Nigeria: On the Eve of Crucial Elections

Nigeria (US Government image).

Nigeria. (US Government image)

On Saturday, March 28, Nigerians will go to the polls in a highly anticipated and politically charged election. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan is being challenged by Muhammadu Buhari in a very close race. The vote should have already taken place on February 14, but it was postponed by the Government because of instability in the northeastern region of the country caused by the extremist group Boko Haram. Government officials argued that they could not organize polling and that people would not be safe going to the polls. Boko Haram had taken control over 14 districts in the northeast state of Borno as of mid-February. Political rivals countered that the ruling party was merely delaying the elections because of fears that it might lose.

Government forces, reinforced by a regional task force of troops from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, mounted a coordinated and sustained attack on Boko Haram held areas. By March 21 they had taken back 11 of the 14 districts and claim to be close to defeating Boko Haram. In response, Boko Haram has returned to its terrorist tactics of suicide bombings to engender fear. Many believe that Boko Haram will step up attacks on the day of the election in an attempt to disrupt the vote and undermine its legitimacy.

The Catholic Church in Nigeria has repeatedly worked with the Muslim community for peaceful relations between the Christian and Muslim faith communities and for respect among the many ethnic groups in Nigeria. The Church has also consistently urged the government to promote social cohesion and good governance. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria met with the two candidates during the election campaign and called on them to be selfless leaders in service to the good of their people. In reaction to the postponement of the election, the Church insisted that the government should ensure that elections be held and that they be both credible and accurate. Pope Francis urged the bishops of Nigeria to remain steadfast in their support for peace in the face of violent extremism and fundamentalism. US Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria in January to promote peaceful elections. On March 23, President Obama addressed the people of Nigeria to urge them to reject violence and extremism and instead show their support for a more peaceful, secure and prosperous future.

The stakes in this election are high. President Goodluck Johnathan, a Christian, is running against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and former military leader. The Nigerian people are split almost evenly between the two faith communities that have long competed for power. Many fear that the elections will provoke another round of violence; in the 2011 election campaign about 800 people lost their lives. In an attempt to prevent instability, on March 23, the two candidates signed an agreement to respect the results of the election and urged their supporters to refrain from violence.

Let us pray for the people of Nigeria that they will deepen their democratic traditions, reject violence and take a big step forward towards a future of peace and prosperity. Hilbert headshot

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Straddling History and Hope in Selma

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Like tens of thousands of others, I went to Selma to recall a historic struggle. A struggle that continues today for those who refuse to bow down to bigotry and hatred.

Thousands came to re-enact an act of public defiance to laws and impediments that denied them full citizenship.

I went at the invitation of colleagues and friends, but I must admit I felt a profound curiosity. I had learned about the civil rights struggle; I had seen the movies, heard the songs. But I felt called to go, for two reasons. First, I wanted to honor the historic value of the Selma March; what it has meant over the last 50 years. Second, and most importantly, I went because of what it can mean for our future.

Ambling across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, I played a mental game of “Ping-Pong”. “Pinging,” my thoughts honored with gratitude the six hundred brave souls who courageously walked the same journey 50 years prior. They had no way of knowing what awaited them some 54 miles and 50 years later. I sensed a growing appreciation for that time in our history when a door was opened to change, not just in the United States but worldwide. Then my mind “ponged” back to the present, to the recent Department of Justice report on police misconduct in Ferguson, MO. I remembered the high rate of child poverty in our country—1 in 3 children live in poverty—and even worse for communities of color. I recalled the lingering abject poverty I had just seen that very morning during a tour of modern day Selma. 40% of Selma residents live in poverty. I thought of the high incarceration rate of black and brown people, subjected to unjust sentencing guidelines, living without hope. Then I “pinged” again as I recalled “Neek,” a man I met who had journeyed on the Selma March 50 years ago when he was just 13. He and his best friend were given permission by their parents to march in a demonstration that was both unsafe and uncertain. Their parents wanted to go, but feared losing their jobs if they were identified as being part of the “movement”. I “ponged” again, amazed that those parents still organized, planned and sacrificed, knowing they could be fired anyway if it was discovered that their children had participated.

Bloody SundayI was inspired as I heard Thomas Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, preach at a Mass concelebrated by three African American bishops; Bishop John Ricard SSJ, Bishop Sheldon Fabre and Bishop Martin Holly. Archbishop Rodi spoke of the Catholic Church’s outsized historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke of Catholics participating in the Selma to Montgomery March, not just as walkers, but in healing and housing.

Catholics healed the beaten, bitten and bruised at Good Samaritan Hospital (appropriately named), the only hospital that would see African American patients. Catholics housed, giving folk respite and lodging at the City of St. Jude organization (also appropriately named), which welcomed sojourners arriving in Montgomery.

I looked around at the enormous crowd, young and beautifully diverse. We would take a few steps and stop, a few more steps and stop. I thought of what it must have been like… to be battered by clubs, bitten by dogs, disrespected by police officers and onlookers. I could not help but wonder if I would have had the mettle and courage to do this 50 years ago. I came to no conclusions, but I was convinced that my parents and ancestors would have definitely walked, despite the danger, fear and uncertainty. Then the march stopped suddenly; the end of the bridge was still a long ways off. We all began to wonder what was going on. The folk at the head of the march realized that it would be impossible to continue because of the huge number of people gathered. They passed word back, which spread quickly among us along with no small disappointment. But there was a symbolism to it… the march is not yet finished. The march toward justice continues.

We who seek justice must not be content with merely making it to the other side of the bridge, or even getting all the way to Montgomery. We must not stop our stride toward freedom until justice surges like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Towards Dialogue & Reconciliation with Cuba

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, issued a statement today in response to the release of Alan Gross and to the further decisions by the Obama Administration to build normal relations with Cuba. In his statement, Bishop Cantú expressed his joy at Mr. Gross’ return, and provided strong support for the process of expanding dialogue, trade and communications with Cuba. The bishop also agreed on the need to reexamine Cuba’s previous designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

For decades, the USCCB has supported normalization of relations with Cuba. The Conference believes that dialogue and reconciliation will foster democracy, human rights and religious freedom in that country. By engaging and strengthening Cuban civil society through increased cultural, religious and business contacts, the likelihood of positive change in Cuba will be enhanced.

Read more on the USCCB’s advocacy related to Cuba.

Coll headshotMr. Richard Coll is an international policy advisor on Latin America and global trade at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

The Church in Africa Speaks Out for Democracy

On October 30th the Parliament of Burkina Faso was to vote to amend the country’s constitution, allowing the President to serve beyond the currently prescribed term-limit of two, five-year terms. In the days leading up to the vote, violent protests in the capital city Ouagadougou broke out that culminated in the burning of the parliament building and the resignation of President Compaore on October 31st. The military installed Lieutenant Colonel Issaac Zida, a senior member of the Presidential Guard, as the country’s interim leader.

The Catholic Church commended this civic initiative, but also expressed grief and prayers for those who lost their lives in the demonstrations. The Church urged respect for “the authority of the forces of order and security” and emphasized the need to ensure the safety of persons and property. The archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Ouedraogo, called the seizure of power by Lt. Col. Zida unconstitutional because the transition of power should be ensured by civilians. Still, the cardinal appeared hopeful about an end to the crisis due to the willingness of the different parties to engage in dialogue.

Much of the international community also called on the military to turn over power to civilian control. The African Union set a two week deadline for such a turnover before they would enact sanctions. It is fortunate that the Burkinabé church, civil society and international actors persisted in their advocacy because on November 17th the country returned to civilian rule. A transitional charter backed by the church was signed, diplomat Michel Kafando was appointed the new Interim President, and the constitution was reinstated. In addition, Lt. Col. Zida stayed on as minister of defense while other military leaders took charge of three other ministries.

The attempt by the deposed Burkina Faso president exemplifies an all too common pattern throughout Africa. Burkina Faso is just one of fifteen African countries with a leader in power for over ten years, seven of these leaders for twenty-five years or more. Since 1990, leaders in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to change or abolish term limits; seven of these cases were successful. It looks likely that leaders in another seven countries will push similar term limit changes in the coming years. [1]

The situation in Burkina Faso clearly shows that civil society wants accountable leaders and good governance, not the monopolization of political power that occurs when constitutions are amended and term limits weakened. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke out against a similar measure to alter that country’s constitution. They said such a change would be “a step backward on the road to building our democracy and would seriously undermine the harmonious future of the nation.” The USCCB worked to amplify the local Church’s message that “The happy future of the DR Congo lies undoubtedly in the strict adherence to our Constitution.”

As the Church in Burkina Faso and other African nations undergoing similar challenges begins to speak out about these threats to good governance, the Church in the United States will work to magnify these messages in order to encourage nonviolent civil society participation and government accountability for the common good.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development and Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

[1] Adam Taylor, “Burkina Faso’s long-serving leader resigns – and why it matters,” The Washington Post, October 31,2014,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/30/why-burkina-fasos-attempt-to-topple-a-long-serving-leader-matters/ ; Ken Opalo, “As thousands protest against term limit extension in Burkina Faso, will other African presidents take note?,” The Washington Post: Monkey Cage, October 28, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/28/as-thousands-protest-against-term-limit-extension-in-burkina-faso-will-other-african-presidents-take-note/.