Democracy and the Peaceful Transfer of Power in The Gambia

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

The United States just completed a long election season. It was at times divisive, unsettling and frustrating.  In the end, our institutions prevailed and delivered a peaceful transfer of power.

Four thousand miles away another transfer of power just took place in The Gambia in West Africa. This one almost ended in disaster.  A political unknown, Adama Barrow, a former real estate agent, took on President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for 22 years.  No one thought Mr. Barrow would win, but he won.  People were even more shocked when President Jammeh, known for his human and civil rights violations, conceded defeat.

On a continent where personality politics has yet to give way to strong democratic institutions, President Jammeh subsequently withdrew his concession. He claimed the election, run by his own government, had been fraudulent.  The President also called a meeting with the Islamic leaders and the Christian Council of Churches to demand their support.  For a President who always appears in public with a Koran in hand, this endorsement was symbolically crucial.  Instead, the religious leaders told the President to bow to the will of the people and step down.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Bishop Robert Ellison of Banjul to share appreciation for the courage that he and his brother religious leaders had shown. He expressed solidarity with the people of The Gambia.

When the head of the national army pledged his troops’ allegiance to President Jammeh, it looked like democracy for and by the people would fall.   But the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to resolve the crisis.  Four West African Presidents met with President Jammeh to convince him to step down.  Jammeh refused.  ECOWAS then announced that they were prepared to use military means to force President Jammeh from power.

President-Elect Barrow fled to Senegal and was sworn in as President in The Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. The Senegalese army with support from Ghana and Nigeria crossed into The Gambia with a final ultimatum.  Mediation trips by two other West African leaders convinced Jammeh to leave the country.  Reports say that he left with a transport plane full of luxury cars and $11.4 million in government funds.

President Adama Barrow hopes to seek the return of state resources. He has also called for a truth and reconciliation commission on past violations of human and civil rights.

This is not the first time West African leaders have intervened to avert a crisis. They ended a coup d’état in Mali in 2012 and supported the ouster of a recalcitrant coup leader in Burkina Faso in 2015.  In the 1990s they sent troops to end a long civil war in Liberia.  These efforts are strong indicators that African leaders are increasingly committed to democratic rule.  Other countries in West Africa like Ghana, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria are building stronger democratic institutions and a solid track record of democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power.

International support for African efforts to promote democracy, free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society and human rights are crucial. Africa has made slow and steady progress towards democratic rule and economic prosperity.  It has a long way to go and depends on continued support from the United States to meet these goals.  The United States can show positive leadership in the world by working with countries that strive to build democracy and peace.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Pope Francis’ Messages to Africa

Pope Francis visited three African nations November 25-30 (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters, June 6, 2015)

Pope Francis visited three African nations November 25-30, 2015 (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters, June 6, 2015)

“Passing to the other side” – the theme of the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Visit to Africa – references the crossing of the sea when Jesus calms the storm and calls on his disciples to faith. This image is poignant for a continent that many see either poised for a leap ahead to a new “African Century,” or doomed to continued stagnation caused by conflict, bad governance, and environmental degradation. Pope Francis offered the people of Africa calm guidance in a stormy time.

1. “May you always be concerned for the needs of the poor…”

Throughout his three-country visit, he reminded political and religious leaders that the way of Jesus is to serve those who are poor and marginalized. Pope Francis made this point in the middle of the slum of Kangemi, a place where 150,000 people live in tin shacks with no access to clean water nor proper sewage facilities.  He quoted an African proverb, “there is always room for one more seat at the table” to illustrate the wisdom of the poor, but he condemned poverty and exclusion as “…wounds inflicted by minorities who cling to power and wealth, who selfishly squander while a growing majority is forced to flee to abandoned, filthy and run-down peripheries.”“A highlight of my visit will be my meetings with young people…”

Africa is the youngest continent in the world. In 2010, 70% of Africans were below the age of 30. The Holy Father reminded leaders that, “[t]o protect [youth], to invest in them and to offer them a helping hand, is the best way we can ensure a future worthy of the wisdom and spiritual values dear to their elders….” He called leaders to feed the aspiration of the youth for a more peaceful and just society.

2. “Corruption is something which creeps in. It’s like sugar: it’s sweet, we like it, it goes down easily. And then? We get sick!”

Pope Francis addressed the problem of corruption in Africa in response to a question from a Kenyan girl, “Can corruption be justified simply because everyone is involved in wrongdoing, everyone is corrupt?”

Pope Francis replied, “Corruption is not the way to life. It is a path which leads to death.” He added that it steals a person’s joy and harms those living in poverty. It also robs society of peace.

3. “There is a clear link between the protection of nature and the building of a just and equitable social order.”

In his first speech in Africa the Holy Father said, “We have a responsibility to pass on the beauty of nature in its integrity to future generations, and an obligation to exercise a just stewardship of the gifts we have received. These values are deeply rooted in the African soul.” The Pope cited an African proverb that says that we don’t inherit land from our ancestors, but rather borrow it from our children and are responsible for passing it on in better shape than we found it.

This message is so important to Africa, a continent that is rich in natural resources, but mired in poverty.

4. “Passing to the other side, in the civil sense, means leaving behind war, divisions and poverty, and choosing peace, reconciliation, development.”

The theme, ‘Passing to the other side’ was most prominent in the final leg of Pope Francis’ visit to CAR, a country that is desperately struggling to emerge from a bloody two-year conflict.  In a gesture that raised this peripheral country to the world’s attention, Pope Francis opened the Jubilee Year of Mercy doors to the Cathedral in Bangui and announced that, “Today Bangui becomes the spiritual capital of the world. The Holy Year of Mercy comes in advance to this land. A land that has suffered for many years as a result of war, hatred, misunderstanding, and the lack of peace. But in this suffering land there are also all the countries that are experiencing the Cross of war”.

5. “Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury”

Pope Francis stressed the need for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue throughout his visit. In Uganda, he along with Anglican and Catholic bishops prayed at the monument of the holy martyrs where in the late 1880’s 45 Catholic and Anglican men and women were killed for their faith.  He noted that “[e]cumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury. It is … essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”

The Holy Father spent even more time discussing interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, especially in Kenya and the CAR where violent conflict has been perpetrated in the name of faith. At the central mosque in Bangui, CAR he stated that, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters….”

 

On the plane home, the Holy Father told a team of journalists: “Africa is a martyr. She is a martyr to exploitation in history. Those who say that from Africa come all calamities and all wars do not understand well, perhaps, the damage that certain forms of development do to humanity. And it is for this reason that I love Africa….”

 

Hilbert headshotSteve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A look ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Africa

Pope Francis holds dove before his weekly audience at the Vatican

Pope Francis holds a dove before his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 15. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Later this week, Pope Francis will make his first pastoral visit to Africa. He will visit Kenya, Uganda, and if the security situation allows, the Central African Republic. Throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father has championed the cause of those living in poverty. On the world scene, Sub Saharan Africa is where the marginalized of the world are concentrated. According to the World Bank, in 1990 50% of the world’s poor lived in Southeast Asia while Africa accounted for only around 15%. The Bank projects that in 2015 those continents will change places with Africa holding about half of the world’s poor. Yet, Africa represents only around 15% of the world’s population.

Pope Francis very likely will make this disparity a key message to the world. He will probably call on the world’s developed countries to increase their investment in poverty eradication where the poor are concentrated – in Africa.

November 25-27, Pope Francis will be in Kenya. There, Pope Francis may address the long-term ethnic conflict that has been instigated and used by political leaders for decades. Conflict over land, especially in the fertile areas of the country, is closely linked to ethnic tensions. Ethnic groups tend to be concentrated in particular areas of the country, and some groups feel their land has been taken by the more powerful and politically connected ethnic groups. Church leaders have spoken out against ethnic-based politics and the resulting violent conflicts. The Holy Father may urge the Church and the government to defuse tensions through more systematic and sustained dialogue and reconciliation programs.

For decades, Muslims and Christians have lived side-by-side in relative peace in Kenya. When Somalia descended into conflict, refugees streamed into Kenya, but Muslim-Christian relations remained positive. When the Kenyan army intervened in Somalia, however, that changed. The Westgate Mall attack and more recent terrorist acts have created significant anti-Muslim sentiments, resulting in heavy-handed actions by government police and military against Muslims. This in turn has fostered grievances among peaceful people in the Muslim community. The Holy Father will perhaps stress the need for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Governance issues and corruption have been long standing problems in Kenya. They are some of the root causes of the worsening ethnic conflict. The Holy Father may call for greater inclusive, transparent, and responsive government in a pastoral way.

While South Sudan is not on the Pope’s visit schedule, the Holy See has followed the tragic civil war there closely. Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council on International Justice and Peace, visited South Sudan last year. Pope Francis may make a statement on the situation in South Sudan and encourage the Catholic Church and the South Sudan Council of Churches to persist in their efforts to promote reconciliation, dialogue between political leaders, and regional cooperation to help South Sudan achieve peace.

From November 27-29, Pope Francis will be in Uganda, a country that has been relatively peaceful. Tensions are rising due to worsening corruption and neglectful governance and increasing civil rights violations by President Museveni’s government, in power for almost 30 years. The Holy Father may address governance issues by evoking his themes of caring for the poor and the marginalized.

On November 29-30, Pope Francis is expected to visit the Central African Republic, which is struggling to recover from decades of bad governance and two years of violent conflict. The country is trying to organize elections and inaugurate the first legitimate government in its history. Violence between militia groups continues, and the fate of a peaceful transition hangs in the balance. The Church leads the Religious Leaders’ Platform that is calling for donor nations to give the transitional government the time and resources it needs to organize a credible election. The Pope’s visit could be the catalyst for real positive change if he can encourage the belligerents to reject their violent ways, empower religious leaders, and urge donors to fund peacebuilding efforts.

Throughout his journey, we expect to see Pope Francis bringing the hallmarks of his Papacy: preaching joy of the Gospel, being close to the poor and marginalized, and spreading message of mercy and reconciliation.

In advance of the Pope’s visit to Kenya, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a special prayer for the visit. We invite you to follow Pope Francis’ visit in the news and ask that you pray for him and for peace in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

See the full schedule for Pope Francis’ Visit to Africa, November 25-30.

 

Hilbert headshotSteve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Africa: A Tale of Two Elections

Hilbert headshotLast week the world witnessed two important elections that demonstrate Africa’s struggle to instate and protect the rule of law and accountable democratic governance. The recent elections in Nigeria and the upcoming process in Burundi are a study in contrasts.

On May 29 Nigeria inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the first time in Nigeria’s 55 year history that it had conducted a peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one ruling party to another. The 2015 elections were peaceful and relatively free of fraud despite the real fear of post-election violence. Throughout the election, the Church in Nigeria was a constant voice for the common good. Church leaders met with both Presidential candidates to urge them to conduct a free and fair election.

President Buhari faces a host of serious challenges. The terrorist-insurgent group Boko Haram continues to attack mosques, villages and towns in the northeast of the country despite some recent successful operations by the Nigerian military and neighboring countries. Oil revenue makes up 53% of Nigeria’s federal budget and the fall in the price of oil has forced the government to make drastic budget cuts. The country ranks an abysmal 136 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. And although Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, 62.6% of its population lives in poverty. Life expectancy is only 52 years. Despite these challenges, the election gives Nigerians renewed hopes for positive change.

The successful elections in Nigeria contrast sharply with recent events in Burundi. For ten years Burundi has lived in relative peace under a democratically elected government, a unified national military, and a new constitution that provides for majority rule (demanded by the majority Hutu population) with solid safeguards against repression of the minority Tutsi ethnic population.

Recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified repression of political opposition leaders, independent radio stations and the press. He has created and armed a political youth group that attacks political opposition members, resulting in about 100,000 people fleeing the country. In 2014 the Parliament foiled the President’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. This year the President announced his candidacy for a third term arguing that the parliament had elected him in 2005 for his first term and not the people. Demonstrations and riots broke out, leading to 20 deaths. Tensions led to a failed coup d’état against the President in May.

Throughout the past year Church leaders have spoken out repeatedly to oppose a third term an action that would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace accord that brought an end to the bloody civil war. After the coup attempt, the Church urged an end to the violence and the start of political negotiations to end the impasse. When the President launched his bid for a third term, the Church called for the elections to be postponed until peace was restored, radio and media outlets were reopened, and all civil and political rights were restored. The government has failed to reinstate the rule of law, prompting the Church to withdraw its clergy from the election monitoring teams and the local electoral committees.

In response, the government did not renew the tenure of a Catholic priest who was the head of the country’s national human rights commission. On May 31 the Archbishop of Bujumbura, the capital, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. The Church now seems under attack because of its opposition to the President’s actions.

In April, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Church in Burundi and another letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice to urge the United States to support the positions that the Church in Burundi had taken to restore stability to the country.

The tale of two elections in Nigeria and Burundi demonstrates the challenges of fostering unity among diverse ethnicities and religious communities, building stable democratic governments, and establishing the rule of law. In both cases, the Church played a prominent role in lifting up the common good. The Church can be proud of its work to ensure fair elections.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Election in Nigeria Brings New Beginning

Nigeria. (US Government Image)

Nigeria. (US Government Image)

The recent electoral campaign in Nigeria saw violence and an exaggerated level of tension. The stakes for the two most important candidates, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, were extremely high. Election Day glitches and accusations of fraud raised tensions further. In the end, when the results came in they brought a clear result, a peaceful transition and a new direction.

Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Party won the election with a margin of about 2 million votes over President Jonathan’s party. This is the first time since independence in 1960 that an election has resulted in a peaceful transition of power. There was very little violence during the polling and vote count. With such a huge margin of victory, claims of discrepancies or voter fraud could not affect the outcome. In a first for Nigeria, President Jonathan called Buhari to concede and congratulate him on his victory. Although this is standard protocol for the United States, for Africa, much less Nigeria, this congratulatory call was a major symbolic step forward for democracy. The gesture will certainly moderate, if not discourage, legal and violent challenges to the results. It sets a new tone and standard for the post-election process and marks a dramatic departure from previous elections in Nigeria and other African countries where inciting supporters to violence has killed many and destroyed much.

The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, urged supporters of the two candidates to remain calm and to respect the election result. Archbishop Kaigama also asked security forces to remain on alert in order to contain post-election violence and new attacks by Boko Haram.

President-elect Buhari, who ruled Nigeria from 1983-1985 after a coup d’état, was known for his so called “war on indiscipline”, which did succeed in reducing levels of corruption in the country. His rule was also characterized by significant levels of human rights abuses. However, he is known as a man who has lived simply and avoided excessive trappings of wealth and power. President Buhari will need to uphold human rights and discipline and exercise humility if he is to bring about change in Nigeria.

President Buhari faces many significant challenges. He must foster competency and instill discipline in the Nigerian army if they are to defeat Boko Haram, while avoiding human rights abuses in the process. He will have to promote peace and prosperity in the northern Muslim regions as a long-term strategy to cut off the supply of future extremist groups’ recruits and financial supporters. At the same time, he will need to prove to southerners that he is also concerned about their welfare. President Buhari will also have to stimulate the economy if young Nigerians, a major portion of the population, are to find employment. Lastly, he will have to eliminate the corruption that has deprived the country of billions of human development dollars.

Last weekend’s election may not constitute a Holy Week miracle, but it is most certainly a blessing to the people in Nigeria. Let’s pray that those blessings continue.Hilbert headshot

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

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.

Christmas Joy in the Midst of Civil War in South Sudan

USCCB's Stephen Hilbert

Stephen Hilbert, USCCB

December for most Christians is a month of expectation and holy celebration of the birth of Jesus marked by family gatherings, exchanging presents and sharing meals. In the mostly Christian country of South Sudan, during the 40-year civil war against Sudan, Christmas tragically marked the beginning of “fighting season”. By December, rains had stopped long enough for dirt roads to dry and allow for movement of troops. Finally, in 2005, the civil war ended with a peace agreement that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. At long last, Christmas could reclaim its place as a joyous and holy day of celebration.

It is beyond tragic that just over a year ago in December 2013, South Sudan descended into bitter civil war ignited by internal political and ethnic rivals fighting over power and wealth. After a year of continued violence, thousands of men, women and children have lost their lives and about 2 million people have been chased from their homes, many facing possible famine.

In September 2014, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Sudan declared that “…the current war in South Sudan is evil, as we have said in previous messages. There is no moral justification for any further killing. We can accept no excuses or conditions from any party or individual for the continuation of the war. The fighting and killing must stop immediately and unconditionally.”

Last Gaudete Sunday (ironically, the ‘Sunday of Joy”), Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, the president of the South Sudan Regional Bishops’ Conference, noted that “…the foundation plan of the administration of the Nation has not been put in place properly. … Let us accept and find ways of treating our ethnic/tribal divisions in order to heal them from the roots through sincere and honest reconciliation.”

The USCCB has supported the people and church of South Sudan for years. The chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace has visited the country almost annually, including during the joyous celebration of independence in July 2011. During his last visit in July 2014, Bishop Richard Pates, the then chairman, expressed his deep sorrow and solidarity with South Sudan. He encouraged the church to continue its work to stop the fighting, relieve the suffering and to heal the social wounds in the country. Bishop Pates was grateful for the partnership that Catholic Relief Services had forged with the church in South Sudan and for all the work they have done to address humanitarian needs caused by the violence. The Committee has been in regular contact with the United States Government to thank them for their work to halt the civil war and provide emergency assistance, and to encourage them to intensify their efforts to bring an end to the war.

You can join us in helping the people and the church in South Sudan through your prayer and your support for the great work that Catholic Relief Services is doing in close collaboration with the Church. Your help at this time will be one step towards restoring Christmas joy for the people of South Sudan.

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

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Learn more about the USCCB advocacy on Sudan.