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26 October 2000

Nigeria visit: WCC general secretary notes challenges to ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and environmental justice

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-00-31, of 12 October 2000

Looking back over a crowded one-week visit to Nigeria (14-22 October), WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser highlighted the "fascinating diversity of Christian community life" in the populous (100 million) West African nation.

During his visit, Dr Raiser met with the leaders of the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as well as with individual church leaders across the country.

Among those who came to meet the WCC general secretary were many leaders of African-instituted churches. Invited by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), "they came in great numbers despite the fact that the WCC is a faraway body to them," Dr Raiser said, noting that a need to be open to diversity "poses new challenges to ecumenism" in Africa.

His general impression after this short visit was that "Africa is coming of age", Dr Raiser said. For many African countries, colonial rule and the post-independence period were an experience of "going through the wilderness"; they were "liberated from colonial bondage into confusion and, in some cases, even more brutal oppression and exploitation by national elites".

Today, "Africa's political and religious leaders are beginning to acknowledge that the time has come to rebuild the foundations of African community life", Dr Raiser suggested. But, he noted, "the younger generation has grown up in conflict situations and has lost confidence in traditional African values".

Meeting the president
Meeting with Nigeria's president H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo in the capital, Abuja, on 16 October, Dr Raiser hailed Nigeria's peacekeeping role in the West African region and encouraged the president to take bold steps to fight corruption. The president for his part focused on Africa's debt burden. He noted that part of Nigeria's debt was for a "turn-key" US$10 million project whose location was unknown. The efforts of the international movement for debt cancellation "Jubilee 2000" must continue, Obasanjo said, predicting that debt cancellation "will soon become an election issue in some countries".

Later, Dr Raiser paid tribute to the Nigerian president as an enlightened leader and an experienced and sober politician. The president, he said, is guided by strong Christian faith and is making efforts to address corruption, bad administration, interreligious and inter-ethnic conflicts and the problems of the Niger Delta. Initially cautious, Nigeria's churches now support the president, Dr Raiser said.

Christian-Muslim violence
Preaching at an inter-denominational service in the Cathedral of Unity in Wuse, Abuja, on 15 October, Dr Raiser called on Nigeria to strengthen its "nascent democracy".

Noting that its return to democracy after a prolonged period of military rule and widespread misuse of power was a difficult and delicate process, he suggested that those who lose privileges and influence in such transitions tend to seek to destabilize the new public order by various means, including religious antagonisms. In particular, shari'a for the Muslim community in the northern states "has been exploited to foment confrontations between Muslims and Christians with tragic consequences," Dr Raiser observed.

Christians and Muslims each make up approximately half of the Northern state of Kaduna's total population of one million. Intercommunal violence broke out there last February and again in May after a part of the Muslim community demanded that shari'a, until then applied only within the framework of Muslim customary law, be extended to all the state's citizens. It is estimated that some 2,000 people, both Muslims and Christians, were killed in the ensuing conflicts and countless homes, churches and mosques were burned down.

While Nigeria is struggling with the spread of a culture of violence, greed and corruption, "the Christian community is called to witness to the possibility and presence of a culture of peace and non-violence and to participate in the effort to rebuild a viable human community based on mutual respect and the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully," Dr Raiser said in his sermon.

After touring three villages affected by the violence, the WCC general secretary emphasized that he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by what he had seen. "The destruction we saw is very focussed, almost surgical, with specific houses and institutions targeted," he reported. Meeting later with Kaduna's acting executive governor Stephen Shekar, he noted that while life is returning to the communities, "the scars are still gaping and the wounds are yet to be healed".

Ogoni concerns
The oil-rich Niger/Delta region produces some 80 percent of Nigeria's national wealth, but the region's inhabitants, including the Ogoni people, have not benefited from this economic activity. Their plight and struggle to protect their environment from pollution resulting from oil extraction attracted international attention with the death in prison of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and the publication in December 1996 of a WCC-All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) report entitled Ogoni - the Struggle Continues. The WCC subsequently held meetings with high-level Shell representatives.

The WCC general secretary set the tone of a two-hour round table discussion with Shell executives (19 October) by encouraging them to look to the future rather than dwell on previous statements by one side or the other on the issues opposing Niger/Delta inhabitants and the company. In order to overcome mutual mistrust and "bridge the gap of truth", Shell could help increase the churches' capacity to act as mediators in negotiations by bringing in experts, he said. Accepting his suggestion, Shell representatives then agreed to await the churches' proposals along these lines.

Following this discussion, Dr Raiser attended a large Ogoni community gathering organized by MOSOP at Ebubu - the site of a large oil spill, to which representatives of other Niger/Delta communities were also invited. Addressing the gathering, he challenged MOSOP to strengthen mutual confidence within its own ranks and with other communities, and promised WCC support to that process. Without unity, MOSOP could not continue to influence the course of events in the new Nigeria, Dr Raiser said. "Stewardship of creation is a must," he stressed. In a closing ceremony, he was given an Ogoni chieftancy title of "Ajama Emere Isisan I".

The WCC general secretary was accompanied on his visit by the general secretary of the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA), Baffour D. Amoa, Mitch Odero from the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), and Evelyne Appiah, William Temu and Tarek Mitri from WCC staff, as well as by CAN president H.E. Dr Sunday Mbang, CCN general secretary Rev. Ubon B. Usung, and WCC Central Committee member Bishop M. Kehinde Stephen.

Photos of the WCC visit to Nigeria are available on the WCC website at:

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.