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Dialogue Can Resolve All Conflicts — How Onaiyekan trained Miyetti Allah Secretary & Christians in same fellowship

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‘’What is happening here means there is no such thing as an inevitable conflict. “Every conflict can be resolved, once you are able to sit down together look at each other face to face, you will now realise that every human being is just exactly like you, like your brother, your cousin which is what you have seen.’’ — Onaiyekan

 I heard and read a lot about Cardinal John Onaiyekan before having the rare opportunity of having an audience with him some years ago. And practically all I have met who have had contacts with the cardinal had positive words to say about him. Three issues stand him out of the crowd to wit: He is a lover of peace, peace-building, interreligious dialogue and mediation, speaking truth to power, and his cerebral prowess, a feat that Onaiyekan commenced recording early in life, scoring ‘A’ grades in his School Certificate examinations. In the course of compiling information on this very affable man of God, I was confronted by his excellent record of achievements as National President of the Christian Association of Nigeria and workers at the Ecumenical Centre spoke very highly about his cosmopolitan stance and contributions while in office.

Cardinal Onaiyekan  is the Founder of the Foundation for Peace that holds training programmes on Inter-religious Dialogue and Mediation. In a session staged in 2019 in Abuja, the participants comprised 35 fellows made up of 18 Christians and 17 Muslims drawn from the six geopolitical zones from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in Nigeria. One of them was a Miyetti Allah secretary. An excited Cardinal Onaiyekan in his speech stated that: ‘’what is happening here means there is no such thing as an inevitable conflict. “Every conflict can be resolved, once you are able to sit down together look at each other face to face, you will now realise that every human being is just exactly like you, like your brother, your cousin which is what you have seen.’’

CHALLENGING THE AFFLUENT: He continued: “I thank God this is happening in an organisation that bears my name. I will be happy to see more and more organisations like this that are set up. “The DHR foundation as we are told is a family foundation, it’s just a family that happens to be very rich and decided to spend their money doing good to all over the world. “Haven’t we got many rich families in Nigeria with billions buying houses in Dubai and never once thinking about doing good for the community. It’s a shame. ‘’I won’t even talk about government because this is one of the things the government should be supporting.’’

 WHY AFRICA IS POOR … Before running Cardinal Onaiyekan’s treatise, let’s first consider some statistics on Africa, as published by the National Geographic Association.

  • There are 54 countries and one “non-self governing territory”, the Western Sahara, in Africa.
  • All of Africa was colonized by foreign powers during the “scramble for Africa”, except Ethiopia and Liberia.
  • Before colonial rule Africa comprised up to 10,000 different states and autonomous groups with distinct languages and customs.
  • The Pharaonic civilization of ancient Egypt is one of the world’s oldest and longest-lasting civilizations.
  • African continent is the world’s oldest populated area.
  • Arabic is spoken by 170 million people on the continent, followed in popularity by English (130 million), Swahili (100), French (115), Berber (50), Hausa (50), Portuguese (20) and Spanish (10).
  • Over 25% all languages are spoken only in Africa with over 2,000 recognised languages spoken on the continent.
  • Africa is the second most populous continent with about 1.1 billion people or 16% of the world’s population. Over 50% of Africans are under the age of 25.
  • The continent’s population will more than double to 2.3 billion people by 2050.
  • Africa is the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent with a continental GDP that accounts for just 2.4% of global GDP.
  • Almost 40% of adults in Africa are illiterate – two-thirds are women. Adult literacy rates are below 50% in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.
  • Over 25 million people are HIV-positive on the continent and over 17 million have died of the disease already.
  • The Second Congo War claimed over 5.4 million lives and is the deadliest worldwide conflict since World War II.
  • There are fewer people with internet connections in Africa than there are in just New York City.
  • Approximately 90% of all cases of malaria worldwide occur in Africa, accounting for 24% of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa

 AFRICA’S POSITION IN THE GLOBAL COMMUNITY:  Africa is the second largest continent (after Asia) with 1.2 billion people, speaking over 800 languages. Africa is regarded as a land of opportunities in view of its vast and limitless potentials, harbouring innumerable mineral resources including aluminum ore, bauxite, chromium, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, manganese, petroleum, platinum, and zinc. The geography includes deserts (the Sahara Desert is the largest in the world), rain forest jungles, mountains, grasslands, rivers and lakes ‘Colonialism’ is one word that will most probably command different thoughts in the minds of several generations of Africans for a very long time to come. The invasion of Africa by the West left in its trail tales of woes and mixed feelings about the effects of colonization.

The advent of colonialists brought along with it both functional and dysfunctional roles; and functional because, Africa was opened up to modernization and civilization; and dysfunctional because the continent suffered heavy deprivations and massive assault of the rights of the populace by colonialists who shipped Africans in large numbers to the West to work for the development of the economies of advanced nations. But the truth must be told. African elites, by acts of greed, commission and omission, have also been found to be complicit in drawing the continent backward. Evidently, Africa has been adversely affected by the age-long pattern of governance, with slow reactions to issues and political developments by the citizenry. In truth, the 500 years of colonization succeeded largely because of the greed and lust for power on the part of local leaders and rulers, who clearly aided the exploiters of the continent, particularly by supporting slave trade and selling fellow Africans to slavery for pitiable remunerations.

Largely, these natural rulers and leaders sold the birth rights of their people for peanuts and minor manufactured commodities from the West. Therefore, slavery and colonialism account to a great extent, for the backwardness of Africa. But while the colonialists must be credited for dysfunctional roles, they should also be credited with functional or positive roles of bringing modernization and development to Africa.  We hardly think about how Africa would look like today without the influence of the colonialists and imperialists who provided education and trained vast numbers of Africans to attain leadership roles in their countries. The truth remains that Africa was in a Dark Age when the colonialists came. It was a period of misrule by despots and the traditional institution, whose words and actions could not be challenged by their subjects.

THE CLUB OF DICTATORS: A substantial part of the blame for the underdevelopment of Africa must be laid at the doorsteps of Africans, who failed over the years to chart the course of proper development for the endowed region. Of course, foreign interests also share part of the blame of under-development on the continent through their subtle designs to continue to manipulate political power in African nations. Africa has an age-long problem of leadership which is about the most formidable constraint to development of the continent. There are tragic examples of weak, failed and emerging states. The evils of dictatorship have combined with poverty and underdevelopment to pose serious challenges to the future of not only these weak economies but also the global peace in the context of globalization. Examples of maximum rulers that have held on the power to the detriment of the evolution of sound political cultures include Felix Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire – 34 years; Dauda Jawara of Gambia – 21 years; Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo – 31 years; William Tubman of Liberia – 28 years; Sekou Toure of Guinea – 29 years; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia – 29 years and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia – 32 years! (as at 2014)

Others include Muamar Ghadaffi of Libya, Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, and Mathieu Kerekou of Benin Republic. Many of these leaders gained notoriety on account of their holding on to power almost endlessly in an autocratic manner, with an almost insatiable appetite for looting the treasury and elimination of political opponents. Regrettably, a report released by the African Development Bank in conjunction with the Global Financing Integrity at its 48th general meeting in Morocco (2013) states that US$1.3 trillion illicit funds were transferred out of Africa between 1980 and 2009 alone.

THE LEADERSHIP QUESTION: CARDINAL ONAIYEKAN:  “The common good is the only way to prosper in the long term, because nobody can feel secure in a country in which the majority of people are struggling.”

Archbishop John Onaiyekan (2014) was the Cardinal and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith. In his contribution at the World Economic Forum and spoke about how the world could increase its prosperity.  “The common good is the only way to prosper in the long term, because nobody can feel secure in a country in which the majority of people are struggling.  ”The question of values in leadership boils  down to why people seek leadership positions in the first place. Put very simply, if people want to win elections so they can improve the lot of the people and serve the nation, obviously they will take decisions along those lines. The Survey on the Global Agenda tells us that people in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly worried about this challenge, and speaking for Africa I can say we’ve seen too many people who seek power in order to make money, exert influence and spread money to their friends and cronies.

Mary Dalsin, Programme Associate, GHR foundation, who spoke to the News Agency of Nigeria expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the programme. He said that the impact of the programme was already yielding fruitful results in some communities where the fellows were drawn from. “The fellows have said how important it was that Nigerians were sharing their experience and teaching them about interreligious action, about interreligious dialogue, about tolerance, conflict resolution, project design. “Because so often it is foreigners flying in and telling them the western way and then leaving and there is no one to ask questions. “So the fellows have really resonated that it really means so much to them that they are working with their fellow Nigerians, “The camaraderie that has been established amongst diverse religions, diverse ethnic communities, men and women all seeing each other first and foremost as peace builders is very evident in the community that has been established here.

“And if you look at the action projects that each fellow did in their own communities, the resounding, resonating impact in their community is amazing. “Just for the fact that the Fulani in the Miyetti Allah cattle breeders association in Plateau, in Bassa and the Irigwe youth movement came together, is the first time they have actually spoken and it was really borne out of this event. “It was borne out of their own desire to bring peace to their communities, it was not brought in by outsiders, the state levels or foreigners and they have created their own peace plan and they are going forward with it, try to implement it, which is amazing. “It is so empowering to see they have actually taken on the idea that they have the power to make change that they want to see in their communities.” She said the DHR foundation based in Minnesota, USA, is a family foundation that funds effort to bridge people, ideas and organisations.

SELFISHNESS: Onaiyekan accused leaders of caring more about their personal interests rather than public interest for which they were chosen or elected to protect. ”We expect leaders not to just stick to what they know, but to be driven by something that moves us forward and brings people together. And so, in reality, the concern is that there’s not enough sharing of views, values and vision. ”It may be impossible for leaders to know the interests of all, but I think the best leaders look to as wide an audience as possible. ‘’It is important that we don’t just look to maintain our own interests, or those of our immediate neighbours. ’’Knowledge becomes relevant when responsible global decisions come from leaders who can draw upon a global knowledge base. ”We cannot expect all leaders to be saints, or to have no interests of their own, or know everything about everybody — that is clearly impossible.

Young people tend to have the strongest feelings on this issue; respondents under 40 told the Survey that they’re not at all satisfied with the attention governments give to a lack of values in leadership. And they have every reason to be critical. They look around them, they see where the nation is heading and they don’t want to go there. And yet they find they have no way of changing that direction because they’re considered too young and inexperienced to be important. Education is key to changing that, because while we can’t always change things immediately, we should at least be able to understand what is happening and complain if we don’t like it. And when enough people do that, a critical mass builds and a group of people will emerge with an agenda for genuine change.

LEADERS MUST NOT STOP LEARNING: Cardinal Onaiyekan posited that ‘’in terms of developing a positive global vision, the sharing of information is key. We must work hard to present people with a different range of ideas, interests and visions, and introduce different types of people, information and values in an attempt to bring about understanding. There’s always room for learning. Leaders must not stop learning. Without any doubt, these oddities have reduced Africa to a passive observer in the last half of the century while the rest of the world advanced economically and technologically. The Punch Newspaper, an influential Nigerian tabloid in its editorial of Thursday June 6, 2013 highlighted the fact that ‘The quantum economic leap of Brazil which overtook the United Kingdom to emerge the world’s sixth largest economy, Malaysia, which has a US$16,900 per capita income; and Singapore, with US$61,000 per capita income underscores the fact that African leaders have not lived up to expectations”.

Statistics from Global Finance, in 2012 showed that 27 African countries with per capita income ranging between US$364 and US$1969, were among the poorest globally. These countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Togo and Uganda”. (Punch Newspapers of June 6, 2013) Opinions may differ, but largely, the Economic Community of West African States, the Economic Community of Central African States and the Common Market of Southern and Eastern Africa, that all came into existence between 1975 and 1994 as intervention mechanisms for regional economic integration are still trying to find their feet, and are yet to effectively key into the larger continental network. Within the past two decades, the United Nations approved about US$6.1 billion for the African Union Peace Keeping programme in 8 out of the 54 African Union member- nations, stating that cost-effective and preventive measures were needed to enhance human security in the region and help establish conditions for sustainable economic development.

There is always a way out. Good governance and sound implementation of democratic ethos would appear the recipe.

May the good Lord bless our dear continent.

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