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This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Nigeria: Church Meeting, 1

Nigeria: Church Meeting, 1
Date distributed (ymd): 970102
Document reposted by WOA

WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES

REPORT OF THE INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY MEETING ON NIGERIA 20-24 November 1996

For more information, contact Dr. Deborah Robinson, World Council of Churches, Unit III, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland; tel: +41-22-791-6111; fax: +41-22-791-0361; e-mail: drd@wcc-coe.org.

"...What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8 (NIV)

"...In this country which God has endowed with an abundance of human and material resources, Nigerians are faced with starvation and destitution of incredible magnitude. Workers do not earn enough to live above starvation level; one can only imagine the deplorable conditions of the teeming population of the unemployed. The nightmarish condition of the roads in this country, the insecurity of life and property experienced in the upsurge of armed robbery and hired assassinations make life extremely difficult and precarious for the people of this country. Greed, corruption, sectionalism, gross abuse of human rights and militarisation of the Nigerian psyche continue unabated. ..."

Communique of the Second Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, Benin City, September 1996.

The World Council of Churches has a history and tradition of commitment to work for the realization of human rights for all people and justice in particular for Indigenous Peoples and minorities. This commitment has found expression in the life and work of the churches throughout the world. Due to extensive militarisation of societies in Asia and Africa during the last two decades, thousands of people including Christians have been imprisoned, tortured or killed in the service of God and humanity. Indigenous Peoples globally face the destruction of their environments and some groups are discriminated against given their minority status. While the local communities and churches have carried out the struggle at the grassroots level, the international ecumenical community has offered its support through concrete expressions of solidarity in the struggle for human dignity.

While the churches worldwide have continued to work for justice, their efforts have been rendered more difficult as the violations of human rights in many parts of the world have become more widespread and severe. In the post cold war period, there has been a marked increase in human rights violations, particularly on the African continent. Underlying these human rights violations are concerns about the deepening poverty of the mass of African people and the marginalization of the continent as a whole in light of globalization and economic restructuring.

One situation which has been the cause of particular concern for the international community, is Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. That country's democratic process has been repeatedly thwarted by military intervention. Since the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election results and the seizing of power in November 1993 by General Sani Abacha, this military dictator has nullified the jurisdiction of regular courts to challenge the actions of the government, dissolved all political parties, arrested political dissidents and leaders of civil society including trade unionists, human rights campaigners and journalists and unleashed an unprecedented assault on the Ogoni and other minority groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta area.

This repression has taken the form of both covert and overt military operations that have resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Ogoni, the internal displacement of 30,000, the flight to neighbouring countries of over 1,000 refugees, and the exodus of many to seek asylum abroad. The human rights situation in Nigeria is deteriorating. The "judicial murder" of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) on 10 November 1995 has been followed by intensified repression in Ogoniland. Currently, 19 Ogoni youth face the possibility of being tried by a military tribunal on the same charges for which Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged.

Military oppression is not limited to the minority peoples of the Niger Delta, but affects the entire nation. Among the thousands of Nigerians unjustly imprisoned are the President-elect, Moshood Abiola, trade unionists Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi, former Head of State Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Shehu Yar'adua, journalists like Mrs. Chris Anyanwu and Kunle Ajibade, and the Campaign for Democracy leader Beko Ransome-Kuti. In June of this year the wife of the imprisoned president, Kudirat Abiola, was brutally assassinated for her pro-democracy activities.

Unit III of the World Council of Churches, over a period of time, has monitored the events and developments in Nigeria in general and in Ogoniland in particular. It has kept itself informed of the situation through its member churches and partners in the country. In February 1996, a delegation from the WCC and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) visited the country to obtain first-hand information on the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation.

At the requests of its partners and member churches, Unit III of the World Council of Churches convened an International Strategy Meeting 20-24 November at La Longeraie Hotel in Morges, Switzerland. The participants included representatives of member churches and partner groups in Nigeria, the AACC, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), member churches, partner groups, and agencies in Europe and North America, as well as the staff of Unit III.

The purpose and objectives of the meeting besides sharing and exchange of information was amongst others:

  • To listen and learn from our Nigerian colleagues/partners concerning the present socio-economic and political realities in Nigeria and their impact on the human rights situation.
  • To consider and explore ways and means of building and strengthening the capacity of the local churches and related groups to undertake educational training programmes for the promotion and protection of human rights. In addition, to explore ways of strengthening the capacity for groups engaged in protest campaigns against injustice within the country.
  • To provide an opportunity for churches who have been most active on the question of Nigeria to come together and discuss strategies and approaches.
  • To develop an effective mechanism to ensure free flow of information from Nigeria to support groups based outside and to develop a mechanism to facilitate communication and exchange between groups based outside of Nigeria.

Each morning the session began with meditation and prayers a constant reminder of the presence of God in our midst as we began our deliberations.

At the beginning of the meeting, we stood and observed two minutes of silence in honour of the life and work of Dr. Claude Ake. An eminent political scientist, social activist and director of the Centre for Advanced Social Science in Port Harcourt, Dr. Ake was hoping to attend the strategy meeting, but was killed in a plane crash in Nigeria on 8 November.

The group was privileged to hear the experiences of the participants who had come from Nigeria. Some told stories of violence: individuals who peacefully opposed the presence of the military in Ogoniland still carry police bullets in their bodies; others bear diseases coming from environmental pollution and degradation. Some reported the erosion of due process: people are still detained under military mandate despite judicial order to be released. Still others spoke of corruption permeating all levels of society and the pervasiveness of fear which touches so many peoples' lives. Yet the very presence of the Nigerian participants speak even more eloquently to continuing struggle and resistance against the regime.

They spoke of the extensive militarisation that has resulted in severe repression of the people. They indicated that there was no rule of law, the judicial system had been destroyed, and the courts rendered impotent. Resort to military decrees, particularly the State Security Detention of Persons Decree No. 2 of 1984, had become a common practice to silence political opponents, trade unionists, leaders of civil society, and journalists. There were no checks on abusive power and authority of government officials.

The repression in Ogoniland is the worst. The area remains under siege by the Internal Security Task Force, which is unique to Rivers State. Movement of the people and the flow of information in and out of the area is severely restricted. Thus, Nigerians, in general remain unaware of the sufferings of the Ogoni people. Thousands of Ogoni have been killed at the hands of the military and the environment in Ogoniland and other oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta has been devastated.

The churches in Ogoni have been particular targets for military repression. Church services and activities are only permitted with prior approval of the occupation authorities, and after payment of fees. Ministers and parishioners have been arrested and detained and freedom of worship has been denied. Women attending Bible study and prayer groups have been assaulted and harassed. Church collections have been stopped by occupation troops and services banned. Houses of worship have been attacked and closed. Military authorities have even sought to dictate to the church how to pray and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The group also heard of the continuing tension between Muslims and Christians often resulting in violence and conflict particularly in the North. The government, despite its declared secular pronouncements and constitutional commitment, continues to use state resources and instruments of coercion to set Christians and Muslims against each other. The challenge is to recognize that all suffer under this regime. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella organization of churches, has particular responsibility to guide Christians in this matter.

Despite injustices and systematic human rights violations by the military government, there were increasing signs of hope. MOSOP's struggle had resulted in focusing the attention of the international community on the plight of the Ogoni People. The work of the Civil Liberties Organization and other human rights and pro-democracy groups have contributed greatly to drawing the attention of the world to the human rights situation in Nigeria.

As well, across Nigeria, individuals, community organizations, non-governmental organizations, and women's organizations, to name some, have also responded to the gravity of the situation. For example, some women's organizations have identified the particular experiences of women in the context of deteriorating material conditions and erosion of human rights. Again, some churches, especially the Catholic church, have spoken out about the human rights abuse and erosion of rights. Indeed, some individuals have struggled hard to place human rights and social justice issues more prominently on their churches' agendas. It is hoped that the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) will take up this challenge and lead the Nigerian churches in the struggle for a just society.

The nations of Europe and North America bear particular responsibility for the suffering of God's people in Nigeria, for it is the purchase of Nigerian oil by Western countries that finances the Abacha regime. Just three Western oil companies - Shell, Mobil and Chevron - produce over 95% of Nigerian oil and exercise considerable influence over Western policy towards Nigeria. These companies have become deeply involved with the repressive apparatus, Shell even purchasing weapons for and paying operational allowances to the Nigerian security forces. Yet these same companies have maintained a killing silence about human rights abuses and refuse to use their considerable influence with the regime to ameliorate the sufferings of the people.

The group heard about the international solidarity work that was being done in some of the countries of Europe and North America. Using the print and electronic media, the groups in these countries have succeeded to some degree in mobilizing pubic opinion to demand an end to human rights violations by the military regime in Nigeria and a return to democracy. The advocacy efforts of these groups are putting pressure on Shell International to change its policies and practices in relation to its operations in Nigeria and other countries in the South.

The participants were of a consensus that the only way to begin resolving the crisis in Ogoniland was to disband the Internal Security Task Force, remove all military presence from the Niger Delta, and release all political prisoners including the Ogoni 19. Given the circumstances, it is also imperative that Shell International seek ways and means to enter in direct negotiations with the victims and affected communities, through their accredited representatives, to arrive at a just and satisfactory settlement.

It was agreed that the problems affecting Nigerian society are closely related to the present corrupt system of military government. A speedy return to democratic civilian rule, unhindered by the military, is an essential component of meaningful change. However, the restoration of accountable government, human rights, and social justice will require long and painstaking efforts on part of all the people of Nigeria, with the assistance of their partners outside the country. Nigerian churches and ecumenical bodies, such as the Christian Council of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria, have a central role to play in this struggle and must be supported by their counterparts around the world.

(continued with recommendations in part 2)


This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), a not-for-profit church, trade union and civil rights group supported organization that works with Congress on Africa-related legislation. WOA's educational affiliate is the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC).

URL for this file: http://www.africafocus.org/docs97/nig9701.1.php