes of the past.
The often mentioned global village is gradually becoming a reality and Africa is inevitably part of this development. We have heard much talk too about a new world order. Although presently there is still a lot to look forward to, there is enough hope that a new world order would indeed emerge that would be also a more just world order. Whatever one may say of the process of globalization, it certainly has within itself the capacity to make the world a better place, if we harness its great potentialities for the good of the entire human race. It should be more and more clear to the comfortable segments of the earth that it is no longer safe to abandon a large section of humanity in avoidable misery. Humanity is moving more and more into the era of "interconnectivity" and "networking" for better or for worse. Therefore, there can be no peace for the world until everyone has a minimum degree of human dignity.
Maybe this is what has moved people like the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to begin to talk in favour of our continent. The United States of America too would also need to seriously review its policies towards poor nations. It is no longer a question of little acts of alms giving here and there. It should become clearer daily that it is enlightened national self interest of even rich nations to take care of the most grievous needs of the poorer nations. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are certainly completely and totally to be condemned. Nothing can justify what happened on that day. Nor is there any reason to suggest that those who carried out those dastardly acts were in any way acting in the interest of poor nations. But one hopes that at least one of the lessons that will be learnt from this event is precisely to take more seriously the economic global dimensions of national security. We are looking forward to how the recent moves will affect our continent.
The church in Africa continues to grow and wax strong. Although her number constitutes only about 15% of the total population of Africa, its influence and social clout far exceed her numerical strength. The inspirations of the African Synod especially its emphasis on the church as family of God continues to move the church in its efforts to live in healing and saving solidarity with the people of the continent. Right now the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), is engaged in the process of restructuring, all in view of making its activities more relevant and credible. (EIA 21) It is expected that the church at each local area will do a similar self examination. Indeed in many countries national congresses, even national synods are being held for this purpose. In Nigeria, a national pastoral congress, planned since the past three years, is scheduled for November 2002.
4. The American Church in Solidarity with Africa:
Finally let me briefly mention some ways that I believe the American church can contribute towards the process of healing of our continent. The CSA document is already quite comprehensive and if all the recommendations therein contained are followed it will indeed make a lot of difference. Here I wish to remark on three special areas.
4.1. The first is solidarity with the Church in Africa. The thrust of the interventions of the American church on our continent should be clearly one of building up and sustaining the capacity of the local church to operate effectively as sign and instrument of salvation among the people of Africa. This, of course, has been the main result of the assistance received over the years by African churches from the United States. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that the United States church is one of the greatest contributors to the universal solidarity fund of the church distributed through the propagation of faith in Rome. This very effective and fair channel for distribution of help to poor countries and churches of Africa should be continued and intensified. In many instances when everything has collapsed, the church becomes one of the very few agencies that are still able and willing to do anything. This becomes more effective the more help she gets from other churches outside the continent.
There may also be new ways of doing this. For example the activity of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), mentioned in the CSA document deserves strong affirmation. Whatever may be its methods and strategies, it is necessary that in each country it seeks to adapt itself to the realities of the local church. Its success would depend largely on how much it is able to work hand in hand with the local church. So far our experience of CRS in my country Nigeria has been positive in this direction. We are forever grateful to all those who support this work.
4.2. Then there is the area of advocacy for Africa in relation to American government public policy. In most cases it can be said that if Africa is poor and destitute today, it is neither because the people are stupid nor are they lazy. Much of the poverty of the continent is as a result of unjust international relationship of trade and exchange. Mainly producers of raw materials and minerals Africa is not in any strong position to bargain for the prices of its products. The result is that, while imported manufactured goods and services continue to increase in prices, the earnings from local raw materials continue to diminish relatively speaking, causing the economic decline that is now the lot of all of Africa. The church cannot but be strongly involved in the efforts of those who seek to correct this unjust economic world order. A little change in this regard will make much more practical and positive impact than almsgiving sent to our countries. Justice before charity must be our slogan. To continue to pursue national economic interest in an isolated manner is short-sightedness. It is necessary that everyone should have a minimum of contentment in the arrangements that guide relationships. Otherwise, extreme poverty without any hope of relief really leads to frustration and tensions that threaten world peace. It is not a question of rich nations making themselves poor for the sake of the poor nations. Rather, they are to be ready, as a matter of justice, to share the blessings that God has made available for all nations. The goods of this earth belong to all its inhabitants and should not be cornered unjustly and indefinitely by a small group of people.
4.3. Thirdly there is the need to address the issue of the welfare of Africans within the borders of the United States. I am referring to those who are normally described as new-immigrants, to distinguish them from those we now call African-Americans. Not so long ago, many Africans came to this country only to study and get back home as soon as possible. They went back to join the small but growing group of elite. But things have changed of recent. There are many who have now made America their new home mainly because there are no opportunities to return home to. This should not surprise anyone since America itself is made up largely of people seeking a better future for themselves. The mosaic that is the American population will now have to make room for the components of the new African immigrants. The present immigration policies of the United States of America tend to restrict the admission of poor African applicants, many of whom can be considered as "economic refugees". Most of them are honest and hardworking young people who are only pursuing the age-old American dream. If this dream was and still is available to the Germans and Italians, the Poles and other Eastern European, while should it exclude the Africans?
Finally, I wish to draw a particular attention a special category of "new immigrants" to America; the steady stream of missionaries from African countries here in the United States. There may be a few cases where people sent here for studies by the local church refuse to return home. They take up residence and work in America, sometimes against the wishes of their Bishops or Religious Superiors. These are a few unfortunate isolated cases that I am sure happens with other continents too. The majority of priests and religious in this country have been appropriately invited and properly sent to join in the apostolic work of the local church of United States. The mission ad gentes, especially in an era of globalisation, can no longer be a one way traffic. The "solidarity" of the Churches is an exchange of gifts, both material and spiritual. Missionaries from materially poor lands, preaching in affluent environments, is as old as the New Testament. The Bishops' Conference of United States has been making proposals for a more organized arrangement for the work of these missionaries from Africa to the United States. Our country Nigeria has recently made such an arrangement. This is the beginning of better patterns of relationship and cooperation that we look forward to in the future.
The continent of Africa continues to hope against hope. It refuses to give up the struggle to restore the dignity of its peoples. The task is an exciting one. We expect and welcome the right hand of fellowship of our brothers and sisters beyond our continental borders. Thank God that such collaboration is constantly increasing and improving. Our hope therefore will not be deceived. May God continue to sustain his people. Amen. Thank you.