A WELCOME ADDRESS DURING THE MEETING OF THE JUSTICE, PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE OF RECOWA IN JOS, NIGERIA 22ND APRIL 2015 BY MOST REV. IGNATIUS A. KAIGAMA, ARCHBISHOP OF JOS AND FIRST VICE PRESIDENT, RECOWA
Please allow me to address you on three levels: as Archbishop of Jos, President of the CBCN and first Vice President of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa (RECOWA) where I am also in charge of Episcopal Commissions. I hope you can feel the joy I feel as I heartily welcome you members of the episcopal committee of Justice, Peace and Development of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa. RECOWA is composed of Catholic Bishops of French, English and Portuguese speaking Dioceses in West Africa. For many years there was no such body that brought the Bishops together, but from January 2012 in Yamoussoukro Ivory Coast, this united body was born. Our entire Archdiocesan family of Jos joins me in welcoming you and we are privileged to host you in Plateau State our “home of peace and tourism”. We congratulate the Catholic Bishops of West Africa on this remarkable achievement of unity. It is a clear demonstration that once there is goodwill there is a way. Despite language barriers, unity is still possible. This I believe was part of the reasons for the establishment by governments in West Africa of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to break down artificial barriers and allow citizens to interact as brothers and sisters. I hope we shall continue to overcome all obstacles and work towards unity and progress in West Africa rather than spend energy and resources either in starting needless wars or controlling raging crises.
The two main religions in West Africa are Islam and Christianity. The core values of Islam as summarized in the Five Pillars and those of Christianity in the Ten Commandments can change our society for the better. Unfortunately, some of those who teach religion: parents at home or teachers in school or clergy in places of worship seem to emphasize what divides us more or doctrines that teach self righteousness above good human relationship with those who differ from us and this prevents us from seeing the world as one big family. It is imperative to teach children from infancy that while our religious doctrines and traditions are important and beautiful, a religion that makes anyone despise or look down on others claiming superiority, not to talk of killing, has failed to be a civilized religion. True religion must help us to promote and preserve the common good of fellow human beings, basic rights to worship, to live peacefully in any part of the world and to treat minority groups with respect without forcing them against their wish to conform to the ways of the majority. Hate messages and negative indoctrination bring us into conflict so much so that instead of our society progressing, we spend a lot of time quenching the fire of violence.
One can count the needless violence caused by different groups in West Africa: Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria for the past several years. The activities of Boko Haram insurgency are very well known. In far away Kenya on 2 April 2015, gunmen stormed the University College in Garissa, killing at least 150 people, and injuring 79 or more. The militant group and Al-Qaeda offshoot, Al-Shabaab, said they were responsible for the attack. The gunmen were said to have taken over 700 students hostage, freeing students of one religion and killing the others! Only a few days ago some people were reportedly killed and hundreds forced to flee their homes in one of South Africa’s worst outbreaks of xenophobic violence. Last Thursday, 17th April, the Italian police in the Sicilian capital Palermo said they arrested 15 African men suspected of throwing 12 Nigerians and Ghanaians from a migrant boat into the Mediterranean, because of religious differences.
Voices of leaders whether religious, traditional or political need to be heard often, loud and clear and attempts must be made to address issues proactively and concretely. We know that the root causes of violence are often socioeconomic issues such as poverty, injustice, bad governance, denial of basic rights, etc. Our politics in West Africa rather than give priority to the welfare of people focuses on personal aggrandizement and the comfort of a few. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari won a presidential election recently in Nigeria, promising change. Is the fundamental change of attitude possible? Can he ask those who have wounded Nigeria economically to bring about its healing? Will people be ready to return what they have taken by corrupt means which could then be used for instance to improve infrastructure in the country?
Our dream for a new Nigeria calls for a change in attitude, manners, social disposition and religious open-mindedness. President-elect Buhari is neither a magician nor an island and so he cannot decree the desired change. Positive change must come because of our collective resolve: to do an honest day’s work, to resist the pressure to steal government money in order to flaunt wealth and show that one “has arrived”, to be accountable in even the smallest things, to allow no sacred cows by punishing people who misappropriate public money, to avoid reading sentiments of tribe or religion into policies or decisions taken for the national good, to emphasize merit and hard work instead of the “who knows who” syndrome. The umbrella religious organizations such as Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) should become less defensive/protective of their members and avoid seeing everything (appointments, location of infrastructure, disciplinary measures taken against criminals, election into public offices) in terms of religion.
I pray that the deliberations of the RECOWA Committee on Justice, Peace and Development will help shed more light on the root causes of conflicts which force our people to resort to killings at the slightest and sometimes no provocation, instead of civilized dialogue. Life is sacred and must be protected by social, economic and political policies. It should not be cheapened on any account even of poverty or social discontent. People must learn that when there is a quarrel between persons of different ethnic, religious or political groups, it should end at the level of the intellect and must never degenerate into the taking of life.
May the activities of your committee contribute to a better understanding in West Africa of the need to respect life, to refuse to hurt the other person because he or she is not a member of one tribe, religion or political party; to consider others and to seek their interest first rather than one’s selfish interests (cf. Phil. 2:3-4). I wish you happy deliberations.