Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria
Addresses Major Challenges Confronting Nigerian Society
A Communique Issued at the End of the First Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) for the Year 2001, held at the Pope John Paul II Catholic Centre, Abuja, from 5th to 10th March 2001
We, the members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria, held our First Plenary Meeting for the year 2001 at the Pope John Paul II Catholic Centre, Abuja, from the 5th to 10th March 2001. The theme of our Conference was Building God's Kingdom of Justice and Peace. After prayerful deliberation on matters affecting the Church and society in our nation, we issue the following communique.
2. Vision of the Kingdom
"I have observed the misery of the people. I have heard their cry. Indeed I know their sufferings. I have come down to deliver them" (Exodus 3:7-8). We, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria see and share in the misery of the people of Nigeria. We know their sufferings. We sympathize with their cries that often go unheard. In response to the cry of the people and the call of the Lord, we pledge our efforts and energy to "bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favour" (Lk. 4: 18-19).
The building of the Kingdom of Justice and Peace is the commission and mandate Jesus left for us his followers. This mission calls for conversion on the personal level, a spiritual revolution in our behaviour and attitude to life. It also calls for a response at the social level, challenging us to play our part to ensure that truth and justice prevail so that our society can live in peace and tranquility.
3. Our Blessings
We thank God for the opportunity to celebrate the Great Jubilee Year 2000 at local and national levels. It was a Year of Grace, rich with the Lord's blessings for the entire world, and for us in Nigeria. We have experienced signs of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. We thank God that we are now in our second year of civil rule. The nation is witnessing a certain degree of civil liberties, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Our relationship with the nations of the world has improved. We are grateful to God that we have not been victims of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and devastating floods. We have been spared the armed conflicts ravaging several African nations.
4. Counter-signs to the Kingdom
While we thank God for his goodness, we cannot pretend that all is well. What we witness every day in the lives of Nigerians is far from the kingdom of God. We see that government is failing to live up to its first duty to ensure the safety of life and property of its citizenry. Armed robbers continue to threaten our possessions and indeed our lives. People are turning to unacceptable violent vigilante solutions because the official Security Agencies remain ineffective and unable to prevent or respond adequately to criminal activities.
Many Nigerians feel that their rights are being infringed upon where the Sharia law has been imposed as state law. Because of Sharia law, thousands have been forced to relocate from their places of abode and work at great cost and loss to themselves. Many others, indigenes of these states, have nowhere to relocate to. Others suffer in silence because they are too poor to relocate or powerless to seek legal redress. We regard this imposition of Sharia law as state law grossly irresponsible and unacceptable. We suffer from the persistent and increasing fuel crisis and wonder why government cannot improve this situation. In the discussions concerning the de-regulation of the oil industry, we must consider the poor, and ask how this will affect their lives, already impoverished and suffering from unending inflation. In spite of promises and assurances, we experience longer and more frequent power outages, and we are shocked that one solution the government offers is to impose a tax on the importation of generators.
We see the government at all levels dissipating scarce resources on expensive projects that do not directly improve the lives of the people. At the same time, so many salaries and pensions are months in arrears, with the excuse that there is no money.
5. A Crucial Time in Our History
Democratic rule was re-introduced two years ago. It is being tried, and we believe, sad to say, it is not living up to our hopes and expectations. We see many members of the political class, at federal, state, and local levels, looking not to the needs, even the most basic needs of the people, but spending time and money looking only to how they can be re-elected two years from now. It is surely a sign of a democracy which is deficient.
We experience the evils of corruption, and we read about them. Going by the admission of the Head of State to us in his message that "Corruption continues unabated in our country," government seems powerless to stem this tidal wave, a wave which we believe originates in the halls of government itself.
We continue to demand as a matter of justice the return of Church schools to the Churches. However, throughout this discussion we have continued to witness the deterioration of these schools, with attendant decay of moral standards among our children.
We hear the cries of women, desperate to survive and in the process, sold and entrapped in sexual slavery here and abroad. We are appalled at learning that over 15,000 Nigerian women live in forced prostitution in Italy alone. We see an increasing number of persons suffering and dying from HIV/AIDS, and the major solution offered is the use of condoms. This solution is not only unsafe, it is also counterproductive. It encourages sexual promiscuity and is morally unacceptable. We hear calls for the legalization of abortion, calls not to protect, safeguard and share human life, but to destroy it.
6. Causes of the Present Situation
Several factors are responsible for the current situation. Some go back to the historical foundations of the nation, and others have arisen more recently. Prominent among them are the following:
Power has been taken away from the people, and put into the hands of an elite. The voice of the people is no longer heard in the halls of government and the people have become numbed and passive. One reason for this is that people do not have a proper understanding of the personality and responsibility of the officials they elect in supposedly free and fair elections. As a result, many elected officials are not accountable and have no sense of service to those who elected them. Small blocks of persons, either in government or connected with government, selfishly seem to obstruct what the people want.
The crushing poverty and ignorance of the people have left them vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous and self-seeking politicians, and other persons or groups who exploit them. The people themselves appear complacent and passive, unwilling to face the challenges of nation building. We perceive an imbalance in the power structure in the land. Hence many agitate for a review of the existing structure of Nigeria and the return of power to the people.
7. Building the Kingdom of Justice and Peace
In his message to our Conference, President Obasanjo, realizing the depth of the problems of corruption, violence and disunity, stated: "The nation is knocking at the door of the Church for peace and harmony at this midnight hour. Rise up and meet our need." In response to this plea we will continue to play an increasingly active and important role as a positive element within the Nigerian society.
We direct every parish to begin a programme of basic education in the civic rights and responsibilities of its members, especially through the Justice, Development, and Peace Committees. If one does not know his or her rights, it is all too easy for government and others to take them away. In addition, we commit ourselves to a nation-wide programme of education on the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church
We ask Nigerians to scrutinize and publicly call to task elected officials, law enforcement agents, civil servants, and those in business, whose public service does not live up to the demands of probity. In a special way, we expect Catholic faithful in public and private life, to live up to the standards of the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom.. Similarly, we enjoin our members to say a clear and definite "No" to any public official who refuses to behave responsibly. This should be done peacefully and non-violently, but firmly.
In the effort to bring about a more democratic climate and build national unity on the basis of a true federalism, a national conference may prove helpful. Such a conference will succeed only if it is representative of all the people, from all parts of Nigeria, men and women, rich and poor, and not another assembly of leaders who have already tried and failed to rebuild the nation. We are convinced that true federalism would recognize diversity in unity, the right of every Nigerian to reside and work in any and every part of Nigeria. It would also guarantee the genuine federal character in all organs and institutions of government, especially the judiciary, the military, the police and the civil service.
8. Signs of the Kingdom of God
We commit ourselves to be signs of God's Kingdom of justice and peace. We will endeavour to model what we wish for Nigeria, namely communities of unity and peace, where the gifts, voices, talents, hopes, and aspirations of the people are listened to. In the Church and in civil society, there must be no first, second, or third class members or citizens. Discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin, religion, or cultural prejudices is a violation of fundamental human rights.
We will collaborate with governments here and abroad, and with security officials in freeing women who are enslaved in sex exploitation overseas and returning them to their homes. In pursuit of this, we encourage our faithful towards effective collaboration with existing national networks of Church societies, NGO's, and other established organizations. We support the efforts of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious in spearheading this campaign. We on our part will soon issue a Pastoral Letter on this issue.
Human life originates from God, is sacred and as such must be loved, respected and protected from conception to natural death. God alone gives life and God alone can take it. Abortion is against the law of God. Thus we say "No" and will continue to say "No" to abortion. We will do so with our voices, our votes, and our feet. We endorse the actions so far taken by the Catholic Women Organization of Nigeria, and other organizations in this regard.
In the light of the lack of progress and the ineffectiveness of government initiatives at national, state, and local levels, we will intensify our efforts at providing basic health and social services, and the building and improvement of schools. At the same time, we continue to insist that government has the responsibility to provide basic education, health and other social services to the entire citizenry. We also commend the gesture of those states that have already returned schools and hospitals to their owners, and urge others to do likewise.
We will expand our programmes of HIV/AIDS awareness to stem this pandemic, and through sermons and pastoral letters, instil in our people a compassionate response to those suffering from this condition. In place of a condom mentality, we advocate a return to God's plan for human sexuality which demands pre-marital continence and fidelity in marriage.
The path to the Kingdom of Justice and Peace will demand sacrifice. Self-interest must yield to self-sacrifice and labour for the common good. We must renounce attitudes of greed and accumulation in favour of a commitment to meet basic needs. Nigerians should be ready to take up this challenge.
In all of this we do not work alone. We are willing to collaborate with others who share our ideals and our vision of the Kingdom. In particular we stretch out a hand of cooperation to government at local, state, and national levels.
We believe with the prophet Ezechiel that the dry bones will live (Ezechiel 37)! We also believe with the prophet Jonah that even Nineveh, that great city, changed its ways and turned to the Lord in repentance (Jonah 3). We remain a people of hope especially as we continue to renew ourselves, heart and mind, during this holy season of Lent. Pope John Paul II urges us at the beginning of the New Millennium: Let us go forward in hope. A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God who became incarnate two thousand years ago out of love for humanity, is at work even today; we need discerning eyes to see this, and above all, a generous heart to become instruments of his work (No. 58, Novo Millennio Ineunte, January 6th, 2001).
Even "at this midnight hour" it is not too late for Nigeria. Nigeria has the people, the resources, and the talents to do what needs to be done. Through the intercession of Our Lady Queen of Peace and Queen of Nigeria, we continue to pray that Almighty God, whom most Nigerians acknowledge as the Lord of history, will sustain our efforts in building God's Kingdom of Justice and Peace.
Most Reverend John Onaiyekan
Archbishop of Abuja
Most Reverend Joseph Ajomo
Bishop of Lokoja